It's pay day for several Houston-area research teams thanks to two grant programs. Photo via Getty Images

Several health innovation research teams across Houston are celebrating fresh funds to go toward the development of breakthrough technologies and research projects.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of research news, check out who received this crucial funding and how their research and work can change the standard of care across the life science industry.

Reliant doles out $100,000 to two Houston Methodist critical care physician-scientists

Reliant announced that the recipients of the Reliant Innovation Fund will be two individuals within Houston Methodist Center for Critical Care in collaboration with Texas A&M's Engineering Medicine (EnMed) program.

"Meaningful innovation is core to us at Reliant and the work these institutions, physicians and students are doing is truly amazing," says Elizabeth Killinger, president of Reliant, in a news release. "We appreciate how Houston Methodist is making a lasting difference in our community by continuing to revolutionize medicine and we are honored to support them through the EnMed program."

Dr. Hina Faisal and Dr. Asma Zainab — along with the EnMed students who will support their work — will use the funds to advance their work. An anesthesiologist and critical care physician, Faisal will lead a project on 3-D-simulated virtual reality technology to prevent delirium in critically ill patients. Zainab, who specializes in cardiovascular ICU and focuses on respiratory failure and ventilator use, will lead a project to help personalize care in lung failure, creating models specific to each patient to avoid unnecessary pressure and injury caused by ventilators, per the release.

"Innovation is at the heart of what we do," says Dr. Faisal Masud, director of the Center of Critical Care at Houston Methodist, in the release. "Thanks to Reliant's generous contribution and ongoing support, we are able to seek out new ways to provide the best quality care for our most vulnerable patients while supporting our physicians, our students and their research."

Researchers at Rice University and Texas Medical Center institutions snag grants

Six research teams have received funding from Rice University's Educational and Research Initiatives for Collaborative Health, known as ENRICH. Established in 2016, the program focuses on connecting Rice faculty with TMC institutions to encourage collaboration. Last year, more than a fifth of Rice faculty were engaged in active collaborations with TMC research partners, according to a news release.

"Partnerships with TMC are an institutional priority, and they enable our faculty to translate their research to clinical practice, directly benefiting the Houston community," says Marcia O'Malley, special advisor to the provost on ENRICH and the Thomas Michael Panos Family Professor in Mechanical Engineering, in the release. "ENRICH has been instrumental in facilitating faculty engagement with TMC partners, reducing barriers to collaboration and investing institutional resources in new partnerships."

The Provost's TMC Collaborator Fund awarded $60,000 in grants to:

  • Jason Hafner '98, professor of physics and astronomy at Rice, and Carly Filgueira '09, assistant professor of nanomedicine and cardiovascular surgery at Houston Methodist Research Institute, to explore the development of an optical sensor for clinical detection of cholesterol.
  • Lan Li, assistant professor of history at Rice; Ricardo Ernesto Nuila, associate professor of medicine, medical ethics and health policy at Baylor College of Medicine; and Fady Joudah, a poet, literary translator and physician at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center, for a pilot study of community health care access that addresses larger questions about medical racism in Houston.
  • Oleg Igoshin, professor of bioengineering at Rice, and Anna Konovalova, assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston's McGovern Medical School, to explore new targets for antibiotic treatment by probing the feedback loop between two important stress-response pathways in bacteria.
Additionally, Rice ENRICH and Baylor's Interdisciplinary Surgical Technology and Innovation Center (INSTINCT) awarded $60,000 in grants to:
  • Pulickel Ajayan, the Benjamin M. and Mary Greenwood Anderson Professor in Engineering and chair of Rice's Department of Materials Science and Nanoengineering, and Crystal Shin, assistant professor of surgery at Baylor, for development of a self-charging, wireless microsensor capable of detecting changes in flow in blood vessels that have been replaced in heart bypass surgery.
  • Meng Li, Noah Harding Assistant Professor in Statistics at Rice, and Gabriel Loor, associate professor of surgery at Baylor, to study inflammation following lung transplantation and search for the cause of inflammatory responses that differ between men and women.
  • Vaibhav Unhelkar, assistant professor of computer science at Rice, and James Suliburk, associate professor of surgery at Baylor, to explore how artificial intelligence can augment surgical training.


The Equity Innovation Center Powered by Reliant will have online resources as well as an interactive learning lab at Tellepsen Family Downtown YMCA. Photo courtesy of Urban Land Institute Houston

YMCA of Greater Houston announces equity-focused innovation center backed by Reliant

it's fun to innovate at the

Houston is the most diverse city in the nation, and the YMCA of Greater Houston is looking to do its part to promote equity innovation by opening a new center.

The Equity Innovation Center Powered by Reliant will be the first of its kind in the region, and it will operate as a space for Houstonians to gather and collaborate.

