Money moves, big deals, and more lead this roundup of innovation news. Pexels

Hitting headlines this month are innovation news stories from battling the opioid crisis and funding to TMCx companies and Houston as a whole earning recognition.

In this innovation news roundup, two Houston startups pocket some cash, Chevron links up with Plug and Play, and more.

BreviTest receives grant to combat opioid crisis

BreviTest Technologies

Houston-based BreviTest can rapidly and accurately test for opioid use. Photo via brevitest.com

National Institute on Drug Abuseof the National Institutes of Health — through a Small Business Innovation Research Phase II grant — has granted $1.5 million to Houston-based BreviTest Technologies to take its opioid testing technology to the next level. With 47,600 opioid overdose deaths reported in 2017 in the United States, the startup's analyzer has a lot of potential to aid in the crisis.

"Because of the delay in receiving laboratory results, many physicians use urine drug testing sparingly. The BreviTest analyzer will allow any doctor to measure opioid urine levels in-office, which will help them identify individuals who are misusing the drugs," says BreviTest's Michael J. Heffernan, Ph.D., principal investigator on the project, in a news release.

BreviTest is a Fannin Innovation Studio company. The early-stage biomedical commercialization firm that's based in Houston is proud to see the startup's success and the difference the technology is making.

"Our BreviTest team is excited to receive this support from NIDA to advance our point-of-care diagnostics technology into the clinic," said Fannin executive chairman, Leo Linbeck III, in the release. "Putting a convenient, accurate opioid test in the hands of physicians will be an important step in combating the opioid overdose epidemic facing our country."

Houston's Plug and Play operation names Chevron as founding partner

Chevron has linked up with Plug and Play in Houston. Courtesy of CTV

Plug and Play Tech Center, which just announced the participating companies in its inaugural energy and sustainability cohort in Houston, has named Chevron as a founding partner.

"We are incredibly excited to announce Chevron as a Founding Partner of Plug and Play in Houston," saysWade Bitaraf, founder of Plug and Play's Energy & Sustainability program, in a news release. "Their commitment to invest in digital transformation and reduce the environmental impact of the industry is directly aligned with our Energy & Sustainability program in Houston, Silicon Valley, and around the world."

Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, the company's venture and innovation arm, is responsible for identifying pathways to innovation for the company.

"Chevron is a proud supporter of the Houston innovation community, and our support of Plug and Play's Energy & Sustainability platform demonstrates our commitment to growing the Houston innovation ecosystem," Burger says in the release. "Innovation will play a critical role in the future of energy, and our partnership with Plug and Play reinforces our commitment to invest in breakthrough technologies to enable the ongoing energy transition."

Houston recognized as a top 10 city for female founder success

According to Inc. 5000, Houston's great for female founders. Getty Images

Texas cities are great for fostering female founder success, according to a new ranking from Inc. 5000. Houston ranked at No. 10 of the top 10 list that factored in the women-led businesses among the magazine's 5,000 fastest-growing private U.S. companies.

"The Houston metropolitan area is home to 15 women-owned Inc. 5000 companies, including online marketing startup Decode Digital Marketing (No. 973) and health care staffing firm Restore Rehab Services (No. 2,645)," reads the ranking. "Together the 15 firms grew their collective revenue 142 percent between 2015 and 2018."

Dallas and Austin both appeared on the ranking, at No. 4 and No. 6, respectively.

Alice closes series A of funding

Alice founders, Elizabeth Gore (left) and Carolyn Rodz, closed their series A of funding. Getty Images

Though the company did not disclose an amount raised, Alice, an artificial intelligence-powered platform for business advice, closed a series A funding round led by SVB Financial Group, the parent company to Silicon Valley Bank.

Per a news release, the company will use the funding to "build its predictive technology, using data analytics to guide each entrepreneur through every stage of their business."

Alice, which has operations in Houston and San Francisco, reached a deal with Austin-based Bumble for funding earlier this year.

