Cruise is now cruising some Houston streets. The self-driving car service has launched with $5 flat-rate rides. Photo courtesy of Cruise

For the first time, Houstonians can hail an autonomous vehicle to get from point A to point B, thanks to a tech company's latest market roll out.

San Francisco-based Cruise, which has launched in its hometown, Phoenix, and Austin over the past year and a half, previously announced Houston and Dallas as the company's next stops. Dallas, where Cruise is currently undergoing testing, will roll out its service by the end of the year.

As of today, October 12, Houstonians in the Downtown, Midtown, East Downtown, Montrose, Hyde Park, and River Oaks neighborhoods can hail a ride from an autonomous electric vehicle seven days a week between the hours of 9 pm to 6 am.

"We believe that everyone has a right to safer, more accessible and more affordable transportation, and we remain focused on cities first because that’s where our mission will have the greatest impact. Houston follows that city-first strategy with its densely traversed downtown, propensity for ridehail, and vibrant cultural center," Sola Lawal, Cruise's Houston manager, tells InnovationMap. "Cruise also shares in Houston’s Vision Zero mission to end traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030 and we’re excited to address the transportation needs of Houston communities."

Although today marks the launch to the public, Cruise's employees and their friends and family have been testing out the service since August.

"People love this shift from working for your car as the driver, to the car working for you and the time this gives people back in their days," he explains. "A common reaction from first time riders starts with people being shocked and awed for the first two minutes then the ride becomes so normal that you forget you're in a driverless car."

Founded in 2013 by CEO, CTO, and President Kyle Vogt and Chief Product Officer Dan Kan, Cruise vehicles have self-driven over 5 million miles — 1 million of those miles were cruised on Texas streets. The company's fleet includes 400 electric vehicles powered by renewable energy.

Cruise's plan for Houston is to launch and grow from there, including launching larger passenger vehicles, the Origin fleet, for bigger groups of people.

"We always start small and methodically expand from there. For us it’s all about safety and how we expand in partnership with communities, so we let that be our guide for expansion vs arbitrary timelines," Lawal says. "Our goal is to continue to expand as quickly and safely as possible so we can get folks to the Rodeo when it starts and back home, anywhere in Houston, when it ends. You can expect expanded map areas, increased supply of AVs, and expanded hours until we are 24/7 across Houston."

Cruise has raised $10 billion in capital commitments from investors, including General Motors, Honda, Microsoft, T. Rowe Price, Walmart, and others. Additionally, the tech company has also a $5 billion credit line with GM Financial, giving it the financial support needed to scale. Strategically aligned with General Motors and Honda, Cruise has fully integrated manufacturing at scale.

Cruise, which touts a pricing model competitive to existing rideshares, is launching with $5 flat-rate rides for passengers.

"Houstonians who ride with us have the chance to be part of history in the making," Lawal tells Houston's to-be Cruise riders. "The industry has made incredible progress in the last two years but we are still in the early days of what’s to come as driverless ridehail becomes a reality for more people.

"We are proud of the service we’ve built so far and the safety record we have to show for it, but will always continue to improve. We're excited to launch with the community of Houston and we simply ask that you give it a try," he continues. "And when you do please give us feedback, we’d love to hear about your experience."

Origin, a larger, six-person self-driving vehicle, will also launch in the Houston market once Cruise rolls it out. Rendering courtesy of Cruise

FedEx and Nuro are bringing last-mile delivery to Houstonians. Photo courtesy of Nuro

Autonomous delivery company joins forces with FedEx for new pilot in Houston

self-driving mail

A tech company with self-driving robots deployed across Houston delivering pizza, groceries, and more has yet again launched a new pilot program — this time focused on parcel delivery.

Nuro and FedEx announced a new partnership to deploy Nuro's technology for last-mile delivery at a large scale with FedEx.

"FedEx was built on innovation, and it continues to be an integral part of our culture and business strategy," says Rebecca Yeung, vice president of advanced technology and innovation at FedEx, in a news release. "We are excited to collaborate with an industry leader like Nuro as we continue to explore the use of autonomous technologies within our operations."

The new pilot, which began in April, according to the release, is the latest in the FedEx portfolio of autonomous same-day and specialty delivery devices. The partnership allows for FedEx to be able to explore various use cases for autonomous vehicle logistics, like multi-stop and appointment-based deliveries. Meanwhile for Nuro, it's the company's first expansion into parcel logistics.

"Working with FedEx—the global leader in logistics—is an incredible opportunity to rethink every aspect of local delivery. This multi-year commitment will allow us to truly collaborate and bring Nuro's powerful technology to more people in new ways, and eventually reach large-scale deployment," says Cosimo Leipold, Nuro's head of partnerships, in the release. "Our collaboration will enable innovative, industry-first product offerings that will better everyday life and help make communities safer and greener."

