This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Winston Wright of Alto, Serafina Lalany of Houston Exponential, and Zeev Braude of SiteAware. 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 startup development to construction technology — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Winston Wright, Houston general manager at Alto

Winston Wright leads Houston operations for Dallas-based Alto, which is taking on the likes of Uber and Lyft. Photo courtesy of Alto

As any Houstonian knows, the city is quite large. While Dallas-based Alto, a luxury rideshare service, rolled out in Houston a while ago, Winston Wright has plans to make sure the company is covering the entire greater Houston area.

Wright, who's the Houston general manager for Alto, joined last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. He shares more on Alto's future in Texas and beyond, as well as what's challenging him most as he grows the team locally.

"The vision I have for this market is that, as we move forward and continue to expand, that we're covering all of Houston," he says. Click here to read more and to listen to the episode.

Serafina Lalany, executive director of Houston Exponential

Houston Exponential appoints new executive director and restructures its boardHX has its new permanent leader. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

It's a new era for Houston Exponential, and Serafina Lalany, named the organization's executive director last September, is leading HX into its new phase.

"The interesting thing of being an organization of ex-startup operators is that we operate as a startup ourselves," she tells InnovationMap. "Along the journey of supporting and building infrastructure for a startup community, we have also been seeking our own product market fit. I think we're at the place now where we have a profound realization of what that is and who we serve. We have crystal clear vision around that."

Lalany discusses more of her plans for HX for 2022 and shares how the organization is evolving to be what Houston's innovation ecosystem needs in an interview. Click here to read more.

Zeev Braude, CEO of SiteAware

Houston-based SiteAware has raised $15 million in its latest round of funding. Photo courtesy of SiteAware

SiteAware, a Houston construction software startup, raised $15 million in its series B round, which was led by Singapore-based Vertex Ventures Israel. Existing investors Robert Bosch Venture Capital GmbH, Axon Ventures, Oryzn Capital, The Flying Object, and lool Ventures also contributed to the round.

The company's digital construction verification, or DCV, platform uses AI and digital twin technology to provide real-time verification of construction fieldwork. According to a press release from SiteAware, the construction industry represents a $1.3 trillion market share of the United States economy.

"SiteAware's DCV error prevention technology is disrupting the construction industry by dramatically accelerating schedules and streamlining work processes for all parties. In the next few years, everyone from contractors to developers will be using DCV to build without rework," says Zeev Braude, CEO of SiteAware, in a news release. "DCV gives the construction ecosystem access to data they've never had before, data that holds the key to the next jump in productivity for the industry." Click here to read more.

Houston-based SiteAware has raised $15 million in its latest round of funding. Photo courtesy of SiteAware

Houston-based construction software startup closes $15M in funding round

money moves

A Houston startup that provides artificial intelligence-enabled verification software to the construction industry has closed its series B round.

SiteAware raised $15 million in the round, which was led by Singapore-based Vertex Ventures Israel. Existing investors Robert Bosch Venture Capital GmbH, Axon Ventures, Oryzn Capital, The Flying Object, and lool Ventures also contributed to the round.

The company's digital construction verification, or DCV, platform uses AI and digital twin technology to provide real-time verification of construction fieldwork. According to a press release from SiteAware, the construction industry represents a $1.3 trillion market share of the United States economy.

"SiteAware's DCV error prevention technology is disrupting the construction industry by dramatically accelerating schedules and streamlining work processes for all parties. In the next few years, everyone from contractors to developers will be using DCV to build without rework," says Zeev Braude, CEO of SiteAware, in a news release. "DCV gives the construction ecosystem access to data they've never had before, data that holds the key to the next jump in productivity for the industry."

The company, founded in 2015 by Braude and CTO Ori Aphek, closed its series A round at $10 million in October of 2020. The company will use the fresh funds continue its software's growth and presence in the market.

"As the first mover in this new category, SiteAware is blazing a trail for the entire construction industry, allowing the sector to leverage technologies that will ultimately make it more efficient, more transparent and smarter," says Emanuel Timor, general partner at Vertex Ventures, in the news release. "We look forward to working closely with the team at SiteAware as it expands its footprint and deepens its work with industry leaders around the world."

According to the release, SiteAware saw a 3X revenue growth in 2021.

Houston-based SiteAware has raised $10 million in its latest round of funding. Photo courtesy of SiteAware

Houston construction software startup raises $10M in series A round

money moves

A growing startup that provides artificial intelligence-enabled verification software to the construction industry has announced the closing of a multimillion-dollar round.

Houston-based SiteAware announced last week that it's closed a $10 million series A investment round that was co-led by San Diego-based Axon Ventures and Germany-based Robert Bosch Venture Capital.

The company's platform uses AI and digital twin technology to provide real-time verification of construction fieldwork. According to a press release from SiteAware, the construction industry represents a $1.3 trillion market share of the United States economy.

"The cost of construction errors and the risk mitigation costs contribute to 10 to 30 percent of this number. SiteAware's technology significantly lowers this overhead, allowing for customers to reap the benefit," says Zeev Braude, SiteAware CEO, in the release.

By scanning buildings under construction, SiteAware's technology constructs a 3D model of the area and compares the progress of the structures to the construction plans in real time. This technology allows for any deviations from the plan to be realized as soon as possible, which means avoiding costly repairs or reconstructions.

"By enabling general contractors and developers to reduce the cost of errors and better mitigate risk, the ripple effect lowers the cost of real estate, providing better value opportunities for home buyers," Braude adds in the release. "Our technology closes the gap between plans and field work, solving this very important challenge within the trillion dollar construction sector."

SiteAware, which was founded in 2015 by Braude and CTO Ori Aphek, previously raised seed funding in 2015 and 2016. Existing investors, including lool Ventures, Oryzn Ventures, The Flying Object and Power Capital Venture also participated in the round.

"SiteAware has built a state of the art technology which provides the digital value that the construction industry has been needing, and we're excited to join in their vision," says Arad Naveh, partner at Axon VC, says in the release. "We were highly impressed that they were able to build a customer base of market leaders, and moreover, the impact that SiteAware's tools are already making."

SiteAware's technology can analyze construction sites in real time. Image courtesy of SiteAware

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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

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.