David Pruner, executive director of TEX-E, joins the Houston Innovator Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

Collaboration is the name of the game for David Pruner, executive director of the Texas Entrepreneurship Exchange for Energy, known as TEX-E, a nonprofit housed out of Greentown Labs that was established to support energy transition innovation at Texas universities.

TEX-E launched in 2022 in collaboration with Greentown Labs, MIT’s Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship, and five university partners — Rice University, Texas A&M University, Prairie View A&M University, University of Houston, and The University of Texas at Austin.

Pruner was officially named to his role earlier this year, but he's been working behind the scenes for months now getting to know the organization and already expanding its opportunities from students across the state at the five institutions.

"In the end, we have five different family members who need to be coordinated differently," Pruner says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There's plenty of bright students at each of these schools, and there's plenty of innovation going on, it's whether it can grow, prosper, and be sustainable."

Pruner describes the organization as pulling the best resources from each of the schools, with TEX-E operating as a bit of a matchmaker to connect students across the state through in-person opportunities and its digital platform.

"Our main job is to look to connect everyone, so that an engineer at Texas A&M that has an idea that they want to pursue, but they don't know the business side, can meet that Rice MBA," Pruner says, giving a hypothetical example. "Then, when they realize it's going to be a highly regulated product, we need a regulatory lawyer at UT — we can make all that happen and connect them."

TEX-E's programming includes a bootcamp course, fellowship opportunities at each school, and an annual startup competition at CERAWeek with $50,000 of pre-seed funding up for grabs. Next year, as Pruner explains on the show, the organization will also roll out an accelerator.

Pruner shares more about the program and its future, as well as his views on Houston as a major leader for the energy transition.

Rice University — sometimes known as the "Ivy League of the South" — has been ranked as the best school in the Lone Star State. Courtesy of Rice University

Rice University tops best schools in Texas list

Top of the class

By any measure, Rice University is a top-tier academic institution, lauded locally and nationally for its innovative tuition programs and for boasting the highest-paid graduates in the state. Now, a new ranking names the "Ivy League of the South" the top university in Texas.

Personal finance website WalletHub has released its 2020's Best College & University Rankings, just in time for the looming November 1 "early decision" college application deadline. Rice takes the No. 1 Texas spot and comes in at No. 13 overall in the U.S.

In order to determine the rankings, WalletHub compared more than 1,000 colleges and universities across seven key dimensions: student selectivity, cost and financing, faculty resources, campus safety, campus experience, educational outcomes, and career outcomes.

Among Texas schools, Rice comes in first for the following individual metrics: admission rate, student-faculty ratio, graduation rate, and post-attendance median salary. The school places second for gender and racial diversity.

The University of Texas at Austin follows as the No. 2 best school in Texas, while Trinity University comes in third. Here are the top 10 schools in Texas, according to WalletHub:

  1. Rice University
  2. University of Texas at Austin
  3. Trinity University
  4. Baylor University
  5. LeTourneau University
  6. Texas Christian University
  7. Texas A&M University-College Station
  8. University of Dallas
  9. Southwestern University
  10. Southern Methodist University

At No. 13 on the overall list, Rice shares the spotlight with prestigious institutions, coming in behind the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Princeton University, Yale University, Stanford University, the California Institute of Technology, Duke University, University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern University, University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill, Vanderbilt University, and Columbia University. University of Chicago is No. 14.

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This article originally ran 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.