Founders with a laser focus on a problem, showed remarkable advantage, says this Houston expert. Photo via Getty Images

Over the past 10 years I have been so incredibly fortunate to work for and with dozens of startup ecosystems, startup development organizations, competitions and accelerators.

Through these interactions I have mentored, advised and coached over 500 startups and as I've reflected back on these interactions and relationships I have observed some crucial insights that I am humbled to be able to share here with you — starting with the importance of problem-solution fit.

My top observation is that the success of founders often hinges on their focus on a specific problem, from the perspective of the problem holder (which is not always their customer) and particularly a problem set they care deeply about. This focus is far more impactful than merely having a great idea. Founders with a laser focus on a problem, showed remarkable advantages. These founders were:

  • Quicker in Validating Assumptions: Their problem-centric approach allowed them to more rapidly test and validate their hypotheses about market needs and solutions.
  • Focused on Data-Driven Decision Making: They were more receptive to letting data guide their strategic decisions, leading to more grounded and effective strategies.
  • Agile in Pivoting: When confronted with challenges or new information, these founders could pivot more efficiently, as their commitment was to solving the problem, not just to their solution.

This problem-focused mindset proved to be a significant differentiator in their journey from ideation to success.

For these reasons, the philosophy that problem-solution fit leads development, has become a cornerstone in my approach to fostering innovation. It underscores the need for startups and organizations alike to delve deeper into understanding the real challenges they face, the first order problems, which in turn opens doors to more impactful and sustainable solutions.

Most recently, In my time at MassChallenge, my approach to problem identification diverged significantly from industry norms. The crux of my strategy was to shift the founders' focus from their innate bias towards their innovation or the allure of monetary gain to a deeper connection with the underlying problem — transforming the innovator's bias into the innovator's gift.

In my interactions, I often met two predominant types of founders:

  • Technical Founders: These individuals were deeply enamored with the technology or product they created. Often coming from the research world or a technical / engineering background within one industry. Their passion was more about the innovation itself rather than its impact or the problem it aimed to solve.
  • Profit-Oriented Founders: These founders were driven primarily by the potential for financial success. Often coming out of Business school, consulting firms or investment / banking background. Their focus was often on the market opportunity, timing, size and scale rather than the problem needing a solution.

I am not a believer that anyone fits into a box but these were broad commonalities I observed over time. While neither mindset is inherently flawed, it became evident that a third type of founder, those who developed a passion for solving a specific problem — often tied to a personal or emotional connection — tended to achieve greater success.

The challenge lay in transforming the mindset of founders who initially did not have this problem-centric focus. To do this, I employed a series of exercises and mental experiments that anyone can do aimed at uncovering the true purpose behind their ventures. Two pivotal tools in this process was Simon Sinek's Golden Circle, which helped delve into the why behind their companies and Ash Maurya’s Problem Discovery process that he details in Lean Mastery.

These exercises were transformative. Founders typically developed a stronger attachment to these newly framed problem statements than to their initial motivations. It aligned their endeavors with a purpose that was emotionally significant to them, thereby enhancing their commitment and effectiveness in addressing the problem.

This approach to problem identification was not just about finding a market fit; it was about aligning the founders' core values and motivations with the problems they aimed to solve, thereby unleashing the true potential of their innovations.

One of the most significant challenges was persuading founders to shift their mindset from their initial focus to a problem-oriented approach. This transition was often difficult, as change is inherently challenging, especially when founders have invested months or years in developing something they feel deeply connected to. The key was to reframe and redirect their passion towards understanding and solving the core problem for the problem holders that were most affected. This shift in focus wasn't always successful, but when it did take effect, it markedly increased the founders' likelihood of success.

Part of the difficulty in effecting this founder mindset shift stemmed from the overwhelming amount of content directed at startup founders, emphasizing the immediate need for customer feedback and early creation of MVP’s. While these aspects are crucial (at the right time), there is a noticeable gap in guiding founders towards the critical step of identifying problem-solution fit earlier in the process. As a result, many founders fell into the trap of building upon untested assumptions, believing that once they've created a product or identified a revenue model, the journey was set on the right path.

