Activate is planting its roots in Houston with a plan to have its first set of fellows next year. Photo via Getty Images

An organization that directs support to scientists developing impactful technology has decided on Houston for its fifth program.

Activate was founded in Berkeley, California, in 2015 to bridge the gap between the federal and public sectors to deploy capital and resources into the innovators creating transformative products. The nonprofit expanded its programs to Boston and New York before launching a virtual fellowship program — Activate Anywhere, which is for scientists 50 or more miles outside one of the three hubs.

"Our mission is to empower scientists to reinvent the world by bringing their research to market," Aimee Rose, executive managing director of Activate, tells InnovationMap. "There's so much technical talent that we educate in this country every year and so many amazing inventions that happen, that combining the two, which is the sort of inventor/entrepreneur, and giving them the support mechanisms they need to get on their feet and be successful, has the potential to unlock an incredible amount of value for the country, for the environment, and to address other social problems."

This year, Activate is planting seeds in Houston to grow a presence locally and have its first set of fellows in 2024. While Activate is industry agnostic, Rose says a big draw from Houston is the ability to impact the future of energy.

"We're super excited about Houston as an emerging ecosystem for the clean energy transition as being the energy capital of the world, as well as all the other emerging players there are across the landscape in Houston," Rose says. "I think we can move the needle in Houston because of our national footprint."

The first order of business, Rose says, is hiring a managing director for Activate Houston. The job, which is posted online, is suited for an individual who has already developed a hardtech business and has experience and connections within Houston's innovation ecosystem.

"We want to customize the program so that it makes the most sense for the community," Rose says about the position. "So, somebody that has the relationships and the knowledge of the ecosystem to be able to do that and somebody that's kind of a mentor at heart."

The program is for early-stage founders — who have raised less than $2 million in funding — working on high-impact technology. Rose explains that Activate has seen a number of microelectronics and new materials companies go through the program, and, while medical innovation is impactful, Activate doesn't focus on pharmaceutical or therapeutic industries since there are existing pathways for those products.

Ultimately, Activate is seeking innovators whose technologies fall through the cracks of existing innovation infrastructure.

"Not every business fits into the venture capital model in terms of what investors would expect to be eventual outcomes, but these these types of businesses can still have significant impact and make the world a better place," Rose says, explaining how Activate is different from an incubator or accelerator. "As opposed as compared to a traditional incubator, this is a very high touch program. You get a living stipend so you can take a big business technical risk without a personal risk. We give you a lot of hands on support and mentoring."

Each of the programs selects 10 fellows that join the program for two years. The fellows receive a living stipend, connections from Activate's robust network of mentors, and access to a curriculum specific to the program.

Since its inception, Activate has supported 104 companies and around 146 entrepreneurs associated with those companies. With the addition of Houston, Activate will be able to back 50 individuals a year.

From a new hard tech grant opportunity to apply for to health tech innovation expansion, here's your latest roundup of Houston startup and innovation news you may have missed. Photo via Getty Images

Houston startup expands nationally, teams win DOE prize, and more local innovation news

short stories

As Houston ramps up for fall, the city's innovation news has followed suit, and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, Houston angel investors dole out prize money, the DOE grants Houston innovators some cash, a digital health company expands, and more.

2 Houston teams win DOE geothermal manufacturing prize

Both of the teams that won this competition hailed from Houston. Image via energy.gov

This week, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that two Houston-based companies have won the American-Made Geothermal Manufacturing Prize — a $4.65 million competition to incentivize innovators to use 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, to address the challenges associated with operating sensitive equipment in harsh geothermal environments, per a press release. The competition challenged participants with quickly developing, testing, and revising prototypes using additive manufacturing to support the advancement of geothermal tools and technologies.

“This DOE competition harnesses breakthroughs in additive manufacturing to help overcome barriers to widespread deployment of geothermal energy,” says Alejandro Moreno, deputy assistant secretary for renewable power, in the release. “The rapid prototype development supported by this prize is spurring advancements in the geothermal industry to help power the nation from the heat beneath our feet.”

