This digital shopping assistant relocated to Texas last year to focus on the business-friendly market. Courtesy of ModeSens

Former Microsoft engineer Brian Li wanted to help his wife, Jing Leng, a personal shopper, make smart purchases for her clients seeking luxury clothing. The couple found it impractical and time consuming to sift through multiple websites in search of clothing that was the best fit.

Li, now CEO of ModeSens, was inspired in 2015 to develop a personal shopping tool. The name comes from rearranging the French phrase "sens de la mode," which means "fashion sense."

"It started out as something that Brian worked on in his free time. But after they started using it, they realized that other people would find it useful," says Krystle Craycraft, CMO of ModeSens. "Another resource like this does not exist. We are the only company that aggregates information at the product level, presenting information to consumers in a way that is easy to navigate, and all in one place."

Since launching in 2015 in Seattle, the company relocated to Texas last year. Now, headquartered in Dallas, the company is building a large pool of users in major cities throughout Texas. ModeSens sees a growing connection with Houston in terms of customers and fashion retailers.

Li moved the business "because Texas is a good place to do business," Craycraft says. "Many businesses are following the trend of moving to Texas because of the great climate to do business in. We love Texas."

ModeSens, using its database of information, gives luxury fashion shoppers important information about products as they search, making for a more efficient, satisfying purchase. For a given item, ModeSens provides members a list of retailers who have the item in stock, the price comparison across retailers, available colors, designer information, product reviews, special promotions, and more.

You can download the free app, create a free account, and start saving on luxury goods by searching the site or scanning barcodes in the store. As ModeSens specializes in luxury goods, they partner with almost 200 brands such as Neiman Marcus, SAKS, Gucci, Dolce & Gobana, Lane Crawford and other premier designers.

"We connect with clients through several different affiliate networks as well as direct partnerships," says Craycraft. ModeSens partners exclusively with high-end retailers, filling a specific niche for the first time.

Leng, serving as the Fashion Director at ModeSens, works with these retail partners, curating content and promoting their products in a way that helps customers buy confidently.

"The customer is the focus of ModeSens; getting them what they need to make an informed decision is our top priority," says Craycraft. "Other fashion shopping platforms show products from Forever 21 all the way up to luxury brands, but for our customers looking for luxury products, a lot of those stores are just not relevant to them. Sorting through them becomes tedious."

ModeSens puts the answers to at customers' questions at their fingertips, once signed up with a free membership.

With the brand-new release of the barcode scanning feature, customers can have access to the same comparative information while physically in a store, as well as online.

"This is a total game-changer in the industry; there is no one else doing this," says Craycraft.

Using the app, shoppers simply scan the barcode of any of the many retailers who are partnered with ModeSens, revealing detailed information that can guide their purchase.

ModeSens is building an online community of luxury shoppers that can collaborate to find exactly what they are looking for in an authentic way. Through the website, members can upload pictures of the products that they have acquired, write reviews, provide helpful information to others, and ask questions.

"We want this to be a place where anyone can share their thoughts, and photos without feeling too intimidated to contribute," Craycraft says.

OrchidBox's smart terrarium fits on your desktop. Courtesy OrchidBox

Desktop terrarium startup promises plants that never die

Growing business

A Dallas startup has invented a smart terrarium with minimal maintenance designed to keep your plants alive. Called OrchidBox, it handles everything from easy succulents to hard-to-grow plants like the Venus flytrap.

The technology senses when the plant needs water and syncs with the sun for proper lighting.

Founder Nathan Hollis, a 26-year-old Dallas native, used his background in computer science and his love of plants to create an acrylic box equipped with LED lighting and a watering system.

The box measures 4x4x7 inches — small enough to fit on your work desk or bedside table. You can grow any plant that fits inside the box. An app allows you to select a pre-designed environment for your plant, and you can set a schedule for how much light and water it needs.

Hollis has a huge plant collection at home, some of which he has owned for seven years.

"It's sad, I don't think young people understand just how diverse our wildlife is, and we are losing more and more plant species every day," he says.

The name OrchidBox was selected to educate people about plant varieties and endangered species.

"While most people think of the stereotypical store-bought orchids, there are actually 50,000 species of orchids, some that are very, very bizarre," he says. "Most people don't know that, and some don't even know what an orchid is, so we wanted to take the opportunity to teach people."

The mini terrarium concept has been three years in the making. When he was in college, Hollis utilized his programming and mechanical engineering education to make climate-controlled devices that were larger, before sizing down his design to something that could adorn people's tabletops.

The company has competitors, such as Biopod Smart Microhabitat and EcoQube Air, but OrchidBox is the only company with a patent, said Taylor Mason, whose company It Crowd Marketing is helping Hollis with the media buzz.

Hollis had a full-time job but quit in February to focus exclusively on this venture. The product is available for pre-order which you can do here.

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This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

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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.