BiVACOR named Thomas Vassiliades as CEO effective immediately. Photo courtesy of BiVACOR

A Houston-based preclinical artificial heart device company has a new head honcho as it grows its team and further develops its technology.

BiVACOR named Thomas Vassiliades as CEO effective immediately. He replaces the company's founder, Daniel Timms, in the position. BiVACOR is on track to head toward human clinical trials and commercialization, and Vassiliades is tasked with leading the way.

“BiVACOR led an extensive CEO search, and Tom was the clear choice given his experience, background, leadership style, and exceptional track record,” says Timms in a news release. “Tom has the skillset and credibility to guide BiVACOR through its next chapter of transformation and advancement as we undertake the next stage of clinical activities leading up to First in Human early feasibility studies.”

Vassiliades has over 30 years of experience within the medical device industry as well as cardiothoracic surgery. He was most recently the general manager of the surgery and heart failure business at Abiomed and held several leadership roles at Medtronic. Dr. Vassiliades received his MD from the University of North Carolina, and his MBA was achieved with distinction at Emory University.

“I am excited and honored to join the BiVACOR team, working closely with Daniel and the entire team as we look forward to bringing this life-changing technology to the market,” says Dr. Vassiliades in the release. “Throughout my career, I’ve been guided by the goal of bringing innovative cardiovascular therapies to the market to improve patient care and outcomes – providing solutions for those that don’t have one. BiVACOR is uniquely well-positioned to provide long-term therapy for patients with severe biventricular heart failure.”

Timms will take over BiVACOR's technical team working on the Total Artificial Heart system as CTO. The device, billed as the first long-term therapy for patients with severe heart failure, is an implantable artificial heart based on rotary blood-pump technology. Similar in size to an adult fist, it is small enough to be implanted in many women and some children yet capable of delivering enough cardiac power to a man who's exercising. Unlike the two-chamber human heart, BiVACOR's device features a single chamber.

The medical device company, which has operations in Houston and Australia, recently announced the addition of eight new employees doubling their team. The growth comes following its series B raise last year.

“It is a testament to the great progress the team has made and to the importance of the unmet clinical need addressed by the Total artificial Heart technology," Timms says on the appointment of Vassiliades. "We look forward to Tom’s leadership as BiVACOR navigates the path to commercialization.”

How Houston is emerging as a leader for oncology innovation, according to this expert

Houston innovators podcast episode 114

Houston is currently establishing itself as a hub for health care innovation — and Enrique Gomez should know. He's worked in the field of biopharmaceuticals across the continent.

As entrepreneur in residence at the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute's Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics, he works with early stage startups and researchers. However, for decades he's worked in a much later stage of drug development, holding leadership positions at Takada in Latin America and Shire in Boston.

"Texas is very well recognized for cancer therapeutics," Gomez says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There's a lot of research going on. These researchers are looking at every angle — every possible strategy to tackle cancer."

At ACT, Gomez connects the startups or instigators with the resources they need to get their life-saving solutions to market. With cancer, there's not one thing that's going to work. There have to be options for treating cancer.

"Cancer is very heterogeneous. Not one strategy will be the single silver bullet to overcome the disease," Gomez says. "We are talking about personalized medicine. Every person is different and every cancer in every patient is different. It will require a number of approaches to overcome the health situation."

Thankfully, through TMC's ACT and the numerous research institutions working on the future of oncology, Houston's a great spot to move that needle.

"Houston is a place where everyone looks at when it comes to novel research and approaches to treating cancer," Gomez says. "The landscape here is going to be accelerated because we see much more collaboration between the founding institutions — and that's a very important element of growth. Houston has no comparison to any other place in terms of what's going on here and the level and quality of research."

He shares more on how COVID-19 has affected drug development and research — as well as what's next for his own career — on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

This health tech company has made some significant changes in order to keep up with its growth. Photo via Getty Images

Houston data solutions startup rebrands, expands to support neuroscience research

startup soars

With a new CEO and chief operating officer aboard, Houston-based DataJoint is thinking small in order to go big.

Looking ahead to 2022, DataJoint aims to enable hundreds of smaller projects rather than a handful of mega-projects, CEO Dimitri Yatsenko says. DataJoint develops data management software that empowers collaboration in the neuroscience and artificial intelligence sectors.

"Our strategy is to take the lessons that we have learned over the past four years working with major projects with multi-institutional consortia," Yatsenko says, "and translate them into a platform that thousands of labs can use efficiently to accelerate their research and make it more open and rigorous."

Ahead of that shift, the startup has undergone some significant changes, including two moves in the C-suite.

