4 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Sarah Essama of Teach for America Houston, Scott Schneider of HTX Labs, and Drs. Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez. Photos courtesy

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

Sarah Essama, director of social innovation at Teach For America Houston

Sarah Essama of Teach For America Houston shares how she innovated a new way for students themselves to learn how to innovate. Photo courtesy of Sarah Essama

As director of social innovation at Teach For America Houston, it's Sarah Essama's job to come up with new ways for the organization to support both students and teachers. But, as she explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast this week, Essama realized a huge lesson modern students needed was to learn this innovation process themselves.

This line of thinking turned into Essama founding The Dream Lab, powered by Teach for America Houston.

"The Dream Lab is a set of immersive design spaces where young people leverage their imagination and creativity to innovate and solve problems within their community," she explains.

Last month, the new concept rolled out to high school students in partnership with DivInc Houston, a nonprofit focused on social and economic equity in entrepreneurship, and 21 ninth graders spent the day at the Ion for a mini-innovation accelerator and design showcase. Click here to read more.

Scott Schneider, CEO and founder of HTX Labs

Scott Schneider of HTX Labs has something to celebrate. Photo via htxlabs.com

A Houston-based virtual reality training provider has closed its first round of funding. HTX Labs announced last month that it has received a $3.2 million investment from Cypress Growth Capital.

“We have been looking to secure outside capital to accelerate the growth of our EMPACT platform and customer base but we hadn’t found the right partner who provided an investment vehicle that matched our needs,“ says HTX Labs CEO Scott Schneider in the release. “We found everything we were looking for in Cypress Growth Capital. They have a non-dilutive funding model that aligns with our capital expectations and have the level of experience that really makes this smart money.

The fresh funding will go toward growing and scaling the company's operations — both within the current Department of Defense and expansion opportunities into key commercial markets, like heavy industry, manufacturing, and higher education. Additionally, the funding will support increased customer adoption. Click here to read more.

​Drs. Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez 

Two Houston health care innovators got the green light to distribute their low-cost COVID-19 vaccine in Indonesia. Photo courtesy of TMC

After months of development and testing, the Houston-born COVID-19 vaccine has gotten the go-ahead to be produced and distributed in Indonesia.

IndoVac was created by the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and Baylor College of Medicine. Drs. Peter Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi lead the vaccine project. Bio Farma is licensing IndoVac from BCM Ventures, the commercial group at the Baylor College of Medicine.

“Access to vaccines in the developing world is critical to the eradication of this virus,” Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, says in a news release. Click here to read more.

Drs. Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez got the green light to distribute their low-cost COVID-19 vaccine in Indonesia. Photo courtesy

Houston doctors get approval for low-cost COVID vaccine abroad

green light

A Houston-born COVID-19 vaccine has gotten the go-ahead to be produced and distributed in Indonesia.

PT Bio Farma, which oversees government-owned pharmaceutical manufacturers in Indonesia, says it’s prepared to make 20 million doses of the IndoVac COVID-19 vaccine this year and 100 million doses a year by 2024. This comes after the vaccine received authorization from the Indonesian Food and Drug Authority for emergency use in adults.

With more than 275 million residents, Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country.

IndoVac was created by the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and Baylor College of Medicine. Drs. Peter Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi lead the vaccine project. Bio Farma is licensing IndoVac from BCM Ventures, the commercial group at the Baylor College of Medicine.

“Access to vaccines in the developing world is critical to the eradication of this virus,” Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, says in a news release.

Aside from distributing the vaccine in Indonesia, Bio Farma plans to introduce it to various international markets.

“The need for a safe, effective, low-cost vaccine for middle- to low-income countries is central to the world’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Bottazzi, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and associate dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor.

“Without widespread inoculation of populations in the developing world, which must include safe, effective booster doses, additional [COVID-19] variants will develop, hindering the progress achieved by currently available vaccines in the United States and other Western countries.”

Bio Farma says it has completed Phase 1 and Phase 2 clinical trials for IndoVac and is wrapping up a Phase 3 trial.

IndoVac is a version of the patent-free, low-cost Corbevax vaccine, developed in Houston and dubbed “The World’s COVID-19 Vaccine.” The vaccine formula can be licensed by a vaccine producer in any low- or middle-income country, which then can take ownership of it, produce it, name it, and work with government officials to distribute it, Hotez told The Texas Tribune in February.

