This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Jeremy Pitts of Activate Houston, Tim Boire of VenoStent, and Kevin Knobloch of Greentown Labs. 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 medical device to climatetech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Jeremy Pitts, managing director for Activate Houston

Jeremy Pitts has been named the inaugural Houston managing director for Activate. Photo via LinkedIn

Activate named Jeremy Pitts as the Houston managing director this month. The nonprofit, which announced its new Houston program earlier this year, 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.

For Activate Houston, the challenge is to focus on finding and supporting innovators within the energy sector.

"There are so many reasons to be excited about the energy transition and overall innovation ecosystem in Houston — the region's leadership in energy and desire to maintain that leadership through the energy transition, the many corporations leading the charge to be part of that change who are speaking with their actions and not just their words, the incredible access to talent, the region's diversity, the list goes on and on," Pitts tells InnovationMap. Read more.

Tim Boire, CEO and co-founder of VenoStent

Tim Boire shares his company's roadmap on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

Commercializing a health tech innovation is a long game — fraught with regulatory obstacles, cyclical rounds of funding, and continuous improvement — all fueled by the desire to enhance treatment and save lives.

That's Tim Boire's plan. And it's a thorough one at that. On this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Boire — president and CEO of VenoStent, a medical device startup that’s designing a unique material for hemodialysis patients — shares his roadmap for his company.

"We believe we can be pioneers of a paradigm shift in vascular surgery — to not just treat problems after they've already occurred, but actually prevent them from occurring in the first place," he says in the episode. Read more.

Kevin Knobloch , CEO of Greentown Labs

Kevin Knobloch will lead Greentown Labs as CEO. Photo via LinkedIn

While not based in Houston, Kevin Knobloch, who served as chief of staff of the United States Department of Energy in President Barack Obama’s second term, is definitely going to be someone to know in the innovation ecosystem. He will be CEO of Greentown Labs, effective September 5. In his role, Knobloch will oversee both Greentown locations in Houston and Somerville, Massachusetts, outside of Boston.

“I’m honored and thrilled to have the opportunity to once again pass the leadership baton,” Greentown Co-Founder Jason Hanna says, who has been serving as interim CEO. “Especially so given Kevin’s incredible record of climate leadership. I’m excited for the future of this organization and the impact he can make as Greentown enters the second decade of its climate mission.” Read more.

Jeremy Pitts has been named the inaugural Houston managing director for Activate. Photo via LinkedIn

Exclusive: New-to-Houston hardtech accelerator names local leader

innovator to know

An organization that promotes early-stage innovation within the hardtech space has named one of the founding entrepreneurs of Greentown Labs as its local Houston lead.

Activate named Jeremy Pitts as the Houston managing director this month. The nonprofit, which announced its new Houston program earlier this year, 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.

For Activate Houston, the challenge is to focus on finding and supporting innovators within the energy sector.

"There are so many reasons to be excited about the energy transition and overall innovation ecosystem in Houston — the region's leadership in energy and desire to maintain that leadership through the energy transition, the many corporations leading the charge to be part of that change who are speaking with their actions and not just their words, the incredible access to talent, the region's diversity, the list goes on and on," Pitts tells InnovationMap.

"Houston is second to none when it comes to solving hard problems and is a region that knows how to build things and execute on projects at the scale needed to tackle the energy transition," he continues.

Pitts was one of the founders of Greentown Labs, and served in a leadership role for the organization between 2011 and 2015. He moved to Houston from Ohio to take the position, but has previously worked in the Bayou City's energy sector.

"Jeremy is the ideal inaugural managing director for Houston — having built a startup there, co-founding the Greentown Labs community, and demonstrating a strong track record of thoughtful mentorship," Aimee Rose, executive managing director of Activate, tells InnovationMap. "Jeremy will serve as the primary guide for our Houston fellows, helping them navigate the ups and downs facing first-time technical founders, and create and foster community among them. He will also plug Activate into the ecosystem to serve as a synergistic partner to all the other amazing initiatives across Texas."

The program finds local and regional early-stage founders — who have raised less than $2 million in funding — who are working on high-impact technology. Each cohort consists of 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.

Applications for the inaugural Houston cohort for 2024 will open September 15 and will close sometime in October.

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.

"As an impact-focused organization that focuses on turning talented scientists and technology leaders into product and business leaders, Activate enters the Houston ecosystem with no ulterior motives other than finding the right partners and being part of a community that enables scientists to solve hard problems and help make the world a better place," Pitts says. "I have a deep appreciation for all that Houston can offer having started and run a startup here previously and having experience in both traditional energy and climate tech."

Tomorrow, the organization is hosting a virtual event to introduce Pitts and the program to the Houston innovation ecosystem. Those interested in learning more can attend the event or find more information online.

Proxima Clinical Research has announced an office expansion — and more Houston innovation news. Photo via Twitter

Med tech firm expands footprint, Houston innovator assumes new role, and more local innovation news

short stories

Houston's innovation ecosystem has had some big news this month, from new job titles for Houston innovators to expanding office space.

