Ara Partners announced this week that it has acquired a majority interest in Houston-based USD Clean Fuels. Image via Getty Images

Fresh off its $3 billion fund closure, a Houston private equity firm has made its latest acquisition.

Ara Partners announced this week that it has acquired a majority interest in Houston-based USD Clean Fuels, a developer of logistics infrastructure for renewable fuels. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

"We have high conviction that the green molecules economy – whether it's renewable fuel feedstocks or biofuels – offers disproportionate opportunity for returns and impact," George Yong, partner and co-head of Infrastructure at Ara Partners, says in a news release. "The USDCF platform is particularly compelling because it combines a best-in-class management team with a portfolio of premiere terminal logistics projects that provide the ideal foundation for a durable and scalable infrastructure business."

Included in the transaction, USDCF has acquired the West Colton Rail Terminal, a biofuels terminal operating in in California. Ara has reportedly committed additional capital to support USDCF's infrastructure footprint expansion.

"We are excited to join forces with Ara Partners to bring critical infrastructure solutions to the rapidly growing North American renewable fuel market, beginning with the West Colton Rail Terminal," Dan Borgen, CEO of USDCF, says in the release. "We are proud to be backed by an investor that is completely focused on enabling an accelerated and economical path to a low-carbon economy."

Ara Partners, which has around $5.6 billion of assets under management, closed its third fund a few weeks ago to the tune of $3 billion. The firm has offices in Houston, Boston and Dublin, Ireland, and focuses on industrial decarbonization.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Allie Danziger joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss her edtech startup Ampersand's exit. Photo courtesy of Ampersand

How this Houston edtech startup's acquisition is primed to further advance platform reach, impact

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 200

For the second time in less than six years, Houston entrepreneur Allie Danziger has navigated a company through an exit. But, with the two exists under her belt, Danziger says the two transactions could not be any more different.

Danziger founded Integrate Agency, a digital-focused public relations firm, in 2009 and sold it to another marketing and PR firm based in Austin in 2018. She founded her next company, Ampersand Professionals, in 2020 to address the challenges for upskilling young professionals to prepare them for success in the workplace — something employers really wanted, but struggled to do consistently.

Last month, Ampersand was acquired by Ascent Funding, a college loan provider that's building out a platform to support its college-aged borrowers. In this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Danziger shares how this opportunity came about and looks back on these two pivotal deals.

"Integrate definitely was not built to sell — I didn't even know that people sold businesses when I was 24 (and started the agency," Danziger, who worked in PR her entire career at that time, says, adding that she thought she'd work at the company her whole life before passing it down to her children. "It ended up being a life-changing experience and opportunity because it did open my eyes up to other other things that I could do professionally — and also just kind of like the way that businesses are structured and run."

One of those things she considered post acquisition was upskilling entry-level employees. At Integrate, she hired a lot of interns and recent college graduates. She recognized there was a gap in the market. The first problem she identified was the need to match interns to positions at companies in an optimized way. While that's how the company started, it pivoted as Danziger says she saw the bigger need not for finding interns, but for making sure they were ready for their positions from the start.

"Most business leaders need their interns and entry-level employees starting day one with an understanding of how to communicate, and they don't really have the resources to teach them some of these skills," she explains.

Once the Ampersand platform, which has tons of resources and hours of instruction loaded on it, the challenge was finding the stakeholders that wanted the platform to exist — her potential customers. Was it the colleges or the employers? Through this journey, she realized that college loan lenders are part of that equation too.

"The lenders — the ones who are giving the student loans — they're the ones who really need them to be successful in the workplace," Danziger explains, saying the success of their loan recipients ensures a timely payout for the lender. "Their business model is predicated on students being successful, and I'd always known that, but not quite known what to do with that knowledge."

Danziger says the idea for acquisition, while always in the back of her mind, really became a possibility when she went out to raise funding.

"You're always raising money, and you're always for sale," Danziger says of the startup journey.

When a potential investor raised the idea of being a potential acquirer, Danziger says she started doing some soul searching. The right acquisition deal could help her address the milestones she wanted to reach with investment funding — growing her team, expanding her technology, and broadening reach. Through a diligent process, Danziger decided on Ascent from a few other potential acquirers.

