3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

This week's Houston innovators to know include Megan Eddings and Amanda Cotler of Accel Lifestyle and Brad Burke of Rice Alliance. Photos courtesy

It seems like 2020 is the year of the pivot and taking what the world has thrown at you —from pandemics to oil gluts — and making something out of what you have.

This week's innovators to know include a Houston startup flipping the switch on production to make face masks to the Rice Alliance re-envisioning an annual event that usually takes place at a global conference.

Megan Eddings and Amanda Cotler of Accel Lifestyle

Photos courtesy

When Megan Eddings and Amanda Cotler saw the CDC was recommending medical professionals wear bandanas or strips of cloth when surgical face masks weren't available, they had an idea.

The duo behind Accel Lifestyle, a Houston-based athletic wear startup that has a bacteria-resistent fabric, hopped on a call to see how they could rework their supply chain to quickly pivot to making face masks.

When setting up the company, Eddings, Accel's founder, made it a priority to avoid sweatshops, and she set up her supply chain to be completely within the United States — something that's been beneficial to the company's COVID pivot.

"If we did not have a 100 percent domestic supply chain, there's no way we could have done this," Eddings says.

Eddings and Cotler joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to share the story of how Accel went from deciding to make the masks to selling them by the thousands to Houston Methodist.

"When you think of face masks, you wouldn't think about activewear or thinking of Accel being a part of the fight against coronavirus," Cotler says. However, that might no longer be the case for the company now. Click here to learn more and to stream the podcast episode.

Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship

Photo via alliance.rice.edu

Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship typically hosts their Energy Tech Venture Day from the one of the halls within NRG Arena at the annual Offshore Technology Conference. However, the conference that attracts thousands of people from around the world, much like so many events, was canceled due to coronavirus.

But Brad Burke and his team at the Rice Alliance turned to tech to introduce the first virtual event, which then took place on Thursday, May 7. Burke introduced the event that had 39 startups that represented 11 different states and six different countries, 13 call Houston their HQ.

"We had many startups and corporations reach out to us and ask us if we could go ahead with the event in a virtual format, so that's how we ended up where we are today," says Burke. Click here to read more.

The show had to go on at the annual Energy Tech Venture Day, which was put on virtually by the Rice Alliance on May 7. Zukiman Mohamad/Pexels

13 Houston energy tech startups pitch at Rice Alliance's first virtual event

online only

Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship's annual Energy Tech Venture Day is usually hosted as a part of the Offshore Technology Conference that takes over NRG Center each May. However, when OTC announced its cancelation, Rice Alliance made sure the show would go on.

"We had many startups and corporations reach out to us and ask us if we could go ahead with the event in a virtual format, so that's how we ended up where we are today," says Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance at the start of the event.

Throughout the two-hour pitch event, 39 startups pitched their companies in two minutes and 30 seconds or less. The companies were selected based on input from the alliance's energy advisory board. The companies, Burke says, represent innovations across the energy industry.

An additional 24 companies participated in virtual office hours with investors through a speed-networking process.

"We know that the needs of startups to raise capital, to find customers, and to find pilots is even greater today than it was several months ago," Burke says. "And we know that the needs of energy companies to find innovative technologies to reduce costs and increase production are even greater as well."

Usually at this event, the advisory board decides on the 10 most promising energy tech startups, however, this list will not be revealed this year.

Of the startups that pitched that represented 11 different states and six different countries, 13 call Houston their HQ. Here's what local startups pitched.

Bluware

Bluware's E&P clients use the startup's cloud computing and deep learning technology to access seismic data. This data is crucial for geoscientists to make faster and smarter decisions to reduce time to oil. Bluware's headquarters is in West Houston, and has an European office in Norway.

DAMorphe

Southwest Houston-based DAMorphe uses nanotechnology to provide solutions within oil and gas — among other sectors, including life sciences, consumer goods, and more. Within O&G specifically, the company has designed dissolvable frac plugs and balls with superior performance and lower cost, as well as a flowable sensor for downhole measurements.

dataVediK

Early-stage Houston startup dataVediK focusing on enterprise digital transformation with a plan to create an artificial intelligence platform for collaboration between data scientists and domain experts to provide tech solutions for oil and gas — such as optimizing operations costs and productivity, enhancing safety, and more.

