Nuro, which has several pilot programs on Houston roads, has raised fresh funding — plus a few other short stories of Houston innovation. Photo courtesy of Kroger

The Houston innovation ecosystem has been bursting at the seams with news from innovative tech companies and disruptive Houston startups as we fly through the final quarter of 2021.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, a California tech company with a large presence in Houston has raised hundreds of millions in investment funding, a logistics startup has been ranked among the most innovative companies, the city of Houston has named its new sustainability leader, and more.

California tech company with huge presence in Houston raises $600M

Nuro has fresh funding to deploy its tech in Houston and beyond. Photo courtesy of Nuro

California-based Nuro, which has a large presence in Houston, announced the closing of its $600 million series D round led by Tiger Global Management with participation from Baillie Gifford, Fidelity Management & Research Company, LLC, Gaorong Capital, Google, Kroger, SoftBank Vision Fund 1, funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates, Inc., Woven Capital, and other existing investors, per a news release. The new funding will support the development and deployment of Nuro's autonomous delivery service in communities across the country.

"We're thrilled to have the backing of these prominent investors and world class companies, and honored that they support our vision of improving communities and revitalizing local commerce," says Dave Ferguson, Nuro co-founder and president, in the release. "We believe this investment will allow us to accelerate our commercialization strategy and better everyday life with Nuro's technology."

Nuro has launched a few delivery pilots in Houston over the past few years, including the first Nuro pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, pharmacy delivery that launched in 2020, and pizza delivery with Domino's that went live in Woodland Heights earlier this year. Most recently, Nuro partnered with FedEx for last-mile delivery.

"Kroger launched its partnership with Nuro in 2018 to explore grocery delivery through autonomous vehicles," said Yael Cosset, senior vice president and chief information officer for Kroger, in the release. "Since then, Kroger and Nuro completed thousands of deliveries to our customers -- driving innovation that supports our expanding seamless ecosystem by creating consistent and rewarding customer experiences with scalable, sustainable, and profitable solutions."

Nuro has also signed a five year strategic partnership with Google Cloud that support the tech needed to run self-driving simulation workloads, machine learning to improve model accuracy, and storage to manage important data from the vehicles, according to the release.

Houston-based digital supply chain company launches ESG tool

Houston industrial e-commerce startup expands into the construction industry

Houston-based GoExpedi has created a new tool. Photo by Colt Melrose for GoExpedi

GoExpedi, an innovative end-to-end digital supply chain and data analytics solutions company, the launch of ESG Command. The new tool is designed to drive environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives. Users on GoExpedi's platform can identify environmentally-friendly products and certified veteran, minority and women-owned businesses.

"Led by some of the world's largest industrial companies, our clients are driving for more sustainable business practices and more equitable workplaces," says Yang Tang, CTO at GoExpedi, in a news release. "In support of these lofty goals and a more prosperous and environmentally-friendly global community, we grew GoExpedi's digital ecosystem to benefit our clients and suppliers. Our goal is to use technical advances in the supply chain to build a brighter future for all."

Last fall, GoExpedi raised $25 million in its series C in order to grow and scale operations. The company is growing its warehouse presence, most recently in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Houston logistics company ranks among the most innovative companies

Sugar Land-based CommtrexPhoto via commtrex.com

Commtrex, based in the Houston area, has been presented the FreightWaves 2022 FreightTech 100 award. The startup's platform connects professionals in the rail industry. The award also honored other innovative and disruptive companies in the freight industry, including Amazon Freight, DHL Supply Chain, FedEx, Flexport, Phillips Connect, Tesla, Uber Freight, Waymo, and Waze.

"Commtrex is honored and excited to be a part of the FreightWaves FreightTech 100," says Commtrex CEO Martin Lew in a news release. "Our mission at Commtrex is to simplify the movement of freight by rail. We are doing this by creating one centralized platform for shippers to efficiently connect with rail-served transloaders, storage providers, terminals, ports, warehouses, and many other resources that support the global supply chain ecosystem. As the largest rail platform in North America, we will continue to provide best-in-class service for all of our members."

Commtrex will also be eligible to be named to the FreightTech 25, which will be announced at the F3 Virtual Experience, November 9-11.

Houston fintech unicorn opens an office in Paris

HighRadius expands to Amsterdam

HighRadius has opened its newest European office. Photo via highradius.com

Continuing its expansion in Europe, HighRadius opened its new Paris office, which will have local staff for all customer facing operations including consulting, sales and marketing. The Houston-headquartered fintech unicorn also has offices in Germany, Amsterdam, the United Kingdom, India and the United States.

"The new Paris office is a sign of cementing our growing leadership in Europe and will bring the HighRadius Autonomous Software platform even closer to French companies," says Jon Keating, vice president and general manager of HighRadius in EMEA. "Our data-driven, AI software is helping global enterprises rethink and transform their finance and accounting processes. Our aim will be to deliver improvements in Days Sales Outstanding and working capital optimization, accelerate the financial close, and improve productivity in under six months for our new clients in France."

Over the past year, HighRadius has deployed over 300 transformation projects, across 37 out of 44 European countries.The HighRadius Autonomous Software platform has processed in excess of €475 billion in finance transactions in the European region alone, per a news release.

City of Houston names new sustainability leader

Priya Zachariah was named chief resilience and sustainability officer. Photo courtesy of the city of Houston

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced the appointment of Priya Zachariah as chief resilience and sustainability officer for the city of Houston. She will oversee the city's new Office of Resilience and Sustainability. The position is new and combines previously separate but similar roles, providing for more streamlined efforts to implement the Resilient Houston Plan and the Houston Climate Action Plan, according to a news release from the city.

"Sustainability and Resilience are intrinsically tied to each other. We created our resilience and climate plans to forge a path towards a stronger, more equitable city that not only faces and overcomes disaster scenarios, but builds forward to a better Houston tomorrow," says Mayor Turner in the release. "I am confident Priya will help us meet the goals we have established."

Zachariah was previously the senior program manager for Regional and Long-Range Planning at Houston METRO. While at METRO, Zachariah led the team that successfully delivered the METRONext 2040 transit plan for the Houston Region.

"This is a critical juncture for all of us. We now have the opportunity as a community to turn our focus from resilience and climate planning, to implementation and a realization of the benefits of those plans," says Zachariah in the release. "I am grateful for this opportunity and look forward to working with Mayor Turner and all stakeholders to move us toward a more resilient and equitable future."

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

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.