From advice to observations, these five quotes overheard at SXSW proves Houston had some great spokespeople at the 2019 SXSW Interactive festival. Photos courtesy

Houston had no shortage of representatives at the 2019 SXSW Interactive festival, which took place March 8 to 12 in Austin. Several sat on panels, lead mixers, or even starred in a movie for the film track of the conference.

I had the pleasure of sitting in on a great deal of these events featuring the best and the brightest of Houston's innovation stars, but I realize most did not. To catch you up and rid you of your fear of missing out, check out these five overheard quotes from the fest.

"I think it's so important to find your focus and know what to say no to, because you can't do it all. Elizabeth [Gore] and I have a monthly 'meeting of no' where we literally check off things off our plate that we need to stop doing because we just don't have enough time. It's probably one of our most valuable hours."

Carolyn Rodz, co-founded Alice with Elizabeth Gore. Alice co-hosted a series of panels at the Bumble Hive. She was asked, during the investment-focused panel, about focusing on B-to-B vs. B-to-C as a startup. Alice and Bumble just recently announced a partnership.

"We're trying to awaken the sleeping giant — a really huge city with lots of money, trying to infiltrate and activate huge family offices and rally people behind the goal of building a vibrant startup community. We've got a long way to go in terms of attracting VC talent — we're still behind Austin and Dallas."

Lawson Gow, founder and CEO of The Cannon, at the Austinpreneur podcast recording of "The Texas Startup Manifesto" episode. He was asked about what he's been trying to accomplish at The Cannon. Gow is the son of InnovationMap's parent company's CEO.

"We've got all the basic tools, and we know what the main issues are. There's still a lot to do, but we need to be smart and do fact-based and mechanism-based combinations."

James Allison, chair of Immunology and executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform at MD Anderson Cancer Center. At his panel, "Making the Fight Against Cancer Even More Personal," he was asked about the current status of immunotherapy research.

“Have very specific questions. I hate the ‘can I pick your brain’ request. If you want advice on something, ask me that specifically. And, show up at everything. … It’s not about what network you have, but how many networks you can get into.”

Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston. On the "Equitable Growth Ecosystems for Entrepreneurs" panel, she was asked about how an entrepreneur might try to grow their network and mentorship.

"Houston is an incredibly industrial town. We have more Fortune 500 companies here than anywhere other than New York — most of them in the world of the dirty and dangerous. We don't have a lot of scooter companies."

Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston. She was asked while on her panel, "Startup Funding: From Apprenticeships to Professions," about bootstrapping as a startup. Read more about this discussion here.

Houston, we have a problem — and it's helping local startups have access to funding. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

SXSW panelists: Improving access to funding is key for Houston's continued ecosystem growth

Show me the money

A few weeks ago, Mayor of Houston Sylvester Turner and Station Houston CEO Gabriella Rowe proclaimed that Houston's up-and-coming innovation ecosystem was no longer up and coming: It had arrived. But what preceded that proclamation was years of figuring out what it was Houston could do to get to this point.

"We're the fourth largest city in the United States, and in 2015 were ranked 20th out of 25 ecosystems," Rowe says at a panel at the 2019 SXSW Interactive festival.

Following that shocking news, Rowe says the city's focus was on building tools — accelerators, incubators, education — but nowhere did anyone talk about funding. Now, years later, with plenty of accelerators, workspaces, and educational programs, Rowe says Houston now has a great pipeline of companies, but the problem is finding funding for them to tap into.

Entrepreneurs are looking for three things when it comes to finding ways to fund their companies, according to Rowe. They want it to be accessible capital — not something they have to take a class on to figure out how to get to it. They also want it to be impactful and local to where their headquarters is.

"When I think about accessible, impactful, and local, I think, well, not a lot falls into that category [in Houston]," Rowe says. "We're not doing it particularly well right now."

It's a structural problem, according to Rowe. While the city has built up its entrepreneurial climate, it hasn't yet made the same effort with investors.

"Even if we have one or two funds, we need an ecosystem that supports funding in the same way we have an ecosystem that supports entrepreneurs," she says.

Joe Milam, founder of Austin-based AngelSpan, an early stage investor relations platform, says the issue in Houston — and Austin — is that industries can be siloed. There's a huge need for an honest broker to connect the dots across the city, and that person needs to be impartial.