Among donors that have pitched in money for development of the vaccine are the Houston-based MD Anderson and John S. Dunn foundations, the San Antonio-based Kleberg Foundation, and Austin-based Tito’s Vodka.

“During 2022, we hope to partner with the World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies to vaccinate the world. We believe that global vaccine equity is finally at hand and that it is the only thing that can bring the COVID pandemic to an end,” Hotez and Bottazzi wrote in a December 2021 article for Scientific American.

Dr. Peter Hotez and Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi have been recognized by Fast Company for their leadership in developing low-cost COVID vaccine. Photo courtesy of Texas Children's

Houston doctors recognized among top creative leaders in business

winners

This week, Fast Company announced its 14th annual list of Most Creative People in Business — and two notable Houstonians made the cut.

Dr. Peter Hotez and his fellow dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, were named among the list for “open sourcing a COVID-19 Vaccine for the rest of the world.” The list, which recognizes individuals making a cultural impact via bold achievements in their field, is made up of influential leaders in business.

Hotez and Bottazzi are also co-directors for the Texas Children's Hospital's Center for Vaccine Development -one of the most cutting-edge vaccine development centers in the world. For the past two decades it has acquired an international reputation as a non-profit Product Development Partnership (PDP), advancing vaccines for poverty-related neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) and emerging infectious diseases of pandemic importance. One of their most notable achievements is the development of a vaccine technology leading to CORBEVAX, a traditional, recombinant protein-based COVID-19 vaccine.

"It's an honor to be recognized not only for our team's scientific efforts to develop and test low cost-effective vaccines for global health, but also for innovation in sustainable financing that goes beyond the traditional pharma business model," says Hotez in a statement.

The technology was created and engineered by Texas Children's Center for Vaccine Development specifically to combat the worldwide problem of vaccine access and availability. Biological E Limited (BE) developed, produced and tested CORBEVAX in India where over 60 million children have been vaccinated so far.

Earlier this year, the doctors were nominated for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize for their research and vaccine development of the vaccine. Its low cost, ease of production and distribution, safety, and acceptance make it well suited for addressing global vaccine inequity.

"We appreciate the recognition of our efforts to begin the long road to 'decolonize' the vaccine development ecosystem and make it more equitable. We hope that CORBEVAX becomes one of a pipeline of new vaccines developed against many neglected and emerging infections that adversely affect global public health," says Bottazzi in the news release from Texas Children's.

Fast Company editors and writers research candidates for the list throughout the year, scouting every business sector, including technology, medicine, engineering, marketing, entertainment, design, and social good. You can see the complete list here

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U.S. News & World Report has released its annual and much-heralded list of Best Hospitals in the nation. Photo courtesy

Here's what Houston hospitals ranked as best in the nation this year

best of the rest

A prestigious, annual national report has verified what Houstonians already know: Our Medical Center boasts the best adult and children’s hospital in Texas and the best cancer center in America.

U.S. News & World Report released its 2022-23 Best Hospitals list, which names The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center No. 1 in the nation for cancer care. For those keeping track, MD Anderson has been considered in the top two cancer hospitals in the U.S. since the U.S. News launched the survey in 1990.

While securing the top rank for cancer care, MD Anderson also scored high national ranks for specialty treatments: urology (No. 5) and diabetes and endocrinology (No. 13). The center continues to maintain its “High Performing” rating on the U.S. News list for colon cancer and lung cancer. It also received “High Performing” ratings for the three newly added adult procedures and conditions: ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, and uterine cancer, per a press release.

“We are proud to be ranked as the nation’s leader in cancer care,” said Peter WT Pisters, M.D., president of MD Anderson, in a statement. “This ongoing recognition is thanks to the incredible MD Anderson community, including our faculty, employees, trainees, students, donors and advocates, who advance our science and our mission and who serve our patients by enabling us to provide the best care possible.”

Rankings for the annual U.S. News study are based on scores in patient care, patient safety, outcomes, nursing, advanced technology, and reputation.

Houston leads medicine in Texas
The tagline for Houston Methodist Hospital systems — “leading medicine” — is quite fitting here in Texas. The hospital comes in at No. 15 nationally (marking the sixth time it has been recognized in the report’s Honor Roll) and No. 1 in Texas for the 11th year in a row. Locally, Houston Methodist Sugar Land ranks No. 5 in Houston and No. in Texas, a press release notes.

