Two Houston-area research projects out of local universities have created new, greener technologies. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Research, perhaps now more than ever, is crucial to expanding and growing innovation in Houston — and it's happening across the city right under our noses.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of research news, two Houston institutions are working on clean energy innovation thanks to new technologies.

Rice University team develops seeds for growing solar energy collectors

Rice engineers discovered a self-assembly method for producing the films from "seeds," submicroscopic pieces of 2D crystals that serve as templates. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Man-made solar panels are continuing to be affixed to rooftops everywhere, but scientists at Rice University have just figured out a way to grow solar energy collectors in a more efficient way than ever before.

3D halide perovskite photovoltaic devices have been developed relatively reliably, but the Rice engineers have created microscopic seeds for growing 2D perovskite crystals that are both stable and highly efficient at harvesting electricity from sunlight, according to a release from Rice.

"We've come up with a method where you can really tailor the properties of the macroscopic films by first tailoring what you put into solution," said study co-author Aditya Mohite, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice. "You can arrive at something that is very homogeneous in its size and properties, and that leads to higher efficiency. We got almost state-of-the-art device efficiency for the 2D case of 17%, and that was without optimization. We think we can improve on that in several ways."

The study was published online in Advanced Materials by Mohite and his fellow chemical engineers from Rice's Brown School of Engineering. The seeds can be used to grow homogenous thin films that proved both efficient and reliable, a previously problematic combination for devices made from either 3D or 2D perovskites.

"Homogeneous films are expected to lead to optoelectronic devices with both high efficiency and technologically relevant stability," he says.

The process is more efficient and effective, as well as being cheaper. The Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the Academic Institute of France and the Office of Naval Research supported the project.

Houston researchers are finding ways to improve EV batteries

Houston researchers are working on a new way to make electric vehicles more commercially viable with enhanced — and cheaper — batteries. Photo via uh.edu

Only a small fraction of vehicles on the road these days are electric — but that's going to change. It's projected that EVs will make up 30 percent of on-road vehicles in 2030. A team of scientists at the University of Houston are focusing on improving EV batteries — a major key in the commercialization of these greener vehicles.

The UH team — Yan Yao, Cullen Professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Cullen College of Engineering at the University of Houston, and UH post doctorate Jibo Zhang — are taking on this challenge with Rice University colleagues — Zhaoyang Chen, Fang Hao, Yanliang Liang of UH, Qing Ai, Tanguy Terlier, Hua Guo and Jun Lou.

In a recently published paper in Joule, the team demonstrated a two-fold improvement in energy density for organic-based, solid state lithium batteries by using a solvent-assisted process to alter the electrode microstructure, according to a news release from UH.

"We are developing low-cost, earth-abundant, cobalt-free organic-based cathode materials for a solid-state battery that will no longer require scarce transition metals found in mines," says Yao in the release. "This research is a step forward in increasing EV battery energy density using this more sustainable alternative."

Yao, who is also Principal Investigator with the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, explains that there is increasing concern about the supply chain of lithium-ion batteries in the United States.

"In this work, we show the possibility of building high energy-density lithium batteries by replacing transition metal-based cathodes with organic materials obtained from either an oil refinery or biorefinery, both of which the U.S. has the largest capacity in the world," he goes on to say.

The cost of EV batteries declined to nearly 10 percent of their original cost over the past decade, and innovation and research like this project are only going to make EVs more commercially viable. The research was funded by the US Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy as part of the Battery 500 Consortium.

John Berger, CEO of Houston-based Sunnova, is this week's Houston Innovators Podcast guest. Courtesy of Sunnova

Houston solar energy exec shines light on company growth and IPO

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 15

It was all about the timing for John Berger, founder and CEO of Sunnova, a Houston-based residential solar energy company.

When he founded his company in 2012 in Houston, solar energy wasn't the trendy sustainability option it is today, but Berger saw the potential for technology within the industry. So, with a lot of perseverance and the right team behind him, he scaled Sunnova through nationwide expansion, billions of money raised, and a debut on the stock market last July — something that also happened with great timing.

About 72 hours after Sunnova went public last July, the Federal Reserve System announced it was going to cut rates. Additionally, Sunnova's IPO occurred ahead of WeWork's failed IPO.

"We went public in a market that still isn't back open again, I think, for IPOs," Berger says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We had pretty good timing when we went out the door."

