Ema, which operates as a health and wellness-focused, AI-based chat for women, has raised additional funding. Screenshot courtesy of Ema

A Houston-based startup that's improving health and wellness for women with its artificial intelligence-backed platform has raised a bridge round of funding.

Ema closed its latest bridge round, bringing its total funding to nearly $2 million. The company received investment from Kubera's Venture Capital and Victorum Capital, which joined existing investors Hearst Labs, Wormhole Capital, Acumen America, and Techstars.

Ema strives to deliver "personalized, empathetic, and evidence-based support" to its users through its generative AI technology. The platform has more than 100,000 users, and has expanded into the B2B sector with $100,000 in contracts within just 30 days after pivoting to this model, according to the company.

"Ema was born from a deep-seated belief in the transformative power of AI to make women's health care more accessible and effective," Amanda Ducach, CEO of Ema, says in a news release. "Our recent funding and rapid B2B growth validate our approach and enable us to further our mission."

The company, originally founded as SocialMama looking to connect mothers digitally to each other and, later, physicians and experts, rebranded a year ago. The platform aims to be comprehensive and holistic to positively affect women's health and wellness journeys across life stages and categories.

"Our vision extends beyond immediate health concerns; we see Ema as a companion that can support women throughout their lives, offering guidance, support, and understanding whenever they need it," Ducach explains. "This latest round of funding will help us expand into new areas, including employee benefits, where we believe we can make a substantial difference."

Amanda Ducach founded the company in 2019. Photo via Twitter

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Amanda Ducach of SocialMama, Sam Newman of Little Red Box Grocery, and Gina Luna of GP Capital Partners. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

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


Amanda Ducach, founder and CEO of SocialMama

Amanda Ducach, founder of SocialMama, is gearing up for a total rebrand and new product launch. Photo courtesy of SocialMama

For years, Amanda Ducach has been collecting data from the users of her social networking app, SocialMama. Now that data is fueling the AI of the new platform and a whole new phase of the company.

"When you have a compatibility-friendship-based product, you have crazy amounts of data. We could have went and sold that — like an unethical company and like a lot of companies we've unfortunately seen do recently. Instead, we used the data to improve our product to create positive health outcomes for our users," Ducach says.

Ducach share more of what she's working on ahead of the launch of the new platform and what it's been like starting and running a consumer-focused app in Houston on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Sam Newman, founder of Little Red Box Grocery

Equitable access to services is integral to the vitality of all communities. Photo courtesy

In a recent guest column for InnovationMap, Sam Newman, founder of Little Red Box Grocery, writes of how around 40 million Americans, including five million Texans, live in food deserts. Startups have an opportunity for impact.

"Equitable access to services is integral to the vitality of all communities. Good food, secure housing – it doesn’t just nourish bodies and minds, it can spur new investment into our neighborhoods and prove once and for all that manmade deserts of any kind do not have to exist if we let imagination and innovation prevail. If there was ever a time to prioritize access – and action – it is now," he writes. Click here to read more.

Gina Luna, partner at GP Capital Partners

GP Capital Partners is a part of a new initiative to provide training and job placement for future cybersecurity professionals. Photo courtesy

Houston-based private credit and equity investment firm GP Capital Partners has teamed up with LP First Capital, a private equity firm with offices in Austin and New York, to form National Cyber Group. The new entity, headquartered in Washington, D.C., will provide foundational IT certification training, job placement resources, and more, according to a news release.

Gina Luna, managing partner of GP Capital Partners, says this is a huge opportunity for Houston, as the city's tech jobs continue to grow, and the city continues to be a major hub for tech talent.

"There are many Houston companies that need well-trained, qualified cybersecurity analysts and many hard-working Houstonians that would find a career in cybersecurity an attractive path to better opportunity for themselves and their families. National Cyber Group can provide both, which is certainly good for Houston," she says. Click here to read more.

Amanda Ducach, founder of SocialMama, is gearing up for a total rebrand and new product launch. Photo courtesy of SocialMama

Houston founder transitions startup to femtech platform focused on women's reproductive health and wellness

houston innovators podcast episode 138

When Amanda Ducach founded her social media platform, SocialMama, she was looking for a way to connect mothers going through similar challenges. The idea was to provide camaraderie and friendship as a solution to the usually lonely and isolated journey of motherhood. However, after the platform's success among its users — and the added burdens a global pandemic provided — Ducach realized she needed to offer more to the community she created.

Ducach explains that even before the pandemic, the data was showing that women needed more. On this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, she describes the biocycle social approach, a health practice that focuses on supporting women socially, psychologically, and physically to fully attain better health and wellness.

"That's what's so unique about what we're doing," Ducach says. "Most of the platforms, products, services, or organizations are all really fragmented. It's really hard to find a female health resource that also cares about social building and physicality — you really need all three."

Additionally, Ducach wanted to build a platform for all women — whether or not they identify as mothers yet. She wanted to expand to include everyone from fertility to menopause. The core focus for the company is to help address loneliness — something exacerbated by the pandemic.

"Before COVID, no one cared about loneliness," she shares. "I've been pitching for a long time and people just didn't care."

So, Ducach got to work on creating a whole new platform. After being participating in the 2021 Techstars Austin cohort, she's been working with her team over the past 10 months in stealth to fundraise and build the empathetic artificial intelligence-based platform. It's a whole new product, she says, and it's coming with a whole new name too — just one she can't yet disclose. The current plan is to launch in September following a seed round of funding.

