As the Houston innovation ecosystem prepares for 2020, InnovationMap's editor looks back on her favorite interviews of this year. Courtesy photos

Ever since the launch of InnovationMap, the site has featured an innovator weekly. That's over 50 interviews and more than a dozen episodes of the Houston Innovators Podcast, which launched this fall.

As editor of InnovationMap and the host of the Houston Innovators Podcast, I've conducted nearly all of these interviews. And, while parents aren't allowed to pick favorites between their children, I definitely have my favorite interviews. Looking back on this year, I've had the fortune of talking to innovators from all corners of Houston and across industries.

Looking back on 2019, I've plucked out my five favorites, and I thought I'd share why they stood out to me. I'm excited to continue these conversations in 2020 as Houston's innovation ecosystem grows — and as InnovationMap grows with it.

Samantha Lewis, director of The GOOSE Society of Texas

Samantha Lewis

Courtesy of Samantha Lewis

When I think of my favorite conversations I've had this year, Samantha Lewis immediately comes to my mind. If you've ever had the fortune of meeting Sam, you know her as high energy, kind, and full of opinions — all of these qualities make for a great interview, and, in this case, podcast episode.

Samantha's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast was only the second to be released, but, just due to scheduling, was actually the first episode I ever recorded. And, despite it's early release, is still the most listened to of the 13 that now are available. I credit Sam's candor, poise, and insight for that.

In the episode, Samantha and I discuss GOOSE's recent investments, her advice for startups looking for funding, the state of venture capital in Houston — and how it compares to the two coasts, and more. To read more or stream the episode, click here.

Steven Gonzalez, technology transfer strategist at NASA

Courtesy of NASA

This past summer, the Space City celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing — 50 years since "Houston" was uttered from the surface of the moon. July brought many space celebrations as the city, state, and even country looked back on the legacy of the aerospace industry.

I took this anniversary as a chance to dive into the innovation of the industry on InnovationMap with a series of interviews with various space professionals. I spoke with the general manager of Houston's Spaceport, the founder of a Houston-based space startup, and Rice University's Space Institute director, but my favorite discussion I had about space was with Steven Gonzalez, technology transfer strategist at NASA.

Steven was so interesting to talk to because his job really represents the future of space exploration. As space travel shifts into the commercial space rather than just within the government-backed NASA operations, the need for the sharing of technology, research, and ideas is crucial. Through NASA's technology transfer, Steven is helping that effort. To read our full conversation, click here.

Ody De La Paz, founder of Sensytec

Courtesy of Sensytec

Throughout my now near 15 months at InnovationMap, I've had a growing appreciation of the guts and gumption it takes to take the leap and start a company. I love interviewing entrepreneurs — they all have such different perspectives on similar startup challenges. One of my favorite entrepreneur interviews I had this year was with Ody De La Paz, who founded Sensytec.

Ody started his company when he was an undergrad student at the University of Houston. Most college students just trying to get an entry-level job somewhere — anywhere, but Ody would go on to travel the world pitching — and winning — in competitions for Sensytec's technology, which is smart cement that can communicate risks for potential life-threatening damage.

Ody was my first startup founder guest on the Houston Innovators Podcast, and, if we're keeping track, still is the second most listened to episode behind Sam's episode. To read more or stream the episode, click here.

Harvin Moore, president of Houston Exponential

Courtesy of HX

This year, Houston Exponential — the city's nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting innovation in Houston — hired a new president. Harvin Moore joined the team to take HX into its next stage of attracting tech companies into the ecosystem.

Several months into his position, we sat down to discuss how he was doing and what some of his goals were for the organization. I admire Harvin's passion for the city. A serial entrepreneur and investor, he has a great frame of reference for startups, and his first point of action was to listen — to the ecosystem and its members — for what the city really wants and needs from its innovation leadership.

Our conversation was over an hour and bounced from HX and Houston startups to New York's real estate and the profitability of local journalism. Of course, not all that ended up in the article, but I look forward to seeing what all Harvin has up his sleeves for 2020. To read our full conversation, click here.

Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer at Houston Methodist Hospital

Courtesy of Houston Methodist

It's rare that I interview someone for the Featured Innovator section twice. In fact, I've only doubled up three times. Though, I'm sure it will continue to happen as InnovationMap and the Houston Innovators Podcast grows. Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer at Houston Methodist Hospital, was one of my interviews I've doubled up on this year — once for a Q&A and once for the Houston Innovators Podcast.

It's pretty easy to find new things to discuss with Roberta. Houston Methodist seems to constantly be launching new technology pilots within the system — from virtual reality in cancer treatment to telemedicine. Plus, just personally, Roberta is extremely interesting. At 27, she was diagnosed with a vicious strand of breast cancer — despite having no family history of the disease.

