This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Zach Ellis of South Loop Ventures, Toby Hamilton of Hamilton Health Box, and Ellen Ochoa of NASA. Photos courtesy

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.

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

Houston startup secures $10M to expand into rural communities

ready to grow

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.

The company has pioneered a proprietary “small footprint primary care delivery model,” which is considered suitable for rural markets, employer worksites, office buildings, schools, and university campuses. The cost-effective microclinics are “prefabricated facilities” that are designed for primary care services, and employ a hybrid in-person and telemedicine care approach.

Hamilton began his career as a physician before founding Emerus Holdings, which is a micro-hospital system in the Houston area that later moved to private equity.

The recently acquired funding will help expedite the high-touch care model to 98 million Americans in HPSAs, which was a goal for when the company was established during the Covid-19 pandemic. HHB has made partnerships with Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) to provide primary care services both at existing FQHC centers and through new sites in rural areas.

"Hamilton Health Box that was designed to deliver the lowest possible price of primary and preventative care," Hamilton said in a previous interview with Innovation Map. "We built that to be able to take that care to the jobsite and meet the customer where they are at."
This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Dr. Toby Hamilton of Hamilton Health Box, Meredith Wheeler and Maggie Segrich of Sesh Coworking, and Simone Biles of Cerebral. Courtesy photos

4 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

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

Dr. Toby Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton is a leader in Houston's health care innovation ecosystem, and he joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his latest endeavor, which is rethinking primary and preventative care. Photo via tmc.edu

Dr. Toby Hamilton has seen Houston establish itself as a leader in health innovation, and he's been a part of that journey too. He started his career as a physician before founding Emerus Holdings, a micro-hospital system in the Houston area which later exited to private equity. He also founded a nonprofit focused on connecting hospital innovation leaders called the Healthcare Innovators Professional Society and led the Texas Medical Center's Biodesign program for two years.

Over the years, he says he's seen the potential develop for Houston to hold a significant role in health care innovation across the world — it's just going to take all hands on deck.

"As a community, if we can get behind that vision and be the place that tests, develops, and creates opportunities, Houston has the potential to be unlike anything in the world," he says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Click here to listen and read more.

Meredith Wheeler and Maggie Segrich, founders of Sesh Coworking

Co-founders Maggie Segrich (right) opened Sesh with Meredith Wheeler in 2020. Photo courtesy of Sesh

One of Houston's coworking companies is moving on up. Sesh Coworking is moving into a new space that's 10 times as large as its original location — and it's an optimal location too, say Meredith Wheeler and Maggie Segrich, founders of Sesh Coworking.

"Being able to grow our community at our beautiful original location in Montrose through the pandemic is a testament to the grit and resilience of Houstonians. We are so honored and grateful to be a part of their journey,” says Segrich. “We are excited that our new location in Midtown, near the Innovation District, will provide more Houstonians with the workspace and support they need."

The two-story space is expected to open in two phases. Tenants will first move into the space's second floor in January while the first floor, the larger of the two floors, completes construction and is expected in March. Click here to read more.

Simone Biles, chief impact officer at Cerebral

Houston's favorite gymnast is the chief impact officer on a California-based tech company that's raised $462M. Photo via getcerebral.com

The greatest gymnast of all time has a new title to her many gymnastics accomplishments. Simone Biles recently joined mental health startup Cerebral as chief impact officer, and the company is backed by SoftBank and has a valuation of $4.8 billion.

Biles has been vocal about her passion for mental health. Cerebral was an official sponsor of Biles’ Gold Over America Tour, which took place from September to November, and is an official sponsor of the 2022 Simone Biles International Invitational, a gymnastics competition that will be held January 27-30 at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center. The Spring-based World Champions Centre, Biles’ home gym, stages the invitational.

“Mental health is just as important as physical health, but for far too long the stigma of mental health has prevented too many people from seeking help,” Biles says in a Cerebral news release. “I have my own challenges with mental health, and therapy has been very empowering for me as I try to be the best person that I can be. I believe everyone should have access to mental health resources, and Cerebral gives me the ability to personalize my mental health care experience.” Click here to read more.

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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.

Learning culture fosters business success, per this Houston expert

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Employee training is often seen as synonymous with learning and development, but there are significant differences. Understanding the differences can help elevate your organization’s programs and foster a learning culture.

Training teaches employees to perform the core duties of their role, typically competency and task/skills-based learning. Training is usually leveraged when the goal is to elevate an employee’s performance in their current role.

Learning and development (L&D) programs give employees the resources to grow within their current role and ready them for their possible advancement into new positions and/or another role or function. This development should be a collaborative effort with the employee to support the employee’s growth goals. L&D programs build and strengthen your organization’s learning culture, which encourages employees to lean into the overall corporate culture and promotes employee engagement.

There are major benefits when developing L&D programs that impact business success, including:

Employee retention

Employee turnover occurs in every organization, regardless of the work culture. As we continue to maneuver a tight labor market, it is important to consider how each business initiative impacts employee retention. Leadership should not focus on L&D potentially preparing employees for their next position outside the organization. According to LinkedIn’s 2024 Workplace Learning Report, organizations with a strong learning culture saw a 57 percent boost in employee retention. It is much better to invest in and retain your current employees today to drive business success, rather than be forced to invest in constant hiring and onboarding initiatives. Investing in L&D shows your workforce that you value them and care about their future within the company. L&D is a sound investment in your most valuable resource, your people.

Upskilling and reskilling

Today’s labor market has brought increased attention to the value of upskilling and reskilling, with upskilling reducing the skill gaps and preparing employees to advance within your organization, while reskilling teaches employees how to perform an entirely new set of skills. Insperity’s 2024 Business Outlook Report surveyed small- and medium-sized businesses, finding that almost 75 percent either had or planned to introduce an upskilling strategy.

A learning culture is the foundation for upskilling and reskilling within your organization and creates agility in the talent within your business. Upskilling and reskilling opportunities can be individually customized to meet your employees’ career goals, skill sets and the needs of the organization. When members of your workforce experience upskilling and reskilling, others within the organization may be motivated to grow within the organization as well.

Employer branding

Information travels about your organization, whether good or bad. When there are ample L&D opportunities, it improves your employer brand and helps attract top talent who are looking for growth opportunities. A learning culture is a competitive advantage when competing for talent. When the competition does not invest in L&D, your business will stand out more to their employees and prospective candidates as an opportunity for growth and development.

Leveraging your L&D programs and knowing the opportunities available are important for recruiting success. Highlighting upskilling and advancement opportunities are especially important as many employees who choose to work with startups and small businesses want to have a hand in the company’s growth and success. It is also important to discuss how your organizational culture supports learning on the job.

Building a strong learning culture and refining your strategies now will strengthen your current employees’ engagement and attract top-notch talent in the future. Success in business always begins with a focus on your people.

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Karen Leal is performance specialist with Houston-based Insperity, a provider of human resources offering a suite of scalable HR solutions available in the marketplace.