Houston-based WellWorth was selected as the winner of this year’s Houston Startup Showcase. Photo courtesy of the Ion

The Ion hosted its annual startup pitch competition, and one company walked away with a win.

WellWorth, a financial modeling and analysis software-as-a-service company for the upstream energy sector, won the Houston Startup Showcase + Expo and secured a $5,000 prize. The startup's technology introduces a more streamlined approach to NAV modeling or corporate financial modeling for its users.

“Having worked in investment banking, I have seen firsthand how the limitations of Excel models and a lack of bespoke tools have led to inefficient workflows in upstream Oil & Gas finance," says Samra Nawaz, CEO and Co-founder of WellWorth, in a statement. "We decided to solve this problem by building a cloud-based platform that helps energy finance leaders improve decision-making around raising, managing, and deploying capital.”

Nawaz explains how impactful the opportunity to pitch has been on WellWorth, which aims to raise funding early next year accelerate customer acquisition and product development.

“By getting involved in the Ion’s innovation ecosystem, we’ve been able to not only network with many entrepreneurs and innovators in the Houston community, but also find opportunities to scale our growth,” continues Nawaz. “We’re thrilled to have brought a few more customers onboard recently, and are working closely with them to optimize our product pipeline."

The company pitched alongside the other five finalists, which included Tierra Climate, MRG Health, BeOne Sports, Trez, and Mallard Bay. Mallard Bay, a booking platform for hunting and fishing trips, secured the people's choice award, which was decided by the crowd.

“Our flagship event, Houston Startup Showcase, not only connects startups and entrepreneurs with top business leaders but also provides them an opportunity to pitch their innovations to the technology ecosystem,” says Jan Odegard, executive director of the Ion, in a news release. “We extend our congratulations to WellWorth and the company’s innovative SaaS platform for energy industry finance teams, as well as Mallard Bay, the People’s Choice winner. These companies are exemplifying the exciting new technologies being developed in Houston today.”

In addition to the pitches, several companies showcased at the event, including Nanotech, manufacturer of thermal management materials for the built environment; last year's winner Unytag, a universal toll tag that provides drivers the ability to pass through tolls anywhere in the nation; and Softeq, provides early-stage innovation, technology business consulting, and full-stack development solutions to enterprise companies and innovative startups.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Activate's soft opening runs until November 15, with a grand opening planned for November 16-17. Photo courtesy of Activate

New immersive, live-action gaming venue powers up Houston debut

hi, tech

Houston is leveling up its gaming scene with the debut of a new high-tech immersive experience. Called Activate, the indoor venue combines technology and physical activity in 75-minute gaming sessions, which can be played in teams up to five people.

Simply put, the whole place is like stepping inside a live-action arcade.

Activate's first Houston-area location opened softly November 2 at 20225 Katy Frwy., Katy. Official grand opening is set for November 16-17. It is the high-tech brand's sixth location across the country, and second in Texas (behind one in Plano, which opened in spring 2023).

According to a release, the Katy facility spans 9,600 square feet, with 11 different activity rooms offering more than 500 unique games across all difficulty levels. Games include Megagrid, Hoops, Press, Hide, Laser, Strike, Portals, Control, Grid, and more. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) wristbands track participants’ scores and progress.

"Our mission is to fuse technology, movement, and strategy to create a unique interactive gaming experience," says Activate partner Bryce Anderson in the release. "We want guests to bring their closest friends, family, or co-workers and leave with a feeling of achievement, ready to come back for more."

While gaming activities are mostly adult-focused, children aged 13 and younger can participate with adult supervision.

During Activate's soft opening phase through November 15, 10 percent of sales will be donated to Best Buddies International, a nonprofit that provides mentorships for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. (Check the website for limited hours during soft opening.)

After the grand opening November 16-17, Activate will be open daily, 10 am-10 pm. Gaming sessions (75 minutes) are $24.99 Monday-Thursday, and $29.99 Friday-Sunday. Reservations are encouraged.

Activate has been creating live-action gaming experiences for adults since 2019, and has plans for further expansion, they say.

"As we continue expanding Activate across the United States, we are confident our concept will fill a void for interactive entertainment," says Anderson in the release. "We believe the Houston community will embrace this experience and find it both thrilling and challenging."

