Game-changing fintech, fresh approach to dating, hiring tech — all this innovation and more is coming out of Houston startups. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: As 2021 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. This past year, InnovationMap featured profiles on dozens of these Houston startups — from dating apps and software companies to startups with solutions in fintech and more. Here are five Houston startup features that stood out to readers this year — be sure to click through to read the full story.

Houston entrepreneur is flipping the switch on online dating with new app

Houston-based DanceKard is focused on getting singles off the endless swiping in order to make lasting connections and relationships. Photo courtesy of DanceKard

Like most people who are single and looking for a relationship, Erica Sinner is familiar with the dating apps. She's swiped and messaged with men in her area, but has little to show for it other than comically lazy responses from not-so potential soulmates.

Then Sinner had an idea. What if there was a platform that encouraged meetups and group dates and limited in-app conversations? An anti-dating app platform that took users off their phones, paused endless swiping, and also gave local businesses — bars, restaurants, etc. — a chance to host events or generate new business?

Then she thought, why not create it herself? Sinner started DanceKard to fill this need within the dating app landscape. After a soft launch a couple months ago, the app has over 170 users on the platform and recently joined gBETA's early-stage accelerator program.

"I think people forgot how great an in-person meeting is whenever you're getting to know someone," Sinner tells InnovationMap. "I love the fact that dating apps have made it easier to meet people, but at the end of the day, after you spend three days or a week talking to someone and then you meet them in person, and there's just something you don't like." Click here to read the full article.

Houston-based startup shoots for affordability and convenience with new photo biz

Studio Pod — founded by Joseph West and Chris Bailey — is helping professionals and small businesses easily and affordably capture headshots. Photo courtesy Melissa Fitzgerald/Studio Pod

Houston-based photographers Chris Bailey and Joseph West have brought automated technology and innovative efficiencies to the often cumbersome task of taking professional headshots.

Bailey and West first met as wedding and corporate photographers and bonded over the pain points of their jobs. Over the years they zeroed in on the particular challenges of scheduling photo sessions and achieving a consistent look for a corporate gigs, which can span months or years (depending on when new hires are brought on) and where settings can change based on the time of day, lighting in the room, and a variety of other factors. Still, there was a demand for their professional-grade work.

"In today's age and in the COVID era, people need LinkedIn photos, now a Zoom photo, a Facebook photo. You need all these different types of photos. And so we said, 'How can we solve that?'," Bailey says.

In 2020 the duo launched Studio Pod in an attempt to streamline and improve the process for photographers, businesses, and the individuals themselves. Through the use of their roomy, modern booth, users can snap high-quality, professionally lit headshots with the help of an automated platform. Too, users can see their photos in real time and make adjustments to their appearance, the lighting, and more throughout their reserved 15- to 30-minute window from the privacy of the pod. Click here to read the full article.

New Houston career training program is helping young professionals and businesses amid pandemic

Houston entrepreneur, Allie Danziger, wanted to create a program for young professionals looking to gain experience in unprecedented times. Photo courtesy of Ampersand

Last March, school districts abruptly closed as the threat of the coronavirus grew. In-person classes were cancelled, graduation ceremonies were held virtually, and the future career plans of new graduates were suspended in uncertainty. Through the incertitude, a Houston-based company formed to offer a path forward for young professionals impacted by a newly changed world.

In the early weeks of the pandemic, Allie Danziger sat down with her husband and tried to imagine what she would tell her children to do if they were graduating college. The University of Texas graduate relished her college experience before founding Integrate, an award-winning marketing firm in Houston.

"I wouldn't want them to go to virtual college and not have the same type of experience we were all fortunate to have," she explains.

Simultaneously, Danziger's email began to overflow with young people looking for advice on how to move forward or questioning a gap year. "I've always loved coaching and mentoring young professionals right out of college," she says.

In her 11 years at Integrate, she had mentored more than 100 interns and first-year employees. After researching gap year programs, Danziger launched a new career training program, Ampersand.

Danziger and her co-founder Scott Greenberg created Ampersand with a mission to democratize access to career-building opportunities by providing mentorship and three one-month internships to young professionals. (Disclaimer: InnovationMap is a part of the Spring 2021 Ampersand program.) The curriculum includes personality assessments, career mapping, one-on-one training, and basic career skills to know as an entry-level employee. Click here to read the full article.

Houston startup shakes up antiquated hiring process for the next generation

SeekerPitch exists to update the job hiring process in a way that benefits both the job seekers and recruiters. Photo via Getty Images

Companies across the country have been requiring resumes and cover letters from their new hire hopefuls since the World War II era, and it's about time that changed. A startup founded in Houston has risen to the occasion.

Houstonian Samantha Hepler had the idea for SeekerPitch when she was looking for her next move. She felt like she had developed a formidable career in digital transformation and had worked with big name clients from Chevron to Gucci. However, she couldn't even get an interview for a role she felt she would be a shoe-in for.

