Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures, recently announced new team members and her hopes for making Houston a leader in synthetic biology. Photo courtesy of First Bight Ventures

Since launching earlier this year, a Houston-based venture capital firm dedicated to investing in synthetic biology companies has made some big moves.

First Bight Ventures, founded by Veronica Wu, announced its growing team and plans to stand up a foundry and accelerator for its portfolio companies and other synthetic biology startups in Houston. The firm hopes to make Houston an international leader in synthetic biology.

“We have a moment in time where we can make Houston the global epicenter of synthetic biology and the bio economy," Wu says to a group of stakeholders last week at First Bight's Rocketing into the Bioeconomy event. "Whether its energy, semiconductor, space exploration, or winning the World Series — Houstonians lead. It’s in our DNA. While others look to the stars, we launch people into space.”

At First Bight's event, Wu introduced the company's new team members. Angela Wilkins, executive director of the Ken Kennedy Institute at Rice University, joined First Bight as partner, and Serafina Lalany, former executive director of Houston Exponential, was named entrepreneur in residence. Carlos Estrada, who has held leadership positions within WeWork in Houston, also joins the team as entrepreneur in residence and will oversee the company's foundry and accelerator that will be established to support synthetic biology startups, Wu says.

“First Bight is investing to bring the best and the brightest — and most promising — synthetic biology startups from around the country to Houston," Wu continues.

First Bighthas one seed-staged company announced in its portfolio. San Diego-based Persephone Biosciences was founded in 2017 by synthetic and metabolic engineering pioneers, Stephanie Culler and Steve Van Dien. The company is working on developing microbial products that impact patient and infant health.

Wu, who worked at Apple before the launch of the iPhone and Tesla before Elon Musk was a household name, says she saw what was happening in Houston after her brother moved to town. She first invested in Houston's synthetic biology ecosystem when she contributed to one of Solugen's fundraising rounds. The alternative plastics company is now a unicorn valued at over $1 billion.

“I founded First Bight because of what I see is the next great wave of technology innovation," she says at the event. "I founded it in Houston because the pieces are right here.”

WeWork Labs and NextSeed have teamed up to help Houston's food entrepreneurs. Photo courtesy of WeWork

WeWork accelerator partners with Houston-based investment platform for food entrepreneurship

food for thought

Two Houston programs that exist to help grow and develop food and hospitality startups have teamed up to combine their resources and programming.

WeWork Labs, a global acceleration program with a location in downtown Houston, and NextSeed, a Houston-based online investment platform, have announced a partnership set to begin in December. Together, the two entities will build a support system for Houston-based food entrepreneurs to provide workshops, programming, events, and more.

"Houston food entrepreneurs are keen to solve the big problems the food industry is facing today," says Carlos Estrada, head of WeWork Labs in Houston, in a news release. "Houston is among the leading cities for startup innovation and we see our partnership with NextSeed as an exciting first-of-its-kind initiative that will prove to support even more food entrepreneurs in the area, arming them with the network and tools they need to get their concepts off the ground and transform into leading businesses."

WeWork brings in its international food labs programming, and NextSeed will be able to provide access to capital through its platform. In March, the company launched NextSeed Space — a pop-up retail and kitchen space for startups to test their food and operations.

"Since inception, NextSeed has been focused on developing a world-class technology platform to democratize finance and strengthen local communities," says NextSeed CEO, Youngro Lee, in a news release. "By partnering with WeWork Labs, we are excited to be able to expand the level of support we can provide to our clients and member businesses through services like coaching, mentoring and dedicated workspace to help them ultimately reach their goals."

The first joint event hosted will be a reception and panel on December 12 from 6 to 8:30 pm at WeWork's Jones Building location in downtown. For event details, click here.

Houston is one of only five WeWork Labs markets that can expect access to 3D printers as a part of a pilot program with two companies. Courtesy of WeWork

WeWork selects Houston as one of its markets for a 3D printing pilot program

press print

WeWork has teamed up with two leading 3D printing companies to bring their technology into five WeWork Labs markets — including Houston's downtown location. The other locations tapped for the pilot program are London, San Francisco, New York, and Seattle.

Massachusetts-based Formlabs' Form 2 printer has over 20 different material resins WeWork Labs members can use to prototype and print products using desktop stereolithography.

"Formlabs was founded eight years ago on the basis of empowering anyone to make anything," says Max Lobovsky, CEO and co-founder of Formlabs in a release. "Today, our customers have printed more than 40 million parts, they vary from early stage entrepreneurs changing the status quo and developing new applications to Fortune 500s experimenting with new business models or production methods."

The other company involved in the program is Seattle-based Glowforge, which created a 3D laser printer. Glowforge Plus uses subtractive laser technology to cut and sculpt projects from materials like wood, leather, acrylic, stone — and even stickers. The company, which was founded in 2014, has had over three million prints on its devices — everything from jewelry and clothing to machinery.

