These three entrepreneurs saw a need in their industries and created their own solutions. Photos courtesy

A true innovator is someone who's able to look past how something has been done for years — decades even — and be creative enough to find a better way to do it.

From redesigning conventional lab space to seeing a niche opportunity for luxury home rentals, these three innovators to know this week have made strides in changing the game.

Caleb Bashor, professor at Rice University

Photo courtesy of Caleb Bashor

Not all labs are created equal — or affordably. Caleb Bashor, a professor at Rice University, along with seven colleagues, created a DIY lab to further research efforts based at the university.

The DIY lab, eVOLVER, comprises three modules: a customizable "smart sleeve" housing and interface for each culture vessel, a fluidic module that controls movement of liquid in and out of each culture vessel, and a modular hardware infrastructure that simplifies high-volume bi-directional data flow by decoupling each parameter into individual microcontrollers.

"The prototype 16-chamber version of eVOLVER described in the new paper cost less than $2,000, cheaper than what a lab might pay for a single continuous culture bioreactor," Bashor says. Read more about the eVOLVER here.

Sébastien Long, founder and CEO of Lodgeur

Photo courtesy of Lodgeur

Sébastien Long ended up in Houston by chance, and the city ended up being a great place to take his luxe apartment rental business plan and turn it into a reality. Houston-based Lodgeur is a rental company that takes the convenience of Airbnb and adds in the luxury experience of a hotel.

Long identified stylish apartment complexes and built his business which now has a couple properties downtown that are attractive to a niche market of clientele.

"We're roughly split between leisure guests and business travelers," Long says. "They want to feel like they're staying in a home away from home." Read more about Lodgeur here.

Gustavo Sanchez, co-founder and CEO of Pandata Tech

Photo courtesy of Pandata Tech

In oil and gas, proper data management can be the difference of millions of dollars in savings. Pandata Tech can run a data quality check for its oil and gas clients — and even engages automation and machine learning for quicker, more thorough results.

Gustavo Sanchez, co-founder and CEO of the company, is looking to bring his data systems into new industries, like health care, where data management can be hectic, overwhelming, and crucial to life-saving opportunities.

"There's so much data, and it's so noisy, that it's hard to know whether the data can be trusted or not," Sanchez says. Read more about Pandata Tech here.

Lodgeur provides its guests with hotel luxury with room to breathe. Courtesy of Lodgeur

Hospitality startup adds a new luxe approach to Houston's apartment rental market

City living

In 2018, Houston set a new tourism record with 22.3 million visitors to the city. That same year, Sébastien Long was finishing his Cambridge thesis on home-sharing companies like Airbnb and falling in love with a classmate. When the couple moved to Houston after graduation, Long brought his ideas with him, and that's how Lodgeur was born.

Lodgeur works as an upscale home-sharing startup that offers luxury apartments in midtown and downtown Houston for nightly rent. It doesn't replace Airbnb; customers can browse through and book the properties through the familiar website. Guests can also book short or extended stays directly with Lodgeur's website.

In short, Long's research found that most Airbnb's have high guest experience ratings, but those user reviews don't work to inspire the 90 percent of Americans who haven't used a homestay service. Those people have worries — mostly about what to expect, about safety, and about having to interact with homeowners. Long believes he can calm those fears by building a trusted brand that customers recognize on Airbnb, and Houston turned out to be the perfect place to do that: his main inspiration, Conrad Hilton, did the same with hotels over the last century.

"Houston has been a city that's been overlooked. Most companies didn't come here first," Long says. "Actually, people are coming to Houston every week of the year, prices don't fluctuate too much, and you're probably going to be running at a high occupancy every week of the year."

So Long drove around the city, looking for apartment buildings he liked and hoped his guests would, too. Having grown up working at the campground-turned-resort started by his parents in the French Mediterranean, he had an eye for what tourists found attractive — buildings with character, high-end aesthetics and clean designs like a hotel, but with modern kitchen appliances and more space.

"We're roughly split between leisure guests and business travelers," Long says. "They want to feel like they're staying in a home away from home."

Getting that experience is about the same price as a hotel. The properties range from $90 per night to a $200 apartment with 50 feet of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking downtown. The apartments have not just attracted outside visitors; people have come from around Houston to stay during home renovations or when their houses have flooded, Long says.

The first guests arrived in mid-April. Long wanted to open by managing just a few properties, to make sure the company could ensure great guest experiences.

Last week, he hired his first full-time employee — an ex-marine who graduated from the University of Houston's Conrad Hilton College of Hospitality — and has contracted a marketing agency to turn up Lodgeur's social media presence. For now, Lodgeur relies on a freelance interior designer to fashion the apartments and a local housekeeping company to keep them clean.

Long — who is a Station Houston and WeWork Labs member — says he is looking to expand, but he wants to do so organically: Many of the owners of properties he's already renting own other apartment complexes, and he plans to work with them to move Lodgeur out of inner Houston, and then to other cities. Lodgeur isn't raising funds yet, but Long says he'll be looking for investors this summer.

Recently, Long stayed at Hilton in Austin — his first time at a hotel since launching Lodgeur. He booked a room with a king-sized bed, but it felt small. Business requires him to carry a tape measure, so he measured the mattress: it was six inches smaller than the mattresses Lodgeur uses. He laughed, thinking of how much more comfortable guests would be in an apartment with bigger beds and more space.

"I don't know how people would go back (to hotels)," he says.

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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.