A Houston founder is introducing you to ema — a GPT-based chat platform and your new best friend in women's health. Photo via Canva

Amanda Ducach set out to create a platform where mothers could connect with each other socially, but when she launched SocialMama just ahead of a global pandemic, she soon learned there was a bigger market need for access to information surrounding women's health — from fertility to menopause.

After pivoting her femtech platform to include women's health experts, she realized her technology wasn't able to completely support growing user base. The platform, which was called SocialMama, saw users engaging with experts in similar ways — and as Ducach looked into growing the platforms users, she realized that 24/7 access to experts was going to be hard to scale.

"We noticed that most of these conversations were repetitive," Ducach tells InnovationMap. "You had women asking an expert about tracking ovulation a hundred times a day. Having an OBGYN answer that question a hundred times a day was crazy and just not scalable."

Ducach says that about 16 months ago, her team took a step back to recreate the platform incorporating GPT technology. GPT stands for generative pre-trained transformer, and is a family of artificial intelligence language models most recently made popular but ChatGPT developed by OpenAI.

Now, after building out the platform, Ducach's company has rebranded to ema. The AI-based chat tool — named from the three letters in the middle of "female" — is meant to feel like texting "your childhood best friend who became an OBGYN physician," Ducach says. Not only can the chat provide crucial medical information, but it has a memory and can pick up conversations where they left off to be a constant resource to users.

The new platform, deemed ema, operates as an AI-based chat for women to engage with. Screenshot courtesy of ema

"Ema can answer everything from, 'how do I improve my baby's latch,' to 'how to I get a diabetic-friendly brownie recipe,' to 'give me an affirmation that's spoken like Snoop Dog because I'm feeling sad today,'" Ducach says.

Ducach first described the evolution of the company to AI-based communication last summer on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Now, the platform is gearing up for its launch next month and plans to raise seed funding this year to double her current team of 10 people to support the company's growth. Ducach, who was accepted into the Techstars Austin program in 2021, also says she's looking for more beta users in the meantime, and those interested should reach out to her or her team.

Ultimately, Ducach says the mission of ema is to democratize access to women's health care so that women feel supported and just a few taps away from important information.

"Barriers to care for women who face socioeconomic disparities is where you see the need for change," Ducach says. "For us, it's reducing those barriers of care. Ema is always in your pocket. You have access to her 24/7. The way that ema is really structured and her purpose is to catch red flags so that we can then help the female user get to positive health outcomes."

Amanda Ducach founded the company in 2019. Photo via Twitter

In the latest round up of Houston innovation news you may have missed, a Houston startup wins an international COVID-19 innovation competition, The Ion has a new founding partner, and more. Photo courtesy of The Ion

The Ion Houston names new partner, growing startup names new CTO, and more local innovation news

short stories

It's been a busy week with virtual SXSW, spring break, and more. For this reason, some of Houston's innovation news may have fallen through some of the cracks.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, a Houston startup grows its C-suite, a local accelerator application deadline looms, the latest news from The Ion, and more.

Baker Botts doubles down on The Ion

The Ion has a new founding partner. Courtesy of Rice University

Houston's rising innovation hub, The Ion, has named Houston-based Baker Botts as the latest founding partner, alongside previously announced partners Microsoft and Chevron Technology Ventures.

"Today's announcement not only solidifies Baker Botts' investment in The Ion and the programs we are activating, but is a commitment to growing Houston's innovation ecosystem," says Jan E. Odegard, interim executive director of The Ion, in a news release. "Baker Botts' work with The Ion has already helped countless entrepreneurs get their work off the ground, and we are excited for their support as we continue to accelerate innovation and connect communities to build sustainable and inclusive economic growth in Houston."

Baker Botts has agreed to the following partnership opportunities with the Ion:

  • Provide in-kind services to this year's Houston Startup Showcase Winner
  • Offer on-site presence to support The Ion's various community members and provide substantive programming to startups
  • Host legal programming and workshops for The Ion's Accelerator Hub members
  • Expand gateway events including The Ion's Family Tech Night and Plaza Tec series

"Given our market-leading strengths in Houston, this is an exciting opportunity for the firm," says John Martin, managing partner of Baker Botts, in the release. "Our participation with The Ion brings together lawyers across our corporate venture capital, energy tech, IP and other practices to work closely with a range of cutting-edge companies at the heart of the Texas startup ecosystem."

