A Houston startup based out of the TMC Innovation Factory has announced funding and upcoming trials. Photo courtesy of TMC

Fueled by fresh funding in the bank, a medical device startup has announced upcoming trials.

VenoStent, Inc., a company developing an innovative tool to improve outcomes for hemodialysis patients, has closed $16 million in a series A round of financing. Two Charleston, South Carolina-based firms — Good Growth Capital and IAG Capital Partners — led the round.

The company also announced it received Investigational Device Exemption from the FDA for its United States clinical trial, SAVE-FistulaS.

“Our mission at VenoStent is to improve the quality and length of life of dialysis patients. On the heels of our very promising results in several preclinical studies and a 20-patient feasibility study that led to our Breakthrough Designation last year, this recent IDE approval is perhaps our biggest milestone to date," Tim Boire, CEO of VenoStent, says in a news release. "We now enter an exciting new epoch in our company’s development that we believe will ultimately result in FDA Approval and vastly improve the quality and length of life for patients."

VenoStent's novel therapeutic medical device is a bioabsorbable wrap. Image courtesy of VenoStent

VenoStent's series A will fund the trial, expand manufacturing capabilities, and more. The company is targeting the more than 800,000 people in the U.S. with end-stage renal disease. Currently, more than half of the surgeries performed to initiate hemodialysis fail within a year. VenoStent's novel therapeutic medical device is a bioabsorbable wrap that reduces vein collapse by providing mechanical support and promoting outward vein growth.

“This trial is designed to provide the highest level of clinical evidence. We’re excited to be in this position to treat the first patients in the United States with this technology, and demonstrate the safety and efficacy of our device,” continues Boire in the release.

Per the release, the company is aiming for FDA Approval and be the first-to-market device to improve hemodialysis access surgery.

“We’re extremely pleased to be partnering with VenoStent on this critical mission. This company and technology are poised for commercial success to address a critical, unmet need,” says Bob Crutchfield, operating partner at Good Growth Capital, in the release.

The TMC Venture Fund also contributed to the series A investment round, along with SNR, Baylor Angel Network / Affinity Fund, Creative Ventures, Cowtown Angels, Alumni Ventures, and other notable angel investors. Past investors in VenoStent include KidneyX, National Science Foundation, National Institute of Health, Y Combinator, Health Wildcatters, and the Texas Halo Fund.

“VenoStent’s data and traction to date is impressive and gives us a lot of confidence in their continued success. We look forward to helping them get this Breakthrough product to market and help patients that are in dire need of this innovative technology,” says Joel Whitley, partner at IAG Capital Partners, in the release.

Tim Boire is the CEO of VenoStent. Photo via LinkedIn

The idea for Splay, a unique device perfect for a mobile workforce, was born on the Rice University campus. Images courtesy

Houston startup founders take one-of-a-kind projection device into manufacturing phase

splay saves the day

A Houston company born out of Rice University has crowdfunded its way into the manufacturing phase of its startup journey.

Arovia, founded by Alex Wesley and George Zhu, has a product that solves some major obstacles people on the go face as they work — or entertain — from home, a hotel, coffee shop, etc. Splay is a unique collapsable, portable device that doubles as both a display and projector.

The founders first launched their product in 2016 and raised over $700,000 from backers on their crowdfunding campaign. After raising investment funding, including an investment from the Texas Halo Fund, Wesley and Zhu recently returned to their crowdfunding roots and ran a 30-day pre-order campaign on Kickstarter during which they sold over $300,000 worth of product.

“We couldn't have made Splay without the Houston Startup Community," Wesley says.

Wesley was an MBA student when he met Zhu, who was working towards a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, after posting a job description in search of a co-founder, a requirement of the Owlspark program.

“Owlspark accepted the business idea, with the stipulation that I needed to find a co-founder,” says Wesley. “I sent out a job description, and a big part of the application process was to provide ideas for making this crazy idea work. I sent the job description at around 9 pm and received an email from George at around 1 am with an extremely detailed proposal. That was the start; and since then, we’ve basically been like brothers — I’ve even lived with him and his parents in China.”

Wesley credits Owlspark as an important part of their formation, beyond the impetus for their partnership.

“It was a great experience for us. The focus on customer interviews is something that is very easy to avoid, but it’s extremely important. You don’t have a product if nobody wants to buy it — you don’t have a company without customers," Wesley says. "During our time at Owlspark, we did over 100 customer interviews, which gave a lot of insight into the viability of the idea and who it would be useful for. We still utilize many of those insights today.”

