3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Craig Ceccanti of T-Minus Solutions, Ben Jawdat of Revterra, and Sam Sabbahi of Thermocuff. 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 software development to medical devices — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Craig Ceccanti, founder of T-Minus Solutions

Craig Ceccanti joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share what he's learned in his time as an entrepreneur in Houston — and what he's focused on now. Photo courtesy of Craig Ceccanti

When deciding what his passion project would be, Craig Ceccanti looked back at his career. He's always been interested in tech, and grew a small business — Pinot's Palette — to a national franchise. Combining his skills and expertise, he founded T-Minus Solutions to provide entrepreneurs with software consulting and support.

"I love technology and mentoring other entrepreneurs — those were two big factors," Ceccanti says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "So, starting a consulting agency where we could help startups and mid sized-growth companies build custom software was kind of my perfect unicorn."

He shares more about the his career — from franchising to tech startups — as well as why he's bullish on Houston's business economy on the podcast. Click here to read more and listen to the episode.

Ben Jawdat, CEO and founder of Revterra

Revterra Corp. closed a $6 million series A round led by Equinor Ventures. Photo via LinkedIn

Revterra Corp. has raised $6 million in its series A funding round to propel development of its battery for electric vehicle charging stations. Norway’s Equinor Ventures led the round, with participation from Houston-based SCF Ventures. Previously, Revterra raised nearly $500,000 through a combination of angel investments and a National Science Foundation grant.

“There is an urgent need to reduce carbon emissions globally,” physicist Ben Jawdat, founder and CEO of Revterra, says in a news release. “Our goal at Revterra is to deploy scalable energy storage solutions that facilitate the shift to renewables and EVs while hardening our electric grid. Our systems enable these ambitions while utilizing materials that are recyclable and based on a secure supply chain.” Click here to read more.

Thermocuff has several patents and expects FDA approval at the end of the year. Image via LinkedIn.com

Necessity is the mother of invention — and Sam Sabbahi needed a better way to heat and cool common joint injuries. Sabbahi, a physical therapist by trade, wanted to optimize the traditional way of using ice or heat packs.

“In the field, we were always getting people coming in trying to get us to purchase different medical devices and we wondered, ‘who knows what we need better than we do?’” he says. “A patient asked me ‘what a cold pack does’ and I was thinking in my head that a cold pack just cools the skin to three millimeters depth.”

Sabbahi then developed and invented a portable convection-based heating and cooling system device that could be used for joint injury rehabilitation – the device, dubbed Thermocuff, works much in the way that an air fryer circulates the air to get an even temperature. Click here to read more.

One of the winning teams at Climathon has an idea for a microgrid system in Houston's emerging innovation corridor. Photo via houston.org

Houston Climathon winning microgrid solution is more important now than ever

thinking small

More than 6,000 participants in 145 cities around the world gathered virtually for last year's Climathon, a global event put on by Impact Hub Houston to unite innovators and collaborate on climate solutions. When Winter Storm Uri left the Texas energy grid in a state of crisis, one Climathon Houston team's proposal for energy reliability became all the more important.

Last year, the City of Houston unveiled its first Climate Action Plan to address the city's challenges and strive to lead the energy transition. It was the perfect roadmap for Climathon Houston, a hackathon where eleven teams gathered to develop and pitch a concept to align with the city's new plan.

Of the three winning teams, one idea was prescient in its approach to energy. Six energy-focused Texans drew up plans for InnoGrid, a cost-effective strategy to build the first microgrid in Houston. What started as a pitch has become a developed proposal gaining collaborator and city interest in the wake of Uri.

Bryan Gottfried, Edward D. Pettitt II, Andi Littlejohn, Paresh Patel, Ben Jawdat, and Gavin Dillingham created InnoGrid to to help achieve the CAP's energy transition and net-zero emissions goals. With climate events increasing rapidly, the team of innovators saw an opportunity to create a sustainable solution — the first Houston microgrid.

