A Texas startup joins another Houston accelerator — and more Houston innovation news. Photo via Getty Images

Houston's summer has been heating up in terms of innovation news, and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, a Houston accelerator program taps an Austin energy tech startup, a health tech company names a new C-level exec, and more.

Houston-founded startup raises $26M, names new CEO

Spruce has fresh funding and a new CEO. Photo via GetSpruce.com

Houston-founded multifamily service provider Spruce has raised a $26 million series B round of funding. Additionally, the company has named seasoned technology executive and board member Steven Pho as CEO. His previous experience includes Favor Delivery and RetailMeNot. Former CEO and founder, Ben Johnson, will transition to president.

“For the past two years, I’ve been able to guide Spruce as a board member and am honored to continue to do that as CEO,” says Pho in a news release. “Ben’s vision for Spruce ensured the company’s incredible growth to date, as well as the outsized positive impact on local economies and small businesses Spruce partners with across the country. I am excited to continue to partner with him as he transitions to President of the company. ”

The series B round was led by Sweat Equity Partners, with participation from SoftBank Corp., Mercury Fund, Fitz Gate Ventures, Seamless Capital, Raven One Ventures, and New Age Ventures. The funding will be used to grow the company's team to support expansion. Spruce reportedly plans to nearly double its headcount.

“We believe Spruce has established the right formula for working with local businesses, consumers, and rental properties alike,” says Manish Narula of SoftBank Corp. “We are looking forward to Spruce’s continued growth as it scales with this latest investment round.”

Spruce has raised $40 million to date, including its $8 million series A, which was led by Houston-based Mercury Fund in 2020. The company, which was founded as Apartment Butler, rebranded and relocated its HQ to Austin a couple years ago.

Texas tech startup joins Chevron Technology Ventures Catalyst Program

Houston startup aims to prepare the energy industry's future workforceFrom Rex Tillerson's thoughts on leadership and politics to Houston's role in the low-carbon energy movement, check out these powerful quotes from the 2020 KPMG Global Energy Conference. Getty Images

An innovative Austin company has doubled down on its acceleration and incubation activity in Houston.

Parasanti Inc. was selected to participate in the Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures Catalyst Program. The company is a member of Greentown Houston and participated in Halliburton Labs. The company's edge computing technology provides secure solutions for remote work — such as off-the-grid oilfield operations.

Through CTV's Catalyst Program, which was founded in 2017 to help mature early-stage technology destined to impact the energy industry, Parasanti be tasked with further developing its software and expand into new projects.

“Parasanti is honored to receive support from a global energy technology leader like Chevron through this program,” says Carrie Horazeck, president of Parasanti’s commercial division, in a news release. “The CTV team has been incredibly helpful as we adapt our technology for the advanced energy solutions market. This program further demonstrates Chevron’s commitment to enabling the energy transition through technological advancement.”

Houston founders can apply for $100,000

Calling all diverse founders in Houston. Photo via Getty Images

Houston founders have until July 25 to apply for Founders First CDC's Job Creators Quest Grant, which will dole out $100,000 to support minority and underrepresented business owners throughout the state of Texas. The nonprofit is looking for Texas companies that:

  • are diverse-led (Black, indigenous, a person of color, LGBTQIA+, military veteran, a woman or located in a low to moderate income area)
  • employ two to 20 people
  • are located in the north, central east, or south Texas regions
  • have annual revenues between $100,000 to $3 million

The grant program was established to help business owners create premium wage jobs and reward diverse-led businesses throughout the state of Texas. Since its launch in early 2021, Founders First CDC has awarded more than $400,000 to minority and underserved business owners throughout the United States.

“With the rising cost of living, it can be challenging for families let alone business owners to stay afloat, particularly when it costs them more to provide goods and services for their consumers,” says Shaylon Scott, executive director of Founders First, in a news release. “We are happy to be able to invest money and resources in hard working business owners throughout Texas to help them thrive, even during uncertain economic times. Investing in diverse entrepreneurs is not only an impactful way to create jobs but is a pivotal way to close the general wealth gap in underserved communities.”

Qualified business owners, particularly those in the Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio markets can learn more and apply online.

Houston tech startup snags military award

This online learning platform just partnered up with a government entity. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based UpBrainery Technologies, an online learning platform, received an award from the Department of Defense Education Activity as the premiere provider of Career Technology Education for 52 military middle Schools across the world. CTE provides middle school students with critical academic and technical skills, knowledge, and training.