The competition launched in January 2020, and the finalists presented their innovations at the annual Geothermal Rising conference in Reno, Nevada. The winning teams each were awarded $500,000 in cash and up to $200,000 to test their innovations in the field. The two Houston-based winning teams were:

  • Team Downhole Emerging Technologies: "This team developed an alternative to traditional packer systems," the release states. "The all-metal, retrievable packer system is designed specifically for high temperatures, extreme pressures, and corrosion experienced in geothermal wells. The Downhole Emerging Technologies’ partnership resulted in the production of the largest Inconel additively manufactured component by Proto Labs, Inc. and the development of DET’s tool, the Diamond ETIP (Extreme Temperature Isolation Packer).”
  • Team Ultra-High Temperature Logging Tool: "This team developed a technology that uses a labyrinthian heat sink to reduce thermal emissivity and increase the exposure time of temperature sensitive electronic components," according to the release. "Oak Ridge National Laboratory used a powder bed laser fusion technique to manufacture the heat sink design, with the aim that the technology would solve limitations around maximum temperature rating and lifetime of electronics in logging and measurement tools. The team also worked closely with Sandia National Laboratories to test the logging prototype in a high-temperature setting."

Koda Health expands across the country

Koda Health has gone nationwide. Image via kodahealthcare.com

Houston-based Koda Health has announced via LinkedIn that it has expanded into a handful of new states recently: Florida, Oregon, North Carolina, Virginia, California, and Maryland. These six expansions have all been announced over the past month following the announcement in July that the company is going nationwide.

"Every state has different regulations and requirements for their advancecare planning documents. So, the folks at Nixon Gwilt Law and Koda Health have been hard at work making our platform compliant in every single state," the company announced in a post. "It's hard work, but we're committed to helping patients stay in control of their health care journey, regardless of where they call home."

Koda Health was born out of the TMC's Biodesign Fellowship and launched by Tatiana Fofanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry in March of 2020. The platform uses AI to help patients create advanced medical care directives and documents, such as a living will, through its proprietary machine learning approach.

In February, Koda closed over $3 million in seed funding in order to grow its staff and support expansion. Now, including Texas, Koda is in seven states across the country.

Houston angels dole out cash to RBPC winner

Hoth Intelligence — a digital health startup — is cashing in on its RBPC prizes. Photo via Getty Images

The Houston Angel Network announced its investment of over $160,000 in Hoth Intelligence, the winner of HAN’s prize at the 2022 Rice Business Plan Competition.

“Following the HAN award announcement at the RBPC banquet, we learned that the Houston Chapter of The Indus investor Entrepreneurs (TiE) was also interested in Hoth as an investment for its members," says HAN Chairman Richard Hunter in a news release.

The organizations collaborated on due diligence and negotiation of the investment terms. Hunter led HAN's due diligence and Jeff Tomlinson led the effort on behalf of TiE.

The company, which was established at University of Pittsburgh, has developed an artificial intelligence platform for health care providers. The company's RBPC prize initially totaled $386,700 in investment awards from a handful of entities.

Per HAN's news release, Houston investment firms Prosalus Capital Partners joined in with a $300,000 investment and PiFei VC contributed an additional $100,000.”

“Several companies at the 2022 RPBC, including Hoth Intelligence, ranked very high in the TiE judging," says TiE Houston Chapter President Ram Shenoy. "We therefore decided to pursue due diligence and were very pleased to have worked with HAN to expeditiously complete the deal. To date, it has attracted TiE investors from chapters in Atlanta, Silicon Valley, and Southern California who have committed over $154,000 in investment.”

