q&a

How Greentown Houston accelerated the local energy transition in its inaugural year

Greentown Houston's Juliana Garaizar and Emily Reichert look back on the climatetech incubator's first year. Photos via greentownlabs.com

This Thursday, Greentown Houston officially celebrates the completion of its first year in town, as well as the impact its made in just the 365 days since its grand opening.

Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, officially cut the ribbon on the organization's first location outside of the Boston area last Earth Day. Reichert, along with Juliana Garaizar, head of the Houston incubator and vice president of innovation, joined InnovationMap for a Q&A looking back on this past year — including what surprised them most and where members are moving in from.

Greentown Houston's anniversary event is Thursday, April 21, from 1 to 7 pm, at Greentown Houston (4200 San Jacinto St.) or livestreaming online. Click here to learn more.

InnovationMap: Looking back on the first year of Greentown Houston, what was the thing that most surprised you about the process and the community you created here?

Juliana Garaizar: What really surprised me the most was the eagerness to be a part of Greentown. We were very surprised by the pandemic — it caught us in, in the middle of fundraising and we thought things were gonna slow down and actually it became sort of a of a blessing in disguise for the community here in Houston. The Boston community had to go virtual, and then when they did, we realized that we were much more connected to the Boston team, but also why can't we offer the same services to the Houston community since we didn't have a building yet anyway. That created a huge opportunity to convene a community even before our building. We had these early access members and when we finally opened our building, they all converted to in-person members because they had already felt what the community could bring. In Boston, they took a little longer to fill in the space at opening, but we came in at grand opening with our inaugural member list in Houston — all of them super eager to join us. That conversion happened so fast happened because of the virtual aspect of COVID.

Emily Reichert: For me, there were really three things that were surprising. Throughout the whole process of building the momentum towards Greentown Houston and from the very first meetings I had with the GHP and potential supporters of a future Greentown Labs, there was this warmth of welcome. I can't compare it to anything else. Houston just really embraced this opportunity, embraced Greentown labs, and embraced our team — as well as really embracing having a climate tech incubator located in what has traditionally been called the oil and gas capital of the world. I just wanna note that that is very meaningful and it just shows that when Houston gets behind something, Houstonians go all the way they are committed and they take action. And we just felt that from the very beginning,

Second, I think that the momentum of the energy transition itself surprised us, but also felt it felt to us like we were riding a wave that wasn't just about Greentown Houston. It was about all of these different businesses, business leaders civic leaders, and just general citizenry in Houston understanding that the future of energy is different than the past of energy. And that, that was something that was going to need to happen more quickly than folks had anticipated. And again, I feel like Houstonians are leaning into it and thinking about, "well, if we've been the energy capital of the world, can we now be the energy transition capital of the world and how do we do that?" The speed with which this transition is happening is just incredible. And, increasingly in the circles that I move in outside of Houston, people know about it. It's changing the outside perspective as well. That's been really exciting to see.

Finally, the amount of talent that exists in the energy industry and in general in Houston and in the local universities that can be deployed and is interested in being deployed in climate tech and addressing climate change and the energy transition — it's really remarkable. Whenever we have a job posting out there for Greentown Houston, we are getting a lot of applicants. And now when we're going to universities to engage with students around — whether they're interested in building a startup that could address a challenge in the energy transition — it's just overwhelming the interest, the excitement, and the level of talent that I think is going to be available to apply to this energy transition that Houston can absolutely lead.

IM: Greentown Houston has not only attracted Houston-based companies, but also companies outside of Houston that want to be able to take advantage of Greentown Labs and the support there. You have both virtual and in-person membership options. Tell me a little bit about how that came to be.

JG: This was something also that the pandemic exacerbatedAgain, if you compare Boston to Houston — Boston is much more difficult to find prototyping lab space and wet labs. I would say that the cost of space is much higher there than in Houston. You there's plenty of space available for coworking, for prototyping, but the connection services to the whole ecosystem, to investors, to corporate partners, to universities to mentors — all that is key for our startups. And that means that space takes a second place. That's what we've seen. Member companies from Austin join Greentown Houston because they are connecting to a community that is more like hard tech driven and less software driven than in Austin. They wanna connect to the customers and the pilots, right? Even some of our Boston companies have moved or at least established a presence in Houston. There's also the diversity aspect that Houston is the most diverse city in the U,S. There are plenty of companies from Latin America coming over and choosing Houston as a landing pad and choosing Greentown as the place to start settling. We help them with funding. We help them with hiring local people.

