Houston startup upgrades tech to better serve moms at home during COVID-19

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 29

Amanda Ducach quickly upgraded her app, SocialMama, to help increase virtual access to health care professionals for moms stuck inside during the COVID-19 crisis. Photo courtesy of SocialMama

With much of society working from home, a huge burden has been placed on parents who are juggling their careers and homeschooling their children for the rest of the academic year. In many situations, the bulk of this responsibility has weighed heavy on moms, and a Houston momtrepreneur knew how to help them out.

Amanda Ducach, founder and CEO of SocialMama, created her app to link up moms for friendship and mentorship, and she was planning on expanding the app to add in experts and professionals into the mix this summer. However, when COVID-19 hit, she realized this was something moms needed ASAP.

"We learned quickly that moms' behaviors were drastically changing throughout this process of the pandemic, but also that over a million babies were going to be born in isolation," Ducach says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "That really changes the walk around maternal health."

The experts that are now on the app include mental health professionals, OBGYN doctors, and more. They are able to interface with users in a casual way to weigh in on topics of concern with their expertise. While Ducach and her team worked quickly to get the first version of the new feature online, she says she is working on technological improvements. However, she has already received great feedback from users and the experts.

While working in isolation and caring for her family at the same time, Ducach has been adjusting to this new normal just as everyone else. She said on the podcast that she hopes a lesson companies learn from this experience is how work-life balance and productivity aren't mutually exclusive — and that they bring this realization into the future.

"A lot of the times we don't do a good job as a society understanding that moms are just as good of workers in a company as non-moms, but they need some level of flexibility. It's just the reality," Ducach says. "You can't be a parent and never leave at 3 o'clock to go bring your kid to a baseball game. We have to support parents who work."

Ducach shares more of her growth plans in store for SocialMama, fundraising in the time of COVID-19 and federal relief woes, and more on the podcast episode. Listen to the full episode below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Hospital systems and nonprofits are looking for ways to reach patients virtually as face-to-face interactions continue to be limited due to the coronavirus. Getty Images

Houston medical organizations pivot to telemedicine and remote care amid COVID-19 crisis

online care

Hospitals across the country are trying their best to limit the number of people coming in and out — but how does that affect patients in need of non-COVID-19 treatment? Hospital systems are implementing new technology and training so that physicians can use telemedicine to connect virtually.

In March following telemedicine training, Houston Methodist began seeing hundreds more daily telemedicine sessions across its system, Josh Sol, administrative director of Innovation and Ambulatory Clinical Systems at Houston Methodist, previously told InnovationMap. And other hospital systems are following suit.

HCA Houston Healthcare's CareNow locations have implemented Virtual Care, a telehealth urgent care service. Patients can check in online during the urgent care center's operating hours to gain one-on-one access to care from a CareNow physician, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant. Providers, via video chat, will evaluate minor conditions and can prescribe non-narcotic medications when indicated.

If the situation calls for it, providers will tell the patient to come onsite to continue care.

"Virtual Care is an extension of our clinical urgent care services and fully supports our purpose to help people return to what they value in their lives, in an even more convenient way. We are proud to provide an easy solution for our patients' healthcare needs at their fingertips," says Dr. Mujtaba Ali-Khan, chief medical officer for HCA Houston Healthcare, in a news release.

Dallas-based CareNow was acquired by HCA in 2015 and has 16 locations in the greater Houston area.

Health care nonprofits are also taking advantage of remote ways to reach patients. Houston-based nonprofit CanCare is in the business of supporting cancer patients and their families and, despite a global pandemic, has not let up on its services to those in need. In fact, cancer patients with their weakened immune system are at greater risk of developing COVID-19 and are in need more than ever of CanCare's one-on-one matching emotional support service.

"The cancer community is in our thoughts and prayers during this time of uncertainty," says CanCare's President and CEO Cristina Vetrano in a news release. "Now more than ever, the community needs the help of our volunteers and support services. Our mission is not only to ensure the safety of clients, patients and caregivers but also to assure the community that they will continue to receive support throughout this challenging time."

Cancer patients can reach support via email at support@cancare.org or by calling the support line support line at 713-364-1652.

The Houston health care ecosystem will continue to see advances in telemedicine and remote care. One Houston startup, Medical Informatics, has created a virtual ICU program, called Sickbay, and the tech tool is being used to remotely monitor patients in Houston Methodist. The program works around the clock from a control hub to use artificial intelligence and algorithms to monitor patients.

"We designed our Sickbay platform to give lost data back to doctors, nurses and other members of the care team so they could save more lives," says Vincent Gagne, vice president of product for MIC, in a news release.

As the world emerges from COVID-19 — whenever and however that happens — telemedicine will have advanced as a viable option for physicians in a quicker way than it would have otherwise, Sol says.

"Telemedicine is here to stay now with the rapid adoption that just happened," he says. "The landscape will change tremendously."

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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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

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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.