California-based Nuro has launched a few delivery pilots in Houston over the past few years, including the first Nuro pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched last summer. The most recent pilot program — pizza delivery with Domino's — officially went live in Woodland Heights earlier this year.

Nuro's expansion in Houston has a lot to do with the legislation that's happening at the state level. Last year, Nuro was granted its exemption petition from the United States Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This move is a first for DOT, and it allowed Nuro to roll out its vehicles on public roads without the features of traditional, passenger-carrying vehicles — like side mirrors or windshields, for instance.

The city also just offers a lot of opportunities to try out various neighborhoods and environments.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Nuro Product Operations Manager Sola Lawal says an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Domino's and Nuro announced their partnership in 2019 — and now the robots are hitting the roads. Photo courtesy of Nuro

Self-driving pizza delivery goes live in Houston

innovation delivered

After announcing their partnership to work on pizza deliveries via self-driving robots in 2019, Dominos and Nuro have officially rolled out their technology to one part of town.

Beginning this week, if you place a prepaid order from Domino's in Woodland Heights (3209 Houston Ave.), you might have the option to have one of Nuro's R2 robot come to your door. This vehicle is the first do deliver completely autonomously without occupants with a regulatory approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to a news release.

"We're excited to continue innovating the delivery experience for Domino's customers by testing autonomous delivery with Nuro in Houston," says Dennis Maloney, Domino's senior vice president and chief innovation officer, in the release. "There is still so much for our brand to learn about the autonomous delivery space. This program will allow us to better understand how customers respond to the deliveries, how they interact with the robot and how it affects store operations."

Orders placed at select dates and times will have the option to be delivered autonomously. Photo courtesy of Nuro

The Nuro deliveries will be available on select days and times, and users will be able to opt for the autonomous deliveries when they make their prepaid orders online. They will then receive a code via text message to use on the robot to open the hatch to retrieve their order.

"Nuro's mission is to better everyday life through robotics. Now, for the first time, we're launching real world, autonomous deliveries with R2 and Domino's," says Dave Ferguson, Nuro co-founder and president, in the release. "We're excited to introduce our autonomous delivery bots to a select set of Domino's customers in Houston. We can't wait to see what they think."

California-based Nuro has launched a few delivery pilots in Houston over the past few years, including the first Nuro pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched last summer.

From being located in a state open to rolling out new AV regulations to Houston's diversity — both in its inhabitants to its roadways, the Bayou City stood out to Nuro, says Sola Lawal, product operations manager at Nuro.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Lawal says on an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Steam the episode here.

This week's Houston innovators to know includes Sola Lawal of Nuro, Jose Diaz-Gomez of CHI St. Luke's Health, and Kimberly Baker of UT School of Public Health. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor'snote: A key attribute of innovators and inventors is the ability to look forward — to see the need for their innovation and the difference it will make. Each of this week's innovators to know have that skill, whether it's predicting the rise of autonomous vehicles or seeing the future of health care.

Sola Lawal, product operations manager at Nuro

Autonomous vehicle delivery service is driving access to food in Houston’s vulnerable communities

Native Houstonian Sola Lawal is looking into how AI and robotics can help increase access to fresh foods in local food deserts. Photo courtesy of Nuro

Sola Lawal has always found himself back in his hometown of Houston. Now working for artificial intelligence and robotics company, Nuro, he sees the potential Houston has to become a major market for autonomous vehicles.

"I think that autonomous vehicles are going to become an industry in the same way your standard vehicles are," Lawal says."One really strong way the Houston ecosystem and Nuro can partner is essentially building out the ancillary."

Lawal shared more on how Houston and Nuro can work together on this week's episode of the Houston innovators podcast. Read more and stream the episode.

Jose Diaz-Gomez, an anesthesiologist at CHI St. Luke's Health

CHI St. Luke's Health has invested in around 40 of the Butterfly iQ devices that can be used to provide accurate and portable ultrasonography on COVID-19 patients. Photo courtesy of CHI St. Luke's

A new, portable ultrasound device has equipped Jose Diaz-Gomez and his team with a reliable, easy-to-use tool for diagnostics and tracking progress of COVID-19 patients. And this tool will continue to help Diaz-Gomez lead his team of physicians.

"Whatever we will face after the pandemic, many physicians will be able to predict more objectively when a patient is deteriorating from acute respiratory failure," he says. "Without this innovation, we wouldn't have been able to be at higher standards with ultrasonography." Read more.

Kimberly A. Baker, assistant professor at UTHealth School of Public Health

UTHealth School of Public Health launched its Own Every Piece campaign to promote women's health access and education. Photo courtesy of Own Every Piece

It was unnerving to Kimberly Baker that proper sex education wasn't in the curriculum of Texas schools, and women were left without resources for contraceptives. So, along with UTHealth School of Public Health, she launched its Own Every Piece campaign as a way to empower women with information on birth control and ensure access to contraceptive care regardless of age, race, relationship status or socioeconomic status.

