Texas Central Partners hopes to partner with Amtrak on high-speed trains in Texas. Rendering courtesy of Texas Central

In the latest chapter in the saga of the high-speed bullet train between Houston and Dallas, Amtrak is now involved.

According to a press release, Texas Central Partners and Amtrak are exploring a partnership to work together on the proposed Dallas-Houston high-speed rail project that's been under consideration for more than a decade.

Amtrak has cooperated with Texas Central on various initiatives since 2016 and the two entities are now evaluating a potential partnership to determine the line's viability.

“If we are going to add more high-speed rail to this country, the Dallas to Houston Corridor is a compelling proposition and offers great potential,” says Amtrak senior VP of High-Speed Rail Development Programs Andy Byford. “We believe many of the country's biggest and fastest-growing metropolitan areas, like Houston and Dallas, deserve more high quality high-speed, intercity rail service, and we are proud to bring our experience to evaluate this potential project and explore opportunities with Texas Central so the state can meet its full transportation needs.”

The route being proposed would span approximately 240 miles, going at 250 mph, resulting in a trip that would take less than 90 minutes between the two cities.

Texas Central has been working towards getting a train rolling since 2013, including lining up a potential builder in 2021. But the project has had pushback from Texas politicians and landowners along the route; a lawsuit against the project was filed by six rural counties in 2021, and the Texas Legislature passed a law prohibiting the state from spending any funds on the project.

Facing a seeming dead end, Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar and its board members resigned in June 2022; Michael Bui, a consultant, has been serving as CEO since then.

Texas Central and Amtrak have submitted applications to several federal programs in connection with further study and design work, including the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure Safety and Improvements (CRISI) grant program, the Corridor Identification and Development program, and the Federal-State Partnership for Intercity Passenger Rail (FSP-National) grant program.

Amtrak previously entered into an agreement with Texas Central to provide through-ticketing using the Amtrak reservation system and other support services for the planned high-speed rail line.

"This high-speed train, using advanced, proven Shinkansen technology, has the opportunity to revolutionize rail travel in the southern U.S., and we believe Amtrak could be the perfect partner to help us achieve that,” says Bui in a statement.

Despite its detractors, the project is forecast to provide social, environmental, employment and economic benefits including reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than 100,000 tons per year, saving 65 million gallons of fuel and removing 12,500 cars per day from I-45.

The release from Amtrak has statements from both Dallas Mayor Eric L. Johnson and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who calls the collaboration between Texas Central and Amtrak "an important milestone for the City of Houston and this project."

Byford joined Amtrak in April 2023 to begin developing a team focused on high-speed opportunities throughout the U.S. In his newly created role, he will develop and lead the execution of Amtrak’s long-term strategy for high-speed rail throughout the country, including the extension of the Crescent from Mississippi through Louisiana and Texas; Kansas DOT’s Heartland Flyer Extension Corridor Identification and Development (Corridor ID) connecting Wichita to Oklahoma and Texas, and TxDOT’s applications for the Texas Triangle (Houston — Dallas – Fort Worth – San Antonio) routes.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

HCC is working on a new center focused on resiliency on its Northeast Campus. Image via HCC

Houston college system plans to open $30M resiliency-focused center

to the rescue

Houston’s initiative to protect the city from catastrophes is getting a big boost from Houston Community College.

The college is developing the Resilience Center of Excellence to aid the city’s resilience campaign. At the heart of this project is the 65,000-square-foot, $30 million Resiliency Operations Center, which will be built on a five-acre site HCC’s Northeast campus. The complex is scheduled to open in 2024.

HCC estimates the operations center will train about 3,000 to 4,000 local first responders, including police officers and firefighters, during the first three years of operation. They’ll be instructed to prepare for, manage, and respond to weather, health and manmade hazards such as hurricanes, floods, fires, chemical spills, and winter freezes.

According to The Texas Tribune, the operations center will include flood-simulation features like a 39-foot-wide swift water rescue channel, a 15-foot-deep dive area, and a 100-foot-long “rocky gorge” of boulders.

The college says the first-in-the-nation Resilience Center of Excellence will enable residents, employers, civic organizations, neighborhoods, and small businesses to obtain education and certification aimed at improving resilience efforts.

“Our objective is to protect the well-being of our citizens and our communities and increase economic stability,” Cesar Maldonado, chancellor of HCC, said when the project was announced.

Among the programs under the Resiliency Center of Excellence umbrella will be non-credit courses focusing on public safety and rescue, disaster management, medical triage, and debris removal.

Meanwhile, the basic Resilience 101 program will be available to businesses and community organizations, and the emergency response program is geared toward individuals, families, and neighborhoods.

