Efficient referrals from doctor to doctor could save a life, so this Houston company is setting out to create a network of medical professionals all accessible in an app. Getty Images

Houston-based company is connecting the dots on patient referrals

Diagnosing doctors

When your doctor recommends that you visit another practitioner, it's only natural that you trust the suggestion. But it's one case in which your physician isn't always an expert. Married doctors Justin Bird, an orthopedic surgeon, and Terri-Ann Samuels, a specialist in female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery, have long noted that patients are often referred incorrectly.

No big deal, right? Just go to another doctor. But not everyone has that luxury. Bird and Samuels never intended to start their own company. But when Bird lost a patient due to faulty referrals, they knew something had to be done.

"He believes that if she hadn't been bounced around from doctor to doctor, they could have saved her life," says Chris E. Staffel, chief operating officer of Patients We Share, the app that the couple created to fix the broken aspect of the health care system.

In 2015, Bird and Samuels began their company when they were shocked to realize that such an app didn't already exist.

"They started working with physicians around the country who said, 'We really, really need this,' and they also invested in it," recounts Staffel. From those friends, they built a physician advisory board of 15 investors.

Prescribing growth
The project was accepted into Johnson & Johnson's incubator, JLABS in 2016, then TMCx's digital startup program in the spring of 2018.

"They started realizing it was gaining momentum and realized they needed to have business people on board," says Staffel.

They hired Michael Antonoff, a Rice University M.B.A., as CEO. He invited former classmate Staffel to join as COO. Having come from a background in oil and gas, Staffel jumped at the chance to try her hand in a different industry.

With new business clout behind PWS, the company is growing quickly. Currently, PWS is entering its next seed round of $2.5 million that will allow the company to pay salaries of new team members and bring some tech development in-house. Until now, the making of the app itself has been outsourced to Mobisoft Infotech, a company based in Houston and India, which has worked on many projects at the Texas Medical Center. Local Black + Grey Studio is responsible for the design.

PWS has been working with both those teams in recent months to get a prototype app ready for launch. Currently, 100 physicians around the country are part of an invite-only pilot program. Soon, Staffel hopes to allow early adopter doctors who haven't been invited to enroll in the program for free. It will likely be in 2020 that patients will start joining the community, too.

How it works
An index of all the providers on the app allows doctors to easily find practitioners in a particular specialty. But there's more to it. Detailed profiles contribute to machine learning that assures the optimal match every time. Patient reviews will also play a role.

Though referrals were the impetus for the creation of PWS, it may be even more important as a communication tool between doctors, fellow clinicians (anyone from nurse practitioners to physical therapists may be invited to join), and patients. Staffel says participants in the pilot program are already using the messaging system to compare notes on cases, even sending photos from surgery to consult on patient issues.

The app's encryption means that it's HIPAA-compliant. Patients provide permission to discuss their cases via the app. And they can be confident of the quality of care they'll receive. Likely, the app will remain largely invite-only, and everyone who joins will share their National Provider Identifier licenses to be vetted against the federal database.

Doctors will communicate directly with patients through the app, but will also share resources digitally. Instead of making copy after copy of information about post-surgical care, for instance, the physician need only press a button to share a link.

Eventually, the goal is for PWS to be used not just nationally, but internationally, not just by individuals, but by whole hospital systems. A world in which doctors can compare notes around globe could be a little safer for us all.

Station Houston CEO Gabriella Rowe and Rice Alliance Managing Partner Brad Burke named 10 startups to watch. Photo by Natalie Harms

10 most promising Texas startups revealed at inaugural Houston summit

Winner, winner

Texas is booming with digital startups, and Station Houston and the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship hosted a meeting of the minds to discuss the digital revolution at the inaugural Texas Digital Summit at Rice University on December 6.

Thirty-nine companies presented throughout the day; among the group were 26 from the Houston area. At the conclusion of the day, Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston, and Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance, announced 10 "most promising companies" that stood out to a group of investors who attended the event.

All 10 selected were Texas-based, with eight from the Houston area. Here's who the venture capitalists and investors picked for the prize.

Houston-based SafePass

Photo via safepassglobal.com

SafePass pictures a world where visitors on school or corporate campuses can be tracked. The company's technology upends the standard paper or sticker pass you get from the front office, and provides a reusable, trackable device for visitors.

"Our tracking algorithm interacts with already existing WiFi technology — so, the routers that are already at that facility," says Ronald Huff, managing director of SafePass. "We leverage that to get that real-time tracking information."

Houston-based ScribeRule

Getty Images

ScribeRule operates under the assumption that your company's data has already been breached. The software protects data from both internal and external threats so that companies don't have to worry about any type of threat. The technology is scalable and easy to use.

"The problem is very simple," says Chris Melson, president and COO. "Only allow people who are authorized to see your data, see the data. And that's the problem we've solved."

"It's very difficult to protect data in a collaborative environment."

Houston-based Sensoleak

Photo via sensoleak.com

Sensoleak is making it easier for monitors in the oil and gas industry to be alerted about leaks. Using artificial intelligence, machine learning, and internet of things combined into a software, the company is providing a revolutionary solution for a longstanding problem.