"We are thrilled to partner with WeWork Labs to provide their community of entrepreneurs and startups alike access to the tools that will help them create corporate giveaways, new product prototypes, and full production runs — everything to take their dreams from idea to creation," says Dan Shapiro, CEO of Glowforge, in the release.

The printers will be revealed at various launch events celebrating the National Week of Making, which begins June 21 and goes through June 27. Houston's launch event will be on June 28, but the specifics have not yet been finalized.

"We see WeWork Labs as a platform for creators, innovators and makers alike, and believe partnering with Glowforge and Formlabs will give our members even more of an opportunity to take their ideas, and bring them to life," says Katie Perkins, creative director at WeWork Labs, in the release. "We are incredibly excited to welcome two leading brands and their products into our community, giving creators access to the tools they need and inspiring new creators to be makers themselves."

Houston's WeWork Labs program launched in March in the WeWork Jones Building at 708 Main St. and includes a partnership with local digital startup resource, Alice. The WeWork Labs program started a little over a year ago and is already in over 30 markets worldwide.

"As the fourth largest city, Houston is in a unique position to launch high-impact startups," says Houston Labs Manager Carlos Estrada, in a previous release. "We see WeWork Labs in Houston as a tremendous platform for innovation, as our founder-focused approach to supporting early-stage startups will nurture and accelerate the work of entrepreneurs to scale their solutions to today's biggest challenges."

Form 2

Courtesy of WeWork

Using 20 types of resin materials, Formlabs' Form 2 can create parts or prototypes.

It's WeWork Labs' second Texas location — the first opened last fall in Dallas. Courtesy of WeWork

WeWork brings early-stage startup program to downtown Houston

lab work

WeWork is betting on the Bayou City as it plans to open up WeWork Labs in its downtown Houston coworking space. The early-stage program will provide up to 30 startups with mentorship and resources coordinated by its partner organization, Alice, an entrepreneurial digital resource with Texas ties.

"At Alice, our research has shown that entrepreneurs are hungry for guidance that gets into the nitty gritty: 'What next step should I take?' 'How exactly do I go about fundraising?' 'What should my to-do list look like if customer acquisition is my No. 1 goal?'' says Carolyn Rodz, CEO and co-founder of Alice, in a release. "We're really excited to collaborate with WeWork Labs to bring these answers to their members through both programming and online support."

WeWork Labs launches this month in the WeWork Jones Building at 708 Main St. It's the second Texas location — Dallas' location opened last fall. Prices for the program begin at $300 a month for entrepreneurs, and the program does not take equity in the participating startups.

Leading the program is Labs Manager Carlos Estrada and WeWork Managing Director Emily Keeton — both have long careers in innovation and startups across the country. Keeton was among the original founders of Station Houston and is based in Houston. A Houston native, Estrada most recently launched Roots Venture Group, which focused on growing startups within the agricultural and rural industries.

"As the fourth largest city, Houston is in a unique position to launch high-impact startups," Estrada says in the release. "We see WeWork Labs in Houston as a tremendous platform for innovation, as our founder-focused approach to supporting early-stage startups will nurture and accelerate the work of entrepreneurs to scale their solutions to today's biggest challenges. We look forward to growing our community here and bringing together key players across the region to drive innovation throughout Houston, the state of Texas, and beyond."

WeWork Labs launched around a year ago and now has over 30 locations worldwide. The program hopes to connect the dots for startups and the corporate world by providing education, mentorship, and a global network. The downtown Houston location will operate alongside WeWork's Veterans in Residence program and the Flatiron School campus.

"We are incredibly honored to have WeWork Labs join our community to support an already growing network of startups within the city of Houston," says Nathan Lenahan, WeWork's general manager for Texas, in the release. "Housing WeWork Labs with both our Flatiron School campus and Veterans in Residence program is a true testament to the innovative community we strive to create within our spaces. We are thrilled to expand on our commitment to Houston and its entrepreneurs and can't wait to see the impact we can have together on it's diverse community."

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Texas nonprofit grants $68.5M to Houston organizations for recruitment, research

Three prominent institutions in Houston will be able to snag a trio of high-profile cancer researchers thanks to $12 million in new funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

The biggest recruitment award — $6 million — went to the University of Texas MD Anderson Center to lure researcher Xiling Shen away from the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation in Los Angeles.

Shen is chief scientific officer at the nonprofit Terasaki Institute. His lab there studies precision medicine, including treatments for cancer, from a “systems biology perspective.”

He also is co-founder and former CEO of Xilis, a Durham, North Carolina-based oncology therapy startup that raised $70 million in series A funding in 2021. Before joining the institute in 2021, the Stanford University graduate was an associate professor at Duke University in Durham.

Shen and Xilis aren’t strangers to MD Anderson.

