This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Sarah "Sassie" Duggleby of Venus Aerospace, Youngro Lee of Brassica, and Le Dam of myAvos. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from rocket science to fintech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Sarah "Sassie" Duggleby, CEO and co-founder of Venus Aerospace

Sarah "Sassie" Duggleby of Venus Aerospace joins the Houston Innovators Podcast this week. Photo courtesy of Venus

Sarah "Sassie" Duggleby and her husband were living in Japan and considering a trip back to Texas and wishing there was a faster option than a full day of international travel — with their kids, no less. That's when Andrew Duggleby told Sassie that there actually might be an engine that could do that.

Flash forward a few years, and the husband-wife team has built a company around that idea. Venus Aerospace, originally founded in California, relocated to Houston in 2021 to establish their company in an ecosystem with the tools to advance their tech — and give their employees a good work-life balance, Sassie Duggleby explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"We knew we had to find a location where we could test our engine and still be home for dinner," she says on the show. "Our company vision is 'home for dinner.' We want to fly you across the globe and have you home for dinner. And, if you work for us, we want you home for dinner." Read more.

Youngro Lee has announced funding for his latest fintech endeavor. Photo courtesy

Youngro Lee is no stranger to shaking up the finance world with a new tech-based way of doing business. One of the founders of NextSeed, Lee's newest mission is providing "investment infrastructure as a service" with his company, Brassica, which just raised $8 million in seed funding.

“The future of finance will depend on the ability of trustworthy institutions to provide secure and seamless transitions between traditional financial services and web3 innovations while complying with strict regulations and still providing great customer experience,” says Lee in the news release.

Houston-based Mercury Fund led the round with several other investors participating. Read more.

Le Dam, CEO and founder of OptiChroniX

Le Dam moved from California to Houston to build her company. Photo via LinkedIn

After years on the West Coast, Le Dam has returned to her adopted hometown of Houston — just in time to launch a new app dedicated to providing health resources and information to its users.

“I always knew that I wanted to build my business in Houston,” Dam says, mentioning the assets of the world’s largest medical center, a thriving startup community, and diverse population for whom she wants to build her technology.

myAvos pairs with a user’s smart watch and harnesses their health information such as physical activity and hours slept. The user can also input additional information such as blood test results and meals eaten. The app analyzes the information provided and assesses the user’s risk for chronic illness later in life. Read more.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Alessio Lorusso of Roboze, Tobi Smith of All I Do Is Cook, and Pradeep Sharma of the University of Houston. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from 3D printing to food and cooking — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Alessio Lorusso, founder and CEO of Roboze

Alessio Lorusso joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss why he chose Houston to set up U.S. operations for his large-scale 3D printing company, and how the city has the potential to become a hub for the industry. Photo via LinkedIn

The hit the pandemic has had on the global supply chain has been a huge hit to so many companies. However, one Italian company with its United States headquarters in Houston, has an alternative for customers — large scale, in-house production. Roboze, which recently completed a multimillion-dollar fundraise, has seen explosive growth due in large part to how COVID-19 has affected the global supply chain over this past two years.

"This was an incredible accelerator for us," says Alessio Lorusso, CEO and founder, on the Houston Innovators Podcast. He adds that, while Roboze has attracted large corporate customers, the business is seeing growth in the small to mid-sized company sector.

"The moment is now," Lorusso says. "The time to integrate printing capabilities and have the possibility to print parts in house is something that needs to be done now." Click here to read more and listen to the podcast.

Tobi Smith, founder of All I Do Is Cook

All I Do Is Cook is on a mission to grow accessibility to Nigerian dishes. Image via allidoiscook.com

Tobi Smith wanted to take his business to the next level — and he found the perfect opportunity to do so. After completing the gBETA accelerator program and winning the grand prize in the ClearCo ClearPitch competition, Smith and his business partner Bethany Oyefeso are transitioning their small business, All I Do Is Cook, into a startup with the ultimate goal of making Nigerian food accessible to everybody.