"You gotta care about your community first, before you care about your own agenda," Milam says. "Otherwise, you're going to flounder like Houston has, and how Austin still does."

One thing everyone agreed on during the Saturday, March 9, panel was that Houston has a lot of money, but it's been sitting on the sidelines. The mission is, in addition to bringing in venture capital firms, finding ways to engage money that's already in town.

"We have to produce tools to enable that capital that's hiding," Rowe says.

Houston-based PolyVascular earned recognition in two categories, as well as nabbing up to $25,000. Courtesy of TMC Innovation

2 TMCx companies leave SXSW with awards and grant money

Med tech

Two Houston companies are walking away from SXSW with awards and grant funds.

PolyVascular, a member of TMCx's 2017 medical device cohort, won the fifth annual Impact Pediatric Health pitch competition's medical device and health disparities and equity categories. Additionally, the Southwest National Pediatric Device Consortium granted the company up to $25,000.

PolyVascular co-founder Henri Justino represented his company in three-minute pitch, and team members Dan Harrington and Kwon Soo Chun were also in attendance.

The company was one of 12 finalists in the competition, which took place on March 8 at SXSW in Austin. Among the judges was Houston doctor, Chester Koh, professor of urology, pediatrics, and OB/GYN at Baylor College of Medicine and Pediatric Urologist at Texas Children's Hospital.

"At the Southwest National Pediatric Device Consortium, we are always looking for the next cutting-edge breakthrough in the world of medical devices," says Koh in a release. "Impact Pediatric Health's reputation for bringing together the leaders in pediatric medical technology innovations makes it the perfect venue to help identify and accelerate the next generation of medical device companies impacting our youngest of patients."

Founded in 2014, PolyVascular produces polymeric transcatheter valves for children with congenital heart disease — the most common birth defect and number one cause of infant mortality in the developed world. The company's goal is to reduce that number of infant deaths by introducing a higher quality of valves.

Meanwhile, VastBiome, a 2018 biodesign TMCx company, received a $1,000 grant and is now one of two finalists for the San Francisco-based Illumina Accelerator program. The company works with scientists with ongoing clinical trials focusing on the microbiome as it pertains to therapy.

Another TMCx company, Zibrio, was up for an award in the 2019 SXSW Pitch event, but left the contest empty handed.

TMCx has multiple representatives at the festival, and the organization partnered with Energizing Health to host events throughout the first weekend of the conference.

Jim Allison, immunotherapy researcher at MD Anderson and Nobel Prize recipient, is the subject of a new film that premiered at SXSW. Photo courtesy of MD Anderson Cancer Center

Film about Nobel Prize-winning Houston scientist premieres at SXSW

Now showing

For most of his career, James Allison has been a cancer research wildcatter fighting an oftentimes lonely battle for the advancement of immunotherapy. The medical community has historically been skeptical of the science, but nonetheless Allison dedicated his life to developing a better treatment to the disease that has claimed so many lives — including his mother's.

Last year, Allison, the chair of Immunology and executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform at MD Anderson, won the 2018 Nobel Prize in medicine, and Breakthrough, a film about Allison's progression from early researcher to Nobel Prize recipient, premiered on March 9 at the 2019 SXSW Interactive festival.

But despite the Nobel Prize and the new film both validating the science to the public, Allison says there's a lot more work to be done in immunotherapy. Allison, his colleague, Padmanee Sharma, and the filmmaker for Breakthrough, Bill Haney, hosted a discussion at SXSW about the future of immunotherapy.

"It's a time of considerable optimism — and we're just at the beginning," says Allison.

The film focuses on the man behind the science — a 70-year-old, harmonica-playing researcher from small-town Alice, Texas. It's both an ode to Allison's career and a thought-provoking take on all the work left to be done in the industry.

Immunotherapy is the process of targeting one's immune system's T-cells, infection-fighting white blood cells, to attack cancer cells. Sharma, a fellow MD Anderson oncology expert and clinician, says their work has received clinical approvals for treating Melanoma, kidney cancer, lung cancer, and bladder cancer. The scientists are now focused on expanding that treatment to other cancer types and building upon the established platform they've created, while also making sure nothing comes in the way of the facts of the science.