After getting through some of her early treatments, she co-founded an organization that helps to connect young women who were similarly diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age. I'm 28, and cannot fathom the cancer battle Roberta survived and the foresight she had to create an organization like she did. To read more on our most recent conversation or stream the episode, click here.

Trending this week on InnovationMap is news about a new electric vehicle initiative from the mayor's office, three Houston innovators to know, and more. Photo by PeopleImages

5 most popular innovation stories in Houston this week

What's trending

Editor's note: If you zoned out of Houston innovation news this week — perhaps distracted by baseball post-season games — we've got you covered. Some of the highlights include a new electric vehicle initiative from the mayor's office, updates from The Ion, and the Houstonians with the deepest pockets.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Samantha Lewis, Tilman Fertitta, and Tiffany Masterson are this week's innovators to know in Houston. Courtesy images

Houston entrepreneurs never cease to impress, leaving a mark on the city for their business minds, creativity, and overall gumption. This week's three innovators to know are no exception.

From a startup venture capitalist and Houston's most recognizable billionaire to a local mom that created — and now sold — a skincare line with a cult following, these are this week's innovative Houstonians to keep an eye on. Continue reading.

Station Houston CEO to lead operations at The Ion

The Rice Management Company has created a new operations organization for The Ion and has selected Gabriella Rowe to lead it. Courtesy of Rice University

A Houston innovation leader is switching sides of the table to support on a highly anticipated entrepreneurial hub.

Rice Management Company has created an operating organization for The Ion and has named Gabriella Rowe as the executive director. Rowe has served as CEO of Station Houston since August 2018. The Ion, which broke ground on the site of the Midtown Sears building in July, is expected to deliver early 2021. Continue reading.

Houston billionaires named to Forbes' list of richest Americans for 2019

Pipeline mogul and Memorial Park benefactor Richard Kinder (pictured with his wife, Nancy) leads the Houston billionaires. Photo by Michelle Watson/Catchlight Group

Who's the richest person in Texas? That title once again goes to Walmart heiress Alice Walton, of Fort Worth, according to the newly released Forbes 400 ranking. But seven very wealthy Houstonians also appear on the list of the 400 richest people in the country right now.

The top Houstonian on the list is Houston pipeline mogul Richard Kinder, who is tied with another Walmart heiress, Ann Walton Kroenke, for sixth place in Texas and No. 67 nationally. Forbes estimates they're each worth $7.5 billion. Continue reading.

Mayor announces major effort to reduce emissions on Houston's roadways

Through increasing awareness, affordability, and accessibility, the city of Houston hopes to grow the number of electric vehicles on Houston roads by 2030. Courtesy of EVolve Houston

The city of Houston has taken a major step toward reducing carbon emissions caused by its estimated 1.3 million vehicles that drive the city's streets daily.

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced a new partnership between the government, local businesses, and academic leaders that has created EVolve Houston. The coalition is aimed at boosting electric vehicle sales to 30 percent of new car sales in Houston by 2030. Continue reading.

A Houston entrepreneur is thinking out of the box with smart lockers for food and personal items

Dommonic Nelson wants to make sure everyone's lunches are safe. Photo via cleverboxcompany.com

Someone kept taking Dommonic Nelson's lunch. A Texas Southern University student living at home and commuting from Greenspoint, Nelson only had a few minutes to scarf down his lunches between studying Maritime Transportation. But regularly, he'd reach into the community refrigerator on campus, only to find, well, nothing.

One night, Nelson was in the shower, wondering why his lunch had been taken again, and the long journey to Clever Box Co. began. He barged into his grandfather's room — it was 2:40 in the morning — and told him he had an idea for a series of high-tech boxes designed for storing various things. The boxes could keep personal items (the Stash Box) and packages (the Happy Box) in large companies and coworking spaces, and for people to quickly pick up their food from restaurants without having to wait in line (the Yummy Box). If Nelson couldn't get his lunches back, he was going to make an entire business on making sure no one got stolen from again. Continue reading.

Samantha Lewis, Tilman Fertitta, and Tiffany Masterson are this week's innovators to know in Houston. Courtesy images

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Houston entrepreneurs never cease to impress, leaving a mark on the city for their business minds, creativity, and overall gumption. This week's three innovators to know are no exception.

From a startup venture capitalist and Houston's most recognizable billionaire to a local mom that created — and now sold — a skincare line with a cult following, these are this week's innovative Houstonians to keep an eye on.