More information and reservations can be found on the website.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

DOSS is a real estate platform founded in Houston that helps democratize access to homeownership. Photo via Getty Images

How this Houston innovator is tapping into tech to make homeownership more accessible

ask DOSS

Real estate and homeownership has been historically exclusionary. Bobby Bryant — the first Black man to create and franchise a real estate brokerage brand — wanted to do something about that.

Considering the history of the real estate industry — women weren't able to buy homes without being married and African Americans were refused outright thanks to the country's history of redlining — Bryant tells InnovationMap he saw an opportunity for a business.

“I look at diversity as our superpower, and I look at the opportunity to kick that door down," he says.

Bryant is the CEO and founder of DOSS, a digital brokerage that uses tech to make homeownership more affordable. DOSS is in the process of developing what Bryant describes as a “real estate super app.” The company, which was born in 2016, has developed a technology where customers are able to ask for real-estate advice and tips, search for home listings, get neighborhood information, and recent sales data.

The effort received funding via the Google for Startups Black Founders program, which totalled $100,000. DOSS touts its platform as a dynamic and effective effort to methodically dissect the entire real estate process and rebuild a modern-day digital real estate brokerage with a “flex-model” that's more modern.

Bryant is looking to grow DOSS using a franchise method. Franchisees get a program that lowers their expenses, increases their bottom line, and provides cutting edge technology that includes use of artificial intelligence. While the real estate space is competitive, and for some could be daunting, Bryant looks to modernize the industry, while making it simpler to navigate. And that's where the tech comes in.

“The fluidness of the process, not making it as restrictive to certain groups, it really opens things up, and that is what we’ve seen with our technology,” Bryant says. “How do we turn around and make data more humanistic and centralize it?

"We want people to feel comfortable asking questions and getting accurate answers," he continues. "Millenials and Gen Z are the most-educated generations we’ve seen in history. They are also the most diverse in history. We understand that."

Bryant explains how important equity and honesty is to these new generations, and he's built DOSS with them in mind. As a former educator with two master's degrees in education, Bryant transitioned to the world of real estate in 1999. He says he sees a connection in his journey from helping students to now helping people find a home — especially to these younger generations of first-time buyers who are dealing with an ever-changing market.

“Education is a part of all of our lives,” Bryant says. “I've been able to educate people on the process, and create a technology that makes it all more fluid, and insightful and transparent with the real estate industry. ... What I’ve done is incorporate an educational process, which I guess you can say is an advantage I have.”

Bobby Bryant founded Doss to make it easier to learn about homeownership. Photo via askdoss.com

With three weeks left until game time, South by Southwest announced another long list of featured and keynote speakers. Photo via SXSW

SXSW announces even more featured speakers joining the 2023 program

headed to texas

Whether the return of South by Southwest (SXSW) in three weeks is putting butterflies in your tummy or sweat on your brow, we're in the home stretch. The newest announcement — another wave of featured speakers — does not say it's the final round, but time is running out to make adjustments before the start of the festival on March 10.

Previous announcements included keynote addresses from Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert and team members who worked on the James Webb Space Telescope. There have also been two rounds of music showcase announcements, culminating in a list of nearly 500 performances.

The announcement on February 14 is heavy with big names including three entertainers presenting keynotes: actor, producer, and New York Times bestselling author Priyanka Chopra Jonas; Grammy Award-nominated singer-songwriter, producer, and author Margo Price; and Academy Award winner Tilda Swinton.

Two more newly announced keynote sessions come with longer descriptions: Chef José Andrés presents The Stories We Tell Can Change the World, and Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris, and Gillian Gilbert of New Order appear in conversation with The Times rock & pop critic Will Hodgkinson.The former keynote tackles the responsibility of storytellers to address crises around the world, using Andrés' humanitarian group World Central Kitchen as a lens. The latter discusses the discography and history of the history-making band.

“Today's speaker announcement is a fantastic milestone for the 2023 event and spotlights five additional Keynotes and numerous Featured Speakers, including influential icons and up and coming innovators,” said Chief Programming Officer and Co-President Hugh Forrest. “We are extremely proud to have assembled a diverse, comprehensive conference program for SXSW, and we can’t wait to share it with our community in March.”

Organized into 25 programming tracks presented in a variety of session formats, SXSW celebrates the convergence of technology, film, television, and music. Tracks include civic engagement, climate change, design, film and TV, psychedelics, sports, travel, and more.

