This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Joanna Nathan of Prana Thoracic, James Rees of BWT, and Aimee Gardner of SurgWise. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know — a special Labor Day edition, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from human resources to medical devices — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Joanna Nathan, CEO and founder of Prana Thoracic

Joanna Nathan joins the Houston Innovators Podcast and explains why she's taken on leading a medical device startup. Photo courtesy of Joanna Nathan

If there was a Houston innovation ecosystem playing card, Joanna Nathan would definitely have BINGO by now. From starting a startup while a student at Rice University and being an early hire of medical device company Saranas to leading investment at Johnson & Johnson's Center for Device Innovation, Nathan is headed back to the founder seat with Prana Thoracic, a new company planning to equip physicians with a better tool for lung cancer intervention.

"Unlike breast, prostate, and other types of cancers, we historically have not actively screened for lung cancer," Nathan says on this week's Houston Innovation Podcast. "Screening has only just begun in this world, and because of that, physicians still need the right tools to take early screening information and turn it into early intervention."

Last month, Nathan, who serves as CEO of the company, and Prana announced that Nucore Medical Inc., its wholly owned subsidiary, has been awarded a $3 million grant from CPRIT. Click here to read more and stream the podcast episode.

James Rees, chief impact officer at Botanic Water Technologies

James Rees is the Houston-based chief impact officer at BWT. Photo via LinkedIn

This probably isn't breaking news, but the world is on the midst of a water crisis. More than 2 million Americans don’t have access to clean drinking water, according to one study by the U.S. Water Alliance group.

To help close that water gap, international firm, Botanical Water Technologies, has plans to expand its presence in the United States with the Houston region being a strategic area to roll out the implementation of a patented water filtration technology. In addition, the group is launching a blockchain enabled trading platform with Fujitsu to help support the business.

“Water is finite,” says Houston-based James Rees, chief impact officer at BWT. “Due to global growth and climate conditions, we are going to have between 20 to 30 percent less water available to us by 2025. Communities are facing issues with water infrastructure. Some communities don't have water. This is where BWT plans to come in to help.” Click here to read more.Click here to read more.

Aimee Gardner, CEO and co-founder of SurgWise

Aimee Gardner is the CEO and president of Houston-based SurgeWise. Photo via surgwise.com

Over the course of the summer, Aimee Gardner has been writing strategic columns for startups with hiring tips. Her articles have focused on scaling quickly, why not to just trust your gut when hiring, and attracting and retaining a diverse workforce.

Gardner's advice is especially keen since she herself is a startup founder — but also has a Master's degree in organizational psychology. For years, she's been advising both her clients at her company SurgWise Consulting, but also students at Baylor College of Medicine.

"If your startup has gotten to the point of being able to grow the team, it is clear that ample vision, strategy, and innovation has been dedicated to the mission up until this point. Hiring in the next round of team members is not a process that should undergo any less dedication," she writes in one of her articles. "Ensuring that those around you share your vision, goals, and have a complementary set of skills and attributes will be critical to ensure success in your company’s growth and achievements." Click here to read her guest columns,

Consider these evidence-backed hiring tips before scaling your startup's team. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: How to scale your startup team quickly and efficiently

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Startups often use the first rounds of funding to bring in key individuals who will help make the company vision a reality. But hiring the right talent is not an easy task, and ensuring the right team is in place is important now more than ever during the early stages of your company’s growth.

Fortunately, there is a science to employee selection. In fact, there is entire field — Industrial & Organizational Psychology — dedicated to providing professional guidelines, best practices, and over 100 years of evidence to support recommendations into identifying talent an effective, efficient, and equitable manner.

From this field, we know that the first step to hiring in the right talent for your startup is to perform a thorough job analysis. Whether you are bringing in a new CEO, a vice president of sales, or extra hands for your technology platform, gaining consensus among your team about the competencies and attributes required to effectively perform in a new role is critical.

It sounds simple, but it is actually a rarity for organizational stakeholders to get together and comprehensively map out what the role entails and what candidate qualities are necessary to meet those requirements and expectations. Factoring things in such as early-stage demands, future landscape, and organizational culture will help create a list of competencies and attributes needed to be optimally effective in the role, beyond just professional experience and certifications.

