This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Aleece Hobson of HX Venture Fund, Denis Akhiyarov of AiKYNETIX, and Sean Harkins and Brien Beach of AMPD 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 additive manufacturing to venture capital — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Aleece Hobson, venture partner for the HX Venture Fund

Aleece Hobson of HX Venture Fund shares what people can expect from Venture Houston on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of HXVF

Today is a big day for Aleece Hobson — venture partner for the HX Venture Fund, a fund of funds investing in venture capital firms across the country that have interest in investing in Houston companies. She joined the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to discuss Venture Houston, which takes place today, and why it is so important to HXVF to showcase Houston.

"Houston is a destination for innovation — we are not a flyover city," she says on the show. Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Denis Akhiyarov, CEO and co-founder of AiKYNETIX

Houston-based AiKYNETIX is equipping runners with high-tech tracking tools. Image courtesy of AiKYNETIX

Houstonain Denis Akhiyarov wanted to design a way to easily improve running performance. He founded AiKYNETIX uses real-time technology to provide a new option for runners on treadmills.

“Runners spend a lot of time, energy and money to run better,” says Akhiyarov, CEO and co-founder of the company. “In my personal life with training for nine marathons, I’ve seen limitations with wearables, they don’t actually track running form while running. Overall, our technology tracks not only your basic parameters but it can also analyze the human running form while in motion.”

AiKYNETIX, which was founded in January 2021, is positioned to replace power meters and can make a treadmill smarter. It has ability to plug into interactive video platforms for sports and serves as a much cheaper and more widely available analysis tool outside of motion capture labs, he says. Click here to read more.

Sean Harkins and Brien Beach, co-founders of AMPD Labs

Sean Harkins and Brien Beach opened AmPd Labs' space in the Heights last month. Images via ampdlabs.llc

Last year, Sean Harkins introduced his friend Brien Beach to the world of additive manufacturing, and together the duo saw a business opportunity not only for themselves — but also for all of Houston.

Harkins had been working in 3D printing and additive manufacturing — the process of creating an object by building it one layer at a time — for the last decade and studied industrial design at the University of Houston. Working together, Harkins and Beach launched AmPd Labs, Houston’s next-generation additive manufacturing facility for industrial design and production.

“There is a hill to climb with market acceptance, but we want to be the champions of that and Houston is just a great place to start this because it's the largest industrial city in America and there's so much industry here and there's tons of engineers in this community,” says Beach. “Houston is such a business-forward place. A ‘how can I help you’ type of business place.” Click here to read more.

Aleece Hobson of HX Venture Fund shares what people can expect from Venture Houston on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of HXVF

Innovator introduces Houston's tech scene to leading VCs, entrepreneurs

houston innovators podcast episode 150

In less than a week, hundreds of innovators and investors — from Houston and beyond — will congregate for a day full of networking, thought leadership, and more. And the spotlight is on Houston.

Aleece Hobson — venture partner for the HX Venture Fund, a fund of funds investing in venture capital firms across the country that have interest in investing in Houston companies — joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Venture Houston and why it is so important to HXVF to showcase Houston.

"Houston is a destination for innovation — we are not a flyover city," she says on the show.

The inaugural edition of Venture Houston took place virtually last year — and the turnout shocked HXVF and its team.

"We wanted to bring together prominent VCs alongside the corporates in Houston and include Houston-based founders and get those three communities talking and engaging. And to show all of Houston and outside of Houston what the city's tech ecosystem was all about," Hobson says of last year's event. "We weren't quite sure what to expect with that first event. We thought we'd get 300 or so participants."

The event actually attracted over 2,500 registrants from across the nation, and accomplished what the organization wanted to do, Hobson says.

Now, the event is able to return — this time in an in-person capacity — at the Ion on Sept. 13. Hobson says her team is expecting several hundred attendees and even has plans for overflow tickets.