DelfinSia

Houston-based Delfin specializes in text analytics and is working with two oil supermajors. Sia, Delfin's product, is a virtual adviser, able to reference a client's unstructured data in real-time to ensure that decisions are fully informed. Users can simply ask Sia a question and get the best answers from company data.

Flutura Decision Sciences and Analytics

Flutura's motto is to promote actions — not just insights with data. The company's main product is Cerebra uses artificial intelligence and industrial internet of things to connect the dots within the oil and gas supply chain. Flutura's clients include Shell, Honeywell, Henkel, TechnipFMC, Patterson UTI, ABB, BJ Services, Daimler Benz, and more.

MyPass Global

A workforce management system, MyPass Global is putting the power of data into the hands of the individual workers at oil and gas companies and is creating digital work skills passport for each employee. The startup has developed a network of over 180 business partners across Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, which includes more than 27,000 registered workers.

Nomad Proppant Services

For E&P companies, Nomad is revolutionizing the way sand is delivered and used by wells. The average well uses 10,000 tons of sand, and that means trucking that volume via long hauls. However, Nomad has created a new, mobile mine that can save 25 percent of the company's spend on sand.

Osperity

Houston-based Osperity's technology provides AI-driven intelligent visual monitoring for industrial operations that can result in improved safety, reduced carbon footprints, and more. The company has more than 40 industrial customers using its monitoring services. Osperity offices in the Galleria area and has a location in Calgary.

PhDsoft Technology

PhDsoft, an engineering technology company, has created a technology specializing in industrial digital twins. The company's 4D software, PhDC4D®, can predict the effect of time and elements on equipment and facilities, which can save its industrial clients money and downtime of its machinery, as well as improve safety conditions.

Quidnet Energy

Clean energy tech company, Quidnet Energy, is providing electricity storage solutions that are cost effective and are able to be used long term. Quidnet uses traditional pumped hydro storage that, before the company, was restricted to specific terrains. The company offices out of downtown Houston.

SOTAOG

Data analytics company SOTAOG wants to be one-stop shop for its energy clients' data needs. SOTAOG's proprietary algorithms can provide real-time data that can improve operations and create cost-saving initiatives. The company works out of The Cannon's West Houston campus.

Voyager

Houston-based software startup Voyager is making waves in the maritime bulk-shipping industry. Whether shipping plans are transporting crude oil and LNG or complex offshore rig movements, Voyager can replace the thousands of logistics emails shared across several companies and bring communications and data onto one platform. The company's main office is in downtown Houston, but also has an office in Brazil.

WellNoz

WellNoz creates inflow control devices, or ICDs, for its oil and gas industry clients. The downhole devices are crucial for controlling the opening and closing of the well. WellNoz's device is made from a proprietary metal alloy that remains strong to remain closed when required, and then dissolves after a certain time to open up the valve. The startup's first client is Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, which will will purchase 10,000 ICDs each year for the next five years.

This week's set of innovators to know are making waves in industries across Houston. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

In this Monday roundup of Houston innovators, we traverse into the restaurant, health care, and higher education industries with a startup founder focused on using technology to improve the dining experience, a self-starter in health care, and a leader on the Rice University campus with a new office for his growing staff.

Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship

Photo via alliance.rice.edu

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship has moved into its new Gensler-designed, 3,000-square-foot Bill and Stephanie Sick Suite that is expected to be a game changer for the program.

"The Rice Alliance meets frequently with venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, students, mentors, and other members of the Houston entrepreneurial ecosystem," says Brad Burke, who leads the innovation arm of Rice University. "The new space is on the first floor of the Jones School and is much more accessible and visible to our guests and visitors." Click here to read more and see photos of the space.

Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer at Houston Methodist

Courtesy of Houston Methodist

Roberta Schwartz is an innovator by nature. On last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, she shared her story of overcoming breast cancer as a young woman. Seeking a support system and camaraderie, she co-founded the Young Survival Coalition.

"I was 27 when I was unexpectedly diagnosed with breast cancer — I have no family history, no cancer in the family. It certainly was a shock to my system," Schwartz says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Once I was diagnosed, and through some of the original surgery and care I had to do, I knew that I wanted to reach out and find a larger community of young women."

Now, she's leading Houston Methodist's Center for Innovation, another entity she saw a need for, then created. Click here to read the story and stream the podcast episode.

Ken Bridge, founder of Roovy Technologies

Photo courtesy of Roovy

People use their smartphones for everything these days. So, Houston restaurateur Ken Bridge thought, why couldn't they use them to optimize their dining experience? Bridge created Roovy Technologies, and the app uses point-of-sale technology to put the power of ordering, paying, and communicating with the kitchen and bar, right into the hands of customers.

