Howard and Susan Elias donated $16.25 million to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Photo via mdanderson.org

Earlier this year, an executive at Dell Technologies announced his retirement and commitment to philanthropy. Just a few months later, he and his wife made a whopping donation to the Houston health care organization that's responsible for curing their son.

Howard and Susan Elias donated $16.25 million to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, the organization announced this week. The gift will go toward accelerating brain tumor and cancer neuroscience research. Howard Elias, who held C-level roles at EMC Corp. and Dell Technologies after EMC's acquisition in 2015, retired in April.

The Eliases have supported MD Anderson since Harrison, Howard and Susan's son, was diagnosed with brain cancer. In 2000, Harrison underwent a successful surgery by Dr. Frederick Lang.

“Dr. Lang and the incredible team at MD Anderson saved my son’s life more than two decades ago,” says Howard in a news release. “Now is the time for us to increase our commitment so we can play a significant role in advancing cancer neuroscience research specifically focused on brain tumors and the nervous system. We want other families to have the chance to see their son grow up, like our family has.”

The donation is the lead donation to concentrate cross-disciplinary research in cancer neuroscience, per the release.

“Our focus is on unraveling the fundamental scientific principles driving the cancer-neuroscience interaction,” Lang says in the release. “These advances will drive prevention, early detection and possibly even cures for neurological cancers; will lead to strategies to overcome the adverse effects of cancer treatments on the nervous system; and will address mental health needs in cancer patients, with the ultimate result of dramatically improving outcomes.”

Lang leads the Cancer Neuroscience Program alongside Dr. Vinay Puduvalli, M.D., chair of Neuro-oncology;and Jim Ray, Ph.D., director of the Neurodegeneration Consortium.

“A future free from cancer is unattainable unless we work together,” says Dr. Peter WT Pisters, president of MD Anderson. “Howard and Susan’s generosity and passion will play a crucial role as we work in this emerging space for generations to come. On behalf of our patients and their families, we extend our heartfelt gratitude.”

Five cancer research teams have been selected to receive funds from a new initiative from the University of Texas. Photo via news.utexas.edu

UT system funds Houston researchers in new collaboration to cure cancer

collaborate for a cure

In a renewed effort to move the needle on finding a cure for cancer, the University of Texas system has launched a new collaboration in oncological data and computational science across three programs.

Houston-based University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center has teamed up with two UT Austin schools — the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences and the Texas Advanced Computing Center. The collaboration was announced this summer to tap into mathematical modeling and advanced computing along with oncology expertise to inspire new methods of cancer treatment.

"Integrating and learning from the massive amount of largely unstructured data in cancer care and research is a formidable challenge," says David Jaffray, Ph.D., chief technology and digital officer at MD Anderson, in a news release. "We need to bring together teams that can place quantitative data in context and inform state-of-the-art computational models of the disease and accelerate progress in our mission to end cancer."

Now, the first five projects to be funded under this new initiative have been announced.

  • Angela Jarrett of the Oden Institute and Maia Rauch of MD Anderson will develop a patient-specific mathematical model for forecasting treatment response and designing optimal therapy strategies for patients with triple-negative breast cancer.
  • Caroline Chung of MD Anderson and David Hormuth of the Oden Institute are using computational models of the underlying biology to fundamentally change how radiotherapy and chemotherapy are personalized to improve survival rates for brain cancer patients.
  • Ken-Pin Hwang of MD Anderson and Jon Tamir of UT Austin's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Oden Institute will use mathematical modeling and massively parallel distributed computing to make prostate MR imaging faster and more accurate to reduce the incidence of unnecessary or inaccurate biopsies.
  • Xiaodong Zhang of MD Anderson and Hang Liu of TACC will advance both the planning and delivery of proton therapy via a platform that combines mathematical algorithms and high-performance computing to further personalize these already highly tailored treatments.
  • Tinsley Oden and Prashant Jha of the Oden Institute and David Fuentes of MD Anderson will integrate a new mechanistic model of tumor growth with an advanced form of MRI to reveal underlying metabolic alterations in tumors and lead to new treatments for patients.