Yatsenko became CEO in February after stints as vice president of R&D and as president. He co-founded the company as Vathes LLC in 2016. Yatsenko succeeded co-founder Edgar Walker, who had been CEO since May 2020 and was vice president of engineering before that.

In tandem with Yatsenko's ascent to CEO, the company brought aboard Jason Kirkpatrick as COO. Kirkpatrick previously was chief financial officer of Houston-based Darcy Partners, an energy industry advisory firm; chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Houston-based Solid Systems CAD Services (SSCS), an IT services company; and senior vice president of finance and general manager of operations at Houston-based SmartVault Corp., a cloud-based document management company.

"Most of our team are scientists and engineers. Recruiting an experienced business leader was a timely step for us, and Jason's vast leadership experience in the software industry and recurring revenue models added a new dimension to our team," Yatsenko says.

Other recent changes include:

  • Converting from an LLC structure to a C corporation structure to enable founders, employees, and future investors to be granted shares of the company's stock.
  • Shortening the business' name to DataJoint from DataJoint Neuro and recently launching its rebranded website.
  • Moving the company's office from the Texas Medical Center Innovation Institute (TMCx) to the Galleria area. The new space will make room for more employees. Yatsenko says the 12-employee startup plans to increase its headcount to 15 to 20 by the end of this year.

Over the past five years, the company's customer base has expanded to include neuroscience institutions such as Princeton University's Princeton Neuroscience Institute and Columbia University's Zuckerman Institute for Brain Science, as well as University College London and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. DataJoint's growth has been fueled in large part by grants from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

"The work we are tackling has our team truly excited about the future, particularly the capabilities being offered to the neuroscience community to understand how the brain forms perceptions and generates behavior," Yatsenko says.

After a recent raise, this Houston biotech company is headed to first-in-human clinical trials. Photo via stellanovatx.com

JLABS-based cancer therapies company closes $15.5M series A led by Houston bioventure

fresh funds

Houston-based Stellanova Therapeutics closed a $15.5 million series A financing this month, which will advance the company's first-in-human clinical trials for oncology and help build out its team.

Stellanova is a resident company at Johnson & Johnson's biotech incubator in the TMC (JLABS @ TMC) and is one of four entities that make up cancer and disease biotech company Sporos Bioventures, which officially launched last month after closing a $38.1 million series A of its own.

Stellanova is focused on advancing therapies for cancers that are resistant to current treatments, like chemotherapy and immune therapies. According to a release, it has seen unprecedented anti-tumor activity in preclinical models of pancreas and triple negative breast cancer through the use of its lead antibody, which targets DKK3, a factor secreted by cancer-associated fibroblasts that spur tumors.

The company was founded based on research out of Dr. Rosa Hwang's lab at Houston's MD Anderson Cancer Center.

"We are thrilled to bring Stellanova into the Sporos group of companies. Stellanova means 'new star,' and it is clear the Stellanova team embraces this namesake with their entirely new approach to treating cancer," Harold Levy, Stellanova and Sporos founder and board member said in the statement. "We have been impressed by Stellanova's accomplishments and look forward to being involved in the advancement of the company's platform, one that we believe has the potential to directly combat the most devastating of cancers."

In conjunction with the financing, Stellanova also announced that it has named JLABS @ TMC founding team member Emmanuelle Schuler as the company's inaugural CEO.

Stellanova joins Sporos's Tvardi Therapeutics as it moves toward clinical trials. Tvardi, named a "most promising" by BioHouston and the Rice Alliance in December, is in Phase 1 clinical trial of its STAT3 oral inhibitor for treatment of cancer, inflammation and fibrosis.

Asylia Therapeutics and Nirogy Therapeutics were also founding entities of Sporos. The companies are in the proof of concept and discovery phases and focus on cancer, autoimmune diseases, infectious diseases, and inflammatory diseases.

Now is Houston's chance to create a modern economic cluster around health information and knowledge exchange. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Expert: Houston has a role to play at the dawn of health care consumerization

Guest column

For the most part, Houstonians were either born here or came here in pursuit of economic opportunity — a job of some sort that brought us to Houston, either directly or indirectly. Economic opportunity is part of the DNA of this city. The breadth of opportunities our city affords people from all over our country and all over our world are seemingly endless.

Houston's growth in the 20th century was fueled by large, strategic, capital investments in our region's infrastructure. Railroads, Hobby and Bush airports, the Port of Houston, the Texas Medical Center, NASA's Johnson Space Center, the Astrodome, and our surrounding petrochemical facilities have all been enormous economic drivers of investment, jobs, and prosperity for our region.

