This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Dr. Joseph Rogers of the Texas Heart Institute, Allie Danziger of Ampersand, Jeff Carlson of RioRaiz. 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 SaaS to biotech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Dr. Joseph Rogers, president and CEO of the Texas Heart Institute

Dr. Joseph Rogers has been at the helm of the Texas Heart Institute for around two years. He shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast about the innovative past, present, and future of THI. Photo via texasheart.org

Dr. Joseph Rogers, the president and CEO of the Texas Heart Institute, is passionate about preventative health care for THI and its patients, as he shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast. What's required is a comprehensive culture shift away from just using a pill to accomplish this goal.

Rogers says health care organizations are going to need to partner with other players — nonprofits, universities, local government — in ways never been done before. And THI is dedicated to this mission.

"Houston is the place to do this," he says. "The reason I think this is such an important community to address this problem is it's the most diverse city in the United States. And I've never lived anywhere or heard of another city that I was so convinced believed they could do anything they set their minds to. It's about making the community aware of the problem and a potential solution — and then working on trying to solve it."Read more.

Allie Danziger, senior vice president and general manager of student success at Ascent

Ampersand has been acquired by a college loan and student services provider based in San Diego. Photo ampersandpro.com

San Diego, California-based Ascent, a collegiate student loan company that also provides student support services, announced it has acquired Houston-based Ampersand, a software platform that provides skills training to young professionals.

With the acquisition, Allie Danziger, co-founder and CEO of Ampersand, joins Ascent as senior vice president and general manager of student success. She will lead the company's educational program that focuses on equipping students with skills from education to employment.

“Since launching Ampersand in 2020, we’ve received constant praise from employers, students, and universities on the real education-to-employment skills gap we are filling,” says Danziger in a news release. “I take immense pride in the fact that we’ve helped thousands of students enter the workforce with confidence, earn higher salaries, and get set on the right career path. I know joining the Ascent team will unlock even more opportunities for our combined companies, expanding our collective impact to millions of students and job seekers.” Read more.

Jeff Carlson, president and CEO of RioRaiz

With its blend of biotechnology, conservation, and education, RioRaiz seeks to inspire a new generation of conservationists. Photo via RioRaiz.org

Not only is Houston-based nonprofit RioRaiz looking to preserve biodiversity through biotechnology, the innovative organization also wants to offer transformative learning experiences to contribute to a healthier planet.

Led by Jeff Carlson, the president and CEO, RioRaiz's mission is driven by three core pillars: conservation, scientific discovery, and education.

"We have a list of priorities that is cataloged from input from our scientific collaborators, as well as our ability to deliver on our promises to our donors and supporters,” Carlson tells InnovationMap. Read more.

With its blend of biotechnology, conservation, and education, RioRaiz seeks to inspire a new generation of conservationists. Photo via RioRaiz/Instagram

Innovative Houston nonprofit taps into biotech to preserve ecological biodiversity

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For centuries, humans have been negatively impacting the natural world around them. A Houston organization is looking to leave an impact on the environment — but this time for the better.

Based in Houston, RioRaiz is a 501c3 nonprofit organization charting a unique course in the world of conservation and education. Founded in March of 2021, RioRaiz – meaning "root of the river" in Spanish, a nod to its deep-rooted connection with South American culture – seeks to preserve biodiversity through biotechnology and offer transformative learning experiences to contribute to a healthier planet.

Led by Jeff Carlson, the president and CEO, RioRaiz's mission is driven by three core pillars: conservation, scientific discovery, and education.

Currently, the nonprofit's efforts are focused on regions on the edge of ecological disruption, specifically the East Texas area and the Tropical Andes. In Texas, the organization aims to expand the biome of the Big Thicket National Preserve in Kountze as well as engaging locals by hosting clean-up drives. In the Andes, RioRaiz aspires to establish biological corridors between national parks and natural reserves, diminishing potential disruptions to animal migration patterns.

The timeline for these critical initiatives, Carlson said, hinges on donations.

"We have a list of priorities that is cataloged from input from our scientific collaborators, as well as our ability to deliver on our promises to our donors and supporters,” Carlson said.

Partnerships form a critical role in RioRaiz's work, notably those with academic institutions in the United States and Colombia. One of these collaborations saw Carlson spend three months in Colombia, working with the local Páez tribe, also known as the Nasa, to explore the potential of their traditional medicines for modern treatments.