"UpBrainery's skills-based training is delivered through the proprietary artificial intelligence-based technology, BrainLab," the company reports in a news release. "The blend of cutting-edge technology and skills training content provides an engaging experience for students delivered through TikTok-style videos, gamified learning, and augmented reality."

The agreement builds upon DODEA's vision of educating, engaging, and empowering military-connected student in order to ensure that "all school-aged children of military families are provided a world-class education that prepares them for post-secondary education and/or career success," the release continues.

Specific details on the partnership were not released.

Houston oncology company names new C-suite leader

Aravive Inc. has a new chief medical officer. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston-based late clinical-stage oncology company has a new C-level exec.

Aravive Inc. (Nasdaq: ARAV), which is developing targeted therapeutics to treat metastatic disease, announced its new chief medical officer, Dr. Robert B. Geller. A medical oncologist with over 30 years of drug development experience, Geller will lead all aspects of clinical and medical affairs, including commercialization preparedness and launch of novel therapeutics, according to a news release.

“I feel very fortunate and proud that I am able to join Aravive at this critical juncture, as the company nears key value inflection points,” says Geller in the release. “As a medical oncologist, I have devoted my career to caring for patients, and developing and commercializing new therapies for cancer patients. Based upon the clinical data to date on batiraxcept, I am convinced that batiraxcept has the potential to meet the high unmet medical needs of patients with advanced cancers, and potentially become a best-in-class medicine across a range of tumors, including ovarian, renal and pancreatic cancer, which require new treatment approaches.”

Geller was most recently senior vice president of medical affairs at California-based Coherus Biosciences. He's authored over 200 publications and abstracts and has served as reviewer for numerous medical journals.

Spruce, founded by Ben Johnson in Houston, has announced a $8 million series A round and a plan to continue expansion. Photo courtesy of Spruce

Houston venture group leads Austin-based tech company's $8M series A round

spruced

A Houston-founded startup that designed an app-based service for apartment dwellers has closed an $8 million series A led by Houston-based Mercury Fund.

Spruce, which was founded in Houston in 2016 as Apartment Butler before rebranding and relocating to Austin, announced the close of its latest round this week. The startup partners with multifamily companies to provide concierge-like services, such as cleaning, dog walking, and even COVID-19 sanitation.

"Spruce is changing how people live in their homes," says Ben Johnson, founder and CEO, in a news release. "Today's apartment community is a vibrant micro-economy for services and goods, and Spruce efficiently channels these interactions into a single marketplace. This Series A will expand our offerings to more residents and properties as well as continue our national roll-out."

Mercury Fund also invested in the company's seed round last year, and since that funding, Spruce has expanded out of state and into nine new markets. According to the release, the company, which still has an office in houston, has 40 employees and over 760 properties with 230,000 units on its platform.

"Spruce has perfected their market model and built a best-in-class team. Their resilience and growth during this unprecedented time have impressed us, and we are excited to continue on this journey with them," says Blair Garrou, managing director at Mercury Fund, in the release.

Houston-based Sweat Equity Partners, a new Spruce investor, also contributed to the round. Andrew White, president of the investment group, will also join the board of directors.

"Spruce is building a valuable platform focused on delivering outstanding home services under the unique requirements of the multi-family segment," says White in the release.

Steven Pho, an Austin-based entrepreneur and investor previously with Favor Delivery and RetailMeNot, will also join the board.

"Spruce has an amazing opportunity to quickly and cost effectively reach a mass market through their partnerships with national property managers," Pho says in the release. "This unique channel strategy differentiates Spruce from their competitors and enables them to rapidly achieve scale and density in new markets."

Spruce's platform is available across 760 multifamily properties. Photo via GetSpruce.com

Two Houston venture capitalists weigh in on the state of startup investing in an economic climate recovering from the COVID-19 crisis. Getty Images

Houston-based venture firm closes recent fund and reflects on COVID-19's effect on investing

must be the money

It's no secret that — in light of coronavirus-caused closures, market disruption, and historic unemployment — venture capitalist might be a little more hesitant to join in on a startup's investment round. Yet one Houston VC group has managed amidst the crisis — and even succeeded in closing its most recent fund.