"It really requires that we dedicate ourselves to the basic science, understanding it and educating people about it, so we don't allow the facts and science get muddied by things that are political or nonfactual," Sharma says.

In a lot of ways, this is what Breakthrough has been able to do — communicate the facts on a platform where anyone can understand the science.

"We have a revolution on our hands, and thankfully we have people like Bill who can really tell the story well, because maybe as a scientist and a clinician, we're not always equally talented on telling the story to laypeople," Sharma says.

Moving forward, Allison says he's focused on finding out why the treatment fails in some instances, and he's determined to progress immunotherapy's success rate from the 20 to 40 percent rate he says he sees it at now to 100 percent.

"We've got all the basic tools, and we know what the main issues are," Allison says. "There's still a lot to do, but we need to be smart and do fact-based and mechanism-based combinations."

From pitch competitions to panels, here's how Houstonians will be representing at SXSW. Marie Ketring/via sxsw.org

10 can't-miss events at SXSW featuring Houston speakers

South by the Bayou

Plenty of Houstonians, SXSW badge in hand, will be headed to Austin to network, learn, and share the stage with the rest of the festivals attendees. While InnovationMap has highlighted a few of the faces to be on the lookout for this weekend, here's a roundup of 10 events that have a Houston speaker or participant.

3/8 — Featured Session: Opening Speaker, Brené Brown

SXSW is starting right out of the gate with a Houstonian. Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, will be the keynote address. Her thoughtful talk will focus on community and one's sense of belonging.

The SXSW keynote address will be at 11 am on Friday, March 8, at the Austin Convention Center. Learn more.

3/8 — Hysteria No More: Data, Doctors and Women’s Health

Gone are the days that medical professionals dismiss women's health concerns as "hysteria," but there's still room for improvement on the matter. Three ob/gyns will talk about new ways women are finding health care solutions outside the doctor's office.

Rashmi Kudesia, physician at CCRM Fertility Houston, is one of the panelists, which occurs on Friday, March 8, at the JW Marriott. Learn more.

3/8 — Equitable Growth Ecosystems for Entrepreneurs panel

The country has an equity problem — especially when it comes to startups and funding. Nationally, venture capital funds are not distributed in a way that represents the populations diversity, so how does the industry right the course?

Grace Rodriguez of Impact Hub Houston is among the panel that will discuss this at 3:30 pm on Friday, March 8, at the Hilton Austin Downtown. Learn more.

3/9 — Austinpreneur: The Texas Startup Manifesto

Texas is among the growing innovation ecosystems in the world, but there's plenty of untapped potential. This Capital Factory panel will focus on taking Texas to the next level.

Lawson Gow, founder and CEO of The Cannon, will be a panelist at the event, which begins at 11 am on Saturday, March 9, at the Hilton Austin Downtown. Learn more.

3/9 — Startup Funding: From Apprenticeships to Professions

Venture capitalism has changed tenfold since its start. Looking back on the history of early stage funding can help predict where it's going — from Silicon Valley to every corner of the world.

Station Houston CEO Gabriella Rowe is on the panel, which will take place at 12:30 pm on Saturday, March 9, at the Hilton Austin Downtown. Learn more.

3/9 — Making the Fight Against Cancer Even More Personal

No one loves discussing cancer, but there's a large group of scientists who have to daily and they develop new technologies and innovations to help discover a cure for the deadly affliction.

James Allison, researcher at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and 2018 Nobel Prize recipient, will be on the panel discussing ways to innovate within cancer research. The program starts at 5 pm on Saturday, March 9, at the JW Marriott. Learn more.

3/10 — SXSW Pitch Presented by Cyndx Awards Ceremony

Two Houston startups are competing for an award in the 11th annual SXSW Pitch Event. Fluidity Technologies will be presenting as its drone controller, FT Aviator, in the Hyper-Connected Communities category on Saturday, March 9, at 5 pm, and Zibrio SmartScale, which is in the Health and Wearable category, will present on Sunday, March 10, at 5 pm.

The pitch awards will take place at 6:30 pm on Sunday, March 10, at the Hilton Austin Downtown. Learn more.

3/11 — Tech Diversity Report Card 2019

Is diversity and inclusion basically just a myth in technology? Is it something that's attainable at this point, and what can the industry do to make that happen? A group of panelists discuss based on their experience and observations.