Notably, U.S. News has ranked Houston Methodist Hospital in at least one specialty for the past 30 years. This year, Houston Methodist Hospital ranks in 10 specialties, the most of any hospital in the state, according to the report. Two of these ranked specialties appear in the list’s top 10 (diabetes and endocrinology at No. 9; gastroenterology/GI surgery at No. 8), while six are ranked in the top 20.

“This is a tremendous achievement for our physicians and employees who dedicate themselves every day to our patients – especially as we continue to provide the highest quality care during these trying times in health care,” said Marc Boom, M.D., president and CEO of Houston Methodist, in a statement. “Our mission to provide unparalleled care is for our patients, who are the reason we need to be one of the best hospital systems in the country.”

Texas Children’s tops Texas and Southwest
Yet another Houston hospital scored extremely well nationally in the list. Texas Children’s Hospital ranks No. 2 overall in the Best Children’s Hospitals ranking. The beloved children’s center also remains top in Texas and the Southwest, and at No. 1 in heart treatment for the sixth year in a row. No other pediatric hospital in Texas has achieved an overall ranking as high as Texas Children’s has in the past 14 years, a Texas Children’s release notes.

“We are beyond thrilled with the newest U.S. News & World Report rankings that place Texas Children’s Hospital second in the United States and first in the state of Texas,” said Mark A. Wallace, president and CEO, in a statement. “Consistent collaboration, newfound discoveries and extraordinary patient care is what has brought us to where we are today. I am incredibly proud of this remarkable team and everything we’ve accomplished together — and our promise to every family is that we are just getting started.”

Texas’ best mental health care is here
Also boasting top honors in the state — and No. 10 nationally — is the Menninger Clinic. The acclaimed facility tied for tenth place on U.S. News’ list of best psychiatric hospitals, making it the all-out best in Texas.

Of note, Menninger has been named a top-10 psychiatry hospital in the U.S. for 32 consecutive years, the hospital points out. “With the growing need for mental health care, we are grateful for the trust that psychiatrists have had in referring their clients to The Menninger Clinic for comprehensive diagnosis and treatment,” said president and CEO Armando E. Colombo in a statement.

Elsewhere in Texas
Dallas-Fort Worth is home to the No. 2 hospital in Texas, per U.S. News. UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas also ranked especially well nationally in urology (No. 11), cardiology and heart surgery (No. 14), diabetes and endocrinology (No. 18), pulmonology and lung surgery, (No. 21), and cancer (No. 25).

Not far down the list is Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, which ranked No. 4 in Texas. One Baylor department ranked nationally: gastroenterology and GI surgery department, No. 34.

Meanwhile, Austin’s St. David’s Medical Center ranked No. 8 in Texas. Austinites in need of post-procedure work and physical therapy should note that the hospital’s rehabilitation department ranked nationally, coming in at No. 37 overall.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

These cancer research professionals just got fresh funding from a statewide organization. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Texas nonprofit cancer research funder doles out millions to health professionals moving to Houston

money moves

Thanks in part to multimillion-dollar grants from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, two top-flight cancer researchers are taking key positions at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. Pavan Reddy and Dr. Michael Taylor each recently received a grant of $6 million from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

Reddy is leaving his position as chief of hematology-oncology and deputy director at the University of Michigan’s Rogel Cancer Center to become director of the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L. Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. C. Kent Osborne stepped down as the center’s director in 2020; Dr. Helen Heslop has been the interim director.

Taylor, a pediatric neurosurgeon at the University of Toronto, is set to become the first-ever director of pediatric neuro-oncology research at Texas Children’s Hospital. The hospital is affiliated with the Baylor College of Medicine. Taylor is an expert in children’s brain tumors.

In all, 11 researchers recruited by three health care institutions in Houston recently received $34 million in CPRIT grants. The nine other grant recipients in Houston are:

  • Dr. Christine Lovly, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, $4 million. She is co-leader of the Translational Research and Interventional Oncology Research Program at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville.
  • Hans Renata, Rice University, $4 million. He is an associate professor at UF Scripps Biomedical Research in Jupiter, Florida.
  • Mingjie Dai, Rice University, $2 million. He is a technology development fellow at Harvard University’s Weiss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.
  • William Hudson, Baylor College of Medicine, $2 million. He is a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University in Atlanta.
  • Deepshika Ramanan, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, $2 million. She is a research fellow in immunology at Harvard Medical School.
  • Jason Schenkel, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, $2 million. He is an instructor in pathology at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
  • Aria Vaishnavi, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, $2 million. She is a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute.
  • Samantha Yruegas, Rice University, $2 million. She is a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University in New Jersey.
  • Qian Zhu, Baylor College of Medicine, $2 million. He is a research fellow at Harvard’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

A CPRIT committee recently approved 17 recruitment grants totaling nearly $48 million for cancer research institutions in Texas.