HCC’s initiative meshes with the City of Houston’s Resilient Houston, a strategy launched in 2020 that’s designed to protect Houston against disasters. As part of this strategy, the city has hired a chief resilience and sustainability officer, Priya Zachariah.

“Every action we take and investment we make should continue to improve our collective ability to withstand the unexpected shocks and disruptions when they arrive — from hurricanes to global pandemics, to extreme heat or extreme cold,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said last year. “The time is now to stop doing things the way we’ve always done them because the threats are too unpredictable.”

In an InnovationMap guest column published in February 2021, Richard Seline, co-founder of the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub, wrote that the focus of resilience initiatives should be pre-disaster risk mitigation.

“There is still work to be done from a legislative and governmental perspective, but more and more innovators — especially in Houston — are proving to be essential in creating a better future for the next historic disaster we will face,” Seline wrote.

TMC3's Collaborative Building has topped out. Image courtesy of Texas Medical Center

First TMC3 Collaborative Building tops out, plans to open next year

medical milestone

Construction of Houston’s 250,000-square-foot TMC3 Collaborative Building has reached a milestone.

Founders of the research facility recently celebrated completion of the uppermost part of the building, known as “topping out.” Construction started in January 2021.

The building is part of the first phase of the TMC3 campus, a 37-acre life science property designed to capitalize on the intersection of medicine and commercialization. Founders of the campus are Texas Medical Center, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Texas A&M University Health Science Center, and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

The TMC3 Collaborative Building, set to open in 2023, will promote innovation and collaboration among the founding institutions, as well as with academic, healthcare, and industry partners. A key feature is a 43,000-square-foot research lab that’ll be shared by MD Anderson, Texas A&M Health, and UT Health Houston.

“The topping out of the TMC3 Collaborative Building marks an integral milestone in the future of life science research and innovation and reflects an unprecedented commitment to collaboration among the four founding institutions,” William McKeon, president and CEO of Texas Medical Center, says in a news release. “The lifesaving research and technologies that will come out of this building will truly revolutionize healthcare.”

In addition to the research lab, the building will include:

  • 85,000 square feet of lab and office space for industry partners.
  • 14,200 square feet for Texas Medical Center’s strategic initiatives, the Braidwell investment firm, the TMC Venture Fund, and national venture and equity fund partners.
  • A 7,000-square-foot atrium for lectures, programs, and informal events.

“Houston already has a place on the world stage as a leader in clinical care and life sciences. With the launch of the TMC3 Collaborative Building and larger TMC3 campus, we showcase why our city leads in the areas of innovation and technology,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says. “In the process, we will create opportunities to bring new partners and industry to our city and generate new jobs for the residents of the Greater Houston community.”

Mayor Sylvester Turner says this new smart city technology partner will help digitize and optimize waste operations. Photo via rubicon.com

City of Houston partners with digital waste, recycling solutions company

smart city tech

The City of Houston announced that it has entered into a three-year partnership with Kentucky-based Rubicon with the goal of improving its waste, recycling, and heavy-duty municipal fleet operations.

According to a statement, the city has installed the company's RUBICONSmartCity platform on the Solid Waste Management Department’s 391 vehicles, and has trained the workforce on using the SaaS software.

“Partnering with Rubicon will help our great city optimize its solid waste operations and make it possible for us to digitize our entire waste and recycling management system,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement. “The City of Houston is committed to providing the highest level of service to its residents and this partnership will allow us to provide better services, save taxpayer dollars, and deliver a better quality of life for Houstonians.”

RUBICONSmartCity is a cloud-based suite that will allow the department's workforce to track key metrics about pickup, including issues at the curb and recycling contamination, as well as information about its fleet of vehicles. The platform includes a mobile app, an onboard data collection device, and a web-based portal.

The city envisions that information collected by RUBICONSmartCity will enhance reporting tools used by 311 and give the department a better understanding of what's happening in the field.

“The City’s Department of Solid Waste can use this information to advise and educate residents around service scheduling, best practices for waste and recycling management, and reduce costly return trips,” Solid Waste Management Department Director Mark Wilfalk said in a statement. “These insights, alongside route optimization and digitization efforts, are set to deliver an optimal operation to the City of Houston.”

RUBICONSmartCity is used in more than 70 cities across the U.S., including San Antonio. The product was the focus of a 2021 Amazon documentary entitled "The Road to Zero Waste," which focused on Rubicon's work in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“Our partnership with the City of Houston is off to a fantastic start, as we were able to install our products and train the entire Solid Waste Department’s workforce in only 73 days, an incredibly fast turn for such an undertaking,” Michael Allegretti, Chief Strategy Officer at Rubicon, said in a statement. "This partnership comes at a critically important time, as Houston and other cities across the nation look to maintain, and ultimately expand, service levels.”

