An innovative, Houston-created tool instantly chills wine and spirits. Photo via thecoldcork.com

Great inventions reveal their value within due course, but there are those creations that tell their worth almost immediately, with a first look, image, or mere mention.

The Cold Cork, a malleable pouring device that instantly chills wine and spirits, falls into that category.

It seems like such a simple idea, but that’s the thing about inventions, isn’t it? Anyone can come up with an idea, but it’s the ones that can execute that idea that make it to the finish line and etch their names in the annals of creative glory.

“I had come home from the grocery store, right at the onset of COVID, and I wanted to have a glass of wine that I bought, but it was already room temperature, and I didn't want to put ice in it,” says wine-lover and former healthcare worker Michelle Kurkiewicz. “So, we started doing some research and came up with the idea for Cold Cork.”

Timing is everything, and because the nationwide pause caused by the COVID-19 pandemic offered Michelle, 33, and her husband Tyler, 30, plenty of free time, the dutiful duo was able to flesh out their labor of love.

Tyler and Michelle Kurkiewicz came up with the idea of the Cold Cork. Photo via thecoldcork.com

As it turns out, Tyler, a mechanical engineer by trade, had recently purchased a 3D printer back in January 2020, so he was able to use it to build hundreds of prototypes in-house to eventually arrive at a final design, which is based on the couple’s wedding champagne flutes.

So how does the Cold Cork work? Picture this: the wine-lover takes the Cold Cork out of the freezer (after a recommended 24 hours to thoroughly freeze), places it on top of the open bottle of wine and begins to pour.

As the liquid funnels through the stainless-steel coil, which is surrounded by a proprietary, food-grade cooling medium, the wine or spirits is chilled by 20 degrees in just 20 seconds.

To achieve the best results for red wine, pour the entire bottle through the Cold Cork into a decanter and enjoy.

And the best part? Not one part of the Cold Cork’s signature process alters the taste or composition of the drink in any way.

The device, priced at $64.95, chills liquids 20 degrees in 20 seconds. Photo via thecoldcork.com

“At first, we thought about whether the product should be inside the bottle or outside the bottle,” remembers Tyler. “But we quickly realized that there’s simply not enough room to do that amount of chilling inside a bottle. And we didn't want to have to pour any wine out. But we needed to make space to put some sort of chiller in the bottle. And so, we immediately started looking outside the bottle, and just with all the other wine gadgets, being bottle-topped and plugging in with a rubber stopper, that's immediately the direction we sort of drifted to.”

According to Tyler, the first couple of prototypes were made of a 3D filament. Initially, the idea was to focus on creating a cooling gel to compliment the coil, but that got a bit messy and, of course, there were too many wine taste-testing sessions to count.

“We definitely went through a lot of bottles of wine,” says Michelle. “But one of the first people that used our product was a sommelier and she loved it. We also gave one of our first production-level prototypes to a friend who is a manager at a restaurant. She used it on several occasions and said it was perfect for what she needed and seeing our product be used at a place that we frequented was extremely validating.”

Armed with the validation they needed to go to production, the wine-loving public could now have the product they needed to keep from having to throw all their wine in the refrigerator.

“The Cold Cork is really good for the people that maybe don't have those multi-zone fridges,” says Michelle. “We found a good niche with entry-level wine drinkers that don't have a wine fridge, but they want to drink their white wines still without being over-drank with ice cubes.

“That's really who we've been going after, and who we've seen has found a lot of value in the product. It's really the people that maybe aren't so prepared or maybe looking just for some more accessible solutions, whether it's because of the space in their apartment or financially, you know, it might be cheaper than a wine fridge. That's why we came up with the Cold Cork ourselves, because that was us, and so we kind of made a product that worked for us and found that there are a lot of people like that.”

The Cold Cork is available now and can be purchased directly from the company’s website for $64.95. In the future, more cork sizes and different colors will be offered, and more brick-and-mortar stores will carry the product. The couple pitched the idea and received investment from Trend Ventures at the 2022 Build Up Buttercup, an initiative that featured small business pitches for a select group of investors.

“We’ve gotten a lot of feedback directly from customers saying they use it a lot more than they thought,” says Michelle. “But then there are those people that are skeptical about how it works. That’s why I love to demo the Cold Cork in person.”

For a couple that met at a bar one night in downtown Houston, the Cold Cork is almost a poetic destination as a business endeavor and one that they both really relish.

“We both have our strengths, and we give each other a lot of support,” says Michelle.

“I’m very mechanically inclined, so I develop and invent, and Michelle is great with the marketing aspect and working with people to purchase the product,” adds Tyler. “In addition to the Cold Cork, we do have a couple of early projects that we are working on. I think there is a lot of opportunity with our technology to take what we have learned and fit that into different product lineups moving forward.”

Cold Cork Thermometer Test

Dede Raad of Dress Up Buttercup created a unique pitch series — completely fueled by her social media community — that gave a spotlight to eight businesses. Photo via dressupbuttercup.com

Houston fashionista fuels fresh brands with pitch series

money moves

After growing her audience to over a million followers on Instagram, Houston fashion blogger Dede Raad felt the pressure to expand her business — but she didn't feel inspired by any particular line of business to grow into.

"In the blogging world, which I've been doing for about seven years, everyone's next step is to start a brand and to start something of their own," Raad, founder of Dress Up Buttercup, tells InnovationMap. "I just don't have anything in my heart that I was really passionate about. I know once you start something, you have to give it your all."

But what Raad realized — after a year of thinking about her next move and a chance viewing of Shark Tank — was that tons of business founders were passionate about their own brands, and there was an opportunity for Raad use her community to support them instead of coming up with something of her own.

She put the call out to her followers to find founders with growing brands. Raad launched "Build Up Buttercup," an initiative that featured small business pitches for a select group of investors, with her husband, Ted. The event, which happened last October, resulted in eight business pitches across four episodes uploaded to Dress Up Buttercup's page that garnered hundreds of thousands of views. The initiative also resulted in a handful of investments and cash prizes.

"It was a crazy four days, but it was so cool to see the brands and the passion behind it and for Ted and I to help in both a financial and advising way," Raad says.

Raad was joined at the event with fellow investors, which included Houston-based investment firms Curate Capital and Trend Ventures, the investment arm of influencer management company Trend Management, founded by Ted Raad.

Of the eight that pitched, four companies received investments. Dress Up Buttercup invested in Houston-based jewelry company Burdlife and children's clothing brand Poppy Kids. Trend Ventures made investments in Cold Cork and Houston-based tech startup, AIM7, which closed its seed round in December.

Raad tells InnovationMap that she'd be interested in hosting another edition of "Build Up Buttercup" in the future, but for now she's focused on her two new brands. Her role within both of the companies is very hands on, she explains, and meets with the founders at least once a week. She also markets both brands to her Instagram community.

"We're not just sending you a check — we want to be involved," Raad says. "I've worked with brands for the past seven years, and I've seen what people are buying. I have such a power in my community, and I know what they like."

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

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.