After prioritizing the list of competencies and qualities deemed vital for candidates, you will then want to prioritize the list based on importance, how frequently they are required in the role, and the extent to which each is required upon hire —versus being easily trained or acquired on the job. Those at the top of the list should be directly assessed during the candidate screening and selection process. Whether it is through work samples, written assessments, situational judgment tests, or interviews, creating a diverse lineup of candidate screening processes will help ensure you are able to measure the whole person.

Because selection decisions can be high stakes — both for the candidate and your company — ensuring these assessments are directly related to the position, data-driven, and equitable will be key for maximizing the utility and legal defensibility of your selection system. For example, implementing unstructured interviews is common practice in many organizations large and small.

However, what the data shows is clear: structured interviews — those that consist of a pre-defined list of questions related to the role that are used for every candidate, use standard interview rating tools, and involve interviewers who have been trained to conduct structured interviews and use the rating tools — are more efficient and effective in accurately assessing job candidates.

Furthermore, the structure involved in this interview format reduces the opportunity for common biases and inappropriate questions to emerge during the interview process, thereby enhancing the likelihood for making equitable selection decisions and avoiding potential for legal litigation. Thus, it is important to ensure every screening tool or process has been thoughtfully considered and implemented from an efficiency, effectiveness, and equity lens. Making a shortlist of candidates and final offers based on the data accumulated through these processes will maximize the likelihood of identifying best fit candidates based on comprehensive data points.

If your startup has gotten to the point of being able to grow the team, it is clear that ample vision, strategy, and innovation has been dedicated to the mission up until this point. Hiring in the next round of team members is not a process that should undergo any less dedication. Ensuring that those around you share your vision, goals, and have a complementary set of skills and attributes will be critical to ensure success in your company’s growth and achievements.

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Aimee Gardner is the co-founder of SurgWise, a tech-enabled consulting firm for hiring surgeons, and associate dean at Baylor College of Medicine.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Kelly Pracht of nVenue, Aimee Gardner of SurgWise, and Kelly Avant of Mercury. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from sports tech to venture capital — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Kelly Pracht, CEO and co-founder of nVenue

nVenue's proprietary predictive analytics appear at the bottom right corner of the screen on Apple TV broadcasts. Photo via nvenue.com

Next time you're watching an Astros game on Apple TV, check the bottom right-hand side of the screen. That prediction data comes by way of a Texas startup with deep Houston roots. nVenue, co-founded by Houstonian Kelly Pracht, struck a deal earlier this year that allowed her data-driven sports analytics platform on the screens of baseball viewers this season.

"In under two weeks we structured the deal, convinced them it worked, pulled together every bit of testing we could — by then we only had one week of pre-season games to test — and we pulled it off," Pracht says.

The technology has a lot of potential when it comes to microbetting — a part of sports fandom that's growing by the second. Click here to read more.

Aimee Gardner, CEO and president of SurgWise

SurgeWise is giving surgical teams the right support for hiring. Photo via SurgWise.com

Hiring surgeons is a whole thing — tons of paperwork, inequitable and archaic processes, and lots of medical practitioners' time wasted. Five years ago, Aimee Gardner came up with a solution and founded SurgWise Consulting, where she serves as president and CEO.

"We help provide assessments to help screen competencies and attributes that people care about," Gardner says. "(Those) are really hard to assess, but really differentiate people who really thrive in training in their careers and people who don't."

Now, Gardner is tapping into the last five years of data she's accumulated and has big plans for developing a tech platform for her solution. Click here to read more.

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Mercury Fund

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant's resume might not make sense to you at first. She went from a gender studies major in undergrad, followed by a stint in the Peace Corps, before heading to law school. After moving on to get her MBA over her JD, Avant realized a way she could really make the biggest impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A. Click here to read more.


SurgWise is giving surgical teams the right support for hiring. Photo via Getty Images

Houston startup equips medical teams with data-driven hiring tool

staffing up

A surgeon spends over a decade in school and residency perfecting their medical skills, but that education doesn't usually include human resources training. Yet, when it comes to placing candidates into surgical programs, the hiring responsibilities fell on the shoulders of surgeons.

