Formerly competitors and collaborators in the space race, Houston and Huntsville, Alabama, are now moving the needle on biotech. Getty Images

Before scientists flocked to Boston and Silicon Valley; a tech boom occured in the American south that served as a defining moment for the United States: the Space Race.

At the time, two cities were the epicenters of mankind's desire to elevate its existence into the stars. Astronauts controlled the path of rockets that were built in Huntsville, Alabama, while radioing back and forth with Mission Control in Houston, Texas.

Today, the two cities are still aligned, but the final frontier is closer to home. Houston and Huntsville are currently flourishing in the scope of biotechnology, using the innovative research of thousands of scientists, academics, and clinicians to further human knowledge

Houston is the home to the world's largest medical center — the Texas Medical Center, or TMC — and an impressive community developing cutting-edge companies ranging from med to biotech. However, Huntsville is hot on its heels.

Turning an infrastructure initially dedicated to aerospace and aeronautical innovation into an emerging bioscience hub, Huntsville boasts around 50 biotech companies and a genomic research institute. The ecosystem has the highest concentration of STEM workers per capita in the country and is rallied around a collaborative research environment that boasts an impressive tech portfolio, including resident companies like Blue Origin, Facebook, and Google, while still managing to embody southern hospitality.

Mirroring the concerted efforts of the past, my Houston-born startup, Van Heron Labs, has recently taken a leap of faith in moving much of their laboratory operations to Huntsville, while many core team members remain in Houston. Being frustrated with the options for available and affordable lab space in Houston, the completely bootstrapped Van Heron Labs decided to stretch one foot into Alabama while the other stays rooted in the TMC ecosystem.

One positive upside to the shift to remote work in light of the COVID-19 pandemic are new opportunities for company employees, investors, and mentors to be physically separated, while collaborating and retaining productivity. These new dynamics of distance have allowed Van Heron Labs to expand their technical operations while maintaining ties to Houston.

VHL has recently moved into the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, where they continue to develop their technology surrounding improved culture media, which hasn't changed much since scientists saw the publication of the first Peanuts comic. Recently, VHL has established a collaborative partnership with fellow Huntsville biotech Foresight Biosciences, and the two will be exploring a wealth of industries together.

Despite the distance, VHL still continues heavy involvement in the Houston ecosystem. My co-founder, Alec Santiago, is the current Director of non-profit, Enventure, and uses his experiences of establishing a biotech startup to help prepare the students around him to do the same.

Additionally, VHL currently has 17 interns, including current and former University of Houston students, Rice University graduate students, and even a local physics PhD. VHL has also long been in talks with companies in TMC, where they have established connections dedicated to growth. Ultimately, they hope to bridge the two cities and help give each access to new ideas, resources, funding, and mentorship.

Too often, emerging biotech startups struggle to get off the ground, and a lack of capital limits what could grow to be great ideas. To foster the growth of innovators around the nation several cities are primed to step in and welcome researchers. Institutions within Alabama's biotech ecosystem are leading the movement.

For just $188 a month, biotech startup companies located at HudsonAlpha campus can enjoy their own office space, and access to tailored programming which includes commercial IP assessments, regular investor forums and pitch opportunities, membership in supporting bioscience organizations, discounted laboratory supplies, as well as help with public relations, human relations, finding mentors, capital, and legal help.

VHL has taken full advantage of these opportunities, while maintaining a presence in Houston, and urges others to do the same. The lifting of our nation's innovators as a whole is a positive movement, and one that can increase access to many bright minds. Just as in the space race, working together regardless of geography can offer unlimited potential and may even take us to an entirely new plane.

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Rebecca Vaught is the co-founder of Van Heron Labs.

Rebecca Vaught started her biotech company just ahead of COVID-19, but she shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast that it's meant more opportunities than challenges. Photo courtesy of Van Heron Labs

Entrepreneur hopes to bring microbiology into the future with her Houston-based, pandemic-founded startup

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 40

While startups everywhere are struggling to adapt in the tumultuous times of COVID-19, Rebecca Vaught and her company, having launched just ahead of the pandemic, don't actually know any other way of existing.