But Owlspark wasn’t the only accelerator program that Wesley and Zhu joined. They also participated in Hax, a top hardware-focused accelerator, and Luminate, a top optics-focused accelerator. They also competed in the Rice Business Plan Competition, which Wesley says helped them refine their pitch which ultimately secured their funding.

“We pitched at angel groups including the Houston Angel Network and their fund The Halo Fund, Keiretsu Forum and their fund Keiretsu Capital, Rochester Angel Network, and the GOOSE Society. We also won the Texas A&M New Venture Competition,” says Wesley.

With this financial backing, Arovia received the necessary support for the R&D phase for Splay, taking the product into its manufacturing process and pre-sale campaign.

“Yes, it went very well,” shares Wesley, adding that they are still looking for support on the Indiegogo campaign. “Now we are focusing on pre-selling in other markets, like Japan."

Splay can be used as a portable screen, or the projector can be removed to be used on its own. Photo via Splay

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes John Chappell of BlockApps, Kyra Doolan of Texas HALO Fund, and Shaun Noorian of Empower Pharmacy. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from venture capital to pharmacy — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

John Chappell, director of energy business development at BlockApps

Siloed data, lack of consistency, and confusing regulations are all challenges blockchain can address, says this expert. Photo courtesy

Houston has all the potential to lead the energy transition — it just needs to make sure it has all the right ingredients. According to John Chappell, a key ingredient is blockchain. He explains in a guest article for InnovationMap.

"Houston has earned its title as the Energy Transition Capital of the world, and now it has an opportunity to be a global leader of technology innovation when it comes to carbon emissions reporting," Chappell writes. "The oil and gas industry has set ambitious goals to reduce its carbon footprint, but the need for trustworthy emissions data to demonstrate progress is growing more apparent — and blockchain may hold the keys to enhanced transparency." Click here to read more.

Kyra Doolan, managing director at Texas HALO Fund

Kyra Doolan joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the huge opportunities for innovation within femtech. Photo via LinkedIn

When venture capitalist and angel investing expert Kyra Doolan started navigating her own fertility journey, her eyes were opened to a huge market opportunity across femtech. As managing director at Houston-based Texas HALO Fund, she took these opportunities to her team of investors.

"A lot of the issues that face women, are things that are not talked about," she says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, referencing things like miscarriage, injury during childbirth, etc. "For a lot time, women just sat back if they had these issues, and they kept it to themselves, so those problems weren't being addressed."

Doolan says she and other women aren't taught how to manage their own fertility journey, but it doesn't have to be that way. Click here to read more.

Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy

Empower Pharmacy has opened its new 86,000-square-foot facility features innovative technology for purifying water, automation, and more. Photo courtesy of Empower Pharmacy

Houston-based Empower Pharmacy has celebrated the grand opening of its new $55 million, 86,000-square-foot facility that includes extensive automation, a top-of-the line cleanroom, and equipment that generates purified water, clean steam, and clean compressed air. The space also features a warehouse capable of storing at least nine months of raw pharmaceutical ingredients to minimize supply chain problems.

"This innovative facility, combined with our more than 500 dedicated employees, enables us to increase our operational capacity, allowing us to prepare thousands of custom prescriptions each day for millions of patients across the country," Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy, says in a news release. "We are setting a new standard for compounded medicine, striving to achieve a superior pharmaceutical experience, from order placement to delivery."

The new Empower Pharmacy facility, at 7601 N. Sam Houston Parkway W., opened earlier this month. Click here to read more.

Kyra Doolan joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the huge opportunities for innovation within femtech. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston investor shares why she's focused on funding the future of femtech

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 98

Successful investors find gaps in the marketplace and direct funds into startups and technologies resolving those gaps. For Kyra Doolan, managing director at Houston-based Texas HALO Fund, femtech represents a huge opportunity for innovation.

"A lot of the issues that face women, are things that are not talked about," she says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, referencing things like miscarriage, injury during childbirth, etc. "For a lot time, women just sat back if they had these issues, and they kept it to themselves, so those problems weren't being addressed."

While Texas HALO Fund has invested in femtech since its first fund in 2012, Doolan shares on the show how she personally saw an investment opportunity with kegg, a fertility tracking device. Doolan says she and other women aren't taught how to manage their own fertility journey, but it doesn't have to be that way.

