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3 Houston companies named to semifinals of clean energy competition

Three Houston companies are going into the semifinals of Cleantech.org's competition. Photo via Getty Images

Three Houston energy startups are in the running for the $100,000 cash prize in Cleantech.org's GS Beyond Energy Innovation Challenge.

Amperon Holdings, Cemvita Factory, and Veloce Energy are among the competition's 24 semifinalists, which were announced June 17. Five semifinalists will be chosen to pitch their concepts during a virtual event July 21, and then the winner of the $100,000 prize will be named.

"This is not like the cleantech sector was 10 years ago. Getting down to 24 [semifinalists] was hard. Getting down to five finalists will be extremely challenging," Neal Dikeman, chairman and founder of Cleantech.org and a partner at one of the prize sponsors, Houston-based Energy Transition Ventures, says in a news release.

Amperon, with an office in Houston and headquarters in New York City, is a semifinalist in the "digitization of energy" category. The company, founded in 2017, builds real-time electricity demand tools for utilities, energy retailers, grid operators, and institutional traders. So far, Amperon has raised $4.3 million in funding, according to Crunchbase.

Houston-based Cemvita, founded in 2017 by siblings Tara and Moji Karimi, is a semifinalist in the "new fuels" category. Its biotechnology transforms carbon dioxide emissions into sustainable chemicals and polymers. In a recent interview for the Houston Innovators Podcast, Moji Karimi explained how unprecedented his work is — and how ready for collaboration his team is.

"There weren't biotech companies working with oil and gas companies for this use case that we have now," Karimi says. "We're defining this new category for application of synthetic biology in heavy industries for decarbonization."

Veloce, with an office in Houston and headquarters in Los Angeles, is a semifinalist in the "e-mobility in cities" category. The company, founded in 2020, aims to make installation of electric vehicle charging stations cheaper and faster. Veloce is an inaugural member of Greentown Houston, an incubator for climate technology startups.

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Building Houston

 
 

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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