After watching some of her friends thrive in Houston's life science ecosystem, she knew Houston was the place she wanted to start the company that she'd been envisioning and plotting for years. She took a chance on the city, moved in, and began Enventure's Biodesign accelerator. The program shutdown as COVID-19 spread, much like other programs, but Vaught wasn't going to let that stop her momentum.

"A lot of people probably would have seen that as the stopping point but that was actually the beginning of the company," Vaught says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "What it allowed us to do was actually establish the lab and do the hard work."

As Vaught says, the biotech company, Van Heron Labs, is what it is thanks to the pandemic — not just in spite of it.

"While it's been challenging, the pandemic — in a lot of ways — is the only thing we've ever known and it's a lot of reason why the company has taken off and been successful," Vaught says on the show.

She runs the company with co-founder Alec Santiago and a team of 17 interns — all located across the country. Vaught herself is currently residing in Huntsville, Alabama, after struggling to find lab space in Houston. However, the relocation has been a blessing in disguise.

"Both ecosystems are extremely unique and both bring something different to the table," she says. "My next mission, through my lived experience, is igniting or uniting the Houston and Huntsville biotech ecosystems."

On the episode, Vaught explains how the two cities — each representing key parts of space exploration history and burgeoning tech scene — complement each other. She also shares her plans for growth and the need to bring microbiology into the future.

Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Houston cleantech company sees shining success with gold hydrogen

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Houston-based cleantech startup Cemvita Factory is kicking things into high gear with its Gold Hydrogen product.

After successfully completing a pilot test of Gold Hydrogen in the oil-rich Permian Basin of West Texas, Cemvita has raised an undisclosed amount of funding through its new Gold H2 LLC spin-out. The lead investors are Georgia-based equipment manufacturer Chart Industries and 8090 Industries, an investment consortium with offices in New York City and Los Angeles.

Gold Hydrogen provides carbon-neutral hydrogen obtained from depleted oil and gas wells. This is achieved through bioengineering subsurface microbes in the wells to consume carbon and generate clean hydrogen.

Cemvita says it set up Gold H2 to commercialize the business via licensing, joint ventures, and outright ownership of hydrogen assets.

“We have incredible conviction in next-generation clean hydrogen production methods that leverage the vast and sprawling existing infrastructure and know-how of the oil and gas industry,” Rayyan Islam, co-founder and general partner of 8090 Industries, says in a news release.

Traditional methods of producing hydrogen without greenhouse gas emissions include electrolysis powered by renewable sources like wind, solar or water, according to Cemvita. However, production of green hydrogen through normal avenues eats up a lot of energy and money, the startup says.

By contrast, Cemvita relies on depleted oil and gas wells to cheaply produce carbon-free hydrogen.

“The commercialization and economics of the hydrogen economy will require technologies that produce the hydrogen molecule at a meaningful scale with no carbon emissions. Gold H2 is leading the charge … ,” says Jill Evanko, president and CEO of Chart Industries.

Investors in Cemvita include Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, an investment arm of Houston-based Occidental Petroleum, as well as BHP Group, Mitsubishi, and United Airlines Ventures.

Oxy Low Carbon Ventures and United Airlines Ventures are financing Cemvita’s work on sustainable jet fuel. United Airlines operates a hub at George Bush Intercontinental Airport Houston.

Founded by brother-and-sister team Moji and Tara Karimi in 2017, Cemvita uses synthetic biology to turn carbon dioxide into chemicals and alternative fuels.

Houston named best city in Texas and No. 11 in U.S. in prestigious report

best in tx

At least according to one new report, Houston is not only the Energy Capital of the World but also the livability capital of Texas.