In just an hour and a half of brainstorming, the team sought to create a similar model to Austin's Whisper Valley microgrid — a project that's currently in development. While Whisper Valley is a master plan community, the team wanted to create a microgrid to support a larger picture: the city of Houston.

"I had been following transactive energy models [such as] peer-to-peer electricity trading like Brooklyn Microgrid/LO3 Energy and Power Ledger since their inception. This inspired my vision for a novel microgrid that would demonstrate such technologies in the energy capital of the world that is otherwise primarily focused on oil and gas, and natural resources," explains Patel, founder and CEO of e^2: Equitable Energy.

When Pettitt joined the group, he proposed the growing Houston Innovation Corridor as the home to InnoGrid. The four-mile stretch between the Texas Medical Center and Downtown is already home to green technology, making it an ideal fit.

"You're going into an area that was already being redeveloped and had this innovation kind of mentality already," explains Gottfried, a geoscientist and current MBA student at University of Houston Bauer College of Business.

After winning Climathon Houston, the team continued to meet weekly in hopes of making InnoGrid a reality.

The case for a microgrid

The InnoGrid team started with the goal of making energy reliable and resilient in the face of climate change. While previous storms like Hurricane Ike have left millions of Texans without power, Winter Storm Uri was one of the most destructive tragedies to face Texas. The unexpected February storm left 4.5 million Texans without electricity and resulted in at least 111 deaths.

As InnoGrid's team members struggled with burst pipes and loss of power, the team juggled the task of submitting a grant application to the Department of Energy during a catastrophic winter storm. The timing was not lost on them.

"It underscored the need for us to do something like this," shares Gottfried.

To understand how impactful a Houston microgrid can be, you first must understand how a microgrid works. A microgrid is a local energy grid made of a network of generators combined with energy storage. The microgrid has control capability, meaning it can disconnect from a macro grid and run autonomously.

Ultimately, microgrids can provide reliability and drive down carbon emissions. Using smart meters, the grids can even provide real-time energy data to show the inflow and outflow of electricity. In the instance a microgrid does go down, it only affects the community — not the entire state. Likewise, during a power outage to the main grid, a microgrid can break away and run on its own.

Microgrids have been deployed by other cities to mitigate the physical and economic risks caused by power outages, but the use of a project like InnoGrid feels especially timely given recent events and the limitations of the Texas Interconnect.

The Texas grid is isolated by choice, separated from the eastern and western interconnects. Texas' isolated energy grid resulted in a massive failure, proving deregulation can certainly backfire. Updating the electric grid has an expensive price tag, but microgrids show a promising and cost-effective model for the future.

"I thought if microgrids and mini-grids are enabling millions in off-grid frontier markets at the base of the pyramid [like Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, etc.] to essentially leapfrog legacy energy infrastructure, why should we not upgrade our aging power system with the latest tech that is digitalized, decarbonized, decentralized/distributed, and democratized at the top of the pyramid," asks Patel.

Many hospitals, universities, and large technology firms have already established their own microgrids to protect equipment and provide safety. Still, smaller businesses and homes in the community can suffer during outages.

InnoGrid's proposal seeks to use existing and proven renewable energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal energy. The storage technologies used would include battery, kinetic, compressed air, and geomechanical pumped storage.

"From the perspective of an early-stage hardware startup, one of the most important things is finding a way to validate and test your technology," explains Jawdat, founder and CEO of Revterra and adviser to the InnoGrid team. He explains that the microgrid "can also be a testbed for new technologies, specifically, new energy storage technologies," through potential partnerships with companies like Greentown Labs, which is opening its Houston location soon.

Battling inequity 

While the outlook for a community microgrid is enticing, there are also challenges to address. One key challenge is inequity, which is a key focus of Pettitt who was drawn to the team's goal of providing stability for companies and residences in Houston.

Pettitt, who is seeking a Ph.D. in urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, has a background in public health and frequently works with the Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement. "I'm really looking at the intersection of the built environment and how to make cities healthier for its residents," he shares.

