Q&A

Houston native brings LatinX startup support to the Ion with HQ move

Jesse Martinez, founder of the LatinX Startup Alliance, joins InnovationMap for a Q&A on why he's relocating his nonprofit to Houston. Photo courtesy of LSA

Jesse Martinez was working in Silicon Valley before it was Silicon Valley. He took his years of experience within that tech ecosystem and launched the LatinX Startup Alliance to support his fellow Hispanic entrepreneurs — and now he's bringing that support to his hometown.

The LatinX Startup Alliance will move its headquarters into The Ion in 2022, Martinez tells InnovationMap. He's excited to finally make his professional return to Houston and to help support the diverse ecosystem — one that has been created with diversity at the forefront, unlike Silicon Valley and other coastal tech hubs.

"We're on the ground floor. We're helping to build that foundation. It's not an afterthought. It's not something that now we're trying to go back and think of diversity," Martinez tells InnovationMap. "I think that's the beautiful thing about Houston and everyone that I've met is that it's been so diverse and inclusive. That spirit is already there. So, how do we just maximize that?"

Martinez joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about the new HQ announcement and what he's excited about in terms of DEI in Houston's tech scene.

InnovationMap: Tell me a little bit about your own tech and entrepreneurship journey.

Jesse Martinez: In 1996, one weekend I was at Barnes and Noble reading the newspaper, and, for whatever reason, I went through the classified ads and this one ad caught my eye. It said, "internet sales for internet company." So I faxed in my resume and I got a call back, did my phone screens, and they flew me out to San Jose. I interviewed with the founders in Sunnyville where the startup was based. The name of the startup was Internet Systems Inc., funded by Sequoia Capital and I ended up joining as employee number 27.

I was new to this whole world. We were one of two pioneers in the web hosting services space — pre-Rackspace, pre-AWS, et cetera. In less than a year, we went from startup to public company trading at $35 a share via two acquisitions. So that was my whole intro into the world of tech startups, Silicon Valley, and stock options.

Because of that work, I caught the startup bug and did my first startup with my brother in 2000. We had two acquisition offers. We turned one down, and we were entertaining the second one, which was between $8 and $10 million. And then the market crashed in March of 2000. Those offers went away, and we tried to raise more money, but just couldn't do it. And then we ended up shutting down December of 2000.

IM: How did you come to start the LatinX Alliance?

JM: In 2010, I was looking to do my second startup. And it was early days of community-based organizations providing services for their founders — Black founders, Jewish founders, and others. And I did a set of Google searches to try to find something for myself. I'm like, "I'm Latino, I'm a tech and founder what's available for us?" And there was nothing. That left me scratching my head. Like how can this be? This is the global mecca of tech. That became the beginning of Latino Startup Alliance. We launched in 2011 in the Mission District of San Francisco with six people with their mission to empower Latino tech founders. Fast forward to today, we're over a thousand members globally. Our mission is still the same. And last year, we changed our name from Latino to LatinX to be more supportive and inclusive.

IM: You’re from Houston originally, but when did you have the idea of bringing the alliance to Texas?

JM: I was super excited to meet Bob Harvey (from the Greater Houston Partnership) and team, when they did a delegation to Silicon Valley. I met them at the Salesforce Tower, and we started talking about tech and Aggies and all the above. And they're like, "by the way, do you know that we're know committing to tech? We're finally making that commitment from the city on down, you should be there." And I'm like, "well, I've been waiting for this all my life." Houston was so engaged in oil, gas and energy. And so it was finally refreshing to hear that Houston had made that commitment. It felt right and it made sense to move our headquarters to Houston, and we'll officially launch in 2022.

IM: The new headquarters of the LatinX Startup Alliance is in The Ion. How will you work with them collaboratively and what can people expect from your organization?

JM: One of the things that we did early on as an organization is do a series of events — weekly events as well as a yearly summits. We were actually going to host our first summit in October of this year, because of the pandemic and the uncertainty, we decided to postpone it just because we wanted to be respectful for everyone's health and safety. We pushed it to next year, targeting the same month — October of 2022. And that'll be two days of programming focused on tech and also tech careers. So, there'll be a Friday and a Saturday. One of the things we want to ensure is that by hosting something on Saturday on tech careers, is that more people will be able to attend. And then Friday we'll focus on tech, founders, and startups.

Through our monthly events, we'll have office hours, we'll have meetups, and what we call LSA founder dinners. We just hosted one last week in Oakland, and we used to do these all the time. We're going back to that now that we can, and especially as we launch in Houston is ensuring that we have that consistency as we start building that community. It's like starting over, which is great. The biggest part is being able to support and champion the LatinX tech community here in Houston and also the state of Texas.

IM: How do you envision growing the LatinX Startup Alliance internationally? 

