A Houston company has joined a new Amazon program focused on Latin American founders. Photo courtesy of Amazon

Amazon named the 20 startups joining its accelerator that will connect Latinx founders to its network of mentors, provide programming, and even dole out funding.

The AWS Impact Accelerator Latino Founders Cohort is a part of Amazon's $30 million commitment to supporting underrepresented startup founders. The eight-week program started this week in Amazon's Seattle headquarters.

“This cohort of the AWS Impact Accelerator aims to highlight the viability and ingenuity of Latino-led startups, so the VC community can increase support to these founders,” says Howard Wright, vice president and global head of startups at AWS, in the news release. “We’re looking forward to playing an active role in helping these companies turbocharge their growth through access to capital, experts, and all of the innovations that the AWS tech stack has to offer.”

Houston-based Ease, founded by Mario Amaro in 2018, the health care fintech platform allows for medical professionals to start, grow, and manage their private practices with bookkeeping tools and other software infrastructure. So far, the company has worked with more than 300 practices. Per Cruncbase data, the company has raised $2.8 million in pre-seed and grant funding. According to Amazon, the company's investors include Slauson & Co. and Precursor Ventures.

Mario Amaro, founder of Ease, was selected for one of Amazon's accelerator programs. Photo courtesy of Amazon

Last year, Ease was named among the 50 companies in the inaugural cohort of the Google for Startups Latino Founders Fund. In that program, each company received an equity-free $100,000 investment, as well as programming and support from Google, mentorship from technical and business experts, access to free mental health therapy, and more.

Ease stood out among the nearly 1,100 submissions to the program, according to the release, and joins 19 other companies from across the country and even Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico. Each of the cohort companies will receive up to $225,000 in cash and AWS Activate credits, alongside a training curriculum, networking opportunities with Amazon staff and potential investors, and ongoing advisory support.

The other startups in the program include:

  • Alvva, a, immigrant-focused fintech platform from California
  • Cogniflow, a personal AI platform founded in Colombia with a New York US HQ
  • Deskfy, a marketing portal from Brazil with its US HQ in Delaware
  • DivySci Software, an edtech organization founded in New York
  • EducUp, an edtech company from Florida
  • Fielder, a Mexico-founded enterprise software-as-a-service with US-based operations in Delaware
  • GamerSafer, a security tech company within gaming from California
  • Kigüi, a Mexican money-saving grocery app
  • Kuentro, a Venezuelan affordable hiring platform that caters to middle- and working-class job seekers
  • Lazo Fintech Inc, a Florida-based fintech and legal platform
  • Leantime, a developer tool from North Carolina
  • Monadd, a Florida-founded personal finance platform
  • PilotoMail, a remote work platform founded in Puerto Rico
  • Sign-Speak, a New York startup with an American Sign Language device
  • STIGMA, a mental health mobile app from Illinois
  • Outtrip, a Argentina-founded tourism platform with US operations in Delaware
  • Panda Salud, a Mexico-based platform connecting health care small businesses with diagnostic test providers
  • Tienditapp, a Mexico-based app with a last-mile delivery model
  • TuCuota, a payment collections tool from Argentina
Amazon's accelerator focused on founders of color has helped Houston startup ChurchSpace reach new milestones. Image via bookchurchspace.com

Houston-based 'AirBNB for churches' startup completes Amazon accelerator, gathers fresh funding

now accelerating

Houston startup, ChurchSpace, recently participated in the inaugural cohort of the AWS Impact Accelerator for Black Founders, which included a pre-seed fundraising campaign and a $125,000 equity-free grant from Amazon.

The startup, coined as the “AirBNB for churches” is a tech-enabled marketplace that has a mission to minimize low utilization rate of church real estate across the country. Per the website, ChurchSpace is accepting congregations on its waitlist and is expected to launch this fall.

The AWS Impact Accelerator strengthened ChurchSpace’s efforts of turning underutilized church real estate into on-demand event, worship, and kitchen space. The program provides high-potential, pre-seed startups the tools and knowledge to reach key milestones such as raising funding or being accepted to a seed-stage accelerator program.

"Being a part of the inaugural Aws Impact Accelerator has changed the trajectory and tech build of ChurchSpace," says Day Edwards, CEO and co-founder of the company. "From the grant, to have the tech stack and resources needed to build Version 2 of ChurchSpace to ensure Churches can share their space safely has truly been a blessing. Before AWS we weren’t clear on our fundraising strategy. Now after ending AWS we are clear, with a date to open our pre seed round, and even better we have investors waiting! I urge any female founder to definitely take the time to apply this is a life-changing opportunity for all start-ups."

As one of 25 startups selected for the program, ChurchSpace also received credits, extensive training, mentoring and technical guidance, as well as introductions to Amazon leaders and teams, networking opportunities with potential investors, and ongoing advisory support.

“For underrepresented founders, access is power. And as Black founders with an audacious mission to eradicate high church underutilization rates, the access to capital, mentorship and tech innovation support will create tidal waves of positive impact that reach far beyond our internal operations but spread to thousands of local communities across the nation,” says Emmanuel Brown, ChurchSpace co-founder and COO.

AWS recently announced its three-year, $30 million commitment to the program. Amazon is currently looking for female founders for the next cohort that is now open with the deadline date of August 26.

MassChallenge Texas alum, ChurchSpace was founded in 2020 by two Black millennial pastors’ kids who witnessed the crippling effects that large church financial overhead placed on church leaders. The marketplace allows churches to earn extra revenue while remaining compliant with IRS nonprofit regulations. ChurchSpace is expecting to launch in 10 states with over 6,000 waitlisted users.

“I want to congratulate a truly innovative and inspiring group of startups selected from thousands of applicants for this opportunity. On behalf of the entire team, we are honored to support them on their journey,” says Howard Wright, vice president of startups at AWS.

Day Edwards is the co-founder and CEO of Church Space, which was founded in 2020. Photo courtesy of Church Space

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Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.