"A lot of companies are trying to prevent this climate crisis where we have climate refugees that can't live in certain areas because of ecological damage. But in the process, we don't want to create economic refugees from the gentrification of bringing all of these companies and higher-wage jobs into an area without providing folks the ability to benefit from those jobs and the positive externalities of that development," explains Pettitt.

The InnoGrid would plan to provide positive externalities in the form of energy subsidies and potentially even job training for people who want to work on the grid.

Power to the consumer

Much like the gamification in feel-good fitness trackers and e-learning tools, reward systems can inspire friendly competition and community engagement. InnoGrid's proposal seeks to challenge other major cities to build their own grids and compete with a gamified system.

The Innovation Corridor is currently undergoing major redevelopment, the first 16 acres of which are being developed by Rice Management Company and will be anchored by The Ion, which is opening soon. The timing of this redevelopment would allow a prospective project like InnoGrid to build in visual and interactive aspects that depict energy usage and carbon offsetting.

The microgrid's statistics would also engage Houstonians by sharing up-to-date data through dashboards, apps, and even billboards to track Houston's carbon footprint. Pettitt paints a picture of interactive sidewalk structures, leaderboards, and digital billboards in the public realm to showcase how energy is used day-to-day. The team hopes to build positive feedback cycles that encourage tenants and building owners to be more energy-efficient.

"If we're having an Innovation Corridor, an innovation district, I think the built environment should be innovative too," explains Pettitt.

The future of InnoGrid

Every innovation has to start somewhere. While InnoGrid is in its early stages, the team is working to establish partners and collaborators to make the project a reality.

Inspired by projects like the Brooklyn Microgrid, InnoGrid is in the process of pursuing partnerships with utilities and energy retailers to form a dynamic energy marketplace that pools local distributed energy resources. The team hopes to collaborate with microgrid experts from around the nation like Schneider Electric and SunPower. Other potential collaborators include The Ion, CenterPoint, Greentown Labs, and Rice Management Company.

Can Houston remain the energy capital of the world as it transitions to a net-zero energy future? The InnoGrid team wants to make that happen. The argument for a microgrid in Houston feels even more fitting when you look at the landscape.

"If we are going to create an innovative microgrid that also functions as a testbed for innovators and startups, [we] have proximity to some of the biggest utilities and power generation players right in that sector," explains Patel, who is also an inaugural member of Greentown Labs Houston.

"The microgrid itself is not novel. I think what makes it compelling is to situate that right here in the heart of the energy capital as we, again, reincarnate as the energy transition capital world," Patel continues.

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Gwyneth Paltrow, VCs to headline exciting upcoming Houston summit

coming soon

A Houston-based fund of funds is bringing back its venture-focused event — and this year, you might recognize the keynote speaker.

Venture Houston hosted by the HX Venture Fund will take place on Monday, September 12, at The Ion. The day 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, which deploys capital in to out-of-town VCs they have an interest and intention in investing into Houston startups, invested in Greycroft in 2020.

Some of the event's other speakers — from outside Texas as well as home grown —include LeadEdge Capital's Mitchell Green, Cart.com's Omair Tariq, Solugen's Gaurab Chakrabati, and many more. The full event agenda and list of speakers are both available online.

The program of the event is centered around key topics directly affecting Houston's innovation ecosystem, such as energy transition, sustainability, startup scaling, the future of health care, entrepreneurship, talent acquisition, and more.

“Venture Houston will bring together some of the most proven venture capitalists from the nation to the Houston stage, alongside Houston’s corporate leaders and most innovative entrepreneurs," says Sandy Guitar, managing director of the HX Venture Fund. "We are delighted to bring conversations around lessons learned and best practices to The Ion so that we can continue to nurture the incredible growth we are experiencing in the innovation ecosystem in Houston.”

Venture Houston is supported and sponsored by organizations including Insperity, Rice University, Greater Houston Partnership, Silicon Valley Bank, and Halliburton Labs.