"I'm not going anywhere. I want to still keep solving this problem, but with a larger team and larger resources," she says. "Either I could go find that myself, or I could join forces we could join forces with an established organization."

Danziger says her role at Ascent is still being constructed in terms of scope and responsibilities, but her title as of now is senior vice president and general manager of student success. She will lead the company's educational program that focuses on equipping students with skills from education to employment.

She shares more on the acquisition process — including her advice to startups thinking about the M&A path. Listen to the interview here — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Houston-based Melax Tech has been acquired. Photo via MelaxTech.com

Houston digital health startup acquired by Illinois-based company

M&A moves

A Houston startup has exited to a clinical terminology management and data quality solutions company.

Melax Technologies Inc., an artificial intelligence and natural language processing technology company, has been acquired by Intelligent Medical Objects, which is headquartered in the Chicago area. It's the first acquisition for IMO, and the deal will allow for the company to expand its offerings to various segments in the health care market.

"Today marks an exciting moment for IMO as we complete our first acquisition,” says Ann Barnes, CEO at IMO, in a news release. “Combining Melax Tech’s analytics and NLP capabilities with IMO’s clinical terminology and data quality platform will enable healthcare organizations to have a more comprehensive solution for both clinical operation and research.

"The acquisition will also help extend our state-of-the-art capabilities to payer, pharmaceutical, and life science companies,” she continues.

Founded in 2017 and based out of the Texas Medical Center Innovation Factory, Melax Tech is used by over 650 organizations for clinical trials optimization and more.

“We are thrilled to join forces with IMO and combine our NLP expertise with their clinical terminology and knowledge management solutions,” says Andre Pontin, CEO of Melax Tech, in the release. “Together, we will be able to offer healthcare organizations a powerful suite of solutions that will enable them to improve patient outcomes and reduce costs.”

Melax Tech has entered into a handful of strategic partnerships over its six-year existence and raised $600,000 in grant funding from the National Institute of Health and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The details of the acquisition transaction have not been disclosed.

Houston-based GoCo.io has acquired a company that aims to improve the work-from-home employee experience. Courtesy of GoCo

Houston HR SaaS company acquires remote-first platform

growing tech

A Houston software startup has made a strategic acquisition to account for the increasingly large number of companies employing a remote-first workforce.

After closing a $15 million series B funding round last year, GoCo.io, an HR solutions software platform, has acquired WFHomie, a platform that helps remote-first companies enhance the employee experience as well as keep up with people analytics. According to GoCo research, most HR professionals report that they are being asked to retain top talent — employee engagement programs are key to driving that retention, the company says in a news release.

“We know that employee experience is top of mind for SMBs and the HR teams that support them,” says Nir Leibovich, co-founder and CEO of GoCo, in the release. “Our team and our platform are growing rapidly in support of our mission to empower HR professionals, and this acquisition is a key step in that direction.

"It’s clear that the leadership of WFHomie share our vision, passion, and excitement for creating innovative products that help companies build better workplaces," he continues. "We’re confident that the WFHomie team will bring the expertise and agility we need to ship new products and expand our service offerings in line with that vision.”

The details of the transaction were not disclosed. The WFHomie team will be on boarded at GoCo.

Founded in November of 2020 in direct response to the pandemic, Toronto-based WFHomie raised $1.6 million in seed funding in 2021.

“Nir and the leadership team at GoCo are dedicated to building a future where HR and People Ops leaders have the bandwidth to support their employees effectively and create thriving, high-performing workplaces” says Pavla Bobosikova, co-founder and CEO of WFHomie in the news release. “We share the same vision – to improve work-life for employees, while empowering organizations to operate more effectively.”

Founded in 2015 by Leibovich, Jason Wang, and Michael Gugel, GoCo has raised $27.5 million to date and has over 100 employees, according to LinkedIn.

Fluence Analytics has exited to a multinational Japanese engineering and software giant. Image via FluenceAnalytics.com

Houston tech startup acquired by Tokyo-based multinational company

exit executed

A Houston company that provides analytics solutions within the chemicals industry has exited to a Japanese company.