"The problem right now is there is a lot of false alarms," says Shoshi Kaganovsky, founder and CEO, "and if there is a leak, it has to leak a lot before it is caught."

The company recently opened a new round of funding.

Sugar Land-based Commtrex

Photo via commtrex.com

The only open, electronic marketplace for rail shippers and asset providers is right in Houston's backyard of Sugar Land. Commtrex makes communications and connections between these transportation entities more efficient and better executed.

"Commtrex's asset management tools and market data is based on real transactions, and benefits our member companies with engagement efficiencies and financial insights," reads the website.

Houston-based Zenus

Photo via zenus-biometrics.com

Let's face it, face recognition is the future of identification, and Zenus has an award-winning technology to move the needle. Utilizing face recognition doesn't need to compromise privacy.

"We are a leading provider of face recognition software," reads the website. "Our cloud-based service can search a database of faces within a blink of an eye and it can be seamlessly integrated into any application."

Houston-based 3GiG

Photo via 3-gig.com

3GiG is a one-stop shop software company for the "oval office" needs of oil and gas companies. Energy leaders can use the services to manage projects, prospects, and more. President and CEO Kandy Lukats compares her company's services to the trending meal kits — like Blue Apron or Hello Fresh —Americans have been crazy about — all the ingredients sent right to your door.

"We believe we've found the niche between the freezer section and doing it yourself," she says.

Austin-based Towny

Photo via towny.com

This Austin company is making it more appealing to shop local. Towny looks to work in cities with under a million residents. The tool is for small, consumer-focused businesses to market their store to consumers. The small business owners pay a flat monthly rate to utilize digital marketing tools from the convenience of their phones.

Towny is already in five towns with 500 clients, says CEO Nathan Baumeister. In January, the company's monthly revenue was $17,000, but for the last two months, the tool has raked in $90,000 monthly.

"We've built a branding, mobile-first platform, where we've taken all these technologies and tactics and put it together in one package at the affordable price of $199 per month," he says.

Dallas-based CommandHound

Photo via commandhound.com

CommandHound is a B2B software that tracks employee tasks and responsibilities. It reminds users on assigned duties and keeps a record of work outcomes for later performance reviews.

"Our ultimate solution is to turn every organization into a high-performance organization through accountability," says Rene Larrave, chairman and CEO. "It's a checklist on steroids."

Houston-based SecurityGate

Photo via securitygate.io

SecurityGate is disrupting the cyber compliance and the cyber regulation market by providing cyber risk assessments at a faster rate than a human auditor could. The software analyzes data, identifies potential cyber security risks, and communicates with the company how to address the threats.

"No matter what industry vertical you're in, every single supply chain out there is worries about supply chain cyber security," says CEO Ted Gutierrez. "And the problem with that, is everyone is doing it manually."

Houston-based DeepCast.ai

Photo via deepcast.ai

Using artificial intelligence and physics, DeepCast.ai can automate operations for industrial companies.

"We simply integrate with system solutions, try to clean and facilitate the data using AI models important to the oil and gas industry," says Arturo Klie, chief technology officer and senior software engineer. "Once the data is clean, we apply our business-informed AI models to solve and provide forecasting real time and analytics.

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Houston-based lunar mission's rocky landing and what it means for America's return to the moon

houston, we have a problem

A private U.S. lunar lander tipped over at touchdown and ended up on its side near the moon’s south pole, hampering communications, company officials said Friday.

Intuitive Machines initially believed its six-footed lander, Odysseus, was upright after Thursday's touchdown. But CEO Steve Altemus said Friday the craft “caught a foot in the surface," falling onto its side and, quite possibly, leaning against a rock. He said it was coming in too fast and may have snapped a leg.

“So far, we have quite a bit of operational capability even though we’re tipped over," he told reporters.

But some antennas were pointed toward the surface, limiting flight controllers' ability to get data down, Altemus said. The antennas were stationed high on the 14-foot (4.3-meter) lander to facilitate communications at the hilly, cratered and shadowed south polar region.

Odysseus — the first U.S. lander in more than 50 years — is thought to be within a few miles (kilometers) of its intended landing site near the Malapert A crater, less than 200 miles (300 kilometers) from the south pole. NASA, the main customer, wanted to get as close as possible to the pole to scout out the area before astronauts show up later this decade.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will attempt to pinpoint the lander's location, as it flies overhead this weekend.

With Thursday’s touchdown, Intuitive Machines became the first private business to pull off a moon landing, a feat previously achieved by only five countries. Japan was the latest country to score a landing, but its lander also ended up on its side last month.

Odysseus' mission was sponsored in large part by NASA, whose experiments were on board. NASA paid $118 million for the delivery under a program meant to jump-start the lunar economy.

One of the NASA experiments was pressed into service when the lander's navigation system did not kick in. Intuitive Machines caught the problem in advance when it tried to use its lasers to improve the lander's orbit. Otherwise, flight controllers would not have discovered the failure until it was too late, just five minutes before touchdown.

“Serendipity is absolutely the right word,” mission director Tim Crain said.

