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

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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.