"I was at a stage in my life where my eyes were open to the gaps that are out there and the conversations that weren't being had," she says. "In looking into Kegg, it showed me what the market was and how many gapes there were in the market just around fertility."

Texas HALO Fund has a few femtech companies in its portfolio now, and the most recent addition is Houston-based Work & Mother, a company that builds out fully-equipped nursing accommodations in office buildings.

Despite it's growing femtech portfolio, the fund is industry agnostic, though, Doolan says, about a third of the companies Texas HALO Fund invests in reside in the health tech space. What makes HALO different is its focus on early-stage startups.

"We like to get in early," Doolan says. "We're, what you would historically consider 'pre-VC,' but now that's getting a little bit blurred. ... We're some of the earlier capital that's invested, and we continue to make investment as the companies continue to subsequent rounds."

Doolan shares more on her passion for femtech, as well as her advice for founders looking for funding and potential female investors looking to get into investing on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Unlike past awards programs hosted by Ignite Healthcare Network, the Ignite Madness winners accepted their awards via video call. Photo courtesy of Ignite

Houston female-focused health tech pitch competition names big winners

winner, winner

From the comfort of their own homes, several female entrepreneurs accepted investment and pitch prizes at the finals of an inaugural awards program created by a Houston-based, woman-focused health organization.

Ahead of the Ignite Madness finals on Thursday, October 29, Houston-based Ignite Healthcare Network named nine finalists that then pitched for three investment prizes. The finalists included:

  • Eden Prairie, Minnesota-based Abilitech Medical — medical device company that creates assistive devices to aid those with upper-limb neuromuscular conditions or injuries.
  • New Orleans, Louisiana-based Chosen Diagnostics — a biotech company focusing on custom treatment. First, Chosen is focused on creating two novel biomarker diagnostic kits — one for gastrointestinal disease in premature infants.
  • San Francisco, California-based Ejenta — which uses NASA tech and artificial intelligence to enhance connected care.
  • Highland, Maryland-based Emergency Medical Innovation — a company focused on emergency medicine like Bleed Freeze, a novel device for more efficiently treating nosebleeds.
  • Columbia, Missouri-based Healium — an app to quickly reduce burnout, self-manage anxiety, and stress.
  • Farmington, Connecticut-based Nest Collaborative — digital lactation solutions and support.
  • Palo Alto, California-based Nyquist Data — a smart search engine to enable medical device companies to get FDA approvals faster.
  • New Orleans-Louisiana based Obatala Sciences — a biotech startup working with research institutions across the globe to advance tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.
  • Perth, Australia-based OncoRes — a company that's developing a technology to provide surgeons with real-time assessment of tissue microstructure.
The inaugural event that mixed health care and basketball — two vastly different industries with strong connections to women — attracted support from partners and sponsors, such as Intel, Accenture, Morgan Lewis, Houston Methodist, Johnson & Johnson Innovation, and more, according to Ayse McCracken, founder and board chair of Ignite.

"Our partners and sponsors are an integral part of our organization" says McCracken. "Without each and every one of them, the networks, resources, and commitment to advancing women leaders, we would not have grown so rapidly in just four years and our IGNITE Madness event would not enjoy this vibrant ecosystem that now surrounds female entrepreneurs."

First up in selecting their winner for their investment was Texas Halo Fund. Chosen Diagnostics took home the $50,000 investment.

"While we were impressed by everyone who pitched tonight, one company stood out to us," says Kyra Doolan, managing partner. "[Chosen Diagnostics] exemplifies what we are looking for: an innovative solution, a strong CEO, and a real addressable market."

The second monetary award was presented by Tom Luby, director of TMC Innovation. The award was an $100,000 investment from the TMC Venture Fund, as well as admission to TMCx. The recipient of the investment was OncoRes.

"We are absolutely blown away," says Katharine Giles, founder of Onco. "We've already got a great link to Texas and looking forward to more."

The largest monetary award that was on the table was presented by Wavemaker Three-Sixty Health, a leading Southern-California based, early stage venture capital firm, for $150,000. However, at the time of the announcement, Managing Partner Jay Goss decided to award four startups an undisclosed amount of investment. Goss says he and his team will meet with each company to establish an investment.
The companies that were recognized by Wavemaker were: Healium, Ejenta, Emergency Medical Innovation, and Nest Collaborative.
Lastly, Ignite itself had $27,500 cash awards to give out to the pitch competition winners. The funds will be distributed between the winners. OncoRes took first place, Abilitech came in second place, and ObatalaSciences took third place.
From a Houston startup exit to the growth of a Rice University startup, here's the short stories of Houston innovation news you may have missed. Pexels

Houston energy company exits, 3 recent investments from local fund, and more innovation news

Short stories

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and it's likely some might have fallen through the cracks.