"I knew if I could just get through the door, a company would see the value in me," Hepler tells InnovationMap. "I wasn't being seen, and I wasn't being heard. I didn't know a way to do that."

And she wasn't alone in this frustration. Hepler says she discovered she was one of the 76 percent of job candidates who get filtered out based on former job titles and keywords. At the same time, Hepler says she discovered that 80 percent of companies reported difficulty finding talent. Click here to read the full article.

Houston-based software startup aims to connect workers with wages in real time

This Houston startup has an app for helping employees get a portion of their paychecks before payday. Photo via Pexels

Could you incur an unexpected $400 expense if it hit your bank account today? According to Jeff Price, founder and CEO of Houston-based Pronto Pay, many hourly workers could not. He's set out to change that.

"When you think about it, payroll hasn't changed in nearly two centuries. As far as we can remember, you get paid weekly or bi-weekly. And that's precisely the point we're trying to solve," Price says.

A recent graduate from Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business, Price founded Pronto Pay in the first quarter of 2021. The software aims to connect hourly works with transparent access to wages earned before pay day without disrupting the employers' books. Currently the company has seven staff members, is actively hiring and is looking to expand outside of Houston soon.

Pronto Pay partners with the employers to seamlessly build out connections with their time and attendance system and payroll processor. After the company signs up, ProntoPay automatically creates an account for each employee, which allows them to view their accrued wages and withdraw their earnings instantly from the app or next-day for automated clearing house payments — all via the Pronto Pay App. When an employee wishes to withdraw funds prior to their normal pay cycle, Pronto Pay applies a small fixed fee — $2.99 — for completing the transaction. Click here to read the full article.

The ultimate who's who of 2021 — favorite Houston Innovators Podcast guests of last year. Photos courtesy

Editor's Picks: 7 favorite Houston interviews of 2021

2021 in review

Editor's note: In 2021, I recorded 50 episodes of the Houston Innovators Podcast — a weekly discussion with a Houston innovator. While I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each and every conversation I’ve had this year, I picked a few of my favorites based on a few parameters. Maybe I learned something new or got to break a developing story — or maybe I just really loved chatting with someone. Whatever the reason, I’ve rounded up these seven podcast episodes I really liked, and explained why I selected each episode as a favorite on the last episode for the year.




To stream each episode in its entirety, see below or find the Houston Innovators Podcast wherever you stream your podcasts.

Ashley DeWalt of DivInc, Episode 79

Ashley DeWalt, managing director of DivInc, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss diversity and inclusion, sports tech, and all things Houston. Photo courtesy of DivInc

Ashley DeWalt is the managing director of DivInc, a diversity-focused startup development nonprofit that expanded to Houston officially this year. He has a huge passion for his hometown of Houston and a long career in supporting innovators — particularly within diversity as well as sports tech. In the episode, he discussed both his passions and why Houston is on the path to being a hub for sports innovation.

Deeanna Zhang of Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co., episode 69

Deeanna Zhang of Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. on the energy crisis that occured in 2020. Photo courtesy of TPH

Deeana Zhang, director of energy technology at Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co., joined the show to look back on the effect 2020 had on energy tech in Houston, which took a double whammy of a hit between the COVID-19 pandemic and the unprecedented drop in oil prices. The combo was a shock to the system and the industry, which Houston is home to a significant portion of. Deeanna shared that, while the hit to the economy was devastating, it positively affected the need to focus on the energy transition.

Gaurav Khandelwal of Velostics, episode 99

Velostics is a growing logistics software solution. Photo courtesy of Velostics

Houston has several startups solving complex problems within the logistics industry, and Gaurav Khandelwal is at the helm of one called Velostics. Also the founder of ChaiOne, another Houston software startup, Khandelwal explains a specific part of trucking logistics that is ripe for optimization. This middle mile represents a $700 billion market, and Velostics is ready to make an impact in that space.

Allison Post of the Texas Heart Institute, episode 80

Allison Post joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share what she's focused on in cardiac innovation. Photo courtesy of THI

The Texas Medical Center is home to over a dozen member organizations all treating thousands and thousands of patients who need care now — as well as supporting research and student health care professionals. And when it comes to innovation within these organizations, the past few years have made for remarkable evolution. Allison Post joined the Texas Heart Institute in October of 2020 in a newly created position of manager of innovation partnerships, and it's her one and only goal to keep THI an innovative force.

Aaron Knape of sEATz, episode 109

Houston-based sEATz is expanding. Photo courtesy of sEATz

Growing Houston startup sEATz, a company that works with vendors in entertainment venues to provide food and drinks directly to fans in their seats. Aaron Knape, CEO and co-founder, joined the show in November to discuss how the pandemic affected his business and the new exciting vertical they were expanding into, which is health care.

