This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Sameer Soleja of Molecule, Gabriela Gerhart of The Motherhood center, and 50 Cent. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — software, education, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Sameer Soleja, CEO of Molecule

Sameer Soleja, CEO of Molecule, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his startup's recent fundraise — and how he's planning on being at the forefront of the evolving electricity commodities industry. Photo courtesy of Molecule

A 9-year-old software startup has been reinvigorated by fresh funds and a new opportunity to emerge as a leader in enterprise software for commodities — especially for electricity traders. Sameer Soleja, CEO of Molecule, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the company's latest funding round — a $12 million series A.

"The commodities industry is looking really hard at electricity as the growth commodity of the 2020s — renewables and conventionally generated electricity," Soleja says. "Everybody in our client base and in the market is looking at electricity. Well, we happen to have more than have of our customer base be in electricity."

Click here to listen to the podcast and read more.

Gabriela Gerhart, founder of The Motherhood Center

Houston entrepreneur recounts journey from communism to U.S. success in new book

Gabriela Gerhart recounts her journey from communism to American success in her new book. Photo courtesy of Gabriela Gerhart

Gabriela Gerhart remembers that day, back in 1989, when her teacher walked into her classroom in Czechoslovakia and announced that communism was over. Further, she told the group that everything she'd been teaching them was a lie.

Gerhart was stunned.

"It was confusing," she tells CultureMap. "You think to yourself, 'was I fooled? Was I indoctrinated? 'You have to understand, I had no idea there was another world out there."

Gerhart, founder of The Motherhood Center on West Alabama Street unpacks those feelings and others in her new autobiography, After The Fall, a story of growing up in Central Europe under communism and following her own wanderlust to the States, where she fell in love, got married, and built a successful business.

Click here to read more.

Rapper 50 Cent really means business. 50 Cent/Twitter

Rap star and Newstonian 50 Cent is giving back to area schools in need of help. The recently relocated rapper/producer/entrepreneur/rodeo wine bidder is teaming up with the Houston Independent School District and Horizon United Group to bolster entrepreneurship programs at Kashmere, Worthing, and Wheatley high schools.

He has funded the project with a $600,000 donation, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced on May 17.

Dubbed the G-Unity Business Lab, the new program will encourage students to engage in MBA-level lessons that represent the full lifecycle of a product or concept, from idea creation, to market branding, to even running a company, a press release notes.

Click here to read more.

Gabriela Gerhart recounts her journey from communism to American success in her new book. Photo courtesy of Gabriela Gerhart

Houston entrepreneur recounts journey from communism to U.S. success in new book

RISING FROM THE FALL

Gabriela Gerhart remembers that day, back in 1989, when her teacher walked into her classroom in Czechoslovakia and announced that communism was over. Further, she told the group that everything she'd been teaching them was a lie.

Gerhart was stunned.

"It was confusing," she tells CultureMap. "You think to yourself, 'was I fooled? Was I indoctrinated? 'You have to understand, I had no idea there was another world out there."

Gerhart, founder of The Motherhood Center on West Alabama Street unpacks those feelings and others in her new autobiography, After The Fall, a story of growing up in Central Europe under communism and following her own wanderlust to the States, where she fell in love, got married, and built a successful business.

The Houston launch for the book is Wednesday, May 19 at The Motherhood Center from 4 pm to 6 pm. The official Austin launch happens on Thursday, May 20 at Central Machine Works from 4 pm to 6 pm. Both events are free, but audiences are asked to register. After the Fall is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, at Brazos Bookstore, and online.

In many ways, Gerhart's journey is like many other immigrant stories of coming to a new land and rebuilding a life. For Gerhart, though, it wasn't just about building a new life, it was learning that she had choices.

Before the fall
In her homeland, she'd been involved with a communist youth group, and had plans to rise through the communist party. When communism fell, her sense of how she saw herself was battered. All of a sudden, though, there were opportunities.

"Growing up, my friends and I all wore the same clothes," she says. "But it was because you would go into a store and there might be only three kinds of winter jacket."

With the fall of communism, Gerhart could travel far beyond her Czech roots, and discover all sorts of new things: new foods, new styles, new ideas.

"I was hungry for adventures and experiences," she remembers.

After the fall
She came to the U.S. in 1998, where she became an au pair. While she didn't have a choice of where she was sent, she says that she loved that she landed in Houston. The Bayou City would open her eyes to all the possibilities of what she could do and what she could be.