“CPRIT’s mission is to invest in the research prowess of Texas institutions while expediting breakthroughs in cancer cures and prevention … . These 17 highly respected researchers will join an impressive roster of cancer-fighters who call the Lone Star State home,” says Wayne Roberts, CEO of CPRIT.

Since its creation, CPRIT has awarded $2.9 billion in grants to cancer research organizations around the state.

A team of Houston nurses won a national innovation award for a new game-changing training tool. Photos via Texas Children's Hospital

Houston nurses win national innovation prize for developing life-like training technology

winner, winner

A team of Houston nurses was awarded the 2022 American Nursing Association Innovation Award last month for an engaging training tool that has already helped their peers locally and in sub-Saharan Africa become better equipped at performing essential medical skills.

Michael Pickett, Jaime Choate, and Jeannie Eggers with Texas Children's Hospital along with Marilyn Hocken and Tadala Mulemba with Baylor College of Medicine took home the nurse-led team award and $50,000 monetary prize for developing a group of devices known as the RediStik Wearable Simulation Trainers.

Resembling a CPR dummy and accompanied by immersive videos and live feedback via Zoom, the devices were designed to teach nurses how to insert Port-a-Cath and Central Venous Catheters (CVC) and perform peripheral intravenous (PIV) therapies, which are used to administer fluids, draw blood, and deliver medications.

The multidisciplinary team with support from the Texas Children’s Innovative Solutions Council developed five products (in two skin tones) over the course of three years that today can be worn by trainees and replicate textured skin and subcutaneous tissue to provide a realistic training experience.

The accompanying training materials and videos are often filmed from the nurse's point of view and are easily accessible via YouTube or a QR code.

The tools have already been utilized by nurses throughout Texas Children's, as well as in Sub-Saharan Africa through the hospital's partnership with the Global HOPE (Hematology Oncology Pediatric Excellence) initiative.

According to the ANA, after training with the RediStik devices, 96 percent of surveyed nurses reported that they felt confident in starting PIV lines, compared to only 15 percent of surveyed nurses prior to training.

The funds from the award will allow the RediStik team to distribute the devices to additional health care systems and nursing schools within Houston and internationally, according to a statement from ANA. Funds can also be used to support translational research, development, prototyping, production, testing, and the implementation of the technology.

The award winners—which also includes Kasheta Jackson of Vidant Health who took home the individual prize—have one year to further develop their products and report their outcomes.

The ANA innovation awards are sponsored by medical device company Stryker. The RediStik devices were engineered and produced by Sawbones, a Washington-based anatomical medical training models company.

February was a big month for Texas Children's and BCM.

In addition to the honor from the ANA, BCM Drs. Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez, co-directors of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, were also nominated for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize for their development of a low-cost COVID vaccine.

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Houston innovator on seeing a greener future on built environment

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 162

An architect by trade, Anas Al Kassas says he was used to solving problems in his line of work. Each project architects take on requires building designers to be innovative and creative. A few years ago, Kassas took his problem-solving background into the entrepreneurship world to scale a process that allows for retrofitting window facades for energy efficiency.

“If you look at buildings today, they are the largest energy-consuming sector — more than industrial and more than transportation,” Kassas, founder and CEO of INOVUES, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “They account for up to 40 percent of energy consumption and carbon emissions.”

To meet their climate goals, companies within the built environment are making moves to transition to electric systems. This has to be done with energy efficiency in mind, otherwise it will result in grid instability.

"Energy efficiency goes hand in hand with energy transition," he explains.

Kassas says that he first had the idea for his company when he was living in Boston. He chose to start the business in Houston, attracted to the city by its central location, affordable labor market, and manufacturing opportunities here.

Last year, INOVUES raised its first round of funding — a $2.75 million seed round — to scale up the team and identify the best markets to target customers. Kassas says he was looking for regions with rising energy rates and sizable incentives for companies making energy efficient changes.

