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What Houston startups can learn from the power of the pivot

YouTube, Yelp, and Groupon all pivoted to great success. Here's what lessons Houston startups can take from these pivots. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Tons of companies start off as something completely different until they are faced with a challenge that only a change in direction can overcome.

Why should your startup pivot?

Imagine your startup is getting ready to present its product to the world at a tech exhibit. Right before you present, another company shows off their own product. And it's just like yours in every way. Is all lost for your company? No. Because now is the time where you must learn one of the most important principles in business. The startup pivot.

A pivot is a change in strategy. A new approach to your business model. A change in direction.

Companies that pivoted

Did you know that YouTube wasn't always a video sharing platform? That's right. YouTube actually started off as a dating service. You'd send in videos of yourself, essentially selling yourself to potential dates in your area. They even had a catchline: "Tune in, hook up."

Upon realizing the massive potential they had for hosting videos, the company pivoted and is now worth $40 billion. Talk about no regrets.

Yelp started off as an automated system that suggested recommendations from friends. The execution of this idea wasn't well-received. However, the founders recognized that users were writing tons of reviews for businesses just because they enjoyed it. And just like that, Yelp became the billion-dollar third-party directory we all know and love today. It was all because the founders knew enough to pivot.

Groupon actually started off as a social platform whereby people could unite to support charities and socially conscious causes. It was called The Point. This idea soon withered but a branch of The Point proved to be popular: a subdomain called Groupon. This idea turned out to be more popular, as people showed deep interest in pooling together funds to broker a group discount.

What these companies teach about pivoting

These companies' success from pivoting teaches us to focus on what we already have built. If there is an aspect of your business that isn't quite working out, there might actually be a part of your business that is. Look for that part and focus on it. Expand on it. Search for positives within your company and concentrate on developing them into something new and different.

We can also learn to cut our losses. Even if your idea is a genius one, if it's not yielding money, you have to move on. Getting stuck in the "just give it more time it'll work out" quicksand can sink your business fast. If you're hemorrhaging money because of your awesome-on-paper idea, the more chances you give it to succeed, the more money you'll lose. You have to know when to say when.

Another thing these three companies did was to follow the trail of money. They recognized areas of strength, and rode those areas to the bank. They concentrated on the aspects of their startups that yielded the most revenue. And you should too.

Don't be afraid of change. Your company doesn't have to be a success over night. It's okay to give it some time. But there is an art to knowing when give up and try something else. You have to master that art, just like the aforementioned companies did. Open yourself up to bigger possibilities. Sometimes, when working on the idea you thought was so brilliant, you stumble on to a different idea that proves to be more financially auspicious. Then it's time for a startup pivot. It's up to you to spot those instances and run with them, just like YouTube, Yelp, and Groupon did.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Breakthrough research on metastatic breast cancer, a new way to turn toxic pollutants into valuable chemicals, and an evolved brain tumor chip are three cancer-fighting treatments coming out of Houston. Getty Inages

Cancer remains to be one of the medical research community's huge focuses and challenges, and scientists in Houston are continuing to innovate new treatments and technologies to make an impact on cancer and its ripple effect.

Three research projects coming out of Houston institutions are providing solutions in the fight against cancer — from ways to monitor treatment to eliminating cancer-causing chemicals in the first place.

Baylor College of Medicine's breakthrough in breast cancer

Photo via bcm.edu

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Harvard Medical School have unveiled a mechanism explains how "endocrine-resistant breast cancer acquires metastatic behavior," according to a news release from BCM. This research can be game changing for introducing new therapeutic strategies.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and shows that hyperactive FOXA1 signaling — previously reported in endocrine-resistant metastatic breast cancer — can trigger genome-wide reprogramming that enhances resistance to treatment.

"Working with breast cancer cell lines in the laboratory, we discovered that FOXA1 reprograms endocrine therapy-resistant breast cancer cells by turning on certain genes that were turned off before and turning off other genes," says Dr. Xiaoyong Fu, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and part of the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor, in the release.

"The new gene expression program mimics an early embryonic developmental program that endow cancer cells with new capabilities, such as being able to migrate to other tissues and invade them aggressively, hallmarks of metastatic behavior."

Patients whose cancer is considered metastatic — even ones that initially responded to treatment — tend to relapse and die due to the cancer's resistance to treatment. This research will allow for new conversations around therapeutic treatment that could work to eliminate metastatic cancer.

University of Houston's evolved brain cancer chip

Photo via uh.edu

A biomedical research team at the University of Houston has made improvements on its microfluidic brain cancer chip. The Akay Lab's new chip "allows multiple-simultaneous drug administration, and a massive parallel testing of drug response for patients with glioblastoma," according to a UH news release. GBM is the most common malignant brain tumor and makes up half of all cases. Patients with GBM have a five-year survival rate of only 5.6 percent.

"The new chip generates tumor spheroids, or clusters, and provides large-scale assessments on the response of these GBM tumor cells to various concentrations and combinations of drugs. This platform could optimize the use of rare tumor samples derived from GBM patients to provide valuable insight on the tumor growth and responses to drug therapies," says Metin Akay, John S. Dunn Endowed Chair Professor of Biomedical Engineering and department chair, in the release.

Akay's team published a paper in the inaugural issue of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society's Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine and Biology. The report explains how the technology is able to quickly assess how well a cancer drug is improving its patients' health.

"When we can tell the doctor that the patient needs a combination of drugs and the exact proportion of each, this is precision medicine," Akay explains in the release.

Rice University's pollution transformation technology

Photo via rice.edu

Rice University engineers have developed a way to get rid of cancer-causing pollutants in water and transform them into valuable chemicals. A team lead by Michael Wong and Thomas Senftle has created this new catalyst that turns nitrate into ammonia. The study was published in the journal ACS Catalysis.

"Agricultural fertilizer runoff is contaminating ground and surface water, which causes ecological effects such as algae blooms as well as significant adverse effects for humans, including cancer, hypertension and developmental issues in babies," says Wong, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Rice's Brown School of Engineering, in a news release. "I've been very curious about nitrogen chemistry, especially if I can design materials that clean water of nitrogen compounds like nitrites and nitrates."

The ability to transform these chemicals into ammonia is crucial because ammonia-based fertilizers are used for global food supplies and the traditional method of creating ammonia is energy intensive. Not only does this process eliminate that energy usage, but it's ridding the contaminated water of toxic chemicals.

"I'm excited about removing nitrite, forming ammonia and hydrazine, as well as the chemistry that we figured out about how all this happens," Wong says in the release. "The most important takeaway is that we learned how to clean water in a simpler way and created chemicals that are more valuable than the waste stream."