3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Pamela Singh of CaseCTRL, Ahmad Atwan of VC Fuel, and Maggie Segrich of Sesh Coworking. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from health tech to energy venture capital — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Pamela Singh, co-founder and CEO of CaseCTRL

Pamela Singh joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss what's on the horizon for her health tech company. Photo courtesy of CaseCTRL

When COVID-19 shutdown all elective surgeries, Pamela Singh didn't know what would happen to her startup, CaseCTRL, which uses AI to optimize surgery scheduling. But, the back and forth nature of surgeries being allowed then not made for a huge need for CaseCTRL's platform to help medical facilities get back on track.

"COVID has had some sort of silver lining for us," Singh says, explaining that surgical facilities were looking for a way to catch up. "They realized the need for automating and streamlining their practice. And they realized that, instead of spending another four hours coordinating with patients and vendors, they could literally do it with the click of a button."

Singh shares more about her entrepreneurial journey and what's on the horizon for CaseCTRL, as well as her advice for fellow female founders in the podcast. Click here to read more and stream the full interview.

Ahmad Atwan, founder and CEO of VC Fuel

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

When Ahmad Atwan decided he was going to launch VC Fuel, a venture capital fund focused on early-stage energy transition startups, deciding where to start was easy. While there are similar funds on each of the coasts, Atwan learned that VC Fuel's concept was going to be kind of niche for Houston.

"Houston is the undisputed energy capital of the world," he tells InnovationMap. "So to me, especially when you're looking at energy transition sectors that have to work with the energy industry, it was a no brainer."

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

Maggie Segrich, co-founder and CFO of Sesh Coworking

Maggie Segrich (right) opened Sesh with Meredith Wheeler in 2020. Photo courtesy of Sesh

Maggie Segrich co-founded Sesh Coworking and the duo opened its first space in early 2020. Now, 18 months later, Sesh is growing. The female-founded, female-focused coworking company has also launched a crowdfunding campaign to support Sesh's growth.

The new coworking space is set to be in Midtown, but Sesh hasn't yet announced the specific location. The plan is to open to members at the beginning of 2022. The move will allow Sesh to offer private offices and dedicated desks, as well as other amenities members are looking for.

"Sesh never set out to be like other coworking spaces," she says. "We are on a mission to create a work space that isn't just four walls and a door. We began in 2017 by building our community first through pop-ups and then with our current space in Montrose. This new space carries on that tradition and mission of putting community first." Click here to read more.

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

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

Q&A

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

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

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

InnovationMap: Why did you decide to start VC fuel?

Ahmad Atwan: I decided to start VC fuel because I've been in the energy industry my entire career. I've been both an entrepreneur — I started two companies in the 2000s that I sold. One was a energy technology firm and one was a Brazilian ethanol company.

After that I was on the buy side buying pretty large private energy companies — anywhere from the size of $500 million to $2 billion. And over that whole time, energy was a very exciting industry and was growing very fast.

But as I saw climate change happening more rapidly and becoming more of a reality, and as I started looking and investing in some renewable energy sources, like wind and solar, I realized that's really where my passion was and what I wanted to do. And at the same time, the world was moving towards that as well, and investors really wanted to have exposure to new energy or energy transition areas.

IM: What are you looking for in potential investment opportunities?

AA: The areas that we focus on are all decarbonized and kind of all across the board, ranging from clean agriculture, hydrogen, carbon capture and storage or carbon capture and usage, to energy efficiency, clean industrial processes, and more. And I think these are areas that they right now comprise less than 2 percent of the global energy mix, but they're going to be north of 10, 15, 20 percent over time. So, these are high growth areas, and they are either lower, zero, or even negative emissions.

We're looking specifically for companies that we call seed stage or series A, generally, sometimes series B. So, they're companies that are relatively early in their development, but have some sort of commercial traction. And ones that are looking for not only a venture capital firm, but someone that can be their partner and help guide them and help them in certain areas, like raising their next round of funding, helping them get introduced to customers.

IM: With your experience, what do you feel like you bring to the table as a hands-on investor?

AA: I think in my decade-plus in private equity, when I was an investor on the boards of a company, I always tended to be one of the most involved in helping guide operations and working with senior management. And I think that's probably because I was a founder in the past, so I really identify with founders and I try to figure out with them what's the gap in their skillset or knowledge base that needs to be filled. Sometimes it's one that I can naturally help fill, which might be on the financial side or on the commercial side. And sometimes it's just bringing in other experts to help the company out.

