Originally expected to raise $150 million, Mercury's latest fund is the largest raised to date. Photo via mercuryfund.com

A Houston venture capital firm has announce big news of its latest fund.

Mercury, founded in 2005 to invest in startups not based in major tech hubs on either coast, closed its latest fund, Mercury Fund V, at an oversubscribed amount of $160 million. Originally expected to raise $150 million, Fund V is the largest fund Mercury has raised to date.

“We are pleased by the substantial support we received for Fund V from both new and existing investors and thank them for placing their confidence in Mercury,” Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury Fund, says in a news release. “Their support is testament to the strength of our team, proven investment strategy, and the compelling opportunities for innovation that exist in cities across America.”

The fund's limited partners include new and existing investors, including endowments at universities, foundations, and family offices. Mercury reports that several of these LPs are based in the central region of the United States where Mercury invests. California law firm Gunderson Dettmer was the fund formation counsel for Mercury.

Fresh closed, Fund V has already made investments in several companies, including:

  • Houston-based RepeatMD, a patient engagement and fintech platform for medical professionals with non-insurance reimbursed services and products
  • Houston and Cheyenne Wyoming-based financial infrastructure tech platform Brassica, which raised its $8 million seed round in April
  • Polco, a Madison, Wisconsin-based polling platform for local governments, school districts, law enforcement, and state agencies
  • Chicago-based MSPbots, a AI-powered process automation platform for small and mid-sized managed service providers

Mercury's investment model is described as "operationally-focused," and the firm works to provide its portfolio companies with the resources needed to grow rapidly and sustainably. Since 2013, the fund has contributed to creating more than $9 billion of enterprise value across its portfolio of over 50 companies.

“Over the past few years there has been a tremendous migration of talent, wealth and know-how to non-coastal venture markets and this surge of economic activity has further accelerated the creation of extraordinary new companies and technology," says Garrou. "As the first venture capital firm to have recognized the attractiveness of these incredible regions a dozen years ago, we are excited to continue sourcing new opportunities to back founders and help these cities continue to grow and thrive.”

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Youngro Lee of Brassica, Anu Puvvada of KPMG Studio, and Brock Murphy of Parent ProTech. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

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


Youngro Lee, founder of Brassica

Youngro Lee joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his latest endeavor on his mission to democratize investing. Photo courtesy

Brassica Technologies, a fintech infrastructure company that's providing a platform for alternative assets, is just the next step in his career in using tech to democratize finance. The idea came from Lee's experience as a startup founder and fintech exec — first at NextSeed and then at Republic, which acquired NextSeed two years ago.

"The reason why I thought this was what I wanted to focus on next was exactly because it was an issue I struggled with as a founder of NextSeed," Lee says on the show. "The backend was always an issue. There's not one single vendor that we felt really understood our business, was doing it efficiently, or enabled us to deliver those services to our end clients."

Lee shares more about the future of Brassica, including the challenges he's facing within regulation and the state of fintech as a whole, on the podcast. He also weighs in on how he's seen the Houston innovation ecosystem grow and develop alongside his own entrepreneurial journey. Read more.

Anu Puvvada, KPMG Studio leader

Anu Puvvada, KPMG Studio leader, shares how her team is advancing software solutions while navigating hype cycles and solving billion-dollar-problems. Photo courtesy of KPMG

In 2021, KPMG, a New York-based global audit, accounting, and advisory service provider, formed a new entity to play in the innovation space. The Houston-based team finds innovative software that benefit KPMG's clients across industries.

In an interview with InnovationMap, Anu Puvvada, leader of KPMG Studio, shares more about the program, its first spin out, and why she's passionate about leading this initiative from Houston.

"When you think about innovation as a whole, it's mired with risk and uncertainty," she says. "You never know if something's going to work or not. And part of what we have to do with any idea that we're building in the studio or anything that our clients are doing around innovation, we have to do as much as we can to mitigate that risk and uncertainty. And that's kind of what KPMG's wheelhouse is." Read more.

Brock Murphy, Parent ProTech co-founder

Brock Murphy launched Parent ProTech last fall. Photo via parentprotech.com

Houston-based Parent ProTech is a one-stop shop for parental education on technology and applications that their kids use.

“Our goal is to make everyone the best digital parent possible,” Brock Murphy, Parent ProTech co-founder, tells InnovationMap. “We understand technology and the role it plays in influencing the next generation. So we help parents when it comes to understanding the platforms, how to use them and how to unlock the parental controls that can be hidden, deeper into these platforms.”

Murphy — with co-founder Drew Wooten and creative director Joshua Adams — launched the platform in September 2022. Since then, Parent ProTech has made its mark through partnerships with schools in Texas. Read more.

Youngro Lee joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his latest endeavor on his mission to democratize investing. Photo courtesy

Houston entrepreneur furthers mission of democratizing finance with latest venture

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 186

After seeing through an exit of his first startup NextSeed, lawyer-turned-entrepreneur Youngro Lee took on a leadership role at the acquiring company, Republic. But his fintech innovation wheels kept turning.

"Brassica is, I personally consider, an extension and a national evolution of my original starting point," Lee says on the Houston Innovators Podcast, "which is basically to democratize finance so that everyone can have access to alternative assets as part of their wealth management investments or even for pleasure to just be able to invest in things they believe in."

Brassica Technologies Inc. is a fintech infrastructure company that's providing a platform for alternative assets, Lee explains. While investments in the public markets have platforms already, there are other investment opportunities that are managed in a less optimized way for investors.

Lee says there hasn't been a seamless solution created for the backend of these transactions, things like custody of those assets or transferring and keeping track of them.

"The reason why I thought this was what I wanted to focus on next was exactly because it was an issue I struggled with as a founder of NextSeed," Lee says on the show. "The backend was always an issue. There's not one single vendor that we felt really understood our business, was doing it efficiently, or enabled us to deliver those services to our end clients."

Lee says he has been working on addressing this gap in the market for the past two years under his role at Republic. After holding an executive position at the company as a whole, he currently oversees the Asian market as general partner of Republic Asia.

"We didn't know where this process was going to go. It was a corporate initiative to try to understand what the market needs — because we needed it," Lee says. "We quickly realized that this idea can be really big. Once we had that conclusion, that the problem we're trying to solve and the opportunity that the market presents is significant enough, we knew Brassica deserves to be its own company."

Shortly after that, Lee started reaching out to potential investors and raised an $8 million seed round to take the company out of stealth last month. Houston-based Mercury Fund led the round, with participation from Valor Equity Partners, Long Journey Ventures, NGC Fund, Neowiz, Broadhaven Ventures, Armyn Capital, VC3DAO, Alpha Asset Management (Korea), and other global FinTech investors participated in the round.

Lee shares more about the future of Brassica, including the challenges he's facing within regulation and the state of fintech as a whole, on the podcast. He also weighs in on how he's seen the Houston innovation ecosystem grow and develop alongside his own entrepreneurial journey. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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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.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.