Emily Cisek of The Postage, episode 95

Emily Cisek started her company after losing two family members back to back. Photo courtesy of The Postage

Entrepreneurs possess both their ability to recognize a gap in the market as well as the initiative to develop a solution. On episode 95 of the podcast, Emily Cisek discussed her new company, The Postage. She came up with the idea to help families navigate end of life decision making based off a personal experience she had. Now she’s growing and expanding her brand and capabilities while changing the way we discuss death.

Kevin Coker of Proxima Clinical Research, episode 82

Proxima Clinical Research is a contract research organization. Photo courtesy of Proxima

It’s been a trying time for health care innovation, and no one understands that more than Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima Clinical Research, a Houston-based contract research organization focused on supporting life science startups as they grow and scale. On episode 82 of the show, Coker discussed the effects the pandemic had on life science innovation and shared how in sync with Houston his organization is.

These are the five Houston companies that raised the most in funding this year. Photo via Getty Images

These were the top 5 venture capital deals in Houston in 2021

2021 in review

Editor's note: As 2021 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. When it came to the money raised in Houston, these five startups raised the most, according to reporting done by InnovationMap.

Houston chemicals company raises $357M, claims unicorn status

Solugen closed its Series C funding round at $357 million to grow its chemical products. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based Solugen, a startup that specializes in combating carbon dioxide emitted during the production of chemicals, has hauled in $357 million in a Series C funding round. That amount eclipses the size of any Houston VC funding round this year or last year.

The Series C round lifts Solugen's pre-money valuation to $1.5 billion, according to the Axios news website. This gives Solugen "unicorn" status as a startup with a valuation of at least $1 billion.

Singapore-based GIC and Edinburgh, Scotland-based Baillie Gifford led the round, with participation from Temasek Holdings, affiliates of BlackRock, Carbon Direct Capital Management, Refactor Capital, and Fifty Years.

Since its founding in 2016, Solugen has raised more than $405 million in venture capital, according to Crunchbase.

"Solugen's vision for cleaner chemicals through synthetic biology has the potential to be a fundamental shift in how chemicals are made, to help tackle the environmental challenges we face globally. The chemical market itself is colossal, and Solugen is just getting started," Kirsty Gibson, investment manager at Baillie Gifford, says in a September 9 news release. Click here to read the full article.

Houston space tech company raises $130M series B

Houston-based Axiom Space has raised more funds for its growing commercial space business. Image via axiomspace.com

Just around a year ago, Houston-based Axiom Space Inc. closed a $100 million series A round. Now, the space tech company has announced even more financing as it grows and scales to support a NASA-commissioned project.

Axiom raised $130 million in its series B round led by C5 Capital with support from TQS Advisors, Declaration Partners, Moelis Dynasty Investments, Washington University in St. Louis, The Venture Collective, Aidenlair Capital, Hemisphere Ventures, and Starbridge Venture Capital.

"Axiom Space is a force in the space sector, and it will become a centerpiece of the C5 Capital portfolio and enhance our vision for a secure global future," says C5 operating partner Rob Meyerson, who will join the Axiom board of directors, in a news release. "The Axiom Station will be the infrastructure upon which we will build many new businesses in space, and it will serve as the foundation for future exploration missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond." Click here to read the full article.

Rapidly scaling Houston e-commerce software startup raises $98M series B

Houston-based Cart.com, which equips e-commerce businesses with a suite of software services, has raised $140 million in venture capital investment since its founding last year. Photo via cart.com

After closing a sizable series A round in April, a Houston tech startup has closed another round of funding — this time a near $100 million one.

Cart.com, an end-to-end e-commerce software startup and Amazon competitor, closed its series B round at $98 million. The investment announcement follows the company's series A in the spring and, according to a news release, brings Cart.com's total funding to $140 million since it launched eight months ago.

"At Cart.com, we believe e-commerce brands should be free to scale up without having to juggle countless outside vendors, and without compromising their unique vision for their brand," says Omair Tariq, CEO of Cart.com, in the release. "Our one-stop platform supports sellers across the full range of e-commerce functionality, empowering them to efficiently scale up and reach new markets using proven, best-of-breed services and technologies." Click here to read the full article.

Note: Cart.com recently relocated its headquarters from Houston to Austin.

Cancer-fighting company based in Houston emerges from stealth and snags $74M in its latest round

Tvardi Therapeutics Inc. has fresh funds to support its drug's advancement in clinical trials. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston-based clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company has raised millions in its latest round.

Tvardi Therapeutics Inc. closed its $74 million series B funding round led by new investors New York-based Slate Path Capital, Florida-based Palkon Capital, Denver-based ArrowMark Partners, and New York-based 683 Capital, with continued support and participation by existing investors, including Houston-based Sporos Bioventures.