Fitz Gate Ventures, which operates out of Houston but with the support of Princeton University, announced the closing of its Fund II on May 5. Focusing on seed and pre-seed rounds, co-founders and managing directors Mark Poag and Jim Cohen will be looking for startups across industries — usually with some revenue and customer base — to write around $500,000 checks to.

At a virtual panel event hosted by Houston Exponential, the investors say they have appreciated focusing on smaller deals in times like these — it's allowed them to work closely with their portfolio of 15 startups, two of which (Cheers and Spruce) have roots in Houston.

"We are definitely more hands-on with our founders," Cohen says on the panel, noting that it feels like they are having board meetings daily — virtually, of course.

Most of these meetings, Poag explains, are focusing on making sure the portfolio startups have enough runway with their cash reserves to make it at least through the end of the year without any new sales. Of course, that's meant cutting salaries and employees and finding other options to operate in a lean way.

Fitz Gate also has stayed in touch virtually with its Friends of Fitz group — a unique network of Princeton-related professionals (such as faculty, fellow VCs, domain experts, etc.) that give the investors and their portfolio companies a strategic advantage.

While the video conferences are useful to stay in touch with existing portfolio companies, Poag says he — as well as other VCs — might be wary of making new investments in this capacity.

"We haven't invested in any new companies since the COVID situation, but it will be interesting to see if we and other venture capital firms get comfortable with making investments without an in-person meeting," says Poag on the panel.

Generally, Cohen says he has observed a different investment environment since the beginning of March, and there's no clear indication when things will change.

"I think in the short-term, investing will be slower. Basically, people are still trying to figure out what's going on," Cohen says, noting how, in March, the tides seemed to change every 24 hours. "Now, things have started to slow down, but the ground is still shifting beneath our feet. I think most venture investors are proceeding cautiously."

Something else to keep an eye on, as the Fitz Gate founders have experienced, is that startups are making changes to their products in order to provide a more relevant offer to customers. One of the fund's portfolio companies is Houston-founded Spruce, which recently started offering disinfecting deals along with its concierge services to apartment dwellers.

"None of our companies have pivoted to change anything they are doing fundamentally to take advantage of the situation," says Cohen, citing some supply chain software startups and a charity-based startup that have also seen business success during the COVID-19 crisis.

However, approaching VCs for the first time is now a different story, amidst the crisis. While the Fitz Gate founders explain that they open and respond to every email inquiry from startups, that's not the case for most VCs who prefer a warm introduction — but maybe not even that considering the current economic climate.

"If you're approaching a venture investor today, you might get a bit of a weird look," Cohen says of startups looking to fundraise.

On the virtual panel, the duo shared some insight on their passion for venture funding, as well as some general advice for startups. One key takeaway from the investors was a reminder that most VCs are funding between 1 and 2 percent of deals that come across their table.

"Don't get discouraged," Cohen says. "Any venture fund you talk to, they're not geniuses. They are operating on very limited information about whatever it is you pitched them in a really short fashion."

While it is disheartening to hear a "no" from an investor, it doesn't mean the startup's idea or product isn't valid.

In wrapping up the call, Cohen remarks on the environment for Houston innovation. While he admits the ecosystem lacks access to funding, he observes that this will change in a matter of time.

"It's amazing how many startups in Houston — and the support infrastructure," Cohen says, noting startup development organizations like The Ion, The Cannon, and more. "So much going on in this ecosystem, so I think, in that sense, it's an incredibly vibrant place to be as a founder."

Liu Idea Lab's Carol Tyger shares her experience on product managing for a tech startup. Getty Images

Houston expert reflects on why product management and user experience are key for tech startups

Houston voices

Consider planning a wedding. An impossible task of delivering a grand, completely personal event for all sorts of guests at a minimal cost.

At first, my fiance and I were freaking out because we heard that wedding planning is full of hidden costs and impossible expectations. But then the light bulb went off: that sounds a lot like my job as a product manager (PM). I can be the PM of my own wedding! I knew I wanted to provide a kick-ass party (great experience) for every guest (users) with limited resources (efficiently maximizing value).

Relying on my product manager skills, my fiancé and I started off by considering our goals and removing assumptions. I even conducted some user interviews by asking my friends what they value in weddings. Then we defined the "Wedding Minimum Viable Product (MVP)" and organized ourselves like a software team with a backlog and kanban board.