"We're really excited to learn and to share our techniques and our knowledge," Carlson said, underlining the organization's commitment to partnering with traditional and indigenous knowledge sources.

With its blend of biotechnology, conservation, and education, RioRaiz seeks to inspire a new generation of conservationists. By offering an intimate virtual glimpse into the world's biomes, the nonprofit aims to instill a deep-rooted respect for nature and encourage sustainable action.

"If you expose students to these different kinds of environments at an early age, that might inspire somebody to go into conservation," Carlson said.

With a progressive effort, RioRaiz is harnessing the power of virtual reality to redefine education. The organization uses specialized filming equipment during its expeditions, capturing moments like the discovery of new species or conducting bio surveys. RioRaiz's visually compelling stories will surpass language barriers, transporting students virtually to different biomes. In time, Carlson hopes to distribute pre-loaded systems to communities with limited internet access, taking the classroom to every corner of the world. These virtual reality experiences are expected to launch within the next year.

"We want to bring the rainforest into the classroom," Carlson said.

Through its work, RioRaiz aims to demonstrate that the route to a sustainable future lies not just in face-to-face interactions, but in a global, interconnected approach to education and conservation. Its vision is clear — to grow far beyond traditional reaches, preserving biodiversity and fostering a healthier world.

By emphasizing community involvement and engagement organizations can stimulate creativity, attain common objectives, and make social impact, benefiting private, public, nonprofit, for profit, and government agencies alike. Photo via Getty Images

Why building bridges in Houston's nonprofit, innovation communities should be a priority

guest column

I have witnessed numerous Houston-based nonprofits utilize the enormous advantages of community involvement in catalyzing creativity and creating real, sustainable change, but nonprofits can't accomplish everything on our own. For-profit organizations, private academic institutions, and government entities have a substantial role to play in growing community projects, embracing connections, and bolstering nonprofit efforts. Let’s explore some of the advantages of for-profit businesses partnering with nonprofits in order to grow all-around community innovation development.

Connecting with local communities

A vital first step in promoting community participation for innovation is connecting with local communities. For-profit companies can participate in regional projects, pay attention to local residents, and comprehend the opportunities and issues facing their areas. This can assist them in creating strategies that are adapted to local requirements and have a significant impact.

Collaborating with organizations

To spur innovation and realize common objectives, collaboration is essential. For-profit businesses can cooperate with nonprofit groups that share their goals and ideals. This may result in a situation where everyone gains from the collaboration. Non-profit groups can provide their local experience, passion, and connections to the community, while for-profit businesses can contribute their resources, networks, and specializations.

Offering volunteer incentive programs and opportunities

For-profit businesses can engage their staff members and encourage them to participate in community projects by providing volunteer incentive programs and opportunities. This can improve job satisfaction, boost staff morale, and foster a supportive business culture. Additionally, volunteering can benefit workers by allowing them to grow their networks, learn new things, and obtain new experiences.

Engaging in educational initiatives

Another successful strategy for for-profit businesses to encourage community participation for innovation is to participate in educational projects. For instance, they can collaborate with educational institutions to support STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) initiatives. A pipeline of smart young professionals who are enthusiastic about innovation and social impact may result from this.

Being willing and open to put themselves out there

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, for-profit businesses must be open and take the potential risks in order to engage with communities and create the seeds of innovation. Businesses open to new concepts and methods, listening to criticism, and conducting transparency can produce happier employees by incorporating the same practices they use to build community engagement. For-profit businesses can truly benefit their own profitability by being willing to cultivate long-lasting relationships and meaningful projects with nonprofits: all while having a significant impact on their communities.

Ultimately, by emphasizing community involvement and engagement organizations can stimulate creativity, attain common objectives, and make social impact, benefiting private, public, nonprofit, for profit, and government agencies alike.

Building bridges, cooperating with nonprofit groups, and supporting community initiatives are all important roles for for-profit businesses to play. For-profit businesses can encourage general community engagement for innovation and change the world by interacting with local communities, working with nonprofits, providing volunteer incentive programs and opportunities, taking part in educational initiatives, and being open and willing to put themselves out there.

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Jeff Carlson is the president and CEO of RioRaiz.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

3 Houston innovators to know this week

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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.