Hobby Airport was one of five airports selected nationally to use a new facial recognition software. Image via fly2houston.com

International travelers coming in and out of Hobby Airport are being processed now completely with facial recognition as of last week. The technology is expected to shorten wait times and streamline safety.

"Hobby Airport has taken a big leap into the future of travel," Houston Aviation Director Mario Diaz says in a news release.

Houston was one of the five airports picked by Homeland Security — and the only in Texas — to have Simplified Arrivals, a full biometric entry and exit for international passengers going through United States Customs and Border Protection inspection checkpoints.

"Simplified Arrivals will enhance the travel experience for more than a million international passengers traveling through Hobby Airport every year," Diaz continues in the release. "This is an important step to realize our goal of becoming a 5-star airport."

Houston Airport Systems first introduced biometric technology with Southwest Airlines in November 2018, and before that, George Bush Intercontinental Airport first started using facial recognition technology in 2017. Since 2018, this biometric facial technology has recognized 250 imposters nationally who attempted to enter the U.S. with legal travel documents that belonged to a different person, according to the release.

The new technology is expected to speed up the checkpoint process. Image via fly2houston.com

Travelers will encounter the technology at their primary inspection point. They will taker a photo, which will then compare that image to previously provided photos of that traveler — like passport and visa photos. Travelers under the age of 14 or over the age of 79 can opt out and be process manually. United States and Canadian citizens may also opt out.

"CBP is committed to working with our partners to ensure that the travel system is secure and efficient," Houston Director of Field Operations Judson W. Murdock II says in the release. "The speed, accuracy and reliability of facial comparison technology enable CBP officers to confirm a traveler's identity within seconds while further enhancing the customer experience."

These new photos of U.S. citizens taken at the checkpoint will be deleted within 12 hours, while photos of foreign nationals will be stored in a secure system.

"It takes a village to make something like this happen," says Saba Abashawl, director of external affairs at HAS, in a promotional video. "At the end of the day, we end up providing unparalleled customer service."

With Southwest and Allegiant doubling down on Hobby Airport, the travel hub continues to grow. Image via fly2houston.com

Hobby Airport continues to grow as hub for business travel with new commitments from 2 airlines

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In the estimation of frequent flier Chris Martin, Houston's continually expanding William P. Hobby Airport soars as an "exciting and excellent" hub for business travelers.

Martin is senior vice president of global business development in the Houston office of travel agency Wings Travel Management and one of the leaders of the Houston-based Texas Business Travel Association. He says Hobby Airport's location — seven miles southeast of downtown Houston — and its low-cost flight options hold great appeal for business travelers, especially those with tight travel budgets. And that appeal continues to grow, thanks in part to initiatives at Hobby undertaken by Southwest and Allegiant airlines.

On January 8, Dallas-based Southwest, the No. 1 carrier at Hobby as measured by passenger traffic, unveiled a $125 million, 240,000-square-foot maintenance complex at the airport. It's the largest maintenance facility in Southwest's network. The complex includes a 140,000-square-foot hangar for aircraft maintenance.

"The new hangar continues to showcase our dedication to Houston," Southwest spokesman Dan Landson says. "We've grown continuously over the last several years, and we see more growth in our future, which the hangar will help facilitate."

Southwest's new maintenance complex speeds up airline operations in Houston and helps "get travelers on their way more quickly," Landson says.

At the public debut of the maintenance complex, Southwest Chairman and CEO Gary Kelly told reporters that the airline plans to add a "significant" number of flights at Hobby over the next five to 10 years. He suggested that Houston's beefed-up flight schedule could include brand-new routes to South America.

"We see a lot of opportunity to continue growing," Landson says, "and linking Houston to the places that our customers want to go — whether domestically or internationally."

Today, Southwest offers nearly 200 flights a day from Hobby to almost 70 destinations in the U.S., Mexico, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Hobby opened a $156 million, five-gate international concourse in October 2015.

Six days after Southwest took the wraps off its new maintenance complex, low-cost airline Allegiant said that beginning this May, it's launching seasonal twice-weekly service at Hobby with nonstop flights to Asheville, North Carolina; Destin-Fort Walton Beach, Florida; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Savannah, Georgia. No airlines at Hobby currently serve those destinations.

Allegiant will become the fourth airline to operate at Hobby. Aside from Southwest, American and Delta airlines currently fly out of Hobby, but Southwest is the only one with international service. Last year, JetBlue shifted its Houston operations from Hobby to the larger George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

In 2018, Hobby served almost 14.48 million passengers, up 7.7 percent from 2017 and surpassing 14 million for the first time. Figures for 2019 aren't available yet.

Any increase in passenger traffic at Hobby would certainly be propelled by time-constrained business travelers. In a ranking released January 29 by personal finance website FinanceBuzz, Hobby flies into the top spot on the list of the best U.S. airports if you're running late for a departing flight. To come up with the ranking, FinanceBuzz looked at data for the country's 45 busiest airports.

FinanceBuzz says Hobby's low average wait time at security checkpoints, just under 14 minutes, contributed to its No. 1 ranking.

"The chances of catching Hobby at its busiest are pretty low, and its relatively small number of departing passengers each day helps the airport from getting bogged down with too many travelers," FinanceBuzz reports. "While it's lower percentage of on-time flights might hinder those who are punctual, [this] can be the difference between catching or missing a flight for those running late."

By comparison, Bush Intercontinental ranked eighth on FinanceBuzz's list of the worst U.S. airports if you're running late. It's weighed down by an average 25-minute wait at security checkpoints, according to FinanceBuzz.

"Once you get through security, you've got the sixth-largest terminal on our list to navigate, which puts this airport as one of the worst for late travelers," FinanceBuzz reports of Bush Intercontinental.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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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.