"We are thrilled to move out of stealth mode and partner with this lineup of long-term institutional investors," says Imran Alibhai, CEO at Tvardi. "With this financing we are positioned to advance the clinical development of our small molecule inhibitors of STAT3 into mid-stage trials as well as grow our team." Click here to read the full article.

Houston-based cancer and disease bio-venture launches after $38.1M series A

A Houston biotech company has raised $38.1 million. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Sporos Bioventures LLC launched this month after closing a $38.1 million round of series A financing.

The Houston-based biotech company aims to accelerate the development of breakthrough therapies for cancer and immune diseases by sharing resources, capital, access to clinical trial infrastructure, and talent from within its knowledgeable team of biotech executives, entrepreneurs, academic scholars, and investors. The company was launched with four entities: Tvardi Therapeutics, Asylia Therapeutics, Nirogy Therapeutics, and Stellanova Therapeutics.

The most advanced of the four entities, Tvardi, is currently in Phase 1 clinical trial to evaluate it's STAT3 oral inhibitor. It was named a "most promising" life sciences company at the 2020 Texas Life Science Forum, hosted by BioHouston and the Rice Alliance in December. The remaining entities are in the development stages and are focused on cancer, autoimmune disease, fibrosis, and tumor growth, among other conditions.

"Sporos was founded to accelerate the development of new medicines by addressing inefficiencies and risk in the establishment of new biotech companies," Peter Feinberg, Sporos co-founder, said in a statement. "By leveraging our extensive network, including the Texas Medical Center, we first identify transformative scientific opportunities and then deploy our top-tier talent, funding, and operational support to drive these insights into a growing pipeline of first-in-class treatment options." Click here to read the full article.

Top energy innovation stories from the year included Greentown Houston's grand opening, a startup's exit, Q&As, and more. Photo via GreentownLabs.com

Looking back: Top 5 most-read Houston energy innovation stories of 2021

2021 in review

Editor's note: As 2021 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. When it came to energy innovation and technology — from overheard energy execs to the grand opening of Greentown Houston — in Houston, five stories trended among readers.

Overheard: Houston innovators discuss ESG, energy transition, cleantech and more at SXSW

The city's top power players within Houston's energy innovation ecosystem joined virtual SXSW to weigh in on hot topics — from ESG to the future of the industry's workforce. Photos courtesy

The first day of SXSW 2021 — a virtual edition of the Austin-based conference — is on the books, and Houston innovators were no strangers to attendees' screens thanks to Houston House put on by the Greater Houston Partnership.

Day one of the two days of programming focused on all things energy — power storage, corporate venture, ESG, the future of the workforce, and so much more — with interviews hosted by me, Natalie Harms, editor of InnovationMap. Click here to read the full article.

Houston CEO talks augmented reality, diversity, how it will all play a role in the energy transition

Stephanie Hertzog, CEO of Houston-based Sodexo, shares how she's embracing diversity and innovation within the energy industry. Photo courtesy of Sodexo

When Stephanie Hertzog first started her role as CEO of Houston-based Sodexo Energy & Resources North America in the fall of 2019, she was on the road every week visiting some of the facility management company's 100 million customers.

"I actually had a conversation with my assistant in early March, and said, 'Okay, our goal is that by April, I not be on the road every week. Let's try to get this to at least every other week,'" she recalls. Shortly after, the world changed, and by March 10 she halted all travel and was forced to lead her company to innovate in more ways than one.

"When we think about innovation, we often think about technology, but we've had to innovate so much in the last 12 months, in how we do everything," she says. "We've really asked a lot of our teams over the last year in regard to having to rethink how they do things and be innovative and adapt."

To Hertzog, it's this adaptation and innovation she's seen in the last year that will allow her industry to support an energy transition and, as she says, "preserve" beyond the pandemic and inevitable future downturns. Click here to read the full article.

Photos: Greentown Labs opens its doors in Houston

Mayor Sylvester Turner, Greentown Labs CEO Emily Reichert, and other guests celebrated the grand opening of Greentown Houston on Earth Day. Photo by Lee Bond/Greentown Labs

On a day that was years in the making, Greentown Labs opened the doors to its new Houston outpost in Midtown yesterday on Earth Day.

The Greentown Houston grand opening event, which was steamed online with limited in-person and outdoor attendance, celebrated the organization's first location outside Somerville, Massachusetts.

"This is a tremendous, tangible milestone not only for Greentown Labs but also for the City of Houston and the energy transition," says Dr. Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, in a news release. "Five years ago, climate change wasn't a topic among many conversations in Houston. Things have changed.

"Today, we are so proud to open our second-ever location in the energy capital of the world and we're eager to accelerate the energy transition over the next 10 years," she continues. "Houston is buzzing with incredible climatetech startups, world-leading energy organizations, and a thriving investment community. At Greentown Houston, we aim to bring the ecosystem together and collaborate toward our decarbonized future."Click here to read the full article.