Samantha Lewis, director at The GOOSE Society of Texas

Courtesy of Samantha Lewis

Houston has a big fan in Samantha Lewis. The New Mexico native found her way to Texas by way of Texas A&M University before joining the Houston innovation ecosystem and getting her MBA at Rice University.

On the second episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Lewis, who's the director at The GOOSE Society of Texas, shares her story of wanting to work in venture capital, but being afraid Houston's venture activity would be too slim. She stuck it out and now the ecosystem is in good place for growth.

"We have to think about getting more capital available for companies that add strategic value to Houston," Lewis says on the podcast. Click here to read more and to listen.

Tilman Fertitta, owner of Fertitta Entertainment

Photo by J. Thomas Ford

Likely, Tilman Fertitta is already a name known and in need of no reminder, but the Houston billionaire is again in the headlines. Fertitta, who just recently acquired Del Frisco's steakhouse chain, has released a new business book, Shut Up and Listen! The book contains the entrepreneur's business advice and "Tilmanisms."

"I thought that I would always write a life story book, but Harper Collins approached me and said they wanted a business management book," Fertitta tells CultureMap. I can't tell you how many times we sat around with my close group and edited this book at the end and went through it five times and read it. If we found a paragraph that was boring, we got rid of it or rewrote it."

CultureMap sat down with Fertitta during a rare break to talk books, business, and his beloved Bayou City. Click here to read the interview.

Tiffany Masterson, chief creative officer and founder of Drunk Elephant

Photo via Business Wire

It was a good week for Houstonian Tiffany Masterson. She sold her skincare line, Drunk Elephant, for a reported $845 million to international makeup giant, Shiseido Company Ltd.

"I started this business as an industry outsider, and from the beginning I did things a little differently," Masterson says in a news release. "To join with a powerhouse beauty company such as Shiseido that leads the industry in innovation and global excellence is a dream come true for me and for Drunk Elephant. We share similar values, most importantly an unwavering commitment to the consumer. I chose a partner who will let the brand continue to be itself, with the same formulations and the same team."

Masterson will stay on with the company as the acquisition allows her products to reach a wider, worldwide audience. Click here to read more.

Samantha Lewis is the director at The Goose Society of Texas. Courtesy of Samantha Lewis

Investment group director calls for more startup funding out of Houston

Houston innovators podcast episode 2

A key factor in growing an innovation ecosystem is having the funds to fuel startup growth. Samantha Lewis, director for The GOOSE Society of Texas — a local group of investors — and an entrepreneur herself, is calling on the city's players to help move the needle.

"We have to think about getting more capital available for companies that add strategic value to Houston," Lewis says on the second episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast

Lewis is a Rice University MBA graduate and was involved in two startups before beginning her role at GOOSE, which stands for the Grand Order of Successful Entrepreneurs. The group of 25 high-net-worth individuals operates similar to an angel investment group, in that they invest in early stage companies, but also like a fund, in that they take an active role in the companies in which they invest. The group invests around $10 million annually, with a quarter of that being new deals ranging from $1.5 million to $2 million per check.

"What we do is, as we find these companies, there's usually me and one or two of the investors working on the sourcing and the due diligence. If we find a company and we like it, we bring it in front of the entire group of investors," Lewis says on the podcast. "Each investor gets to decide on its own whether or not they want to commit money.

On the podcast, Lewis talks a bit about GOOSE's recent investment with Syzygy Plasmonics, as well as an investment in Topl, a company she personally felt compelled to help make happen. Both deals came about with networking, a path she gives some guidance on during the episode.

"It's much easier to get in front of investors when you have a referral," she says.

For the full interview, check out the podcast below. Subscribe to the series so you never miss the latest Houston entrepreneur conversations.


GOOSE Society of Texas has invested in a chemical sensor company from Austin. Pexels

Houston investor group leads $2.6 million Series A round for Austin-based chemical sensor startup

Money moves

A Houston-based investment group has announced funding for a startup out of Austin that has the potential to disrupt multiple industries with its chemical sensor device.

GOOSE Society of Texas, a group of investors that invest over $50 million into early stage startups, led the $2.6 million round for Lantha Inc. The startup plans to use the funds for finalizing its commercial products, strategic hires, and expand its intellectual property. The device Lantha has created can detect solid-state chemicals, which can be used in a myriad of industries from pharmaceuticals and oil and gas to water and defense.

Jeff Smisek, former United Airlines CEO and founder of investment firm Flight Partners Management LLC, was the GOOSE investor to lead the deal. According to a news release, he will join Lantha's board of directors.