"We were able to now implement our technology in over 4 million square feet of building space — from Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, and very soon in Canada," he says.

Notably missing from that list is any Texas cities. Kassas says that he believes Houston is a great city for startups and he has his operations and manufacturing is based here, but he's not yet seen the right opportunity and adaption

"Unfortunately most of our customers are not in Texas," "A lot of work can be done here to incentivize building owners. There are a lot of existing buildings and construction happening here, but there has to be more incentives."

Kassas shares more about his growth over the past year, as well as what he has planned for 2023 on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Houston SPAC announces merger with Beaumont-based tech company in deal valued at $100M

speaking of spacs

A Houston SPAC, or special purpose acquisition company, has announced the company it plans to merge with in the new year.

Beaumont-based Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc., a provider of thermal imaging platforms, and Houston-based SportsMap Tech Acquisition Corp. (NASDAQ: SMAP), a publicly-traded SPAC with $117 million held in trust, announced their agreement for ICI to IPO via SPAC.

Originally announced in the fall of last year, the blank-check company is led by David Gow, CEO and chairman. Gow is also chairman and CEO of Gow Media, which owns digital media outlets SportsMap, CultureMap, and InnovationMap, as well as the SportsMap Radio Network, ESPN 97.5 and 92.5.

The deal will close in the first half of 2023, according to a news release, and the combined company will be renamed Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc. and will be listed on NASDAQ under a new ticker symbol.

“ICI is extremely excited to partner with David Gow and SportsMap as we continue to deliver our innovative software and hardware solutions," says Gary Strahan, founder and CEO of ICI, in the release. "We believe our software and sensor technology can change the way companies across industries perform predictive maintenance to ensure reliability, environmental integrity, and safety through AI and machine learning.”

Strahan will continue to serve as CEO of the combined company, and Gow will become chairman of the board. The transaction values the combined company at a pre-money equity valuation of $100 million, according to the release, and existing ICI shareholders will roll 100 percent of their equity into the combined company as part of the transaction.

“We believe ICI is poised for strong growth," Gow says in the release. "The company has a strong value proposition, detecting the overheating of equipment in industrial settings. ICI also has assembled a strong management team to execute on the opportunity. We are delighted to combine our SPAC with ICI.”

Founded in 1995, ICI provides infrared and imaging technology — as well as service, training, and equipment repairs — to various businesses and individuals across industries.

Report: Federal funding, increased life science space drive industry growth in Houston

by the numbers

Federal funding, not venture capital, continues to be the main driver of growth in Houston’s life sciences sector, a new report suggests.

The new Houston Life Science Insight report from commercial real estate services company JLL shows Houston accounted for more than half (52.7 percent) of total funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) across major Texas markets through the third quarter of this year. NIH funding in the Houston area totaled $769.6 million for the first nine months of 2022, exceeding the five-year average by 19.3 percent.

VC funding for Houston’s life sciences sector pales in comparison.

For the first nine months of this year, companies in life sciences raised $147.3 million in VC, according to the report. Based on that figure, Houston is on pace in 2022 to meet or surpass recent life sciences VC totals for most other years except 2021. JLL describes 2021 as an “outlier” when it comes to annual VC hauls for the region’s life sciences companies.

JLL notes that “limited venture capital interest in private industry has remained a challenge for the city’s life sciences sector. Furthermore, it may persist as venture capital strategies are reevaluated and investment strategies shift toward near-term profits.”

While life sciences VC funding has a lot of ground to cover to catch up with NIH funding, there are other bright spots for the sector.

One of those bright spots is the region’s rising amount of life sciences space.

The Houston area boasts more than 2.4 million square feet of space for life sciences operations, with another 1.1 million under construction and an additional 1.5 million square feet on the drawing board, the report says. This includes a soon-to-open lab spanning 25,000 square feet in the first phase of Levit Green.

A second bright spot is the migration of life sciences companies to the region. Two Southern California-based life sciences companies, Cellipoint Bioservices and Obagi Cosmeceuticals, plan to move their headquarters and relocate more than half of their employees to The Woodlands by the first half of 2023, according to the report.

“Houston’s low tax rate and cost of living were primary drivers for the decisions, supported by a strong labor pool that creates advantages for companies’ expansion and relocation considerations,” JLL says.