"Roovy is a platform that allows the user to order and pay entirely from their phone," says Bridge. "We will soon be the first company to have all three categories of this type of app: dine-in, take out and delivery." Click here to read more about Roovy.

The Rice Alliance unveiled its new Gensler-designed, 3,000-square-foot office space. Photo courtesy of the Rice Alliance

Photos: Rice Alliance reveals new office space

new digs

Rice University's entrepreneurship-driving entity has a new, updated office on campus. The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship cut the ribbon on its 3,000-square-foot Bill and Stephanie Sick Suite just in time for the holidays.

The space was made possible by a $1 million donation from its namesake couple, Rice engineering alumnus William "Bill" Sick and his wife, Stephanie. Bill Sick was among the first supporters and mentors to the program when it was formed in 2000.

"[Bill is] passionate about building entrepreneurship at Rice University and passionate about the importance of entrepreneurship in driving innovation and economic development in this country," Brad Burke, managing director at the alliance, says. "Bill has watched Rice's program go from an unranked program to the No. 1 entrepreneurship program in the country and felt the Rice Alliance needed a larger, more appropriate space commensurate with the Rice Alliance's impact on Rice and on the Houston community."

Burke says the Rice Alliance's new home — located in McNair Hall, which houses the Jones Graduate School of Business — will be better accommodating for the number of industry professionals that come onto the Rice campus for events, programming, mentorship, and more.

"The Rice Alliance meets frequently with venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, students, mentors, and other members of the Houston entrepreneurial ecosystem," Burke says. "The new space is on the first floor of the Jones School and is much more accessible and visible to our guests and visitors."

The Bill and Stephanie Sick Suite has doubled the Alliance's space and has allowed the organization to co-locate with another innovation-focus entity on campus. The Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, or LILIE, will have an office in the space, better connecting the two organizations that have worked hand-in-hand for a number of years.

Some visual elements of the space include bright green walls, which sets the Rice Alliance apart from the school with an energetic feel. The space also features a number of Houston art, including:

  • A three-paneled piece by local Houston artist DUAL, which was commissioned by Rice Alliance for the 2019 Rice Business Plan Competition.
  • A neon sign, designed and created by Houston artist Tim Walker of The Neon Gallery adorns the entrance wall.
  • In a way to honor Houston's history, mosaic tile flooring from the Blue Tile Project is also featured in the space.

Gensler designed the space and b. bell builders was the general contractor. Quynhmai Nguyen, Rice Alliance's senior director of operations and event planning, worked with Gensler and made the final detailed design decisions.

Energetic new space

The new space, which premiered with a holiday party last week, features a neon sign, designed and created by Houston artist Tim Walker of The Neon Gallery.

Startups from across the world pitched at the Rice Alliance Startup Roundup at the Offshore Technology Conference. Getty Images

Rice Alliance names the 10 most promising startups at Houston's Offshore Technology Conference

Best of the rest

Over 50 different startups from across the globe gathered at the Offshore Technology Conference for the fifth annual Rice Alliance Startup Roundup event. The full day of speed pitching and presentations, hosted by Rice Alliance Managing Director Brad Burke, took place at NRG Arena on Monday, May 6.

After interacting with all the various startups, the Rice Alliance's panel of experts voted on the 10 most promising startups. Half of the companies that were recognized are based in Houston — and even more have an office or some sort of operations in town. Here's which technologies the offshore oil and gas industry has its eye on.

Oliasoft AS

Oliasoft provides solutions for digitizing well planning operations. Photo via oliasoft.com

Oslo, Norway-based Oliasoft kicked off the presentations at OTC and walked away with an award 2.5 hours later. The cloud-based technology allows for enhanced well planning, casing and other drilling engineering processes.

Syzygy Plasmonics

Syzygy Plasmonics is a chemicals company in Houston lead by Trevor Best. Best presented his company's hydrogen as a fuel alternative technology. According to best, Syzegy's technology is a lower cost solution to gasoline that doesn't put out any chemical waste.

Toku Systems Inc.

Canadian IIoT company, Toku Systems Inc., has a inexpensive monitoring device. Photo via tokuindustry.com

When it comes to monitoring operations, it can be pricey and inaccurate. Edmonton, Alberta-based Toku Systems Inc. has designed a solution. Toku's device is durable and uses IIoT technology to allow for oil and gas companies to monitor their operations remotely.

