This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Craig Ceccanti of T-Minus Solutions, Ben Jawdat of Revterra, and Sam Sabbahi of Thermocuff. 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 software development to medical devices — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Craig Ceccanti, founder of T-Minus Solutions

Craig Ceccanti joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share what he's learned in his time as an entrepreneur in Houston — and what he's focused on now. Photo courtesy of Craig Ceccanti

When deciding what his passion project would be, Craig Ceccanti looked back at his career. He's always been interested in tech, and grew a small business — Pinot's Palette — to a national franchise. Combining his skills and expertise, he founded T-Minus Solutions to provide entrepreneurs with software consulting and support.

"I love technology and mentoring other entrepreneurs — those were two big factors," Ceccanti says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "So, starting a consulting agency where we could help startups and mid sized-growth companies build custom software was kind of my perfect unicorn."

He shares more about the his career — from franchising to tech startups — as well as why he's bullish on Houston's business economy on the podcast. Click here to read more and listen to the episode.

Ben Jawdat, CEO and founder of Revterra

Revterra Corp. closed a $6 million series A round led by Equinor Ventures. Photo via LinkedIn

Revterra Corp. has raised $6 million in its series A funding round to propel development of its battery for electric vehicle charging stations. Norway’s Equinor Ventures led the round, with participation from Houston-based SCF Ventures. Previously, Revterra raised nearly $500,000 through a combination of angel investments and a National Science Foundation grant.

“There is an urgent need to reduce carbon emissions globally,” physicist Ben Jawdat, founder and CEO of Revterra, says in a news release. “Our goal at Revterra is to deploy scalable energy storage solutions that facilitate the shift to renewables and EVs while hardening our electric grid. Our systems enable these ambitions while utilizing materials that are recyclable and based on a secure supply chain.” Click here to read more.

Thermocuff has several patents and expects FDA approval at the end of the year. Image via LinkedIn.com

Necessity is the mother of invention — and Sam Sabbahi needed a better way to heat and cool common joint injuries. Sabbahi, a physical therapist by trade, wanted to optimize the traditional way of using ice or heat packs.

“In the field, we were always getting people coming in trying to get us to purchase different medical devices and we wondered, ‘who knows what we need better than we do?’” he says. “A patient asked me ‘what a cold pack does’ and I was thinking in my head that a cold pack just cools the skin to three millimeters depth.”

Sabbahi then developed and invented a portable convection-based heating and cooling system device that could be used for joint injury rehabilitation – the device, dubbed Thermocuff, works much in the way that an air fryer circulates the air to get an even temperature. Click here to read more.

Thermocuff has several patents and expects FDA approval at the end of the year. Image via thermocuff.com

Houston physical therapist designs medical device to better treat joint injuries

hot and cold

A great idea can strike anytime — and for Sam Sabbahi, his concept cooked up six years ago while defrosting a chicken for his son’s dinner.

Sabbahi, a physical therapist by trade, knew there had to be a better way to heat and cool common joint injuries — elevating the traditional way of using ice or heat packs.

“In the field, we were always getting people coming in trying to get us to purchase different medical devices and we wondered, ‘who knows what we need better than we do?’” he says. “A patient asked me ‘what a cold pack does’ and I was thinking in my head that a cold pack just cools the skin to three millimeters depth.”

Sabbahi then developed and invented a portable convection-based heating and cooling system device that could be used for joint injury rehabilitation – the device, dubbed Thermocuff, works much in the way that an air fryer circulates the air to get an even temperature.

“It just clicked for me like a light. You know what people say,” he says. “I just got the idea and thought ‘let’s just try this out and see if it would work.”

The device uses air that goes over top of the thermoelectric unit and cycles in a closed loop system. After some proof concept testing, Sabbahi determined that Thermocuff could cool a joint more than twice as quick as the traditional water circulating system that’s currently available on the market now.

The attached tablet connects through Bluetooth to the unit, which allows the patient to increase or decrease the temperature and adjust for heating or cooling.

“You're trying to get the range of motion back,” he says. “We are addressing pain and range of motion now – trying to reduce the swelling inside of a joint to help in function.”

Because the disposable cuff kind of looks like a Chinese finger trap, Sabbahi says it’s not something that you could just make a mold of and then mass produce.

Fast forward to today, Sabbahi and his team of eight have acquired four patents in the U.S., Canada, China and Japan and are waiting on Europe and Mexico.

The team is working toward FDA approval at the end of the year. Thermocuff also has received a grant from the U.S. military. The device is part of the Southwest Pediatric Medical Device Consortium and received grants for production and research from the Medical Technology Enterprise Consortium, which helps startups in the medical field source grants.

The team is targeting business to business, physical therapy clinics, universities, and sports training associations with the hope to move into the consumer market in the coming years.

“We all have ideas is the hardest part, is trying to figure out how to turn your idea into actual product,” he says. “It's fun, actually — kind of like a big puzzle. You know, you're trying to get all, find all the pieces and put them together.”

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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.