In the end, the wedding was a huge success. It felt just like a major software product release…from the planning to the execution. Product management is all about making a great user experience, maximizing value and working efficiently. In other words, it is a foundation for getting things done that can be applied to almost any situation.

Ultimately, as a product manager, you build an entrepreneurial mindset that can be applied to any future role. At the bare minimum, the PM is responsible for providing detailed requests for the tech team to build. But to be a great PM, it takes a lot more.

You rely on empathy. Product managers are the voice of the user for both the business and the tech team. To understand the user, you conduct user interviews, gather market analysis and collaborate with internal groups – exploring all corners of the organization – to determine user needs. Skilled product managers don't directly ask users what they want, but instead, understand through observation. You will be using various types of user data before and after software releases to forecast and measure the impact of innovations made.

You strengthen soft skills. It doesn't matter how technical you are if you don't have good rapport within the organization. The basics begin with communicating effectively, remaining flexible, acknowledging bad decisions and being comfortable with the unknown. The best product managers have built enough trust throughout the organization to lead at a senior level despite not having direct authority.

You strategize. You must understand the users, software cycle, and business needs well enough to plan months – even years – ahead while listening to and setting expectations with everyone involved. You will be blazing trails and solving new problems. The company will rely on you to operate with integrity while continuously innovating. Your entrepreneurial mindset will make setting the strategy second nature.

The entrepreneurial mindset and product management responsibilities hone skills that are not only transferable to future roles, but to your life in general. Whether you are preparing for a major software release or planning a fantastic party, your entrepreneurial mindset and product management skills will help you succeed.

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Carol Tyger is Lilie's product management expert-in-residence and was head of product at Spruce, a Houston-founded managed marketplace for apartment residents to book services such as housekeeping.

This article originally appeared on Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship's blog.

Startups all over Houston and across industries are answering the call for tech solutions to COVID-19-caused issues from real estate and mental health to new software and services. Duy Do/Getty Images

9 Houston startups that are pivoting to provide COVID-19-related services

Startups to the rescue

From software to new services, several Houston startups are using this time of crisis to roll out new options for people living in the time of the COVID-19 crisis.

Last week, InnovationMap rounded up seven health tech startups providing health care solutions. This week, here are nine more startups that have reacted to the coronavirus with new tech solutions.

GotSpot

Reda Hicks, founder of GotSpot, has launched Rescue Spot to help out Houstonians dealing with the COVID crisis. Courtesy of GotSpot

Reda Hicks founded her company Gotspot — a digital tool that helps connect people with commercial space with people who need it — on the heels of Hurricane Harvey after seeing how hard it was for Houstonians to activate physical spaces in an emergency.

Now, in the face of another — albeit drastically different — situation, Hicks has created Rescue Spot to be that activation portal for specific COVID-19-related crisis needs.

"We are working with local community leaders to try to activate specific kind of space for emergency response," Hicks says in a Facebook interview with Bunker Labs, "so, restaurants turned into community kitchens, cold storage for perishables, storefronts that can be used as drive-by distribution centers, and places for people to house their pets while their owners are feeling overwhelmed and can't take care of their four-legged family members as well."

People with space or in need of a Rescue Spot can list their space or needs online.

SocialMama

Houston-based SocialMama uses its platform to connect mothers based on location, interests, and the things their children have in common. Courtesy of SocialMama

Houston-based SocialMama was founded in May of last year to connect mothers using machine learning that factors in vicinity, children's ages, shared motherly struggles, and more to create a support group digitally and socially. Now, the startup has sped up the release of a new feature so that users have more mental health resources during the pandemic.

Founder and CEO Amanda Ducach created SocialMama's expert program — an update to the app, which has been downloaded by over 15,000 users since launch — to connect moms to professionals specializing in everything from family medicine and mental health to career and personal safety. A portion of these experts join from Gravida, a post partum and return to work resource, according to a news release.

"Knowing someone is on the other side of the screen with a very similar story is truly comforting. The app considers all females, including those planning to become moms, those who are trying to conceive, those who have lost a child, etc. SocialMama is here for our community in a whole new way with the launch of our expert program," says Ducach in the release.