This challenge wasn't confined to startup founders alone, it is prolific across the innovation economy. Corporates, governments, and universities also displayed resistance in identifying their core, underlying problems. They often focused on surface-level issues or immediate technological needs without recognizing the structural problems causing these more visible issues.

As a founder, an innovator, or anyone passionate about bringing new solutions to the masses, this shift in perspective is crucial. It allows founders and organizations to understand their challenges more deeply, leading to more effective and sustainable solutions. It isn’t just about solving the problems they could articulate, but about uncovering the first principles issues that needed addressing.

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Jon Nordby is managing partner at Anthropy Partners, a Houston-based investment firm, and professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Houston.

It's a different world for startups on the other side of the pandemic — especially for business development. One Houston innovator shares her lessons learned. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: 3 priorities startup business development teams should focus on in new age of sales

guest column

The post-pandemic world of business development looks a lot different than it did in 2019. I started my first “sales” role in 2014 at a large, international company, and my days were filled with in-person meetings, often visiting four or five different prospects. The pandemic shifted this approach, as we all moved to web-based platforms and face-to-face meetings dwindled.

Fast forward to 2023, when I joined the Houston team at Square Robot, a startup that was trying to disrupt an industry. I had to learn how to navigate a post-pandemic sales world — where hybrid work, reliance on emails, and video based web calls are now the norm — coupled with the challenges of working for a relatively new company.

I think many working for startups will agree that the first barrier encountered in trying to build and grow your business is addressing the “who” in the equation. You are battling your prospect’s already busy schedule to earn a few minutes of their time, which is an uphill battle when the company is relatively unknown. Not to mention, startups often run into internal delays just from encountering a concern or problem that hasn't been sorted out before. A successful startup is made up of people who, when encountering that sort of a situation, instinctively and proactively figure out the way to solve it instead of sitting back and saying, "We don't have a tool I can use, so I can't get this accomplished.”

While there’s no perfect formula for how to drive sales at a startup, I can share my personal experience and success from the past 15 months at Square Robot. The company put their faith in me to develop business in an untapped market segment: the power industry. In one year, I grew this market by over 300 percent, despite the majority of prospects having never heard of Square Robot. There were a few key steps to my success, which included adjusting to the shift in work operations since Covid-19.

The power of developing a brand

My first focus was on developing my personal brand as an ambassador for Square Robot. Not only did I dive into learning all aspects of our robotic services, but I then did the same in the power industry. I heavily relied on LinkedIn to build my brand as a knowledge center, often creating short videos, posts and even articles about the benefits of Square Robot’s service for the power industry.

I found that in a business world that’s inundated with endless emails and cold calls, social media was an easy way to get in front of prospects without the pressure of calling as they’re stepping into a meeting or too busy to speak. The recognition of name and company from LinkedIn translated across the traditional platforms. I connected and messaged on LinkedIn, followed by email and phone outreach. Overall, about 75 percent of my closed opportunities in 2023 began with outreach on Linkedin.

Tapping into relevant organizations

As I continued to learn more about the power generation industry, I looked for associated research and non-profit groups. From there, I found the Electric Power Research Institute, and subsequently, Square Robot was accepted into a program to showcase new technology directly to the end user.

I also researched industry specific conferences and publications for either speaking submissions or written pieces, which are great avenues to grow the brand of a startup company while paying close attention to budgeting.

Making time for in-person meetings

While finding ways to raise the profile of Square Robot was important, I also wanted to make sure I still had the face-to-face connection that makes a lasting impact. True success in this role takes business development into relationship development, and I made it a priority to visit new clients when Square Robot was onsite providing service.

Taking the time to meet in person with the people and teams I’ve spoken with countless times — sometimes across months — helped to build trust and uncover additional opportunities. People are much more likely to answer emails or calls when they can put a face to a name. Many times I used this visit to extend my reach into a company, asking for introductions to other locations or areas.

Even though 2023 was an achievement for myself and Square Robot, it comes with the expectation of continued growth. In the startup world of business development, this means constantly engaging with potential audiences in new and different ways, not being deterred when things take time or you fail, and having creativity and tenacity to drive sales.

