From startup pitch competitions seeking applications to Houston startups with big news, here are the latest short stories of Houston innovation. Photo courtesy TMC Innovation

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news fresh out of the gate for 2021, and it's likely some might have fallen through the cracks.

For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, a TMCx startup gets called out by Time Magazine, pitch competitions seek entries for thousands of dollars of investment prizes, and more.

The Cannon closes its acquisition of LetsLaunch

The Cannon has announced that it has has acquired Houston-based crowdfunding startup LetsLaunch. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

Last summer, The Cannon, a Houston startup development organization with a network of coworking hubs, announced its plans to acquire a Houston fintech startup, LetsLaunch. The online investment platform allows for smaller investments from non-accredited investors and has been connected with The Cannon in the past, and the two entities have even had a partnership arrangement.

As of last week, The Cannon has officially acquired LetsLaunch. The deal allows Cannon member companies access to a new fundraising option.

"The Cannon and LetsLaunch have a shared vision for enabling and optimizing the innovation ecosystem," says Jon Lambert, CEO of The Cannon, in a news release. "LetsLaunch has passionately developed a technology platform that will deliver significant value to the entrepreneurial community by bringing together start-ups and investors of all kinds. By integrating the LetsLaunch platform into The Cannon's digital offerings, we will enhance the fundraising and strategic connection value we offer to our innovation community."

TMCx startup named to Time's top inventions

A U.K. company that recently participated in TMCx has been honored by Time Magazine. Photo courtesy of TMC

Health tech startup, Virti, which recently completed the Texas Medical Center's startup accelerator, was honored among Time Magazine's top inventions of 2020 in the augmented and virtual reality category.

Virti's artificial intelligence provides its users with instant feedback on training — and, in light of the pandemic, event indicates the right way to wear personal protective equipment, administer treatment, or ventilate a patient. According to a press release, this technology — as compared to traditional face-to-face training — has proven a 230 percent increase in knowledge gain and a 52 percent reduction in skill-fade post-training.

In the United Kingdom, where Virti was founded, the technology has been used to train 100,000 NHS staff, according to the release.

"This achievement rounds off what has been a very exciting year for Virti with significant growth in the United States and internationally building on successful partnerships such as the UK TMC BioBridge through the UK's Department for International Trade (DIT)," says Dr. Alex Young, Virti founder and CEO, in the press release.

Virti has US offices in Houston and the West Coast.

"The evidence is clear — immersive training that simulates real-world situations is more conducive to long-term memory and recall," says Lance Black, associate director of TMC Innovation, in the release. "Virti has unlocked how to provide high quality education to care teams to better prepare them for any situation as evidenced by their rapid adoption within the Texas Medical Center. The recognition by Time further demonstrates that Virti is ushering us into a new era of education and training, one that blurs the line between reality and fiction."

HX Venture Fund calls for Houston startups for pitch competition

The HX Venture Fund is looking for startups to pitch at a new event. Photo via Getty Images

The HX Venture Fund is preparing for two-day summit — called Venture Houston — next month and is looking for local startups to pitch in the conference's pitch competition.

According to the website, HXVF is looking for all pre-seed through series B companies interested in venture backing, and headquartered in Houston and the Gulf Coast Region. The competition has $1.65 million in investment prizes on the line from investors like Fitz Gate Ventures, The Artemis Fund, Montrose Lane (née Cottonwood Venture Partners), Mercury Fund, and more.

The application for the pitch competition is due January 15 and can be submitted online. If selected, startups will pitch during the February 4-5 event. To register for the virtual event, click here.

Validere announces partnership with California company to focus on ESG

Validere has a new partnership. Photo courtesy of Validere

Canadian energy supply chain software company, Validere, which has a growing presence in Houston, has announced a new strategic partnership with California-based Xpansiv. According to a news release, the partnership "enables the registration and transaction of digitized commodity products with embedded Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) attributes that support integration of ESG data into commodity markets."

Validere works with its oil and gas customers to provide tech solutions to connect, track, and audit data, allowing for transparency and optimization. This technology also allows corporations to prioritize ESG initiatives — something Nicole Rogers, senior vice president at Validere, recently joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss.

"Validere is proud to partner with Xpansiv to provide another pathway to value creation for our customers," Validere CEO Nouman Ahmad says in a news release. "The initiative supports our defining belief that accurate, accessible product-quality data can be used to create multiple forms of value."

Apply now: Capital Factory to host pitch competition for Black entrepreneurs

Capital Factory is hosting its annual Black in Tech event. Getty Images

For the third year, Capital Factory, a Texas-wide startup development organization, is seeking Black entrepreneurs to pitch for a $100,000 prize. The competition, which will be on February 16 during Capital Factory's Black in Tech Summit, will have five technology startup finalists that will be judged by a panel of successful entrepreneurs, industry leaders and mentors. One startup will take home a $100,000 prize.

The application deadline is January 22, and any startups with a Black founder can apply online. For more information on the summit and the competition, click here.

At TMCx's Demo Day, the cohort's companies boasted of local deals and accomplishments. Courtesy of TMC

TMCx companies plant Houston roots with pilots, partnerships, and more

Lasting impact

At the conclusion of TMCx's recent Digital Health cohort — the most international group to date — there was only one Houston company among the 19. However, most of that group have developed a presence in Houston throughout the program.

Besides just being based here in Houston for four months, TMCx associate director, Lance Black, says the city has a lot to offer these startups.

"Why Houston? Why are these companies coming from everywhere to be here? Three big reasons," he says to the crowd at Demo Day. "The size and scale of the Texas Medical Center, the diversity of Houston, and the willingness and hunger of Houstonians wanting to be involved in innovation."

