Here's who's making the call for this year's Houston Innovation Awards. Photos courtesy

Ten Houstonians are in the hot seat for deciding the best companies and individuals in Houston's innovation ecosystem.

InnovationMap has announced its 2023 Houston Innovation Awards judging panel, which includes startup founders, nonprofit leaders, investors, corporate innovators, and more.

The 10 selected judges will evaluate applications from the nearly 400 nominations that were submitted this year. The judges will be using their expertise to evaluate the nominees' applications, which are due to InnovationMap by midnight on October 4.

Read about this year's judges below, and don't forget to secure your tickets to the November 8 event to see who the panel selects as the winners for the annual celebration of Houston innovation.

Natara Branch, CEO of Houston Exponential

Houston Exponential was founded to amplify and support the city's innovation ecosystem, and Natara Branch has been leading this initiative since appointed as CEO last year. For the second year, HX is partnering with InnovationMap on the Houston Innovation Awards.

Born in Germany and raised all around Texas, Branch — a University of Houston alumna — previously was the first African American woman to hold a vice president position at the NFL. Based in New York, she oversaw operations in various leadership roles at the NFL for over 18 years.

Barbara J. Burger, former Trailblazer Award recipient

Barbara J. Burger, former vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures, was the inaugural recipient of the Trailblazer Award at the 2021 Houston Innovation Awards, which was previously called the InnovationMap Awards.

A self-proclaimed “graduate” from Chevron, she is senior adviser to Lazard, a member of the Greentown Labs Board of Directors, adviser to Syzygy Plasmonics, Epicore Biosystems, and Sparkz Inc., and several other energy transition and philanthropic roles. Burger holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Rochester, a doctoral degree in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology, and an academic honor MBA in finance from the University of California, Berkeley.

Devin Dunn, head of the Accelerator for Health Tech at TMC Innovation

As head of the Accelerator for Health Tech at the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Factory, Devin Dunn works hands on with startups — specifically to help them refine their business models and plan to scale — every day.

Prior to joining TMCi, Dunn was an early employee at a London-based digital health startup. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Biological Basis of Behavior and Healthcare Management from the University of Pennsylvania and received her Master’s in Public Health from the University of Texas Health Science Center.

Noah Fons, senior coordinator of regional economic development at the Greater Houston Partnership

Working within regional economic development at the Greater Houston Partnership, Noah Fons has the pulse on companies expanding to Houston. Previously, he worked at Houston Exponential, so he also understands Houston's evolving innovation ecosystem. He studied economics at Rice University.

Aziz Gilani, managing director at Mercury Fund

As managing director at Houston-based venture capital firm Mercury, Aziz Gilani focuses on investments in enterprise SaaS, Cloud, and data science startups. He's worked at the firm for over 15 years.

A Kauffman Fellows Program graduate, he received his bachelor's degree from the University of Texas and his MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Gilani also serves in advisory roles for the Mayor of Houston’s Tech and Innovation Council, Seed Accelerator Rankings, and SXSW Interactive and is an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business where he teaches a course on venture capital.

Natalie Harms, editor of InnovationMap

For the third year, Natalie Harms will represent InnovationMap on the annual awards judging panel as the founding editor of InnovationMap the host of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Recently named the editor of EnergyCapitalHTX, a newly launched sister site to InnovationMap focused on Houston's role within the energy transition, she reports on innovation, technology, energy transition — and their impact on the city of Houston. A Houston native, she's worked as a business journalist for almost a decade and has a degree in journalism from the University of Houston and a certificate in publishing from New York University.

Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita Factory

Moji Karimi and his co-founder and sister, Tara Karimi, were honored at last year's Houston Innovation Awards as the winners of the Green Impact Business award. Cemvita Factory, their fast-growing startup, uses biotech to sustainably create materials to lower its customers carbon footprints.

Prior to launching Cemvita in 2018, Karimi held leadership roles at Weatherford and Biota Technology. He serves as a board member for CleanTX and adviser to Houston-based ComboCurve Inc.

