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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Gwyneth Paltrow, VCs to headline exciting upcoming Houston summit

coming soon

A Houston-based fund of funds is bringing back its venture-focused event — and this year, you might recognize the keynote speaker.

Venture Houston hosted by the HX Venture Fund will take place on Monday, September 12, at The Ion. The day will kick off with a conversation with Goop founder and Academy Award-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow in conversation with Dana Settle, co-founder and managing partner of New York-based Greycroft. Goop is among Greycroft's portfolio companies, and HXVF, which deploys capital in to out-of-town VCs they have an interest and intention in investing into Houston startups, invested in Greycroft in 2020.

Some of the event's other speakers — from outside Texas as well as home grown —include LeadEdge Capital's Mitchell Green, Cart.com's Omair Tariq, Solugen's Gaurab Chakrabati, and many more. The full event agenda and list of speakers are both available online.

The program of the event is centered around key topics directly affecting Houston's innovation ecosystem, such as energy transition, sustainability, startup scaling, the future of health care, entrepreneurship, talent acquisition, and more.

“Venture Houston will bring together some of the most proven venture capitalists from the nation to the Houston stage, alongside Houston’s corporate leaders and most innovative entrepreneurs," says Sandy Guitar, managing director of the HX Venture Fund. "We are delighted to bring conversations around lessons learned and best practices to The Ion so that we can continue to nurture the incredible growth we are experiencing in the innovation ecosystem in Houston.”

Venture Houston is supported and sponsored by organizations including Insperity, Rice University, Greater Houston Partnership, Silicon Valley Bank, and Halliburton Labs.

"Houston's innovation ecosystem is experiencing a compelling transformation," says Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the GHP. "Venture Houston 2022 is the premier event for corporate leaders, venture capital investors, and entrepreneurs to plug into what is happening in the city. We are proud to sponsor and share the stage with leaders helping to illuminate the power of venture capital for Houston’s innovation ecosystem."

Registration is open online for the September 12 event.

Local startup to upgrade EV charging in Houston and beyond

seeing green

At 3 a.m. one night, just as he had many nights before, Tarun Girish found himself leaving his Houston apartment in search of an EV charger.

Once he located one, he would sit in his car for an hour and a half while his vehicle charged — with not much to do but wait.

But it was on this night he wondered if there was a way to use his previous hospitality experience to build a new kind of experience for EV drivers. He then developed his first iteration of a business plan — all while sitting in his driver’s seat.

His idea became Sparks Spaces, a startup formed in 2021 looking to shake up the EV charging game — the company aims to elevate the experience of charging electric vehicles by focusing on the space between car and charger by creating an airport lounge-type space for drivers. These EV lounges would include luxury waiting areas, clean restrooms, high-end food options, and availability to utilize them 24/7.

“We’ve seen a huge issue in the EV charging space where the experience side has been neglected,” says Girish, founder and CEO of Sparks Spaces.

Currently, Sparks Spaces is operating out of The Ion and installed a charging point outside of the building to help collect insights into what drivers are needing and are wanting to learn more about their customer base.

Eventually, the company’s goal is to take forgotten buildings and transition them into becoming EV charging hubs.

“The Ion is giving us a lot of resources to make sure that we are tailoring the solution to the right problem,” he says. “We’ve learned how to build a frictionless experience where the driver scans a QR code, pays for the duration of the charging session and then plugs in.”

When Sparks Spaces scales out, the team is eyeing two locations inside The Loop — one in Montrose and one on Shepherd Drive. The design would focus on natural lighting, safety and security.

The startup went through the Smart City Ion Accelerator but will be applying to a couple more accelerators that have more exposure into the EV construction space.

“We’re trying to provide a brand consistent experience from the time a driver drives into a lot to the time they leave,” he says. “We’ll be providing all fast-charging and level 2 charging services for drivers and will be completely universal so that any EV can utilize us.”

Sparks Spaces is looking to raise a $1.1 million seed round that will focus on research and development, the case studies and the architectural designs for a prototype that can be implemented in its locations.

“We want to be the definition of charging and lounges and experiences should be the forefront of EV charging,” he says. “The average household who owns an EV expects a certain level of luxury and expectations on experience. They are used to airport lounges when traveling. We want to reflect that in the EV charging space.”

Tarun Girish is on a mission to make EV charging easier and more comfortable. Photo courtesy

Houston expert weighs in on the trustworthiness of cryptocurrency

houston voices

Interest in cryptocurrencies reignited during the pandemic, driven in part by trillions of dollars in stimulus money that left many investors with “free money” to put to work. And while bitcoin recently tumbled nearly 55 percent from its peak, it remains the most valuable crypto asset in the world, with a market capitalization of around $589 billion. Its investors argue that it’s still a safer bet than stocks during this period of economic upheaval.

