This week's batch of innovators have had to be pretty creative in their industries. Courtesy photos

The ability to innovate lives in one's ability to think outside of the box — no matter the industry. This week's Houston innovators to know have had to get creative and think of new ways of doing things, from retailing to creating greeting cards.

Harvin Moore, president of Houston Exponential

Harvin Moore, who has a 20-year career in tech and innovation, has been named as president of Houston Exponential. Courtesy of HX

Harvin Moore has been a banker, an educator, an elected official, and more — but his newest title is president of Houston Exponential, which suits him just fine.

Now, under his new role, he's leading the nonprofit that's focused on connecting, promoting, and attracting within Houston's innovation ecosystem.

"There's no question that five years from now, or 10 years from now, Houston will be a very large and continually rapidly growing tech economy," Moore tells InnovationMap. "The question is just how fast it is going to get here." Read more.

Alex Kurkowski, founder of Tellinga

Alex Kurkowski wanted to tell a better story. Courtesy of Tellinga

Alex Kurkowski has a problem with traditional greeting cards.

"They're templated. They're frozen, stagnant, fixed in what they are," Kurkowski says. "They suck."

The Rice University MBA grad decided he would do something about it. He created his business, Tellinga — short for "telling a story" — to create a new avenue for people to communicate a message to their loved ones. Kurkowski has big plans for his company and the platform he's creating. Read more.

Steve Scala, executive vice president of corporate development for DiCentral

Steve Scala joined DiCentral in 2014 to focus on growing the company worldwide. Courtesy of DiCentral

Something's brewing in retail — and it's scaring the industry. Steve Scala writes in a guest column for InnovationMap that dropshipping — the process of shipping products direct from vendors to customers, cutting out warehouses and storage facilities — is only going to gain traction in the industry.

"The study found that approximately 88 percent of retailers see dropship as inevitable to long-term success," Scala writes. "According to 87 percent of those retailers surveyed also experienced an increase in revenue as a result of dropshipping. Customer service also benefitted from dropship, with 84 percent of retailers noting improvements to customer service after adopting the dropshipping fulfillment model." Read more.

A study found that approximately 88 percent of retailers see dropship as inevitable to long-term success. Pexels

Streamlining supply chain efforts can help retailers survive the changing landscape, says this Houston expert

Guest Column

It's undeniable that retail habits of consumers is changing. DiCentral, a B2Bi managed services provider, recently partnered with the Center for Supply Chain Research at Lehigh University to survey over 180 global retail and manufacturing decision-makers and identify how evolving consumer buying behaviors are driving this dramatic shift in the retail landscape. The transformational supply chain challenges retailers and manufacturers are facing today indicate a new reality for retail.

The first of its kind study titled, "Supply Chain Collaboration in Transformative Vertical Industries: Implications of Omnichannel and Dropshipping," examines the motivations, challenges, benefits, and supply chain implications of the dropshipping model through which retailers ship orders directly from vendor warehouses, thereby reducing excess inventory and warehousing costs.

The study found that approximately 88 percent of retailers see dropship as inevitable to long-term success. According to 87 percent of those retailers surveyed also experienced an increase in revenue as a result of dropshipping. Customer service also benefitted from dropship, with 84 percent of retailers noting improvements to customer service after adopting the dropshipping fulfillment model.

From the manufacturers' perspective, dropshipping can significantly improve relationships with retailers as reported by 71 percent of manufacturing respondents. As many as 66 percent of manufacturers also experienced an increase in revenue after implementation of a dropship order fulfillment capability.

Challenges for both retail and manufacturing respondents point to systems limitations as being a primary obstacle to deploying an enterprise dropship program. According to the study, 40 percent of manufacturers acknowledged system limitations as being a challenge. Retailers responded similarly, with 32 percent identifying systems (ERP, EDI, WMS, etc.) as a hindrance.

While retailers and manufacturers face similar obstacles in streamlining supply chains, the benefits to both remain clear. As businesses look to maximize revenue and enhance customer service, dropshipping is a proven advantage to achieving both goals. Decision-makers in retail and manufacturing would be prudent to explore dropshipping as a means of achieving the ROI and improved quality of customer service.

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Steve Scala is executive vice president of corporate development at Houston-based DiCentral, a growing SaaS company.

With its new German office, Houston-based DiCentral looks to grow into other European markets, such as France, Italy, and Spain. Pexels

Houston SaaS company expands in Europe following acquisition

You're up, Europe

After slowly expanding worldwide for years, a Houston-based software-as-a-service company finally has a firm footing in Europe following its acquisition of a German company.

In December, DiCentral closed its deal with a Munich-based supply chain company named Compello Germany. With that acquisition, DiCentral Europe was born. Steve Scala, executive vice president of corporate development, says the deal was made possible after the company raised $15 million from Kanye Anderson Capital Advisors LP in 2016.

"We have a large supply chain network over Asia and North America, which gave us great coverage for our clients. In Europe, however, we're dealing with different supply chains," Scala says. "We had few people on the ground in Europe even though we have clients based there as well as clients elsewhere who conduct business there. We saw the need to fill that gap."

The new German office opens doors for the company to enter other European markets, and Scala says the company is looking into France, Italy, and Spain.

Currently, DiCentral's largest offices are in Houston and Ho Chi Minh City where they employ 150 and 300 people respectively. The company, which was founded in 2000 by Chairman and CEO Thuy Mai, has about 600 employees in total, and focuses on bonding buyers and suppliers, so both sides can optimize both the physical and digital supply chain.

DiCentral offers cloud-based electronic data interchange and supply chain solutions to its clients. By using DiCentral's propriety software, its clients, which include retailers, original equipment manufacturers, suppliers and more across many industry verticals, can find solutions tailored to their business.

"Global supply chains quickly can become very complex, especially when you add web purchases or individual orders from retailers that are sent from the manufacturers but made to look like they were sent from the retailer," Scala explains.

DiCentral allows businesses to improve their visibility of the supply chain by automating fulfillments, shipping and receiving processes.

"The end result for clients, whether they are a manufacturer, retailer or a third-party involved in distribution, using our software is improving the efficiency of supply chain," Scala continues. "With our solutions, clients can ramp up their operations even when navigating incredibly complex supply chains."

As DiCentral plans its continued European expansion, the company is facing various challenges from training its new 35 employees in Munich to potential logistical and regulatory issues.

"Our primary focus in 2019 is integrating the German operations with DiCentral. There are a lot of privacy challenges in Europe with GDPR, which means we need to be smart and cautious with how to deploy data centers because of stricter data privacy rules," Scala says.

Despite the challenges, Scala expects the new acquisition to lead to large growth for the company.

"I'm excited for the future. We closed on some great business contracts last year, however, the way our business works, we don't make money until there are transactions taking place across our network," Scala says.

It can take months to fully integrate clients into the DiCentral network, but Scala looks forward to the new revenue source. New contracts with large companies will allow DiCentral to continue fueling its global growth. The company continues to grow and hire, both abroad and locally, for various positions in sales, customer support, product management and marketing.

While the business continues to grow with an eye on new market sectors and areas for expansion, the DiCentral global headquarters are still located right by NASA. As a company founded in Texas, many of its original client base is based within the state.

"Texas has been a great location for us. We have data centers here in Texas, our headquarters are in Houston, so the original infrastructure of the company is all in Texas," says Scala.


Steve Scala joined DiCentral in 2014 to focus on growing the company worldwide. Courtesy of DiCentral

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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.