Venture Houston is back next month. Here's what you need to know about this year's changes. Photo via LinkedIn

In two weeks, hundreds of investors, corporate partners, and startups will convene to tackle topics of decarbonization, innovation, and investment. The annual event is also prioritizing something this year — connections.

In its third year, Venture Houston — taking place on Rice University's campus on September 7 — has a theme of "decarbonization in a digital world," but that's not the only thing different this year. The one-day conference has added on a unique event on September 6 to help engage around 50 investors with over 100 Houston startups.

The new activation is called Capital Connect, and HX Venture Fund will matchmake investors and startups for one-on-one meetings meant to spur collisions and collaboration.

"It's not a pitch competition — it doesn't have the stress of that," Sandy Guitar, general partner of HX Venture Fund, tells InnovationMap. "It's really just a way of connecting with a longer term horizon. We didn't want to limit it just to those who are currently raising, but actually include people who maybe just raised six months ago or are not going to raise for 12 more months, but might still want to be in the room."

The official day of the conference will also feature networking opportunities, including a breakfast hosted by DivInc, as well as networking breaks throughout the day.

"Based on feedback we received last year, networking was one of the things that was most celebrated about Venture Houston 2022," Guitar says. "All that space and time — the opportunity to allow people just to connect with one another. So, we're making sure that's a key part of this year as well."

Last year's keynote panel featured Gwyneth Paltrow, who shared her own founder's journey on the Venture Houston stage. This year's keynote address will be with Carmichael Roberts, investment committee co-lead of Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which was founded by Bill Gates to support climate change innovation.

While the topic of decarbonization might sound narrow, Guitar emphasizes that this event will not just be for the energy industry. Business everywhere — but especially in Houston — has an increased calling to decarbonization.

"I do think it's important to see the decarbonization not as a hard tech event, but as everything that touches carbon, which is basically everything in our planet in just the coal previously," she says. "Everything we make and use touches the climate."

Guitar adds that HXVF expects a crowd of around 1,000 people to attend the event this year, which would make it one of the largest VC-focused events ever to be held in the region. InnovationMap and EnergyCapital are media partners for the event.

Hines, which opened its Texas Tower in 2021, is hoping to reach net-zero operational carbon by 2040. Image via Hines

Houston real estate giant cracks down on carbon emissions

seeing green

Houston-based real estate giant Hines is on a mission to make its entire global portfolio free of carbon emissions.

Hines recently set a target of its 1,530 properties in 28 countries being net-zero operational carbon by 2040, including the 27.7 million square feet of space it owns or manages in the Houston area. Operational carbon refers to greenhouse gases produced by building operations.

The company says it will accomplish the net-zero goal by reducing emissions through renewable technology, and not by purchasing carbon offset credits.

Peter Epping, global head of ESG (environmental, social, and governance) at Hines, says that because the company has made its carbon-neutral plan public, “investors, developers, engineers, and building managers across our industry can use it to guide their own carbon-reduction efforts.”

Hines notes that the real estate sector emits nearly 40 percent of global carbon emissions related to energy. The World Building Council’s Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment calls for decarbonizing half of buildings by 2030 and all buildings by 2050.

“As the impact of climate change is becoming increasingly integrated into our lives every day, the real estate industry has a responsibility to acknowledge this growing problem and take meaningful action to reduce our collective carbon emissions,” Jeff Hines, chairman and co-CEO of Hines, says in a news release. “By seeking to achieve net-zero operational carbon without relying on offsets, Hines wants to raise the bar for sustainability and invest in a plan designed to achieve significant and tangible results.”

To achieve those results, Hines plans to:

  • Halting the use fossil fuels to power buildings in its $90.3 billion portfolio.
  • Reducing energy demand by improving building efficiencies.
  • Boosting reliance on renewable energy.
  • Using “circular systems” to reduce energy waste and enhance efficiency.
  • Promoting carbon capture.

A recent report from Houston-based law firm Vinson & Elkins underscores the economic benefits that the net-zero movement presents to commercial real estate players like Hines.

“Real estate increasingly attracts attention from sustainability-minded investors amid a wider push for ESG considerations in bond and loan markets. … Decarbonizing the real estate industry will likely require trillions of dollars of capital, but there is vast opportunity for environmentally friendly projects to access additional financing sources, often on favorable terms,” Caitlin Snelson, sustainable finance senior associate in the Houston office of Vinson & Elkins, says in a news release.

Beyond real estate, Hines’ net-zero campaign aligns with efforts to transform Houston into a net-zero industrial hub. A whitepaper published by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy declares that Houston is well-positioned to become a “best in class” net-zero hub.

According to the whitepaper, the hub “could serve as a magnet for new and emerging industries, innovators and entrepreneurs and investment in energy transition companies and resources. Failure to develop a hub could lead to loss of these benefits and opportunities.”

Consulting giant McKinsey & Co. points out that clean hydrogen is emerging as a vehicle to achieve net-zero status and says Houston could evolve into a global hub for clean hydrogen. A Houston hub that’s in place by 2050 could generate 180,000 jobs and an economic impact of $100 billion, according to McKinsey.

“With the right supportive policy frameworks, Texas could become the global leader in clean-hydrogen production, application, development, and exports with Houston at its core; the resulting thriving hydrogen community could push innovation and develop the necessary talent to conceive and deliver hydrogen projects,” McKinsey says.

"To solve the climate crisis, confidence in emissions data is crucial." Photo via Getty Images

Expert: Using data to reduce Houston’s oil and gas carbon footprint

guest column

Sustainability has been top of mind for all industries as we witness movements towards reducing carbon emissions. For instance, The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) proposed a new rule that requires companies to disclose certain climate-related activities in their reporting on a federal level. Now, industries and cities are scrambling to ensure they have strategies in the right place.