A new study from Best Cities, powered by Resonance Consultancy, puts Houston at No. 11 among the best cities in the U.S. That’s the top showing among the six Texas cities included in the ranking. Houston appeared at No. 17 on last year’s list.

“Educated, diverse and hard-working, Houston is America’s stealthy powerhouse on the rise,” Best Cities proclaims.

Best Cities notes that while Austin grabs much of the best-city attention, “the promise of the Lone Star State drawing Californians and New Yorkers is quietly being fulfilled in Houston.” The website points out that the Houston metro area has gained nearly 300,000 residents in the past year, thanks to both domestic and international migration.

Here are some of the individual rankings that contribute to Houston’s 11th-place finish:

  • No. 4 for restaurants
  • No. 7 for culture
  • No. 8 for foreign-born population

“Houston is a diverse and vibrant metro where individuals can start a family, grow their business, attend world-class institutions and universities, or be immersed in the 145 languages that are spoken by our residents,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says in a news release. “The quality of life we have in Houston is second to none, and the data we receive from placements such as … Best Cities further reaffirm the strength and resiliency that has come to define this great city of ours.”

A few spots behind Houston on the Best Cities list are No. 14 Dallas and No. 15 Austin.

What lifts Dallas to the No. 14 spot? These are some of the factors cited by Best Cities:

  • Location of more than 10,000 corporate headquarters
  • Strong showing (No. 2) in the airport connectivity category
  • Kudos for the soon-to-be-expanded Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center Dallas
  • Home of the country’s sixth largest LGBTQ+ community
  • Presence of the 28-block, 68-acre Dallas Arts District

Austin comes in at No. 15, one notch behind Dallas.

Best Cities praises Austin as “a place that’s incredibly livable. Talk to any entrepreneur leaving Silicon Valley or Seattle and chances are they’ve considered Austin.”

The website points to a number of Austin’s assets, such as:

  • Growing presence of Fortune 500 headquarters
  • Comparatively low unemployment rate
  • Location of the University of Texas’ flagship campus
  • Status as the Live Music Capital of the World
  • Home of the annual SXSW gathering

Two other Texas cities make the Best Cities list: No. 34 San Antonio and No. 94 McAllen.

Best Cities bases its list of the best U.S. cities on Resonance Consultancy’s combination of statistical performance plus qualitative evaluations by locals and visitors. Those figures are grouped into six main categories. This year’s ranking features 100 U.S. cities. To come up with the ranking, Resonance Consultancy assessed all U.S. metro areas with at least 500,000 residents.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

How a Houston med device startup pivoted to impact global health and diagnostics

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 153

In the span of a couple years, a Houston startup went from innovating a way for patients with degenerative eye diseases to see better to creating a portable and affordable breath-based diagnostics tool worthy of a prestigious grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.

Steradian Technologies, founded in 2018, set out to create human super-sight via proprietary optics. In early 2020, the company was getting ready to start testing the device and fundraising. Then, the pandemic hit, knocking the company completely off course.

Co-founder and CEO of the company, Asma Mirza, says on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast that the Steradian co-founders discussed how their optic technology could detect diseases. Something just clicked, and the RUMI device was born.

"We are from Houston, Texas, which is one of the most diverse and accessible cities in the country, and we were having trouble with basic diagnostic accessibility. It was taking too long, it was complicated, and people were getting sick and didn't know if they were positive or negative," Mirza says on the show. "That's when we pivoted the company and decided we were going to pivot the company and use optics to detect diseases in breath."

Fast forward two years and the company has been recognized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with a grant to sport the development of the tool — which costs about the same price as a latte to make. The impact for global health is huge, Mirza says, allowing for people to test their breath for diseases from their own homes in the same time it takes to take your temperature.

"You blow into a cartrige and we're able to take the air from your breath into a liquid sample," Mirza says, explaining how the device uses photons to produce quick results. "It's wild that we still don't have something like that yet."

She shares more details about the grant and the future applications for the technology — as well as the role Houston and local organizations have had on the company — on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.