Hit the highlights of Venture Houston 2023 with these overheard moments from the event. Photo courtesy of HX Venture Fund

Last week, nearly 1,000 people convened in Houston to discuss venture capital activity, startups, and decarbonization, and the Houston factor among it all.

On September 7, Venture Houston hosted several keynote addresses and panels throughout the day's programming, and investors from across the country discussed with Houston-based startup and corporate leaders on topics from seed funding to cultivating an ecosystem.

The annual event, presented by HX Venture Fund, a fund of funds that deploys capital into VC funds with an interest in Houston, had one significant through line throughout the day, and it was Houston's role within innovation and the energy transition.

Whether you missed the event or were there to soak in every second, here's a roundup of key statements on this topic from the panelists.

“We mapped out Texas as a high priority because we knew you can’t do energy without Texas. You can’t do energy without Houston."

Carmichael Roberts, investment committee co-lead for Breakthrough Ventures. "The opportunity that Houston has to be the unambiguous leader is because everywhere else can do energy transition, but they still can’t do what Houston does,” he continues.

“There’s no better place in the world than Houston to build and scale a climate tech startup.”

Tim Latimer, CEO and co-founder of Fervo Energy. “But I don’t know if I’m ready to make the claim that we’re the best place to start a business,” he adds.

“Houston needs that first, higher-profile investor who’s Houston-based, Houston-first, and wants to put as much capital as possible into energy transition and climate tech companies.”

Craig Wilson, managing director of NYU’s Tandon Future Labs. “Houston is blessed with an incredible amount of CVC and late stage capital," he continues. "What it really could use is early stage capital.”

“There are a couple aspects you need for an ecosystem, and Houston has been putting a lot of those in place, but it’s not perfect yet, and there’s still work that this ecosystem needs to do."

Trevor Best, CEO and co-founder of Syzygy Plasmonics. Startups need talent, facilities, capital, and customers. “Here in Houston, for energy transition technologies, I don’t know if there’s an ecosystem that can check the box (for customers) stronger than Houston," he adds, explaining that talent is here too. Where Houston needs improvement, according to Best, is in facilities, which is seeing some progress, and capital development.

“I think Houston is actually the perfect place for becoming the energy transition capital. If you ask me, I think we already are.” 

Andrea Course, venture principal of Shell Ventures. “It really just takes people doing what we’re doing now to make it even greater," she adds.

“We have to figure out ways for how big energy companies work with new technology providers in partnership and not say it’s a David versus Goliath thing.”

Gaurab Chakrabarti, co-founder and CEO of Solugen. “That’s a philosophical misalignment,” he continues. “Instead of saying it’s an absolute problem, accept that it’s a transition.”

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Innovative Houston nonprofit partners with county organization to provide maternal health services

TEAM WORK

PUSH Birth Partners, a Houston-based maternal health nonprofit, is teaming up with the Harris County Public Health Department to provide doula services for over 200 pregnant people free of cost.

Jacqueline McLeeland, CEO and founder of PUSH, says the program will begin in August and aims to improve maternal health and birth outcomes for vulnerable populations. McLeeland says the organization has built up a strong doula training program through their collective in partnership with March of Dimes and several local doula organizations.

McLeeland says PUSH aims to address poor maternal health outcomes for women of color in part by training more doulas of color who can help reduce racial disparities in care. A 2021 study by Harris County Public Health found Precinct 1, which is predominantly composed of people of color, had the highest maternal mortality rate of the county.

Through their collective, PUSH has trained two cohorts of doulas through an integrated care model, focused on providing collaborative care with medical providers in the healthcare system.

“Our programs are designed to advance health equity, we see the numbers, we see that women of color, specifically Black women in that group are disproportionately impacted,” McLeeland tells InnovationMap.

After receiving a $100,000 grant from the Episcopal Health Foundation in 2023, PUSH began their doula expansion program in Houston and they have since received an additional grant from EHF for the next fiscal year. McLeeland shares PUSH has also launched a pilot program called Blossoming Beyond Birth, sponsored by the Rockwell Fund, targeted towards improving maternal mental health through weekly support groups in Houston.

“It’s very exciting to know that we have come this far from where we started and to see how everything is coming together,” McLeeland shares.

Jacqueline McLeeland serves as chief executive and founder of non-profit PUSH Birth Partners who has trained and collaborated with a network of doulas for the partnership. Photo courtesy of Jacqueline McLeeland

For McLeeland, improving maternal health outcomes and providing support to people experiencing high-risk pregnancies are deeply personal goals. McLeeland has sickle cell anemia, a condition that can cause serious complications during pregnancy. During her first pregnancy in 2015, McLeeland was placed on bed rest two months before her due date at which point she had been working in clinical research within the pharmaceutical industry for over 12 years.

“People don’t realize the magnitude of what women go through, during pregnancy and after,” McLeeland says. “There’s a lot of emotional, psychological, and physical tolls depending on how the pregnancy and delivery went.”

After giving birth to her first child, McLeeland took maternity leave, during which she began to research maternal morbidity and mortality trends, information which she says was not widely discussed at the time.

