Station Houston CEO Gabriella Rowe and Rice Alliance Managing Partner Brad Burke named 10 startups to watch. Photo by Natalie Harms

Texas is booming with digital startups, and Station Houston and the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship hosted a meeting of the minds to discuss the digital revolution at the inaugural Texas Digital Summit at Rice University on December 6.

Thirty-nine companies presented throughout the day; among the group were 26 from the Houston area. At the conclusion of the day, Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston, and Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance, announced 10 "most promising companies" that stood out to a group of investors who attended the event.

All 10 selected were Texas-based, with eight from the Houston area. Here's who the venture capitalists and investors picked for the prize.

Houston-based SafePass

Photo via safepassglobal.com

SafePass pictures a world where visitors on school or corporate campuses can be tracked. The company's technology upends the standard paper or sticker pass you get from the front office, and provides a reusable, trackable device for visitors.

"Our tracking algorithm interacts with already existing WiFi technology — so, the routers that are already at that facility," says Ronald Huff, managing director of SafePass. "We leverage that to get that real-time tracking information."

Houston-based ScribeRule

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ScribeRule operates under the assumption that your company's data has already been breached. The software protects data from both internal and external threats so that companies don't have to worry about any type of threat. The technology is scalable and easy to use.

"The problem is very simple," says Chris Melson, president and COO. "Only allow people who are authorized to see your data, see the data. And that's the problem we've solved."

"It's very difficult to protect data in a collaborative environment."

Houston-based Sensoleak

Photo via sensoleak.com

Sensoleak is making it easier for monitors in the oil and gas industry to be alerted about leaks. Using artificial intelligence, machine learning, and internet of things combined into a software, the company is providing a revolutionary solution for a longstanding problem.

"The problem right now is there is a lot of false alarms," says Shoshi Kaganovsky, founder and CEO, "and if there is a leak, it has to leak a lot before it is caught."

The company recently opened a new round of funding.

Sugar Land-based Commtrex

Photo via commtrex.com

The only open, electronic marketplace for rail shippers and asset providers is right in Houston's backyard of Sugar Land. Commtrex makes communications and connections between these transportation entities more efficient and better executed.

"Commtrex's asset management tools and market data is based on real transactions, and benefits our member companies with engagement efficiencies and financial insights," reads the website.

Houston-based Zenus

Photo via zenus-biometrics.com

Let's face it, face recognition is the future of identification, and Zenus has an award-winning technology to move the needle. Utilizing face recognition doesn't need to compromise privacy.

"We are a leading provider of face recognition software," reads the website. "Our cloud-based service can search a database of faces within a blink of an eye and it can be seamlessly integrated into any application."

Houston-based 3GiG

Photo via 3-gig.com

3GiG is a one-stop shop software company for the "oval office" needs of oil and gas companies. Energy leaders can use the services to manage projects, prospects, and more. President and CEO Kandy Lukats compares her company's services to the trending meal kits — like Blue Apron or Hello Fresh —Americans have been crazy about — all the ingredients sent right to your door.

"We believe we've found the niche between the freezer section and doing it yourself," she says.

Austin-based Towny

Photo via towny.com

This Austin company is making it more appealing to shop local. Towny looks to work in cities with under a million residents. The tool is for small, consumer-focused businesses to market their store to consumers. The small business owners pay a flat monthly rate to utilize digital marketing tools from the convenience of their phones.

Towny is already in five towns with 500 clients, says CEO Nathan Baumeister. In January, the company's monthly revenue was $17,000, but for the last two months, the tool has raked in $90,000 monthly.

"We've built a branding, mobile-first platform, where we've taken all these technologies and tactics and put it together in one package at the affordable price of $199 per month," he says.

Dallas-based CommandHound

Photo via commandhound.com

CommandHound is a B2B software that tracks employee tasks and responsibilities. It reminds users on assigned duties and keeps a record of work outcomes for later performance reviews.

"Our ultimate solution is to turn every organization into a high-performance organization through accountability," says Rene Larrave, chairman and CEO. "It's a checklist on steroids."

Houston-based SecurityGate

Photo via securitygate.io

SecurityGate is disrupting the cyber compliance and the cyber regulation market by providing cyber risk assessments at a faster rate than a human auditor could. The software analyzes data, identifies potential cyber security risks, and communicates with the company how to address the threats.

"No matter what industry vertical you're in, every single supply chain out there is worries about supply chain cyber security," says CEO Ted Gutierrez. "And the problem with that, is everyone is doing it manually."

Houston-based DeepCast.ai

Photo via deepcast.ai

Using artificial intelligence and physics, DeepCast.ai can automate operations for industrial companies.

"We simply integrate with system solutions, try to clean and facilitate the data using AI models important to the oil and gas industry," says Arturo Klie, chief technology officer and senior software engineer. "Once the data is clean, we apply our business-informed AI models to solve and provide forecasting real time and analytics.

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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

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.