From pilots and partnerships to funding and mentorship, these TMCx08 companies announced the impact they've made on Houston at the Demo Day on Thursday, June 6. Meanwhile, TMCx had its own announcement that it would create early stage programming for professionals connected to the Texas Medical Center.

"It is the TMC's mission to advance health care, research, and education. It's our mission at the Innovation Institute to bring value back to the med center through health care technology," Black says. "And, through TMCx, we do that through startup companies."

Here are some examples of TMCx companies setting foundations in the Houston ecosystem.

Virti

Photo via virti.com

California-based Virti has developed an extended reality simulation technology for training medical staff. It's a cheaper, more effective way to train personnel, says Alex Young, CEO of the company.

Virti was selected to be in England's National Health Service accelerator — the only evidence-based AR/VR training company ever to be picked for the program, says Young.

With a presence in California and England, Young says he's also planted roots in Texas too, with sales representation based in the TMCx offices.

"In the time that we've been here, we've closed deals in Texas and back in California," Young adds.

Optellum

Photo via optellum.com

Optellum is changing the way lung cancer is being detected. With the startup's artificial intelligence-enabled detection software, oncologists can better identify at-risk patients, which translates into more treatment for those in need, and less for those who don't.

The company, which is based in the United Kingdom, has raised funds abroad while networking locally.

"TMCx has been amazing for a small British company like us. We have started pilots and trials at four TMC member institutions," says Vaclav Potesil, CEO.

Oncora Medical

Photo via oncoramedical.com

Angela Holmes, the director of product and customer solutions of Oncora Medical, sets the stage at her company's Demo Day pitch by telling a story of her friend's daughter who was diagnosed with cancer. She was forced to pick between two treatment options. She had no data or insights to help.

Oncora Medical's mission is to help fight cancer using data. Though based in Philadelphia, Oncora has Houston ties, since it formed a partnership with MD Anderson Cancer Center in April of 2017.

"We are so honored and gratified to be in a strategic, multi-year collaboration with MD Anderson to build this software system to save the world," Holmes says.

PreOp MD

Cody Duty/TMC

Within health care, the projected annual aggregate surgical expenditure by 2025 is expected to be $912 billion, says Christiana Obi, founder and CEO of PreOp MD, and a Houston-based anesthesiologist. She sees lack of information causing wasted surgical resources regularly.

PreOp MD — the only Houston-based TMCx company this cohort — has an app that allows for pre-procedure education, communication, and more that aims to prevent surgical delays.

While based here, PreOp is truly rooted in Houston, and even more so with their latest news.

"We are happy and excited to say that we have landed our first medical pilot at an medical right here in town," Obi says.

RoundTrip

Cody Duty/TMC

RoundTrip has a solution to 3.6 million missed or postponed medical visits that happen annually that are inconvenient to hospitals and a major health risk to the population: Ride sharing.

The Philadelphia-based company enables all forms of transportation and puts the power in the hands of the medical institution. From ambulances to other medical vehicles, the company can optimize utilization of all vehicles to get patients to their appointments and even has a partnership with Lyft.

While completing the TMCx program, RoundTrip closed its Series A round of $5.14 million led by Virginia-based Motley Fool Ventures in April. The funds will be used for expansion.

"Now we have all this new money to expand really rapidly. Texas, we're coming for you, whether you're ready or not," says Jackson Steeger, account supervisor.

Meru Health

Photos via meruhealth.com

Meru Health is also one of the 2019 TMCx Digital Health companies that has raised money while in the program. Palo Alto, California-based Meru completed a $4.2M raise in April 2019. The round was led by San Francisco-based Freestyle Capital.

Access to mental health professionals is increasingly more difficult, so Meru Health has created a low-cost digital clinic that offers an app-based treatment program from licensed therapists. Kristian Ranta, CEO and founder, while not yet providing specifics, that they aren't done in Texas.

"I'm happy to say there's some good stuff brewing here in Texas for us. More to follow," says Ranta.

Cloud 9

Photo via cloud9psych.com

Mental health is a key contributing factor in the legal system cycle, but it doesn't have to be Liz Truong, co-founder of Cloud 9. Better educating officers and providing them with mental health resources is the best way to get them out of the hospitals and court rooms and back out in the field to protect the city.

While some police departments have instituted ride-along programs with mental health professionals that have showed success, it's expensive for the police department and risky for those professionals. Cloud 9 has created a digital solution.

"We proved this works in the Harris County Sheriff's office right here in Houston," says Truong. "Officers reported that 97 percent of Cloud 9 care was superior or equal to their current program and showed an immediate 632 percent return on investment for our customers in the same budget cycle compared to what they were already spending."

Truong also says they have other local customers they are working with, including the Harris County Health Department.

Axem Neurotechnology

Photos via axemneuro.com

Recovering stroke patients need rehabilitation to get back to 100 percent, but getting patients into the facility is challenging and at-home compliance is hard to track.

Canadian company Axem Neurotechnology has a solution. With their external device and mobile application, physical therapists can track progress and communicate with patients remotely.

"When we talk to rehab professionals, they are excited about what we're doing," says Tony Ingram, CEO and co-founder. "That's why we have leading institutions in both Canada and the U.S. onboard for clinical trials — this includes TMC's own TIRR, which is consistently ranked in the top five rehab centers in the U.S. We're collecting core baseline data in the most diverse city in the country."


Correction: A previous version of this article said Oncora's partnership with MD Anderson was formed during the TMCx program, when the partnership began in 2017.

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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.