From the very beginning, Ducach says, she wasn't obsessed with user growth, as you might think someone with a mobile app would be. She says instead, she looks closely at the data — how users were engaging with the app and what the product-market fit

"It's really important that when you lead anything in technology is to look at the data," she says. "As technology founders, you have to build as lean as you can so you can make changes and get out a new version of the product."

Now that data is fueling the AI of the new platform and a whole new phase of the company.

"When you have a compatibility-friendship-based product, you have crazy amounts of data. We could have went and sold that — like an unethical company and like a lot of companies we've unfortunately seen do recently. Instead, we used the data to improve our product to create positive health outcomes for our users," Ducach says.

Ducach share more of what she's working on ahead of the launch of the new platform and what it's been like starting and running a consumer-focused app in Houston. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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.

This week's Houston innovators to know include Adam Kuspa of The Welch Foundation, Amanda Ducach of Social Mama, and Jay Rogers of IBC Bank. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

During this ongoing pandemic, Houston innovators are coming up with solutions and relief across every industry.

This week's three Houston innovators to know include a researcher who is helping fund scientists across the state, a Houston momtrepreneur looking out for the women wearing several hats at home, and a banker who wants to help you keep your financial information secure online.

Adam Kuspa, president of The Welch Foundation

The Welch Foundation, led by Adam Kuspa, funds basic research across the state of Texas — research that's important both in and out of pandemic. Photo courtesy of The Welch Foundation

Adam Kuspa observes the impressive work researchers across the state are doing across the chemical and biomedical disciplines as president of Houston-based Welch Foundation, but his job looks a little differently now. As COVID-19 has taken center stage in the world, people are desperate for a cure and vaccine.

However, as the race to find these solutions, Kuspa — along with other researchers and scientists — is watching carefully to see how the disease and its to-be solutions will affect research and medical innovations as a whole.

"What people forget in the rush to get a drug out is that you could also make matters worse," he says. "Drugs don't automatically cure or are neutral. They can also do harm. So, you want to be careful not to make the situation worse." Click here to read more.

Amanda Ducach, founder and CEO of SocialMama

Amanda Ducach quickly upgraded her app, SocialMama, to help increase virtual access to health care professionals for moms stuck inside during the COVID-19 crisis. Photo courtesy of SocialMama

With much of society working from home, a huge burden has been placed on parents who are juggling their careers and homeschooling their children for the rest of the academic year. In many situations, the bulk of this responsibility has weighed heavy on moms, and a Houston momtrepreneur knew how to help them out.

Amanda Ducach, founder and CEO of SocialMama, created her app to link up moms for friendship and mentorship, and she was planning on expanding the app to add in experts and professionals into the mix this summer. However, when COVID-19 hit, she realized this was something moms needed ASAP.

"We learned quickly that moms' behaviors were drastically changing throughout this process of the pandemic, but also that over a million babies were going to be born in isolation," Ducach says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "That really changes the walk around maternal health." Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Jay Rogers, chairman and CEO of IBC Bank

You are more vulnerable to financial cyber threats in a crisis. Here are some tips for staying safe. Photo courtesy of IBC Bank

You know what you might not have thought of during these unprecedented times? Cybersecurity. Lucky for you, Jay Rogers of IBC Bank has. He shared his tips for keeping your financial information safe online in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"This is a time of great need," he writes. "Unfortunately, it is also a time of great opportunity for criminals. As Houstonians respond, as they always do, be sure to protect yourself while you are helping our community." Click here to read the article.

Amanda Ducach quickly upgraded her app, SocialMama, to help increase virtual access to health care professionals for moms stuck inside during the COVID-19 crisis. Photo courtesy of SocialMama

Houston startup upgrades tech to better serve moms at home during COVID-19

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 29

With much of society working from home, a huge burden has been placed on parents who are juggling their careers and homeschooling their children for the rest of the academic year. In many situations, the bulk of this responsibility has weighed heavy on moms, and a Houston momtrepreneur knew how to help them out.

Amanda Ducach, founder and CEO of SocialMama, created her app to link up moms for friendship and mentorship, and she was planning on expanding the app to add in experts and professionals into the mix this summer. However, when COVID-19 hit, she realized this was something moms needed ASAP.

"We learned quickly that moms' behaviors were drastically changing throughout this process of the pandemic, but also that over a million babies were going to be born in isolation," Ducach says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "That really changes the walk around maternal health."

The experts that are now on the app include mental health professionals, OBGYN doctors, and more. They are able to interface with users in a casual way to weigh in on topics of concern with their expertise. While Ducach and her team worked quickly to get the first version of the new feature online, she says she is working on technological improvements. However, she has already received great feedback from users and the experts.

While working in isolation and caring for her family at the same time, Ducach has been adjusting to this new normal just as everyone else. She said on the podcast that she hopes a lesson companies learn from this experience is how work-life balance and productivity aren't mutually exclusive — and that they bring this realization into the future.

"A lot of the times we don't do a good job as a society understanding that moms are just as good of workers in a company as non-moms, but they need some level of flexibility. It's just the reality," Ducach says. "You can't be a parent and never leave at 3 o'clock to go bring your kid to a baseball game. We have to support parents who work."

Ducach shares more of her growth plans in store for SocialMama, fundraising in the time of COVID-19 and federal relief woes, and more on the podcast episode. Listen to the full episode below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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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.