This week's Houston innovators to know include Yared Akalou of Alcove Group, Serafina Lalany,of Houston Exponential, and Patrick Lewis of Sustainability Ventures Group. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: This week's group of Houston innovators you need to know might be pretty familiar to you, however each of them have a new endeavor they are excited to launch — from an energy investment group with a new name to new virtual platforms to benefit entrepreneurs.

Yared Akalou, founder-and-CEO of Alcove Group

Yared Akalou founded IAmOther50 to capture the brand of the freelancer along with their personality and experience. Photo courtesy of Alcove

Yared Akalou describes himself as a designer-focused entrepreneur. As founder-and-CEO of Alcove Group, his latest venture, IAmOther50, is a platform for creatives and freelancers to connect to work. This innovation he's focused on is in light of the growth in jobs that are freelance and remote.

"I am really on a mission," Akalou tells InnovationMap. "I have been talking about the future of work for over a decade now. The paradigm will change to viewing work as a service, so it is important to tell a freelancer's story through a more engaging and novel way." Read more.

Serafina Lalany, chief of staff at Houston Exponential

Serafina Lalany joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the HTX TechList, which launches this week. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Serafina Lalany is pinpoint focused on creating resources for Houston innovators through her work at Houston Exponential. Most recently, that's meant creating and launching the HTX TechList, which went live last week. For her, one of the most important benefits the platform will afford the city is access to data about the ecosystem.

"We needed a centralized datasource classifying startups, investors, startup development organizations, and corporate innovators," she says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There was not any good resource on the internet that was verified, centralized, and adhered to a data standard." Read more and stream the episode.

Patrick Lewis, managing partner of Sustainability Ventures Group

Houston-based Sustainability Ventures Group is focused on connecting energy companies to innovative, sustainable solutions. Photo courtesy of SVG

As Patrick Lewis started to get a feel for what his network within the energy industry was looking for amid the pandemic, he thought some of the sustainability-focused ventures might be on the back burner.

"We thought we would hear that sustainability in this environment may have slipped down the priority list, but it was the exact opposite," Lewis says. "Pretty consistently across all the operators, sustainability, reducing emissions, and greenhouse gases — those are all even more important today."

This confirmation that the energy industry is committed to innovative sustainability projects led Lewis to rebrand his energy tech investment group from BBL Ventures to Sustainability Ventures Group, or SVG. The investment team focuses on reverse engineering the startup innovation process by sourcing the concerns and goals of the energy companies, then finding solutions from the startup world through reverse pitch competitions and challenges. Read more.

Houston — much like the rest of the world — has a growing freelance economy. A local innovator has created a platform for freelancers to find work. Photo courtesy of Common Desk

Houston entrepreneur creates a new digital platform to help connect freelancers to clients

calling all creatives

By 2027, freelancers will account for the majority of the American workforce — and Houston is already well represented by the freelance space.

According to a recent study, Houston is home to 117,260 skilled freelancers who generated more than $4.1 billion in revenue in 2018. This burgeoning environment for freelancers presents many opportunities for innovations in the tech world, as one Houston entrepreneur has already discovered.

Yared Akalou, founder-and-CEO of Alcove Group and self-described designer-focused entrepreneur, released his third innovation catering to freelancers of the Houston area. His digital solutions platform, IAmOther50, assists freelancers with securing new clients by sharing their personal stories rather than just submitting their professional experience, it uses videos and articles to promote the work of a freelancer and connect them to their next client.

"I am really on a mission," Akalou tells InnovationMap. "I have been talking about the future of work for over a decade now. The paradigm will change to viewing work as a service, so it is important to tell a freelancer's story through a more engaging and novel way."

At first glance, the digital platform seems like a departure for Akalou who in 2017 founded Alcove, a portable laptop case that serves as a private workspace for freelancers to use amid coffee shops or coworking spaces. However, IAmOther50 serves as a distinctly separate yet integral part of his innovation landscape.

"These projects have been a combination of my focus and research," says Akalou. "My new platform works hand in hand with Alcove, supporting the mission to help people stay productive from anywhere."

The digital platform serves to capture the brand of the freelancer along with their personality and experience. It lives at the intersection of popular social media platforms and professional platforms such as LinkedIn, except just for freelancers in the Houston area. Currently, any freelancing professional in the Houston area can join for free by filling out a survey that customizes their goals for their profile.

"IAmOther50 provides information in a contextual way," says Akalou. "We have this guiding principle of delivering value even before the prospective client contacts the freelancer for an interview or potential position. It's about going beyond just a resume of what you've done and showcasing how you add value right now."

Akalou, who is also one of the mentors in The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, is focused on elevating the professional profiles of many freelancers, including those outside the Houston area. He is aiming to grow the platform to a self-service platform that can connect freelancers to clients all over the biggest metropolitan areas soon.