Yokogawa acquired Fluence Analytics Inc. in a deal announced today. The terms of the deal were not disclosed and, effective immediately, the company operate as Yokogawa Fluence Analytics. Jay Manouchehri, who joined the company in 2022, will continue to serve as CEO of the entity.

“Combining forces with Yokogawa Electric enables us to capture the full value of our unique data sets, and we can't wait to deliver this added value to our customers," Manouchehri says in a news release. "Together, we will enable autonomous operations and digital transformation in the polymer and biopharma industries."

Founded in 2012 in New Orleans, Fluence Analytics moved to Houston in 2021 following a $7.5 million venture capital raise led by Yokogawa Electric Corp., which has its North American headquarters in Sugar Land.

The company's technology — automatic continuous online monitoring of polymerizations (ACOMP) product — provides real-time analytics solutions to polymer and biopharmaceutical companies worldwide. According to the company, its ACOMP product is the only commercially available system that can measure and analyze multiple polymer properties in real time, which leads to an improved system and less energy consumption and waste.

“Polymers are used in nearly every aspect of modern society in the form of plastics, rubber, paint, and so on," says Kenji Hasegawa, a Yokogawa Electric vice president and head of the Yokogawa Products Headquarters, in the release. "Combining Fluence Analytics' ACOMP system and other technology with our industry know-how will enable us to work with our customers to digitalize and automate polymerization processes that are currently monitored and adjusted manually.

"This will assist customers to improve worker safety, profitability, and environmental performance. We also plan to apply this technology to polymer re-use. We believe this is truly a game-changer for the industry,” he continues.

Fluence Analytics offices in Stafford, just southwest of Houston and has a team of 25 employees. Last fall, Fluence Analytics won in the Hardtech Category of the Houston Innovation Awards.

Houston-based Archaea Energy's RNG facilities capture waste emissions and convert them into low-carbon fuel. Photo via archaeaenergy.com

Houston sustainable energy company to be acquired by industry giant for $4.1B

big buyout

BP’s proposed $4.1 billion acquisition of Houston-based Archaea Energy promises to dramatically boost the energy giant’s presence in the biogas market.

Publicly traded Archaea is one of the largest producers of renewable natural gas, or RNG, in the U.S. Its RNG facilities capture waste emissions and convert them into low-carbon fuel. Biogas is produced through the conversion of organic matter like animal manure, trash, plant material, food waste, and sewage.

Through the cash-and-debt deal, BP will gain ownership of 50 RNG and landfill gas-to-energy facilities across the U.S. Once the deal is wrapped up, BP anticipates a 50 percent increase in biogas volumes.

Archaea's development pipeline of more than 80 projects holds the potential for a fivefold increase in RNG volumes at BP by 2030. The pipeline includes 40 RNG projects that Archaea plans to develop with Republic Services, a solid waste disposal company based in Phoenix. Republic Services is a rival of Houston-based Waste Management.

BP expects Archaea to double its biogas-driven EBITDA to about $2 billion within the next eight years. Allied Market Research predicts the global market for waste-derived biogas will jump from $52.9 billion in 2020 to $126.2 by 2030.

The Archaea acquisition is set to close later this year. Once the deal is completed, Archaea will operate as subsidiary of BP, whose U.S. headquarters is in Houston. Archaea relocated its headquarters from Pittsburgh to Houston last year.

“Archaea was founded with a mission to build the world’s leading RNG development company to reduce global emissions and make multigenerational sustainability impacts,” Nick Stork, co-founder and CEO of Archaea, says in a news release. “In a very short period of time, we have rapidly become a leading RNG platform in the U.S., and [the BP acquisition] will further enable this business to realize its full potential.”

BP notes that the demand for biogas is rising thanks to the growth of renewable hydrogen, electric-vehicle charging, and other emerging segments of the energy sector.

“Our biogas team is already one of the leading suppliers of renewable natural gas in North America,” Dave Lawler, chairman and president of BP America, says in a news release. “This deal accelerates our ability to deliver cleaner energy, generate significant earnings in a fast-growing sector, and help reduce emissions. This could help BP take a significant stride toward our net-zero ambition.”

BP America employs nearly 4,000 full-time workers in Houston.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.