The full day of programing will kick off with a conversation with Goop founder and Academy Award-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow in conversation with Dana Settle, co-founder and managing partner of New York-based Greycroft. Goop is among Greycroft's portfolio companies, and HXVF invested in Greycroft in 2020.

Venture Houston is the ultimate showcase for HXVF, bringing together the three entities that make up the model — the limited partners and corporations that invest in HXVF, the venture capital firms that receive investment from HXVF, and the founders from Houston that then see new investments from HXVF's portfolio funds. The three types of players will all be a part of the day as speakers, panelists, and guests.

"We hope that all the attendees can understand how the innovation ecosystem comes together with these three groups," Hobson explains.

Hobson shares more details about the event on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

This week's Houston innovators to know includes Aleece Hobson of HX Venture Fund, Leland Putterman of Trivie, and Eleonore Cluzel of gBETA Houston. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of who's who in Houston innovation include the HX Venture Fund's newest team member, a startup founder whose app is gamifying corporate training, and a Houston accelerator leader who's pivoted to digital.

Aleece Hobson, venture partner at the HX Venture Fund

Aleece Hobson joined the HX Venture Fund as venture partner. Photo courtesy of HXVF

The HX Venture Fund has expanded its portfolio of venture capital finds its invested in, and with that came a new team member for the fund of funds. Managing director Sandy Guitar — who runs the fund with Guillermo Borda — brought on Houston native Aleece Hobson as venture partner.

"Aleece joining is a phenomenal step for us — a dedicated resource and venture partner on activation," says Guitar on the hire. "I think it speaks to the seriousness of purpose we have to make this not just an investment platform, but one that moves the needle on Houston." Read more.

Leland Putterman, co-founder of Trivie Inc.

Trivie, which gamifies corporate training, has launched a new way for employees to connect with remote learning amid the pandemic. Photo via Trivie.com

Texas-based corporate training tool Trivie already had many clients with needs for safety training, COVID-19 has brought new compliance guidelines to the forefront of every industry. Currently, Trivie has made the CDC's coronavirus guidelines available to all of its clients for no additional charge to be used across their entire employment bases.

Additionally, with most of America's workforce working from home, Putterman expressed that it's common for employees to feel disconnected.

"The only way to maintain that company culture and close communication with confidence is to use something like Trivie," he says. "There's no feedback loop right now. The only way to bridge that gap is to have something like Trivie that's the glue." Read more.

Eléonore Cluzel, director of gBETA Houston

Eléonore Cluzel, director of gBETA Houston, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share how the cohort has been going — and to introduce each member of the inaugural cohort. Photo courtesy of gBETA

Things aren't going according to plan for Eléonor Cluzel, who is running the inaugural gBETA Houston cohort virtually. While it isn't ideal, Cluzel shares on the Houston Innovator's Podcast how she's adapted the program for digital — as well as introduces the five Houston companies in the program.

"Going virtual was a really good pivot on our end. I think that the cohort has adjusted very well," Cluzel says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It is tough. They put tremendous effort into it and I'm proud to be working with them." Read more.

The HX Venture Fund reached a proof point of its model — one that arrived much earlier than expected. Getty Images

Houston's fund of funds expands its portfolio and team after reaching benchmark with local investment

money moves

When a Houston software startup closed a $17 million series B funding round, it was a big win for more than just the startup. Not only was the deal among the few Houston venture capital deals to happen amid the COVID-19 outbreak, but it represented a proof of concept for Houston's fund of funds.

The HX Venture Fund was founded in October of 2018 to encourage investment into local startups by raising corporate funds and investing into a portfolio of non-Houston venture capital funds that show an interest in Houston. HXVF hit a milestone last month when Liongard, a software-as-a-service company based in Houston, closed its fundraising round led by Updata Partners — one of HXVF's portfolio funds.