Just some featured speakers and sessions joining the 2023 lineup include:

  • Chair and CEO of General Motors Mary Barra with CEO, CTO, President, and co-founder of Cruise and co-founder of Twitch Kyle Vogt
  • Actress, philanthropist, entrepreneur, New York Times bestselling author, and co-founder of Hello Bello Kristen Bell, CEO of Hello Bello Erica Buxton, and actor, comedian, filmmaker, host of the podcast Armchair Expert, and co-founder of Hello Bello Dax Shepard
  • Chief Diversity Officer of TBWA\North America Aliah Berman with activist, advocate, author, and founder of the #MeToo Movement Tarana Burke
  • Founder and CEO of Joby Aviation Joe
  • Ben Bevirt with Chief Sustainability Officer at Delta Air Lines Pam Fletcher
  • Chief Digital and Commercial Officer at Unilever Conny Braams, President, Worldwide Advertising at Netflix Jeremi Gorman, founder and CEO of Media
  • Link Michael Kassan, and Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at Delta Air Lines Tim Mapes
  • Co-founder and President of OpenAI Greg Brockman with founder and CEO of Dot Dot Dot Media Laurie Segall
  • United States Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm
  • General Partner at Benchmark Bill Gurley with investor, New York Times bestselling author and host of the podcast The Tim Ferriss Show Tim Ferriss
  • The Art of Creating Influence 101 on navigating entertainment careers
  • The Blog Era: Hip-Hop's Wild Wild West on the influence of music bloggers
  • Daddy Issues in Film on fathers in film
  • Dateline 24/7: How the True Crime Powerhouse Became a Podcast Empire on a genre leader
  • Driving Personal Health Forward: The Role of Apple Watch and iPhone on digitally monitoring health at home
  • Evil Dead Rise: Flesh-Possessing Demons Come Home on the new Evil Dead film
  • An Inside Look at “Blindspotting” Season 2 with Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs on the continuation of the series
  • Onyx Collective Presents “UnPrisoned” on a new Hulu series
  • The Kids Are (Not) Alright: Gun Violence Terrorizing Youth of America on activism and justice
  • Leguizamo Does America: Next Stop – Austin on the contributions of U.S. Latinos

For a full lineup and more information on featured sessions, visit SXSW.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

This month, Mark Walker is celebrating his company's one year anniversary of going public — only the ninth Black-founded business to accomplish this feat on a U.S. stock exchange. Photo courtesy

Houston founder shares how he's using tech to make digital media more effective and equitable

houston innovators podcast episode 173

After working in both sides of the advertising world, Mark Walker thought he could reimagine a platform that would be more efficient and equitable.

Walker co-founded his company, Direct Digital Holdings, an adtech platform, after serving in several roles — from an early hire at Houston digital media startup Questia to business development director at NRG Energy and COO of EBONY Media. He shares on the Houston Innovators Platform how he took this experience in tech, advertising, and media to create his company's platform.

"NRG Energy gave me a top-down view of the value chain, and Ebony gave me a bottoms-up view of the value chain of how media is purchased," Walker says on the show. "At Direct Digital Holdings, we help companies buy and sell media — and we leverage technology to do it. It's really the culmination of both of those experiences."

With over 30,000 publishers on its platform, Direct Digital makes it easier for its core customers — middle market companies looking to buy into the digital media ecosystem — to tap into these opportunities without the tech know-how they might otherwise need. Walker explains that at EBONY, he saw how small to midsize publications — especially the multicultural ones — were being left out on the ad selling side of the equation. The Direct Digital platform bridges the gap on each end.

Founded in 2018 in partnership with Keith Smith, who went through similar professional experiences, Direct Digital went public exactly one year ago after growing the company through strategic M&A activity. Walker says the decision to IPO made the most sense for his company — though it wasn't an easy process. Direct Digital is only the ninth company founded by a Black entrepreneur to go public on a US stock exchange.

"If you think the process is hard — it actually is," Walker says on the journey to IPO. "We were a privately held company, and we knew we had a good growth trajectory and we looked a couple different options. We decided to go public in a very traditional way."

Walker explains there were some risks involved, but the co-founders ultimately decided to shy away from adding in investors who might not have the same ideas for the company's future.