GoExpedi recruits new CTO from big tech

GoExpedi has a new CTO. Photo courtesy of GoExpedi

Houston-based GoExpedi — a B2B e-commerce, supply chain and analytics company — recently hired global engineering executive Yang Tang as CTO. Tang has more than 20 years of experience leading technology and product teams at both startups and corporations, including Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev) and at Walmart eCommerce's operations.

"After an extensive search to find one of the most accomplished product leaders of our time, we are excited to introduce Tang as the new head of our technical operations and state-of-the-art supply chain model," says Tim Neal, GoExpedi's CEO, in a news release. "His history of excellence in the e-commerce space is beyond reproach. He brings unparalleled expertise having managed global projects with an emphasis on e-commerce development and digital engineering for some of the world's most reputable brands. With his leadership, vision, and technical expertise, we are primed to launch into the next stage of our company's development as we expand our offering of new digital and consumer-friendly solutions."

In his position, Tang will oversee the design and execution of GoExpedi's technology, product, and data roadmaps.

"I am pleased to help the manufacturing and energy industries reimagine industrial supply chain with the brightest minds in technology, MRO procurement and oil and gas," says Tang in the release. "I was fortunate to contribute to the e-commerce renaissance that exploded in the consumer space over the last few years and am eager to apply what I have learned to the industrial sector. I look forward to collaborating with the team at GoExpedi to drive continuous improvements in all aspects of the industrial supply chain."

Last fall, GoExpedi closed a $25 million series C round with plans to hire.

Houston startup named a winner at $6M COVID-testing competition

Houston-based Steradian Technologies, Inc. was named among the winners ofXPRIZERapid Covid Testing competition, an international innovation challenge that called for solutions for high-quality, affordable COVID-19 testing.

"We are extremely excited to create high-tech diagnostic solutions that are rapid, inexpensive, and accurate to create healthcare accessibility and equity for everyone, irrespective of any financial, geopolitical, or socioeconomic barriers. COVID-19 detection is our near-term goal, and we're looking forward to the possibilities of ubiquitous testing for all," says Asma Mirza, CEO and co-founder of Steradian Technologies, in a news release.

Steradian Technologies is "developing a product that created human super-sight via the startup's proprietary optics," according to the release, and pivoted its technology to create the RUMI diagnostic system, which uses Steradian's technology to look at photonics to detect disease biomarkers within a user's breath within 30-seconds.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that we need to be more prepared as a nation and as a global community for future viral threats. The rapid development of vaccines has been achieved through incorporating new technologies, and diagnostic tech needs to do the same. Our goal has been just that. We wanted to create a diagnostic tool that could be fast, accurate, and easy to use and could be widely deployed," says John Marino, co-founder and chief of product development, in the release. "We know that COVID-19 won't be the last threat of this kind and are developing a solution that can easily adapt to any new pathogen. We are extremely grateful to have been recognized by XPRIZE for our effort."

Houston entrepreneur to pitch with Techstars

Amanda Ducach, founder and CEO of SocialMama

Amanda Ducach, founder of SocialMama, is expecting to pitch at Techstars Austin. Photo courtesy of SocialMama

Houston-based consumer tech company, SocialMama, which connects mothers virtually via an app, was accepted into the Techstars Austin program for 2021. Founder Amanda Ducach will be presenting at the recently announced Techstars Austin virtual Demo Day on March 24.

SocialMama's Techstar Austin cohort colleagues include: BallBox, Inc (Chicago, IL), Enlightapp (Fargo, ND), Fêtefully (Dallas, TX), hampr (Lafayette, LA), Kousso (Charlotte, NC), Livo (Coral Gables, FL), Mowies (Medellin, Colombia), Nutritional Freedom (Austin, TX), and Talk Howdy (Austin, TX).

Registration is free and open online.

MassChallenge Houston's applications open for two more weeks

Photo courtesy of MassChallenge

MassChallenge Texas has opened applications for it's next cohort in Houston. The equity-free, no-cost program is seeking startups across industries that have raised less than $1 million in funding and less than $2 million in revenue to apply. The program provides startups mentorship, corporate partnerships, curriculum, and more.