"These five research teams, made up of a cross section of expertise from all three stakeholders, represent the beginning of something truly special," says Jaffray in a release. "Our experts are advancing cancer research and care, and we are committed to working with our colleagues at the Oden Institute and TACC to bring together their computational expertise with our data and insights."

Later this month, the five teams will log on to a virtual retreat along with academic and government thought leaders to further collaborate and intertwine their research and expertise.

"Texas is globally recognized for its excellence in computing and in cancer research. This collaboration forges a new path to international leadership through the combination of its strengths in both," says Karen Willcox, director of the Oden Institute. "We are thrilled that leaders in government, industry and academia see the potential of this unique Texan partnership. We're looking forward to a virtual retreat on October 29 to continue to build upon this realization."

Houston Methodist stood out yet again on an annual best hospitals report, but several other Houston institutions were recognized as well. Courtesy of Methodist Hospital/Facebook

New report recognizes best hospitals in Houston

better than all the rest

Hospitals across Houston were ranked by their patient care, patient safety, outcomes, nursing, advanced technology and reputation in an annual report that identifies the top medical facilities in the country.

U.S. News & World Report released its 31st annual best hospital rankings this week, which included both adult and children's hospital tracks across several categories. The report released both overall and local rankings after evaluating over 4,500 medical centers nationwide in 16 specialties, and 134 hospitals were ranked in at least one specialty.

For the ninth year in a row, the top hospital in Houston and Texas, according to the report, is Houston Methodist, which ranked at No. 20 nationally and made the report's Honor Roll.

"Our U.S. News rankings are especially meaningful right now as this has been an exceptionally difficult time for our health care workers," says Marc Boom, M.D., president and CEO of Houston Methodist, in a news release. "We have always served our community by providing exceptional care — during the COVID-19 pandemic and before. It's a true testament to our commitment to being unparalleled."

Houston Methodist Sugar Land Hospital tied for No. 4 in Houston and No. 6 (three-way tie) in Texas. Additionally, the hospital was recognized on the top lists for 11 specialties:

  • No. 12 for cardiology/heart surgery
  • No. 13 for orthopedics
  • No. 14 for gastroenterology/GI surgery
  • No. 17 for cancer
  • No. 19 (tie) for nephrology
  • No. 20 for pulmonology and lung surgery
  • No. 23 for neurology/neurosurgery
  • No. 26 for geriatrics
  • No. 26 (tie) for gynecology
  • No. 28 for diabetes and endocrinology
  • No. 49 for ear, nose and throat

The second-best hospital in Houston on this year's ranking was Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center, which was also named the No. 3 hospital in the state.

"At Baylor St. Luke's, we are transforming the way we deliver care for our patients through groundbreaking technologies and a multidisciplinary approach that allows us to give the best possible care to patients and their families," says Doug Lawson, CEO of St. Luke's Health, in a news release. "I praise our dedicated staff and physicians for helping us achieve this recognition."

Baylor St. Luke's also made an appearance across five specialties:

  • No. 17 for cardiology/heart surgery
  • No. 21 for gastroenterology/GI surgery
  • No. 21 for neurology/neurosurgery
  • No. 27 for cancer
  • No. 47 for geriatrics

"This is a great report that confirms the efforts of our partnership at Baylor St. Luke's and our affiliated hospitals to provide unsurpassed care to patients, conduct research that will change lives and train the next generation of physicians", says Dr. Paul Klotman, president, CEO, and executive dean at Baylor College of Medicine. "Baylor St. Luke's high ranking in Texas is in parallel with Baylor College of Medicine being the highest ranked medical school in Texas. Together, we are an outstanding academic medical center and learning health system."

Memorial Hermann - Texas Medical Center came in No. 3 in Houston and No. 5 in Texas. The hospital ranked in one adult specialty and two children's specialties.