But I think having been both on the founder and the private equity side, I think I empathize with the founder usually. And I would give this advice to all founders out there: the most important relationship they're going to have is with their lead venture capitalist, because that's going to be the defining relationship that helps them get to legitimacy in terms of the next round of funding. It's something that I kind of learned from friends in Silicon Valley. It's not only building the relationship for VC fuel — it's building a relationship with one of the individuals in our firm, whether it's me or one of my partners, and having them be really invested in the company.

IM: Why did you decide on Houston for VC Fuel's HQ?

AA: First of all, Houston is the undisputed energy capital of the world. So to me, especially when you're looking at energy transition sectors that have to work with the energy industry, it was a no brainer. For a lot of the technologies we deal with — like carbon capture — and the businesses we deal with, it's going to be essential for them to connect with the energy world.

I think a second reason, frankly, and I didn't realize this until we really got deep into the idea is that we're a little bit unique and we have a little bit of a competitive advantage. There are over 30 climate tech firms in the Bay Area, and there are a large number as well in New York and Boston. We're the only early stage climate tech or energy transition firm in Houston right now, which is really surprising. And I'm hoping there'll be more of those, but that's also kind of a nice position to be in because, as we see opportunities come out of the energy companies, and as we try to attract talent and grow, we think we have a pretty unique offering.

IM: What has being located in Greentown Houston meant for you?

AA: It's been fantastic. I think Houston did a great job of attracting Greentown here as the second location. Working out of here, we're able to interact in real time with everything from startup companies to major corporations. You get such a diverse set of people who are passionate about energy transition. It's actually already led to some opportunities to invest in, as well as to connect with some of the bigger companies that want to invest with us. It's been just a great coincidence that we launched here when Greentown opened. We'd much rather be here than any other type of working space. So, we're very excited.

IM: What keeps you up at night as it pertains to the energy transition?

AA: I would say the first thing is commercial adoption. All of our companies so far have great management teams — especially founders — and excellent technology, but there's that bridge to actually get the technology adopted by a customer. Sometimes you can have the best technology, and it just never happens. So, I'm keeping my eye on how much progress are we making with commercial customers. A lot of these are big companies — whether it's a waste management or a tech company, like a Microsoft — are getting into energy transition. Customer adoption in that area is a key metric for us.

The second big one — and this one's a little newer to me because I didn't face it as much in the past — is regulation. So many of the areas that we look at are going to have their economics determined by regulations that are literally being written right now. For example, the Cares Act the by the Biden administration is deciding things like what the level of tax credits will be for carbon capture. The carbon capture company we've invested in suddenly sees their projects become a lot more profitable if that figure is on the higher side. It's important to keep our ear to the ground on regulation and try to anticipate where it's going. That's why we have a couple people who are ex-Department of Energy on our advisory board because we like to have that skill set.

IM: What's next for VC Fuel?

AA: Our cadence of investing is that we invest in about one company every couple of months, which is pretty fast for a venture capital firm in energy transition. What's next is for our current companies to get to the next stage of evolution. There is one that I can't talk about specifically, but it might be getting sold to a really exciting buyer — and it's very good to have that kind of exit early on in a fund's life. And for the rest of our portfolio companies it's about continuing to get customers and next rounds of funding.

We've done a really good job of building a portfolio. That's not concentrated in any one area of energy transition. We will continue to look for a diverse set of companies that compliment each other, and that can help each other out. One area we continue to look at is not just the carbon capture, but also the carbon use space where you can turn carbon into something that's actually productive. Another area that we continue to look at is the electric vehicle space, but not just traditional EVs, but the next generation EV technology.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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2 COVID-19-focused research projects happening in Houston

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While it might seem like the COVID-19 pandemic has settled down for the time being, there's plenty of innovative research ongoing to create solutions for affordable vaccines and tech-enabled protection against the spread of the virus.

Some of that research is happening right here in Houston. Here are two innovative projects in the works at local institutions.

UH researcher designs app to monitor best times to shop

A UH professor is putting safe shopping at your fingertips. Photo via UH.edu

When is the best time to run an errand in the pandemic era we currently reside? There might be an app for that. Albert Cheng, professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is working on a real-time COVID-19 infection risk assessment and mitigation system. He presented his plans at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference HPC for Urgent Decision Making and will publish the work in IEEE Xplore.

Cheng's work analyzes up-to-date data from multiple open sources to see when is the best time to avoid crowds and accomplish activities outside the home.

