Houston's new Ion Smart Cities Accelerator director on making our town a smart one. Getty Images

In an age of autonomous vehicles, smart buildings, virtual reality, and 5G, more and more cities across the country are deploying smart technologies. The breadth of these technologies can result in many opportunities to share information, drive economic growth, create access, and enhance the quality of life, safety, and connectedness for a city's citizens and communities.

Recently listed as a city of the future, America's most diverse and fourth largest city, Houston, is leveraging these technologies - from driverless pizza delivery to flood detection sensors. Enhancing transportation, public safety, resiliency and sustainability, and community engagement are foundational to Houston's mission of building a smarter, more resilient future, especially in the face of natural disasters, such as hurricanes. These factors also shape the collaborative vision for Houston as a smart city that enjoys economic growth, promotes and practices inclusion, and prioritizes public safety.

So, how do we achieve this vision? As attributed to both Abraham Lincoln and Peter Drucker, "the best way to predict the future is to create it." This quotation speaks to the power of creativity in having a vision for what our future could look like, and in building this vision. To create this future, collaboration in the context of a strong, purposeful entrepreneurial ecosystem is crucial. With this in mind, Station Houston, an acceleration hub for startup technology companies, corporate innovation and entrepreneurship, has partnered with Microsoft, Intel, TX/RX Labs, and the city of Houston in spearheading the creation of the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator, which announced its formation in April.

The 10-month program will foster startups and entrepreneurs in developing smart city technology geared toward tacking transportation, resiliency, mobility, and other needs. Participants will have access to city of Houston officials, free membership to Station Houston for the duration of the program, curated events and training, and a state-of-the art makerspace, and much more. The accelerator will prepare startups with an MVP for the opportunity to pilot their technology-based solutions in the city of Houston. The accelerator will be based out of Station Houston, and will move to the Ion when it opens.

As we create Houston's future, we must do so through from the foundation of leveraging technology to create access, equity, and opportunity for all; promoting sustainability and safety; upholding civic values and inclusion; and seeking to meet our citizen's greatest needs.

To achieve a vision of Houston as America's smartest city, our most valuable currency is our ability to collaborate through relationships and partnerships that unite and empower communities. Smart technology must be grounded in connecting people and empowering communities to share data, information, and knowledge. In these ways, smart technology truly enables a city to serve, and celebrate, its greatest asset: its people.

If you are interested in participating in the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator, please apply here. Our website has a frequently asked questions section, a note from the director, and relevant media and news articles about the accelerator

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Christine Galib is the program director of the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator.

Station Houston has a new hire. Christine Galib was named as the director of the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

New accelerator director at Station Houston wants to bring talent and impactful startups to town

On the job

When Christine Galib moved to Houston, she knew two things: it was going to be hot, and there were going to be tacos. But when Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017, she learned something else: the resiliency of the city — and its people — was a thread that interwove the fabric of the metro.

And now that the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator, a program that would allow participants to find solutions to real-world problems in Houston, has now hired Galib as its first program director. Through her position, she'll be able to guide participants from all over the country find solutions to two of the city's biggest problems: transportation and mobility.

"Houston is international, resilient, and inspirational, powered by innovation, energy, and diversity that forms a strong foundation for our unique entrepreneurial ecosystem," Galib says in a news release announcing her hiring. "I am excited to serve Houston through leveraging and creating collaborations, partnerships, and solutions to differentiate Houston as a smart city that is building for its future."

Station Houston will host the accelerator through its first cohort, but it will move to The Ion when the innovation hub opens in 2020.

"When we look at The Ion being created as a center for entrepreneurship and innovation in Houston, there's no other city in the world has this type of level of collaboration and transparency of major players in the innovation space coming together to create, not only the physical space, but also the programming and mindset and the environment and the culture to sustain it," she tells InnovationMap.

"It was a pretty easy decision for me to be on board with the vision. It's not just a vision for a future which is far off … It's a vision for the future that we're actually creating today."

Galib, a former instructor at Rice University and the University of St. Thomas who has experience as a financial analyst on Wall Street, will spearhead the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator. For her, leading the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator allows her to take part in creating a forward-thinking, solutions driven program that will help usher in that culture into Houston's entrepreneurial atmosphere — collaboration is key.

"When I think of Houston and innovation, I think this collaborative approach to making something that is going to stick — sustainable change that sticks — and then making a future that is not just different but better for everybody," Galib says.

The accelerator, which was announced by Mayor Sylvester Turner at a Microsoft IoT in Action event, is now accepting applications for its first cohort. Galib says access is one of the biggest assets applicants are given if given the opportunity to join the accelerator.

"One of the goals is inclusion," Galib says. "You can't have a smart city and have that smartness benefit only one or two percent of the people. The inclusive nature of the accelerator in this entrepreneurial ecosystem is a major selling point."

Participants of the 10-month program will participate in structured curriculum and programming focused on mobility and resiliency and are tasked with creating feasible solutions to those problems within the city.

Galib, along with Station Houston, will offer participating entrepreneurs and startups with the resources they need to validate their solutions and prepare them for deployment, as well as create programming for participants and lead the research and analysis for the accelerator.

Galib is excited to attract talent into the first cohort and see what they do throughout their tenure in the accelerator.

"(We want to identify and recruit) talent to come to Houston and to stay in Houston, to be part of a family of entrepreneurs in innovation," she says. "I had no family here when I came here, and one of the reasons why I stayed here was because I found people who really got me excited about being a Houstonian."


Christine Galib will lead the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator program. Photo via StationHouston.com

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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.