With mothers being tasked with educating and entertaining their children at home during the crisis on top of their regular jobs and duties, many are turning to SocialMama's online forum and app for support, ideas, and solidarity.

Accel Lifestyle

Accel's masks are made out of their specialty anti-bacteria fabric. Photo courtesy of Accel

While you might not usually think an activewear brand has anything to contribute to the fight against the coronavirus, you have to remember that Accel Lifestyle isn't a typical activewear brand. Founder Megan Eddings created the Prema® anti-bacterial fabric for an anti-stink feature in her clothing. That feature has another use: Preventing the spread of the disease.

Accel quickly pivoted her t-shirt-making supply chain to designing and sewing the masks. The reusable, washable masks are available online for individuals to purchase, but one Houston hospital system has made a huge purchase. Houston Methodist ordered 9,000 masks to be made for their hospital staff.

"The fact that a hospital system that is on the forefront of COVID-19 is choosing Accel Lifestyle to create PPE is profound and humbling," Eddings says in a press release. "I truly believe we're all in this together and we all have a role to play during this pandemic. If Accel Lifestyle can help flatten the curve in any way, then we're going to do it."

Predictive Solutions

A Houston startup has created a web tool for tracking the coronavirus. Pexels

Houston-based Predictive Solutions created a web application in March to give the residents of Harris County all the local information on COVID-19 in the palm of their hands — and now the tool has been expanded to the entire state.

The online map identifies nearby testing locations as well as indicates cases that have been self reported in the area. While not trying to be comprehensive, the website is trying to track trends with the disease.

"We developed the app to help streamline communication between the City of Houston, the healthcare community, aid organizations and Harris County residents, while mitigating the logistical nightmare of making sure presumed cases get tested," says Stewart Severino, co-founder and CEO of Predictive Solutions, in a news release. Read more.

Truss

Truss has modified its software to advance communications while hospitals are cracking down on visitors amid the coronavirus outbreak. Getty Images

Houston-based Truss usually focuses on digital community engagement, but Patrick Schneidau, CEO of the company, says he felt called to do something to help families separated due to strict emergency visitation rules at hospitals.

"You read all the stories of loved ones not being able to be together during this time," Schneidau, who is a member of InnovationMap's board, previously told InnovationMap. "That was the area we wanted to focus on."

Schneidau describes the software as a secure portal for small groups to interact via smart devices. Physicians can interface with family members via video chat or recorded messages, as well as answer any questions. Schneidau is looking for health care organizations to work with the technology so that patients and their doctors can have secure access to loved ones. Read more.

ChaiOne

Houston-based ChaiOne has launched a new tool that can help companies track supply chain delays resulting from COVID-19. Photo courtesy of ChaiOne

Houston-based ChaiOne recently announced the soft launch of its new software called Velostics — the "slack" for logistics that solves wait times and cash flow challenges in the supply chain and logistics industry. The digital logistics platform is set to aid the struggling supply chain as surging demands stretch suppliers, offering their platform free for 60 days.

"At ChaiOne we have a history of helping Houstonians whenever disaster strikes," says CEO and founder, Gaurav Khandelwal. "We created a disaster connect app during Hurricane Harvey for free that connected people with the resources they need. Velostics by pure happenstance happened to be ready for situations like [the coronavirus] when there's a lot of parties that need to collaborate."

Velostics results in an improved cash cycle for clients, cutting a 90-day settlement down to one day, along with an overhead reduction that reduces costs and improves output along with error reduction. The digital platform is specially engineered to reduce waste while keeping the supply chain running efficiently. Read more.

Umanity

Launched in Houston, Umanity's new tool aims to better connect nonprofits with supplies and volunteers amid the COVID-19 crisis. Photos via umanity.io

Umanity, which is a part of the Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator's first cohort, has created a philanthropic supply chain tool that's now available as an app or through desktop. The software can match and map local individual or nonprofit needs to organizations or volunteers, plus provide real-time analytics. During the coronavirus outbreak, they have mobilized its resources connecting supplies with nonprofits and volunteers with safe ways to help organizations that need it most during this crisis.

The company, which is working with several city of Houston officials to direct citizens the resources they need during the crisis, is creating a network of communities to efficiently provide them the resources they need. The centralized platform shows a complete picture of who needs help and who can help all on the same platform while measuring the real-time economic impact of donations and every volunteer hour.