IM: As you mentioned, Greentown Houston's membership grew really fast — how did you grow your team to support that?

JG: Our Houston team has quadrupled since last year and, and that's a lot — we were three and now we are 12, but we also had the whole Boston team behind us. The way we did it was through this matrix model where our team members report to someone in Boston. And although it creates an extra layer of complexity I think it was perfect for such a rapid growth because we were able to download the DNA of Greentown Boston to Houston at a much faster pace. We thought it was very important for us to distill that DNA but without forgetting about also having local people in Houston. It was the best of both worlds.

ER: We really needed to have the Houston local knowledge embedded, just like we needed to have the way that things have been done in Boston embedded. But I think as we look forward from now, you're going to increasingly see that we have embedded a lot of the practices and ways of doing things that we've done in Boston, but we're doing them with a Houston flavor, and we are doing them in a way that meets the local needs. And I think that you will see as we grow and continue to evolve, that we're gonna take our learnings from being in Houston and continue to evolve what we doin Houston. Our mission is to create an inclusive community and to convene connect, and inspire entrepreneurs and ecosystems to address climate solutions — and that's going to be the same in both locations. But how we do those specific pieces, I think will be a bit different. Now, Houston is a young ecosystem in terms of climate tech, so that convening piece is a little bit different from how we have done it in Boston.

IM: What's next for Greentown Houston — and what's next for the energy transition in Houston?

JG: For Greentown Houston we've figured out that our members need different things, and we wanna make sure that we listen and we adapt to them. It seems that a wet lab might be a need that we need to incorporate. So we're trying to figure out how, how to do that. We're growing at a much faster pace than Greentown Boston did, of course, because of the timing of the energy transition. That means that we need to think about, about expansion. We've become the convener place for climate tech.

In general in Houston for the energy transition, there's gonna be three pillars that I think are very important and that Greentown has to be apart of. One of them is the workforce development and the transition of the workforce. We're working with key partners like the Greater Houston Partnership and the Houston Energy Transition Initiative, and we're putting together a program with universities to make sure that we also extract the, the entrepreneurs of tomorrow to Greentown and to the energy transition capital.

The second aspect os access to capital there's a lot of capital of available in Houston and a lot of capital in general being poured into climate tech, but we need to make sure it comes earlier. We are very early on, and there's still a gap there for early stage investing. I think one of the key elements to be able to unlock that capital early is to make sure that our companies have pilots and demonstration at corporations.

I think the third part for the energy transition in Houston is unlocking the potential capabilities we already have, like in hydrogen by trying to become a hydrogen hub. And that will only happen if we all work together. So I think Greentown also has to play a role there of convening.

ER: Continuing to support entrepreneurs in Houston to really bring talent in, to not only help our entrepreneurs build their companies, but in general into the energy transition and climate that's something that will be leaning into the deployments of the technology at scale. That's something that Houston can uniquely do.

IM: What can people expect from both the livestream and the in-person event on Thursday?

ER: We're gonna have some great voices on that from across industry, and we are going to be showcasing our startups, both through pitches and then through a startup showcase where folks will be able to see and touch or at least talk to our entrepreneurs and learn about their companies and the opportunities to support them. I believe there will be a few other surprises, which I won't reveal.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Building Houston

 
 

A Rice research team is tapping into materials science to better understand Alzheimer’s disease, a UH professor is developing a treatment for hereditary vision loss, and a BCM researcher is looking at stress and brain cancer. Photo by Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University

Research, perhaps now more than ever, is crucial to expanding and growing innovation in Houston — and it's happening across the city right under our noses.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of research news, three Houston institutions are working on life-saving health care research thanks to new technologies.

Rice University scientists' groundbreaking alzheimer's study

Angel Martí (right) and his co-authors (from left) Utana Umezaki and Zhi Mei Sonia He have published their latest findings on Alzheimer’s disease. Photo by Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alzheimer’s disease will affect nearly 14 million people in the U.S. by 2060. A group of scientists from Rice University are looking into a peptide associated with the disease, and their study was published in Chemical Science.