Gerhart describes herself as someone who is always challenging herself, so being an entrepreneur was a natural fit. She's also always been nurturing, which is what led her to study nursing and become a pediatric nurse. Combining her love of mothers and babies with her grit and determination, she built The Motherhood Center in 2000 to provide expectant and early post-natal moms with a supportive network and educational resources to raise healthy children, while not neglecting themselves.

All of it is outlined in After the Fall, in triumph and tragedy. Gerhart outlines her inability to have children, even as she was building her business into the premier destination for moms and babies. A stepmother and grandmother now, she says she has found great happiness in her life, chasing her dreams and adventures across continents and political changes.

An American dream
"My favorite thing about America is that there are so many opportunities," she says. "I am so grateful. It's really amazing how young America is. People don't realize, the basement in my house in the Czech Republic is 300 years older than this country," she jokes.

Writing her autobiography gave her the chance to reflect on that, as well as unpack her own feelings about communism and its fall. Growing up, she says, her parents never discussed their feelings about the subject; it was far too dangerous.

"A parent might say something to their child and the child could go to school and repeat it and all of a sudden, there would be a knock on the door from the police," she says. "Writing this book meant my parents and I could speak more openly about it, and I was able to see things from their perspective."

She hopes the book will inspire others to embrace their potential and pursue their own dreams. Maybe they'll be encouraged to start their own business. Maybe they'll re-discover gratitude for being Americans. Maybe they'll set off on their own adventures.

As for Gerhart, now that the book is finished, she's looking ahead to what's next. She'll keep expanding The Motherhood Center and its programming, and she's taking on speaking engagements in the coming months.

"I have a need to share," she explains. "And I'll keep doing that.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

This Mother's Day, The Motherhood Center's founder is looking back on 20 years of care for Houston's new and expecting mothers. Getty Images

Houston specialist reflects on innovation and technology's effect on pregnancy care

Guest column

Mother's Day this Sunday will be a very different kind of day for mothers across the world, and I found myself reflecting on the innovation and evolution of pregnancy care and the different options women have nowadays.

When I founded The Motherhood Center in 2000, I had one simple goal, which was to provide Houston's new and expecting moms with unparalleled support and guidance. Now, 20 years later, we provide a full range of services for parents across every stage of parenthood. My team and I have held true to this mission, and, as new technologies and schools of thought emerged, so too have we evolved.

The evolution of family planning

One of the biggest changes we have witnessed over the past two decades is people's approach to family planning. We are seeing a lot more women choosing to have children later in life. With all the wonderful technological advancements — such as IVF, fertility treatments and egg freezing — we have seen women focus on their careers and start a family at an older age. One unexpected result of this is kind of funny – we are seeing a lot more twins and triplets.

We've also seen an increase in involvement from fathers. More and more dads are taking paternity leave these days – we hope to see that trend continue to grow. They are also coming to classes and getting involved in the pregnancies. Often, they are the ones who call us to learn more about our services.

New technologies and products

Technology has prompted some of the biggest changes in pregnancy. There are a lot of devices that new parents can use these days — from baby monitors, breathing and movement monitors, and much more. All this technology routes directly to parent's smartphones so they can know in real time what is always happening with their baby. While we love that parents can be more informed, we also don't want them to become so dependent on technology that they stop trusting their instincts. It is our job to encourage them to trust themselves (along with technology) so they can be the best parents they can be.

Another way technology has affected our business is that we are now able to reach our clients 24 hours a day, seven days a week through our website. We get a lot of form submissions late at night – particularly for support with breastfeeding and sleep training. We might not be able to answer the phone at 2 a.m., but our website has the resources to support new parents no matter the time of day.

For better or for worse, we have seen a huge increase in the number of products that are available for baby and mom. While there are some products that we absolutely love, many of the new products that have flooded the market are not needed. Because of this, we created a boutique at our center to help parents purchase only the items they will use. We also provide in-person support for purchasing some of the more personal products like nursing bras.

An increased access to information

Just as there are more and more products out there for new or expecting parents, there is also a wealth of information available – sometimes too much. We have seen a lot of parents using apps and reading blogs that might have inaccurate information, since many of these platforms are not regulated. For instance, these blogs don't account for the parents' medical and personal history. Because of this, we often see parents with a lot of anxiety and information overload. We find our in-person and virtual classes taught by professionals using unbiased, medically approved information brings our clients a lot of peace.