  • No. 43 for ear, nose and throat (adult)
  • No. 22 for cardiology/heart surgery (pediatric)
  • No. 31 for neurology/neurosurgery (pediatric)

On the children's hospital track, Houston's Texas Children's Hospital ranked as No. 4 nationally and was recognized in all 10 pediatric specialties, which included:

  • No. 1 for pediatric cardiology/heart surgery
  • No. 2 for pediatric nephrology
  • No. 2 for pediatric neurology/neurosurgery
  • No. 3 for pediatric pulmonology and lung surgery
  • No. 4 for pediatric cancer
  • No. 5 for pediatric diabetes and endocrinology
  • No. 5 for pediatric gastroenterology/GI surgery
  • No. 6 for pediatric urology
  • No. 10 for neonatology
  • No. 15 for pediatric orthopedics

Zooming in on the specific specialties, several other Houston hospitals in addition to these top tier hospitals, secured spots in the top 10 rankings.

University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center was ranked No. 1 nationally for adult cancer treatment. Additionally, the hospital made an appearance in six other adult specialties and one pediatric specialty.

  • No. 4 for ear, nose and throat
  • No. 6 for urology
  • No. 14 for gynecology
  • No. 27 for diabetes and endocrinology
  • No. 41 for geriatrics
  • No. 46 for gastroenterology/GI surgery
  • No. 38 for cancer (pediatric)
TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston ranked No. 3 nationally for rehabilitation.
For all 31 years, The Menninger Clinic has been recognized as a top hospital in the psychiatric speciality. This year, the clinic ranked at No. 9 nationally.

"Our clinical teams provide personalized care with the right blend of art and science. We have pioneered measuring the effectiveness of this treatment, and the results consistently demonstrate that patients sustain their well-being for at least a year after they leave Menninger," says Armando Colombo, president and CEO, in a news release. "Going forward, we will improve access to make it easier for more Texans to access these life-changing results."

Othram and the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center have teamed up to create a modern forensic sequencing lab program. Getty Images

New program in Houston is training future forensic scientists and digitizing DNA evidence

crime scene innovation

Houston-area's first-privately held forensic sequencing laboratory has partnered with The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center to create an academic program that will provide forensic training to genome scientists that will help them crack previously unsolved criminal cases.

Othram was created in 2018 specifically to apply the power of modern DNA parallel sequences to forensic evidence. Its new academic program partnership is aimed at training Molecular Genetic Technology (MGT) graduate students in the newest laboratory techniques and technology for the recovery and analysis of human DNA from deteriorated or contaminated materials.

"Because this field is so new, there aren't many individuals who are experts in both genomics and forensic science," David Mittelman, CEO and founder of Othram, tells InnovationMap. "We wanted to collaborate with M.D. Anderson who has a great genetic testing program already to help students learn about how to apply current techniques that are being used to solve cases that no one else can solve."

MGT students, who study the role of genetics in medicine, will be able to train with Othram experts using new technological advances such as the ability to harness whole-genome shotgun sequencing for the unique needs that forensic evidence demands like human identification.

"The Texas Medical Center is the best in the world, specifically for genomics training so it seemed like a natural fit," says Mittelman. "Especially since we want to attract and expose students to this new area of forensics as a possible outlet."

The use of new technology is what sets Othram apart, last year they helped solved a 103-year old mystery of a headless torso found in an Idaho cave, using their Forensic-Grade Genome SequencingTM technology. The DNA extraction and sequencing lab at Othram distill the sample DNA down to a sequence, which with the help of computer software, can be analyzed to reconstruct the whole genome of an individual's DNA.

Then the DNA is digitized and matched to other databases such as the FBI's Combined DNA Index System to cross-reference for a DNA match. With Othram's ability to construct whole genomes from previously unusable DNA samples, they can further the search to identify human remains or identify suspects from living relatives.

"There is no one currently leveraging whole genome sequencing right now like Othram," says Mittelman. "There's a whole range of opportunities from taking a look at the whole genome from ancestry to relationship testing and physical trait prediction."