Ingu Solutions

Ingu Solutions' Pipers technology might look small — but it's able to save a whole lot of cash for oil companies and prevent leaks. Photo via ingu.co

Another Canadian company, Ingu Solutions from Calgary, Alberta, took home an award from Rice. The company's pipeline detection technology can access pipes' conditions and prevent leaks and damage from causing major, costly events. Ingu's Pipers technology works off a subscription model, so clients have access to support and supplies with their monthly fees to the company.

LaserStream

LaserStream uses its imaging technology to track the wear and tear on pipes. Photo via laserstreamlp.com

Humble-based LaserStream provides laser-based scans of pipeline. The technology can evaluate damage and corrosion as well as calculate measurements of various equipment. The company has inspected over 350,000 feet of materials , including tubing, casing, drilling risers, production risers, and more, according to the website.

Ondaka

Ondaka's technology allows you to visualize your infrastructure before you act. Photo via ondaka.com

Ondaka isn't your typical Bay Area startup. The company uses an alphabet soup of buzzword technologies — IoT, AI, VR — and allows oil and gas companies to really visualize their infrastructure. The Palo Alto-based startup is a StartX company and a member at Station Houston for its local office.

Dark Vision Technologies Inc.

Canada-based Dark Vision has created a tool that can take ultrasound images of wells. Photo via darkvisiontech.com

North Vancouver, British Columbia-based Dark Vision has spent years developing its ultrasound technology that can get a 360-degree view of oil wells. According to the website, Dark Vision can find a number of downhole issues, such as tubing defects, casing corrosion, obstructions, and more.

Cemvita Factory

The Karimi siblings have created a way to synthetically convert CO2 into glucose, and they are targeting the energy and aerospace industries for their technology. Courtesy of Cemvita Factory

Houston-based Cemvita Factory didn't present its CO2-to-glucose conversion technology at the roundup, but the company's presence earlier in the day was enough for the judges. Co-founder Moji Karimi tells InnovationMap in a previous story about how the technology has many applications in oil and gas, but also in space operations,

Lift Etc.

Even though Lift ETC didn't present in the roundup, the Houston-based company walked away with an award for its artificial lift technology that is more efficient and cheaper for companies to use. According to the website, Lift ETC has a technology that's proven to lower the surface compressor requirements up to 75 percent and increase production.

SensorField

Houston-based SensorField didn't present, but still walked away with recognition from Rice. Photo via sensorfield.com

When it comes to using IoT for remote oilfield site monitoring, Houston-based SensorField is ahead of the curve. The company's device — so small it can fit in the palm of your hand — is powerful enough to provide complete monitoring capabilities from fluid level and pressure to rotating machinery health and location security, according to the website.

The 19th annual Rice Business Plan Competition has revealed its finalists. Courtesy of Rice University

Rice University announces the 42 teams competing for over $1.5 million in its student startup contest

It's on

One of the world's largest startup competitions just got larger. Rice University revealed the 42 student-led teams from around the world that will be competing for more than $1.5 million in prizes this spring. Of the 42, two are from Houston universities — Curenav from University of Houston and LilySpec from Rice University.

The 19th annual Rice Business Plan Competition will take place from April 4 to 6 at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business.

"The true measure of success for the Rice Business Plan Competition is the number of teams that launch, raise funding and go on to succeed in their business," says Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship at Rice University, in a release. "The competition has served as the launch pad for a great number of successful entrepreneurial ventures, and the success rate far exceeds the national average."

According to the release, a group of judges whittled down over 300 applications across in four categories: life sciences, medical devices, and digital health; digital, information technology, and mobile; energy, clean technology, and sustainability; and other innovations, investment opportunity.

A different set of 275 judges will review the business plans of the finalists for the competition. The organization has a new application, judging, and scoring system, which was created by Houston-based Poetic, a business tech company.