For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, Texas Halo Fund makes three new investments, a Houston energy company exits, a growing Rice University startup gets grants, and more.

Octopus Energy acquires Houston-founded Evolve Energy

The $5 million deal means a new focus on Texas for the new parent company. Photo via evolvemyenergy.com

London-based renewable energy company Octopus Energy announced that it's acquired Houston-founded Evolve Energy in a $5 million deal, which represents Octopus's $100 million expansion into the United States market.

Octopus, which reached Unicorn status with a $1 billion valuation in April, will start its expansion in Texas, according to a news release, operating under the new name Octopus Energy US. Evolve Energy, which was founded in 2018 by Michael Lee, is a Texas-based Capital Factory portfolio company and finished first place in the 2019 EarthX startup competition. The company also has a Silicon Valley office, in addition to its local operation in Houston's Galleria area.

"Octopus Energy is inspirational in growing a customer base of over 1 million households in just four years. It has done so while also achieving customer satisfaction scores similar to Netflix and Amazon. It matches our aspiration for innovation and we're thrilled to be part of the Octopus family," says Lee in the release. "The US energy market is rapidly moving towards ultra-low cost renewable energy and is prime for a true digital transformation."

Texas Halo Fund makes three new investments

Texas Money

Here are the three latest investments from Texas Halo Fund. Getty Images

Houston-based Texas Halo Fund has made three recent investments in August and September.

  • Nexus AI, based in Chicago, the workforce management tech company uses artificial intelligence and organizational behavioral science to predict the best teams or individuals for a project on the startup's cloud-based platform.
  • Rellevate is a Connecticut-based digital fintech company that optimizes employer-based digital account and financial services.
  • MFB Fertility, a Colorado company, has created game-changing at-home test stripts for assaying the hormone progesterone branded as Proov.

Rice University program seeking data projects

The Rice D2K Lab wants to help startups and small businesses solve business concerns with data science. Photo courtesy of Rice

Adata-focused lab at Rice University is seeking data challenges for its group of next generation of data scientists to solve. The Rice D2K Lab is looking for sponsors for its Rice D2K Capstone project in Spring 2021. Rice's D2K Capstone program forms interdisciplinary teams of advanced undergraduate and graduate students to solve pressing real-world data science challenges. The program is accepting project proposals for the Spring 2021 semester through Monday, October 19.

Click here to learn more about the program, and click here to get involved.

California startup joins Chevron's Catalyst Program

CTV has a new startup in its Catalyst Program. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures announced that Oakland, California-based Brimstone Energy Inc. has joined CTV's Catalyst Program to continue its development of its decarbonization platform, which focuses on the generation of low-emissions hydrogen, as well as various commodity products, according to a release.

"Brimstone Energy is excited to be supported by Chevron, a multi-national industrial company," says Cody Finke, Ph.D., co-founder and CEO of Brimstone Energy, in the release. "It is good to see Chevron continue to back companies with decarbonization in their mission."

Rice University-born startup racks up $12.5 million in grants

OpenStax is growing its access to free online textbooks. Image via openstax.org

Rice University's OpenStax is able to greatly expand its library of free online textbooks thanks to new grants totaling $12.5 million. The funds derive from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation and the Stand Together community, according to a press release from Rice.

The new funds will more than double OpenStax's files from 42 books to 90. Already, the platform has saved 14 million students around the world more than $1 billion.

"Nine years ago, we dreamed about solving the textbook affordability and access crisis for students," says Richard Baraniuk, the Victor E. Cameron Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice and founder and director of OpenStax, in the release. "Now, with this tremendous investment in open education, we will be able to not only accelerate educational access for tens of millions of students but also drive innovation in high-quality digital learning, which has become commonplace due to COVID-19."

OpenStax is planning to raise $30 million for continued library expansion as it aims to lower the barrier to higher education.

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Houston organizations launch collaborative center to boost cancer outcomes

new to HOU

Rice University's new Synthesis X Center officially launched last month to bring together experts in cancer care and chemistry.

