This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Sarah Hein of March Biosciences, Sean Kelly of Amperon, Donnell Debnam Jr. of the Google in Residence program, and the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards judges. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries, from biotech to energy software, recently making headlines in Houston innovation — plus the decision makers for the Houston Innovation Awards.

Sarah Hein, CEO and co-founder of March Biosciences

Early-stage cell therapy startup March Biosciences has partnered with CTMC. Photo via march.bio

Named in part after one of the best months out of the year for Houstonians, March Biosciences has entered into a uniquely Houston partnership. Sarah Hein, CEO and co-founder of the cancer immunotherapy startup, met her co-founders at the TMC Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics.

“It's a perfect example of the opportunities here in Houston where you can go from bench to bedside, essentially, in the same institution. And Baylor has been particularly good at that because of the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy,” says Hein.

The company recently announced a partnership with another Houston institution, CTMC. Read more.

Sean Kelly, CEO and co-founder of Amperon

It's payday for a startup that's improving analytics for its energy customers. Photo via Getty Images

Amperon Holdings Inc. raised $20 million in its latest round of funding in order to accelerate its energy analytics and grid decarbonization technology.

The fresh funding will support the company in evolving its platform that conducts electricity demand forecasting to a comprehensive data analytics solution.

“The energy transition is creating unprecedented market volatility, and Amperon is uniquely positioned to help market participants better navigate the transitioning grid – both in the U.S. and as we expand globally,” Sean Kelly, CEO and co-founder of Amperon, says. Read more.

Donnell Debnam Jr., instructor in the Google in Residence program

Thanks to Google, Donnell Debnam Jr. is helping train future software engineers at Prairie View A&M University. Photo via LinkedIn

Computer science students at Prairie View A&M University are gaining firsthand knowledge this semester from a Google software engineer.

As an instructor in the Google in Residence program, Donnell Debnam Jr. is helping train future software engineers — and other potential tech professionals — who are enrolled this fall in Prairie View A&M’s introductory computer science course. Fifty-four students are taking the class.

“I participated in the Google in Residence program as a student, and I am honored to return as an instructor,” says Debnam. “This innovative program was created to support greater diversity in the tech industry, and as an instructor, I have the privilege of helping the next generation of software engineers create a more inclusive culture within the STEM fields.” Read more.

2023 Houston Innovation Awards judges

Bonus innovators to know: The 10 Houstonians deciding the finalists and winners for this year's Houston Innovation Awards. Photos courtesy

Ten Houstonians are in the hot seat for deciding the best companies and individuals in Houston's innovation ecosystem.

InnovationMap has announced its 2023 Houston Innovation Awards judging panel, which includes startup founders, nonprofit leaders, investors, corporate innovators, and more.

Meet the 10 selected judges who will evaluate applications from the nearly 400 nominations that were submitted this year. Read more.

Thanks to Google, Donnell Debnam Jr. is helping train future software engineers at Prairie View A&M. Photo via LinkedIn

Google program plants software expert at Houston-area university

meet the faculty

Computer science students at Prairie View A&M University are gaining firsthand knowledge this semester from a Google software engineer.

As an instructor in the Google in Residence program, Donnell Debnam Jr. is helping train future software engineers — and other potential tech professionals — who are enrolled this fall in Prairie View A&M’s introductory computer science course. Fifty-four students are taking the class.

“I participated in the Google in Residence program as a student, and I am honored to return as an instructor,” says Debnam. “This innovative program was created to support greater diversity in the tech industry, and as an instructor, I have the privilege of helping the next generation of software engineers create a more inclusive culture within the STEM fields.”

Prairie View A&M is one of 14 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic-serving schools that are benefiting this fall from the Google residency program. Since being founded in 2013, the program has enabled more than 8,000 college students across the country to absorb knowledge from Google tech professionals.

The Google program addresses a nationwide gap in tech diversity.

A 2023 report from CompTIA, a trade group for the tech industry, shows Black professionals make up 12 percent of the U.S. workforce but eight percent of tech occupations, while Hispanic professionals represent 17 percent of the U.S. workforce but eight percent of tech occupations.

Prairie View A&M, an HBUC, is one of two Texas universities in this fall’s program. The other is the University of Texas at El Paso, a Hispanic-serving school. The main campus of Prairie View A&M is roughly 45 miles northwest of Houston.

Google says Debnam is equipping students at Prairie View A&M “with the skills needed to enter the workforce, such as fundamental coding concepts, how to debug, and how to prepare for technical interviews.”