We are all familiar with the names of our early city visionaries and leaders. Were it not for their vision and leadership, Houston would still be a backwater town on the bayou, 50 miles inland from the closest seaport. Many of these leaders of early Houston had both a legitimate self-interest and a sense of civic virtue that inspired them to give back to a community that nurtured their success. They strongly believed in building a better Houston both for themselves and for succeeding generations with a can-do community spirit. Much of their success in developing Houston into the international city of today was a result of employing innovative mechanisms for matching private and public funding.

Today, the Texas Medical Center located in Houston is comprised of over 50 hospitals, medical schools, and other institutions that are all dedicated to public health. The TMC itself has an intertwined and symbiotic relationship with Houston and is a case study in how public and private institutions can work together to create such a unique medical complex that has benefited so many — and will benefit so many more in the future.

The good news is that today most institutions and physicians have electronic medical records. The bad news is that there is still a problem sending a patient's data across the street to a different health care provider electronically. This problem is called a lack of "interoperability" of health records, and this remains an unsolved problem nationally.

Making the data available to enable access to the right information at the right time to deliver the right care, is a challenge for every health care community in the country. That unresolved national problem can be Houston's opportunity to offer solutions and to leverage one of its largest industries.

We can transform health care delivery by enabling access to comprehensive electronic patient information when and where needed. There is now a strong consensus that new health information and communication technologies have a critical role to play in building a twenty-first century health care system that is safe, effective, patient-centric and equitable.

Most consumers today carry a powerful computer in their pocket called a smartphone. These consumers, also known as patients, are the most underutilized member of the health care delivery team and the only constant factor in the delivery of care. Moreover, the patient should care most about effective delivery of care and outcome. Notably, the added cost to have the patient involved is essentially zero in relation to the cost of delivery so patients would get better care at less cost.

We grew up thinking that doctor knows best, but that was until Dr. Google showed up able to make virtual house calls, whenever, and on demand. How many industries have we witnessed that were disrupted by the Internet? All indications are that this transformation will increase is size, scope and speed and is set to disrupt the largest industry in the largest economy in the world. We are at the dawn of the consumerization of health care.

Because of the enormous social challenges, there is currently no community in the United States that is an economic cluster for health information technology and health information exchange. Houston has the resources to become that community and create a health care hi-tech economic cluster. This suggestion is no more bold than a proposal to dig the Ship Channel 50 miles, or creating the first domed stadium in the world, or landing a man on the surface of the moon and returning him safely to Earth.

Now is Houston's chance to create a modern economic cluster around health information and knowledge exchange. If we are successful, Houston can then not only legitimately claim to be the home of the largest medical center in the world, but also the best.

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Manfred Sternberg of Manfred Sternberg & Assoc. PC Attorneys at Law has practiced consumer and commercial law for over 30 years.

UH's College of Medicine is the newest addition to the Texas Medical Center. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

TMC approves the addition of the University of Houston's new medical school

joining the club

The largest medical city in the world has a new resident. The University of Houston College of Medicine is the newest official member of the Texas Medical Center (TMC). The move comes following approval by the TMC board of directors, UH announced.

This addition, which is Houston's first new medical school in nearly 50 years, means potential collaboration with dozens of hospitals and academic institutions, including four other medical schools.

UH's new College of Medicine was found to specifically serve underserved communities in Houston and across Texas. To address a critical statewide shortage of primary care doctors, the UH College of Medicine emphasizes primary care, especially in urban and rural communities, which often have poorer health outcomes, a press release notes. The inaugural class launched in fall 2020 with some 30 medical students.

TMC named the University of Houston a member institution in 2009; the school's College of Pharmacy has been a member since 1980.

A new three-story, 130,000-square-foot College of Medicine building is currently under construction on the UH campus, with a summer 2022 opening date. The facility will be located on 43-acres and will feature modern classroom and meeting spaces, state-of-the-art anatomy and simulation suites, and more, per UH.

Unofficially dubbed "Medical City," the Medical Center sees more than 10 million patients per year, employs more than 106,000 total workers, and is home to the world's largest children's hospital (Texas Children's Hospital), and cancer hospital (MD Anderson Cancer Center).