"The YMCA of Greater Houston vows to stand with our brothers and sisters who are made to feel less safe by the many recent incidents – fighting for health equity in the face of the inequities being laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic and unjust killings," says Stephen Ives, president and CEO, YMCA of Greater Houston, in a press release. "The Y will continue expanding and strengthening its commitment to combat racism, bias, prejudice and inequalities while fighting for justice."

The center will provide resources and activities so that visitors and collaborators can "walk away with a solid learning or unlearning" of social justice issues that are prominent in both Houston and nationally.

Rolling out in three phases, the project's first step is to foster conversations, consulting, and online trainings regarding systemic racial inequities. The next two phases will include setting up an interactive learning lab at Tellepsen Family Downtown YMCA, which would come to fruition by early next year.

The project is made possible by Reliant, a partner of the YMCA of Greater Houston.

"At Reliant, we respect, recognize and celebrate that our differences shape us, and that diversity and inclusion make us stronger. We're committed to powering change and supporting progress in the places where we live and work," says Elizabeth Killinger, president at Reliant, in the release. "By powering the Equity Innovation Center, we hope to further strengthen Houston so we can harness our full potential and make lasting change for future generations."

Reliant has donated $100,000 to the project, which will be distributed in $50,000 commitments over two years. The sum is a part of Reliant and NRG's "Powering Change" initiative, which has committed $1 million to go to organizations that combat racial inequities, injustice, and related violence, according to the release.

"We are grateful Reliant is joining our efforts to implement lasting and meaningful change within our community and beyond. We know that when we work as one, we move people and communities forward," Ives says.

Stephen Ives (left) is the president and CEO of YMCA of Greater Houston, and Elizabeth Killinger is president of Reiliant. Images courtesy

Reliant and Aramco Americas have provided Houston Methodist funds to move forward pertinent research and opportunities. Courtesy of Methodist Hospital/Facebook

2 corporations write checks to go toward Houston hospital's COVID-19 efforts

money moves

Two Houston companies have doled out cash to a Houston hospital's efforts in driving innovation during the pandemic as well as moving forward in a post-COVID-19 world.

Houston Methodist received $500,000 from Houston-based Aramco Americas and $130,000 from Houston-based Reliant. Aramco's gift will go toward funding ongoing research on convalescent plasma therapy as a treatment for COVID-19 and Reliant's donation will create the Reliant Innovation Fund.

"The challenges that we have and will continue to face with the COVID-19 pandemic amplifies the need for fresh ideas to combat this disease and treat those who have been affected," says Dr. Faisal Masud, medical director of the Center for Critical Care at Houston Methodist Hospital, in a news release from Reliant. "Innovating is at the core of what we do at Houston Methodist, and this generous gift from Reliant will make a difference for patients both now and for years to come."

According to the release, $100,000 will go toward supporting students in the Texas A&M University's Engineering Medicine program, which combines engineering and medical courses to allow for students to receive a master's in engineering and a medical degree in four years. Currently, A&M is renovating a building in the Texas Medical Center that will be the future home of the program.

"The EnMed program is educating a new type of physician — one with an engineering background and a forward-thinking, innovative medical mindset. Reliant's partnership and donation will allow our students to innovate for the dynamic needs on today's clinical front lines," says Dr. Timothy Boone, director of the Houston Methodist Education Institute and Associate Texas A&M Dean, in the release.

The other $30,000 of Reliant's gift will go towards expanding the hospital's patient-centric mobile app, CareSense, which Houston Methodist has used to connect with COVID-19 patients after they have left the hospital.

Aramco's donation will be used to support Houston Methodist's plasma research on COVID-19 treatment. The hospital was the first academic medical center in the United States to get FDA approval for this type of treatment on COVID-19 patients.

"Convalescent plasma therapy has been effective in other infectious diseases and our physician-scientists are working to develop it into a first-line treatment for COVID-19," says Dr. Dirk Sostman, president at the Houston Methodist Academic Institute, in a news release from Aramco.

The treatment collects blood from recovered COVID-19 patients and infuses the plasma into currently ill COVID-19 patients in hopes that the recovered patient's plasma can provide the antibodies for the ill patient to fight off the disease.

"Houston Methodist Hospital is a world-leader in healthcare as well as research and development," says Mohammad S. Alshammari, president and CEO of Aramco Americas in the release. "Our donation is an opportunity to support the innovative work occurring there in support of the Houston community and to contribute to long-term medical solutions for this global health crisis."

Midway's GreenStreet in downtown will be the site of MassChallenge Texas' Houston program. Photo via greenstreetdowntown.com

MassChallenge Texas announces the 26 companies in its inaugural Houston cohort

Startup studs

Since announcing its entrance into the Houston innovation market in January, MassChallenge Texas has been scoring the city — and the rest of the world — for the accelerator programs inaugural cohort. Now, the organization is ready to announce its 26 startups ahead of the program's July 22 launch.