This has been a difficult year for everyone — especially expecting moms and new parents. People can't go out and attend classes and many hospitals have had to cancel their pregnancy courses. We have taken this as an opportunity to launch Motherhood Center into the next 20 years.

We now offer virtual educational courses and fitness classes. These classes are available to support parents anywhere — more information is available online. We are excited about the potential to expand our reach outside of Houston.

With The Motherhood Center celebrating its anniversary in May, we are so thankful we have been able to support Houston's mothers for 20 years, and we can't wait to see what the next 20 years hold.

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Gabriela Gerhart is the founder of The Motherhood Center.

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Houston startup recognized for inclusivity on journey to commercialize next-gen therapeutics

future of medicine

A new Houston biotech company won a special award at the 16th Annual SXSW Pitch Award Ceremony earlier this month.

Phiogen, one of 45 companies that competed in nine categories, was the winner for best inclusivity, much to the surprise of the company’s CEO, Amanda Burkhardt.

Burkhardt tells InnovationMap that while she wanted to represent the heavily female patient population that Phiogen seeks to treat, really she just hires the most skilled scientists.

“The best talent was the folks that we have and it ends up being we have three green card holders on our team. As far as ethnicities, we have on our team we have Indian, African-American, Korean, Chinese Pakistani, Moroccan and Hispanic people and that just kind of just makes up the people who helped us on a day-to-day basis,” she explains.

Phiogen was selected out of 670 companies to be in the health and nutrition category at SXSW.

“We did really well, but there was another company that also did really well. And so we were not selected for the pitch competition, which we were a little bummed about because I killed the pitch,” Burkhardt recalls.

But Phiogen is worthy of note, pitch competition or not. The new company spun off from research at Dr. Anthony Maresso’s TAILOR Labs, a personalized phage therapy center at Baylor College of Medicine, last June.

“Our whole goal is to create the next generation of anti-infectives,” says Burkhardt.

That means that the company is making alternatives to antibiotics, but as Burkhardt says, “We’re hoping to be better than antibiotics.”

How does it work? Bacteriophages are viruses that infect bacteria.

“You can imagine them as the predators in the bacteria world, but they don't infect humans. They don't affect animals. They only infect bacteria,” Burkhardt explains.

Phiogen utilizes carefully honed bacteriophages to attack bacteria that include the baddies behind urinary tract infection (UTI), bacteremia (bacteria in the blood), and skin wounds.

The team’s primary focus is on treatment-resistant UTI. One example was a male patient who received Phiogen’s treatment thanks to an emergency-use authorization from the FDA. The gentleman had been suffering from an infection for 20 years. He was treated with Phiogen’s bacteriophage therapy for two weeks and completely cleared his infection with no recurrence.

Amanda Burkhardt is the CEO of Phiogen. Photo via LinkedIn

But Phiogen has its sights set well beyond the first maladies it’s treated. An oft-quoted 2016 report projected that by 2050, 10 million people a year will be dying from drug-resistant infections.

“A lot of scientists call it the silent pandemic because it's happening now, we're living in it, but there's just not as much being said about it because it normally happens to people who are already in the hospital for something else, or it's a comorbidity, but that's not always the case, especially when we're talking about urinary tract infections,” says Burkhardt.

Bacteriophages are important because they can be quickly trained to fight against resistant strains, whereas it takes years and millions of dollars to develop new antibiotics. There are 13 clinical trials that are currently taking place for bacteriophage therapy. Burkhardt estimates that the treatment method will likely gain FDA approval in the next five years.

“The FDA actually has been super flexible on progressing forward. Because they are naturally occurring, there's not really a safety risk with these products,” she says.

And Burkhardt, whose background is in life-science commercialization, says there’s no better place to build Phiogen than in Houston.

“You have Boston, you have the Bay [Area], and you have the Gulf Coast,” she says. “And Houston is cheaper, the people are friendlier, and it’s not a bad place to be in the winter.”

She also mentions the impressive shadow that Helix Park will cast over the ecosystem. Phiogen will move later this year to the new campus — one of the labs selected to join Baylor College of Medicine.

And as for that prize, chances are, it won’t be Phiogen’s last.

Houston student selected for prestigious health care research program

bright future

A Houston-area undergraduate student has been tapped for a prestigious national program that pairs early-career investigators with health research professionals.