Here's some of the prizes that are on the line for these finalists, according to the release:

  • $100,000 Cisco Global Problem Solver prize
  • $350,000 Investment Grand Prize from The GOOSE Society of Texas
  • $100,000 OWL Investment Prize
  • $100,000 Houston Angel Network Investment Prize
  • $100,000 TiE Investment Prize
  • $50,000 NASA Space Exploration Innovation Award
  • $125,000 second place prize from Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund and Greg Novak of Novak Druce
  • $25,000 nCourage Courageous Women Entrepreneur Prize
  • $25,000 Women's Health and Wellness Prize awarded by Sandi Heysinger and Dick Williams
  • $25,000 Texas Business Hall of Fame Prize
  • $25,000 Texas Medical Center Accelerator, TMCx, Prizes, plus a guaranteed spot in their accelerator.
  • $20,000 Pearland Economic Development Corporation Prize
  • $100,000 Texas Halo Fund Investment Prize
  • $50,000 Pediatric Device Prize
  • The winner of the grand prize will ring the closing bell at the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York.

The fan favorite can also take home a prize. The fourth annual People's Choice Competition is officially open for voting on Facebook.

Over 210 former RBPC competitors are still in business — with 25 being acquired‚ and have raised over a cumulative $2.2 billion in capital and created more than 3,000 new jobs, according to the release.

These are the 42 companies facing off in this year's awards:

  • EnKoat — Arizona State University
  • Crystal Sonic — Arizona State University
  • Flux Marine — Boston University
  • Formally — Brown University
  • Tarseer — Carnegie Mellon University
  • Delta Band — Carnegie Mellon University
  • Colonai — Columbia University
  • Incite Analytics — Cornell University
  • Neutroelectric — Dartmouth College
  • Chord — Harvard University and MIT
  • Modulus — Housing Solutions IIT Madras (India)
  • Treyetech — Johns Hopkins University
  • Avesta76 — Johns Hopkins University
  • Zilper Trenchless — Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • AeroShield — Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Vita Inclinata Technologies — Mitchell Hamline School of Law
  • BetterLife — Nanyang Technological University (Singapore)
  • Sunthetics — New York University
  • Rhaeos — Northwestern University
  • Odin Technologies — Northwestern University
  • RagnaRock Geo — Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)
  • Hearth Labs — Princeton University
  • LilySpec — Rice University
  • PL Biosciences RWTH — Aachen University (Germany)
  • NABACO — Texas State University
  • Embryologic — University of California, Irvine
  • MiVUE — UCLA
  • Tutorfly — UCLA
  • Vascugenix — University of Arkansas at Little Rock
  • Respira Labs — University of California, Berkeley
  • AC Biode — University of Cambridge (United Kingdom)
  • Beltech — University of Chicago
  • BrewBike — University of Chicago and Northwestern University
  • Curenav — University of Houston
  • Speeko — University of Iowa
  • Calcium Solutions — University of Michigan
  • Dough — University of Michigan
  • dermadiagnostics — University of Notre Dame
  • Resonado — University of Notre Dame
  • Heart I/O — University of Pittsburgh
  • HRG Infrastructure Monitoring — University of Victoria (Canada)
  • Astrolabe Analytics — University of Washington
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4 startups pitch at virtual demo day for Houston accelerator program

resillience

In light of COVID-19, it is more relevant than ever to discuss and support startups with sustainability and resiliency in mind. At the Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Cohort 2 Demo Day, a virtual audience was reminded of that.

"So, 2020 has certainly been a year of unprecedented uncertainty and change for Houston, for Texas, for our country, and for our world," says Christine Galib, director of the accelerator. "The past few months in particular have been especially difficult as the global pandemic and civil unrest continue to spotlight systemic and structural scars on the face of humanity."

The virtual event was streamed on July 1 and hosted several thought leaders and presenters before concluding with pitches from four of the cohort companies.

"Through it all, and in a virtual world, Cohort 2 startups, the mentors, and our Ion team have been the change we wish to see in the world," Galib continues. "For these startups, failure is simply not an option — and neither is going at it alone."

Earlier this year, Galib announced the second cohort would be focused on solutions for Houston's air quality, water purification, and other cleantech needs. The program, backed by Intel, Microsoft, and TX/RX, launched on Earth Day and commenced shortly after. Cohort 3 is expected later this year.

Here are the four companies that pitched and the problems they are trying to solve.

Re:3D

re:3D was founded just down the street from NASA's Johnson Space Center to address the need for a mid-market 3D printing solution. The Houston-based startup also wanted to create their 3D printer that operates on recycled plastics in order to prevent excess waste.

"Where some see trash, we see opportunity," Charlotte Craff, community liaison at Re:3D says in her presentation.

Re:3D's clients can get their hands on their own Gigabot for less than $10,000, and the printer uses pellets and flakes from recycled plastics —not filament — to print new designs. Clients are also supported by the company with design software and training.