"We are elated to join the Texas Medical Center as a member institution and look forward to engaging with colleagues at other institutions to advance clinical issues and best practices, and further joint research endeavors," said Dr. Stephen Spann, founding dean of the UH College of Medicine and new member of the TMC Advisory Board, in a statement. "The tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic has paradoxically produced an opportunity to address larger issues facing our health care systems, such as health equity. Together with our TMC partners, we can help be part of the solution."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Houston startup secures big contract, coworking company acquired, and more local innovation news

short stories

Houston is starting 2022 strong in terms of innovation news, and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, the Bayou City is ranked based on its opportunities for STEM jobs, a Houston blockchain startup scores a major contract, Rice University opens applications for its veteran-owned busineess competition, and more.

Data Gumbo announces contract with Equinor

After a successful pilot, Equinor has signed off on a contract with Data Gumbo.. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

Houston-based Data Gumbo, an industrial blockchain-software-as-a-service company, announced that it has signed a contract with Equinor. The global energy company's venture arm, Equinor Ventures, supported the startup's $7.7 million series B round, which closed last year.

The company's technology features smart contract automation and execution, which reduces contract leakage, frees up working capital, enables real-time cash and financial management, and delivers provenance with unprecedented speed, accuracy, visibility and transparency, per the release.

“Equinor is an industry trailblazer, demonstrating the true value of our international smart contract network to improve and automate manual processes, and bring trust to all parties,” says Andrew Bruce, founder and CEO of Data Gumbo, in a news release. “Smart contracts are playing a critical role in driving the energy industry forward. Our work with Equinor clearly demonstrates the benefits that supermajors and their supply chain customers, partners and vendors experience by automating commercial transactions. We are proud to continue our work with Equinor to help them realize the savings, efficiencies and new levels of transparency available through our smart contract network.”

Equinor opted into a pilot with the company a few years ago.

“Since piloting Data Gumbo’s smart contracts for offshore drilling services in 2019, we have worked with the company to continually refine and improve use cases. We now have the potential to expand Data Gumbo’s smart contract network to enable transactional certainty across our portfolio from the Norwegian Continental Shelf to our Brazilian operated assets and beyond,” says Erik Kirkemo, senior vice president at Equinor. “GumboNet reduces inefficiencies and processing time around contract execution in complex supply chains, which is a problem in the broader industry, and we look forward to realizing the streamlined process and cost savings of its rapidly expanding smart contract network.”

WeWork acquires Dallas coworking brand with 6 Houston locations

Common Desk, which has six locations in Houston including in The Ion, has been acquired. Photo courtesy of Common Desk

Dallas-based Common Desk, which has six locations in Houston, announced its acquisition by WeWork. The company's office spaces will be branded as “Common Desk, a WeWork Company,” according to a news release.

“Similar to WeWork, Common Desk is a company built on the concept of bringing people together to have their best day at work," says Nick Clark, CEO at Common Desk, in the release. "With the added support from WeWork, Common Desk will be able to not only leverage WeWork’s decade of experience in member services to improve the experience of our own members but also leverage WeWork’s impressive client roster to further build out our member base.”

Here are the six Common Desk spaces in Houston:

Here's how Houston ranks as a metro for STEM jobs

Source: WalletHub

When it comes to the best cities for jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math, Houston ranks in the middle of the pack. The greater Houston area ranked at No. 37 among the 100 largest metros across 19 key metrics on the list compiled by personal finance website, WalletHub. Here's how Houston fared on the report's metrics:

  • No. 36 – percent of Workforce in STEM
  • No. 74 – STEM Employment Growth
  • No. 43 – Math Performance
  • No. 16 – Quality of Engineering Universities
  • No. 2 – Annual Median Wage for STEM Workers (Adjusted for Cost of Living)
  • No. 90 – Median Wage Growth for STEM Workers
  • No. 75 – Job Openings for STEM Graduates per Capita
  • No. 88 – Unemployment Rate for Adults with at Least a Bachelor’s Degree

Elsewhere in Texas, Austin ranked at No. 2 overall, and Dallas just outranked Houston coming in at No. 34. San Antonio, El Paso, and McAllen ranked No. 51, No. 65, and No. 88, respectively.

Rice University calls for contestants for its 8th annual startup pitch competition for veterans

Calling all veteran and active duty startup founders and business owners. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University is now accepting applications from Houston veterans for its annual business competition. To apply for the 2022 Veterans Business Battle, honorably discharged veterans or active duty founders can head online to learn more and submit their business plan by Feb. 15.

“We’re looking forward to giving veterans the opportunity not just to share their ideas and get financing, but learn from other past winners the lessons about entrepreneurship they’ve lived through while growing their businesses,” event co-chair Reid Schrodel says in a news release.

Over the past few years, finalists have received more than $4 million of investments through the program. This year's monetary prizes add up to $30,000 — $15,000 prize for first place, $10,000 for second place, and $5,000 for third place.

