Six Houston inventors have been recognized with the highest professional distinction for inventors within academia. Photo via Pexels

The National Academy of Inventors has announced its annual set of NAI Fellows — and six Houstonians make the list of the 164 honorees from 116 research institutions worldwide.

The NAI Fellows Program honors academic inventors "who have demonstrated a spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on the quality of life, economic development, and the welfare of society," according to a news release. The appointment is the highest professional distinction for inventors within academia.

The six Houstonians on the list join a group that hold more than 48,000 U.S. patents, which have generated over 13,000 licensed technologies and companies, and created more than one million jobs, per the release. Additionally, $3 trillion in revenue has been generated based on NAI Fellow discoveries.

These are the scientists from Houston organizations:

    • Zhiqiang An, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston: An is the director of the Texas Therapeutics Institute, a drug discovery program operated by the John P. and Kathrine G. McGovern Medical School at Houston. He's also a professor of molecular medicine and holder of the Robert A. Welch Distinguished University Chair in Chemistry at UTHealth.
    • Alex Ignatiev, University of Houston: Ignatiev served as director of two NASA-supported research and technology development centers at the University of Houston and as Lillie Cranz and Hugh Roy Cullen Professor of Physics, Chemistry, and Electrical and Computer Engineering.
    • David Jaffray, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center: Jaffray was appointed MD Anderson's first-ever chief technology and digital officer in 2019. He oversees MD Anderson’s Information Services division and Information Security department and is a professor of Radiation Physics with a joint appointment in Imaging Physics.
    • Pei-Yong Shi,The University of Texas Medical Branch: Pei-Yong Shi is a professor and John Sealy Distinguished Chair in Innovations in Molecular Biology Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology;. He's also the Vice Chair for Innovation and Commercialization.
    • Ganesh Thakur, University of Houston: Thakur is a pioneer in carbon capture, utilization and storage and has a patent on forecasting performance of water injection and enhanced oil recovery. His team is continuing to push the research envelope for CCUS employing world-class lab research, simulation, machine learning and artificial intelligence.
    • Darren Woodside, Texas Heart Institute: Woodside is the Vice President for Research and Director of the Flow Cytometry and Imaging Core at the Texas Heart Institute. His research centers around the role that cell adhesion plays in cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases, and the development of novel means to identify and treat these diseases.
    Ten other Texas-based innovators made the list, including:
    • Sanjay Banerjee, The University of Texas at Austin
    • Thomas Boland, The University of Texas at El Paso
    • Joan Brennecke, The University of Texas at Austin
    • Gerard Cote, Texas A&M University
    • Ananth Dodabalapur, The University of Texas at Austin
    • Holloway (Holly) H. Frost Jr., The University of Texas at Arlington
    • James E. Hubbard, Texas A&M University
    • Yi Lu, University of Texas at Austin
    • Samuel Prien, Texas Tech University
    • Earl E. Swartzlander Jr., The University of Texas at Austin
    This year's class will be inducted at the Fellows Induction Ceremony at the 11th Annual Meeting of the National Academy of Inventors in June in Phoenix, Arizona.

    "The caliber of this year's class of NAI Fellows is outstanding. Each of these individuals are highly-regarded in their respective fields," says Paul R. Sanberg, president of NAI's board of directors, in the release. "The breadth and scope of their discovery is truly staggering. I'm excited not only see their work continue, but also to see their knowledge influence a new era of science, technology, and innovation worldwide."

    The five scientists represent five different academic institutions in Houston. Photo via Getty Images

    5 Houston inventors named fellows of a prestigious international program

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    The National Academy of Inventors has recognized 175 scientists from across the world as NAI Fellows — and five of those inventors are based at Houston institutions.

    The program honors academic inventors who, according to NAI, "have demonstrated a spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society."

    The five Houston inventors join the ranks of a group of individuals who have generated over 13,000 licensed technologies and companies, and created more than 19 million jobs, according to the announcement.

    These are the scientists from Houston organizations:

    • Ananth Annapragada of Baylor College of Medicineis professor of radiology and obstetrics and gynecology, vice chief of research and director of basic research at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital as well as a member of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center.
    • Ronald Biediger of the Texas Heart Instituteis associate director of chemistry, Wafic Said Molecular Cardiology Research Laboratories and leading a group of chemists developing small molecule integrin antagonists and agonists for use as therapies, or as adjuncts to cell based therapies, for heart, lung and vascular disease
    • Mark Clarke of the University of Houstonis associate provost for faculty development and faculty affairs at the University of Houston.
    • Ashutosh Sabharwal of Rice University is professor and Ph.D of electrical engineering and was named Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 2014 for contributions to the theory and experimentation of wireless systems and networks.
    • Jia Zhou of The University of Texas Medical Branch is professor in the Department Pharmacology and Toxicology focusing on drug discovery of bioactive molecules to probe biological systems or act as potential therapeutic agents in neuroscience, cancer/inflammation, infectious diseases, and other human conditions.

    The new class of inventors will be inducted on June 8 at the 10th Annual Meeting of the National Academy of Inventors in Tampa, Florida.

    These scientists have already established dozens of patents between the five of them across fields and industries. Clarke specifically holds 13 U.S. patents, seven NASA technology innovation awards, and has founded two life science startup companies to commercialize his technologies, according to a news release from UH.

    "Most faculty inventors, including myself, do not begin their research careers focused on creating or commercializing new technologies, nor do they usually know where to start when presented with such an opportunity," Clarke says in the release. "Helping faculty members and students transition fundamental discoveries into commercially valuable technologies and products is not only a key part of our mission as a Tier One research university, it is critical to our region's economic prosperity and ensuring that the U.S. remains competitive in an innovation-driven global economy."

    From BCM, Annapragada holds 15 patents in the United States and close to 100 worldwide. The majority of his patents are in next generation imaging technologies, CT vascular imaging, and MR molecular imaging, according to a BCM release, and Annapragada is the founder of two active startup companies — Alzeca Inc. and Sensulin LLC.

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    Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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    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

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    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.