ThirdAI's new PocketLLM app is free to use and completely secure. Photo via Getty Images

Artificial intelligence has a big potential to disrupt the technology industry, and one Houston company that was founded by a computer science professor at Rice University, is fast on its way to help lead that future now in a convenient and affordable way.

Founded by Anshumali Shrivastava and Tharun Medini, a recent Ph.D. who graduated under Shrivastava from Rice's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, ThirdAI is building AI deep learning tools that aim to be sustainable and scalable to fit the changing needs of the industry. The company is on a mission to democratize AI, Shrivastava tells InnovationMap.

Shrivastava likes to use the word efficiently when describing what makes ThirdAI different, and how its programs can teach AI via multiple avenues to be what he refers to as “1,000 times more efficient.”

“The carbon footprint of these models are off the charts, and so expensive,” Shrivastava. “We believe this could be made efficient. … We use the same ideas that were developed, but we do it on a massive scale.”

ThirdAI's latest tool is a multilingual ChatGPT-like AI training tool PocketLLM app. Announced earlier this month, the tool is free. According to the company, users have access to a personalized chatbot that understands what the user is searching within documents, and can be fine-tuned to help elaborate your thoughts through a neural search.

ThirdAI's PocketLLM app is free to use. Image courtesy of ThirdAI

The app is private and secure and runs on deep-learning algorithms according to Vinod Iyengar, head of product at ThirdAI, and no one — not even ThirdAI — has access to the documents except the user.

“Tools exist to help people search text files, but that requires sharing your data with third parties,” says Iyengar in a news release. “Our solution is private and secure, powered by deep learning algorithms. And it returns results lightning fast.”

The process includes the user installing the app, uploading any text document files, and clicking "train." Minutes later, you have an AI tool that can process the information in those documents.

“The neural search encourages you to elaborate on your thoughts with details in the discover window and see the difference in results,” says Shrivastava in the release. “It can also be fine-tuned to your tastes by selecting the relevant option and hitting the update button to re-train."

In September of 2021, ThirdAI — pronounced "third eye" — raised $6 million in seed funding. The round was invested in by three California-based VCs — Neotribe Ventures and Cervin Ventures, which co-led the round with support from Firebolt Ventures. The technology ThirdAI is working with comes from 10 years of deep learning research and innovation. The company's technology has the potential to make computing 15-times faster, the company reports.

Anshumali Shrivastava is an associate professor of computer science at Rice University. Photo via rice.edu

This Houston startup has a game-changing technology for deep learning. Photo via Getty Images

Houston artificial intelligence startup raises $6M in seed funding

money moves

A computer science professor at Rice University has raised seed funding last month in order to grow his company that's focused on democratizing artificial intelligence tools.

ThirdAI, founded by Anshumali Shrivastava in April, raised $6 million in a seed funding round from three California-based VCs — Neotribe Ventures and Cervin Ventures, which co-led the round with support from Firebolt Ventures.

Shrivastava, CEO, co-founded the company with Tharun Medini, a recent Ph.D. who graduated under Shrivastava from Rice's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Medini serves as the CTO of ThirdAI — pronounced "third eye." The startup is building the next generation of scalable and sustainable AI tools and deep learning systems.

"We are democratizing artificial intelligence through software innovations," says Shrivastava in a news release from Rice. "Our innovation would not only benefit current AI training by shifting to lower-cost CPUs, but it should also allow the 'unlocking' of AI training workloads on GPUs that were not previously feasible."

The technology ThirdAI is working with comes from 10 years of deep learning research and innovation. The company's technology has the potential to make computing 15-times faster.

"ThirdAI has developed a breakthrough approach to train deep learning models with a large number of parameters that run efficiently on general purpose CPUs. This technology has the potential to result in a gigantic leap forward in the accuracy of deep learning models," per and announcement from Cervin Ventures. "Our investment in ThirdAI was a no-brainer and we are fortunate to have had the opportunity to invest."

Anshumali Shrivastava is an associate professor of computer science at Rice University. Photo via rice.edu

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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.