The unique learning experience for MGT students will integrate classroom lectures, laboratory demonstrations, and technological experiences. Mittleman says that the academic program partnership will enable a new generation of forensic genomics scientists to digitize the nation's DNA evidence and solve cold cases.

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Early-stage accelerator returns to Houston, announces finalists

prepare for take-off

CodeLaunch, a traveling seed-stage accelerator, is returning to Houston for its latest cohort.

The startup competition sponsored by software development company Improving will have its ultimate showdown on February 28. The final competition pairs six startups with six startup consulting companies.

Jason W. Taylor, CodeLaunch president and founder, says CodeLaunch isn’t your typical startup showcase, as it incorporates music acts, comedy, and crowd networking. Mirroring the set-up of a TV show, the six finalists all present their working products in front of an audience amid these performances.

“I would describe CodeLaunch as the next generation of venture-tainment in North America and the greatest startup show on earth,” Taylor explains.

The 2024 Houston CodeLaunch participant startups — and their mentor partners — are as follows:

Prior to pitch day, all six teams will receive hands-on instruction from CodeLaunch mentors on how to construct their pitches and free professional software development from their partners. Taylor says the strong relationships between CodeLaunch and these developers played a major role in setting the competition in Houston.

“We love Houston and we’re back for a third year in a row because the Houston startup ecosystem works together better than other major startup ecosystems I’ve seen,” Taylor says. “We have some great software development partners in Houston that are building code for those startups.”

Last year, Houston-based startup Energy360, with the mentorship and help of Honeycomb Software, took home the Championship belt and a $100,000 investment offer from Cyrannus VC fund for their energy management system Matt Bonasera, Energy360’s enterprise architect, says he is grateful for the entrepreneurial community CodeLaunch provides, in particular the team’s mentor Oleg Lysiak, Honeycomb VP of Partnerships and Business Development.

“I happened along this great community of people who are really passionate about supporting each other,” Bonasera says.

Lysiak agrees that CodeLaunch is an ideal opportunity for young entrepreneurs looking to hone their skills and expand their product capabilities. Lysiak says he is looking forward to defending Honeycomb’s title as top consultant development team.

“My whole philosophy is to connect people and have different collisions and collaborations,” Lysiak says.

Houston startup completes testing, prepares biosimilar insulin drug for clinical trials

next steps

A Houston biotech startup is one step closer to releasing its marquee drug for the global insulin market, which is projected to break the $90 billion threshold by 2029.

rBIO says it recently completed testing of the properties of R-biolin, an insulin drug that’s biologically identical to Novo Nordisk’s Novolin drug. The patent for Novolin about two decades ago. In March 2023, the Dutch drugmaker announced it was slashing the list price of Novolin by 65 percent to $48.20 per vial and $91.09 per FlexPen.

Executives at rBIO are now pursuing a partnership with a contract research organization to manage clinical trials of R-biolin. If those trials go well, R-biolin will seek approval to supply its insulin therapy to diabetes patients around the world.

Washington University in St. Louis is rBIO’s academic partner for the R-biolin project.

The rBIO platform produces insulin at greater yields that traditional manufacturing techniques do. The company is striving to drive down the cost of insulin by 30 percent.

About 38 million Americans have diabetes, with the vast majority being treated for type 2 diabetes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many people with diabetes must take insulin to control their blood sugar levels.

Research company iHealthcareAnalyst predicts the global market for insulin will surpass the $90 billion mark in 2029.

“There has been a lot of talk in the media about reducing the cost of insulin for diabetic patients, but what is often overlooked is that the domestic demand for insulin will soon outpace the supply, leading to a new host of issues,” Cameron Owen, co-founder and CEO of rBIO, says in a news release.

“We’re dedicated to addressing the growing demand for accessible insulin therapies, and … we’re thrilled to announce the viability of our highly scalable manufacturing process.”