TMCx companies win big

TMCx

Three TMCx alumni companies earned some recognition at the UCSF Digital Health Awards last month. Courtesy of TMCx

Three health tech companies coming out of the Texas Medical Center's accelerator program have won big at the UCSF Digital Health Awards last month.

  • Sana Health, member of TMCx07 in 2018, won in the best behavioral health digital therapeutic category for its light-based neuromodulation pain treatment technology.
  • Meru Health, member of TMCx08 in 2019, won in the best mental health digital health therapeutic category for its mental health platform.
  • Luma Health, member of TMCx08 in 2019, won in the best EHR-integrated platform for patient engagement category for its patient communication technology.

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Early-stage accelerator returns to Houston, announces finalists

prepare for take-off

CodeLaunch, a traveling seed-stage accelerator, is returning to Houston for its latest cohort.

The startup competition sponsored by software development company Improving will have its ultimate showdown on February 28. The final competition pairs six startups with six startup consulting companies.

Jason W. Taylor, CodeLaunch president and founder, says CodeLaunch isn’t your typical startup showcase, as it incorporates music acts, comedy, and crowd networking. Mirroring the set-up of a TV show, the six finalists all present their working products in front of an audience amid these performances.

“I would describe CodeLaunch as the next generation of venture-tainment in North America and the greatest startup show on earth,” Taylor explains.

The 2024 Houston CodeLaunch participant startups — and their mentor partners — are as follows:

Prior to pitch day, all six teams will receive hands-on instruction from CodeLaunch mentors on how to construct their pitches and free professional software development from their partners. Taylor says the strong relationships between CodeLaunch and these developers played a major role in setting the competition in Houston.

“We love Houston and we’re back for a third year in a row because the Houston startup ecosystem works together better than other major startup ecosystems I’ve seen,” Taylor says. “We have some great software development partners in Houston that are building code for those startups.”

Last year, Houston-based startup Energy360, with the mentorship and help of Honeycomb Software, took home the Championship belt and a $100,000 investment offer from Cyrannus VC fund for their energy management system Matt Bonasera, Energy360’s enterprise architect, says he is grateful for the entrepreneurial community CodeLaunch provides, in particular the team’s mentor Oleg Lysiak, Honeycomb VP of Partnerships and Business Development.

“I happened along this great community of people who are really passionate about supporting each other,” Bonasera says.

Lysiak agrees that CodeLaunch is an ideal opportunity for young entrepreneurs looking to hone their skills and expand their product capabilities. Lysiak says he is looking forward to defending Honeycomb’s title as top consultant development team.

“My whole philosophy is to connect people and have different collisions and collaborations,” Lysiak says.

Houston startup completes testing, prepares biosimilar insulin drug for clinical trials

next steps

A Houston biotech startup is one step closer to releasing its marquee drug for the global insulin market, which is projected to break the $90 billion threshold by 2029.

rBIO says it recently completed testing of the properties of R-biolin, an insulin drug that’s biologically identical to Novo Nordisk’s Novolin drug. The patent for Novolin about two decades ago. In March 2023, the Dutch drugmaker announced it was slashing the list price of Novolin by 65 percent to $48.20 per vial and $91.09 per FlexPen.

Executives at rBIO are now pursuing a partnership with a contract research organization to manage clinical trials of R-biolin. If those trials go well, R-biolin will seek approval to supply its insulin therapy to diabetes patients around the world.

Washington University in St. Louis is rBIO’s academic partner for the R-biolin project.

The rBIO platform produces insulin at greater yields that traditional manufacturing techniques do. The company is striving to drive down the cost of insulin by 30 percent.

About 38 million Americans have diabetes, with the vast majority being treated for type 2 diabetes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many people with diabetes must take insulin to control their blood sugar levels.

Research company iHealthcareAnalyst predicts the global market for insulin will surpass the $90 billion mark in 2029.

“There has been a lot of talk in the media about reducing the cost of insulin for diabetic patients, but what is often overlooked is that the domestic demand for insulin will soon outpace the supply, leading to a new host of issues,” Cameron Owen, co-founder and CEO of rBIO, says in a news release.

