Houston's medical innovation community congregated to discuss breakthrough innovations in health care. Photo via Getty Images

What startups are creating the future of health care? A Houston conference this week gathered to discuss.

The 10th annual Texas Life Science Forum hosted by BioHouston and the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship engaged thought leadership within the life science community with panels, discussions, and more. Additionally, 49 companies pitched their solutions across medical device, therapeutics, pharmaceuticals, and more to the crowd.

Austin-based Dynamic Light won the Michael E. DeBakey Memorial Life Science Award, established by BioHouston in honor of the groundbreaking Houston cardiovascular surgeon. The software company integrates with microscope or robotic systems to provide better visuals to surgeons and health care providers and reduce medical errors, radiation and costs. The award was presented by Ann Tanabe, CEO of BioHouston.

The event also named the 10 most promising life science companies selected by investors and presented by the Greater Houston Partnership. This year's selection included the following companies, in alphabetical order.

Ares Immunotherapy

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Based in Cartersville, Georgia, Ares Immunotherapy uses a unique subset of T-cells for the treatment of solid tumors. According to the company, it is is preparing for a first in man trial in mesothelioma in 2023.

Corveus Medical

Photo courtesy of TMC

Houston-based Corveus Medical, which was formerly known as Caridian Medical, is a part of TMC's Biodesign program. The company was founded by Ishan Kamat, COO, and Tyler Melton, CEO.

"We are developing a novel, catheter-based device that performs a targeted sympathetic nerve ablation to treat heart failure," according to the company. "Our solution leverages the body’s natural mechanisms to bring fluid levels back to normal, giving physicians an effective treatment option, reducing costs for hospitals, and improving quality of life for the patient."

Drusolv Therapeutics

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Drusolv Therapeutics, based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was founded out of Harvard University and been validated in a proof-of-concept clinical trial. The company's product, a novel reformulation of atorvastatin, is targeting age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, a serious eye disease. According to the company, it's a $4 billion a year, unmet need.

EMPIRI

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Houston-based EMPIRI is an early-stage biotechnology company currently focusing on precision oncology and utilizing automation for personal diagnosis. The company works out of JLABS @ TMC.

"Our proprietary 3D tissue culture method, E-slices, enables personalized drug response measurements from intact patient tissues," per the company. "E-slice has been clinically validated to accurately predict individual cancer patient responses to chemotherapies, targeted therapies, a immunotherapies."

Lapovations

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Based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Lapovations is working on technologies that improve laparoscopy.

"Our flagship product AbGrab is a single-use device that uses suction to lift the abdominal wall prior to closed insertion entry," according to the company. "Manually lifting can be difficult and unreliable, especially with obese patients or for clinicians with small hands."

Maxwell Biosciences

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Austin-based Maxwell Biosciences is creating anti-infectives that inactivate a broad spectrum of viruses. The company's product, CLAROMERS, has seen success in its preclinical animal studies, as well as lab-grown human tissues. Maxwell is fueled by over $30 million in non-dilutive and government funding (e.g. DARPA, NIH, NIAID).

NeuraStasis

Image via neurastasis.com

Doctors have to respond quickly when treating ischemic stroke patients, and Houston-based NeuraStasis is working on a way to give them more time. Each minute a patient is waiting, irreparable damage is being done. The company's noninvasive solution uses electrical neurostimulation to preserve brain functionality. NeuraStasis is based in JLABS @ TMC.

Vena Medical

Image via venamed.ca

Canada medical device company Vena Medical is working on the "world's smallest camera" that is able to record inside veins and arteries to help physicians treat stroke.

Vivifi Medical

Photo courtesy of TMC

Houston-based Vivifi Medical, a Texas Medical Center Innovation company, is working to improve the quality of life of patients with Male Infertility and benign prostatic hyperplasia — 12 million men in the United States alone — by ending recurrency via suture-less laparoscopic technology.

XN Health

Image via xn-health.com

XN Health, based in Houston, has developed a novel approach to phrenic nerve stimulation to treat progression of ventilator induced diaphragm disfunction to help wean patients off the ventilator faster. The technology should speed up patient liberation times, shortening ICU stay, improve healthcare outcomes, and reduce health care costs.