"You feel like the campaign is talking to you as a friend, not talking down to you as an authority or in any type of shaming way," says Kimberly A. Baker, assistant professor at UTHealth School of Public Health. One of her favorite areas of the website is the "Find a Clinic" page, connecting teens and adult women to nearby clinics, because "one of the biggest complaints from women is that they didn't know where to go," says Baker. Continue reading.

Native Houstonian Sola Lawal is looking into how AI and robotics can help increase access to fresh foods in local food deserts. Photo courtesy of Nuro

Autonomous vehicle delivery service is driving access to food in Houston’s vulnerable communities

Houston Innovators Podcast Episode 42

When Silicon Valley-based artificial intelligence and robotics company Nuro was looking for a city to roll out its autonomous vehicle delivery technology, Houston checked off all the boxes.

From being located in a state open to rolling out new AV regulations to Houston's diversity — both in its inhabitants to its roadways, the Bayou City stood out to Nuro, says Sola Lawal, product operations manager at Nuro.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Lawal says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Since rolling out its first pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, launched three more across six of Houston's ZIP codes from Bellaire to the Heights, including pizza delivery from Domino's that was announced in June 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched this summer.

Lately, Nuro's presence in Houston has expanded from these business development partnerships, and the tech company has started focusing on providing a service to the community.

"At the beginning of the pandemic, we started looking for ways we could contribute and help with the things we have — which includes a fleet of vehicles and product tools that allow that fleet to move around and do delivery."

This got Nuro in touch with the Houston Food Bank, and a partnership formed between the tech company and the nonprofit that has resulted in food deliveries across the city — including Third Ward and Acres Homes.

"That for us was eye opening as we went into those locations we started to understand and see that there really isn't any other grocery store that's in those areas," Lawal says. "It was a moment of reflection for us where we said, 'Hey, the AV works here. These are streets that are acceptable. What can we do?'"

In the future, Nuro, as Lawal explains, is moving forward these initiatives to use its AV technology to help increase access to fresh foods in Houston, as well as continuing developing the city as a leader in self-driving innovation.

"I think that autonomous vehicles are going to become an industry in the same way your standard vehicles are," Lawal says."One really strong way the Houston ecosystem and Nuro can partner is essentially building out the ancillary."

Lawal shares more about the future of AVs in Houston and the impact Nuro will continue to have on the city. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Nuro's latest partnership in Houston is allowing prescription and essentials to be delivered to Houstonians across three ZIP codes. Photo courtesy of Nuro

Tech startup rolls out driverless prescription drug delivery in Houston

on a roll

The latest partnership from California-based Nuro, which has a fleet of driverless vehicles in Houston, means prescription drug delivery to certain parts of Houston.

Rhode Island-based CVS Pharmacy will offer the delivery option for prescriptions and essentials for free beginning in June for three ZIP codes near a CVS location in Bellaire (5430 Bissonnet St., Bellaire, TX 77401).

"We are seeing an increased demand for prescription delivery," says Ryan Rumbarger, senior vice president of store operations at CVS Health, in a release. "We want to give our customers more choice in how they can quickly access the medications they need when it's not convenient for them to visit one of our pharmacy locations."

The driverless delivery option will be made available through the CVS app, and recipients will have to prove their identity to retrieve their order.

Nuro has been expanding throughout the Houston market for over a year now — first entering the Houston market with its Kroger pilot program, but this partnership represents a whole new sector for the robotics company.

"Today, we are excited to expand into an entirely new vertical: health," says Dave Ferguson, Nuro's co-founder and president, in the release. "Through our partnership with CVS, we hope to make it easier for customers to get medicine, prescriptions, and the other things they need delivered directly to their homes."

Following Nuro's initial deal with Kroger, the company expanded to pizza delivery with Domino's Pizza before forming agreement with Walmart. Earlier this year, the company received approval from the United States Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that allowed Nuro's vehicles on public roads without the features of traditional, passenger-carrying vehicles — like side mirrors or windshields, for instance.

In January, InnovationMap spoke with Sola Lawal, Nuro product operations manager in Houston, and asked him about what types of partnerships Nuro is targeting.

"The way that we think about this is that this new technology and our mission of accelerating robotics for everyday life, is we will bring the people what they want," Lawal told InnovationMap.

And as far as continuing to expand in Houston, the city's diversity, varied roadscapes, and regulatory support makes it prime for robotics and self-driving technology.

"Houston is our first full-scale operations city," said Lawal. "All eyes at Nuro are focused on Houston."

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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.