"We can help the city of Houston help meet its climate action and resilient city goals by transforming the way people think about recycling," Craff says about Re:3D's future partnerships with the city.

Water Lens

While two-thirds of the world is covered in water, only 0.7 percent is drinkable. And of that fresh water, 92 percent of it is used in agricultural and industrial settings. This is how Keith Cole, CEO and founder of Water Lens, set the scene for his presentation.

Water Lens, which is based in Houston with a lab located in Austin, wants to solve the problem of cities and countries running out of fresh, drinkable water by equipping huge water-using companies with a water testing tool.

"We've developed a system to let anyone test any water literally anywhere in the world," Cole says, citing clients like ExxonMobil, Shell, and Halliburton.

S2G Energy

S2G Energy, based in Mexico, is focused on optimizing energy management in order to digitize, empower, and unlock potential for cost-saving efforts and technology.

In his pitch, Geronimo Martinez, founder of S2G Energy, points out that restaurants, commercial buildings, and other adjacent industries can save money by implementing energy management solutions that come out of S2G Energy's expertise. In Mexico, Martinez says, clients include the top two restaurant chains that — especially during COVID-19 — need optimization and cost saving now more than ever.

Eigen Control

A refinery's distillation columns are expensive — their fuel use accounts for 50 of operating costs, says Dean Guma, co-founder and CEO of Houston-based Eigen Control.

Guma explains in his pitch how Eigen Control's technology can plug into existing sensors, model networks based on data, and employ the startup's artificial intelligent technology to reduce carbon emissions and save money on operating costs.

Houston researchers find new eco-friendly way to preserve produce

preventing waste

Hunger impacts over 800 million people worldwide, leaving nearly 10 percent of the population suffering from chronic undernourishment. The distressing reality of food shortages co-exists in a world where 1.3 billion tons of food — nearly a third of what's produced — is wasted each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rice University's scientific research team's latest discovery takes a crack at ending food shortages and improving sustainability with a common kitchen necessity: eggs.

The discovery of egg-based coating is promising to researchers, as it manages to both prolong produce shelf-life by double while impacting the environment.

"We are reducing the cost, and at the same time we are reducing the waste," says Muhammad M. Rahman, a research scientist at Rice University. "One in every eight people are hungry...on the other side, 33 percent of food is wasted."

It's no secret that overflowing landfills contribute to the climate crisis, piling high with food waste each year. While the United States produces more than seven billion eggs a year, manufacturers reject 3 percent of them. The Rice University researchers estimate that more than 200 million eggs end up in U.S. landfills annually.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, half of all landfill gas is methane, a hazardous greenhouse gas that contributes to detrimental climate change. Landfills are the third-largest contributor to methane emissions in the country, riding the coattails of agriculture and the energy industry.

COVID-19 has upended supply chains across the nation, and in recent months food waste has become an even more pressing issue. The disruptions of consumer purchasing habits and the indefinite closures of theme parks and select restaurants put a burden on farmers who planned for larger harvests and restaurants unsure of how to adjust. With more Americans cooking at home, panic-buying from grocery stores is also playing a role in accumulating waste.

To understand the challenges of the food industry, it's important to acknowledge the biggest menace to the supply chain: perishability. Fruits and vegetables only last a few days once arriving in grocery stores due to culprits like dehydration, texture deterioration, respiration and microbial growth. Rice University researchers sought to create a coating that addresses each of these issues in a natural, cost-effective way.

Brown School of Engineering materials scientist, Pulickei Ajayan, and his colleagues, were looking for a protein to fight issues like food waste. Rahman, a researcher in Ajayan's lab, received his Ph.D. from Cornell University studying the structure-property relationship in green nanocomposites. He and his fellow researchers found that egg whites were a suitable protein that wouldn't alter the biological and physiological properties of fruit. The study published in Advanced Materials took one year and three months to complete.

According to Rahman, the egg-based coating is non-toxic, biodegradable and healthier than other alternatives on the market. Wax is one common method of fruit preservation that can result in adverse effects on gut cells and the body over time.

"Long-term consumption of wax is not actually good and is very bad for your health," says Dr. Rahman. After wax is consumed, gut cells fragment the preservatives in wax to ions. This process can have a negative impact on "membrane disruption, essential metabolite inhibition, energy drainage to restore homeostasis, and reductions in body-weight gain," according to the research abstract.