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Stephanie Nolan is director of sales at Square Robot, which is headquartered in Massachusetts but has a growing presence in Houston.

Regardless of which side of the hiring table you're sitting at, these are the skills startup and SMB employees need to have. Photo via Getty Imahes

Here are the skills best suited for startup employment, says Houston expert

guest column

As an executive recruiter, two questions I regularly receive are how to get a role in a SMB fast growth company after having been in a larger, and oftentimes global organization for a significant amount of time, or how to change career paths — whether it’s into another department (e.g., operations to sales) or breaking into a different industry altogether (quite frequently from oil and gas to the tech space).

I have helped several candidates successfully navigate one or all of those scenarios, but also was able to do so myself when I transitioned from owning a booking agency in the beauty industry. And in my experience, those who were able to leverage transferable skills, provided their new employers with a unique perspective and significantly broader lens, especially in terms of strategy.

With the state of our economy influx — as some industries announce layoffs and others continue to experience labor shortages — I have culled together the following tips for hirers and job seekers alike.

First of all, let's identify the traits of someone well suited for SMB or startup culture:

  • Tenacious, a self starter, and someone who thrives on being busy at work.
  • Revered as a go-to person. When leadership needs something done, this is the team member they know they can rely on to do it well and on time.
  • Volunteers to step outside their comfort zone and take on new responsibilities.
  • Intellectually curious and thrives on learning new things.
  • Identifies problems, but also takes initiative to solve them or recognize workarounds without expecting someone else to.

Looking to break into the startup scene? Consider highlighting and/or acquiring these industry agnostic skills:

Conviction

I always recommend people interviewing for any position create a “verbal resume” or addendum to accompany their traditional one. These are examples of projects or scenarios you successfully navigated in past roles that make the case for your ability to meet the prospective employer’s expectations.

Job descriptions often list the most important requirements first. Identify similar skills that were expected in your previous positions and examples to cite in conversation. I also recommend briefly bullet-pointing the most impressive ones on the resume. Going through this process will help you personally identify if you are able to confidently take on the position.

We often undervalue certain perspectives we might bring to a role if they are something that comes easily or is done regularly. Do not assume hiring companies know your role-relevant skills and do not be afraid to share notable accomplishments.

Steadfast

Smaller companies often rely on positions having wider scopes than at their larger counterparts. This requires worker flexibility instead of sticking to a rigidly defined role.

As a recruiter, I am hesitant about placing candidates with experience only from larger organizations where typically people are not required to wear as many hats. Smaller companies require people to be self starters and to exemplify tenacity in order to make it through the messiness that fast growth startups often possess. It is exciting, challenging, and rewarding for the right person.

Be able to identify times you were proactive, especially if you identified a problem or a breakdown in process, developed a solution, and then executed it. With fast growth, this has to happen often to support scale. There is not the luxury of going to senior leaders and saying, “I cannot do my role because of this problem and I need it fixed.” They need candidates who are able to identify issues, but who also love the opportunity to fix them. Especially if you used to working in a corporate environment, identify times you raised your hand to take on something that was not required, initiated opportunities to collaborate with new teams, or stepped outside your comfort zone.

Pliable

Be flexible around compensation, especially if breaking into a new industry. I almost never recommended a lateral move in compensation, and even less so, a step down. But it is important to acknowledge that there are exceptions. If you are changing industries or breaking into a new part of the company altogether (e.g., engineering to sales), you will need to expect to not be compensated similarly to others who may have as many years of work as you but more experience in the specific role/industry.

The company is taking a risk on you and knows there will be a learning curve. For the right candidate, that assimilation will be quick and compensation will eventually balance out. Smaller companies in startup mode can sometimes find it challenging to compete with larger organizations’ salaries, especially if a candidate has a longer tenure (7 to 10 years or more) at the same company.

At the executive level though, the reward of gaining experience and successfully navigating the startup scene, can pay off exponentially in the long term for people especially in equity bearing roles. Oftentimes, I have seen candidates make the move and initially the role does not offer equity or additional incentives. However, over time, their performance can be rewarded with it.