Mielad Ziaee was selected for the National Institutes of Health’s 2023-2024 All of Us Research Scholar Program, which connects young innovators with experts "working to advance the field of precision medicine," according to a statement from UH. Ziaee – a 20-year-old majoring in psychology and minoring in biology, medicine and society who plans to graduate in 2025 — plans to research how genomics, or the studying of a person's DNA, can be used to impact health.

“I’ll be one of the ones that define what this field of personalized, precision medicine will look like in the future,” Ziaee said in a statement. “It’s exciting and it’s a big responsibility that will involve engaging diverse populations and stakeholders from different systems – from researchers to health care providers to policymakers.”

Ziaee aims to become a physician who can use an understanding of social health conditions to guide his clinical practice. At a young age, he was inspired to go into the field by his family's own experience.

According to UH, Ziaee is the oldest child of Iranian American immigrants. He saw firsthand the challenges of how language and cultural barriers can impact patients' access to and level of care.

“I think a lot of people define health as purely biological, but a lot of other factors influence our well-being, such as mental health, financial health, and even access to good food, medical care and the internet,” he said in a statement. “I am interested in seeing the relationship among all these things and how they impact our health. So far, a lot of health policies and systems have not really looked beyond biology.”

"I want everyone to have an equal chance to access health care and take charge of their well-being. We need to have the systems in place that let people do that,” he added.

Ziaee is already on his way to helping Houston-based and national health systems and organizations make headway in this area.

He was named as a student regent on the UH System Board of Regents last year, sits on the board of the Houston chapter of the American Red Cross, and is an Albert Schweitzer Fellow.

Last year he was a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention John R. Lewis scholar, for which he presented his research project about predicting food insecurity in pediatric clinical settings and recommendations to improve the assessment based off his summer research with the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

Prior to this, he completed a 10-week guided research experience using data visualization and predictive modeling techniques to assess food insecurity in the Third Ward.

“I just took every opportunity that came to me,” Ziaee said. “All my experiences connect with my central desire to increase health access and improve health care. I am very intentional about connecting the dots to my passion.”

Earlier this year, three UH student researchers were named among 16 other early-stage research projects at U.S. colleges and universities to receive a total of $17.4 million from the DOE's Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (FECM). The projects were each awarded between about $750,000 to up to $1.5 million.

Houston tech entrepreneur expands energy data co. in Europe, continues to scale

houston innovators podcast episode 229

The technology that Amperon provides its customers — a comprehensive, AI-backed data analytics platform — is majorly key to the energy industry and the transition of the sector. But CEO Sean Kelly says he doesn't run his business like an energy company.

Kelly explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that he chooses to run Amperon as a tech company when it comes to hiring and scaling.

"There are a lot of energy companies that do tech — they'll hire a large IT department, they'll outsource a bunch of things, and they'll try to undergo a product themselves because they think it should be IP," he says on the show. "A tech company means that at your core, you're trying to build the best and brightest technology."

To Kelly, Amperon should be hiring in the same field as Google and other big tech companies that sit at the top of the market. And Kelly has done a lot of hiring recently. Recently closing the company's $20 million series B round last fall led by Energize Capital, Amperon has tripled its team in the past 14 months.

With his growing team, Kelly also speaks to the importance of partnerships as the company scales. Earlier this month, Amperon announced that it is replatforming its AI-powered energy analytics technology onto Microsoft Azure. The partnership with the tech giant allows Amperon's energy sector clients to use Microsoft's analytics stack with Amperon data.

And there are more collaborations where that comes from.

"For Amperon, 2024 is the year of partnerships," Kelly says on the podcast. "I think you'll see partnership announcements here in the next couple of quarters."

Along with more partners, Amperon is entering an era of expansion, specifically in Europe, which Kelly says has taken place at a fast pace.

"Amperon will be live in a month in 25 countries," he says.

While Amperon's technology isn't energy transition specific, Kelly shares how it's been surprising how many clean tech and climate tech lists Amperon has made it on.

"We don't brand ourselves as a clean tech company," Kelly says, "but we have four of the top six or eight wind providers who have all invested in Amperon. So, there's something there."

Amperon, which originally founded in 2018 before relocating to Houston a couple of years ago, is providing technology that helps customers move toward a lower carbon future.

"If you look at our customer base, Amperon is the heart of the energy transition. And Houston is the heart of the energy transition," he says.