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Houston tech platform raises series C round backed by Mastercard

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Hello Alice, a fintech platform that supports 1.5 million small businesses across the country, has announced its series C round.

The amount raised was not disclosed, but Hello Alice reported that the fresh funding has brought the company's valuation to $130 million. Alexandria, Virginia-based QED Investors led the round, and investors included Mastercard, Backstage Capital, Guy Fieri, Golden Seeds, Harbert Growth Partners Fund, How Women Invest I, LP, Lovell Limited Partnership, Tyler “Ninja” and Jessica Blevins, and Tamera Mowry and Adam Housley, per a news release from the company.

“We are thrilled to hit the milestone of 1.5 million small businesses utilizing Hello Alice to elevate the American dream. There are more entrepreneurs launching this year than in the history of our country, and we will continue to ensure they get the capital needed to grow,” Elizabeth Gore and Carolyn Rodz, co-founders of Hello Alice, say in a news release. “In closing our Series C, we welcome Mastercard to our family of investors and continue to be grateful to QED, How Women Invest, and our advocates such as Guy Fieri.”

The funding will go toward expanding capital offerings and AI-driven tools for its small business membership.

“Our team focuses on finding and investing in companies that are obsessed with reducing friction and providing superior financial services solutions to their customers,” QED Investors Co-Founder Frank Rotman says in the release. “Hello Alice has proven time and time again that they are on the leading edge of providing equitable access to capital and banking services to the small business ecosystem."

Hello Alice, which closed its series B in 2021 at $21 million, has collaborated with Mastercard prior to the series C, offering small business owners the Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard in 2022 and a free financial wellness tool, Business Health Score, last year. Mastercard also teamed up with other partners for the the Equitable Access Fund in 2023.

“With Hello Alice, we’re investing to provide support to small business owners as they look to access capital, helping to address one of the most cited business challenges they face,” Ginger Siegel, Mastercard's North America Small Business Lead, adds. “By working together to simplify access to the products and services they need when building and growing their business, we’re helping make a meaningful impact on the individuals who run their businesses, the customers they serve, and our communities and economy at large.”

While Hello Alice's founders' mission is to help small businesses, their own company was threatened by a lawsuit from America First Legal. The organization, founded by former Trump Administration adviser Stephen Miller and features a handful of other former White House officials on its board, is suing Hello Alice and its partner, Progressive Insurance. The lawsuit alleges that their program to award10 $25,000 grants to Black-owned small businesses constitutes racial discrimination. Gore calls the lawsuit frivolous in an interview on the Houston Innovators Podcast. The legal battle is ongoing.

Inspired by the lawsuit, Hello Alice launched the Elevate the American Dream, a grant program that's highlighting small businesses living out their American dreams. The first 14 grants have already been distributed, and Hello Alice plans to award more grants over the next several weeks, putting their grant funding at over $40 million.


NASA awards $30M to Houston space tech company to develop lunar rover

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Houston-based space technology company Intuitive Machines has landed a $30 million NASA contract for the initial phase of developing a rover for U.S. astronauts to traverse the moon’s surface.

Intuitive Machines is one of three companies chosen by NASA to perform preliminary work on building a lunar terrain vehicle that would enable astronauts to travel on the moon’s surface so they can conduct scientific research and prepare for human missions to Mars.

The two other companies are Golden, Colorado-based Lunar Outpost and Hawthorne, California-based Astrolab.

NASA plans to initially use the vehicle for its Artemis V lunar mission, which aims to put two astronauts on the moon. It would be the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972 that astronauts would step foot on the lunar surface.

The Artemis V mission, tentatively set for 2029, will be the fifth mission under NASA’s Artemis program.

“This vehicle will greatly increase our astronauts’ ability to explore and conduct science on the lunar surface while also serving as a science platform between crewed missions,” says Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Intuitive Machines says the $30 million NASA contract represents its entrance into human spaceflight operations for the space agency’s $4.6 billion moon rover project. The vehicle — which Intuitive Machines has dubbed the Moon Reusable Autonomous Crewed Exploration Rover (RACER) — will be based on the company’s lunar lander.