In 2023, MD Anderson said it planned to use Xilis’ propriety MicroOrganoSphere (MOS) technology for development of novel cancer therapies.

“Our research suggests the MOS platform has the potential to offer new capabilities and to improve the efficiency of developing innovative drugs and cell therapies over current … models, which we hope will bring medicines to patients more quickly,” Shen said in an MD Anderson news release.

Here are the two other Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awards that will bring noted cancer researchers to Houston:

  • $4 million to attract David Sarlah to Rice University from the University of Illinois, where he is an associate professor of chemistry. Sarlah’s work includes applying the principles of chemistry to creation of new cancer therapies.
  • $2 million to lure Vishnu Dileep to the Baylor College of Medicine from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is a postdoctoral fellow. His work includes the study of cancer genomes.

CPRIT also handed out more than $56.5 million in grants and awards to seven institutions in the Houston area. Here’s the rundown:

  • MD Anderson Cancer Center — Nearly $25.6 million
  • Baylor College of Medicine — Nearly $11.5 million
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — More than $6 million
  • Rice University — $4 million
  • University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston — More than $3.5 million
  • Methodist Hospital Research Institute — More than $3.3 million
  • University of Houston — $1.4 million

Dr. Pavan Reddy, a CPRIT scholar who is a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and director of its Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Care Center, says the CPRIT funding “will help our investigators take chances and explore bold ideas to make innovative discoveries.”

The Houston-area funding was part of nearly $99 million in grants and awards that CPRIT recently approved.

Houston space company's lunar lander touches down on the moon in historic mission

touchdown

A private lander on Thursday made the first U.S. touchdown on the moon in more than 50 years, but managed just a weak signal back until flight controllers scrambled to gain better contact.

Despite the spotty communication, Intuitive Machines, the company that built and managed the craft, confirmed that it had landed upright. But it did not provide additional details, including whether the lander had reached its intended destination near the moon’s south pole. The company ended its live webcast soon after identifying a lone, weak signal from the lander.

“What we can confirm, without a doubt, is our equipment is on the surface of the moon,” mission director Tim Crain reported as tension built in the company’s Houston control center.

Added Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus: “I know this was a nail-biter, but we are on the surface and we are transmitting. Welcome to the moon.”

Data was finally starting to stream in, according to a company announcement two hours after touchdown.

The landing put the U.S. back on the surface for the first time since NASA’s famed Apollo moonwalkers.

Intuitive Machines also became the first private business to pull off a lunar landing, a feat achieved by only five countries. Another U.S. company, Astrobotic Technology, gave it a shot last month, but never made it to the moon, and the lander crashed back to Earth. Both companies are part of a NASA-supported program to kick-start the lunar economy.

Astrobotic was among the first to relay congratulations. “An incredible achievement. We can’t wait to join you on the lunar surface in the near future,” the company said via X, formerly Twitter.

Intuitive Machines “aced the landing of a lifetime,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted.

The final few hours before touchdown were loaded with extra stress when the lander's laser navigation system failed. The company's flight control team had to press an experimental NASA laser system into action, with the lander taking an extra lap around the moon to allow time for the last-minute switch.

With this change finally in place, Odysseus descended from a moon-skimming orbit and guided itself toward the surface, aiming for a relatively flat spot among all the cliffs and craters near the south pole.

As the designated touchdown time came and went, controllers at the company's command center anxiously awaited a signal from the spacecraft some 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) away. After close to 15 minutes, the company announced it had received a weak signal from the lander.

Launched last week, the six-footed carbon fiber and titanium lander — towering 14 feet (4.3 meters) — carried six experiments for NASA. The space agency gave the company $118 million to build and fly the lander, part of its effort to commercialize lunar deliveries ahead of the planned return of astronauts in a few years.

Intuitive Machines' entry is the latest in a series of landing attempts by countries and private outfits looking to explore the moon and, if possible, capitalize on it. Japan scored a lunar landing last month, joining earlier triumphs by Russia, U.S., China and India.

The U.S. bowed out of the lunar landscape in 1972 after NASA's Apollo program put 12 astronauts on the surface. Astrobotic of Pittsburgh gave it a shot last month, but was derailed by a fuel leak that resulted in the lander plunging back through Earth's atmosphere and burning up.

Intuitive Machines’ target was 186 miles (300 kilometers) shy of the south pole, around 80 degrees latitude and closer to the pole than any other spacecraft has come. The site is relatively flat, but surrounded by boulders, hills, cliffs and craters that could hold frozen water, a big part of the allure. The lander was programmed to pick, in real time, the safest spot near the so-called Malapert A crater.

The solar-powered lander was intended to operate for a week, until the long lunar night.

Besides NASA’s tech and navigation experiments, Intuitive Machines sold space on the lander to Columbia Sportswear to fly its newest insulating jacket fabric; sculptor Jeff Koons for 125 mini moon figurines; and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for a set of cameras to capture pictures of the descending lander.