In this roundup of Houston startup and innovation news, a Houston organization expands its footprint in the TMC, Rice University opens applications for a cleantech accelerator, and more.

Organization expands footprint in Houston

Proxima CRO has announced its expansion within TMCi. Photo via Twitter

Proxima Clinical Research, a contract research organization headquartered in Houston, announced that it is expanding its office space in the Texas Medical Center Innovation Factory.

"Texas Medical Center is synonymous with innovation, and the TMC Innovation space has proven an ideal location for our CRO. It's an important part of our origin story and a big part of our success," says Kevin Coker, CEO and co-founder of Proxima CRO, in a news release.

The expansion will include around 7,500-square feet of additional office space.

"The resources found across TMC's campuses allow for companies such as Proxima Clinical Research to achieve clinical and business milestones that will continue to shape the future of life sciences both regionally and globally. We are excited for Proxima to expand their footprint at TMC Innovation Factory as they further services for their MedTech customers," says Tom Luby, director of TMC Innovation, in the release.

$20M grant fuels hardtech program's expansion

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

A hardtech-focused nonprofit officially announced its Houston expansion this week. Activate, which InnovationMap reported was setting up its fifth program here last month, received a $20M commitment by the National Science Foundation to fuel its entrance into the Bayou City.

“Houston’s diversity offers great promise in expanding access for the next generation of science entrepreneurs and as a center of innovation for advanced energy," says NSF SBIR/STTR program director Ben Schrag in a news release.

The organization 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.

“We are delighted to be opening our newest Activate community in Houston,” says Activate Anywhere managing director Hannah Murnen, speaking at the annual Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy Innovation Summit. “Houston is a city where innovation thrives, with an abundance of talent, capital, and infrastructure—the perfect setting for the Activate Fellowship.”

Activate is still looking its Houston’s first managing director is actively underway and will select fellows for Activate Houston in 2024.

TMC names new entrepreneur in residence

Zaffer Syed has assumed a new role at TMC. Photo via TMC.org

Houston health tech innovator has announced that he has joined the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Factory as entrepreneur in residence for medtech. Zaffer Syed assumed the new role this month, according to his LinkedIn, and he's been an adviser for the organization since 2017.

Syed has held a few leadership roles at Saranas Inc., a medical device company founded in Houston to detect internal bleeding following medical procedures. He now serves as adviser for the company.

"As CEO of Saranas, he led the recapitalization of the company that led to the FDA De Novo classification and commercial launch of a novel real-time internal bleed monitoring system for endovascular procedures," reads the TMC website. "Zaffer oversaw clinical development, regulatory affairs and strategic marketing at OrthoAccel Technologies, a private dental device startup focused on accelerating tooth movement in patients undergoing orthodontic treatment.

"Prior to working in startup ventures, Zaffer spent the first 13 years of his career in various operational roles at St. Jude Medical and Boston Scientific to support the development and commercialization of Class III implantable devices for cardiovascular and neuromodulation applications."

TMC is currently looking for an entrepreneur in residence for its TMCi Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics program.

Applications open for clean energy startup program

Calling all clean energy startups. Photo courtesy of The Ion

The Clean Energy Accelerator, an energy transition accelerator housed at the Ion and run by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, has opened applications for Class 3. The deadline to apply is April 14.

The accelerator, which helps early-stage ventures reach technical and commercial milestones through hybrid programming and mentorship, will host its Class 3 cohort from July 25 to Sept. 22.

“Accelerating the transition to a net-zero future is a key goal at Rice University. Through accelerating the commercial potential of our own research as well as supporting the further adoption of global technologies right here in Houston, the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator is proof of that commitment,” says Paul Cherukuri, vice president of innovation at Rice, in a news release. “The Rice Alliance has all the critical components early-stage energy ventures need for success: a corporate innovation network, energy investor network, access to mentors and a well-developed curriculum. This accelerator program is a unique opportunity for energy startups to successfully launch and build their ventures and get access to the Houston energy ecosystem.”

According to Rice, the 29 alumni companies from Class 1 and 2 have gone on to secure grants, partnerships, and investments, including more than $75 million in funding. Companies can apply here, learn more about the accelerator here or attend the virtual information session April 3 by registering here.

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

Exclusive: Hardtech-focused program announces Houston expansion, seeks local leader

changing the world

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.

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2 Houston universities score big for patents, MBA programs

academic standouts

Two new rankings have put the University of Houston and Rice University in the academic limelight.

UH ranks 60th on the National Academy of Inventors’ list of the top 100 universities for utility patents granted last year in the U.S. Meanwhile, Rice has moved up dramatically on Bloomberg Businessweek’s annual list of the top full-time MBA programs.

In 2022, UH received 32 utility patents. The university explains that utility patents are among the world’s most valuable assets because they give inventors exclusive commercial rights for producing and using their technology.

UH joins the University of Texas (No. 3), Texas A&M University (No. 37), Texas Tech University (tie for No. 75), and Baylor University (tie for No. 75) as the only Texas schools on the patent list.