Sustainable biz tapped for prestigious program

This Houston entrepreneur is getting ready to pitch. Image courtesy

Houston-based Trendy Seconds was chosen as part of the SOCAP Global Entrepreneur 2022 Cohort — a prestigious event in the social entrepreneurship world that grants scholarships to entrepreneurs from all over the globe.

Trendy Seconds is an online marketplace where women can find pre-owned clothing or shop for new clothing from sustainable brands. The company shares items from more than 50 brands that can be searched by category, style, size, price, condition, and positive impact. To ensure the clothing is high quality, shoppers will find only gently-used or new items featured on Trendy Seconds.

Through the program, Founder Maria Burgos will pitch live in San Francisco on October 20.

Deadline approaches for Activate Anywhere

Calling all scientists on a mission. Image via Getty Images

A global accelerator billed as "for scientists on a mission" has opened its latest round of registration. Activate Anywhere is a remote-based program for hard tech innovators that takes no equity, requires no fees, and provides significant financial support, including a living stipend of up to $110,000 a year, $100,000 in R&D funding, $100,000 additional flexible capital, health care coverage, travel allowance, and more.

Applications September 15, but registration to apply is free and open now. The deadline to apply is October 31 and finalists will be announced in February.

To be eligible for the program, you must:

  • have a bachelor’s degree and at least four years post-baccalaureate scientific research, engineering, or technology development experience.
  • be the leader of a technical project or company that is relevant to our target industries and is based in the physical or biological sciences, or related engineering disciplines.
  • be leading the commercial development of a hardware-based technology innovation for the first time i.e. not a repeat hard-tech founder. You may apply as a solo applicant or with one co-applicant.
  • not have raised more than $2 million in debt or equity funding from non-governmental sources for the proposed project at the time of the application deadline.
  • be able to work in the U.S. for the duration of the fellowship, and have access to a qualified host laboratory.

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Houston investor on SaaS investing and cracking product-market fit

Houston innovators podcast episode 230

Aziz Gilani's career in tech dates back to when he'd ride his bike from Clear Lake High School to a local tech organization that was digitizing manuals from mission control. After years working on every side of the equation of software technology, he's in the driver's seat at a local venture capital firm deploying funding into innovative software businesses.

As managing director at Mercury, the firm he's been at since 2008, Gilani looks for promising startups within the software-as-a-service space — everything from cloud computing and data science and beyond.

"Once a year at Mercury, we sit down with our partners and talk about the next investment cycle and the focuses we have for what makes companies stand out," Gilani says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The current software investment cycle is very focused on companies that have truly achieved product-market fit and are showing large customer adoption."



An example of this type of company is Houston-based RepeatMD, which raised a $50 million series A round last November. Mercury's Fund V, which closed at an oversubscribed $160 million, contributed to RepeatMD's round.

"While looking at that investment, it really made me re-calibrate a lot of my thoughts in terms what product-market fit meant," Gilani says. "At RepeatMD, we had customers that were so eager for the service that they were literally buying into products while we were still making them."

Gilani says he's focused on finding more of these high-growth companies to add to Mercury's portfolio amidst what, admittedly, has been a tough time for venture capital. But 2024 has been looking better for those fundraising.

"We've some potential for improvement," Gilani says. "But overall, the environment is constrained, interest rates haven't budged, and we've seen some potential for IPO activity."

Gilani shares more insight into his investment thesis, what areas of tech he's been focused on recently, and how Houston has developed as an ecosystem on the podcast.

Houston startup scores $12M grant to support clinical evaluation of cancer-fighting drug

fresh funding

Allterum Therapeutics, a Houston biopharmaceutical company, has been awarded a $12 million product development grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

The funds will support the clinical evaluation of a therapeutic antibody that targets acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), one of the most common childhood cancers.

However, CEO and President Atul Varadhachary, who's also the managing director of Fannin Innovation, tells InnovationMap, “Our mission has grown much beyond ALL.”