Aimee Gardner, who has her PhD in organized psychology, saw this inefficiency first hand.

"I worked in a large surgery department in Dallas right out of graduate school and quickly learned how folks are selected into residency and fellowship programs and all the time that goes into it — time spent by physicians reviewing piles and piles of like paper applications and spending lots and lots and of hours interviewing like hundreds of candidates," Gardner tells InnovationMap. "I was just really shocked by the inefficiencies from just a business and workforce perspective."

And things have only gotten worse. There are more applicants hitting the scene every year and they are applying to more hospitals and programs. Future surgeons used to apply for 20 or so programs — now it’s more like 65 on average. According to her research, Gardner says reviewing these applications cost lots of time and money, specifically $100,000 to fill five spots annually just up to the interviewing phase of the process.

Five years ago, Gardner came up with a solution to this “application fever,” as she describes, and all the inefficiencies, and founded SurgWise Consulting, where she serves as president and CEO.

"We help provide assessments to help screen competencies and attributes that people care about," Gardner says. "(Those) are really hard to assess, but really differentiate people who really thrive in training in their careers and people who don't."

Aimee Gardner is the CEO and president of Houston-based SurgWise. Photo via surgwise.com

These are the non-technical skills, like the professionalism, interpersonal skills, and communication. While SurgWise began as a service-oriented consulting company, the company is now ready to tap technology to expand upon its solution. The work started out of Houston Methodist, and SurgWise is still working with surgery teams there. She says they've accumulated tons of data that can be leveraged and streamlined.

"We're now pivoting from a very intimate client approach to a more scalable offering. Every year we assess essentially around 80 percent of all the people applying to be future surgeons — those in pediatric surgery, vascular surgery, and more,” Gardner says. “We’ve used kind of the last five years of data and experiences to create a more scalable, easy-to-integrate, and off-the-shelf solution.”

Gardner says her solution is critical for providing more equity in the hiring process.

“One of our goals was to create more equitable opportunities and platforms to assess folks because many of the traditional tools and processes that most people use in this space have lots of opportunity for bias and a high potential for disadvantaging individuals from underrepresented groups," she says. "For example, letters of recommendation are often a very insider status. If you went to some Ivy League or your parents were in health care and they know someone, you have that step up from a networking and socioeconomic status standpoint."

Personal statements and test scores are also inequitable, because they tend to be better submissions if people have money for coaching.

SurgWise hopes to lower the number of programs future surgeons apply to too to further streamline the process. She hopes to do this through an app and web tool that can matchmake people to the right program.

“Our ultimate goal is to create a platform for applicants to obtain a lot more information about the various places to which they apply to empower them to make more informed decisions, so that they don't have to apply to a hundred places," Gardner says. "We want to essentially create a match-style app that allows them to input some data and tell us 'here's what I'm looking for here are my career goals and any preferences I have.'”

While that tool is down the road, Gardner says SurgWise is full speed ahead toward launching the data-driven hiring platform. The bootstrapped company hopes to raise early venture funding this summer in order to hire and grow its team.

“As we continue to consider this app that I talked about and some of the other opportunities to scale to other specialties we're gonna start looking for a series A funding later this summer.”

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Houston immuno-oncology company reaches next FDA milestone, heads to phase 2 trial

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A Houston immuno-oncology company has recently made major headway with the FDA, including both a fast track and an orphan drug designation. It will soon start a phase 2 trial of its promising cancer fighting innovation.

Diakonos Oncology was born in 2016, the brainchild of Baylor researchers already hard at work in the realm of dendritic cell vaccines. Drs. Will Decker, Matt Halpert, and Vanaja Konduri partnered with Dan Faust, a Houston businessman and pharmacist, to bring their treatment to the public, says COO Jay Hartenbach.

The name Diakonos means “deacon or servant in Greek,” he explains. “A lot of companies end up focusing on treating a specific disease or cancer and what you end up having is a significant amount of potential but with a lot of tradeoffs and downsides. And so our goal is we need to eliminate the cancer but we can't harm or dramatically malign the patient in doing so.”