Click here to read another trending article this year:

Overheard: Houston's energy sector welcomes Greentown Labs

Houston investor launches fund to fuel early-stage energy transition startups

Ahmad Atwan founded VC Fuel in Houston to fund the future of the energy transition. Photo courtesy of VC Fuel

When Ahmad Atwan decided he was going to launch a venture capital fund focused on early-stage energy transition startups, Houston was a no brainer. But while there are similar funds on each of the coasts, Atwan learned that VC Fuel's concept was going to be kind of niche for Houston.

"We're the only early stage climate tech or energy transition firm in Houston right now, which is really surprising," Atwan tells InnovationMap, explaining that the Bay Area is home to dozens of these funds and there are even more on the East Coast. "I'm hoping there'll be more (similar funds in Houston), but it's also kind of a nice position to be in."

Atwan shares more about VC Fuel and the $100 million fund, which he's still raising for while also investing in a few startups at the same time, in an interview with InnovationMap. He also discusses how his expertise as a former founder and former private equity investor with Morgan Stanley and BlackRock makes him an opportune value-add investor. Click here to read the full article.

Houston energy startup acquired by growing tech company

Trent Crow, founder and president (left), and Paul Paras, founder and vice president, and the rest of the Real Simple Energy team have moved over to Arcardia with the acquisition. Photo courtesy of Real Simple Energy

February's massive winter weather disaster underscored the fragile availability and volatile cost of electricity in the Houston area and throughout Texas. Just a month after the calamity, a Washington, D.C.-based company has scooped up Houston-based Real Simple Energy to help put power back in the hands of electricity consumers in Texas.

Arcadia, a tech company that connects U.S. homeowners and renters to renewable energy, said March 17 that it had purchased Real Simple Energy. Terms of the deal for the three-year-old startup weren't disclosed.

Real Simple Energy's automated platform matches power usage with the lowest rates in the Texas marketplace to reduce electric bills. The company manages all facets of a customer's monthly power bills.

Trent Crow, co-founder and CEO of Real Simply Energy, says all eight of the company's employees have moved over to Arcadia and more workers will be hired soon. The company has maintained a mix of office and remote workers. Arcadia will look for Houston office space later this year, Crow says.

"Expansion plans include doing more of what we're doing now and offering more features for customers," says Crow, who now is Arcadia's general manager of energy services in Texas. Click here to read the full article.

These five space tech stories were among the most read of 2021. Photo via NASA.gov

These are Houston's top space innovation stories of the year

2021 in review

Editor's note: As 2021 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. When it came to the space innovation and technology — from commercial space exploration to space tech and research funding — in Houston, five stories trended among readers.

Overheard: Experts share how Houston can lead commercial space exploration

Vanessa Wyche, director of the Johnson Space Center, gave the keynote address at this year's State of Space event. Screenshot via houston.org

Is the Space City poised to continue its reign as an innovative hub for space exploration? All signs point to yes, according to a group of experts.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted its annual State of Space this week. The virtual event featured a keynote address from Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA Johnson Space Center, and a panel moderated by David Alexander, chair of aerospace and aviation committee at the GHP and the director of the Rice Space Institute.

The conversations focused on the space innovation activity happening in Houston, as well as an update on the industry as a whole has space commercialization continues to develop. All the speakers addressed how Houston has what it takes to remain a hub for the sector.

"The future looks very bright for Houston that we will remain a leader in Houston spaceflight," Wyche says in her address. Click here to read the full article.

Houston, we're trying to fix the problem: Aerospace challenges and future exploration

You've heard "it's not rocket science" throughout your life, but but turns out that aerospace exploration — even in 2021 — is still very hard. Photo via Pexels

If there is anything that goes hand in hand so perfectly, it's Houston and Space. Houston is home to the Johnson Space Center, named after former president Lyndon B. Johnson, and is home to revolutionary space research projects and spaceflight training for both crew members and flight controllers. While it's every kid's dream to become an astronaut, have you ever wondered why rocket science is actually so difficult?

Though the space race of the '70s has been over for some time, the new space race — the race to Mars and the commercialization of space tourism — has just started. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson are spearheading the "Billionaire space race." But even with their billions being put into developing spaceports, NASA rocket partnerships, and planning future Mars missions, rocket science is just as difficult to implement as it was the first time around.

So why, even with billions of dollars at their disposal and many companies pushing for more funding, are scientists and engineers still struggling to make rocket travel an everyday thing? Here are some of the countless reasons why rockets science is insanely difficult, no matter how much money you throw at it. Click here to read the full article.

Fresh funds: 2 Houston organizations dole grants to advance research

Here's what researchers raked in the cash to support their research. Photo via Getty Images

Funding fuels the research that supports the innovations of tomorrow. Two Houston-based scientific organizations announced funding recipients that are working on advancing research in space health and chemistry.