Margarita Kelrikh, associate at Latham & Watkins

As associate in the Emerging Companies group at Latham & Watkins in Houston, Margarita Kelrikh has supported the firm's growing startup clients since her appointment last year. Prior to joining the firm, she held in-house counsel positions at a few companies, including WeWork.

She received her bachelor's degree at the University of Chicago and her law degree at Columbia School of Law.

Brad Rossacci, creative director at Accenture

Brad Rossacci is creative director at Accenture, where he's worked since 2018. He also co-founded and co-hosts the Curiosity Podcast. A Texas A&M University alumnus and self-proclaimed "rebellious optimist," Rossacci is passionate about Houston and innovation.

Maggie Segrich, co-founder of Sesh Coworking

As co-founder and CFO of inclusive coworking company, Sesh Coworking, Maggie Segrich is dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs of all backgrounds. Last year, Sesh Coworking won the Female-Founded Business category for the Houston Innovation Awards.

She serves as board member for Midtown Management District, where Sesh is located, and board chair for nonprofit, Magpies & Peacocks.

Houston's density is possibly its biggest challenge when it comes to developing its innovation ecosystem, says a Houston expert. Getty Images

Houston needs to overcome its lack of density to continue to develop as an innovation ecosystem, says expert

Guest column

From the front porch of Houston, Texas, we solve some of humanity's hardest challenges. We're the ones who put humans on the Moon and rovers on Mars, go subsea in search of hydrocarbons, and are discovering a cure for cancer. We solve complex challenges, because of a characteristic seemingly embedded deep within our DNA — we are all explorers of the unknown.

Today, a new challenge is rallying our attention, inspiring us to push the boundaries yet again. And, that's the hard challenge of population density. Houston is fourth in population in the country, and yet 89th in the number of people per unit of area.

Why is this an issue, one might ask? Houston, like many other cities around the world, is racing to become a hub for innovation, a critical catalyst fueling the next generation of growth and economic prosperity. And, density is a key component of innovation — it brings divergent mindsets together to look at challenges from multiple perspectives and creates an environment that brings big bold ideas to life.

However, the nature of our geography has created silos that are not easily broken down and separates us by industries, communities, interests, mindsets, and access to transportation, among other things.

But, let's not underestimate our true spirit — and our ability to explore the unexpected, push the boundaries and tackle the challenges the world throws at us.

If I learned anything from living here my entire life, Houston has grit, imagination, and motivation and knows what it means to be a trailblazer. Houston is the most diverse city in the United States. Our culinary landscape is constantly pushing the boundaries of creativity and imagination. Local graffiti and modern art installations are reshaping the visual identity of our community. Our sports and performing arts "rockstars" consistently deliver real-time experiential immersion.

We need to recognize and embrace how these colors of Houston connect us all regardless of our geographic silos and push innovation forward. Said another way, we have all the colors; we just need to converge and paint the canvas together.

True to our nature, some of our Houstonian friends have begun chipping away at this challenge already. Central Houston is attracting world-renowned incubators and accelerators like MassChallenge and Gener8tor — and this scene alone is ever-expanding. The Cannon, The Ion, Impact Hub, Launchpad, Headquarters, and other players are creating environments that bring people together and meet the needs of an ever-evolving workforce through experiential community. We even have a dedicated publication for all things innovation — Innovation Map — sharing resources across our vast city and ensuring no great story is left untold.

Our rich diversity means we have access to human beings from a multitude of backgrounds, which in itself is a force to be reckoned with. By interacting with a variety of human beings, we become more empathetic, understanding, and celebratory of new ideas. This is fundamental to continuous innovation — how we interact and approach challenges, engage in new experiences, and become an inspirational leader in life and work. So, break down the silos and access the diversity of thinking that's already outside the door.

At the same time, the challenge of density must be tackled not only physically but also digitally. By converging the physical and digital ecosystem through a neural network, we can intelligently connect the activity with centralized access to start-ups, corporations, nonprofits, free-lancers, incubators, accelerators, maker-spaces, academia, local influencers, and public partners. Digitally bridging all of us can make one of the largest and most spread-out cities in the U.S. feel like a small Texas town with big ideas and an ever-stronger dimension of inclusivity.

