A panel of Houston innovators explained how impact investment isn't charity. It provides both financial and societal returns. Photo courtesy of SWAN

Houston innovators called for existing and potential investors to focus on impact investing — for the improvement of both society and your bottom line.

SWAN Impact Network, which announced its expansion into Houston earlier last month, is an investment organization that prioritizes funding mission driven startups and educating angels on how to analyze impact investment companies. The organization hosted a launch event and panel at the Ion last week to discuss the process and goals of impact investing and highlighted their own success stories as angel investors. The panelists included Bob Bridge, Kerri Smith, and Emily Reiser, who were moderated by Grace Rodriguez, executive director of Impact Hub Houston.

Emily Reiser, associate director of the Texas Medical Center’s innovation team, said impact investing, though focused on improving people’s lives through innovations, should still rely on typical business models and return profiles.

“It’s not charity investment, it’s investing with an eye towards how that investment is going to also return to the greater society as well as back to your pockets,” Reiser says.

As there was a mix of prospective angel investors and entrepreneurs in attendance at the event, Reiser encouraged the founders to have formal business plans in place before meeting with investors, from setting up customer feedback systems to budgeting estimates.

“In the impact space you’ll get some great enthusiasm from people who want to join your mission to save lives, or change the world, or save the planet but make sure you do all the rest of the work behind that to build out the rest of your business model, figure out how you’re going to sell, get it optioned, and on the market,” Reiser says.

Bob Bridge, the founder and executive director of SWAN, stressed the importance of examining long term consequences of impact-driven startups. Bridge illustrated the importance of doing research into how these startups could unintentionally harm communities before investing in them by discussing the well known shoe manufacturer TOMS, whose business model revolved around matching each pair of purchased shoes by donating a pair to people in developing countries, putting local manufacturers out of business.

“These companies are often just now entering the market place so they can’t measure their actual impact results yet because they’re not delivering services or products yet,” Bridge says. “We look for them to have some sort of data to give us a clue if what they’re doing is going to work … convince us there is efficacy to what you are doing and that your impact solution is competitive.”

Bridge also adds there is no concrete definition of impact investing because every society has different needs to be met through creative solutions, from developing more robust technology to encouraging the hiring of underrepresented minority groups. When making decisions over which companies to invest in, Bridge says he also prioritizes startup teams that are collaborative and transparent.

“We don’t invest in Steve Jobs' kind of personalities … We want people who are always learning from their customers, competitors, and employees,” he explains.

Kerri Smith, executive director of the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator program, says her team readies their emerging startups to tackle meetings with investors by asking them to quantify the impact of their technology on users.

“We’re seeing a lot of investors as well as boards of directors requiring companies to be more responsive to those kinds of things,” Smith says. “We try to prepare the startups in ways that will make them more ready to answer questions about the impact that they’re having societally as well as financially.”

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Ramanan Krishnamoorti of UH, Valerie Tompson of SWAN Impact Network, Evan Erickson of TexPower Technologies. Photos courtesy

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 battery tech to impact inveesting — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Ramanan Krishnamoorti,  as vice president of energy and innovation at University of Houston

Ramanan Krishnamoorti, vice president of energy and innovation at the University of Houston, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to talk about the university's dedication to helping the city become an innovative force. Photo via UH.edu

Ramanan Krishnamoorti has had a varied career in academia, from an engineering professor to nanotech research. While he never made the transition from researcher to entrepreneur, he managed to snag a CEO title at the university about a decade ago: Chief energy officer.

Since then his role has expanded to include advancing UH's innovation of all kinds — from health tech to the arts — as vice president of energy and innovation at UH. In his role, he oversees the UH Technology Bridge, a lab and coworking space for tenants just a short drive away from UH's main campus, as well as future plans, like a new central campus hub for innovation that's in its early stages of development.

"What we really need at the university today is to bring innovation — which tech transfer is a piece of — and connect that to real-world challenges to deliver what the world needs, which is talented folks delivering new innovative, entrepreneurial, or intrapreneurial programs," Krishnamoorti says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Read more.

Valerie Tompson, Houston chapter lead for SWAN Impact Network

Austin-founded SWAN Impact Network has entered the Houston innovation ecosystem. Photo courtesy of SWAN

SWAN Impact Network, which focuses on funding early-stage, impact-driven startups, announced that Houston will be its next market expansion. Founded in 2016 as the Southwest Angel Network, the organization has grown from several investors to over 80 across Texas. The investors, who meet virtually, range from former entrepreneurs, seasoned investors, and first time angels.

Valerie Tompson, who's serving as the Houston market lead, is an example of someone who was drawn to SWAN's mission, even though she had never invested in startups before.

"I was intrigued by the idea of being able to invest in companies that are making a difference in the world — and it's not a charitable donation," she says, explaining that joining a network allowed for her to learn the ropes and understand the process. Read more.

