This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Abbas Rana of BCM, Rebecca C. Vaught of Van Heron Labs, and Patrick Scateni of Hypertec. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Abbas Rana, associate professor of surgery at Baylor College of Medicine

The NIH grant goes toward TransplantAI's work developing more precise models for heart and lung transplantation. Photo via BCM

The National Institute of Health has bestowed a Houston medtech company with a $2.2 million Fast-Track to Phase 2 award. InformAI will use the money for the product development and commercialization of its AI-enabled organ transplant informatics platform.

TransplantAI solves that problem, as well as organ scarcity and inefficiency in allocation of the precious resource.

The NIH grant goes toward developing more precise models for heart and lung transplantation (kidney and liver algorithms are further along in development thanks to a previous award from the National Science Foundation), as well as Phase 2 efforts to fully commercialize TransplantAI.

"There is an urgent need for improved and integrated predictive clinical insights in solid organ transplantation, such as for real-time assessment of waitlist mortality and the likelihood of successful post-transplantation outcomes," according to the grant’s lead clinical investigator, Abbas Rana, associate professor of surgery at Baylor College of Medicine. Read more.

Rebecca C. Vaught, founder and CEO of Van Heron Labs

Van Heron Labs, founded at TMC, raised a $1.1 million seed round led by FoodLabs. Photo via LinkedIn

A biotech company that was founded at the Texas Medical Center in Houston has raised fresh funding to support its goal of innovating new technologies for a healthier humanity.

Van Heron Labs, based in Huntsville, Alabama, raised a $1.1 million seed round led by FoodLabs, a European investor and venture studio for food, health, and climate. The startup taps into genomics, bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology to improve how cells are cultured and harnessed with the mission to address critical industrial and global challenges with biotechnology.

“Van Heron Labs looks forward to using the generous support and funding from FoodLabs to advance our goal of making biological innovation better, faster, and cheaper," Rebecca C. Vaught, founder and CEO of Van Heron Labs, says in a news release. "By fueling the new bio-economy, we feel that our customers can optimize their systems and bring technologies to overcome critical global challenges to market." Read more.

Patrick Scateni, vice president of global sales of Hypertec

The hardware upgrades more than “double the effective horsepower of DUG’s Houston data center.” Photo via LinkedIn

An Australia-based company has launched a major upgrade of its Houston data center with sustainability in mind.

DUG Technology announced it's increased the company’s high performance computing (HPC) capabilities and also reinforced its commitment to sustainable innovative technology. The company announced its latest investment in 1500 new AMD EPYCTM Genoa servers, which has 192 cores and 1.5 terabytes of DDR5 memory each. Quebec-based IT solution company Hypertec provided the immersion-born hardware.

“DUG’s decision highlights the unmatched technological advancements and superior performance of Hypertec immersion-born products, which are setting a new benchmark in the industry,” Hypertec’s Patrick Scateni, vice president of global sales says in a news release. Read more.

Van Heron Labs, founded at TMC, raised a $1.1 million seed round led by FoodLabs. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-founded startup raises $1.1M seed to fuel growth in bioeconomy

fresh funding

A biotech company that was founded at the Texas Medical Center in Houston has raised fresh funding to support its goal of innovating new technologies for a healthier humanity.

Van Heron Labs, based in Huntsville, Alabama, raised a $1.1 million seed round led by FoodLabs, a European investor and venture studio for food, health, and climate. The startup taps into genomics, bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology to improve how cells are cultured and harnessed with the mission to address critical industrial and global challenges with biotechnology.

“Van Heron Labs looks forward to using the generous support and funding from FoodLabs to advance our goal of making biological innovation better, faster, and cheaper," Rebecca C. Vaught, founder and CEO of Van Heron Labs, says in a news release. "By fueling the new bio-economy, we feel that our customers can optimize their systems and bring technologies to overcome critical global challenges to market."

Van Heron Labs, which was founded by Vaught, Alec Santiago, and Nithin Parsan in February 2020, originally launched with its cell-focused platform to support COVID-19 pandemic response. The company's cell-based applications also include cancer therapeutics and food and materials production.

“We are excited to lead the funding round in Van Heron Labs, as we firmly believe that their innovative approach to optimizing cellular nutrition has the potential to revolutionize multiple industries, including biopharma, biomanufacturing, foodtech, and agriculture,” Julius Strauss, investor at FoodLabs, says. “We are excited to be partnering with Dr. Rebecca Vaught and her team as they continue to push the boundaries of innovation in the bio-economy.”

The funding will go toward supporting existing and new product lines.

Van Heron Labs' automated flagship platform uses bioinformatics and advanced AI tools to discover the optimal cellular fuel. This information can be used to personalize the customers’ culture media to provide more excellent quality, efficiency, and scalability, per the company.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

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.