McLeeland says entering the maternal healthcare field felt like a necessity following her second pregnancy. Several months after giving birth to her second child, McLeeland says she received a bill for a surgical procedure that was performed during her cesarean section without her or her husband’s consent. McLeeland says that was the first time she was made aware of the surgery.

“The procedure that was claimed to have been performed could have put my life in jeopardy by hemorrhaging based off of additional research I did once, I came across that information,” McLeeland explains. “These are some of the things that happen in the healthcare system that make people skeptical of trusting in the healthcare system, trusting in doctors.”

McLeeland says the key to improving maternal and birth outcomes for vulnerable populations is to encourage the partnership between doulas, community healthcare workers, and physicians and hopes to further this collaboration through future programming.

Houston-based clean energy site developer raises $300M to decarbonize big tech projects

fresh funding

Houston energy executives have started a new company dedicated to developing clean-powered infrastructure for the large electric loads.

Cloverleaf Infrastructure, dually headquartered in Houston and Seattle, Washington, announced its launch and $300 million raised from NGP and Sandbrook Capital, two private equity firms. The company's management team also invested in the company.

As emerging technology continues to grow electricity load demand, Cloverleaf has identified an opportunity to develop large-scale digital infrastructure sites powered by low-carbon electricity.

"The rapid growth in demand for electricity to power cloud computing and artificial intelligence poses a major climate risk if fueled by high-emission fossil fuels," David Berry, Cloverleaf's CEO, says in a news release. "However, it's also a major opportunity to catalyze the modernization of the US grid and the transition to a smarter and more sustainable electricity system through a novel approach to development.

"Cloverleaf is committed to making this vision a reality with the support of leading climate investors like Sandbrook and NGP."

Berry, who's based in Houston, previously co-founded and served as CFO at ConnectGen and Clean Line Energy Partners, clean energy and transmission developers. Last year, he co-founded Cloverleaf with Seattle-based Brian Janous and CTO Jonathan Abebe, who most recently held a senior role at the United States Department of Energy. Nur Bernhardt, director of Energy Strategy at Microsoft who's also based in Seattle, rounds out the executive team as vice president.

"The large tech companies have become dominant players in the electricity sector, and they are genuinely determined to power their growth with the lowest possible emissions," Janous, who serves as chief commercial officer, says in the release. "Achieving this objective doesn't depend on disruptive new technologies as much as it does on dedicated teams working hand in hand with utility partners to maximize the use of the clean generation, storage, and other technologies we already have."

Cloverleaf will work with regional U.S. utilities and data center operators to provide clean electricity at scale through strategic investments in transmission, grid interconnection, land, onsite power generation, and electricity storage, per the release.

"The sustainable development of digital infrastructure at scale is fundamentally a technical power problem," Alfredo Marti, partner at Sandbrook, adds. "We have witnessed members of the Cloverleaf team effectively address this challenge for many years through a blend of creativity, specialized engineering, a partnership mindset, and astute capital deployment."

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston resilience tech innovator proves out platform amid Hurricane Beryl

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 245

Earlier this month, Ali Mostafavi got an unexpected chance to pilot his company's data-backed and artificial intelligence-powered platform — all while weathering one of Houston's most impactful storms.

Mostafavi, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Texas A&M University, founded Resilitix.AI two years ago, and with the help of his lab at A&M, has created a platform that brings publicly available data into AI algorithms to provide its partners near-real time information in storm settings.

As Hurricane Beryl came ashore with Houston on its path, Mostafavi says he had the opportunity to both test his technology and provide valuable information to his community during the storm.

"We were in the process of fine tuning some of our methods and algorithms behind our technology," Mostafavi says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "When disasters happen, you go to activation mode. We put our technology development and R&D efforts on hold and try to test our technology in an operational setting."

The platform provides its partners — right now, those include local and state organizations and emergency response teams — information on evacuation reports, street flooding, and even damage sustained based on satellite imagery. Mostafavi says that during Beryl, users were wondering how citizens were faring amid rising temperatures and power outages. The Resilitix team quickly pivoted to apply algorithms to hospital data to see which neighborhoods were experiencing high volumes of patients.

"We had the ability to innovate on the spot," Mostafavi says, adding that his own lack of power and internet was an additional challenge for the company. "When an event happens, we start receiving requests and questions. ... We had to be agile and adapt our methods to be responsive. Then at the same time, because we haven't tested it, we have to verify that we are confident (in the information we provide)."

On the episode, Mostafavi shares how Hurricane Harvey — which occurred shortly after Mostafavi moved to Houston — inspired the foundation of Resilitix and how Houston is the ideal spot to grow the company.

"We are very excited that our company is Houston based," he says. "We should not be just ground zero of disasters. We have to also be ground zero for solutions as well. I believe Houston should be the hub for resilience tech innovation as it is for energy transition.

"I think energy transition, climatetech, energy tech, and disaster tech go hand in hand," Mostafavi continues. "I feel that we are in the right place."