who's who

3 Houston innovators to know this week

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Deanna Zhang of Tudor, Pickering, & Holt Co., Sarma Velamuri of Luminare, and Amy Chronis of Deloitte. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three innovators recently making headlines — from health tech founders to the new GHP chair.

Deeana Zhang, director of energy technology at Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co.

Deanna Zhang of Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss 2020's effect on the energy transition — and what that meant for startups. Photo courtesy of TPH

Deanna Zhang looks closely at the energy innovation market and, well, last year was extremely enlightening about the energy industry and where tech is taking it. She joined the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to discuss some of the 2020 trends and observations she had — and what that means for 2021.

"The energy transition saw a huge uptick in 2020 — and there's a lot of implications of that from what pilots are getting commercialized and what companies are getting more funding," says Zhang. "All around it was hugely disruptive — but hugely beneficial I think to the energy transition." Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Dr. Sarma Velamuri, CEO of Luminare

A Houston health tech startup has launched a COVID-19 vaccine management tool. Image via luminaremed.com

As great as it was to be able to begin distributing the life-saving COVID-19 vaccine, the logistics of the two-dose process was a nightmare. Dr. Sarma Velamuri, CEO of Luminare, thought he could innovate a solution. His new platform, Innoculate (a mash-up of "innovate" and "inoculate"), enables organizations like public health departments, fire departments, school systems, and businesses to manage high-volume vaccination initiatives.

"Usually when you hear news of a new batch of vaccines headed your way, there is dread at the management and distribution overhead. Not anymore," Velamuri says in a release. "Innoculate will help streamline the vaccination process in the fight against COVID-19 and allow for hundreds of thousands of people to get vaccines easily." Click here to read more.

Amy Chronis, Greater Houston Partnership's 2021 chair and the Houston managing partner at Deloitte

Houston, we have a perception problem — but the Greater Houston Partnership's new chair, Amy Chronis, is here to fix it. Photo courtesy Deloitte/AlexandersPortraits.com

Hey Houston, it's time to speak up — a little louder for the people in the back. That's what Amy Chonis, 2021 chair for the Greater Houston Partnership, wants you to know, and that it's important for business leaders across the city to take the initiative about how great Houston is.

"We just don't brag enough about how much the city has changed and its trajectory," she tells InnovationMap.

While Houston has long been innovative in the health, space, and energy industries, it has a perception problem. Recently, Chronis addressed some of these concerns in her address at the GHP's 2021 Annual Meeting. She joined InnovationMap for an interview to zero in on how the business community can work to change this perception problem and continue to grow its innovation and tech community. Click here to read the Q&A.

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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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