The 26 companies come from three countries and six states, and half have female founders. The startups are mostly within the health care and high tech industries — eight companies reside in each of those categories. Two companies are energy related, and one company has a social impact focus. The remaining seven companies are categorized as "general," according to the release.

"We have an incredibly diverse cohort of startups for our first MassChallenge Texas in Houston program," says Jon Nordby, managing director of MassChallenge Texas in Houston, in the news release. "The startups cross five industries, where 50 percent of the startups come from outside of Houston bringing talent from innovation hubs like New York, San Francisco, and Switzerland. Proving that Houston's global reach is not just for the Fortune 500 and that startups are looking for their place in the global economy, something that Houston is uniquely suited to offer."

As a part of MassChallenge, the selected startups aren't asked for equity in order to participate, and free coworking space, more than $250K in deals and discounts, and more prizes await the top companies at the conclusion of the six-week programming.

Throughout the accelerator, MassChallenge will provide training, guidance, and corporate connections with a large network of companies, such as Southwest Airlines, TMAC, WeWork, USAA, Upstream, Central Houston, the City of Houston, Lionstone, Midway, BAE Systems, BHP, Ingram Micro, the San Antonio Spurs, and the Houston Texans. Houston-based Reliant, an NRG company, is the latest corporate partner to join those ranks, according to the release.

Over 280 companies applied for the program, says Robert Pieroni, director of economic development for Central Houston, in the release, a clear indication for him that the Houston program was a good decision for both the city and MassChallenge.

"When we set out to find a partner to support our innovation initiatives, we were seeking a catalyst for Houston's innovation ecosystem," Pieroni says in the release. "We knew we needed an organization that matched Houston's global reach and our passion for bringing creative ideas to life through business."

Without further adieu, here are the 26 companies that begin their MassChallenge journey on July 22:

  • AeroGenics (Iowa,)
  • AeroMINE (Texas,): AeroMINE is a motionless wind turbine created for the building environment. It installs like solar panels but is more cost effective.
  • Animatus Biosciences, LLC (Texas): Animatus Biosciences is an R&D company focusing on the development of unique regenerative therapeutics based on our modified mRNA platform.
  • Ask Doss (Texas): DOSS is a Real Estate Operations System (ReOS) that will radically simplify how people search (voice activated) and transact real estate.
  • Bell Analytics (Texas)
  • Bright Angle (Texas): Bright Angle is a Pinterest style activity platform for teachers, students, parents, and admins that is the "chalkboard" of the 21st century
  • Camppedia Inc. (Texas): Camppedia plans to disrupt the $18B children's camps industry and in the process improve the lives of millions of working parents.
  • Captain (Texas): Captain is a user-friendly, multi-sided platform that connects outdoor sports adventurers and guides.
  • Celise (Virginia): Celise is a compostable disposables company in the foodservice industry that aims to replace and eliminate single-use plastic waste.
  • Combined Arms [CAX-X] (Texas): Combined Arms is a forward-thinking nonprofit that is committed to unleashing the impact of veterans on Houston.
  • DoBrain (Republic of Korea): DoBrain is a children's diagnosis app that detects neuropsychological markers indicative of developmental delays.
  • Door Space Inc. (Texas): Door Space built a cloud-based platform that automates professional credential management and verification for clinicians and their employers.
  • ElecTrip (Texas): ElecTrip offers city-to-city, door-to-door transportation services in private-professionally driven Teslas with Wi-Fi and laptop charging. Book online to any major Texas-based city.
  • FloodFrame (Texas): FloodFrame is a concealed flood protection system that utilizes the natural buoyant force of water to deploy and protect your home.
  • MākStudio (Texas): Māk Studio is a fabrication studio in the heart of Houston. We design and fabricate custom walls and furniture for commercial interiors.
  • NeuroRescue (Ohio): NeuroRescue improves the standard of care used to treat stroke, brain injury, and cardiac arrest to increase neurological outcome by up to forty-percent.
  • Noleus Technologies Inc. (Texas): Noleus is a novel medical device that reduces post op ileus, saves post op hospital days and accelerates patient recovery
  • ORDRS (Texas)
  • PTCWizard (New York): PTC Wizard helps K-12 schools streamline their scheduling and sign-up process thereby improving parent involvement and decreasing overhead.
  • RehabMakerCorp. (California): Rehabmaker is a manufacturer of exercise equipment that attaches to wheelchairs and allows people to move their legs.
  • RevealTechnologies (Texas)
  • Sensytec Inc. (Texas): Sensytec is revolutionizing the oil & gas, and construction industries by bringing smart cement technologies and real-time data collection.
  • Swoovy (Texas): Swoovy is a mobile app that connects single people and volunteer opportunities with nonprofits, as a date.
  • Waterdata (Ticino, Switzerland): Waterdata offers Liquidprice, an Intelligent pricing software that optimizes prices with AI by adapting to customers, competitors and market behavior quickly.
  • WellWorth (Texas)
  • Zero5 (California)
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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.