As a student in 2017, Debnam participated in the Google residency program at Hampton University, an HBCU in Hampton, Virginia. In a LinkedIn post, Debnam wrote that since then, “I always said to myself and others that if I could figure out a way to get into Google someday, I would make it a priority to try to be part of this program.”

After completing two Google internships and earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Hampton, Debnam joined the tech giant as a full-time software engineer in 2021.

“If you know me, you know I have a passion for tech, but an even deeper passion for working with students and being a resource in any way possible,” he wrote on LinkedIn.

A new program is launching to support the next generation of energy innovators. Photo via greentownlabs.com

Greentown Labs launches student-driven entrepreneurship program in Texas

back to school

The country's largest climatetech startup incubator and several schools are teaming up to prepare the next generation of clean energy innovators.

Greentown Labs, based in Boston and Houston, announced its new Texas Entrepreneurship Exchange for Energy (TEX-E) this week. The collaborative initiative aims to strengthen the student-driven entrepreneurship ecosystem in Houston, according to a news release, to focus on energy innovation. Greentown Labs, MIT’s Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship, and universities across Texas — including The founding institutions of TEX-E are Rice University, Texas A&M University, Prairie View A&M University, University of Houston, and The University of Texas at Austin — are collaborating on the project.

“Houston has long been known as the energy capital of the world, but to lead the world’s energy transition, the city must create a strong, vibrant innovation ecosystem to support the next generation of entrepreneurs and energy companies,” says Lara Cottingham, chief of staff at Greentown Labs, in the news release. “TEX-E will build upon Texas universities’ deep and long-standing connections to the energy industry by helping to attract and retain the world-class talent needed to supercharge Houston’s innovation ecosystem.”

The program, though based in Texas, will integrate both Greentown Labs locations, providing students with access to mentorship with incubator startups, networking events, career opportunities, and cross-learning with MIT.

“Boston and Houston might seem like an odd pairing, but they complement one another beautifully,” says Ben Soltoff, ecosystem builder and entrepreneur in residence at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, in the release. “The Boston area has a strong community-driven ecosystem around climate innovation, including MIT’s pioneering Climate and Energy Ventures Course in Cambridge, which has spawned over 30 companies. But often when MIT startups need to scale up, they look towards Texas, where they can find talent, space, and industry knowhow in spades.

"Together, these two regions are unstoppable,” he adds.

The five schools are just the beginning for the program, which plans to expand the collaboration over time. Locally, Houston area schools have collaborated with Greentown Houston since its opening over a year ago.

“The TEX-E collaboration will provide valuable opportunities to our students, and Houston is a natural location to create such an ecosystem,” says Ramanan Krishnamoorti, vice president for energy and innovation at the University of Houston, in the release. “Training new talent and supporting their pursuit of innovative ideas are vital in addressing the growing global need for affordable, reliable, and environmentally sustainable energy.”

For more information, students and educators should sign up for the TEX-E newsletter and attend an upcoming event at Greentown Houston. The next event at the incubator is the Climatetech Summit on November 2.

In addition to the $5 million partnership, Shell also pledged another $1 million to create a career pipeline for PVAMU students. Photo via Wikipedia Commons

Shell forms $5M carbon capture research partnership with Houston-area university

struck a deal

Houston-based Shell Global Solutions and Prairie View A&M University signed a $5 million partnership this week that aims to foster innovative and effective carbon dioxide utilization and carbon capture methods.

The five-year research agreement will be headquartered out of the Historically Black University's College of Agriculture and Human Sciences. A portion of the $5 million will go toward building new infrastructure and state-of-the-art greenhouses on the university's nearly 700 acres of land devoted to farm research.

Shell staff members are also slated to collaborate on research projects developed at the site.

In addition to the $5 million partnership, Shell also pledged another $1 million to create a career pipeline for PVAMU students. The funds will go toward university infrastructure, retention programs, and work experience opportunities.

"[Shell's] comprehensive approach — involving infrastructure, research collaboration, internships and ongoing staff involvement — is especially welcome," Ruth J. Simmons, president of PVAMU, said in a statement.

The new research program is funded through Shell's Projects & Technology organization, which "helps to ensure that neither people nor nature are harmed during the construction and operation of Shell’s facilities, and it supports Shell’s carbon-management activities," according to the company's website.

Shell has launched more than 220 research and development projects through this branch of the organization over the years.

In 2019, the energy giant committed to a $10 million arrangement to launch the Carbon Hub at Rice University, a research initiative aimed at developing zero-emissions technologies. The hub made its first seven seed grants in August.