“This recognition further underscores our commitment to innovation and the impactful research taking place at UH,” says Ramanan Krishnamoorti, the university’s vice president of energy and innovation. “It is a testament to the dedication and ingenuity of our faculty, researchers, and students who continue to push the boundaries of knowledge and drive positive change in our world through their hard work and inventive contributions.”

Rice also is sharing in recent academic accolades.

Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business climbed 10 spots — to No. 19 — in Bloomberg Businessweek’s 2023-24 ranking of full-time MBA programs. Rice holds the No. 1 spot among Texas programs.

The Jones School gained ground in the ranking’s learning, networking, diversity, and entrepreneurship categories.

“Rising in the rankings for networking and diversity shows how Rice’s faculty and staff are dedicated to creating an entire environment and ecosystem that benefits our students, not just what happens inside the classroom,” says Peter Rodriguez, the business dean at Rice. “I am especially proud of these metrics that highlight Rice’s ability to bring people together.”

Photos: City of Houston reveals $4.4M facilities upgrades to repair Hurricane Harvey damage

new and improved

Where some might see just a basement, Mayor Sylvester Turner sees an opportunity to tell a story of Houston's resiliency and dedication to sustainability.

When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, it left 18 to 20 inches of floodwaters in the basement of Houston City Hall. The city received funding from FEMA to support the $4.4 million renovation project that commenced in 2020. After facing challenges — including a defaulted contractor — the city revealed the new space this week, which was completed by contractor Dunhill Construction.

"The City Hall Basement renovation is a testament to the resilient spirit of Houston," says Turner in the news release. "We encountered some challenges, but we've revitalized this space while preserving our history and embracing innovation. This space truly embodies our commitment to a sustainable future."

The new basement holds conference rooms, training facilities, and a wellness center that was donated by Cigna. The project was focused on implementing sustainability and efficiency and included replacing aging air handling units with more efficient technology, LED lighting equipped with sensors to avoid energy waste, and a sliding floodgate to prevent history from repeating itself should another storm hit Houston.

The project also incorporated 18 pieces of Houston-focused art by artists including Mark Chen, Syd Moen, Nancy Newberry, and David Reinfeld. The 49 Houston mayor portraits, which were rescued by a staffer during the storm, were conserved, reframed, and rehung.

The space will also be the home to Houston's first walk-in 311 center, per the release, and the 311’s Continuity of Operations Plan, or COOP, and will be a secondary location in case the main call center fails.

With the completion of the project, the city has a few more upgrades — including additional training facilities, the mayor's dining room, and kitchen — coming soon and set to be completed in November.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner celebrated the opening of the renovated City Hall basement that was damaged in Hurricane Harvey. 

Photo via houstontx.gov

Why this Hawaiian innovator took a bet on Houston for unique hydrogen pipeline technology

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 204

On an island almost 4,000 miles away, a company is creating research-based tech innovation that's sending ripple effects across the Pacific Ocean to Houston's energy ecosystem.

While Oceanit, founded in 1985 by Patrick Sullivan, is based in Hawaii, a portion of its customer base is based right here in Houston.

“We are, indeed, in the middle of the sea, but we work around the world,” Sullivan, who serves as president and CEO of his company, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “What we do in Houston is interesting because we consider Houston the center of energy. And energy makes the world go around, and there’s just no two ways around it. Of course, there’s lots of transition going on, so it’s an exciting time to be doing energy.”

In fact, realizing how much business opportunity there is in Houston, Oceanit recently opened H2XCEL — short for “Hydrogen Accelerator” — locally, aiming to integrate hydrogen into the current energy infrastructure.

H2XCEL will be the only lab in the U.S. capable of testing hydrogen and methane mixtures at high temperatures and pressures. Its aim is to protect pipelines from hydrogen embrittlement — when small hydrogen molecules penetrate pipe walls and damage the metal, potentially causing cracks, leaks, and failures.

The facility acts as a demonstration opportunity for Oceanit to test and show how hydrogen could be transferred via existing infrastructure.

"We can test to failure right there in Houston," Sullivan says on the show. “We’re talking to all the pipeline companies about getting their steel pipe and running through all these tests to show how it’s going to perform with all these different mixtures."

“The idea is to get the community to see that when you integrate technology from different fields into the energy space, we can keep making progress,” he continues.

Hydrogen embrittlement prevention is just one piece of what Oceanit's team is working to find solutions for. Sullivan describes his company as a 'Mind to Market' approach to industry. His business model includes some venture capital backing, but he says he prefers to partner with customers directly, explaining that the type of technology Oceanit deploys takes time and customization. This corporate co-development, as he explains, is Oceanit's unique approach to disruption.

There are so many opportunities within the energy transition to innovate, as Sullivan says, and it's not just one thing that's going to move the needle. The transition will require many different types of tech.

"It’s going to take time," he says. "But if we start reducing carbon and the use of fossil fuel today, we buy time for the planet."

Sullivan shares more on his company's unique approach to innovation on the podcast. Listen to the interview here — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.