A new medical device created in Houston is revolutionizing opioid withdrawal treatment. Photo via sparkbiomedical.com

Houston-based Spark Biomedical has created a revolutionary wearable device that provides unprecedented levels of opioid withdrawal relief.

The device known as the Sparrow Therapy System is worn over the ear for five to seven days and sends mild electrical signals to trigger cranial nerves that sit near the skin's surface.

Once activated, the nerves release endorphins that the body has stopped producing on its own during opioid use. The endorphins satisfy the opioid receptors and in turn reduce or prevent the intense symptoms that often come along with opioid withdrawal. According to Spark BioMed CEO Daniel Powell, the technology also helps patients better control their "flight or fight mechanisms," allowing them to make clearer, more logical decisions as they come off of the drug.

"If you ask 100 people who've gone through opioid withdrawal, I would bet 99 of them will tell you they thought they were going to die," Powell says. "Giving them the ability to manage that is huge. It's the first step towards addiction recovery. It's not solving the addiction, but it is an absolute barrier to move forward."

The product was approved by the FDA in January of 2020, after clinical trials showed that the Sparrow could meaningfully reduce withdrawal symptoms in the first hour of use. According to Powell, roughly a third of patients in the trial were completely out of withdrawal and patients' Clinical Opioid Withdrawal Scales scores reduced by more than 53 percent across the board.

Spark, which won Venture Houston's inaugural pitch competition earlier this year, partnered with Houston-based Velentium (which also happened to grow 93 percent last year after partnering with General Motors on Project V) to bring the product from concept to commercial physician prescribed product. "We needed a more sophisticated design house to help us finish it," Powell says.

The up-and-comers were connected through one of Spark's investors. Powell, in a previous career, had also sold a neurostimulator that Velentium CTO Randy Armstrong had invented.

"You're seeing more and more Houston centric medical innovation than we've ever seen before," says Velentium CEO Dan Purvis. "And the cool thing about that is there ends up being a camaraderie amongst entrepreneurs, medical researchers and scientists."

And though the release of Sparrow marks a huge milestone, neither Spark of Velentium are stopping there. Moving forward, Spark aims to conduct a massive study on how a similar technology, dubbed the Roo, can aid infants born to opioid-dependent mothers wean from the drug.

The company also aims to create a next generation Sparrow with the help of Velentium, and will look at long-term uses of the product. Powell says that Spark will look to determine if the product can prevent relapses and help to cure addiction when worn daily or regularly.

"Our big, crazy, ambitious goal is can we actually help people recover from addiction," Powell says. "We're really not addressing psychology, that's going to be in cognitive behavioral therapy. But if we can remove the neurological results of drug use, we think we can make at least start to stack the deck in the favor of the patient versus having the deck stacked completely against them all the time."

Here's what Houston startups won prizes at the inaugural Venture Houston conference. Photo via Getty Images

Inaugural Houston Venture startup pitch competition names big winners and doles out nearly $1M

taking home the W

Just a few months ago, Venture Houston 2021 was just an idea. Now, the two-day conference concluded with over 2,500 registrants and doled out nearly $1 million in cash and investment prizes to startups.

The idea was to bring together startups, investors, corporations, and anyone who cares to advance the Houston tech ecosystem, says Sandy Guitar, managing director at HX Venture Fund, at the closing event. The conference, which was put on by HXVF, the Houston Angel Network, the Rice Alliance, and Houston Exponential, wrapped up with the announcement of nine startups taking home investment or cash prizes.

In its first year, the Venture Houston conference attracted over 266 startup applications, and a group of Houston innovation leaders named 30 semifinalists that pitched on Thursday, February 4. On Friday, February 5, seven finalists pitched:

  • Koda Health
  • Spark Biomedical Inc
  • PATH EX, Inc.
  • Conversifi
  • CellChorus
  • MacroFab, Inc.
  • Mainline

The top three startups in the competition took home cash prizes — Macrofab won first place and $15,000 from Halliburton Labs, Spark Biomedical won second place and $10,000 from Softeq, and PathEx won third place and $5,000 from ChampionX.

  • Work & Mother won $250,000 from The Artemis Fund
  • MacroFab won $250,000 — $100,000 from Mercury Fund and $150,000 from Carnrite Ventures
  • Conversifi won $200,000 — $100,000 from Next Coast Ventures and $100,000 from Live Oak Venture Partners
  • Koda Health won $50,000 from Houston Angel Network
  • CellChorus won $50,000 from Texas Halo Fund
  • Nesh won $50,000 from Plug and Play
  • CemvitaFactory won $25,000 from baMa

Two previously announced prizes — $500,000 from Fitz Gate Ventures and $250,000 from Montrose Lane — were not given out.

The Venture Houston organizers are already looking forward to next year's program, but in the meantime Guitar had a parting call to action.

"Keep helping your fellow entrepreneur," she says, "that's really what Venture Houston 2021 is really about at the end of the day. The entrepreneur journey is a difficult one — often a lonely one — and sometimes one of hard knocks. Please keep finding entrepreneurs within your ecosystem. Let's help them with our advice, our capital, and our understanding."

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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.