However great the timing was, Sunnova's success is built on the hard work and skills of the company's employees, Berger explains on the podcast, and now running a public company requires a dynamic leader.

"I really look at myself and how I can change myself," Berger says. "I'm a different CEO today than I was 12 months ago, and hopefully I'll be a different CEO in 12 months, because the company demands it."

In the episode, Berger lifts the curtain on Sunnova's IPO, explains where he sees the solar energy industry headed, how battery storage technology has evolved, and why he's not worried about who ends up in the White House. Listen to the full episode below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Houston initiative receives $4M grant to promote biomedical entrepreneurship

fresh funding

The National Institute of Health has awarded a $4 million grant to a Houston-area initiative in the name of sparking biomedical activity.

The grant will create a new Research Evaluation and Commercialization Hub, known as REACH, in Houston. The team behind the Gulf Coast Consortium — one of the world’s largest inter-institutional cooperatives, which includes eight of Houston’s medical research leading lights — has been hard at work to bring REACH-GCC to fruition.

The result? A multidisciplinary means of promoting biomedical entrepreneurship, bringing innovators from concept to commercialization.

“I can tell you that a lot of those potential users came out of our research consortium. Those users span from a focus on mental health to antibiotic resistance to regenerative medicine to pain management to, of course, cancer,” says Suzanne Tomlinson of Rice University.

Tomlinson is the director of GCC research programs and worked with Stan Watowich of The University of Texas Medical Branch to create the grant. Peter Davies helped to submit it through Texas A&M University.

One of the dozen research and educational programs that Tomlinson directs is the Innovative Drug Discovery and Development Consortium.

“Within that, we have established a wide network of drug to drug discovery and development cores,” she says.

The vast majority of those are funded by CPRIT (Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas), and Tomlinson and Watowich (the chair of IDDD’s steering committee) were lead developers and authors of the grant to create TMCi’s Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics (ACT). That accelerator is a model for what GCC-REACH may do for taking other innovations from discovery to market.

“We get close to a billion dollars in research monies a year coming into the Medical Center. The question is, ‘Are we seeing a lot of those dollars resulting in products that benefit patients?’ And the answer always is, ‘We can do better,’” says Watowich.

How will GCC-REACH help to do that? By combining the forces of all eight full members of the GCC, plus outside help when it’s needed. Watowich sets for the example of a budding entrepreneur at his home institution, UTMB. That researcher could potentially receive guidance from an MD Anderson expert in immunotherapies or a Rice scientist who focuses on nanotechnology delivery systems.

“This grant is designed to put together a bespoke team of whatever is needed to have a discussion with and figure out what's the market for this technology. How might it get there?’” says Watowich.

Those options could include setting up a startup company, but could also mean licensing the idea to someone else, whether it’s a company or an institution.

“Our goal is, we help each other. We help ourselves. We help the patient population. And we do that through working together,” he continues.

Though it sounds like GCC-REACH could be a competitor to other accelerators, Watowich doesn’t see it that way. He sees the new hub as working with very early-stage creators who may still take part in those existing accelerators in the future. And the team hopes to do so quickly. The goal is to launch this month. Watowich says that the plan is to use the NIH’s $4 million to launch around 60 early stage biomedical companies over the next four years.

A variety of nascent founders — regardless of their type of innovative solution — will take part in the initiative.

“It can be a device, it could be an AI, it could be an app, it could be digital health, it could be therapeutics,” says Watowich. “We have experts across all of these areas that could help provide guidance and mentoring to try to move those companies forward.”

New report ranks Houston as the top city for foreign investment

by the numbers

For the second time, a report has analyzed the top markets in the United States for the rest of the world to do business in. This year, that top spot belongs to Houston.

The second annual FT-Nikkei Investing in America ranking, which came out this week from the Financial Times and international financial newspaper Nikkei, put the Bayou City — and six other Texas cities — at the top portion of the ranking. Houston's at No. 1, up four spots from last year, but Austin and four cities in the Dallas area also claim spots in the top 20.

The report looked at four dozen metrics, including workforce and talent, quality of life, openness, business environment, investment trends, and more.

In addition to the ranking, the Financial Times dove a little deeper into what made Houston a standout this year, interviewing many of Houston's most prominent business community members. The article points to the city's storied past as an oil and gas leader, also calling out its busy airports and global shipping ports, as well as its medical technology and aerospace industries. But one of the biggest factors in Houston's business climates success is its opportunity within the energy transition.

