This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Dr. Toby Hamilton of Hamilton Health Box, Meredith Wheeler and Maggie Segrich of Sesh Coworking, and Simone Biles of Cerebral. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from health to coworking — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Dr. Toby Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton is a leader in Houston's health care innovation ecosystem, and he joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his latest endeavor, which is rethinking primary and preventative care. Photo via tmc.edu

Dr. Toby Hamilton has seen Houston establish itself as a leader in health innovation, and he's been a part of that journey too. He started his career as a physician before founding Emerus Holdings, a micro-hospital system in the Houston area which later exited to private equity. He also founded a nonprofit focused on connecting hospital innovation leaders called the Healthcare Innovators Professional Society and led the Texas Medical Center's Biodesign program for two years.

Over the years, he says he's seen the potential develop for Houston to hold a significant role in health care innovation across the world — it's just going to take all hands on deck.

"As a community, if we can get behind that vision and be the place that tests, develops, and creates opportunities, Houston has the potential to be unlike anything in the world," he says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Click here to listen and read more.

Meredith Wheeler and Maggie Segrich, founders of Sesh Coworking

Co-founders Maggie Segrich (right) opened Sesh with Meredith Wheeler in 2020. Photo courtesy of Sesh

One of Houston's coworking companies is moving on up. Sesh Coworking is moving into a new space that's 10 times as large as its original location — and it's an optimal location too, say Meredith Wheeler and Maggie Segrich, founders of Sesh Coworking.

"Being able to grow our community at our beautiful original location in Montrose through the pandemic is a testament to the grit and resilience of Houstonians. We are so honored and grateful to be a part of their journey,” says Segrich. “We are excited that our new location in Midtown, near the Innovation District, will provide more Houstonians with the workspace and support they need."

The two-story space is expected to open in two phases. Tenants will first move into the space's second floor in January while the first floor, the larger of the two floors, completes construction and is expected in March. Click here to read more.

Simone Biles, chief impact officer at Cerebral

Houston's favorite gymnast is the chief impact officer on a California-based tech company that's raised $462M. Photo via getcerebral.com

The greatest gymnast of all time has a new title to her many gymnastics accomplishments. Simone Biles recently joined mental health startup Cerebral as chief impact officer, and the company is backed by SoftBank and has a valuation of $4.8 billion.

Biles has been vocal about her passion for mental health. Cerebral was an official sponsor of Biles’ Gold Over America Tour, which took place from September to November, and is an official sponsor of the 2022 Simone Biles International Invitational, a gymnastics competition that will be held January 27-30 at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center. The Spring-based World Champions Centre, Biles’ home gym, stages the invitational.

“Mental health is just as important as physical health, but for far too long the stigma of mental health has prevented too many people from seeking help,” Biles says in a Cerebral news release. “I have my own challenges with mental health, and therapy has been very empowering for me as I try to be the best person that I can be. I believe everyone should have access to mental health resources, and Cerebral gives me the ability to personalize my mental health care experience.” Click here to read more.

Houston's favorite gymnast is the chief impact officer on a California-based tech company that's raised $462M. Photo via getcerebral.com

Houston superstar Simone Biles snags C-suite position in SoftBank-backed company

flipping into tech

Less than two months after Olympic gymnastics star Simone Biles of Spring joined mental health startup Cerebral as chief impact officer, the company has raised $300 million in venture capital — a sum that vaulted it to a valuation of $4.8 billion.

San Francisco-based Cerebral announced the $300 million round December 8. SoftBank Vision Fund 2 led the Series C round, with participation from Prysm Capital, Access Industries, WestCap Group, and ARTIS Ventures.

Launched in January 2020, Cerebral has raised a total of $462 million from investors, including an undisclosed amount from Biles.

Biles, a 4-foot, 8-inch gymnastics powerhouse, has won 32 Olympic and World Championship medals. But it was her off-the-mat moves at this year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo that drew worldwide attention. Biles contended in just one event in Tokyo after withdrawing from all other competition to concentrate on her mental health.

Two months after the Olympics, Biles agreed to become Cerebral’s chief impact officer, serving as the face of the brand.

Cerebral was an official sponsor of Biles’ Gold Over America Tour, which took place from September to November, and is an official sponsor of the 2022 Simone Biles International Invitational, a gymnastics competition that will be held January 27-30 at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center. The Spring-based World Champions Centre, Biles’ home gym, stages the invitational.

“Mental health is just as important as physical health, but for far too long the stigma of mental health has prevented too many people from seeking help,” Biles says in a Cerebral news release. “I have my own challenges with mental health, and therapy has been very empowering for me as I try to be the best person that I can be. I believe everyone should have access to mental health resources, and Cerebral gives me the ability to personalize my mental health care experience.”

Cerebral bills itself as a one-stop online shop for mental health care and wellness. The company offers counseling, therapy, and medication delivery and management online for conditions such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

Cerebral boasts that the $300 million round makes it the world’s largest and fastest-growing online provider of mental health services.

“Cerebral’s growth in the last year shows just how much the world needs affordable and accessible mental health care. It’s important to us that we not only improve access to mental health care through a convenient platform and affordable plans, but to also improve patient outcomes,” says Kyle Robertson, co-founder and CEO of Cerebral.

The pandemic ramped up the use of telehealth services, including those delivered by Cerebral. According to Fortune Business Insights, the U.S. market for behavioral health grew 11.3 percent in 2020, with pandemic-fueled mental health concerns helping drive up demand. Fortune Business Insights estimates the U.S. market will expand from $77.62 billion in 2021 to $99.4 billion in 2028.

Globally, the mental health market is projected to jump from $383.31 billion in 2020 to $537.97 billion by 2030, according to Allied Market Research.

Digital health startups like Cerebral are benefiting from the mushrooming market for mental health. Rock Health, an investment and advisory firm, says that through the first nine months of 2021, investors pumped $21.3 billion into U.S. digital health startups. That compares with $14.6 billion in all of 2020.

Cerebral says its $300 million cash infusion will enable it to undertake a global expansion, as well develop strategic partnerships and explore M&A opportunities. Today, Cerebral comprises a network of over 2,300 clinicians practicing in all 50 states.

“Roughly half of the American population is affected by mental health issues. However, obstacles like cost, limited provider availability, and fear of judgment remain in the way of getting the treatment they need,” says Priya Saiprasad, a partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, which manages SoftBank’s venture capital funds.

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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.