The center was born out of what started about seven years ago as informal meetings between Rice chemist Han Xiao's research group and others from the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Baylor College of Medicine. The level of collaboration between the two teams has grown significantly over the years, and monthly meetings now draw about 100 participants from across disciplines, fields and Houston-based organizations, according to a statement from Rice.

Researchers at the new SynthX Center will aim to turn fundamental research into clinical applications and make precision adjustments to drug properties and molecules. It will focus on improving cancer outcomes by looking at an array of factors, including prevention and detection, immunotherapies, the use of artificial intelligence to speed drug discovery and development, and several other topics.

"At Rice, we are strong on the fundamental side of research in organic chemistry, chemical biology, bioengineering and nanomaterials,” Xiao says in the statement. “Starting at the laboratory bench, we can synthesize therapeutic molecules and proteins with atom-level precision, offering immense potential for real-world applications at the bedside ... But the clinicians and fundamental researchers don’t have a lot of time to talk and to exchange ideas, so SynthX wants to serve as the bridge and help make these connections.”

SynthX plans to issue its first merit-based seed grants to teams with representatives from Baylor and Rice this month.

With this recognition from Rice, the teams from Xiao's lab and the TMC will also be able to expand and formalize their programs. They will build upon annual retreats, in which investigators can share unpublished findings, and also plan to host a national conference, the first slated for this fall titled "Synthetic Innovations Towards a Cure for Cancer.”

“I am confident that the SynthX Center will be a great resource for both students and faculty who seek to translate discoveries from fundamental chemical research into medical applications that improve people’s lives,” Thomas Killian, dean of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences, says in the release.

Rice announced that it had invested in four other research centers along with SynthX last month. The other centers include the Center for Coastal Futures and Adaptive Resilience, the Center for Environmental Studies, the Center for Latin American and Latinx Studies and the Rice Center for Nanoscale Imaging Sciences.

Earlier this year, Rice also announced its first-ever recipients of its One Small Step Grant program, funded by its Office of Innovation. The program will provide funding to faculty working on "promising projects with commercial potential," according to the website.

Houston physicist scores $15.5M grant for high-energy nuclear physics research

FUTURE OF PHYSICS

A team of Rice University physicists has been awarded a prestigious grant from the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Physics for their work in high-energy nuclear physics and research into a new state of matter.

The five-year $15.5 million grant will go towards Rice physics and astronomy professor Wei Li's discoveries focused on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), a large, general-purpose particle physics detector built on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, a European organization for nuclear research in France and Switzerland. The work is "poised to revolutionize our understanding of fundamental physics," according to a statement from Rice.

Li's team will work to develop an ultra-fast silicon timing detector, known as the endcap timing layer (ETL), that will provide upgrades to the CMS detector. The ETl is expected to have a time resolution of 30 picoseconds per particle, which will allow for more precise time-of-flight particle identification.

The Rice team is collaborating with others from MIT, Oak Ridge National Lab, the University of Illinois Chicago and University of Kansas. Photo via Rice.edu

This will also help boost the performance of the High-Luminosity Large Hadron Collider (HL-LHC), which is scheduled to launch at CERN in 2029, allowing it to operate at about 10 times the luminosity than originally planned. The ETL also has applications for other colliders apart from the LHC, including the DOE’s electron-ion collider at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York.

“The ETL will enable breakthrough science in the area of heavy ion collisions, allowing us to delve into the properties of a remarkable new state of matter called the quark-gluon plasma,” Li explained in a statement. “This, in turn, offers invaluable insights into the strong nuclear force that binds particles at the core of matter.”

The ETL is also expected to aid in other areas of physics, including the search for the Higgs particle and understanding the makeup of dark matter.

Li is joined on this work by co-principal investigator Frank Geurts and researchers Nicole Lewis and Mike Matveev from Rice. The team is collaborating with others from MIT, Oak Ridge National Lab, the University of Illinois Chicago and University of Kansas.

Last year, fellow Rice physicist Qimiao Si, a theoretical quantum physicist, earned the prestigious Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship grant. The five-year fellowship, with up to $3 million in funding, will go towards his work to establish an unconventional approach to create and control topological states of matter, which plays an important role in materials research and quantum computing.

Meanwhile, the DOE recently tapped three Houston universities to compete in its annual startup competition focused on "high-potential energy technologies,” including one team from Rice.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.