This week's innovators to know are involved in tech — from app development to revolutionizing the energy industry. Courtesy photos

From restaurant review apps to a device that monitors oil rigs, this week's innovators to know are tech savvy to say the least. All three took a chance on Houston for their startups, and that chance is paying off.

Christopher Robart, president of Ambyint USA

Christopher Robart leads Ambyint — a technology company creating the Nest thermostat for oil rigs — with his twin brother, Alex. Courtesy of Ambyint

Christopher Robart — along with his twin brother, Alex — is in the business of business development. The two run Ambyint, an oil and gas tech company that creates the Nest thermostat of oil rigs.

The company is looking to expand its customer base this year, as well as grow to be able to service different types of rig pumps.

Sumit Sikka, co-founder of Crityk

Sumit Sikka moved to Houston in order to grow his restaurant reviewing app. Courtesy of Crityk

What started as a quest to find the best Moscow Mule in Southern California has turned into growing business thriving in Houston's dining scene. Sumit Sikka first visited Houston for an event to promote the app he co-founded, Crityk, and basically never left.

"I packed up some of my bags and decided to try here in Houston," Sikka says." It's a lot easier to get to decision makers here in Houston than in LA."

Moji Karimi, co-founder of Cemvita Factory

Moji Karimi's company can take carbon dioxide from a refinery and convert it into glucose or another chemical. Courtesy of Cemvita

Moji Karimi never thought his oil and gas career would overlap with his sister's medical research. But in some ways, the fact the two of them teamed up to create a company that takes carbon dioxide from the air and turns it into something else, makes perfect sense that it crosses industries.

"There are a lot of opportunities bringing a proven science or technology from one industry into another to solve problems," he says.


Crityk's main goal is to be a marketing asset to restaurants. Getty Images

Restaurant-driven app focuses on Houston's food scene

order up

One night, Sumit Sikka was on a quest to find the best Moscow Mule in Santa Monica. He couldn't find anything helpful online, and when he finally did get a good recommendation, he was already done for the night.

It was through this experience that Sikka knew he wanted to make a restaurant finder app, but he wanted to do something different from Yelp or Google Reviews. On those platforms, a restaurant can get crushed by a bad review that provides false information. So, when he started getting the ball rolling on Crityk, he realized he needed to give the restaurants a voice.

"That was kind of the first big pivot," Sikka says. "First, we had an app based on user content. Then we pivoted to have content curated by the restaurant. For the first time ever, the restaurant gets to create their own profile."

The app launched on November 18 and has over 700 restaurant profiles live. There are 250 here in Houston, and 25 are clients, meaning they pay Crityk and have exclusive marketing opportunities, like promoting events — something most restaurants struggle to engage customers with.

"Restaurants do so much marketing, but they do the majority of it inside the restaurant," Sikka says. "Who's not going into your restaurant and not seeing that?"

Crityk users can log into the app and find different restaurant events around town to attend. Users can upload images of food from different restaurants. They rate the specific menu item, rather than the restaurant as a whole. Then, restaurants can link that photo to the specific menu item. Instead of comments on the picture, users can engage with hashtags. Any comments a user might have would go directly to the establishment to be resolved.

Another priority for Crityk is to have photos of every menu item the restaurant offers as well as complete dietary information. It's becoming more and more important for diners to know about vegan, gluten-free, etc. options before getting to the restaurant only to be disappointed with the selection.

Investing in Houston
While the idea came about in California, Sikka, who has a sister who lives in The Woodlands, took a trip to Houston to feel out consumer interest in the app. He hosted an event with a local restaurant and some influencers. The app kind of just exploded in town, Sikka says.

"I packed up some of my bags and decided to try here in Houston," Sikka says." It's a lot easier to get to decision makers here in Houston than in LA."

The development team is still based in India, and Crityk's co-founder, John Kegel, is still based in California. However, Sikka works out of Station Houston, something he says has been an extremely valuable. He says he's made some valuable connections through both Station and the Texas Restaurant Association.

"I think Houston is a phenomenal city to get started in. It's a big city, but it has the feeling of a small city."

Second course?
Still under two months old, the app has a lot of improvements and expansions in the works. Sikka says he wants to double the number of restaurant profiles to 500 by summer. He'd also like to grow the number of paying clients on the site, which would include more restaurants with a full photo menu on the app for users to browse.

Made for foodies

Screenshot via the Crityk app

Crityk is a free smartphone app that connects users to other users and to restaurants directly.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

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.