Shell is also an industry partner on the University of Houston's Data Science for Energy Transition project.

The partnership also marks a milestone for PVAMU as the first significant partnership under the university's new classification as a Research 2 Institution, according to PVAMU's website. The university attained its R2 Carnegie Classification, the second-highest ranking for research and higher education institutions in the country, earlier this month.

Charles Butt has provided funding for a permanent scholarship fund. Photo courtesy of Texas State History Museum Foundation

H-E-B leader gifts $5 million to historic Houston-area university for future students

HEB and PVAMU

The leader of the Lone Star State’s beloved H-E-B has bestowed a monumental gift upon a historic Houston-area university.

On November 17, Prairie View A&M University announced that H-E-B chairman Charles Butt — one of America’s favorite CEOs and member of one of Texas’ richest families — has donated $5 million to create Founders Scholarships for incoming PVAMU students.

“The $5 million gift will provide a permanent endowment to support students today and in the coming years,” a release notes. “Initially generating approximately $200,000 a year for scholarships, the fund will grow significantly in coming years, making even more available to support students.”

The scholarships will be available to students from public high schools in Texas graduating in the top quartile of their class, the release says. They must be incoming first-year students, enrolled in a full-time course load, and as scholarship recipients, they will benefit from “enrichment opportunities unique to their [Founders Scholarships] cohort.”

Scholarship disbursements will begin in fall 2022, a spokesperson confirms; the number of initial scholarships available has not been revealed.

“Charles Butt has been amazingly generous to our university. He has shown time and time again that he genuinely cares about the opportunities afforded to students at PV. We are indebted to him for his grace and his humanity,” says Ruth Simmons, president of PVAMU, in the release.

Prairie View A&M University is the second-oldest public institution of higher learning in the state and is one of Texas’ historically Black universities. It is located approximately 50 miles northwest of Houston and has a current enrollment of more than 8,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Mackenzie Scott has gifted tens of millions to Houston-area organizations and institutions, and her latest gift is to Prairie View A&M University. Photo courtesy of Prairie View A&M

Philanthropist gifts historic $50 million to Houston-area university

major gift

Historically Black universities have traditionally been overshadowed and underfunded compared to their non-Black collegiate counterparts. But now, a major public figure's game-changing gift has helped level the playing field for a beloved Houston-area school.

Noted author and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott (many know her as the former wife of Amazon CEO and billionaire Jeff Bezos) has donated a massive $50 million to Prairie View A&M University, the institution announced on December 15. The gift is the largest one-time endowment in the school's 144-year history.

Under terms of the donation, the funds can be used at the discretion of the president to support the needs of the university, per a press release. Administrators have chosen to designate $10 million of the total to create the Panther Success Grant Program, an effort to assist juniors and seniors with unpaid balances created by the financial challenges posed by COVID, the school announced.

"This is a historic gift for Prairie View, coming at a time when the university had already decided and begun to invest heavily in key areas to strengthen its academic programs and improve student success," said Ruth J. Simmons, president of Prairie View, in a statement. "The timing of this gift could therefore not be better."

Simmons adds in a statement that she had been in contact with Scott "about a matter not involving Prairie View," and thus was "stunned and, for a time speechless" when Scott's assistant phoned and revealed the donation.

Another whopping gift from Scott includes $18 million to the Greater Houston YMCA.

In a post on Medium, Scott notes that she and her advisers have disbursed over $4 billion in gifts to 384 organizations across all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington D.C. over the last four months. This is in effort to "accelerate my 2020 giving through immediate support to people suffering the economic effects of the crisis," Scott writes.

Scott's generosity includes myriad Texas organizations and groups, including:

  • Easterseals of Greater Houston
  • Easterseals Rehabilitation Center, San Antonio
  • East Texas Food Bank
  • El Pasoans Fighting Hunger
  • Feeding the Gulf Coast
  • South Texas Food Bank
  • Southeast Texas Food Bank
  • Goodwill Houston
  • Goodwill Industries of Dallas
  • Goodwill Industries of East Texas
  • Goodwill Industries of Fort Worth
  • Goodwill Industries of San Antonio
  • Heart of Texas Goodwill Industries
  • Meals on Wheels Central Texas
  • Meals on Wheels Montgomery County
  • Meals on Wheels North Central Texas
  • Texas A&M International University
  • United Way of El Paso County
  • United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County
  • YMCA of Greater Houston
  • YMCA of Metropolitan Dallas
  • YWCA El Paso del Norte Region
  • YWCA Greater Austin
  • YWCA of Lubbock
  • YWCA San Antonio
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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.