While other SMBs might believe you will make the transition successfully and may offer packages with it from the get go. Where this recommendation gets sticky is candidates historically do not stay in a role very long if they have a reduction in pay. It is much easier to say you can do without for a period of time than to actually do it. Carefully assess if a cut is something your budget can truly bear.

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Leah Salinas is a managing director with Houston-based executive hiring firm Sudduth Search LLC.

Words of wisdom from a founder who's done this all before. And then again. And again. Photo via Getty Images

4 lessons learned from this Houston-based serial entrepreneur

guest column

A true test to determine if you are an entrepreneur is knowing if you can recognize your failures. From the outside, we often think of every business leader as having a resume of success stories. You see CEOs in magazines, on television, and in the news, but what you don’t always see is their often-endless list of ideas and decisions that simply didn’t work. Those failures may include a startup that didn’t launch or a key decision that went sideways. Either way, these missteps are often there if you listen to their stories or look hard enough.

I’m not immune to making mistakes. As a serial entrepreneur and having started, led, and mentored various successful companies, I have made some mistakes and have been lucky enough to learn from them. Below is a list of key takeaways I’ve compiled from years of learning.

1. Know what kind of entrepreneur you are.

Before you even get to the service or product that you want to create, learn a little bit about who you are as a leader. Check out a BOSI assessment online to help you determine if you are a Builder, Opportunist, Specialist, or Innovator. Knowing and utilizing your strengths as well as looking for help with your weaknesses will take you far. This also will make a big difference if you are searching for a co-founder. When I started Pinot’s Palette, my co-founder and I both were strong Builders. Without understanding this ahead of time, we ended up wasting time and money overbuilding features that didn’t need to be perfected pre-launch. Looking back, we could have benefited from adding an Opportunist to our team early on and focusing our time on our strengths.

2. You pay for experience….one way or another.

I can’t take full credit for this lesson. My mentor, Dr. Al Napier, shared this sentiment with me years ago. The concept is that you will either pay an in-house expert or consultant early on or you will pay for the mistakes you make with scar tissue. Sometimes, those mistakes can be detrimental. Of course, there’s a time and place to spend money and you don’t want to overspend early, but you need to balance bootstrapping with deploying capital to prevent a game-ending error.

3. Truly understand your vision and how to implement it. 

Staying focused isn’t always easy. You have an idea, but how do you get from step 1 to success? It’s easy to get off track and go down the wrong path – a critical error! As Lori Clements taught me, utilizing EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating System) to organize your vision and stay disciplined will ultimately help you become a better leader. I started working with an EOS coach back in my Pinot’s Palette days and it was a game-changer for how we solved problems. Now, I recommend it to every budding entrepreneur.

4. Build your support network early.

Having a support system in every aspect of life is important. In business, having the right people to lean on and run ideas by can be vital. For each business that I’ve started, there have been emotional and mental hardships to work through. You have your business “baby” and often employees leaning on you to make the right decisions. You can find a professional network through your alumni groups or just seek out other entrepreneurs also going through a similar phase in their business.

Ultimately, you need to be mentally prepared, knowing there will be ups and downs in your business. There is no way to prevent all errors but hopefully turning the mistakes into lessons is what defines leaders.

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Craig Ceccanti is a serial entrepreneur and has co-founded Houston-based Rivalry Technologies and Pinot's Palette. He is the founder, president, and CEO of T-Minus Solutions, a software company.

There's no quick fix to getting back to where you were, but a keen eye and sensible decision-making will ensure you're more prepared than your competitors. Photo via Unsplash

4 ways Houston businesses can recover cash flow in a post-COVID world

Guest column

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a cash flow disaster for many businesses, whether it's small restaurants forced to close their doors for months on end or commercial rental properties unable to fill their office space in light of widespread remote working.

Houston, much like many major US cities is facing a big recovery job as the country looks to move on from the worst of the pandemic. While much is to be determined when it comes to what the Delta varient's effect is, businesses are open and the time to think creatively about recovering cash flow is here.

In this article, we'll look at how Houston businesses can get over what was a huge shock and re-evaluate for a post-COVID world.

First things first: Assess the financial damage

Before you can begin to work on a strategy for recovery, your business first needs to assess the financial damage COVID-19 inflicted on it.