The antibody, called 4A10, was invented by Scott Durum PhD and his team at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Licensed exclusively by Allterum, a company launched by Fannin, 4A10 is a novel immunotherapy that utilizes a patient’s own immune system to locate and kill cancer cells.

Varadhachary explained that while about 80 percent of patients afflicted with ALL have the B-cell version, the other 20 percent suffer from T-cell ALL.

“Because the TLL population is so small, there are really no approved, effective drugs for it. The last drug that was approved was 18 or 19 years ago,” the CEO-scientist said. 4A10 addresses this unmet need, but also goes beyond it.

Because 4A10 targets CD127, also known as the interleukin-7 receptor, it could be useful in the treatment of myriad cancers. In fact, the receptor is expressed not just in hematological cancers like ALL, but also solid tumors like breast, lung, and colorectal cancers. There’s also “robust data,” according to Varadhachary for the antibody’s success against B-cell ALL, as well as many other cancers.

“Now what we're doing in parallel with doing the development for ALL is that we're continuing to do additional preclinical work in these other indications, and then at some point, we will raise a series A financing that will allow us to expand markets into things which are much more commercially attractive,” Varadhachary explains.

Why did they go for the less commercially viable application first? As Varadhachary put it, “The Fannin model is to allow us to go after areas which are major unmet medical needs, even if they are not necessarily as attractive on a commercial basis.”

But betting on a less common malady could have a bigger payoff than the Allterum team originally expected.

Before the new CPRIT grant, Allterum’s funding included a previous seed grant from CPRIT of $3 million. Other funds included an SBIR grant from NCI, as well as another NCI program called NExT, which deals specifically with experimental therapies.

“To get an antibody from research into clinical testing takes about $10 million,” Varadhachary says. “It's an expensive proposition.”

With this, and other nontraditional financing, the company was able to take what Varadhachary called “a huge unmet medical need but a really tiny commercial market” and potentially help combat a raft of other childhood cancers.

“That's our vision. It's not economically hugely attractive, but we think it's important,” says Varadhachary.

Atul Varadhachary is the managing director of Fannin Innovation. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston researcher scores prestigious NSF award for machine learning, power grid tech

grant funding

An associate professor at the University of Houston received the highly competitive National Science Foundation CAREER Award earlier this month for a proposal focused on integrating renewable resources to improve power grids.

The award grants more than $500,000 to Xingpeng Li, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and leader of the Renewable Power Grid Lab at UH, to continue his work on developing ways to use machine learning to ensure that power systems can continue to run efficiently when pulling their energy from wind and solar sources, according to a statement from UH. This work has applications in the events of large disturbances to the grid.

Li explains that currently, power grids run off of converted, stored kinetic energy during grid disturbances.

"For example, when the grid experiences sudden large generation losses or increased electrical loads, the stored kinetic energy immediately converted to electrical energy and addressed the temporary shortfall in generation,” Li said in a statement. “However, as the proportion of wind and solar power increases in the grid, we want to maximize their use since their marginal costs are zero and they provide clean energy. Since we reduce the use of those traditional generators, we also reduce the power system inertia (or stored kinetic energy) substantially.”

Li plans to use machine learning to create more streamlined models that can be implemented into day-ahead scheduling applications that grid operators currently use.

“With the proposed new modeling and computational approaches, we can better manage grids and ensure it can supply continuous quality power to all the consumers," he said.

In addition to supporting Li's research and model creations, the funds will also go toward Li and his team's creation of a free, open-source tool for students from kindergarten up through their graduate studies. They are also developing an “Applied Machine Learning in Power Systems” course. Li says the course will help meet workforce needs.

The CAREER Award recognizes early-career faculty members who “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the NSF. It's given to about 500 researchers each year.

Earlier this year, Rice assistant professor Amanda Marciel was also

granted an NSF CAREER Award to continue her research in designing branch elastomers that return to their original shape after being stretched. The research has applications in stretchable electronics and biomimetic tissues.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.