A renewed interest in cryptocurrencies — digital currencies that rely on blockchain technology, in which transactions are verified and records maintained by a decentralized system that uses cryptography — is widespread. Large corporations like Tesla, Mass Mutual and KPMG Canada have announced plans to hold cryptocurrency assets in treasury or accept them as payment. Meanwhile, major financial institutions are offering customers more digital asset investment options. Twelve years after bitcoin’s birth, mainstream investors are honing in on the currency, too.

In the midst of this market fascination, a fundamental question still remains. What exactly is cryptocurrency, and why should we care? And what about other industry buzzwords, like blockchain, decentralized exchanges or non-fungible tokens (NFTs)? Are they all just fads that will fade away?

Some have called cryptocurrency a Ponzi scheme, a tool for illicit activities, or a short-term fascination that will be irrelevant in a few years. It’s an understandable mindset, since there’s no intrinsic value in cryptocurrencies — not unlike the U.S. dollar after it stopped being backed by gold in the 1970s. But it’s also a shortsighted one. Blockchain technology, which allows users to exchange information on a secure digital ledger, is extremely useful because it automates contractual arrangements through computer programming.

I’m a firm believer that cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology that underpins them are here to stay, and understanding how this technology has transformed our environment, and how it will continue to evolve, is critical to succeeding in business.

First steps

Bitcoin took the first major steps towards a truly electronic cash system in 2008, in the midst of one of the worst financial collapses of all time. Governments worldwide were bailing out financial institutions that had been deemed “too big to fail.” Perceptions of economic inequality spurred movements such as Occupy Wall Street, which was fueled by a distrust in banks.

Bitcoin, on the other hand, wasn’t created by a trusted source — in fact, no one knows exactly who invented it. In a 2008 white paper, “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” Satoshi Nakamoto — the pseudonymous individual presumed to have developed bitcoin — described the currency as a way to securely facilitate financial transactions between parties without having to involve a central intermediary. No longer would people have to put their trust in the large financial institutions that failed them during the financial crisis.

Detractors find the lack of a central authority with blockchain worrisome, but proponents say it’s exactly the point: You no longer have to trust the person or institution you’re dealing with. You only have to trust the algorithms that run the program — and presumably an algorithm will never run off with your money.

Instead, blockchain enables a cooperative of members to run the shared network ledger required to keep track of a currency’s credits and debits. No one can shut down the system so long as a group of computers anywhere in the world is able to connect to the internet and run bitcoin’s software.

Because of bitcoin, today we can uniquely own digital assets and transfer them with the certainty that people can’t spend the same cryptocurrency twice. The transactions that bitcoin-like applications make possible are registered in permanent and immutable digital records for all to see in a common ledger.

By enabling fast and easily verifiable transactions, blockchain technology is also streamlining business operations in banking, supply chains, sustainability, healthcare and even voting. Development in these sectors and others is continuing at an intense pace. Annual global funding of blockchain projects now runs in the billions of dollars. From 2020 to 2021 alone, it jumped from several billion to nearly $30 billion.

Second generation

Since bitcoin’s arrival, we’ve seen a second, more sophisticated generation of cryptocurrencies evolve, with Ethereum as their flagship. Ethereum has its own programming language, enabling users to write and automate self-executing smart contracts, allowing for the creation of tokens for a specific use. For example, imagine that when Uber was founded, it had created an Uber token, and only people who owned Uber tokens could use the rideshare service. Tokens currently power thousands of decentralized applications that give people more privacy and control in a variety of areas, such as internet browsing, financial services, gaming and data storage, among others.

Some critiques of cryptocurrency remain. One growing concern is that cryptocurrencies require a significant amount of energy to run their networks, leading to higher transaction costs, energy waste and limited scalability. Newer cryptocurrencies are attempting to find ways to verify transactions that require less energy.

Some people also worry about ongoing volatility in cryptocurrency markets. A third generation of cryptocurrencies has emerged to address this concern: so-called “stablecoins,” which are pegged to a government-issued currency, a commodity, assets, or basket of assets. For some, stablecoins are serving as an onramp into the world of crypto from the world of traditional finance.

Before a new technology becomes part of everyday life, we often see a long period of development, improvement and consumer adoption. Cryptocurrency and blockchain markets are still in this early development stage, but they’re also moving quickly into the mainstream. The total market capitalization of cryptocurrencies late last year briefly reached the $3 trillion mark, or roughly 15 percent of the U.S. GDP, and there’s been more than $100 billion locked into decentralized finance applications.

Large companies like IBM, Amazon and Bank of America are leading the way by tapping into blockchain technology in their daily business activities. It won’t be long until this market, previously characterized by speculation and wild volatility, will be transformed into a stable infrastructure framework. But companies need to get up to speed on the industry now. Those that commit to doing so will be the ones that thrive.


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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was written by Manolo Sánchez, an adjunct professor of operations management at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.