These three innovators to know are responsible for solving problems here in Houston. Courtesy photos

A good innovator sees a need and fills it. Whether it's a bigger budget for new hospital technology, a network for female software developers in Houston, or access to creatives for nonprofits, these three Houston innovators are responsible for filling the needs of Houston's innovation ecosystem.

Roberta Schwartz, chief innovation officer of Houston Methodist

Roberta Schwartz is leading the innovation initiative at Houston Methodist. Courtesy of Houston Methodist

Houston Methodist has always been an innovative hospital system, says Roberta Schwartz, chief innovation officer, so it was not really that surprising that a group of hospital officials had an interest in new technologies.

"As we watched these technologies come in, we found that there were a number of us within the organization that were just talking about it all the time and watching how we could really revolutionize the way we worked by embracing these new technologies," Schwartz says.

The group named itself the "digital innovation obsessed people," however, now that group calls itself the Houston Methodist Center for Innovation, and Schwartz is leading the initiative. Read more about Schwartz and the new center here.

Alex Anderson, founder of Good Measure

Alex Anderson started Good Measure to help nonprofits have access to creatives and storytelling tools. Courtesy of Alex Anderson

Houston-based nonprofit, Good Measure, completed its third creative workshop last week — and its first outside of Houston. Nuu Group's Alex Anderson and Tres Garner founded Good Measure to help nonprofits with storytelling and media, and they took their efforts to New York City to work with Memphis-based youth violence nonprofit, Grounded.

Just like the last Good Measure project, volunteer creatives has less than 72 hours to create a slew of branding materials, including user experience-focused designs, web pages, photos, videos, and more for the nonprofit.

"My hope is that each and every individual who attended sees the impact that our craft skills can make," Anderson wrote in a post on Medium. "We certainly can volunteer our time and work with nonprofits, but the real question is whether we can return to our day jobs, to clients with big budgets and capitalistic mindsets, and influence their decisions—to push them from opportunistic to purposeful."

Silver Ehiwario, director of Women Who Code Houston Chapter

Silver Ehiwario flipped careers a while back, and now she hopes to help other women with that process. Courtesy of Silver Ehiwario

Making a career switch is never easy — but it's extremely hard for women trying to enter the technology industry. Women Who Code, a global organization, just opened up shop in Houston, thanks to seven female directors, including Silver Ehiwario, who changed her career to tech recently.

"We are able to see a lot of people are changing their careers from what they have done before — just like I changed mine," she says. "We need communities where they can be inspired." Read more about Ehiwario and Women Who Code here.

Silver Ehiwario flipped careers a while back, and now she hopes to help other women with that process. Courtesy of Silver Ehiwario

Houston software developer helps bring Women Who Code to town

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Silver Ehiwario worked to attain two chemical engineering degrees and had been in the industry in Nigeria for seven years when she decided she wanted to change her career path.

"I started thinking about making a switch when I found out I had this interest in being creative and building solutions for businesses so that they can become more effective and grow," Ehiwario says. "I like to be able to put my thoughts into the computer and see people use it."

She's not alone. Ehiwario and a few like-minded women are responsible for bringing the California-based nonprofit organization, Women Who Code, to Houston. On March 5, the Houston chapter celebrated its launch. At the event, the organization engaged its new members and asked them what they wanted from the organization. The feedback they received will drive the programing and events they will focus on, Ehiwario says.

"At the end of the day, I called for anyone open to mentoring. We had a whole lot of turnout — people were ready to inspire other women with what they do best," Ehiwario says. "I don't think there is a whole lot of other groups out there where your interest is represented and worked on."

Ehiwario spoke with InnovationMap about what she's excited about for Women Who Code in Houston and how she managed to change careers from a chemical engineer to a software developer.

InnovationMap: Did you find it easy to find resources for starting a new career in coding?

Silver Ehiwario: It wasn't easy — maybe I didn't know what I wanted. I searched online for something I could actually do where I wanted to do it. I decided to try the University of Texas' bootcamp here in Houston. It was very hard at first. I was very new to coding. I never used the computer other than for emails and basic work.

IM: How did you first get involved with Women Who Code?

SE: I had a colleague in the bootcamp who introduced me to it. I found out more online and it kind of aligned with what I wanted and I liked the idea of having support. In 2017, I applied to be a director so that we could have a network here. Everything started happening here at the end of 2018.

IM: Who is a part of the Houston chapter?

SE: There are seven of us. Julie Jonak, Roopa Rajala, Shefali Kapoor-Patel, Wanjun Zhang, Aditi Singh, Saima Rajwani, and myself.

IM: What's the program like?

SE: What draws me to Women Who Code is the mission and the vision. The mission is to inspire women to excel in their technology careers, and the vision is to have a world where women are representative of technical executives, founders, chairmen, and software engineer. We have people old and young. Our code of conduct has to do with inclusiveness — if you love technology, you're welcomed.

IM: Why is it important to Houston that Women Who Code have a chapter here?

SE: Houston is a huge community. I know there's a lot of tech people out here. We are able to see a lot of people are changing their careers from what they have done before — just like I changed mine. We need communities where they can be inspired. I've met people who just finished a coding bootcamp, are job hunting, and are kind of depressed. This community will be able to inspire them.

We need Women Who Code in Houston to support these women in tech — to close the gender gap and create a good working environment. If women succeed, girls will see that and it will give them that encouragement and motivation.

IM: How does someone get involved?

SE: Online. Sign up to be a member, join our Facebook network, and our LinkedIn network. We'll soon roll out our schedule of when we meet.

IM: Advice for someone wanting to switch careers?

SE: I like talking about this a lot. If you want to change your career to something in the tech industry, I would just say to take it one step at a time. Find one of the bootcamps out there and get connected. And join a network like Women Who Code so you can have a network and support after you leave that bootcamp.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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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

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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

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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.