While the data behind sustainability poses challenges across industries, it is particularly evident in oil and gas, as their role in energy transition is of the utmost importance, especially in Texas. We saw this at the COP26 summit in Glasgow last November, for example, in the effort to reduce carbon emissions on both a national and international scale and keep global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The event also made it clear achieving this temperature change to meet carbon neutrality by 2030 won’t be possible if organizations rely on current methods and siloed data. In short, there is a data problem associated with recent climate goals. So, what does that mean for Houston’s oil and gas industry?

Climate is a critical conversation – and tech can help

Houston has long been considered the oil and gas capital of the world, and it is now the epicenter of energy transition. You can see this commitment by the industry in the nature of the conferences as well as the investment in innovation centers.

In terms of the companies themselves, over the past two years each of the major oil and gas players have organized and grown their low carbon business units. These units are focused on bringing new ideas to the energy ecosystem. The best part is they are not working alone but joining forces to find solutions. One of the highest profile examples is ExxonMobil’s Carbon Capture and Underground Storage project (CCUS) which directly supports the Paris Agreement.

Blockchain technology is needed to improve transparency and traceability in the energy sector and backing blockchain into day-to-day business is key to identifying patterns and making decisions from the data.

The recent Blockchain for Oil and Gas conference, for instance, focused on how blockchain can help curate emissions across the ecosystem. This year has also seen several additional symposiums and meetings – such as the Ion and Greentown Houston – that focus on helping companies understand their carbon footprint.

How do we prove the data?

The importance of harmonizing data will become even more important as the SEC looks to bring structure to sustainability reporting. As a decentralized, immutable ledger where data can be inputted and shared at every point of action, blockchain works by storing information in interconnected blocks and providing a value-add for insuring carbon offsets. To access the data inside a block, users first need to communicate with it. This creates a chain of information that cannot be hacked and can be transmitted between all relevant parties throughout the supply chain. Key players can enter, view, and analyze the same data points securely and with assurance of the data’s accuracy.

Data needs to move with products throughout the supply chain to create an overall number for carbon emissions. Blockchain’s decentralization offers value to organizations and their respective industries so that higher quantities of reliable data can be shared between all parties to shine a light on the areas they need to work on, such as manufacturing operations and the offsets of buildings. Baking blockchain into day-to-day business practice is key in identifying patterns over time and making data-backed decisions.

Oil and gas are key players

Cutting emissions is not a new practice of the oil and gas industry. In fact, they’ve been cutting emissions estimates by as much as 50 percent to avoid over-reporting.

The traditional process of reporting data has also been time-consuming and prone to human error. Manually gathering data across multiple sources of information delivers no real way to trace this information across supply chains and back to the source. And human errors, even if they are accidental, pose a risk to hefty fines from regulatory agencies.

It’s a now-or-never situation. The industry will need to pivot their approaches to data gathering, sharing, and reporting to commit to emissions reduction. This need will surely accelerate the use of technologies, like blockchain, to be a part of the energy transition. While the climate challenges we face are alarming, they provide the basis we need for technological innovation and the ability to accurately report emissions to stay in compliance.

The Energy Capital of the World, for good

To solve the climate crisis, confidence in emissions data is crucial. Blockchain provides that as well as transparency and reliability, all while maintaining the highest levels of security. The technology provides assurance that the data from other smart technologies, like connected sensors and the Internet of Things (IoT), is trustworthy and accurate.

The need for good data, new technology, and corporate commitment are all key to Houston keeping its title as the energy capital of the world – based on traditional fossil fuels as well as transitioning to clean energy.

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John Chappell is the director of energy business development at BlockApps.

Through increasing awareness, affordability, and accessibility, the city of Houston hopes to grow the number of electric vehicles on Houston roads by 2030. Courtesy of EVolve Houston

Mayor announces major effort to reduce emissions on Houston's roadways

Easy EVs

The city of Houston has taken a major step toward reducing carbon emissions caused by its estimated 1.3 million vehicles that drive the city's streets daily.

Mayor Sylvester Turner announced a new partnership between the government, local businesses, and academic leaders that has created EVolve Houston. The coalition is aimed at boosting electric vehicle sales to 30 percent of new car sales in Houston by 2030.

"This new partnership will help solidify Houston's success as a leader in transportation technology and it will help improve air quality for the citizens of Houston and beyond, by reducing reliance on vehicles powered by carbon-based fuels," Mayor Turner says in a release. "Houston will now have a dedicated resource working to increase the adoption of electric vehicles, wherever it makes sense to do so. Nearly half of the greenhouse gas emissions in Houston come from transportation. Shifting to zero emission forms of transportation is a key strategy to help us meet our ambitious climate goals and improve our regional air quality."

EVolve Houston, which will contribute to the city's Climate Action Plan that was announced in July, will focus on increasing awareness, affordability, and availability of electric vehicles. The coalition's founding partners include the city, CenterPoint Energy, the University of Houston, NRG Energy, Shell, and LDR.

"Houston has bold goals to improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To do that, we must make a major impact on one of the largest sources of emissions, which is transportation" says Dr. Ramanan Krishnamoorti, the chief energy officer at University of Houston.

The partners will focus on launching pilot projects as well as hosting demonstrations and awareness activities to promote EV adoption, according to the release.

"At CenterPoint Energy, we are committed to making a positive difference in the communities we touch, and environmental stewardship is an integral component of our overall corporate responsibility approach," says Scott Prochazka, president and CEO of CenterPoint Energy, in the release. "I am proud to partner with Mayor Turner and other founding members of EVolve Houston to help accelerate clean transportation for Houston."

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.