There are many different layers to this, which will become more important depending on the size of your business. Start by looking at the hard numbers that define your business (both pre and during the pandemic), such as:

  • Year profit
  • Yearly spend
  • Yearly losses (and expected losses)
  • Employee salaries

There's a chance things aren't quite as bad as you expected. You might have saved on office space through working remotely or have seen an uptick in online customers that represents a revenue shift. This may seem like basic business management, but in a situation such as this, it's easy to ignore the forest for the trees.

Once you've got these numbers in line, you can start to develop a rebuilding plan that relates entirely to your business, rather than cutting and pasting one from another business that is unlikely to have experienced the same issues.

Re-assess your business plan

Chances are, you didn't include a contingency option for a global pandemic in your business plan. No need to panic. If you made it this far, you were obviously a well-structured and organized business. However, to ensure you survive future challenges, it's worth re-assessing your business plan.

Specifically, you need to look at how ready your business is to pivot to the idea of the 'new normal'.

There are many decisions to be made, from top-level finances to employee management to customer service. You may be forced to implement new systems to keep track of your newly remote team, offer subsidies for utility bills to your staff or implement new quality control tests to keep your customers safe and comfortable with your business.

A wider analysis of your industry can be a more effective exercise than looking directly at your plan. Competitors may have innovated in ways you didn't initially think possible. Pay attention to trends and emerging opportunities to mark yourself as a business worth shopping for and working with. Find that profitable niche and see if your business plan can be re-worked around it.

Your business plan will lay bare your business model's strengths and weaknesses in the new world. Don't try and plough through difficult weather with the wrong tyres. Make a simple change, even if it means hard decisions, for the good of your company.

Optimize daily processes and cut out wasteful tasks 

So you've analyzed the damage and re-assessed your business plan for a new set of challenges. Now you can get into the gritty details of making a change.

One of the simplest and most cost-effective ways of getting your business running with a positive cash flow again is to optimize those wasteful daily processes and tasks you and your team get stuck on every day.

Of course, many of these will be unique to your industry and way of doing business, but from invoicing to daily admin tasks, there's so much wasted time every day that could be better spent getting your business back on track.

A few immediate suggestions include:

  • Cutting down on business travel by prioritising virtual meetings and re-thinking how your sales and executive staff travel. Even company cars can become less of a money burden if you take the time to know how to how to save gas (and the money you spend on it)
  • Going paperless and using that printer money to operate through cloud software won't just bring your business into the 21st century, but make daily meetings and employee collaboration more most-effective
  • Using financial trackers to assess your financial situation regularly and automate invoicing, making sure you're always getting paid on time

Monitoring all of this excess spend spillage and ensuring you're on top of emerging problems can be made very simple through time tracking tools. Rather than just a way to keep an eye on remote employees and cut out excessive slacking, Houston businesses can spot which needless tasks are making key employee's life difficult and where budget is being wasted through these (as of March 2020) essential digital tools

.

Consider outside funding options

Last year, we covered how creative thinking in terms of financing can be Houston businesses' path out of COVID financial burden. Since then, much has changed, but many of the methods remain realistic ways businesses of all sizes can recover cash flow.

Unless you went into the pandemic with significant cash to burn, you're likely playing things quite close to the line right now. Without customers through the door and big contracts, you might need working capital to jump-start your recovery.

Fortunately, some great financing options for small businesses have sprung up or gone from strength to strength throughout the COVID rebuilding period. Some of these options include:

Now, not all of these options will work for your business, particularly the ones aimed at small businesses. However, they're all reasonable ways of getting a short-term boost to buy remote office equipment, re-work your business for social distancing to avoid closures or bring in new employees.

The key is not to become reliant on these revenue streams. They should be short jabs to get your business going again, not a consistent fix you should turn to in the event of financial challenges. Borrowing can be both an unhealthy attitude to have and a competitive venture.

Completing these tasks will help you establish a timeline for recovery. No one is quite sure what their business will look like once COVID-19 is completely a thing of the past, but the pandemic should be a lesson that no business can be caught slacking.