Professionals from the University of California San Diego and Johns Hopkins University established rBIO in 2020. The startup moved its headquarters from San Diego to Houston in 2022.

CEO Cameron Owen and Chief Scientific Officer Deenadayalan Bakthavatsalam work on insulin purification in the Houston lab. Photo courtesy

How AI is changing product management and what you need to know

guest column

For the past 14 months, everyone has been talking about ways artificial intelligence is changing the world, and product management is not an exception. The challenge, as with every new technology, is not only adopting it but understanding what old habits, workflows, and processes are affected by it.

Product managers — as well as startup founders leading a product function — more than any other role, face a challenge of bringing new life-changing products to market that may or may not be received well by their users. A product manager’s goal is complex — bring value, stay ahead of the competition, be innovative. Yet, the "behind the scenes" grind requires endless decision making and trade offs to inspire stakeholders to move forward and deliver.

As we dive into 2024, it is obvious that AI tools do not only transform the way we work but also help product managers create products that exceed customer expectation and drive businesses forward.

Market research and trends analysis

As product managers, we process enormous amounts of market data — from reviewing global and industry trend analysis, to social media posts, predictions, competition, and company goals. AI, however, can now replace hours, if not days, of analyzing massive amounts of data in an instant, revealing market trends, anticipating needs, and foreseeing what's coming next. As a result, it is easier to make effective product decisions and identify new market opportunities.

Competitive analysis

Constantly following competitors, reviewing their new releases, product updates, or monitoring reviews to identify competitor strengths and weaknesses is an overwhelming and time consuming task. With AI, you can quickly analyze competitors’ products, pricing, promotions, and feedback. You can easily compare multiple attributes, including metrics, and identify gaps and areas for improvement — all the insights that are otherwise much harder to reveal quickly and efficiently.

Customer and product discovery

Of course, the most intuitive use case that comes to mind is the adoption of AI in product and customer discovery. For example:

  • Use AI for customer segmentation and persona creation to help visualize personas, prioritize user motivations and expectations, and uncover hidden behavior and needs. You can then create and simplify customer questionnaires for interviews and user groups and target customers more accurately.
  • Analyze quantitative and qualitative data from surveys, support tickets, reviews, and in-person interviews to identify pain points and unmet user needs and help prioritize features for future updates and releases.

Roadmap and sprint management

AI provides value in simplifying roadmap planning and sprint management. Resource optimization is often a gruesome task and AI can help with feature prioritization and resource allocation. It helps teams focus on critical work and increase their productivity. You can even analyze and manage dependencies and improve results across multiple sprints months in advance.

Prototyping and mockup generation

There is no product manager’s routine without multiple mockups, wireframes, and prototypes that explain concepts and collect feedback among stakeholders. AI has become a critical tool in simplifying this process and bringing ideas to life from concept to visualization.

Today, you can use textual or voice descriptions to instantly create multiple visuals with slight variations, run A/B tests and gather valuable feedback at the earliest stage of a product life cycle.

Job search and job interviews

Consider it as a bonus but one of the less obvious but crucial advantages of AI is using it in job search. With the vulnerable and unstable job market, especially for product roles, AI is a valuable assistant. From getting the latest news and updates on a company you want to join, to summarizing insights on the executive team, or company goals, compiling lists of interview questions, and running mock interviews, AI has become a non-judgmental assistant in a distressing and often discouraging job search process.

Use AI to draft cold emails to recruiters and hiring managers, compare your skills to open positions’ requirements, identify gaps, and outline ideas for test assignments.

We already know that AI is not a hype; it is here to stay. However, remember that customers do not consume AI, they consume your product for its value. Customers care whether your product gets their need, solves their problem, and makes their lives easier. The goal of a product manager is to create magic combining human brain capabilities and latest technology. And the best result is with a human at the core of any product.

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Natasha Gorodetsky is the founder and CEO of Product Pursuits, a Houston company that helps early stage and venture-backed startups build products and create impact.