U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao used SXSW to make the announcement. Photo courtesy of Hyperloop One

Creation of a transportation-in-a-tube system that promises to whisk passengers from Houston to Dallas in 30 minutes got a big boost March 12 from the federal government.

During an appearance at SXSW, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said she has established a transportation technology council that will aim to clear regulatory and legal roadblocks for the traffic-busting Virgin Hyperloop One concept and similar transit innovations.

In September 2017, the company behind Hyperloop One picked a 640-mile route in Texas for the initiative. The futuristic system — with passengers riding in pods carried through a massive tube — would connect Houston, Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Laredo, and San Antonio. Hyperloop One would provide two stops each in the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston areas, and one each in Austin, Laredo, and San Antonio.

The north-south leg of Hyperloop One would run between Dallas-Fort Worth and Laredo, while the east-west leg would operate between Houston and San Antonio. As imagined now, a trip between Austin and Dallas would last 19 minutes at speeds up to 670 mph — two to three times faster than high-speed rail and 10 to 15 times faster than traditional rail. A ride from Houston to Austin would take 21 minutes, while a trek from Houston to San Antonio would last 26 minutes.

"Texas is exploring how to make hyperloop a reality at the state and local level, but federal support is a huge key for us to be certified and successful," Ryan Kelly, head of marketing and communications for Virgin Hyperloop One, tells CultureMap. "It is exciting that the federal government is recognizing us as a potential new mode of transportation that can be a leap forward for America. Hopefully, Texas can be a first mover."

Aside from Texas, Virgin Hyperloop One has U.S. projects underway in Colorado, Missouri, and the Chicago-Columbus-Pittsburgh corridor. Virgin Group, led by Sir Richard Branson, is among the investors in Hyperloop One.

The federal council unveiled at SXSW will help fast-track a first-of-its-kind transportation network in the U.S. that shares components with trains, planes, and self-driving vehicles. Members of the council will explore technological innovations, such as transit tunnels and self-driving vehicles, in the quest to speed up development of Virgin Hyperloop One and other emerging modes of mass transportation.

"Hyperloop is a new mode of transportation that is built for the 21st century," Jay Walder, CEO of Virgin Hyperloop One, says in a release. "We want to be the company that spearheads the next giant leap forward in transportation here in the United States, but we know we can't do it alone."

Kelly says it's unclear when Texas passengers might be able to travel on Virgin Hyperloop One's network, but the company hopes the first route — wherever it may be — will be ready by the end of 2028.

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This story originally ran on CultureMap.

ElecTrip uses eco-friendly Teslas to shuttle business people to and fro across the state. Courtesy of Electrip

Texas startup using Tesla cars for more efficient and eco-friendly travel

Rethinking roadtrips

A Texas startup shuffling business men and women across the state in style has created an elevated road trip experience for its customers.

Founded in 2018 and based in Austin, ElecTrip aims to add luxury and convenience to regional commutes between major Texas cities by providing transportation in Teslas equipped with WiFi, complimentary snacks, and professional drivers.

Mandeep Patel, a University of Texas at Austin student, had the idea for the company just about a year ago while completing an internship. Patel had the company up and running just a few months later.

Patel serves as founder and CEO, along with his classmate and co-founder, Eliott Lee, who is COO. Lee tells InnovationMap that he and Patel had gotten tired of the stress of airport travel, the restrictive schedule of buses, and the soul-draining fatigue of driving. ElecTrip's no-compromise solution is cost effective, comfortable, and carbon neutral.

"One thing we really pride ourselves on is being sustainable, energy-efficient, and having no emissions," Lee says.

ElecTrip offers door-to-door service for their customers, who can customize pickup and drop-off locations in any major Texas city. The company has eight routes between Houston, Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio, but customers can book a custom route within a 300-mile radius of those cities. Prices range from $249.99 to $429.99, but customers can opt to share rides to cut down on cost, with cars seating three to five riders.

"We emphasize on B2B, geared more towards businesses," says Lee, explaining that customers can customize their trip with food and beverage requests.

The company offers three different Tesla models: Tesla Model S, Tesla Model X, and Tesla Model 3, each offering a specific number of passenger seats, luggage capacity, and mileage range.

"The main reason why we chose Tesla is because of the supercharger network," says Lee in referring to Tesla's 1,422 Supercharger Stations throughout the United States.

Clients don't have to worry about the charging process, Lee says. The company plans the trips around these charging stations, which are free to any Tesla user.

ElecTrip is less than a year old and has already coordinated hundreds of rides, according to the website. While starting the company while still juggling classes — Lee expects to graduate from UT in 2020, while Patel is graduating this year — Lee says being a student-run startup has its perks.

"We find a lot of funding in startup competitions that only students have access to," said Lee.

Additional initial funding for the company came out of Patel's savings account, Lee says. ElecTrip owns one Tesla and rents out additional vehicles to cover the demand of rides. Lee explains that renting vehicles instead of owning them would cut back on the company's real estate while providing additional income for Tesla owners that aren't using their cars.