Smith and Oyefeso came one step closer to that goal when Phoencia, a Houston grocery story, started stocking the startup's condiments in 2021. In that same year, Smith and Oyefesso joined the gBETA accelerator program. Smith described this program as being instrumental in the advancement of their company from a small business to a start up, now at the beginning of their pre-seed funding phase.

“They taught us everything about what it meant to be a start up and connected us with mentors and other individuals working in the food and beverage space,” says Smith. Click here to read more.

Pradeep Sharma, engineering department chair at the University of Houston

Pradeep Sharma, M.D. Anderson Chair Professor and department chair at the University of Houston, was named to the National Academy of Engineering. Photo via uh.edu

The National Academy of Engineering elected its new members, and five local scientists are among the new 133-person cohort — as is Elon Musk, if you were wondering. The appointment is among the highest professional distinctions in an engineer's career.

Pradeep Sharma, M.D. Anderson Chair Professor and department chair, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Houston, was recognized for establishing the field of flexoelectricity, leading to the creation of novel materials and devices and insights in biophysical phenomena.

“Nature has provided us very few piezoelectric materials even though their applications in energy harvesting and in making sensors is very important. What we did was use theory to design materials that perform like piezoelectric ones, so that they can create electricity,” says Sharma in the release. Click here to read more.

This week's Houston innovators to know include Megan Eddings and Amanda Cotler of Accel Lifestyle and Brad Burke of Rice Alliance. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

It seems like 2020 is the year of the pivot and taking what the world has thrown at you —from pandemics to oil gluts — and making something out of what you have.

This week's innovators to know include a Houston startup flipping the switch on production to make face masks to the Rice Alliance re-envisioning an annual event that usually takes place at a global conference.

Megan Eddings and Amanda Cotler of Accel Lifestyle

Photos courtesy

When Megan Eddings and Amanda Cotler saw the CDC was recommending medical professionals wear bandanas or strips of cloth when surgical face masks weren't available, they had an idea.

The duo behind Accel Lifestyle, a Houston-based athletic wear startup that has a bacteria-resistent fabric, hopped on a call to see how they could rework their supply chain to quickly pivot to making face masks.

When setting up the company, Eddings, Accel's founder, made it a priority to avoid sweatshops, and she set up her supply chain to be completely within the United States — something that's been beneficial to the company's COVID pivot.

"If we did not have a 100 percent domestic supply chain, there's no way we could have done this," Eddings says.

Eddings and Cotler joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to share the story of how Accel went from deciding to make the masks to selling them by the thousands to Houston Methodist.

"When you think of face masks, you wouldn't think about activewear or thinking of Accel being a part of the fight against coronavirus," Cotler says. However, that might no longer be the case for the company now. Click here to learn more and to stream the podcast episode.

Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship

Photo via alliance.rice.edu

Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship typically hosts their Energy Tech Venture Day from the one of the halls within NRG Arena at the annual Offshore Technology Conference. However, the conference that attracts thousands of people from around the world, much like so many events, was canceled due to coronavirus.

But Brad Burke and his team at the Rice Alliance turned to tech to introduce the first virtual event, which then took place on Thursday, May 7. Burke introduced the event that had 39 startups that represented 11 different states and six different countries, 13 call Houston their HQ.

"We had many startups and corporations reach out to us and ask us if we could go ahead with the event in a virtual format, so that's how we ended up where we are today," says Burke. Click here to read more.

This week's innovators to know are Debbie Mercer, Andrew Bruce, and Maria Maso. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

While headlines about coronavirus keep multiplying — similar to the virus' cases, Houston's innovation news hasn't yet slowed.

This week's people to know include a female entrepreneur who's leveling the playing field for outdoorsy women, a blockchain expert with new growth, and an investor creating the angel network she's been wanting for years.

Debbie Mercer, founder of Zip Hers

Photo courtesy of Zip Hers

Debbie Mercer, a Houston entrepreneur, has designed articles of clothing to empower female athletes. The marathon runner was tired of seeing female runners standing in long lines, awaiting their turns to do their business behind closed doors, while their male friends resorted to quickly and discreetly ducking behind the porta-potties, or finding nearby trees. Precious time ticked by as the women watched their male counterparts continue the race.

