Through the Houston-based Muvve app, fitness fans can meet each other on the app or at curated events around town. Courtesy of Muvve

When Avi Ravishankar decided to train for a marathon in high school, he wanted to find a training buddy. He got lucky, and one found him: his classmate, Julian Se, took on the task.

"Julian decided he was going to train with me — he's a strong personality," Ravishankar says. "We started training, and to this day, we just became best friends from there."

Usually, finding fitness friends and training buddies isn't that easy — especially in a huge, spread out city of Houston. Ravishankar and Se turned their friendship into a business partnership to solve this problem. Houston-based Muvve is a mobile app that's mission is to connect fellow fitness enthusiasts across the city. The two came up with the idea as a way to merge their passions.

"The only idea we had was we wanted to have a startup with running," Ravishankar, co-founder of Muvve, says. "We loved running and tech, so we just wanted to find a way to bridge the gap there."

Ravishankar, a Rice University alumnus, says he took his idea to Owl Spark, an early stage accelerator on campus, and they just started asking people about their pain points when it came to working out.

"The big two things that we found were accountability and motivation," he says. "Out of 100 people, I would say all 100 people said that."

Ravishankar, who worked for six years in engineering at Oxy, says that these pain points are actually pretty inherent to individual sports.

"Intrinsic motivation is hard to find, especially in individual sports, like running, cycling, or yoga," he says. "Whereas, in team sports, like basketball or volleyball, you have the team to train with and motivate you."

The app, which launched in May of 2018, acts like a network for fitness lovers — just like a dating app would connect potential romantic partners. Dating apps, actually, were a big influence on Ravishankar, he says.

"I fell in love with dating apps. It was this mind-blowing idea for me of how many people you can connect with — even if it's not for dating," he says. "The amount of people I have met just through technology always blows my mind. There's so much power in it."

Through his experience as an instructor at Black Swan Yoga, Ravishankar also realized boutique fitness studios needed a place to market their events to a wider audience. This gave Ravishankar an idea of a way to bridge the gap between different fitness studios around town via the app.

"For us the goal is to have all of these events and activities to go and meet like-minded people," he says.

Muvve's goal is to have these managed market events that are curated to ensure quality, rather than the hit or miss aspect of existing platforms.

"For me the curation aspect makes for a better experience," Ravishankar says.

Now, Muvve is focused on growing its user base from 4,500 to 10,000 users by summer. Simultaneously, the company is hoping to launch its first seed round of funding, and then using its funds and its network to launch into Austin by summer.

Ravishankar says finding potential investors has been the most challenging aspect.

"There's no money in Houston for a fitness tech startup," he says. "That space isn't really respected. For me, it's kind of a trickling effect. If there's no money in it, there's no one really to help you because they don't have a vested interest."

While funding has been daunting, Ravishankar says he's had some success in hiring out his team of developers, despite the uphill battle of hiring tech talent in Houston.

"There's hidden talent, but it's not obvious talent," Ravishankar says. "I think that people get discouraged by hiring in Houston because of that."


Muvve is harnessing the power of social media and digital networks to bridge the gap between fitness lovers across the city. Courtesy of Muvve

Houston-based Kanthaka is the Uber or Lyft of personal training, and has recently expanded into the Austin market. Courtesy of Kanthaka

Get on-demand personal training from Houston-based app

Fitting in fitness

As a busy lawyer who traveled heavily for work, Sylvia Kampshoff found her workouts were often overlooked as she went from city to city, a casualty of long hours and a busy schedule. And, even though she did have a membership to a national gym with privileges at any of its locations, she hated the feeling of always being sold something and disliked that both the trainers and managers she worked with took very little interest in her personal needs and fitness goals.

She wanted something that allowed her to exercise with someone on her own schedule, and with people who valued customer service. That's how the idea for Kanthaka was born.

The app uses location technology similar to that of ride sharing apps to allow users to book training sessions with certified personal trainers, all of whom are heavily vetted and background checked by Kampshoff and her team.

"Many trainers at gyms or who work privately aren't certified," she says. "And that was important to me, that we have professionals who understand training and the body. And making sure our clients felt safe was a huge priority for me. We interview every trainer personally to ensure they not only meet our standards but also share our goals."

App users can select a trainer who will lead them in a Pilates, yoga, boxing, general training, or a pre- or post-natal workout. They select their location, as well as the date and they want to schedule a session. They can book a single session for $42 for a 45-minute session or $50 for an hour session or purchase a package of six or 12 workouts. There's no long-term commitment — although Kampshoff says that some clients are asking for a monthly subscription option — and the process is designed to be easy and user friendly. Trainers will arrive at a client's home, office, or their preferred gym, providing the gym allows outside trainers to work there.

The app launched in Houston in 2017 and then in Austin this fall. Over the last year, Kampshoff — who left the legal profession to concentrate on Kanthaka's success — says she's learned a lot about the market and her own preconceptions.

"I figured it was going to be business travelers who used it, people who were like me when I was doing all that travel," she says. "But it turns out that we're seeing people use it who want to schedule a session just like any other appointment. Many of our clients are women, who value the rigorous vetting process we have for our trainers."

In addition to vetting the trainers and confirming their certifications with the National Academy for Sports Medicine or the American Council on Exercise, each trainer is reviewed by app users, to help others determine whether that person would be a good fit for their needs. Kanthaka allows users to "favorite" trainers, and book them again, and user testimonials tout Kanthaka's easy of use and great training team.

In addition to individual users who find the app via social media or internet searches, Kampshoff has developed partnerships with hotels and apartments around Houston. Kanthaka provides personal training services to guests at the Post Oak Hotel, and Hanover apartment properties list the app as a feature for its residents.

As she continues to grow the business and expand in other cities, Kampshoff is excited to see others buying into her concept of fitness.

"There is a culture behind Kanthaka. It's about health and fitness, but also achieving the lifestyle you want that allows you to feel better and live in a more positive way."

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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.