It's not easy getting green. Getty Images

3 tips for a successful crowdfunding campaign

Know before you hit go

Kickstarter is a widely popular crowdfunding platform that helps people to raise money and awareness for their creative projects. While known for product-focused campaigns, musicians to film producers have also achieved success on the platform. In September of 2017, my Houston-based startup GetAlcove.com launched our first kickstarter campaign. While we exceeded our campaign goal, it was a very intense 45 day campaign. Let's consider the statistics:


Yes, almost 70 percent of projects fail. Don't fret. Understanding how to effectively plan and launch your campaign will increase your chances for meeting your campaign goals.

By March 2017, my co-founder and I received enough customer feedback to warrant the pursuit of developing Alcove Workstation™ further. We were attracted to crowdfunding as it presented a viable option for validating our concept with a wider audience while also raising the initial working capital necessary to mass producing Alcove. After researching the various crowdfunding platforms, we decided on Kickstarter as it is well known for launching product-focused campaigns and has a strong brand that we could leverage during our marketing efforts. While we read countless publications on how to prepare for our crowdfunding campaign, our experience on Kickstarter garnered three key lessons.

1. Spend up to one year prepping before launching your campaign.

I can't stress this enough. After we decided to launch, we spent six months engaging with our target audience and obtaining verbal commitments from friends and family and past colleagues to back our project. We also presented at local events and evangelized our brand via social media marketing. In hindsight, we should have spent additional time finalizing the production ready sample of our product prior to launching.

Once you launch your campaign, the clock starts ticking and you'll need deliver fast. Due to a myriad of issues with remote manufacturing, we inevitably missed our original ship date. Fortunately, the kickstarter community is forgiving and recognizes the inherent challenges with bringing a product to market. Even so, I recommend launching your campaign as close to your final concept as possible to reduce unforeseen delays with manufacturing and shipping logistics.

Once you launch your campaign, the clock starts ticking and you'll need deliver fast.

2. Determine which crowdfunding platform is right for your project.

There are four main types of crowdfunding platforms. Kickstarter and Indiegogo are rewards-based whereas platforms like GoFundMe are donation-based. More recently, equity, and debt based platforms like Houston's NextSeed have garnered attention from campaigners seeking alternative methods to raising funds and deferring payment.

Take the time to read about each type and contact each platform for specifics about how they will support your campaign during and after campaign. Indiegogo does a solid job of highlighting their partnerships with vendors that can assist you during different stages of your campaign; offering marketing promotion, direct links to manufacturing vendors, and additional funding options even after your campaign ends.

The next step to determining the right platform for your project is to search for similar "like" products. If you are launching the most revolutionary ear buds on the planet, then you want to ensure people are backing ear buds or similar product on the platform/s you are considering. A simple search on each site will pull up all ear bud projects to date. Then, you can quickly assess the patterns of the most successful vs. unsuccessful campaigns.

3. Launch the right campaign goal, with the right team, at the right time.

This is both important and hard to determine. Let's break it down.

The right campaign goal
The campaign goal is the total dollar amount you want to raise by the end of your campaign. The goal amount can be adjusted once on Kickstarter but I recommend that you keep it low — $5,000-$10,000 — to ensure you meet your goal within two days — three days max. Keep in mind you are competing with four to five thousand live projects at any given time. If you make your campaign goal, Kickstarter's algorithm pushes your project up the list and you have a good shot of being listed or even featured on the front page of Kickstarter's website. If you make your campaign goal too high and don't meet your goal with those couple days, Kickstarter's algorithm pushes your project down the list. If I recall, our campaign went from approximately 115 to 800 after day two. Each day that passes, your project is pushed even further down the list of over 4000 projects. What this means to your project is that unless you have a serious marketing engine behind you, no one will see your project outside of your immediate contact list or followers on social media. This is where hiring the right team of marketers and PR can be invaluable.

The right team
Think of the development of your crowdfunding campaign as a micro-enterprise site that requires the right mix of talent to build out. Funded startups with established teams and products in market, for instance, are launching on Kickstarter as a way to increase market awareness of their new products. For the boot-strapped startups with small teams, leverage your strengths and hire for gaps in skills to ensure you develop the right communications, pricing strategy, and overall layout of your page. To be clear, a production quality video is an absolute must.

The right time
Finally, consider the timing of your launch to align with complimentary events or holidays. If your product is focused on education/learning, the obvious timeframe would be to launch during back to school. Another way to galvanize your target audience is to identify popular conferences for your industry. For our campaign, we aligned with the Tech Disrupt conference in San Francisco and literally went live on Kickstarter directly from our exhibit booth!

While I can not make any guarantees for your campaign's success, I am confident that if you apply these tips, you will be that much closer to achieving your campaign goals.

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Yared Akalou is the founder of Houston-based Alcove.

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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.