To date, the HXVF has reviewed over 150 venture capital funds and invested in eight: Austin-based LiveOak Venture Partners and Next Coast Ventures, Washington D.C.-based Updata Partners, Chicago-based Baird Capital, San Francisco-based VenBio, and Boston-based .406 Ventures, OpenView Venture Partners, and Material Impact Fund. Since each investment, those funds have invested in over 30 startups that are also included in the greater HXVF portfolio.

These HXVF portfolio funds represent various stages — from seed to growth stages, like Liongard — and across industries, from software and hardware to life sciences — "the whole gamut," says Sandy Guitar, managing director of HXVF.

"What that means now is there is over $2 billion of venture capital that actively has Houston on its radar right now," Guitar tells InnovationMap.

The Liongard investment represents a proof point for the fund of funds — one that comes earlier than expected. HXVF invested in Updata less than six months before Liongard closed its round with Updata's lead investment. Guitar says she expected to get to this milestone within 18 to 24 months of the fund of funds deploying capital — and it's happened in just nine months.

"You have this trickle down effect, where it can easily take two to three years to get your capital at work," Guitar says, explaining that HXVF first has to raise funds from its corporate partners, then vet and invest in the VCs, and, finally, wait to see how those funds invest.

Of course, the pandemic has not exactly helped the growth of Houston's startup and venture capital sectors. While COVID-19 has allowed growth in some sectors — telemedicine, for instance — it has limited the opportunities for startups to test the market.

"To build great startups, a startup has to do what I call 'run into walls.' They have to test the market, get it wrong, and pivot. The problem right now is there are no walls to run into," Guitar says. "You have to have an actively running economy and market for proof points of what's working and what's not working."

Meanwhile, Guitar observes, VC investors have limited their activity to their own networks due to the inability to meet face-to-face with unfamiliar startups. Comparing the VC-startup relationship to a marriage, you wouldn't meet and marry someone you've never met in person just like investors wouldn't fund an entrepreneur they have only ever met via Zoom.

"A lot of VCs are staying in their known networks in the short term," says Guitar, while, in the long term, VCs are going to rely on introductions to entrepreneurs from their network.

With this benchmark secured, HXVF is continuing to grow its portfolio — as well as its team. Recently, Guitar — who runs the fund with Guillermo Borda — brought on Houston native Aleece Hobson as venture partner.

"Aleece joining is a phenomenal step for us — a dedicated resource and venture partner on activation," says Guitar on the hire. "I think it speaks to the seriousness of purpose we have to make this not just an investment platform, but one that moves the needle on Houston."

Guitar says HXVF is also growing its limited partners with the addition of Rice University, which joins the likes of HEB, Shell, Chevron, and Houston Methodist — to name a few.

"We're going to be getting even closer to our limited partners' needs and introducing them to the 34 portfolio companies," Guitar says "and creating meaningful collisions between those two groups."

Aleece Hobson joined the HX Venture Fund as venture partner. Photo courtesy of HXVF

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Innovative coastline project on Bolivar Peninsula receives federal funding

flood mitigation

The Galveston’s Coastal Barrier Project recently received federal funding to the tune of $500,000 to support construction on its flood mitigation plans for the area previously devastated by Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Known as Ike Dike, the proposed project includes implementing the Galveston Bay Storm Surge Barrier System, including eight Gulf and Bay defense projects. The Bolivar Roads Gate System, a two-mile-long closure structure situated between Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, is included in the plans and would protect against storm surge volumes entering the bay.

The funding support comes from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and will go toward the preconstruction engineering and design phase of Ecosystem Restoration feature G-28, the first segment of the Bolivar Peninsula and West Bay Gulf Intracoastal Waterway Shoreline and Island Protection.

Coastal Barrier Project - Galveston Projects

The project also includes protection of critical fish and wildlife habitat against coastal storms and erosion.