Evan Erickson, co-founder and CEO of TexPower

A Houston startup founded off research out of a Texas university has cut the ribbon on its new lab space. Photo courtesy of TexPower

TexPower EV Technologies Inc. celebrated the opening of its 6,000-square-foot laboratory and three-ton-per-year pilot production line at a ribbon-cutting event last week. The Northwest Houston site is located at 6935 Brittmoore Rd.

TexPower spun out of the University of Texas at Austin in 2019. The company was co-founded by Erickson with CTO Wangda Li and Board Chairman Arumugam Manthiram, a professor at UT whose lithium-ion battery research fuels the foundation of the company.

“We want to point out how lucky we are — as a company and as scientists," Erickson says at the ribbon cutting event. "It’s not common that you see something you work on in academia turn into something that can become commercially successful.” Read more.

Austin-founded SWAN Impact Network has entered the Houston innovation ecosystem. Photo via Getty Images

Texas angel investor group expands to make impact in Houston

angels flying in

An angel investment network founded in Austin has announced its entrance into the Houston market.

SWAN Impact Network, which focuses on funding early-stage, impact-driven startups, announced that Houston will be its next market expansion. Founded in 2016, the organization expanded to Dallas two years ago. Now, SWAN is hitting the Bayou City and is actively looking for potential angel investors to join its network.

"Houston is the logical place for us to go because a lot of our deep expertise we developed is grounded around life science, health and wellness, and environmental," Bob Bridge, executive director of SWAN, tells InnovationMap. "There's a lot of people in Houston in the spaces where we've spent most of our time and money."

SWAN, originally founded as the Southwest Angel Network, has grown from several investors to over 80 across Texas. The investors, who meet virtually, range from former entrepreneurs, seasoned investors, and first time angels.

Valerie Tompson, who's serving as the Houston market lead, is an example of someone who was drawn to SWAN's mission, even though she had never invested in startups before.

"I was intrigued by the idea of being able to invest in companies that are making a difference in the world — and it's not a charitable donation," she says, explaining that joining a network allowed for her to learn the ropes and understand the process.

Bridge says they are looking to add 20 Houston investors over the next year. He says they are also interested in adding on volunteer analysts to help in the diligence work of the group. Whether you're a frequent investor or just interested in learning more, SWAN's door is open.

"We encourage new angels not to invest at first — go with us for a ride for six months, learn how we think about companies, see a bunch of companies pitch," Bridge says. "Once they start to get the comfort level up, then they can start making investors. We're very much about helping new angels get comfortable."

Currently, SWAN has two Houston startups — Scriptly Rx and Eisana — in its investment portfolio. In addition to the investor network, SWAN, a nonprofit organization, also has its SWAN Impact Philanthropic Fund that also invests in impact-driven businesses.

SWAN is hosting an event at the Ion on Wednesday, May 31, at 6 pm to celebrate its new Houston expansion, as well as to host a panel discussing impact investing. The event is free to attend, and registration is open.

Valerie Tompson, Houston chapter lead, and Bob Bridge, executive director, will be at the May 31 event. Photos courtesy of SWAN

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Health tech startup launches Houston study improve stroke patients recovery

now enrolling

A Houston-born company is enrolling patients in a study to test the efficacy of nerve stimulation to improve outcomes for stroke survivors.

Dr. Kirt Gill and Joe Upchurch founded NeuraStasis in 2021 as part of the TMC Biodesign fellowship program.

“The idea for the company manifested during that year because both Joe and I had experiences with stroke survivors in our own lives,” Gill tells InnovationMap. It began for Gill when his former college roommate had a stroke in his twenties.

“It’s a very unpredictable, sudden disease with ramifications not just for my best friend but for everyone in his life. I saw what it did to his family and caregivers and it's one of those things that doesn't have as many solutions for people to continue recovery and to prevent damage and that's an area that I wanted to focus myself on in my career,” Gill explains.

Gill and Upchurch arrived at the trigeminal and vagus nerves as a potential key to helping stroke patients. Gill says that there is a growing amount of academic literature that talks about the efficacy of stimulating those nerves. The co-founders met Dr. Sean Savitz, the director of the UTHealth Institute for Stroke and Cerebrovascular Diseases, during their fellowship. He is now their principal investigator for their clinical feasibility study, located at his facility.

The treatment is targeted for patients who have suffered an ischemic stroke, meaning that it’s caused by a blockage of blood flow to the brain.

“Rehabilitation after a stroke is intended to help the brain develop new networks to compensate for permanently damaged areas,” Gill says. “But the recovery process typically slows to essentially a standstill or plateau by three to six months after that stroke. The result is that the majority of stroke survivors, around 7.6 million in the US alone, live with a form of disability that prevents complete independence afterwards.”

