No. 1

Houston startup ranks as a top innovative company in the world

Solugen has been named among the most innovative companies in the world — and was deemed the No. 1 most innovative manufacturers. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston biotech startup is now in rarified air.

Solugen ranks second on Fast Company’s 2022 list of the 50 most innovative companies in the world. It also sits at No. 1 on the magazine’s list of the world’s most innovative manufacturers.

Solugen’s process converts corn syrup into industrial chemicals, cutting down on carbon emissions generated by traditional production of chemicals. Carbon dioxide from chemical production is one of the biggest contributors to industrial greenhouse gas emissions.

“Right now, the $6 trillion chemicals industry relies on oil, natural gas, and coal to make ingredients used in everything from laundry detergent and running shoes to fertilizer. It’s a dirty process,” Fast Company reported last December.

According to Fast Company, Solugen’s process for producing a chemical uses nearly all of the feedstock put into it.

“The carbon-negative process and Solugen’s ability to sell flexible amounts of chemicals to companies looking to lower their own footprint have helped the company make inroads in a traditionally slow-moving industry,” the magazine says.

Fast Company notes that Solugen launched in 2016 with four chemicals and another 17 in development. The chemicals are being used in water treatment, in concrete production to reduce cement use, and in agriculture to deliver nutrients to crops, the magazine says.

Last year, Solugen announced it raised $357 million in a Series C round, catapulting it to “unicorn” status. The Series C round bumped up the startup to a valuation of $1.8 billion, pushing it well past the $1 billion mark required for a unicorn designation.

“This fundraising round allows us to continue expanding the footprint of our Bioforge technology to give industries the products they need to reduce emissions in their existing supply chains, without compromising on performance or economics,” Sean Hunt, co-founder and chief technology officer of Solugen, said in a news release about the $357 million round.

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Building Houston

 
 

Kerri Smith of the Rice Alliance joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Rice's Clean Energy Accelerator. Photo courtesy of Rice

Kerri Smith knows accelerators. Through her over 18 years at Rice Alliance, she's been responsible for overseeing several and was on the founding leadership team of Houston's first energy tech startup accelerator, SURGE. After years of focusing you accelerating Rice University's student-focused program, Owl Spark, she's transitioned back into the energy tech space.

"I've worked with many types of founders. There's not one unique characteristic that everyone has," Smith says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our goal is to help move them along and help them move the needle. At the end of the day, we want them to have a good experience and to meet their goals and objectives."

The Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator launched last summer with its inaugural cohort of 12 cleantech startups, which represented energy sectors from solar and wind innovations to hydrogen, geothermal, and more. Smith says the startups represented a wide range of stages and were from all over — only two companies were from Houston originally. The out-of-town companies were able to make critical partnerships in town and set up a presence and a home here.

"We were able to build a family-like culture among our group, and that was something that was wildly appreciative," Smith, who serves as executive director of the program, says.

Applications for Class 2 of CEA are open until May 31. While the program will offer the same access to mentorship and opportunities, the program will change slightly. CEA will focus on seed and series A-stage companies and will be a hybrid program. Throughout the 10 weeks, which begins in the fall instead of the summer this year, founders will visit Houston three times at the beginning, middle, and the end of the accelerator. Each startup will receive a grant to cover the expenses of the equity-free program.

CEA is just one part of a greater ecosystem of innovation under the umbrella of Rice University, which includes the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, The Ion Houston, Owl Spark, and more. All these entities also play into the greater Houston area's innovation ecosystem.

"Rice Alliance has a strong history of demonstrating collaboration with a number of organizations," Smith says. "I think one of the primary benefits that we have in these collaborative opportunities is to ensure that we are collectively building a capable and diverse pipeline of talent to solve for these problems and provide them with access to experiencing all of the benefits of our ecosystem."

With CEA specifically, some of these collaborations include working with Greentown Houston, which is just next door to the program's home at The Ion, and the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Initiative.

"We're a cog in the wheel. We do really well with that. We play well with others – in ways that the founder has a good experience and can benefit," Smith says.

Smith shares more about what she's looking for in the second cohort of CEA on the podcast episode, as well as what she sees as Houston's role in the energy transition. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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