“The Coastal Texas Project is one of the largest projects in the history of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” says Col. Rhett A. Blackmon, USACE Galveston District commander, in a statement. “This project is important to the nation for many reasons. Not only will it reduce risk to the vulnerable populations along the Texas coast, but it will also protect vital ecosystems and economically critical infrastructure vital to the U.S. supply chain and the many global industries located here.”

Hurricane Ike resulted in over $30 billion in storm-related damages to the Texas coast, reports the Coastal Barrier Project, and created a debris line 15 feet tall and 40 miles long in Chambers County. The estimated economic disruption due to Hurricane Ike exceeded $150 billion, FEMA reported.

The project is estimated to take two years to complete after construction starts and will cost between $4 billion and $6 billion, reports Texas A&M University at Galveston.

Houston organization selects research on future foods in space health to receive $1M in funding

research and development

What would we eat if we were forced to decamp to another planet? The most immediate challenges faced by the food industry and astronauts exploring outside Earth are being addressed by The Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) at Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Space Medicine’s newest project.

Earlier this month, TRISH announced the initial selection for its Space Health Ingress Program (SHIP) solicitation. Working with California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Baylor-based program chose “Future Foods for Space: Mobilizing the Future Foods Community to Accelerate Advances in Space Health,” led by Dr. Denneal Jamison-McClung at the University of California, Davis.

“TRISH is bringing in new ideas and investigators to propel space health research,” says Catherine Domingo, TRISH operations lead and research administration associate at Baylor College of Medicine, in the release. “We have long believed that new researchers with fresh perspectives drive innovation and advance human space exploration and SHIP builds on TRISH’s existing efforts to recruit and support new investigators in the space health research field, potentially yielding and high-impact ideas to protect space explorers.”

The goal of the project is to develop sustainable food products and ingredients that could fuel future space travelers on long-term voyages, or even habitation beyond our home planet.

Jamison-McClung and her team’s goal is to enact food-related space health research and inspire the community thereof by mobilizing academic and food-industry researchers who have not previously engaged with the realm of space exploration. Besides growing and developing food products, the project will also address production, storage, and delivery of the nutrition created by the team.

To that end, Jamison-McClung and her recruits will receive $1 million over the course of two years. The goal of the SHIP solicitation is to work with first-time NASA investigators, bringing new minds to the forefront of the space health research world.

“As we look to enable safer space exploration and habitation for humans, it is clear that food and nutrition are foundational,” says Dr. Asha S. Collins, chair of the SHIP advisory board, in a press release. “We’re excited to see how accelerating innovation in food science for space health could also result in food-related innovations for people on Earth in remote areas and food deserts.”

Clean energy nonprofit CEO to step down, search for replacement to begin

moving on

Greentown Labs, which is co-located in the Boston and Houston areas, has announced its current CEO is stepping down after less than a year in the position.

The nonprofit's CEO and President Kevin Knobloch announced that he will be stepping down at the end of July 2024. Knobloch assumed his role last September, previously serving as chief of staff of the United States Department of Energy in President Barack Obama’s second term.

“It has been an honor to lead this incredible team and organization, and a true privilege to get to know many of our brilliant startup founders," Knobloch says in the news release. “Greentown is a proven leader in supporting early-stage climatetech companies and I can’t wait to see all that it will accomplish in the coming years.”

The news of Knobloch's departure comes just over a month after the organization announced that it was eliminating 30 percent of its staff, which affected 12 roles in Boston and six in Houston.

According the Greentown, its board of directors is expected to launch a national search for its next CEO.

“On behalf of the entire Board of Directors, I want to thank Kevin for his efforts to strengthen the foundation of Greentown Labs and for charting the next chapter for the organization through a strategic refresh process,” says Dawn James, Greentown Labs Board Chair, in the release. “His thoughtful leadership will leave a lasting impact on the team and community for years to come.”

Knobloch reportedly shifted Greentown's sponsorship relationships with oil companies, sparking "friction within the organization," according to the Houston Chronicle, which also reported that Knobloch said he intends to return to his clean energy consulting firm.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.