“We’re dedicated to addressing the growing demand for accessible insulin therapies, and … we’re thrilled to announce the viability of our highly scalable manufacturing process.”

Professionals from the University of California San Diego and Johns Hopkins University established rBIO in 2020. The startup moved its headquarters from San Diego to Houston in 2022.

CEO Cameron Owen and Chief Scientific Officer Deenadayalan Bakthavatsalam work on insulin purification in the Houston lab. Photo courtesy

How AI is changing product management and what you need to know

guest column

For the past 14 months, everyone has been talking about ways artificial intelligence is changing the world, and product management is not an exception. The challenge, as with every new technology, is not only adopting it but understanding what old habits, workflows, and processes are affected by it.

Product managers — as well as startup founders leading a product function — more than any other role, face a challenge of bringing new life-changing products to market that may or may not be received well by their users. A product manager’s goal is complex — bring value, stay ahead of the competition, be innovative. Yet, the "behind the scenes" grind requires endless decision making and trade offs to inspire stakeholders to move forward and deliver.

As we dive into 2024, it is obvious that AI tools do not only transform the way we work but also help product managers create products that exceed customer expectation and drive businesses forward.

Market research and trends analysis

As product managers, we process enormous amounts of market data — from reviewing global and industry trend analysis, to social media posts, predictions, competition, and company goals. AI, however, can now replace hours, if not days, of analyzing massive amounts of data in an instant, revealing market trends, anticipating needs, and foreseeing what's coming next. As a result, it is easier to make effective product decisions and identify new market opportunities.

Competitive analysis

Constantly following competitors, reviewing their new releases, product updates, or monitoring reviews to identify competitor strengths and weaknesses is an overwhelming and time consuming task. With AI, you can quickly analyze competitors’ products, pricing, promotions, and feedback. You can easily compare multiple attributes, including metrics, and identify gaps and areas for improvement — all the insights that are otherwise much harder to reveal quickly and efficiently.

Customer and product discovery

Of course, the most intuitive use case that comes to mind is the adoption of AI in product and customer discovery. For example:

  • Use AI for customer segmentation and persona creation to help visualize personas, prioritize user motivations and expectations, and uncover hidden behavior and needs. You can then create and simplify customer questionnaires for interviews and user groups and target customers more accurately.
  • Analyze quantitative and qualitative data from surveys, support tickets, reviews, and in-person interviews to identify pain points and unmet user needs and help prioritize features for future updates and releases.

Roadmap and sprint management

AI provides value in simplifying roadmap planning and sprint management. Resource optimization is often a gruesome task and AI can help with feature prioritization and resource allocation. It helps teams focus on critical work and increase their productivity. You can even analyze and manage dependencies and improve results across multiple sprints months in advance.

Prototyping and mockup generation

There is no product manager’s routine without multiple mockups, wireframes, and prototypes that explain concepts and collect feedback among stakeholders. AI has become a critical tool in simplifying this process and bringing ideas to life from concept to visualization.

Today, you can use textual or voice descriptions to instantly create multiple visuals with slight variations, run A/B tests and gather valuable feedback at the earliest stage of a product life cycle.

Job search and job interviews

Consider it as a bonus but one of the less obvious but crucial advantages of AI is using it in job search. With the vulnerable and unstable job market, especially for product roles, AI is a valuable assistant. From getting the latest news and updates on a company you want to join, to summarizing insights on the executive team, or company goals, compiling lists of interview questions, and running mock interviews, AI has become a non-judgmental assistant in a distressing and often discouraging job search process.

Use AI to draft cold emails to recruiters and hiring managers, compare your skills to open positions’ requirements, identify gaps, and outline ideas for test assignments.

We already know that AI is not a hype; it is here to stay. However, remember that customers do not consume AI, they consume your product for its value. Customers care whether your product gets their need, solves their problem, and makes their lives easier. The goal of a product manager is to create magic combining human brain capabilities and latest technology. And the best result is with a human at the core of any product.

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Natasha Gorodetsky is the founder and CEO of Product Pursuits, a Houston company that helps early stage and venture-backed startups build products and create impact.