3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Dorit Donoviel of TRISH, Nuri Firat Ince of UH, and Vanessa Wade of Connect the Dots. Courtesy photos

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


Dorit Donoviel, director of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health

Dorit Donoviel, director of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health

The new program will work with commercial spaceflight crews to bring back crucial research to one database. Photo via Libby Neder Photography

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, at Baylor College of Medicine announced a unique program that will work with commercial spaceflight providers and their passengers. The EXPAND — Enhancing eXploration Platforms and Analog Definition — Program will collect information and data from multiple space flights and organize it in one place. TRISH selected TrialX to build the centralized database.

"The space environment causes rapid body changes. This can help us understand how we humans react to and overcome stress. Ensuring that space explorers remain healthy pushes us to invent new approaches for early detection and prevention of medical conditions," says Dorit Donoviel, executive director at TRISH, in the release.

"Studying a broad range of people in space increases our knowledge of human biology. TRISH's EXPAND program will leverage opportunities with commercial spaceflight providers and their willing crew to open up new research horizons." Click here to read more.

Nuri Firat Ince, associate professor of biomedical engineering at UH

A medical device designed by a UH professor will close the loop with high frequency brain waves to prevent seizures from occurring. Photo via uh.edu

Nuri Firat Ince, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at UH, has received a federal grant aimed at helping stop epileptic seizures before they start. The BRAIN Initiative at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke awarded the $3.7 million grant to go toward Ince's work to create a seizure-halting device based on his research.

According to UH, Ince has reduced by weeks the time it takes to locate the seizure onset zone (SOZ), the part of the brain that causes seizures in patients with epilepsy. He's done this by detecting high-frequency oscillations (HFO) forming "repetitive waveform patterns" that identify their location in the SOZ.

"If the outcomes of our research in acute settings become successful, we will execute a clinical trial and run our methods with the implanted … system in a chronic ambulatory setting," Ince says. Click here to read more.

Vanessa Wade, founder and owner of Connect the Dots

It's time for large corporations to step up to support small businesses founded by people of color. Photo courtesy

In her guest column for InnovationMap, Vanessa Wade addressed some of the challenges she faced founding a company as a person of color — specifically the lack of access to funding. In the article, she calls corporations to action to help business leaders like herself.

"The journey ahead can feel discouraging, but the good news is that now I have a much better idea of what it will take to build an equitable road back and get businesses like mine on even footing," she writes. Click here to read more.

It's time for large corporations to step up to support small businesses founded by people of color. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: Corporations can help level the playing field for BIPOC-owned businesses

Guest column

There were times when I wasn't sure what to do next.

When I started Connect the Dots PR in 2012, I wrote out detailed business plans, saved startup dollars, and leaned heavily on people in the PR industry to guide me in terms of pricing and feedback. Of course, we had contingency plans for unexpected hardships, but you hope not to use them.

My contingency plans went out the window when we saw we were looking at more than a year of pandemic-related shutdowns and slowdowns. I didn't have time to wait it out or say let's see what happens. It was time to move strategically.

Like most businesses, we hit a snag. A big chunk of our client base was reeling with corporate layoffs, shutdowns and revamped budgets. We've held on, but at times, it was overwhelming. I remember when the pandemic initially shut everything down, my fear was what is going to happen to my business and those that depend on me, such as employees, vendors, clients and contractors? At the onset of the pandemic, an employee came to me and said if I needed to let them go they understood. It hurt to do so, but it was a mutual decision and he landed on his feet and relocated to another state.

For a business owner of color, the hurdles are higher. When building Connect the Dots PR, the most important driver was access to startup capital. But studies have shown that white entrepreneurs are able to contribute considerably more personal equity to their new businesses than entrepreneurs of color, because white American families have nearly 10 times as much wealth as Hispanic or Black American families.