In August 2021, the City of Houston also launched HTX Collects, a mobile app aimed at helping residents keep track of weekly services, updates, and waste collection days. At that time, the city estimated that it collected curbside service for over 395,000 residential homes within the city limits.

Bill.com's new Houston office is in West Houston and has space for 125 employees. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Silicon Valley fintech company officially opens its second headquarters in Houston

New to town

Only 18 months ago, a growing Palo Alto, Calif.-based fintech company was weighing its options for its first out-of-state expansion. And yesterday, Bill.com opened its second headquarters in Houston.

"When we set out to find a second headquarters in Houston, we had three criteria we were looking for," says René Lacerte, CEO of Bill.com.

Those three things were a good education foundation, vibrant business economy, and diversity, which "Houston has that in spades," Lacerte adds.

Lacerte, who is based in Palo Alto, celebrated the opening of the office on September 18 at a reception that included Mayor Sylvester Turner, Susan Davenport, president of the Greater Houston Partnership, and others who were involved in the process of bring Bill.com to Houston. Mayor Turner even celebrated the office opening by proclaiming September 18th as Bill.com Day in Houston.

"We've worked very hard the past few years to strengthen Houston's digital tech innovation ecosystem," says Davenport. "Today, I think solidifies the momentum we've been building."

The new office is located on the west side of town at the CityWest office development. Bill.com has 25,000 square feet and can have up to 125 employees. Lacerte says he wants to have every department represented in the Houston office, from sales to programming.

"There are two reasons I founded the company," Lacerte says to the crowd. "One was to make a difference in the lives of our customers, and the other was to make a difference in the lives of our employees. Having this second office is a huge opportunity in the lives of people in our communities."

Lacerte founded Bill.com in 2006, and the company has raised over $259 million in funding. The software-as-a-service company has over 3 million members, according to Bill.com, and processes $60 billion in payments annually.

Nine companies committed to Houston Exponential's first round of funding. Shobeir Ansar/Getty Images

Houston Exponential's ambitious venture fund closes first round with $25 million

Money moves

Houston Exponential closed the first round of funding for its fund of funds with $25 million in commitments from nine companies. The money will go to non-Houston venture capitalists to invest back into Houston startups.

HX Venture Fund's first-round partners include: Insperity, Chevron, Shell, Quanta Services, Westlake Chemical, The Plank Companies, PROS, HEB, and Camden.

Kingwood-based Insperity was the anchor investor, committing to $5 million last October, according to the release. The company also provided an undisclosed amount of resources support the operations of the fund as it launched.

"This is another transformational moment for Houston," says Gina Luna, chair of Houston Exponential, in the release. "From day one at Houston Exponential, we have been executing a plan to accelerate the growth of the ecosystem, including connecting Houston startups with the capital they need to grow their businesses. This is a significant, tangible milestone. Houston's leading companies have stepped up in a big way to make this happen, and this is a clear signal that Houston is committed to success."

Houston-based venture capital firm Mercury Fund's co-founder and managing director, Blair Garrou, chaired the fund's advisory board. He's also a board member for HX.

The fund of funds won't donate to Houston organizations directly, Garrou says in a statement. The fund's organizers had a different approach to growing funds in Houston's startup space.

"The HX Venture Fund will invest in venture capital funds outside of Houston – generating investment and interest in the region while increasing the investable capital available to Houston-based startups," says Garrou. "The HX Venture Fund is built upon a proven model that provides multiple benefits to its investors."

The benefitting venture capital funds haven't yet been named.

HX modeled the fund after the Renaissance Venture Capital Fund in Michigan, from which 10 outside venture capital firms benefitted —Mercury Fund was one of the 10. It was Garrou who led the movement to get Renaissance Fund's CEO and Fund Manager, Chris Rizik, as a part of the HX Venture Fund from the start as a member of the investment committee.

The Michigan fund launched 9 years ago and exceeded all expectations. For ever dollar Rizik and his team invested, $17 came back into the Michigan area, he told the Houston Business Journal. He says Houston has the same potential.

"I've spoken to many cities about Renaissance's fund of funds model and the impact it has had on Michigan," says Rizik in the release. "Houston has leaned into this model and it is impressive what they have been able to accomplish in a short time. It is a testament to the commitment of Houston's business and tech leaders to growing the ecosystem. It's really exciting to see."

In October 2017, Houston Exponential was launched by Mayor Sylvester Turner's Innovation and Technology Task Force in collaboration with the Greater Houston Partnership's Innovation Round Table and the Houston Technology Center. HX's launch included three main goals, according to the release: "make Houston a top 10 innovation ecosystem, generate $2 billion in venture capital annually and create 10,000 new technology jobs a year by 2022."

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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.