"Houston's innovation ecosystem is experiencing a compelling transformation," says Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the GHP. "Venture Houston 2022 is the premier event for corporate leaders, venture capital investors, and entrepreneurs to plug into what is happening in the city. We are proud to sponsor and share the stage with leaders helping to illuminate the power of venture capital for Houston’s innovation ecosystem."

Registration is open online for the September 12 event.

Local startup to upgrade EV charging in Houston and beyond

seeing green

At 3 a.m. one night, just as he had many nights before, Tarun Girish found himself leaving his Houston apartment in search of an EV charger.

Once he located one, he would sit in his car for an hour and a half while his vehicle charged — with not much to do but wait.

But it was on this night he wondered if there was a way to use his previous hospitality experience to build a new kind of experience for EV drivers. He then developed his first iteration of a business plan — all while sitting in his driver’s seat.

His idea became Sparks Spaces, a startup formed in 2021 looking to shake up the EV charging game — the company aims to elevate the experience of charging electric vehicles by focusing on the space between car and charger by creating an airport lounge-type space for drivers. These EV lounges would include luxury waiting areas, clean restrooms, high-end food options, and availability to utilize them 24/7.

“We’ve seen a huge issue in the EV charging space where the experience side has been neglected,” says Girish, founder and CEO of Sparks Spaces.

Currently, Sparks Spaces is operating out of The Ion and installed a charging point outside of the building to help collect insights into what drivers are needing and are wanting to learn more about their customer base.

Eventually, the company’s goal is to take forgotten buildings and transition them into becoming EV charging hubs.

“The Ion is giving us a lot of resources to make sure that we are tailoring the solution to the right problem,” he says. “We’ve learned how to build a frictionless experience where the driver scans a QR code, pays for the duration of the charging session and then plugs in.”

When Sparks Spaces scales out, the team is eyeing two locations inside The Loop — one in Montrose and one on Shepherd Drive. The design would focus on natural lighting, safety and security.

The startup went through the Smart City Ion Accelerator but will be applying to a couple more accelerators that have more exposure into the EV construction space.

“We’re trying to provide a brand consistent experience from the time a driver drives into a lot to the time they leave,” he says. “We’ll be providing all fast-charging and level 2 charging services for drivers and will be completely universal so that any EV can utilize us.”

Sparks Spaces is looking to raise a $1.1 million seed round that will focus on research and development, the case studies and the architectural designs for a prototype that can be implemented in its locations.

“We want to be the definition of charging and lounges and experiences should be the forefront of EV charging,” he says. “The average household who owns an EV expects a certain level of luxury and expectations on experience. They are used to airport lounges when traveling. We want to reflect that in the EV charging space.”

Tarun Girish is on a mission to make EV charging easier and more comfortable. Photo courtesy

Houston expert weighs in on the trustworthiness of cryptocurrency

houston voices

Interest in cryptocurrencies reignited during the pandemic, driven in part by trillions of dollars in stimulus money that left many investors with “free money” to put to work. And while bitcoin recently tumbled nearly 55 percent from its peak, it remains the most valuable crypto asset in the world, with a market capitalization of around $589 billion. Its investors argue that it’s still a safer bet than stocks during this period of economic upheaval.

A renewed interest in cryptocurrencies — digital currencies that rely on blockchain technology, in which transactions are verified and records maintained by a decentralized system that uses cryptography — is widespread. Large corporations like Tesla, Mass Mutual and KPMG Canada have announced plans to hold cryptocurrency assets in treasury or accept them as payment. Meanwhile, major financial institutions are offering customers more digital asset investment options. Twelve years after bitcoin’s birth, mainstream investors are honing in on the currency, too.

In the midst of this market fascination, a fundamental question still remains. What exactly is cryptocurrency, and why should we care? And what about other industry buzzwords, like blockchain, decentralized exchanges or non-fungible tokens (NFTs)? Are they all just fads that will fade away?