Patel and Lee are the only two full-time employees at ElecTrip, as all drivers work on a contract-basis. Lee tells InnovationMap that in the future, ElecTrip will focus on business partnerships.

"A lot of these other services are geared towards consumers," says Lee. "We hope to be geared toward mainly towards businesses in the long run."

ElecTrip is gearing up for growing its partnerships with local small businesses in Austin and Houston to provide food and drink products for rides.

"It is something we're looking at targeting in the next one or two months," says Lee.

Mandeep Patel (left) and Eliott Lee are the co-founders of ElecTrip, a travel company that uses Teslas across Texas.Courtesy of ElecTrip

Virgin Trains may be speeding into Texas. Photo courtesy of Virgin Trains

Transportation company steers talk of high-speed trains between Houston, Austin, and San Antonio

ALL ABOARD?

You've likely heard of the proposed high-speed "bullet" train that would connect Houston and Dallas, as well as the proposed transportation-in-a-tube concept that would link Houston, Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, and Laredo.

Now, another possible alternative to planes, Amtrak trains, and automobiles has chugged into the picture.

Virgin Trains USA, a transportation startup that plans to trade its shares on the Nasdaq stock exchange, is exploring two high-speed routes in Texas — one tying together Houston, Austin, and San Antonio, and the other between Houston and Dallas. All four of those cities are plagued by ever-increasing traffic tie-ups.

There's no word yet on when these routes might take shape. At this point, they're merely ideas, and ahead of the company going public, officials at Virgin Trains are staying mum.

In all, Virgin Trains has outlined seven potential routes in the U.S. beyond what it already has on the drawing board.

"Our goal is to build railroad systems in North America that connect major metropolitan areas with significant traffic and congestion," the company says in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Virgin Trains aims to tie together heavily populated cities separated by 200- to 300-mile distances that are "too long to drive, too short to fly." It wants to run the trains along existing transportation corridors — rail, highway or a combination of the two — "to cost-effectively build our systems, as opposed to developing entirely new corridors at potentially significantly higher costs."

If the Virgin name sounds familiar, it should. British billionaire Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group is a minority investor in Virgin Trains, which already operates a South Florida route between Miami and West Palm Beach. West Palm Beach-to-Orlando and Orlando-to-Tampa routes also are in the works in Florida, in addition to a Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas route. Virgin's other transportation investments include airlines and space travel.

Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association, says he's on board with the Branson-backed Virgin Trains venture — not as an "anti-Amtrak" move but as an advancement in U.S. passenger rail travel.

"Speaking from the experience of someone who spent almost his entire career watching Sir Richard innovate, invest, and take risks, I firmly believe this could be a real shot in the arm for passenger rail in the United States," Mathews writes on the association's website. "Like all entrepreneurs, Sir Richard isn't afraid to fail, and he has made a few bad bets in the past. But he's also made some very good ones, and has transformed not just travel but philosophies wherever he has gone."

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This story originally ran on CultureMap.

TxDOT has a new task force focused on keeping Texans informed on self-driving vehicles that are getting road ready. Getty Images

Texas forms task force geared at autonomous vehicle development

Road to unmanned driving

Self-driving cars are en route to Texas, and the state government wants to ensure Texas is ready for the ride. The Texas Department of Transportation announced the creation of a Connected and Autonomous Vehicle Task Force on Jan. 24.

The CAV Task Force will focus on being a comprehensive resource for information on all Texas CAV projects, investments, and initiatives, the press release says. The organization will also host events surrounding CAV progress and education around the topic.

"With our world-class universities, top-notch workforce and startup culture, Texas is a national leader in the development of new technologies," says Gov. Greg Abbott in the release. "As transportation technology advances, the CAV Task Force will ensure that the Lone Star State remains at the forefront of innovation."

TxDOT's interest, the release reports, is in hopes that the self-driving technology will minimize accidents and maximize safety, as well as expand opportunities for residents, especially within the elderly and disabled populations who currently don't have reliable transportation to their errands and appointments.

In 2017, in the 85th Texas Legislative Session, Abbot signed Senate Bill 2205 into law. The legislation identifies key requirements for CAVs, such as insurance and adhering to traffic laws, like normal vehicles, as well as requiring video recording devices in the car, the Texas Tribune reported. However, it's worth nothing that self-driving vehicles were already being experimented with in Austin by the likes of Google, the Tribune notes.

"Our goal is to further build on the momentum already established with the Texas Technology Task Force and the Texas Innovation Alliance, and work with interested parties on the latest and greatest in CAV projects and enhancements," says TxDOT Executive Director James Bass. "We look forward to furthering these important efforts as connected and autonomous vehicles become reality."

TxDOT is also focusing on rail planning, as the Houston-Dallas high-speed rail chugs along. Earlier this month, the state asked for Texans' feedback on the projects.

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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.