JM: We've always been global from day one. We've had founders come from other cities and countries to Silicon Valley because it was such a hub for many, many years. It'll be interesting to see what happens moving forward. A lot of people have moved away to their hometowns or new cities. So now we have a more distributed network of founders and startups and also investors. So when you talk about access and access to opportunities, it's certainly a big win for those founders and startups across the west.

IM: What should people know about LSA? 

JM: We operate under three pillars, which are awareness, access, and acceleration. Through the awareness piece, it's creating awareness around LatinX tech, startups and founders, both of those that are in the ecosystem and those that want to learn more. Access is being able to include people in tech programming, again for founders or for the public to participate in whatever it is we post, you know, from a founder perspective, it could be an invitation to attend Techcrunch or SaaStr Annual— either virtually or in person in San Francisco. We've had a partnership with both of them. So, we have diversity scholarships for our members.

IM: How have you seen things change in terms of connecting LatinX founders with funding?

JM: There is more access, and we help facilitate some of the awareness. You might not be aware of all the investors angel investors. And so that's where we try to be the bridge and be able to make those warm introductions between investors and also the startup founders. There are a lot more diverse funds. There's a lot more diverse general partners, which is awesome. And I think there's access to more. Does that mean that everyone's getting funded? No. It's not easier to get money, but there's just more money to go around. But you still have to go through the same steps and follow the process.

IM: Ahead of the launch of the LatinX Startup Alliance in Houston, who are you looking to connect with?

JM: Everyone, because you never know who that one person's going to be —corporates, companies, startups, founders, investors, other nonprofits. One of things that I've been doing as I've been going back to Houston is just meeting people from the ecosystem.One of the things that we're working on right now is setting up a group of key stakeholders for LatinX Houston Alliance. Who are those key players that we can bring together on a monthly basis? I'm thinking like a town hall of 40 or so people talk about what we need to do to better support and champion the ecosystem.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Building Houston

 
 

Syzygy Plasmonics has raised a series C round of funding. Photo courtesy of Syzygy

A Houston-based company that is electrifying chemical manufacturing has closed its largest round of funding to date.

Syzygy Plasmonics closed a $76 million series C financing round led by New York-based Carbon Direct Capital. The round included participation from Aramco Ventures, Chevron Technology Ventures, LOTTE CHEMICAL, and Toyota Ventures. The company's existing investors joining the round included EVOK Innovations, The Engine, Equinor Ventures, Goose Capital, Horizons Ventures, Pan American Energy, and Sumitomo Corporation of Americas. According to a news release, Carbon Direct Capital will join Syzygy's board and serve as the series C director.

"We were very attracted to the multiple use cases for the Syzygy reactor and the lifetime-value of each Syzygy customer," says Jonathan Goldberg, Carbon Direct Capital's CEO, in the release. "Emissions from hydrogen production total more than 900 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Syzygy's photocatalysis technology is a key solution to decarbonize hydrogen production as well as other critical industries."

Syzygy Plasmonics has a technology that harnesses the power of light to energize chemical reactions — rather than the traditional process that is fueled by heat. The Syzygy approach reduces feedstock waste and produces fewer emissions when powered by renewable electricity. According to the release, some series C participants have also formed commercial agreements to deploy Syzygy's technology to meet their decarbonization goals.

The investment funding raised will help the company to "further development and delivery of all-electric reactor systems that eliminate fossil-based combustion from chemical manufacturing and reduce the carbon intensity of hydrogen, methanol, and fuel," per the release.

"Our mission is to decarbonize chemical and fuel production," says Syzygy Plasmonics CEO and Co-Founder Trevor Best in the release. "Syzygy's aim is to achieve 1 gigaton of carbon emissions reductions by 2040, and the series C financing is a key milestone in building towards that goal.

"Closing this fundraising round with such strong support from financial and strategic investors and with commercial agreements in hand is a signal to the market," he continues. "Forward-thinking companies have moved beyond setting decarbonization goals to executing on them. Syzygy is unique in that we are developing low-cost, low-carbon solutions to offer across multiple industries."

Syzygy was founded based off a breakthrough discover out of Rice University from co-founders and professors Naomi Halas and Peter Nordlander, who invented high-performance photocatalysts. The company's collaborators then engineered a novel reactor that uses easy-to-find low-cost materials like glass, aluminum, and LEDs instead of high-cost metal alloys. After several field trials of the scalable, universal chemical reactor platform, Syzygy expects commercial units scheduled to ship in 2023.

"Syzygy is hyper-focused on aligning energy, technology, and sustainability," says Suman Khatiwada, CTO and co-founder of Syzygy, in the release. "The projects we are delivering are targeting zero-emissions hydrogen from green ammonia, low-emissions hydrogen from combustion-free steam methane reforming, and sustainable fuels made from carbon dioxide and methane. This technology is the future of chemical manufacturing."

Syzygy has raised a $23 million series B round last year following its $5.8 series A in 2019.

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