"Lantha is a great example of the GOOSE Society's investment thesis — a company with proprietary and disruptive technology, low capital costs, large addressable markets, speedy product development and high margins which can benefit from the vast experience and contacts of the GOOSE Society's investors," Smisek says in the release. "We are proud to lead this financing and look forward to working closely with Lantha's management and world class scientists as they build a powerhouse in the field-based chemical analysis market."

Simon Humphrey, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Texas, invented the handheld device that is faster, cheaper, and easier to use than traditional tools. Humphrey serves as CTO for the company, and Robert Toker is the CEO and chairman of Lantha.

"We have world class scientists, who are the inventors of our technology, and a strong founding team, and we've attracted a great group of investors led by Jeff Smisek and the GOOSE Society in Houston as well as several prominent investors associated with the University of Texas at Austin," Toker says. "... Partnering with GOOSE has materially improved our chances of success."

The Lantha investment represents the first time GOOSE has funded technology coming out of UT.

"We are excited about expanding GOOSE's investment efforts to UT and look forward to future collaborations and deals," says Samantha Lewis, director at GOOSE. Several high-profile investors from the UT community invested in Lantha's Series A Preferred Stock alongside GOOSE investors.

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Booming Houston suburb hauls in top spot among growing U.S. cities

making moves

The Houston metro area's population is poised to continue booming over the next decade, so it should be no surprise that U-Haul calculated one Houston suburb as one of the top U.S. cities for growth.

In its annual report, released January 7, the company details migration trends across the U.S. Analyzing data from 2019, the moving and rental company placed Spring-The Woodlands at No. 14 among the 2019 U-Haul Growth Cities.

To determine the country's top 25 growth cities, U-Haul analyzed more than 2 million rental transactions over the calendar year. It then calculated the net gain of one-way U-Haul trucks entering an area versus those leaving an area.

Unlike U.S. Census Bureau or real estate data, the company says its U-Haul Growth Cities offers a snapshot of an area's retention rates versus strictly growth.

"While U-Haul migration trends do not correlate directly to population or economic growth, the company's growth data is an effective gauge of how well cities and states are attracting and maintaining residents," it explains in a release.

Three other Texas cities were perched on the list: the Austin suburb of Round Rock-Pflugerville (No. 5), the San Antonio suburb of New Braunfels (No. 11), and the Dallas suburb of McKinney (No. 17).

The top spot this year went to Raleigh-Durham, where arrivals accounted for nearly 51.4 percent of all one-way U-Haul traffic. In its explanation as to why the North Carolina hub is growing, the company points to the region's booming tech sector, which is says rivals that of Austin.

"We have tons of businesses coming here, bringing new residents in U-Haul trucks," said Kris Smith, U-Haul Company of Raleigh president, in a release. "Raleigh-Durham is rivaling Austin for attracting tech businesses and young professionals. We're seeing Silicon Valley talent and companies flock to the area. With a competitive cost of living, good wages, and job growth, Raleigh-Durham is experiencing a boom in population."

But when it came to the top growth state, neither Texas nor North Carolina got the No. 1 spot. That honor went to Florida, which took the crown from Texas, the winner in 2018. The Sunshine State claimed seven cities among the top 25, including five in the top 10.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Houston is full of innovative people looking to make an impact — whether it's in the health tech, fashion, or science industries.

This week's innovators to know represent different industries within Houston, but they are all looking to leave a legacy in making a difference.

Yael Katz, co-founder and CEO of BrainCheck

Photo courtesy of BrainCheck

Yael Katz has seen the company she co-founded grow tenfold in its almost five years, and now she's watching that growth from a corner office with a great view of Houston.

BrainCheck, a cognitive assessment startup that has developed a software tool for primary care doctors to use to assess their patients' cognitive health, has moved into a new office space in the West University area following a series A round of fundraising.

"It's pretty exciting to have reached this milestone where we need more space," Yael Katz, co-founder and CEO of BrainCheck, tells InnovationMap. "We were pretty much bursting at the seams in our old office." Read more.

Topper Luciani, founder and CEO of Goodfair

Photo courtesy of Goodfair

With the rise of fast fashion — in which huge clothing lines rapidly produce cheap clothing for consumers, humans are cycling through clothing at a detrimental rate.

According to a report from Business Insider, the fashion industry contributes 10 percent of the world's carbon emissions, is the second-largest user of the earth's water supply, and pollutes the oceans with microplastics.

"I realized that there was too much stuff out there," says Topper Luciani, founder and CEO of Houston-based Goodfair, "and there is an environmental crisis being caused by the clothing industry. They're manufacturing so many items, they're using slave labor, they're pumping dyes and other chemicals into rivers. It's absolutely wild." Read more.