"I started this company because I wanted to transition everyday acts of service into actual data-driven solutions," says Ryan-Alexander Thomas, CEO and founder of Umanity. "My goal is that during the next crisis, for example, hurricane season, if somebody needs something they have access to get it when they need it, not two years later or after the crisis." Read more.

Otso

Houston small businesses are struggling to pay their rent with doors closed and operations ceased — but where should the relief come from? Getty Images

When Josh Feinberg had the idea for his newest startup, Otso, he was hoping to remove the pointless burden of cash deposits required for new commercial and retail leases. But as the coronavirus pandemic began enacting stay-at-home mandates that forced small businesses to close their physical spaces, he had another idea.

Otso, with its financial partner Euler Hermes, provides landlords with an alternative to cash security deposits. While he first envisioned this tool for new leases, Feinberg created a system so that local businesses that are struggling to pay their rent can opt into this type of contract through an addendum to the lease. They can get back their cash deposits and use that capital now when times are tough.

"If we can get some liquidity back into the hands of the business, they have some a better chance of survival," Feinberg previously told InnovationMap.

Tenants or landlords can begin the process online. Feinberg recently joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the unprecedented state of commercial real estate and offer his advice for business owners. Click here to listen.

Spruce

Houston-founded Spruce has added some new services to help sanitize multifamily facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Getty Images

Houston-founded, Austin-based Spruce, which has an office locally, has launched a new suite of services for disinfecting common areas — like leasing offices, hallways, mail rooms, etc. — using EPA-compliant chemicals.

"Now, more than ever, it is critical for apartment communities to make sure their common areas are regularly decontaminated and disinfected to help slow the spread of the coronavirus and to prevent as many infections as possible," says Ben Johnson, founder and CEO of Spruce, in a statement.

The services include a weekly disinfectant of high-touch spots — like door handles and elevator buttons — as well as a weekly comprehensive cleaning that involves mopping, surface cleaning, and vacuuming. The startup also offers a bimonthly fogging service that can completely cover both indoor and outdoor areas with disinfectant. This solution can protect surfaces for months, according to the news release.

"This is an unprecedented public health crisis, and we worked closely with our clients to determine the biggest need and hope these services will give apartment communities one more weapon to use in the fight against COVID-19 and will help give both operators and their residents peace of mind," Johnson continues in the release. Read more.

Houston-founded Spruce has added some new services to help sanitize multifamily facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Getty Images

Houston-founded startup launches new COVID-19-focused sanitizing services

keeping clean

A startup that provides concierge services — like cleaning and dog walking — to apartment renters has expanded its services to outside the apartment units to help multifamily properties with sanitization and disinfection services to protect their communities from COVID-19.

Austin-based Spruce, which was founded in Houston in 2016 and still has an office locally, has a new suite of services for disinfecting common areas — like leasing offices, hallways, mail rooms, etc. — using EPA-compliant chemicals.

"Now, more than ever, it is critical for apartment communities to make sure their common areas are regularly decontaminated and disinfected to help slow the spread of the coronavirus and to prevent as many infections as possible," says Ben Johnson, founder and CEO of Spruce, in a statement.

The services include a weekly disinfectant of high-touch spots — like door handles and elevator buttons — as well as a weekly comprehensive cleaning that involves mopping, surface cleaning, and vacuuming. The startup also offers a bimonthly fogging service that can completely cover both indoor and outdoor areas with disinfectant. This solution can protect surfaces for months, according to the news release.

"This is an unprecedented public health crisis, and we worked closely with our clients to determine the biggest need and hope these services will give apartment communities one more weapon to use in the fight against COVID-19 and will help give both operators and their residents peace of mind," Johnson continues in the release.

Spruce still offers its usual suite of services for individual apartment units such as daily chores and housekeeping and pet care, but extra precautions have been added since the coronavirus outbreak. The service providers are required to go through temperature checks before entering the properties. They also wear gloves, changing them out between units, and are incorporating paper products when able.

Since its founding, Spruce, which used to be called Apartment Butler, has expanded throughout the state and into South Florida, Denver, and Salt Lake City. Spruce has raised over $6 million in venture capital, per Crunchbase data, and that includes funds from Houston institutions like Mercury Fund, the Houston Angel Network, and Fitz Gate Ventures, as well as Austin-based Capital Factory.

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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.