The Houstonian created Zip Hers, an activewear brand that has a full-length zipper lining the bikini area of each pant, to accommodate on-the-go women. The Zip Hers concept and design was intended to level the playing field for women and men when it comes to competitive sports.

"If we're wasting time on a bathroom break and they're not, that holds us back…Maybe it's our little tiny contribution to women's equality. We just really want to help women be the best that they can be," Mercer says. Click here to read more.

Andrew Bruce, CEO and founder of Data Gumbo Corp.

Photo courtesy of Data Gumbo

For the fist time, Data Gumbo Corp.'s GumboNet will be used in geothermal energy drilling thanks to the startup's new Indonesia-based client, Air Drilling Associates, a drilling and project management service provider.

"Expansion into Southeast Asia with ADA's deployment signals GumboNet's global applicability and benefit to industry — in this case, geothermal energy development," says Andrew Bruce, CEO and founder of Data Gumbo, in a news release. "We are excited that Data Gumbo is entering yet another sector of the energy market for improvements across its supply chain." Click here to read more.

Maria Maso, founder of Business Angel Minority Association

Photo courtesy of Nijalon Dunn

Maria Maso, frustrated with her investment opportunities in Houston, has launched the Business Angel Minority Association, or baMa, to gather established or brand new angel investors to move the needle on investments into minority-founded startups. Maso, founder and CEO, and Garaizar, president, want to round up 100 investors by the end of 2020. And they want these investors to write checks.

"We are not a networking organization. We are an investment organization. We are expecting at some point that you are writing a check to a startup," Maso says. "If we are doing our job properly and we are showing you the right startups, you should be able to make a check at some point." Click here to read more.

This week's innovators to know are focused on bringing startup programming and venture capital to Houston. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This past week has been full of exciting innovation news in Houston — from big fundraising round closings to a new unicorn coming out of the Bayou City.

Houston innovators to know this week include a new program director for Houston's newest startup accelerator, a venture capital fund leader, and more.

Eléonore Cluzel, program director of gBETA Houston program as director

Courtesy of gBETA Houston

Houston's newest accelerator program, gBETA, named its new local leader. Eléonore Cluzel will lead the gBETA Houston program as director, and will be the point person for the program in the region for the two annual cohorts. Previously, Cluzel worked for Business France mentoring French startups and small businesses. In her new position, she says she's excited to support founders across all industries and foster innovation.

"We're adding another resource for local founders to grow their startups and to raise money, and not have to move to Silicon Valley to do it," she says. "We will also serve as a connector, introducing founders to mentors and investors within the community and across gener8tor broader network." Click here to read more.

Sandy Wallis, managing director of the HX Venture Fund

Courtesy of Sandy Wallis

After 20 years in the venture capital world, Sandy Guitar Wallis has seen the evolution of investing — on both coasts and here in Houston as well. Now, as managing director of the HX Venture Fund, Wallis leads the fund of funds that's investing in VCs around the country in order to bring investment to Houston.

"We have raised a fund of funds with the HX Venture Fund, and we're deploying that capital across probably 10 venture capital funds over time," Wallis explains on the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Each one of those funds, will invest in 15 to 20 underlying private companies. So, at the end of the day, HX Venture Fund 1 will have exposure to 10 VC funds, as an example, and — by virtue of those investments — maybe 300 private companies." Click here to read more.

James Y. Lancaster, Texas branch manager for Arkansas-based VIC Technology Venture Development

Photo courtesy of VIC

Startups fail — and there are a number of reasons why that is. James Y. Lancaster, who serves as Texas branch manager for Arkansas-based VIC Technology Venture Development, writes in a guest column for InnovationMap about the second most common reason for startup failure: funding.

"A key part of the startup CEO's job is to understand how much total cash remains on hand and whether it is enough to carry the startup towards a milestone that can lead to successful financing as well as a positive cash flow," Lancaster writes. "Just as important is how to allocate their time and efforts to the fundraising process along the way." Click here to read more.

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.