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health, known as TRISH, at Baylor College of Medicine has announced almost $4 million in grants to four research teams. As more and more plans to launch humans into space continue to develop, TRISH is working to support research addressing human health in space. Click here to read the full article.

Space-focused fund with HQ in Houston rockets toward $20M goal

SpaceFund, based in Houston and Austin, has almost reached halfway for its $20 million fundraise. Photo via NASA/Unsplash

A venture capital firm co-located in Houston and Austin has announced a recent closing of a $20 million fund.

SpaceFund has raised $9 million toward its its $20 million BlastOff Fund as of this week — surpassing its initial first close goal of $5 million.

"We are thrilled to see how many investors are placing their trust in our team," says SpaceFund founder Rick Tumlinson in a news release. "We spent a lot of time slowly and carefully developing our processes and credibility, so we can better serve both investors and the amazing space startup community, and it's paying off."

Launched in 2019 with an initial fund that closed in August of 2020, SpaceFund has already invested in 13 exciting space startups. The new fund will build on those investments while also expanding its portfolio, according to the release.

"SpaceFund is about combining a bold approach with a very conservative diligence and investment process," says Meagan Crawford, SpaceFund's managing partner, in the release. "The BlastOff Fund continues our careful growth plan but is designed to accelerate our ability to place investment into those companies that are leading the Space Revolution." Click here to read the full article.

New Houston accelerator supporting BIPOC in aerospace announces inaugural cohort

The Ion's Aerospace Innovation Accelerator for Minority Business Enterprises has named four companies to its first cohort. Photo courtesy of The Ion

A new accelerator program that is focused on aerospace innovation and supporting entrepreneurs who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color has announced its first cohort.

The Ion's Aerospace Innovation Accelerator for Minority Business Enterprises, or AIA for MBEs, has named the four companies that well be a part of its inaugural cohort. The 12-week program will guide the entrepreneurs through the development of their innovations, the growth of their businesses, and the development of relationships with mentors, corporate partners, and stakeholder networks.

"Aerospace contains a myriad of dimensions and by demystifying the industry in the form of the AIA for MBEs, we are able to build a more inclusive innovation ecosystem," says Christine Galib, senior director of programs at The Ion, in a news release. "It's our goal to not only support participants to be successful, but to open the playing field for other minority business enterprises hoping to enter the space." Click here to read the full article.

These five InnovationMap stories were the most read of 2021. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Here are Houston's top 5 health innovation stories of 2021

2021 in review

Editor's note: As 2021 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. When it came to the health care innovation and technology — whether it's a Q&A with a health tech entrepreneur or a digital health startup raising funds — in Houston, five stories trended among readers.

Fresh off a $1.4B exit, this Houston innovator is focused on funding medical device tech

Larry Lawson joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about his startup's recent exit, his role on the boards of five med device companies, his investment activity, and more. Photo courtesy of Larry Lawson

Earlier this year, Houston-based serial entrepreneur Larry Lawson celebrated the exit of his medical device company, Preventice Solutions, which he sold to Boston ScientificBoston Scientific in a $1.4 billion deal.

Nowadays, Lawson is laser focused on investing in the Houston innovation ecosystem, particularly in medical device, as well as working on Proxima Clinical Research, a contract research organization in the Texas Medical Center he co-founded with Kevin Coker.

Lawson joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about the exit, his role on the boards of five med device companies, and his investment activity. He also shares how he sees the impact of COVID-19 and where Houston's burgeoning innovation ecosystem is headed. Click here to read the full article.

Houston founder talks growth and innovation in the pharmaceuticals industry

Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy, joined InnovationMap for a Q&A on his rapidly growing compounding pharmacy business. Photo courtesy of Empower Pharmacy

When Shaun Noorian encountered what he felt was a poorly ran process, as an engineer, he built something better. Now, he runs one of the nation's largest compounding pharmacies that's at a pivotal time for growth.

Headquartered in Houston, Empower Pharmacy is opening two new facilities locally — one debuts later this year and the other in 2022. Ahead of this milestone for his company, Noorian joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about how he decided to start his company and how he's grown it from a small office to two 85,000-square-foot facilities — as well as how Houston has been a big part of his company's success. Click here to read the full article.

Report: Houston ranks among the worst cities for unnecessary medical treatments

Houston hospitals have been reported to have an excess of unnecessary health care tests and procedures. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Houston boasts of being home to the Texas Medical Center, the world's biggest medical complex. Yet Houston's medical community also holds a distinction that's hardly boast-worthy: It's the worst major metro area in Texas for unnecessary health care tests and procedures.

A study released May 4 by the Lown Institute, a health care think tank, shows hospitals in the Houston area collectively fare worse than their counterparts in Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Austin for overuse of tests and procedures that the institute says offer little to no benefit.