“We’re clear in Houston that if we’re going to continue to have prosperity — to the degree to define prosperity as job growth and wealth creation — it’s going to need to come from places other than the incumbent energy business,” Bobby Tudor, chief executive of Artemis Energy Partners, tells FT in the article.

Houston scored an overall 73 out of 100, and its scores across metrics in the report include:

  • Workforce and talent: 68/100
  • Openness: 80/100
  • Business environment: 64/100
  • Foreign business needs: 100/100
  • Quality of life: 47/100
  • Investment trends: 73/100
  • Aftercare: 69/100
Last year's top city was Miami, which ranks at No. 6 this year. Most of the top 10 cities in this year's report represent major gains on the ranking.This report falls in line with others in terms of noticing a change within the green economy in Houston. Earlier this year, personal finance website SmartAsset ranked the Houston metro area as the fifth best place in the U.S. for green jobs, which pay an average of 21 percent more than other jobs. The SmartAsset study found that 2.23 percent of workers in the Houston area hold down jobs classified as “green.”

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

3+ Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from hardtech to digital solutions — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Wogbe Ofori, founder and chief strategist of WRX Companies

Wogbe Ofori, founder and chief strategist of WRX Companies, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss hardtech and Houston as an innovative city. Photo via LinkedIn

To Wogbe Ofori, the definition of entrepreneurship is simple: "To be more opportunity centric than risk averse." And Houston, as he says, has be entrepreneurial for a very long time — despite it being considered the specialty of a certain coastal region.

"Silicon Valley has hijacked the concept of innovation and entrepreneurship, and this city has been filled with entrepreneurs long before the concept of 'tech entrepreneurs,'" Ofori says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Ofori, the founder and chief strategist of WRX Companies, has developed a keen eye for entrepreneurship and innovation activity in Houston and shares his observations on the show. An adviser to Nauticus Robotics and strategist to Intuitive Machines and Jacobs, he's also served as a mentor across the local innovation community. Read more or listen below.

Amy Chronis, vice chair, US Energy and Chemicals Leader and Houston managing partner at Deloitte

Amy Chonis shares Houston listmakers from Deloitte's annual report. Photo courtesy Deloitte/AlexandersPortraits.com

Deloitte just unveiled the fastest-growing technology companies in North America — and four businesses from Houston made the cut.

For the 29th year, 2023 Technology Fast 500 ranked top tech, media, telecommunications, life sciences, and energy technology companies based on fiscal year revenue growth from 2019 to 2022. While no Houston business was able to break into the top 100, four did make the cut for this year's list.

“It is great to see Houston represented alongside established technology hubs on this year’s Fast 500 list,” Amy Chronis, vice chair, US Energy and Chemicals Leader and Houston managing partner at Deloitte, says in a statement. “Houston is planting seeds for future innovation, and the companies named to this year’s list confirm our city’s value proposition as an innovative community. We look forward to this growth continuing in the future and extend our congratulations to this year’s Houston winners.” Read more.

Steve Altemus, co-founder, president, and CEO of Intuitive Machines

Intuitive Machines has some big news. Photo via intuitivemachines.com

Intuitive Machines has landed a nearly $9.5 million Air Force contract to develop technology for NASA’s Gateway project, the first space station that will orbit the moon. Specifically, the technology will support a high-powered nuclear fission system that will supply electricity for satellites, bypassing the need for power from solar, battery, or fuel-cell sources.

“As space exploration ventures become more ambitious and diverse, the need for efficient and reliable power sources in space is paramount,” Pete McGrath, vice president of business development at Intuitive Machines, says in a news release. “Developing the ability to expand power sources beyond solar, which requires heavy battery storage, could remove the burden of constantly worrying about a spacecraft’s arrays relative to the sun, and potentially deliver long-term stability for satellites that would otherwise lose power over time.”

Second, Intuitive Machines has set January window for the launch of its IM-1 lunar mission in conjunction with private aerospace company SpaceX. The liftoff is targeted for a multiday window that opens January 12, 2024. Read more.

The 2023 Houston Innovation Awards winners

The 2023 Houston Innovation Awards revealed its big winners across 13 categories. Photos courtesy

Who are the top innovators and startups in Houston? We just found out for you. The Houston Innovation Awards honored over 50 finalists categories, naming the 12 winners at the event. The 2023 Trailblazer Award recipient, Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, was also honored at the event by inaugural winner, Barbara Burger. Read more.