How do they do that? Because the therapy catalyzes a natural immune response, it’s the patient’s own body that’s fighting the cancer. Hartenbach credits Decker with the idea of educating dendritic cells to attack cancer, in this case, glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), one of the most aggressive cancers with which doctors and patients are forced to tangle.

“Our bodies are already very good at responding very quickly and aggressively to what it perceives as virally infected cells. And so what Dr. Decker did was basically trick the immune system by infecting these dendritic cells with the cancer specific protein and mRNA,” details Hartenbach.

Jay Hartenbach is the COO of Diakonos Oncology. Photo courtesy of Diakonos Oncology

But GBM isn’t the only cancer on which Diakonos Oncology has its sights set. Other notably stubborn-to-treat cancers that they’re working on include pancreatic cancer and angiosarcoma. The scientists are focused on meeting unmet medical needs, but also realize that treating such cancers would allow for the fastest determination of whether or not the treatment was effective.

The fast track designation, originally received last fall, means that the drug approval time for DOC1021, Diakonos’ glioblastoma vaccine, will be only six months. But Hartenbach highlights an additional boon, the fact that the special designation also allows for more frequent communications with the FDA.

“That’s very helpful for us, right as we're contemplating how to design the upcoming trials. From a business standpoint, it also is incredibly helpful because it provides a third party validation of what we're doing and the results that we're seeing,” he says.

What they’re seeing includes the survival of 13 out of 16 patients from the initial October 2021 enrollment. The three patients who passed away received the lowest dose of DOC1021. Hartenbach says that the remaining patients are thriving, with no serious adverse effects. With a median survival rate of 15 to 21 months, it’s hard to understate the significance of these patients’ success.

Diakonos Oncology is headquartered in Houston, with a staff of 10 in Space City and an additional eight distributed employees. Hartenbach says that the company’s hometown has been instrumental in its success. He mentions that the robust innovation of the Texas Medical Center meant that as the company has grown, there has never been a motivation to leave Houston.

“You're having a lot of both investment and companies actually moving to Houston,” Hartenbach says. “So we’ve been fortunate to have started there. There are bigger traditional biotech hubs, San Diego, Boston, and San Francisco, but Houston really is now putting itself on the map and it's getting a lot of attention.”

One of the companies responsible for that improved reputation? Diakonos Oncology and its promising approach to aggressive cancers.

Houston professor earns competitive NSF award, nearly $700,000 grant

science supported

An assistant professor at Rice University has won one of the highly competitive National Science Foundation's CAREER Awards.

The award grants $670,406 over five years to Amanda Marciel, the William Marsh Rice Trustee Chair of chemical and biomolecular engineering, to continue her research in designing branch elastomers that return to their original shape after being stretched, according to a statement from Rice. The research has applications in stretchable electronics and biomimetic tissues.

“My goal is to create a new paradigm for designing elastomers,” Marciel said in a statement. “The research has four aims: to determine the role of comb polymer topology in forming elastomers, understanding the effects of that topology on elastomer mechanics, characterizing its effects on elastomer structure and increasing the intellectual diversity in soft matter research.”

Marciel, who joined the faculty at Rice in 2019, is one of about 500 researchers to receive the NSF's CAREER Award each year. The award recognizes early-career faculty members who “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the NSF.

In addition to supporting Marciel's research, the funds will also go toward creating opportunities in soft matter research for undergraduates and underrepresented scientists. It will establish a new annual symposium called the Texas Soft Matter Meeting, where community college teachers can participate in a soft matter laboratory module and students in the Research Experiences for Undergrads program at Rice will present their summer research.

Recently, Rice also launched the new Rice Synthetic Biology Institute, which aims to strengthen the synthetic biology community across disciplines at the university. It is part of an $82 million investment the university put toward synthetic biology, neuroengineering and physical biology in 2018.

A fellow team or Rice researcher is also working on wearable haptic accessories. A member of the team was recently named to the 2024 cohort of Rice Innovation Fellows. Click here to learn more.