Preservation efforts like wax, modified atmospheric packaging and paraffin-based active coatings are not only more expensive and less healthy, but they also alter the taste and look of fruits.

"Reducing food shortages in ways that don't involve genetic modification, inedible coatings or chemical additives is important for sustainable living," Ajayan states in a press release.

The magic of preservation is all in the ingredients. Rice University's edible coating is mostly made from household items. Seventy percent of the egg coating is made from egg whites and yolk. Cellulose nanocrystals, a biopolymer from wood, are mixed with the egg to create a gas barrier and keep the produce from shriveling. To add elasticity to the brittle poly-albumen (egg), glycerol helps make the coating flexible. Finally, curcumin—an extract found in turmeric—works as an antibacterial to reduce the microbial growth and preserve the fruit's freshness.

The experiment was done by dipping strawberries, avocados, papayas and bananas in the multifunctional coating and comparing them with uncoated fruits. Observation during the decaying process showed that the coated fruits had about double the shelf-life of their non-coated counterparts.

For people with egg allergies, the coating can be removed simply by rinsing the produce in water. Rice University researchers are also beginning to test plant-based proteins for vegan consumers.

For its first iteration, Rahman finds that the coating shows "optimistic results" and "potential" for the future of food preservation.

"These are already very green materials. In the next phase, we are trying to optimize this coating and extend the samples from fruits to vegetables and eggs," says Rahman.

Researchers will also work to test a spray protein, making it easier for both commercial providers as well as consumers looking for an at-home coating option. From a lab in Rice University to a potential shelf life in stores, the innovation of food coating is just beginning.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

It's a new month and Houston's innovation ecosystem is continuing to grow amid the coronavirus pandemic. This week's Houston innovators to know roundup reflects that growth with a new-to-town incubator's newly names leader — plus an entrepreneur creating an virtual reality app to escape and a communications expert's advice on navigating COVID-19.

Juliana Garaizar, launch director of Greentown Houston

Juliana Garaizar is working to help set up Houston's Greentown Labs incubator with diversity and inclusion in mind. Courtesy photo

Juliana Garaizar has had to keep a huge secret for a while. The launch director of new-to-Houston Greentown Labs has known about the cleantech incubator's plan to expand to the Bayou City for a while, and now the news is out. Of course, launching amid a pandemic isn't ideal, but Garaizar says its allowed a strong relationship with the original group based in Boston to form.

"I think the silver lining of this COVID-19 experience is that we are much more integrated with the Boston team, and we're learning at a much faster rate," she says. "That's why we decided to also open Houston for virtual memberships before we open our building in Q1 of 2021."

Garaizar joined the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to share her experience with the organization and how she'll be setting up Houston operations with diversity and inclusion in mind. Read more and stream the episode.

Derek Armstrong, CEO and founder of Armstrong Innovations

Derek Armstrong, a Houston native, founded his design company, Armstrong Innovations. Photo courtesy of Oculus Go

Derek Armstrong had been working on a new virtual reality app for relaxation and meditation that users can enter into for an opportunity to escape reality for a bit — little did he know that was something more people than ever would want to do.

His company, a Houston-area industrial design startup, Armstrong Innovations, just launched two Oculus Go app games, aptly named 'Escape'. The VR app was designed with relaxation and meditation in mind but has doubled as a new way to relax and sightsee without leaving your home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The sights and sounds of our new app assist with mindfulness and meditation," says CEO and founder Derek Armstrong. "It's about focusing on the sights and sounds, especially with the virus growing. It's a quick getaway without having to physically go anywhere." Read more.

Megan Silianoff, founder and creative director of Mad Meg Creative Services

Megan Silianoff has been helping clients navigate communications during a pandemic. Courtesy photo

The worst part of contracting COVID-19 — aside from suffering from the disease itself — is diligently communicating the risk of exposure to people you've been around especially to coworkers, employees, clients, etc. In a guest article for InnovationMap, Megan Silianoff of Mad Meg Creative Services, sets the scene for you to be prepared should you find yourself in this situation,

"We understand as communication experts, informing a client, boss, or anyone that you've potentially exposed them is scary messaging to share," she writes. "Guilt is the number one emotion people report experiencing when they realize they've potentially exposed someone or a group of people, even though the respective exposure was inadvertent. Nevertheless it's crucial to communicate the exposure quickly and effectively as that's how Houston can hinder the spread of this disease through our city." Read more.