While inequities existed before the pandemic, over the last year, they've gotten worse. Beyond the physical toll of COVID-19, which affected BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities, which includes Hispanic and Asian American communities among others, more severely than white ones, BIPOC-owned businesses have had less of a safety net to fall back on, have been more likely to close, and have had a harder time getting Paycheck Protection Program loans. Studies last summer showed that the pandemic shuttered Black-owned businesses at more than double the rate of white-owned businesses. It all leads to the deeply unequal recovery that we're just now embarking upon.

The journey ahead can feel discouraging, but the good news is that now I have a much better idea of what it will take to build an equitable road back and get businesses like mine on even footing.

First and foremost, there needs to be an investment in people of color-owned businesses from the public, private and nonprofit sectors. Six months ago, I applied to the Comcast RISE program which, since late last year, has invested in 2,500 BIPOC-owned businesses nationwide with monetary grants, technology makeovers and marketing services. I received the Comcast RISE Investment Fund for Connect the Dots PR, which provided relief when it was most needed. With this grant, I have been able to focus on the business and invest in my brand.

We're not the only ones. Comcast RISE plans to name 13,000 recipients by 2022. Houston was also one of five cities selected to award a $10,000 grant to 100 local businesses from the Comcast RISE Investment Fund, which is the grant I received. We need similar commitments from other corporations to level the playing field for people of color business owners.

Federal, state and local recovery programs need to target minority entrepreneurs. Too many of the existing relief efforts have had limited application windows or been first-come-first-served, which disadvantages businesses that are already starting from behind. Local organizations like the Greater Houston Black Chamber of Commerce can be useful allies in reaching businesses owned by historically disadvantaged groups.

Finally, financial institutions need better guardrails to ensure that they don't discriminate against nonwhite business owners. When accessing startup capital, barriers still exist for minority entrepreneurs, and keeping checks and balances on those with the balance sheets is the only way to make sure all businesses are starting on equal footing.

That way, when the next crisis hits, you'll have fewer businesses starting from behind, and we'll all find our way to recovery much faster. For all of us, that's a business plan worth holding onto.

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Vanessa Wade, is the founder and owner of Houston-based PR firm Connect the Dots.

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Report: Houston's hot medical office market might be on track to cool

by the numbers

Houston’s medical office market is on a roll.

A report from commercial real estate services company JLL shows net absorption and transaction volume saw healthy gains in 2022:

  • The annual absorption total of 289,215 square feet was 50.5 percent higher than the five-year average.
  • Transaction volume notched a 31.7 percent year-over-year increase.

Meanwhile, net rents held steady at $26.92 per square foot, up 1.3 percent from the previous year. The fourth-quarter 2022 vacancy rate stood at 15.9 percent.

Despite those numbers, the report suggests a slowdown in medical office rentals may be underway.

“Tenants who may have previously considered building out or expanding their lease agreements are now in a holding pattern due to increased construction costs and higher interest rates,” the report says. “These factors are having a direct impact on financial decisions when it comes to lease renewals, making it more likely that tenants will remain in their existing location for the foreseeable future.”

Still, the report notes “a number of bright spots for the future of healthcare in Houston.” Aside from last year’s record-high jump in sales volume, the report indicates an aging population coupled with a growing preference for community-based treatment “will lift demand even higher in coming years.”

The report shows that in last year’s fourth quarter, 527,083 square of medical office space was under construction in the Houston area, including:

  • 152,871 square feet in the Clear Lake area.
  • 104,665 square feet in the South submarket.
  • 103,647 square feet in Sugar Land.
Last fall, JLL recognized Houston as a top city for life sciences. According to that report, the Bayou City lands at No. 13 in JLL’s 2022 ranking of the country’s top 15 metro areas for life sciences. JLL says Houston “is poised for further growth” in life sciences.

Houston financial services firm announces acquisition, plans to grow

M&A radar

A Houston-based financial services company has made a recent strategic acquisition that gives it a new banking status.