To come up with its ranking, the institute looked at Medicare data for more than 1 million tests and procedures performed at over 3,100 U.S. hospitals from 2016 to 2018. Among the overused tests and procedures identified in the study are hysterectomy for benign disease, placement of coronary stents for stable heart disease, and diagnostic tests like head imaging for fainting.

"Overuse in American hospitals is a pervasive problem that needs to be addressed," Dr. Vikas Saini, president of the Lown Institute, says in a news release. "Hospitals want to do better, and these objective measures of performance can help them move forward." Click here to read the full article.

These are the 7 newest health tech companies to join TMCx

After a virtual bootcamp, the TMCx team selected seven startups to move forward in the accelerator. Photo courtesy of TMC

Last year, TMCx, the Texas Medical Center's health tech startup accelerator pivoted to digital programming.

The accelerator revamped its program to allow for an initial Bootcamp stage that would bring in a larger group of startups and then, after the boot camp, the program would move forward with a smaller group through the official acceleration process.

"We hosted 21 companies, representing six countries and 10 states, who each engaged with subject matter experts, clinical leaders, and corporate partners," writes Emily Reiser, senior manager of Innovation Community Engagement at TMC Innovation, in a blog post. "Over half of which ended Bootcamp in advanced discussions with hospitals and/or corporate partners." Click here to read the full article.

Houston biotech startup announces merger and $10M series A

A biotech startup focused on developing therapeutics for neurodegenerative and autoimmune diseases has some big news to share. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston company has emerged from stealth mode to announce a merger and a round of financing.

Coya Therapeutics, a clinical-stage biotech startup that focuses on creating therapeutics for neurodegenerative and autoimmune diseases, announced that it has completed a merger with Nicoya Health Inc. and raised $10 million in its series A. The round was led by Florida-based Allele Capital Partners LLC. Howard Berman, founder and board of directors for imaware, has been named CEO of Coya, as well as a member of the company's board of directors.

Coya's therapeutics uses innovative work from Dr. Stanley H. Appel, co-director of Houston Methodist Neurological Institute and Chair of the Stanley H. Appel Department of Neurology at Houston Methodist Hospital. The researcher has created a way to "isolate dysfunctional Tregs from a patient, convert them to a highly functional and neuroprotective condition, and expand these cells into the billions for intravenous reinfusion back to the patient," says Berman in a news release. This revolutionary work overcomes previous limitations in the field.

"I'm excited to have the opportunity to lead Coya at such an exciting and pivotal phase of growth," Berman says. "Through our sponsored research program in conjunction with Dr. Appel, we look forward to continuing advancement of this promising work and translating this work into a meaningful therapy for patients." Click here to read the full article.

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New Houston venture studio emerges to target early-stage hardtech, energy transition startups

funding the future

The way Doug Lee looks at it, there are two areas within the energy transition attracting capital. With his new venture studio, he hopes to target an often overlooked area that's critical for driving forward net-zero goals.

Lee describes investment activity taking place in the digital and software world — early stage technology that's looking to make the industry smarter. But, on the other end of the spectrum, investment activity can be found on massive infrastructure projects.

While both areas need funding, Lee has started his new venture studio, Flathead Forge, to target early-stage hardtech technologies.

“We are really getting at the early stage companies that are trying to develop technologies at the intersection of legacy industries that we believe can become more sustainable and the energy transition — where we are going. It’s not an ‘if’ or ‘or’ — we believe these things intersect,” he tells EnergyCapital.

Specifically, Lee's expertise is within the water and industrial gas space. For around 15 years, he's made investments in this area, which he describes as crucial to the energy transition.

“Almost every energy transition technology that you can point to has some critical dependency on water or gas,” he says. “We believe that if we don’t solve for those things, the other projects won’t survive.”

Lee, and his brother, Dave, are evolving their family office to adopt a venture studio model. They also sold off Azoto Energy, a Canadian oilfield nitrogen cryogenic services business, in December.

“We ourselves are going through a transition like our energy is going through a transition,” he says. “We are transitioning into a single family office into a venture studio. By doing so, we want to focus all of our access and resources into this focus.”

At this point, Flathead Forge has seven portfolio companies and around 15 corporations they are working with to identify their needs and potential opportunities. Lee says he's gearing up to secure a $100 million fund.

Flathead also has 40 advisers and mentors, which Lee calls sherpas — a nod to the Flathead Valley region in Montana, which inspired the firm's name.

“We’re going to help you carry up, we’re going to tie ourselves to the same rope as you, and if you fall off the mountain, we’re falling off with you,” Lee says of his hands-on approach, which he says sets Flathead apart from other studios.

Another thing that's differentiating Flathead Forge from its competition — it's dedication to giving back.

“We’ve set aside a quarter of our carried interest for scholarships and grants,” Lee says.

The funds will go to scholarships for future engineers interested in the energy transition, as well as grants for researchers studying high-potential technologies.