It turns out that a switch was not flipped before flight, preventing the system's activation in space.

Launched last week from Florida, Odysseus took an extra lap around the moon Thursday to allow time for the last-minute switch to NASA's laser system, which saved the day, officials noted.

Another experiment, a cube with four cameras, was supposed to pop off 30 seconds before touchdown to capture pictures of Odysseus’ landing. But Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s EagleCam was deliberately powered off during the final descent because of the navigation switch and stayed attached to the lander.

Embry-Riddle's Troy Henderson said his team will try to release EagleCam in the coming days, so it can photograph the lander from roughly 26 feet (8 meters) away.

"Getting that final picture of the lander on the surface is still an incredibly important task for us,” Henderson told The Associated Press.

Intuitive Machines anticipates just another week of operations on the moon for the solar-powered lander — nine or 10 days at most — before lunar nightfall hits.

The company was the second business to aim for the moon under NASA's commercial lunar services program. Last month, Pittsburgh's Astrobotic Technology gave it a shot, but a fuel leak on the lander cut the mission short and the craft ended up crashing back to Earth.

Until Thursday, the U.S. had not landed on the moon since Apollo 17's Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closed out NASA's famed moon-landing program in December 1972. NASA's new effort to return astronauts to the moon is named Artemis after Apollo's mythological twin sister. The first Artemis crew landing is planned for 2026 at the earliest.

3 female Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

If the energy transition is going to be successful, the energy storage space needs to be equipped to support both the increased volume of energy needed and new energies. And Emma Konet and her software company, Tierra Climate, are targeting one part of the equation: the market.

"To me, it's very clear that we need to build a lot of energy storage in order to transition the grid," Konet says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The problems that I saw were really on the market side of things." Read more.

Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. Photo courtesy of Sage

A Houston geothermal startup has announced the close of its series A round of funding.

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. The proceeds aim to fund its first commercial geopressured geothermal system facility, which will be built in Texas in Q4 of 2024. According to the company, the facility will be the first of its kind.

“The first close of our Series A funding and our commercial facility are significant milestones in our mission to make geopressured geothermal system technologies a reality,” Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems, says. Read more.

Clemmie Martin, chief of staff at The Cannon

With seven locations across the Houston area, The Cannon's digital technology allows its members a streamlined connection. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

After collaborating over the years, The Cannon has acquired a Houston startup's digital platform technology to become a "physical-digital hybrid" community.

Village Insights, a Houston startup, worked with The Cannon to create and launch its digital community platform Cannon Connect. Now, The Cannon has officially acquired the business. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“The integration of a world-class onsite member experience and Cannon Connect’s superior virtual resource network creates a seamless, streamlined environment for member organizations,” Clemmie Martin, The Cannon’s newly appointed chief of staff, says in the release. “Cannon Connect and this acquisition have paved new pathways to access and success for all.” Read more.

Texas organization grants $68.5M to Houston institutions for recruitment, research

Three prominent institutions in Houston will be able to snag a trio of high-profile cancer researchers thanks to $12 million in new funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

The biggest recruitment award — $6 million — went to the University of Texas MD Anderson Center to lure researcher Xiling Shen away from the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation in Los Angeles.

Shen is chief scientific officer at the nonprofit Terasaki Institute. His lab there studies precision medicine, including treatments for cancer, from a “systems biology perspective.”

He also is co-founder and former CEO of Xilis, a Durham, North Carolina-based oncology therapy startup that raised $70 million in series A funding in 2021. Before joining the institute in 2021, the Stanford University graduate was an associate professor at Duke University in Durham.

Shen and Xilis aren’t strangers to MD Anderson.

In 2023, MD Anderson said it planned to use Xilis’ propriety MicroOrganoSphere (MOS) technology for development of novel cancer therapies.

“Our research suggests the MOS platform has the potential to offer new capabilities and to improve the efficiency of developing innovative drugs and cell therapies over current … models, which we hope will bring medicines to patients more quickly,” Shen said in an MD Anderson news release.

Here are the two other Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awards that will bring noted cancer researchers to Houston:

  • $4 million to attract David Sarlah to Rice University from the University of Illinois, where he is an associate professor of chemistry. Sarlah’s work includes applying the principles of chemistry to creation of new cancer therapies.
  • $2 million to lure Vishnu Dileep to the Baylor College of Medicine from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is a postdoctoral fellow. His work includes the study of cancer genomes.

CPRIT also handed out more than $56.5 million in grants and awards to seven institutions in the Houston area. Here’s the rundown:

  • MD Anderson Cancer Center — Nearly $25.6 million
  • Baylor College of Medicine — Nearly $11.5 million
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — More than $6 million
  • Rice University — $4 million
  • University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston — More than $3.5 million
  • Methodist Hospital Research Institute — More than $3.3 million
  • University of Houston — $1.4 million

Dr. Pavan Reddy, a CPRIT scholar who is a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and director of its Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Care Center, says the CPRIT funding “will help our investigators take chances and explore bold ideas to make innovative discoveries.”

The Houston-area funding was part of nearly $99 million in grants and awards that CPRIT recently approved.