“Our global team is on a path to provide essential lunar infrastructure services to NASA in a project that would allow [us] to retain ownership of the vehicle for commercial utilization during periods of non-NASA activity over approximately 10 years of lunar surface activity,” says exploration,” says Steve Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Machines.

Intuitive Machines’ partners on the RACER project include AVL, Boeing, Michelin, and Northrop Grumman.

Intuitive Machines plans to bid on the second phase of the rover project after finishing its first-phase feasibility study. The second phase will involve developing, delivering, and operating the rover.

In February, Intuitive Machines became the first private company to land a spacecraft on the moon with no crewmembers aboard. NASA was the key customer for that mission.

Houston expert: How to avoid 'ghost hiring' while attracting top talent

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One of the latest HR terms grabbing attention today is “ghost hiring.” This is a practice where businesses post positions online, even interviewing candidates, with no intention to fill them. In fact, the role may already have been filled or it may not exist.

Usually, an applicant applies for the job, yet never hears back. However, they may be contacted by the recruiter, only to learn the offer is revoked or a recruiter ghosts them after a first-round interview.

Applicants who are scouring job sites for the ideal position can become discouraged by ghost hiring. Employers do not usually have any ill intentions of posting ghost jobs and talking with candidates. Employers may have innocently forgotten to take down the listing after filling the position.

Some employers may leave positions up to expand their talent pool. While others who are open to hiring new employees, even if they do not match the role, may practice ghost hiring when they want a pool of applicants to quickly pull from when the need arises. Finally, some employers post job roles to make it look like the company is experiencing growth.

When employers participate in ghost hiring practices, job candidates can become frustrated, hurting the employer brand and, thus, future recruiting efforts. Even with the tight labor market and employee turnover, it is best not to have an evergreen posting if there is no intention to hire respondents.

There are several ways employers can engage candidates and, likewise, build a talent pool without misleading job seekers.

Network

A recruiter at their core is a professional networker. This is a skill that many have honed through the years, and it continues to evolve through social media channels. While many recruiters lean on social media, you should not discount meeting people face-to-face. There is power in promoting your organization at professional meetings, alumni groups and civic organizations. Through these avenues, many potential candidates will elect for you to keep them in mind for future opportunities.

Employee Referrals

When recruiters want to deepen their talent pool, they cannot discount the employee referral. Simply letting employees know and clearly stating the exploratory nature of the conversation can lead to stellar results. Employees understand the organization, its culture and expectations, so they are more likely to refer the company to someone who would be a good fit and reflect highly on them.

Alternative Candidates

In recent years, organizations and recruiters are more dialed into skills-first recruiting practices. Creating job postings that emphasize the skill sets needed rather than the years of experience, specific college degree or previous job titles, can yield a crop of candidates who may be more agile and innovative than others. Fostering relationships with people who fit unique skills needed within the organization can help you develop a deeper bench of candidates.

Contingent Workforce

Part-time workers, freelancers, and independent contractors are a great way to build connections and the talent pool. These workers and their skills are known entities, plus they know the organization, which makes them valuable candidates for open roles. If their expertise is needed on a regular basis, it is easier to have open conversations about a potential expansion of their duties or offer full-time work.

Internal Talent

Human resources and recruiters need to work with managers and leadership to intimately know what kind of talent lies within their own organization. Current employees may have the strengths, skills, and capabilities to fill new positions or roles. Through conversations with employees and their managers, you can identify who can flex different skills, but even more importantly, the ambition to grow within the company.

In every instance, it is crucial for recruiters and hiring managers to be transparent in their intentions. Communicating within your network that you are always looking for great talent to fill future roles sets the tone. When communicating with candidates, whether there is a pressing job opportunity or not, be clear from the onset regarding your intentions for hire. With a transparent approach to hiring and candidate development, you will keep the employer brand intact and maintain recruiting power.

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Jaune Little is a director of recruiting services with Insperity.