So, join the movement, strike up a conversation, grab your metaphorical spray paint and converge with all the vibrant colors of Houston as we energize the future of humanity, navigate to Mars and back safely, and annihilate the existence of cancer.

As Steve Jobs said: "The people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do." Are we ready?

------

Brad Rossacci is creative director at Accenture's Innovation Hub in Houston.

This week's Houston innovators come from industries across the spectrum. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

This week in Houston is chock full of events from The Houston Innovation Summit, but before you get too swept away, check out these three innovators to know this week.

We have a life-long innovator whose passion has taken him from industry to industry, a construction specialist joining a growing Houston startup, and a man who let his personal struggles motivate him to find solutions.

Brad Rossacci, creative director at Accenture's Houston innovation hub

Brad Rossacci

Brad Rossacci, creative director for Accenture's Houston innovation hub, talks neuroscience, design, technology, and the upcoming Digital Fight Club on November 20 on this week's episode of the Houston Innovator's Podcast. Photo courtesy of Accenture

The guest on the Houston Innovators Podcast this week is Brad Rossacci, who's passion exudes from him in person — and podcast too. One of his recent passions? The Digital Fight Club, which is coming to Houston on November 20. The event puts two "fighters" on a stage with a referee to discuss various technology topics — cybersecurity, medicine, etc.

"I really fell in love with the approach [the event] takes," Rossacci says. "It takes this format that allows you to share ideas in a very short-form content kind of way." Read (and listen!) more.

Michael Matthews, industry principal at Data Gumbo

Michael Matthews

Data Gumbo has named the newest member of its executive team — and the newest industry it's looking to do business in. Photo courtesy of Data Gumbo

Michael Matthews was tapped to lead a brand new market that Houston blockchain startup, Data Gumbo, has announced an expansion into: Construction. The company uses blockchain to make it easier and faster to process industry contracts, payment, and more.

"The construction industry lags far behind other industries in both productivity improvement and technology adoption, resulting in billions of lost value," Matthews says in a news release. "The way companies come together to execute projects remains essentially the same despite technology's improvement and we have to make fundamental, disruptive changes to deliver more value." Read more.

Brigham Buhler, founder of Ways2Well

brigham buhler

Through his own patient journey, Brigham Buhler saw a need for Ways2Well to exist. Photo via ways2well.com

Sometimes, it's just too hard to find the answers you seek in health care. The waiting rooms, the parking, the forms — it's all a bit much only to leave empty handed. This was Brigham Buhler's experience, and finally, after months, he learned he had a hormone deficiency. Now, Buhler's company, Ways2Well, allows patients to quickly do a blood test at a lab and receive their results digitally.

"While most virtual health care providers focus on sick care — treating patients experiencing symptoms that indicate sickness — Ways2Well is focused on preventative health care," says Buhler. Read more.

Brad Rossacci, creative director for Accenture's Houston innovation hub, talks neuroscience, design, technology, and the upcoming Digital Fight Club on November 20 on this week's episode of the Houston Innovator's Podcast. Photo courtesy of Accenture

In a world full of tech, this Houston innovator prepares to fight for getting humanity back in the picture

Houston Innovators Podcast Episode 7

Brad Rossacci would like you to put your phone down. Humans are addicted, he says, and the very technology we're obsessed with is advancing to a point that we can allow it to do what it does best — but in the background.

"Technology is really catching up to our imaginations," Rossacci says on the podcast, "and we have this amazing opportunity to get our human back."

Rossacci, who is the creative director for Accenture's Houston innovation hub, has taken a winding career path that's been driven by his passions within science, technology, and design. From molding young minds in the classroom to using neuroscience to drive design within an agency, his career has set him up with an interesting perspective.

This perspective might be why Rossacci was asked to be a fighter in the inaugural Digital Fight Club that took place in Dallas a few years ago. The event, which is coming to Houston on November 20, puts two "fighters" on a stage with a referee to discuss various technology topics — cybersecurity, medicine, etc.

"I really fell in love with the approach [the event] takes," Rossacci says. "It takes this format that allows you to share ideas in a very short-form content kind of way."

