The three Houston innovators to know this week represent new, exciting things for the innovation ecosystem. Courtesy photos

The movers and shakers within the Houston innovation ecosystem come from all kinds of industries — from private equity to supercomputing. This week's innovators to know reflect that industry diversity and are bringing something new to the table.

Jon Nordby, managing director of Houston's MassChallenge Texas chapter

Jon Nordby, former exec at Houston Exponential, will lead the inaugural Houston MassChallenge cohort. Courtesy of MassChallenge

Jon Nordby, who recently served as Houston Exponential's director of strategy since its launch, was named as the managing director of MassChallenge Texas in Houston, a zero-equity startup accelerator.

"MassChallenge's not-for-profit, no equity model is uniquely suited to accelerate the development of Houston's innovation ecosystem and is the foundation early-stage startups need to get to the point of disruption or pivot as fast as possible," says Nordby in a release.

Before HX, Nordby served as vice president of talent and innovation at the Greater Houston Partnership, and was essential in creating the organization's Innovation Initiative. Click here to learn more about the appointment.

Matthew Lamont, managing director at DownUnder GeoSolutions

Matthew Lamont is managing director at DownUnder GeoSolutions which just opened its new, powerful data center west of Houston. Courtesy of DUG

Matthew Lamont isn't technically a Houstonian, but the managing director of Perth, Australia-based DownUnder GeoSolutions gets the honorary title for bringing one of the world's most powerful supercomputers, nicknamed Bubba, to the Houston area. In fact, perhaps Lamont accepts the recognition on behalf of Bubba, who — while inanimate — is definitely a Houstonian.

DUG is heavily investing in Houston, and Bubba is just the start. The company plans to start on a friend for Bubba later this year and bring an even more powerful supercomputer to the market by 2021. Read more about Lamont, Bubba, and all that DUG is doing in Houston here.

Taseer Badar, founder and CEO of ZT Corporate

Taseer Badar is in the business of making money. Courtesy of ZT Corporate

Taseer Badar will shoot it to you straight: Houston startups struggling to find capital might need to look nationally or globally.

"Investors in Houston want positive earnings before interest, tax, and amortization," he says. "But that doesn't mean it's not possible in New York, Dallas, Austin, or other cities. There are technology conferences everywhere, that's a great way to get known as a startup."

As CEO and founder of ZT Corporate with 1,000 investors to manage, he knows private equity, and what it takes to invest. Read more about Badar here.

Taseer Badar is in the business of making money. Courtesy of ZT Corporate

Private equity executive talks diversifying and Houston's investment ecosystem

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It's Taseer Badar's job to keep 1,000 investors happy. As CEO and founder of ZT Corporate, that's just a day in the life for him.

Badar has been in the business for over 20 years, and before that, he was on Wall Street as a financial adviser for Morgan Stanley. He realized the dollar went further in his hometown of Houston, so he came back. He started advising on business plans for people he knew, and earned a lot of loyalty from these early entrepreneurs, and grew ZT from there. He found his way into health care, which made up a good majority of his holdings, until about four years ago when he diversified his company and got into the automotive industry.

Last year, the company celebrated its largest exit — Altus Infusion — and acquisition — six Neighbors ER clinics. He created a nonprofit foundation —The Altus Foundation — and raised over $1 million for assistance for underserved families. Over the past 20 years, Badar grew his company from $28 million in revenue to over $600 million — with no end in sight.

Badar spoke with InnovationMap about his career, the health care industry, and what its like to be in private equity in Houston.

InnovationMap: You've recently diversified to include a startup in your portfolio. Tell me about that company.

Taseer Badar: We have group called Accountable Care as an entity, which we are sustaining analytics. It's the opposite of a fee for service business. It used to be that if a patient got sick, we treat you. Now, it's preventive care. We have a pilot of around 40,000 patients right now. It has a lot of potential and it keeps people healthier. How it works is insurance companies pay you to keep their consumer healthy. Let's say an insurance company pays us $100, and we treat them for $85 and keep the rest for our investors.

IM: How does Houston’s investment ecosystem compare to other cities you work in?

TB: For me, it was really hard to move into that. I am very traditional. We're not a risk-based company; we're very risk averse. For me, this fit into our business. It fell in my lap. I do think generally it's a conservative ecosystem, in my opinion. We're not San Francisco — we're not built like that. Not saying no one does it. I was in New York, and those are the guys who understand [venture capital]. In Houston, we understand oil and gas, and we understand medical and real estate. I think we're way off for the startup [investment] here.

IM: With that being said, what is your advice for tech startups seeking capital, then?

TB: Investors in Houston want positive earnings before interest, tax, and amortization. But that doesn't mean it's not possible in New York, Dallas, Austin, or other cities. There are technology conferences everywhere, that's a great way to get known as a startup.

IM: How have you seen the health care industry evolve?

TB: Texas is a state that has a lot of doctors that are entrepreneurial. I personally feel as though that a lot of the Obamacare, and the accountable care, a lot of practices have been bought by hospitals, so you don't see a lot of freestanding medical practices as much as I used to. At the same time, a lot of the younger doctors aren't as business oriented and want more work-life balance. Because there's less of them, there are opportunities for companies like mine to take care of them. When I started, Altus was one of 50 companies of its kind. Now, we are one of two or three standing in Houston with that type of model.

IM: What are the challenges of managing investors?

TB: We have a lot of retail investors. They are great, and it's much more relation based. But, at the same time, a very high-touch business. That requires a lot of time and effort in a relationship. It's a lot more managing of the process.

IM: What do you look for in an investor?

TB: We look for investors that are accredited investors, and we want someone who understands there's a time horizon, who are looking for an income and an exit play between three and seven years. Someone who understands risk and that it's not buying a stock that can be liquidated.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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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.