Direct Digital has been a Houston company from the star — despite the city not being home to a booming adtech ecosystem. Instead, Houston — with its collection of Fortune 500 companies and rich diversity — has allowed the business to stand out.

"If you look at and reflect on how our company has been built — from our board of directors to our leadership and management team — we're a majority minority organization all the way across the board," Walker says. "Diversity is very important to us. It's the lifeblood of our business — especially because we're serving publishers in those communities in big way. And moreso, we think you get the best product, thoughts, and ideas from a diverse workforce, and Houston fits right into that mold for us."

Walker shares more about his company's future, advice on IPO, and what all he's watching in adtech — from AI to streaming — on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Nine research projects at Rice University have been granted $25,000 to advance their innovative solutions. Photo courtesy of Rice

Rice University deploys grant funding to 9 innovative Houston research projects

fresh funding

Over a dozen Houston researchers wrapped up 2021 with the news of fresh funding thanks to an initiative and investment fund from Rice University.

The Technology Development Fund is a part of the university’s Creative Ventures initiative, which has awarded more than $4 million in grants since its inception in 2016. Rice's Office of Technology Transfer orchestrated the $25,000 grants across nine projects. Submissions were accepted through October and the winners were announced a few weeks ago.

The 2021 winners, according to Rice's news release, were:

  • Kevin McHugh, an assistant professor of bioengineering, is working on a method to automate an encapsulation process that uses biodegradable microparticles in the timed release of drugs to treat cancer and prevent infectious disease. He suggested the process could help ramp up the manufacture of accessible multidose vaccines.
  • Daniel Preston, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is developing a novel filtration system that will recover water typically released by cooling towers at natural gas power plants. The inexpensive filters will result in a significant savings in water costs during power generation.
  • Geoff Wehmeyer, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering; Matteo Pasquali, the A.J. Hartsook Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and a professor of chemistry and materials science and nanoengineering; Junichiro Kono, the Karl F. Hasselmann Chair in Engineering, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, physics and astronomy and materials science and nanoengineering and chair of the applied physics program, and Glen Irvin Jr., a research professor in chemical and biomolecular engineering, are creating a solid-state, active heat-switching device to enable the rapid charging of batteries for electric vehicles. The lightweight device will use carbon nanotube fibers to optimize battery thermal management systems not only for cars but also, eventually, for electronic devices like laptops.
  • Xia Ben Hu, an associate professor of computer science, is developing his open-source machine learning system to democratize and accelerate small businesses’ digital transformation in e-commerce.
  • Bruce Weisman, a professor of chemistry and of materials science and nanoengineering, and Satish Nagarajaiah, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and of mechanical engineering, are working to advance their strain measurement system based on the spectral properties of carbon nanotubes. The system will allow for quick measurement of strain to prevent catastrophic failures and ensure the safety of aircraft, bridges, buildings, pipelines, ships, chemical storage vessels and other infrastructure.
  • Aditya Mohite, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and associate professor of materials science and nanoengineering, and Michael Wong, the Tina and Sunit Patel Professor in Molecular Nanotechnology, a professor and chair of chemical and biomolecular engineering and a professor of chemistry, materials science and nanoengineering and of civil and environmental engineering, are scaling up novel photoreactors for the environmentally friendly generation of hydrogen. Their process combines of perovskite-based solar cells and state-of-the-art catalysts.
  • Rebekah Drezek, a professor of bioengineering, and Richard Baraniuk, the C. Sidney Burrus Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and a professor of statistics and computer science, are developing a system to rapidly diagnose sepsis using microfluidics and compressed sensing to speed the capture and analysis of microbial biomarkers.
  • Fathi Ghorbel, a professor of mechanical engineering and of bioengineering, is working on robotic localization technology in GPS-denied environments such as aboveground storage tanks, pressure vessels and floating production storage and offloading tanks. The system would enable robots to precisely associate inspection data to specific locations leading to efficiency and high quality of inspection and maintenance operations where regular inspections are required. This will dramatically improve the environmental impact and safety of these assets.
  • Kai Fu, a research scientist, and Yuji Zhao, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, are working to commercialize novel power diodes and transistors for electric vehicles. They expect their devices to reduce the volume of power systems while improving integration, power density, heat dissipation, storage, and energy efficiency.
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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.