On the podcast, Rossacci discusses his career and everything you need to know about the upcoming Houston Digital Fight Club, which is presented by Accenture and InnovationMap. Listen to the episode below and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

The panel at the inaugural conference featured Brad Rossacci of Accenture Innovation. Courtesy of INNO

Panel featuring Houston innovator discusses rapidly changing innovation ecosystem

Guest Column

Recently, Brad Rossacci, Accenture's Houston Innovation Hub's disruptive innovationeer and creative director, participated in the inaugural INNO, a conference dedicated to supporting the community of innovators, collaborators, and industry disruptors by providing them with a forum to share knowledge, connect with colleagues from around the world, and identify opportunities to work together.

Brad made the trip to New Orleans not just to speak, but also to see first-hand how Houston's neighboring cities are approaching the ideas, themes, and business best practices he's developing within Accenture and more broadly, within the Houston business community.

Speaking as part of the kickoff keynote, titled "What Corporate Innovators Seek," Brad was joined on stage by Aimee Quirk of InnovationOchsner, Lauren Kenney, vice president of Grid Modernization and Strategy at Entergy, and panel facilitator Chase Langdon, Partnership Strategy Manager for the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans. Seated on the INNO stage, Brad had the ideal spot to both share his own expertise, and to hear first hand about how big businesses are working with startups and entrepreneurs outside of Houston.

During the course of the discussion it became clear that all the panelists and the organizations they represent are on the same page in several important ways: all of these companies have big footprints within their local communities and beyond. All have concluded that the challenges facing their different industries and economic sectors — as well as their organizations specifically— require a broader set of skills, backgrounds, and expertise to work through than can be found within the walls of any single company. And all have come to appreciate that to remain a business leader in an increasingly agile and rapidly transforming world, the work of innovation and problem solving must be approached with intentionality and given enough freedom to move fast enough to keep up and get ahead.

They also differ in key respects. The companies represented did not all arrive at these conclusions at the same time. Accordingly, their innovation initiatives are at different stages of development and implementation, both with regard to putting together internal innovation- focused teams and in finding outside companies to partner and collaborate with. Moreover, there are challenges specific to their industries that impact how they pursue their innovation goals. They also face different challenges in terms of getting support from the rest of their organizations. Nevertheless, there have been some challenges that all panelists experienced in some capacity, as well as some agreed-upon best practices.

All agreed that when hiring for internal innovation teams or initiatives, the primary qualification is not a specific set of skills or work history, but rather a specific mindset: they are looking for creative problem solvers who are willing to think and do things differently and who are not intimidated by challenges. Another point they all agreed on is that it's not always easy to find these innovation-oriented people, and that it can be difficult to entice them away from other markets. In particular, the New Orleans based businesses represented expressed feeling the pinch of a limited talent pool.

As the conversation facilitator, Chase Langdon was informed by some of the goals and challenges he's facing as Partnership Strategy Manager for the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans. Reflecting on the structure of the discussion, shared that his team is increasingly cognizant of the potential they have to make an impact on the business community within the region by nurturing holistic economic growth. The Saints and the Pelicans are among the most visible and recognizable local business entities, and his team is actively exploring ways to leverage that visibility to drive growth through partnerships.

Accordingly, his questions reflected an interest in learning from the other organizations represented.

So what are some of the key take away points that Chase and other attendees interested in launching their own innovation initiatives, or in partnering with other organizations? Aimee noted that for those looking to do business with companies like Ocshner, it's important to think about what it takes to be a good partner, not just what it takes to get the deal done. There was general agreement that one of the advantages to working with startups is that they can move quickly as they are less burdened by legacy processes of an older institution.

Similarly, innovators and problem solvers, whether part of internal teams or outside partners, need to be empowered and supported when taking the risks inherent in exploration and experimentation. Brad, in particular, noted that he considers creating an environment that nurtures and protects the "beautiful minds" of his team and the larger Houston innovation ecosystem, to be one of the primary responsibilities of his job.

"Startups are the rockstars now," he says, and existing companies looking to remain competitive need to take a hands-on approach to cultivating a collaborative and sustainable business environment with the required diversity of experiences, perspectives, and skills that lead to breakthroughs.

------

Lizy Freudmann is head of marketing for the INNO.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

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.

------

This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.