The deadline to apply is March 31 by midnight. If interested, entrepreneurs can apply for free with the code "MC21INNOMAP." Click here to learn more and apply.

From cancer-fighting companies raising millions to Houston area high school students learning how to start a company, here's some short stories on innovation you may have missed. Photo via inveox.com

TMCx company raises millions, Rice Business launches a podcast, and more Houston innovation news

Short stories

Even during the dog days of summer, Houston has innovation news from all industries. In case you missed something, here's a news roundup of some short innovation stories — from raised funds to launched apps, podcasts, and programs.

If you know of innovation-focused news happening, email me at natalie@innovationmap.com with the details andsubscribe to our daily newsletterthat sends fresh stories straight to your inboxes every morning.

TMCx company raises 17€ million 

Photo via inveox.com

Munich-based Inveox, a, AI-enabled cancer-diagnosis technology startup, just set up shop in the Texas Medical Center as a part of TMCx's ninth cohort. The company now has another thing to brag about: 17 million euros worth of investment.

"My founding partner Dominik Sievert and I are very grateful that our investors put such great trust in us and our vision," says managing partner Maria Sievert in a release. "Together we are working towards the goal of using our innovation capacities to develop technologies that can be put to serve people. We want to help lab technicians who give their best every day at labs and we want to ensure the safety of patients as well as the speed and reliability of the entire diagnostic process. That's why we will use this further investment for our forthcoming series production and expansion into new markets."

The funds will go toward production of the company's technology.

Rice's Jones Graduate School of Business launches The Index podcast

Pexels

Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business, has launched, The Index, a podcast that explores thought-provoking topics and business-related ideas.

According to a news release, The podcast grew out of a 2019 South by Southwest partnership between Texas Monthly and Rice Business — the two entities teamed up for a podcast taping about digital wildcatting.

Saul Elbein hosts The Index. He is a contributor to the New York Times Magazine, the NPR radio show "This American Life," and other outlets. Find the latest episode here.

Life science startup organization closes $5.25 million round

Getty Images

With the close of its $5.25 million round, Fannin Partners LLC — a Houston-based early-stage life science commercialization company — has brought in over $155 million for its portfolio companies.

The funds in part will go toward developing Fannin Innovation Studio. The studio anticipates adding 15 new portfolio companies over the next five years.

"With our portfolio companies Procyrion and Pulmotect advancing in their clinical development and with BreviTest poised for market launch in 2020, our investor group has recognized the tremendous progress we've made," says Fannin founder and chairman Leo Linbeck III in a release. "We are pleased to welcome the additional investment from existing and new investors in this round."

Houston app relaunches following raising $150,000 from local investor

Courtesy of Social Mama

An app that connects moms based on children's ages and common mom problems has relaunched with major upgrades after a year in beta. That's not the only thing Social Mama is celebrating. The startup secured $150,000 funding from local female powerhouse and blogger, Carrie Colbert.

Founder Amanda Ducach says she wanted to create an app that could smartly link moms going through similar struggles — from teething and potty training to single parenting or postpartum depression.

"The social impact of the product is so important," Ducach says in a previous InnovationMap story. "I can't explain to you the isolation and the problem that exists in motherhood. I was completely unaware of it before I started the company."

Austin tech startup lands major Houston-based client

office space

Getty Images

Houston-based Lionstone Investments has made a deal with Austin-based Bractlet, a smart building software company. The deal translates to Bractlet implementing its technology in Lionstone's 31 office properties across the United States.

"Lionstone is recognized in the industry for its commitment to a data-driven approach to real estate investing," says Lionstone's head of portfolio management and co-head of operations, Tom Paterson, in a news release. "Implementing Bractlet's technology at the portfolio-level allows us to make informed decisions that benefit our investors, conserve energy, and improve tenant comfort and productivity. In this manner, Lionstone is able to provide best-in-class management throughout the entire investment lifecycle."

Houston area high school launches entrepreneurship program

Texas Teacher

Pexels

It's never too early to learn the ins and outs of entrepreneurship. Friendswood High School has announced that it will be launching INCubatoredu, a program to help students learn important lessons in the startup world, this fall.