Heidi Hoover, head of office at Houston-based Flanders Investment & Trade, will be a member of the panel, which occurs on Monday, March 11, at 5 pm, at Capital Factory. Learn more.

3/11 — Angel Investor Meetup

Calling all acting and aspiring investors — it's time to rally. Two Texas investors are gathering the troops to discuss trends and opportunities in the state's — and the world's — investment sector.

Samantha Lewis of Houston-based GOOSE Society of Texas will be one of the hosts of the meetup, which takes place on Monday, March 11, at 5 p.m, at the Fairmont Hotel. Learn more.

3/12 — AI & IoT Panel and Emerging Company Showcase

Houston-based Baker Botts and Global Corporate Venturing are setting the stage for emerging tech companies to shine. The event includes a panel, a showcase, and an evening of networking.

James McKell, of Chevron Technology Ventures, is representing Houston on the panel, which begins at 2 pm on Tuesday, March 12, at Hotel Van Zandt. Learn more.

Honorable mentions


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Early-stage accelerator returns to Houston, announces finalists

prepare for take-off

CodeLaunch, a traveling seed-stage accelerator, is returning to Houston for its latest cohort.

The startup competition sponsored by software development company Improving will have its ultimate showdown on February 28. The final competition pairs six startups with six startup consulting companies.

Jason W. Taylor, CodeLaunch president and founder, says CodeLaunch isn’t your typical startup showcase, as it incorporates music acts, comedy, and crowd networking. Mirroring the set-up of a TV show, the six finalists all present their working products in front of an audience amid these performances.

“I would describe CodeLaunch as the next generation of venture-tainment in North America and the greatest startup show on earth,” Taylor explains.

The 2024 Houston CodeLaunch participant startups — and their mentor partners — are as follows:

Prior to pitch day, all six teams will receive hands-on instruction from CodeLaunch mentors on how to construct their pitches and free professional software development from their partners. Taylor says the strong relationships between CodeLaunch and these developers played a major role in setting the competition in Houston.

“We love Houston and we’re back for a third year in a row because the Houston startup ecosystem works together better than other major startup ecosystems I’ve seen,” Taylor says. “We have some great software development partners in Houston that are building code for those startups.”

Last year, Houston-based startup Energy360, with the mentorship and help of Honeycomb Software, took home the Championship belt and a $100,000 investment offer from Cyrannus VC fund for their energy management system Matt Bonasera, Energy360’s enterprise architect, says he is grateful for the entrepreneurial community CodeLaunch provides, in particular the team’s mentor Oleg Lysiak, Honeycomb VP of Partnerships and Business Development.

“I happened along this great community of people who are really passionate about supporting each other,” Bonasera says.

Lysiak agrees that CodeLaunch is an ideal opportunity for young entrepreneurs looking to hone their skills and expand their product capabilities. Lysiak says he is looking forward to defending Honeycomb’s title as top consultant development team.

“My whole philosophy is to connect people and have different collisions and collaborations,” Lysiak says.

Houston startup completes testing, prepares biosimilar insulin drug for clinical trials

next steps

A Houston biotech startup is one step closer to releasing its marquee drug for the global insulin market, which is projected to break the $90 billion threshold by 2029.

rBIO says it recently completed testing of the properties of R-biolin, an insulin drug that’s biologically identical to Novo Nordisk’s Novolin drug. The patent for Novolin about two decades ago. In March 2023, the Dutch drugmaker announced it was slashing the list price of Novolin by 65 percent to $48.20 per vial and $91.09 per FlexPen.

Executives at rBIO are now pursuing a partnership with a contract research organization to manage clinical trials of R-biolin. If those trials go well, R-biolin will seek approval to supply its insulin therapy to diabetes patients around the world.

Washington University in St. Louis is rBIO’s academic partner for the R-biolin project.

The rBIO platform produces insulin at greater yields that traditional manufacturing techniques do. The company is striving to drive down the cost of insulin by 30 percent.

About 38 million Americans have diabetes, with the vast majority being treated for type 2 diabetes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many people with diabetes must take insulin to control their blood sugar levels.

Research company iHealthcareAnalyst predicts the global market for insulin will surpass the $90 billion mark in 2029.