“We’re putting our own money where our mouth is,” Lee says of his thesis for Flathead Forge.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston-based lunar mission's rocky landing and what it means for America's return to the moon

houston, we have a problem

A private U.S. lunar lander tipped over at touchdown and ended up on its side near the moon’s south pole, hampering communications, company officials said Friday.

Intuitive Machines initially believed its six-footed lander, Odysseus, was upright after Thursday's touchdown. But CEO Steve Altemus said Friday the craft “caught a foot in the surface," falling onto its side and, quite possibly, leaning against a rock. He said it was coming in too fast and may have snapped a leg.

“So far, we have quite a bit of operational capability even though we’re tipped over," he told reporters.

But some antennas were pointed toward the surface, limiting flight controllers' ability to get data down, Altemus said. The antennas were stationed high on the 14-foot (4.3-meter) lander to facilitate communications at the hilly, cratered and shadowed south polar region.

Odysseus — the first U.S. lander in more than 50 years — is thought to be within a few miles (kilometers) of its intended landing site near the Malapert A crater, less than 200 miles (300 kilometers) from the south pole. NASA, the main customer, wanted to get as close as possible to the pole to scout out the area before astronauts show up later this decade.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will attempt to pinpoint the lander's location, as it flies overhead this weekend.

With Thursday’s touchdown, Intuitive Machines became the first private business to pull off a moon landing, a feat previously achieved by only five countries. Japan was the latest country to score a landing, but its lander also ended up on its side last month.

Odysseus' mission was sponsored in large part by NASA, whose experiments were on board. NASA paid $118 million for the delivery under a program meant to jump-start the lunar economy.

One of the NASA experiments was pressed into service when the lander's navigation system did not kick in. Intuitive Machines caught the problem in advance when it tried to use its lasers to improve the lander's orbit. Otherwise, flight controllers would not have discovered the failure until it was too late, just five minutes before touchdown.

“Serendipity is absolutely the right word,” mission director Tim Crain said.

It turns out that a switch was not flipped before flight, preventing the system's activation in space.

Launched last week from Florida, Odysseus took an extra lap around the moon Thursday to allow time for the last-minute switch to NASA's laser system, which saved the day, officials noted.

Another experiment, a cube with four cameras, was supposed to pop off 30 seconds before touchdown to capture pictures of Odysseus’ landing. But Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s EagleCam was deliberately powered off during the final descent because of the navigation switch and stayed attached to the lander.

Embry-Riddle's Troy Henderson said his team will try to release EagleCam in the coming days, so it can photograph the lander from roughly 26 feet (8 meters) away.

"Getting that final picture of the lander on the surface is still an incredibly important task for us,” Henderson told The Associated Press.

Intuitive Machines anticipates just another week of operations on the moon for the solar-powered lander — nine or 10 days at most — before lunar nightfall hits.

The company was the second business to aim for the moon under NASA's commercial lunar services program. Last month, Pittsburgh's Astrobotic Technology gave it a shot, but a fuel leak on the lander cut the mission short and the craft ended up crashing back to Earth.

Until Thursday, the U.S. had not landed on the moon since Apollo 17's Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closed out NASA's famed moon-landing program in December 1972. NASA's new effort to return astronauts to the moon is named Artemis after Apollo's mythological twin sister. The first Artemis crew landing is planned for 2026 at the earliest.

3 female Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

If the energy transition is going to be successful, the energy storage space needs to be equipped to support both the increased volume of energy needed and new energies. And Emma Konet and her software company, Tierra Climate, are targeting one part of the equation: the market.

"To me, it's very clear that we need to build a lot of energy storage in order to transition the grid," Konet says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The problems that I saw were really on the market side of things." Read more.

Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. Photo courtesy of Sage

A Houston geothermal startup has announced the close of its series A round of funding.

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. The proceeds aim to fund its first commercial geopressured geothermal system facility, which will be built in Texas in Q4 of 2024. According to the company, the facility will be the first of its kind.

“The first close of our Series A funding and our commercial facility are significant milestones in our mission to make geopressured geothermal system technologies a reality,” Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems, says. Read more.

Clemmie Martin, chief of staff at The Cannon

With seven locations across the Houston area, The Cannon's digital technology allows its members a streamlined connection. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

After collaborating over the years, The Cannon has acquired a Houston startup's digital platform technology to become a "physical-digital hybrid" community.

Village Insights, a Houston startup, worked with The Cannon to create and launch its digital community platform Cannon Connect. Now, The Cannon has officially acquired the business. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“The integration of a world-class onsite member experience and Cannon Connect’s superior virtual resource network creates a seamless, streamlined environment for member organizations,” Clemmie Martin, The Cannon’s newly appointed chief of staff, says in the release. “Cannon Connect and this acquisition have paved new pathways to access and success for all.” Read more.