"Preliminary work has been performed to determine the usability of a number of COVID-19 data websites and other websites such as grocery stores and restaurants' popular times and traffic," Cheng says in a UH release. "Other data, such as vaccination rates and cultural factors (for example, the percentage of people willing to wear facial coverings or masks in an area), are also used to determine the best grocery store to shop in within a time frame."

To use the app, a user would input their intended destinations and the farthest distance willing to go, as well as the time frame of the trip. The risk assessment and mitigation system, or RT-CIRAM, then "provides as output the target location and the time interval to reach there that would reduce the chance of infections," said Cheng.

There's a lot to it, says Cheng, and the process is highly reliant on technology.

"We are leveraging urgent high-performance cloud computing, coupled with time-critical scheduling and routing techniques, along with our expertise in real-time embedded systems and cyber-physical systems, machine learning, medical devices, real-time knowledge/rule-based decision systems, formal verification, functional reactive systems, virtualization and intrusion detection," says Cheng.

2 Houston hospitals team up with immunotherapy company for new vaccine for Africa

The new vaccine will hopefully help mitigate spread of the disease in Sub-Saharan Africa. Photo via bcm.edu

Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital have teamed up with ImmunityBio Inc. — a clinical-stage immunotherapy company — under a licensing agreement to develop a safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccine.

BCM has licensed out a recombinant protein COVID-19 vaccine candidate that was developed at the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development to ImmunityBio. According to the release, the company engaged in license negotiations with the BCM Ventures team, about the vaccine that could address the current pandemic needs in South Africa.

"We hope that our COVID-19 vaccine for global health might become an important step towards advancing vaccine development capacity in South Africa, and ultimately for all of Sub-Saharan Africa," says Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor and co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

ImmunityBio, which was founded in 2014 by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, is working on innovative immunotherapies that address serious unmet needs in infectious diseases, according to a news release from BCM.

"There is a great need for second-generation vaccines, which are accessible, durable and offer broad protection against the emerging variants," says Soon-Shiong. "ImmunityBio has executed on a heterologous ("mix-and-match") strategy to develop a universal COVID-19 vaccine. To accomplish this, we have embarked upon large-scale good manufacturing practices and development of DNA (adenovirus), RNA (self-amplifying mRNA) and subunit protein (yeast) vaccine platforms. This comprehensive approach will leverage our expertise in these platforms for both infectious disease and cancer therapies."

Elon Musk taps into Texas workforce for out-of-this-world bartender gig

DRINKING ON THE JOB

Can you mix a mean margarita? Are you capable of slinging a superb Aperol spritz? If so, Elon Musk wants you to become a "spaceport mixologist."

Musk's SpaceX, which builds and launches rockets, is hiring a "passionate, experienced" mixologist for its "spaceport" near Brownsville. The ideal candidate possesses at least two years of "superior" mixology experience at resorts, bars, and full-service restaurants, including the ability to pair drinks with themed menus.

Among other duties, the mixologist will prepare drinks, including handcrafted cocktails, and will ensure "consistency and compliance with the restaurant's recipes, portioning, and waste control guidelines."

The new mixologist will concoct alcoholic beverages for SpaceX's launch facility in Boca Chica, a Texas Gulf Coast community about 20 miles east of Brownsville. The job posting indicates the mixologist will work on the culinary team serving the SpaceX workforce.

According to Austin-based job website Indeed, the average mixologist in the U.S. earns $13.53 an hour. The SpaceX job posting doesn't list a salary, but you've got to imagine Musk — by far the richest person in Texas — would fork over more than $13.53 an hour for a spaceport mixologist.

By the way, in case you're not a master mixologist, SpaceX also is looking for a sous chef in Boca Chica. The sous chef will be tasked with cooking up menus that emphasize seasonal items and "creative" options. The chef's duties will include sourcing high-quality ingredients "with a focus on local, sustainable, and organic items."

Musk, who spends much of his time in Austin, is developing what the Bloomberg news service describes as an "empire" in Texas. Aside from the SpaceX facility, Musk-led Tesla is building a vehicle manufacturing plant just east of Austin and is moving its headquarters here. If that weren't enough, the Musk-founded Boring Co., which specializes in developing underground tunnels, lists 20 job openings in Austin on its website. In addition, SpaceX tests rocket engines at a site in McGregor, about 17 miles southwest of Waco.

"Texas has had its share of characters over the years, and many have been larger-than-life, wealthy risk-takers who came from elsewhere," Waco economist Ray Perryman tells Bloomberg. "There's still a wildcatting mentality here, and there's still a mystique about Texas that Elon Musk fits well."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.