NeuraStasis’ technology is intended to help patients who are past that window. They accomplish that with a non-invasive brain-stimulation device that targets the trigeminal and vagus nerves.

“Think of it kind of like a wearable headset that enables stimulation to be delivered, paired to survivors going through rehabilitation action. So the goal here is to help reinforce and rewire networks as they're performing specific tasks that they're looking to improve upon,” Gill explains.

The study, which hopes to enroll around 25 subjects, is intended to help people with residual arm and hand deficits six months or more after their ischemic stroke. The patients enrolled will receive nerve stimulation three times a week for six weeks. It’s in this window that Gill says he hopes to see meaningful improvement in patients’ upper extremity deficits.

Though NeuraStasis currently boasts just its two co-founders as full-time employees, the company is seeing healthy growth. It was selected for a $1.1 million award from the National Institutes of Health through its Blueprint MedTech program. The award was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The funding furthers NeuraStasis’ work for two years, and supports product development for work on acute stroke and for another product that will aid in emergency situations.

Gill says that he believes “Houston has been tailor-made for medical healthcare-focused innovation.”

NeuraStasis, he continues, has benefited greatly from its advisors and mentors from throughout the TMC, as well as the engineering talent from Rice, University of Houston and Texas A&M. And the entrepreneur says that he hopes that Houston will benefit as much from NeuraStasis’ technology as the company has from its hometown.

“I know that there are people within the community that could benefit from our device,” he says.

Texas Space Commission launches, Houston execs named to leadership

future of space

Governor Greg Abbott announced the Texas Space Commission, naming its inaugural board of directors and Texas Aerospace Research and Space Economy Consortium Executive Committee.

The announcement came at NASA's Johnson Space Center, and the governor was joined by Speaker Dade Phelan, Representative Greg Bonnen, Representative Dennis Paul, NASA's Johnson Space Center Director Vanessa Wyche, and various aerospace industry leaders.

According to a news release, the Texas Space Commission will aim to strengthen commercial, civil, and military aerospace activity by promoting innovation in space exploration and commercial aerospace opportunities, which will include the integration of space, aeronautics, and aviation industries as part of the Texas economy.

The Commission will be governed by a nine-member board of directors. The board will also administer the legislatively created Space Exploration and Aeronautics Research Fund to provide grants to eligible entities.

“Texas is home to trailblazers and innovators, and we have a rich history of traversing the final frontier: space,” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick says in a news release. “Texas is and will continue to be the epicenter for the space industry across the globe, and I have total confidence that my appointees to the Texas Space Commission Board of Directors and the Texas Aerospace Research and Space Economy Consortium Executive Committee will ensure the Texas space industry remains an international powerhouse for cutting-edge space innovation.”

TARSEC will independently identify research opportunities that will assist the state’s position in aeronautics research and development, astronautics, space commercialization, and space flight infrastructure. It also plans to fuel the integration of space, aeronautics, astronautics, and aviation industries into the Texas economy. TARSEC will be governed by an executive committee and will be composed of representatives of each higher education institution in the state.

“Since its very inception, NASA’s Johnson Space Center has been home to manned spaceflight, propelling Texas as the national leader in the U.S. space program,” Abbott says during the announcement. “It was at Rice University where President John F. Kennedy announced that the U.S. would put a man on the moon—not because it was easy, but because it was hard.

"Now, with the Texas Space Commission, our great state will have a group that is responsible for dreaming and achieving the next generation of human exploration in space," he continues. "Texas is the launchpad for Mars, innovating the technology that will colonize humanity’s first new planet. As we look into the future of space, one thing is clear: those who reach for the stars do so from the great state of Texas. I look forward to working with the Texas Space Commission, and I thank the Texas Legislature for partnering with industry and higher education institutions to secure the future of Texas' robust space industry."

The Houston-area board of directors appointees included:

  • Gwen Griffin, chief executive officer of the Griffin Communications Group
  • John Shannon, vice president of Exploration Systems at the Boeing Company
  • Sarah "Sassie" Duggleby, co-founder and CEO of Venus Aerospace
  • Kirk Shireman, vice president of Lunar Exploration Campaigns at Lockheed Martin
  • Dr. Nancy Currie-Gregg, director of the Texas A&M Space Institute

Additionally, a few Houstonians were named to the TARSEC committee, including:

  • Stephanie Murphy, CEO and executive chairman of Aegis Aerospace
  • Matt Ondler, president and former chief technology officer at Axiom Space
  • Jack “2fish” Fischer, vice president of production and operations at Intuitive Machines
  • Brian Freedman, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership and vice chairman of Wellby Financial
  • David Alexander, professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Rice Space Institute at Rice University

To see the full list of appointed board and committee members, along with their extended bios, click here.