"The Mustang Business INCubator is that authentic experience we were looking for in our business, marketing, and finance program of study," Susan Kirkpatrick, executive director of career technical education at FHS, says in a release. "Students will research a real-world problem that is of interest to them and work to find a product or service solution."

The program will be housed in a newly renovated creative space on the FHS campus. According to the release, the school will host a launch party for the program in the fall.

Houston-based Social Mama uses its platform to connect mothers based on location, interests, and the things their children have in common. Courtesy of Social Mama

App aims to connect Houston mothers using AI technology

Moms about town

Sometimes, to be a mom, is to feel utterly alone. Not every mom is the same, and it's tough for women to find the right support systems — people who are going through or have gone through the same struggles.

A new Houston-based app, Social Mama, is providing a solution. The technology uses artificial intelligence and data collection to learn about its users and match them to other users based on their location and specifications. It's like online dating, but for mothers, co-founder Amanda Ducach says.

"The social impact of the product is so important," Ducach says. "I can't explain to you the isolation and the problem that exists in motherhood. I was completely unaware of it before I started the company."

The idea came to Ducach when she moved across the country to Houston from Minneapolis. Her best friend was in sudden need of a new network — preferably moms who liked wine, spoke Spanish, and had peanut-free households so her son could play without the risk of his allergies. Wanting to help the friend they had abandoned, Ducach and her husband, who is a data architect, decided to try to find a way to get there friend a new friend she could relate to.

"We realized there was nothing that existed that allowed two mothers to connect based on where they lived and their interests, that also took information about their children in account," Ducach says. "We decided to create it."

The app, which is based out of Station Houston, has been in beta with a couple thousand users, but, based on users' experiences, Ducach says they are making a lot of changes before they launch to the public in spring of this year.

Beta lessons learned
Thinking that mothers are too busy for lengthy setups, Ducach made signing up for Social Mama simple.

"We completely put out the wrong product, which isn't a bad thing," Ducach says. "We assumed they would want us to figure out who to match them with, but it's the complete opposite."

The mothers are happy to spend 10 to 15 minutes during the sign in process after downloading the free app, Ducach says, because they want to give the app as much information as possible. They are looking for niche matches.

Another surprise for Ducach was that, similar to dating apps, starting a conversation with a stranger — ideally matched or otherwise — is tough.

"We thought that because it was two women, and there's no sexual chemistry, that it would be easy for them to reach out and start a conversation," Ducach says. "But they actually still find it incredibly awkward."

The app will have things like ice breakers or games to help get the ball rolling.

She also didn't think the mothers would want something like a newsfeed. However, users who might not be in a highly populated city primed for face-to-face friendship still might want access to asking fellow mothers advice in a post on a forum. So, Social Mama will have a customizable, AI-generated newsfeed — kind of like a forum. Posts will have tags, and users will only see things they have an interest in.

"As you continue to use the app, it will create a persona for you," Ducach says, "and it's not mothers that are like you, but mothers you tell us you're looking for."

The app will know when a mother transitions from newborn mother to toddler mother, so that her matches stay relevant as her child ages.

Making an impact
This year, Social Mama will go live in the spring, and Ducach has several growth plans surrounding launch. The app will be fundraising for pre-seed money in 2019, and expanding the team to include a data scientist, as well as other department hires. The company currently has eight employees — most of which are in the Houston HQ — but some reside in Boston and around the world.

The core components of the app are the matching and AI-generated newsfeed, but hosting event meet ups is another successful avenue for the app, as is the potential to recommend products to the mothers. Ducach says this could be a part of the the app's business plan, as is a subscription model for moms to opt into extra perks.

"We know so much information about these moms that they are telling us, that we have the ability to send them recommended products from other mothers," she says.

While Ducach says the initial launch will only be in Houston, the app is already in big demand worldwide. She says they had to shut down the beta version because they had so many international downloads and they were concerned about cybersecurity.

"Moms want this in Germany, China, and Cypress, Texas," Ducach says. "It's really a need everywhere, and we're really excited to expand and see which markets take off."

Ducach says she is excited for the app to go live and affect these moms' lives.

"We're really excited because it should really change the trajectory of these women's lives and create a support group they've never had before," Ducach says.

social mamaSocial Mama went through a beta phase, but when it launches in the spring, it will be totally different. Courtesy of Social Mama

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

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.