Dorit Donoviel, director of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health

Libby Neder Photography

On the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Dorit Donoviel speaks of space health needs in ways that sound like futuristic science fiction. However, the director of the Translational Research Institute of Space Health is actively seeking solutions for issues and needs for living in space.

TRISH works hand in hand with NASA's Human Research Program to identify the program's biggest concerns, and then tap into professors, researchers, and scientists from Baylor College of Medicine, California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, and other partners in order to innovate solutions.

"Everyone tosses the word 'innovation' around, but that means, to us, taking risks in science. Health care, in particular, is very risk averse, but the space industry is taking risks every single day when they put people in a rocket and hurl them into space," Donoviel says on the podcast. "If we're going to mars, for example, we are going to put people at risk." Read more.

These 3 Houston research projects are aiming to fight or prevent cancer

Research roundup

Cancer remains to be one of the medical research community's huge focuses and challenges, and scientists in Houston are continuing to innovate new treatments and technologies to make an impact on cancer and its ripple effect.

Three research projects coming out of Houston institutions are providing solutions in the fight against cancer — from ways to monitor treatment to eliminating cancer-causing chemicals in the first place.

Baylor College of Medicine's breakthrough in breast cancer

Photo via bcm.edu

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Harvard Medical School have unveiled a mechanism explains how "endocrine-resistant breast cancer acquires metastatic behavior," according to a news release from BCM. This research can be game changing for introducing new therapeutic strategies.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and shows that hyperactive FOXA1 signaling — previously reported in endocrine-resistant metastatic breast cancer — can trigger genome-wide reprogramming that enhances resistance to treatment.

"Working with breast cancer cell lines in the laboratory, we discovered that FOXA1 reprograms endocrine therapy-resistant breast cancer cells by turning on certain genes that were turned off before and turning off other genes," says Dr. Xiaoyong Fu, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and part of the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor, in the release.

"The new gene expression program mimics an early embryonic developmental program that endow cancer cells with new capabilities, such as being able to migrate to other tissues and invade them aggressively, hallmarks of metastatic behavior."

Patients whose cancer is considered metastatic — even ones that initially responded to treatment — tend to relapse and die due to the cancer's resistance to treatment. This research will allow for new conversations around therapeutic treatment that could work to eliminate metastatic cancer.

University of Houston's evolved brain cancer chip

Photo via uh.edu

A biomedical research team at the University of Houston has made improvements on its microfluidic brain cancer chip. The Akay Lab's new chip "allows multiple-simultaneous drug administration, and a massive parallel testing of drug response for patients with glioblastoma," according to a UH news release. GBM is the most common malignant brain tumor and makes up half of all cases. Patients with GBM have a five-year survival rate of only 5.6 percent.

"The new chip generates tumor spheroids, or clusters, and provides large-scale assessments on the response of these GBM tumor cells to various concentrations and combinations of drugs. This platform could optimize the use of rare tumor samples derived from GBM patients to provide valuable insight on the tumor growth and responses to drug therapies," says Metin Akay, John S. Dunn Endowed Chair Professor of Biomedical Engineering and department chair, in the release.

Akay's team published a paper in the inaugural issue of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society's Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine and Biology. The report explains how the technology is able to quickly assess how well a cancer drug is improving its patients' health.

"When we can tell the doctor that the patient needs a combination of drugs and the exact proportion of each, this is precision medicine," Akay explains in the release.

Rice University's pollution transformation technology

Photo via rice.edu

Rice University engineers have developed a way to get rid of cancer-causing pollutants in water and transform them into valuable chemicals. A team lead by Michael Wong and Thomas Senftle has created this new catalyst that turns nitrate into ammonia. The study was published in the journal ACS Catalysis.

"Agricultural fertilizer runoff is contaminating ground and surface water, which causes ecological effects such as algae blooms as well as significant adverse effects for humans, including cancer, hypertension and developmental issues in babies," says Wong, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Rice's Brown School of Engineering, in a news release. "I've been very curious about nitrogen chemistry, especially if I can design materials that clean water of nitrogen compounds like nitrites and nitrates."

The ability to transform these chemicals into ammonia is crucial because ammonia-based fertilizers are used for global food supplies and the traditional method of creating ammonia is energy intensive. Not only does this process eliminate that energy usage, but it's ridding the contaminated water of toxic chemicals.

"I'm excited about removing nitrite, forming ammonia and hydrazine, as well as the chemistry that we figured out about how all this happens," Wong says in the release. "The most important takeaway is that we learned how to clean water in a simpler way and created chemicals that are more valuable than the waste stream."