Finalists will be invited to make their business pitch April 22 and 23 at Rice University. Click here to register for the event.

City of Houston receives grant to stimulate STEM opportunities

Houston's youth population is getting a leg up on STEM opportunities. Photo via Getty Images

Thanks to a $150,000 grant from the National League of Cities, the city of Houston has been awarded a chance to provide quality education and career opportunities to at-risk young adults and students. The city is one of five cities also selected to receive specialized assistance from NLC’s staff and other national experts.

“This award is a big win for young people. They will benefit from significant career development opportunities made possible by this grant,” says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a news release. “These are children who would otherwise go without, now having experiences and connections they never thought possible. I commend the National League of Cities for their continued commitment to the future leaders of this country.”

According to the release, the grant money will support the Hire Houston Youth program by connecting diverse opportunity youth to the unique STEM and technology-focused workforce development.

"Our youth deserve educational opportunities that connect them to the local workforce and career exploration, so they can make informed choices about their future career path in Houston’s dynamic economy. Houston youth will only further the amazing things they will accomplish, thanks to this grant," says Olivera Jankovska, director of the Mayor's Office of Education.

Houston software startup raises $12.5M series B

money moves

Houston-based Codenotary, whose technology helps secure software supply chains, has raised $12.5 million in a series B round. Investors in the round include Swiss venture capital firm Bluwat and French venture capital firm Elaia.

The $12.5 million round follows a series A round that was announced in 2020, with total funding now at $18 million.

Codenotary, formely known as vChain, says the fresh round of money will be used to accelerate product development, and expand marketing and sales worldwide. Today, the startup has 100-plus customers, including some of the world’s largest banks.

Codenotary’s co-founders are CEO Moshe Bar and CTO Dennis Zimmer. They started the company in 2018.

Bar co-founded Qumranet, which developed the Linux KVM hypervisor. A hypervisor creates and runs virtual machines. Software provider Red Hat purchased Qumranet in 2008 for $127 million. Before that, he founded hypervisor company XenSource, which cloud computing company Citrix Systems bought in 2007 for $500 million.

“Codenotary offers a solution which allows organizations to quickly identify and track all components in their DevOps cycle and therefore restore trust and integrity in all their myriad applications,” Pascal Blum, senior partner at Bluwat, says in a news release.

The SolarWinds software supply chain hack in 2020 and the more recent emergence of Log4j vulnerabilities have brought the dangers of software lifecycle attacks to the forefront, Bar says. Now, he says, more and more companies are looking for ways to prove the legitimacy of the software that they produce.

Codenotary is the primary contributor to immudb, the an open-source, enterprise-class database with data immutability, or stability, designed to meet the demands of highly used applications.

Dallas-based ridesharing app gears up for expansion across Houston and beyond

HOUSTON INNOVATOR PODCAST EPISODE 118

Before he started his current job, Winston Wright would have thought a startup attempting to compete with the likes of Uber and Lyft was going to fight an uphill battle. Now, he sees how much opportunity there is in the rideshare market.

Wright is the Houston general manager for Alto, a Dallas-based company that's grown its driving service platform into five markets — first from Dallas into Houston and then to Los Angeles, Miami, and, most recently, Washington D.C. Alto's whole goal is to provide reliability and improve user experience.

"We're elevating ridesharing," Wright says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "With Alto, you get a consistent, safe experience with. a high level of hospitality. And that's a key differentiator for us in the market, and we're able to replicate that time and time again."

Wright, whose background is in sales and operations in hospitality, says his vision for alto in Houston is to expand the service — which operates in the central and western parts of the city — throughout the greater Houston area.

"The vision I have for this market is that, as we move forward and continue to expand, that we're covering all of Houston," he says.

This will mean expanding the company's physical presence too. Alto recently announced its larger space in Dallas, and now the Houston operations facility will grow its footprint too.

Wright says he's also focused on growing his team. Over the past two years, pandemic notwithstanding, the company has maintained hiring growth. Alto's drivers are hired as actual employees, not contractors, so they have access to benefits and paid time off.

The company, which raised $45 million in its last round of investment, is expanding next to the Silicon Valley area, followed by three to five more markets in 2022. Then, by the end of 2023, it's Alto's mission to have a completely electronic fleet of vehicles.

"Our goal is to have over 3,000 EV cars and be the first company with a 100 percent electric fleet by 2023," Wright says.

Wright shares more on Alto's future in Texas and beyond, as well as what's challenging him most as he grows the team locally. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.