The journey to recovery, particularly sorting out your cash flow is full of tiny steps. There's no quick fix to getting back to where you were, but a keen eye and sensible decision-making will ensure you're more prepared than your competitors.

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Kayleigh Alexandra is an entrepreneur and writer at WriterZone and Micro Startups based in the United Kingdom.

What are health tech investors looking for these days? Thes VC experts weigh in. Photo via Getty Images

Here's what venture capital investors look for in Houston health tech

money talks

It's been a tumultuous year for health technology — and venture capital investment activity has definitely been affected. Looking toward the future, a group of panelists discussed how they are investing — and what they are looking for.

The panel, which was presented in partnership with the Houston Angel Network and Cooley for Houston Tech Rodeo, featured three investors:

  • Dennis McWilliams, partner at Santé
  • Terri Burke, venture partner at Epidarex Capital
  • Farzad Soleimani, health care partner at 1984 Ventures
Here's what these professionals consider when evaluating a potential deal.

A unique idea

The idea and solution of the med tech device or digital health company is of course of high importance for the investors.

"We really look for that unmet need. What is the innovative technology or med tech that's doing something different?" Burke says. "We try to find things that are breakthrough or disruptive that aren't one of six going after the same thing."

In light of COVID-19, the panelists discussed the advancement of remote care and telehealth. Another concern amid population growth is access to primary care doctors.

"Five years from now, we're going to be short like 60,000 to 70,000 primary care doctors," Soleimani says. "The only way we can close the gap is either to turn regular doctors into super doctors, and that's going to be driven by AI and data. ... Or, enabling other providers to act more like primary care doctors."

This type of innovation is top of mind for investors. What technology can help experts like pharmacists to provide care of this sort?

"We've seen a lot of investment going into enabling other providers to act as primary care doctors," Soleimani says. "They have the training."

A strong team

Much like startups, the people power the product growth. The panelists emphasized the importance of the potential team they'd be investing in, and it's something you learn over the diligence process.

​"You want to work with people you enjoy working with, so finding the right mix of people — whether we build it ourselves and help scale up a new company or a seasoned teams comes to us," Burke says.

For Soleimani, he is specific about making sure companies have someone in the CTO role — not just a part-time developer or contract worker.

"You need to have somebody who can build the technology — I cannot stress that enough," he says. "The process is arduous, and you're not going to get there overnight."

IP and regulatory process

Investors are looking to support protected technology, the panelists say, and most of the times they want an entrepreneur to start that process earlier than you might think.

"Investors actually care and care a lot and go pretty deep to make sure that something in the idea is protectable," Burke says.

The panelists also say they want a team that understands the regulatory process that will get the technology to scale. And investors aren't scared of investing in companies going down these paths.

"The regulatory process is often times misinterpreted — it can be your ally," Soleimani says. "Just because something needs to go through the regulatory process doesn't mean it is less attractive. It just has to be the right process for it."

McWilliams says a few years ago, maybe the process was more confusing, but nowadays companies are familiar with their options.

"For the most part, most devices know what the pathway is going to be," he explains. "If a team is telling you they don't really know what their regulatory strategy is, they probably don't know what they are doing or they don't want to tell you."

The panelists acknowledged that these regulatory processes can be costly, so factoring that into the equation is important. It's also a space where surrounding yourself with the right people is important.

"I think it's important to not only know your pathway, but also what it will take to prove that out," Burke says. "That's where physician advisers can be really valuable, as well as regulatory consultants."

The right valuation

Valuation is another factor investors consider — both valuations that are too high and too low.

"There's always this question of valuation and there's always this desire to maximize your pre-money valuation on a deal, and I would say that this can often times get you in really big trouble," McWilliams says.

Consider the market and where your company capitalization stands, McWilliams adds, and make sure there's always room on either side.

Ultimately, it depends on the investor

The panelists left the audience with advice for entrepreneurs to do their homework when reaching out to potential investors. Both what kind of companies investors fund as well as what stage they contribute to.

"It's important to know what type of investor you're speaking to," Burke says.

Starting those relationships with plenty of time is also important.

"It's hard to build a meaningful, lasting relationship with an investor if you're running of cash in two months and need a decision right away," McWilliams says.

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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.