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.”

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

Houston VC conference returns to prioritize decarbonization, curated connections

can't miss event

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.

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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.