Angel Martí — a professor of chemistry, bioengineering, and materials science and nanoengineering and faculty director of the Rice Emerging Scholars Program — and his team have developed a new approach using time-resolved spectroscopy and computational chemistry, according to a news release from Rice. The scientists "found experimental evidence of an alternative binding site on amyloid-beta aggregates, opening the door to the development of new therapies for Alzheimer’s and other diseases associated with amyloid deposits."

Amyloid plaque deposits in the brain are a main feature of Alzheimer’s, per Rice.

“Amyloid-beta is a peptide that aggregates in the brains of people that suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, forming these supramolecular nanoscale fibers, or fibrils” says Martí in the release. “Once they grow sufficiently, these fibrils precipitate and form what we call amyloid plaques.

“Understanding how molecules in general bind to amyloid-beta is particularly important not only for developing drugs that will bind with better affinity to its aggregates, but also for figuring out who the other players are that contribute to cerebral tissue toxicity,” he adds.

The National Science Foundation and the family of the late Professor Donald DuPré, a Houston-born Rice alumnus and former professor of chemistry at the University of Louisville, supported the research, which is explained more thoroughly on Rice's website.

University of Houston professor granted $1.6M for gene therapy treatment for rare eye disease

Muna Naash, a professor at UH, is hoping her research can result in treatment for a rare genetic disease that causes vision loss. Photo via UH.edu

A University of Houston researcher is working on a way to restore sight to those suffering from a rare genetic eye disease.

Muna Naash, the John S. Dunn Endowed Professor of biomedical engineering at UH, is expanding a method of gene therapy to potentially treat vision loss in patients with Usher Syndrome Type 2A, or USH2A, a rare genetic disease.

Naash has received a $1.6 million grant from the National Eye Institute to support her work. Mutations of the USH2A gene can include hearing loss from birth and progressive loss of vision, according to a news release from UH. Naash's work is looking at applying gene therapy — the introduction of a normal gene into cells to correct genetic disorders — to treat this genetic disease. There is not currently another treatment for USH2A.

“Our goal is to advance our current intravitreal gene therapy platform consisting of DNA nanoparticles/hyaluronic acid nanospheres to deliver large genes in order to develop safe and effective therapies for visual loss in Usher Syndrome Type 2A,” says Naash. “Developing an effective treatment for USH2A has been challenging due to its large coding sequence (15.8 kb) that has precluded its delivery using standard approaches and the presence of multiple isoforms with functions that are not fully understood."

BCM researcher on the impact of stress

This Baylor researcher is looking at the relationship between stress and brain cancer thanks to a new grant. Photo via Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

Stress can impact the human body in a number of ways — from high blood pressure to hair loss — but one Houston scientist is looking into what happens to bodies in the long term, from age-related neurodegeneration to cancer.

Dr. Steven Boeynaems is assistant professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor College of Medicine. His lab is located at the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital, and he also is a part of the Therapeutic Innovation Center, the Center for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases, and the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor.

Recently, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, awarded Boeynaems a grant to continue his work studying how cells and organisms respond to stress.

“Any cell, in nature or in our bodies, during its existence, will have to deal with some conditions that deviate from its ideal environment,” Boeynaems says in a BCM press release. “The key issue that all cells face in such conditions is that they can no longer properly fold their proteins, and that leads to the abnormal clumping of proteins into aggregates. We have seen such aggregates occur in many species and under a variety of stress-related conditions, whether it is in a plant dealing with drought or in a human patient with aging-related Alzheimer’s disease."

Now, thanks to the CPRIT funding, he says his lab will now also venture into studying the role of cellular stress in brain cancer.

“A tumor is a very stressful environment for cells, and cancer cells need to continuously adapt to this stress to survive and/or metastasize,” he says in the release.

“Moreover, the same principles of toxic protein aggregation and protection through protein droplets seem to be at play here as well,” he continues. “We have studied protein droplets not only in humans but also in stress-tolerant organisms such as plants and bacteria for years now. We propose to build and leverage on that knowledge to come up with innovative new treatments for cancer patients.”

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