Some have called cryptocurrency a Ponzi scheme, a tool for illicit activities, or a short-term fascination that will be irrelevant in a few years. It’s an understandable mindset, since there’s no intrinsic value in cryptocurrencies — not unlike the U.S. dollar after it stopped being backed by gold in the 1970s. But it’s also a shortsighted one. Blockchain technology, which allows users to exchange information on a secure digital ledger, is extremely useful because it automates contractual arrangements through computer programming.

I’m a firm believer that cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology that underpins them are here to stay, and understanding how this technology has transformed our environment, and how it will continue to evolve, is critical to succeeding in business.

First steps

Bitcoin took the first major steps towards a truly electronic cash system in 2008, in the midst of one of the worst financial collapses of all time. Governments worldwide were bailing out financial institutions that had been deemed “too big to fail.” Perceptions of economic inequality spurred movements such as Occupy Wall Street, which was fueled by a distrust in banks.

Bitcoin, on the other hand, wasn’t created by a trusted source — in fact, no one knows exactly who invented it. In a 2008 white paper, “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” Satoshi Nakamoto — the pseudonymous individual presumed to have developed bitcoin — described the currency as a way to securely facilitate financial transactions between parties without having to involve a central intermediary. No longer would people have to put their trust in the large financial institutions that failed them during the financial crisis.

Detractors find the lack of a central authority with blockchain worrisome, but proponents say it’s exactly the point: You no longer have to trust the person or institution you’re dealing with. You only have to trust the algorithms that run the program — and presumably an algorithm will never run off with your money.

Instead, blockchain enables a cooperative of members to run the shared network ledger required to keep track of a currency’s credits and debits. No one can shut down the system so long as a group of computers anywhere in the world is able to connect to the internet and run bitcoin’s software.

Because of bitcoin, today we can uniquely own digital assets and transfer them with the certainty that people can’t spend the same cryptocurrency twice. The transactions that bitcoin-like applications make possible are registered in permanent and immutable digital records for all to see in a common ledger.

By enabling fast and easily verifiable transactions, blockchain technology is also streamlining business operations in banking, supply chains, sustainability, healthcare and even voting. Development in these sectors and others is continuing at an intense pace. Annual global funding of blockchain projects now runs in the billions of dollars. From 2020 to 2021 alone, it jumped from several billion to nearly $30 billion.

Second generation

Since bitcoin’s arrival, we’ve seen a second, more sophisticated generation of cryptocurrencies evolve, with Ethereum as their flagship. Ethereum has its own programming language, enabling users to write and automate self-executing smart contracts, allowing for the creation of tokens for a specific use. For example, imagine that when Uber was founded, it had created an Uber token, and only people who owned Uber tokens could use the rideshare service. Tokens currently power thousands of decentralized applications that give people more privacy and control in a variety of areas, such as internet browsing, financial services, gaming and data storage, among others.

Some critiques of cryptocurrency remain. One growing concern is that cryptocurrencies require a significant amount of energy to run their networks, leading to higher transaction costs, energy waste and limited scalability. Newer cryptocurrencies are attempting to find ways to verify transactions that require less energy.

Some people also worry about ongoing volatility in cryptocurrency markets. A third generation of cryptocurrencies has emerged to address this concern: so-called “stablecoins,” which are pegged to a government-issued currency, a commodity, assets, or basket of assets. For some, stablecoins are serving as an onramp into the world of crypto from the world of traditional finance.

Before a new technology becomes part of everyday life, we often see a long period of development, improvement and consumer adoption. Cryptocurrency and blockchain markets are still in this early development stage, but they’re also moving quickly into the mainstream. The total market capitalization of cryptocurrencies late last year briefly reached the $3 trillion mark, or roughly 15 percent of the U.S. GDP, and there’s been more than $100 billion locked into decentralized finance applications.

Large companies like IBM, Amazon and Bank of America are leading the way by tapping into blockchain technology in their daily business activities. It won’t be long until this market, previously characterized by speculation and wild volatility, will be transformed into a stable infrastructure framework. But companies need to get up to speed on the industry now. Those that commit to doing so will be the ones that thrive.


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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was written by Manolo Sánchez, an adjunct professor of operations management at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.