LevelField Financial, which is creating a platform that combines traditional banking and digital asset products and services, announced this week that it is acquiring Burling Bank, an FDIC-insured, Illinois state-chartered bank. According to the company, once it receives regulatory approval, "LevelField will be the first full-service bank to offer fully compliant traditional banking and digital asset services."

The financial terms of the deal's transaction, which is expected to close later this year, were not disclosed.

The combined company will be able to provide traditional banking services, as well as LevelField's digital asset management. Burling Bank's senior management team will join LevelField's leadership, per a press release. They will focus on serving the bank's existing clients and growing the banking business nationwide.

"We conducted a broad review of banks in the U.S. to find the ideal institution with both an existing business and a management team who are aligned with our vision; we exceeded our expectations with Burling Bank. With this acquisition, LevelField will become a traditional bank, albeit one serving customers interested in the digital asset class," says Gene A. Grant II, CEO of LevelField Financial, in the release.

"We are thrilled to have the Burling executives join our leadership team, and together we intend to deliver fantastic customer service and well-designed products to customers who have an interest in accessing the digital asset class through a traditional bank," he continues.

Founded in 2018 by former banking executives, LevelField's leadership believes "the future of money is digital and that banks will continue to be a trusted provider of financial services," according to the website. This acquisition comes ahead of the company's plans to expand nationally.

"LevelField's strategic approach presented a tremendous opportunity for the bank to expand beyond our local footprint and serve customers with shared interests across the nation," says Michael J. Busch, Burling Bank president and CEO. "Together, we will continue to provide superior service and demonstrate that we truly understand the expanding and unique needs of our customers. Additionally, through the carefully developed suite of products we can address our customers' interests in digital assets and introduce them to LevelField's safe, simple, and secure platform."

How this Houston innovator's tech is gearing up to impact EV charging, energy transition

houston innovators podcast episode 172

With more and more electric vehicles on the road, existing electrical grid infrastructure needs to be able to keep up. Houston-based Revterra has the technology to help.

"One of the challenges with electric vehicle adoption is we're going to need a lot of charging stations to quickly charge electric cars," Ben Jawdat, CEO and founder of Revterra, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "People are familiar with filling their gas tank in a few minutes, so an experience similar to that is what people are looking for."

To charge an EV in ten minutes is about 350 kilowatts of power, and, as Jawdat explains, if several of these charges are happening at the same time, it puts a tremendous strain on the electric grid. Building the infrastructure needed to support this type of charging would be a huge project, but Jawdat says he thought of a more turnkey solution.

Revterra created a kinetic energy storage system that enables rapid EV charging. The technology pulls from the grid, but at a slower, more manageable pace. Revterra's battery acts as an intermediary to store that energy until the consumer is ready to charge.

"It's an energy accumulator and a high-power energy discharger," Jawdat says, explaining that compared to an electrical chemical battery, which could be used to store energy for EVs, kinetic energy can be used more frequently and for faster charging.

Jawdat, who is a trained physicist with a PhD from the University of Houston and worked as a researcher at Rice University, says some of his challenges were receiving early funding and identifying customers willing to deploy his technology.

Last year, Revterra raised $6 million in a series A funding round. Norway’s Equinor Ventures led the round, with participation from Houston-based SCF Ventures. Previously, Revterra raised nearly $500,000 through a combination of angel investments and a National Science Foundation grant.

The funding has gone toward growing Revterra's team, including onboarding three new engineers with some jobs still open, Jawdat says. Additionally, Revterra is building out its new lab space and launching new pilot programs.

Ultimately, Revterra, an inaugural member of Greentown Houston, hopes to be a major player within the energy transition.

"We really want to be an enabling technology in the renewable energy transition," Jawdat says. "One part of that is facilitating the development of large-scale, high-power, fast-charging networks. But, beyond that, we see this technology as a potential solution in other areas related to the clean energy transition."

He shares more about what's next for Revterra on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.