Houstonians can now opt into a citywide solar co-op. Photo courtesy of Houston Mayor's Office

One year ago, the city of Houston announced its Climate Action Plan and its goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. This year, the city has another Earth Day announcement that builds upon CAP.

Mayor Sylvester Turner and solar nonprofit group, Solar United Neighbors, announced a citywide solar co-op on Earth Day — exactly one year since CAP launched. For an update on the plan's execution in Houston, click here for a report from the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

"As we celebrate Earth Day, I'm proud to welcome this community-driven initiative for local rooftop solar and thank Solar United Neighbors for being such a strong supporter of the Houston Climate Action Plan," says Mayor Turner in a news release. "I encourage Houstonians to take full advantage of this opportunity to learn more about the benefits of residential solar and how they can take part. Bulk buy programs like this will help our city meet our energy transition goals and grow local investment in renewable and resilient energy."

SUN is familiar with Houston, and, since 2018, the nonprofit has hosted six neighborhood solar co-ops in Spring Branch, Lake Olympia, East Houston, Central Houston, the Woodlands, and West Houston. According to SUN, Texas solar co-ops provide 569 kW of solar power, $1.64 million in local economic investment, and more than 18.4 million pounds of lifetime carbon offsets.

"The co-op will enable homeowners and business owners in and around the city of Houston to join the growing community of people taking control of their energy bills and improving grid resilience by harnessing solar power," says Hanna Mitchell, Texas program director for SUN, in the release. "Together, we're building a movement to transform our electricity system into one that is cleaner, fairer, and shares its benefits more broadly."

Data from Environment Texas shows that Houston's installed solar capacity has quadrupled from 2018 to 2020, and Houston is the nation's largest municipal user of renewable energy in the United States, according to the release. Additionally, Houston Permitting Center saw a 63 percent increase in solar installation permits from 2019 to 2020.

For more information on the co-op, visit SUN's Houston website. Or, sign up for one of the two information sessions on Thursday, May 6, at 6:30 pm, or Wednesday, May 19, at noon.

A national solar energy organization is expanding in Houston to promote affordable sustainability. Getty Images

Solar energy co-op shines light on sustainability for Houston-area residents

join the club

A nationwide nonprofit organization that focuses on promoting and educating on the use of solar energy, has chosen a local solar installer business for its West Houston co-op.

Solar United Neighbors, also known as SUN, was established in 2007 to represent the interests and needs of solar owners and those interested in going solar. The nonprofit has already helped more than 4,600 solar owners with over 35,000 kW installed. SUN is currently active in the Houston area with two co-ops formed.

The West Houston co-op, which opened in January of 2020, is open to residents and small businesses from Brookshire to Memorial City and Richmond. The co-op will be open to new members until July 31st. However, members have already chosen a local business, Sunshine Renewable Solutions to install solar panels for the group.

"It is an honor to be selected because we know how thoroughly the co-op reviewed each bid," says Sid Chandrashekar, vice president of sales and operations for Sunshine Renewable Solutions. "SUN's mission is aligned with ours when it comes to education efforts for solar energy, they use a community approach that is really informative to anybody that is interested in solar, and that's how we see ourselves more as educators and consultants."

Hanna Mitchell, the Texas Program Director for Solar United Neighbors says a co-op is a great way to reduce costs for local citizens looking to go solar. The co-op is free to join and there is no commitment to purchase panels.

"Through our education programs and events we hope to demystify the process of going solar," says Mitchell. "There is never any pressure to go forward with the installation, our main goal is to provide access to information so our members can make informed energy choices."

The West Houston co-op committee members chose Sunshine Renewable Solutions from seven other installers that put in a bid. Solar co-op members selected the local installer for their competitive pricing, battery options, and workmanship warranty.

Co-op member Joseph Garfunkel served on the committee who volunteered to review bids and choose an installer. Initially, he joined to learn more about the process to get solar in his home.

"I joined the West Houston Solar Co-op to learn more about the process for installing solar at my house, and to also to get an idea of the cost," says Garfunkel. "The solar co-op has been very helpful in providing webinars and other information describing the entire process."

The experts at SUN were able to hold events to further educate the members of the West Houston co-op of the benefits of solar investment, even after the rise of the coronavirus pandemic moved gatherings to virtual events.

Garfunkel, along with fellow residents of the committee, was able to select the best candidate among those who presented a bid.

"I found that our discussion during that process was extremely helpful," says Garfunkel. "We were able to in better understand the features being offered by the different vendors, as well as the different costs and options that are available."

Sunshine Renewable Solutions, for their part, says they are thrilled to have been chosen from the other solar installers that were in the competition.

"We've worked hard to build our reputation and spread the love of clean energy and energy independence in the Houston area," says Chandrashekar. "We are ecstatic to help more people go solar by providing them with amazing customer experience at an incredibly low cost."

Those interested in joining the West Houston co-op will be presented with an individualized proposal based on the group rate, which leads to a significant number of dollars saved on the cost.

SUN will be recruiting more members for its East Houston co-op that will close at the end of August.

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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.