“There has been a lot of talk in the media about reducing the cost of insulin for diabetic patients, but what is often overlooked is that the domestic demand for insulin will soon outpace the supply, leading to a new host of issues,” Cameron Owen, co-founder and CEO of rBIO, says in a news release.

“We’re dedicated to addressing the growing demand for accessible insulin therapies, and … we’re thrilled to announce the viability of our highly scalable manufacturing process.”

Professionals from the University of California San Diego and Johns Hopkins University established rBIO in 2020. The startup moved its headquarters from San Diego to Houston in 2022.

CEO Cameron Owen and Chief Scientific Officer Deenadayalan Bakthavatsalam work on insulin purification in the Houston lab. Photo courtesy

How AI is changing product management and what you need to know

guest column

For the past 14 months, everyone has been talking about ways artificial intelligence is changing the world, and product management is not an exception. The challenge, as with every new technology, is not only adopting it but understanding what old habits, workflows, and processes are affected by it.

Product managers — as well as startup founders leading a product function — more than any other role, face a challenge of bringing new life-changing products to market that may or may not be received well by their users. A product manager’s goal is complex — bring value, stay ahead of the competition, be innovative. Yet, the "behind the scenes" grind requires endless decision making and trade offs to inspire stakeholders to move forward and deliver.

As we dive into 2024, it is obvious that AI tools do not only transform the way we work but also help product managers create products that exceed customer expectation and drive businesses forward.

Market research and trends analysis

As product managers, we process enormous amounts of market data — from reviewing global and industry trend analysis, to social media posts, predictions, competition, and company goals. AI, however, can now replace hours, if not days, of analyzing massive amounts of data in an instant, revealing market trends, anticipating needs, and foreseeing what's coming next. As a result, it is easier to make effective product decisions and identify new market opportunities.

Competitive analysis

Constantly following competitors, reviewing their new releases, product updates, or monitoring reviews to identify competitor strengths and weaknesses is an overwhelming and time consuming task. With AI, you can quickly analyze competitors’ products, pricing, promotions, and feedback. You can easily compare multiple attributes, including metrics, and identify gaps and areas for improvement — all the insights that are otherwise much harder to reveal quickly and efficiently.

Customer and product discovery

Of course, the most intuitive use case that comes to mind is the adoption of AI in product and customer discovery. For example:

  • Use AI for customer segmentation and persona creation to help visualize personas, prioritize user motivations and expectations, and uncover hidden behavior and needs. You can then create and simplify customer questionnaires for interviews and user groups and target customers more accurately.
  • Analyze quantitative and qualitative data from surveys, support tickets, reviews, and in-person interviews to identify pain points and unmet user needs and help prioritize features for future updates and releases.

Roadmap and sprint management

AI provides value in simplifying roadmap planning and sprint management. Resource optimization is often a gruesome task and AI can help with feature prioritization and resource allocation. It helps teams focus on critical work and increase their productivity. You can even analyze and manage dependencies and improve results across multiple sprints months in advance.

Prototyping and mockup generation

There is no product manager’s routine without multiple mockups, wireframes, and prototypes that explain concepts and collect feedback among stakeholders. AI has become a critical tool in simplifying this process and bringing ideas to life from concept to visualization.

Today, you can use textual or voice descriptions to instantly create multiple visuals with slight variations, run A/B tests and gather valuable feedback at the earliest stage of a product life cycle.

Job search and job interviews

Consider it as a bonus but one of the less obvious but crucial advantages of AI is using it in job search. With the vulnerable and unstable job market, especially for product roles, AI is a valuable assistant. From getting the latest news and updates on a company you want to join, to summarizing insights on the executive team, or company goals, compiling lists of interview questions, and running mock interviews, AI has become a non-judgmental assistant in a distressing and often discouraging job search process.

Use AI to draft cold emails to recruiters and hiring managers, compare your skills to open positions’ requirements, identify gaps, and outline ideas for test assignments.

We already know that AI is not a hype; it is here to stay. However, remember that customers do not consume AI, they consume your product for its value. Customers care whether your product gets their need, solves their problem, and makes their lives easier. The goal of a product manager is to create magic combining human brain capabilities and latest technology. And the best result is with a human at the core of any product.

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Natasha Gorodetsky is the founder and CEO of Product Pursuits, a Houston company that helps early stage and venture-backed startups build products and create impact.