This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Moji Karimi of Cemvita Factory, Thomas Vassiliades of BiVACOR, and Veronica Wu of First Bight Ventures. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries recently making headlines in Houston across biotech and medical device.

Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita

Moji Karimi joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share how Cemvita has evolved with three distinct lines of energy transition businesses. Photo courtesy of Digital Wildcatters

A lot has changed since Moji Karimi co-founded his biotech company Cemvita with his sister Tara in 2017. In fact, a lot has changed just in 2023 — for Cemvita, for the energy transition, and for world as a whole.

In the past year, Cemvita has evolved its business to target three verticals, all within the company's mission of using synthetic biology to create solutions for the energy transition. Now, as Karimi explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast, Cemvita is a startup of startups.

While tackling the various verticals might seem ambitious, Karimi explains that they are all aligned with Cemvita's core mission and technology.

"If you think about it, everything we're doing has something to do with nature," he says on the show. "Environmental microbiology, biotech, and synthetic biology — it's now available, and we have the tools to do it. We want to be the company that goes and finds those applications and translates it from the idea and the science to the technology, and then scale it up into the engineer solution." Continue reading.


Thomas Vassiliades, CEO of BiVACOR

Led by CEO Thomas Vassiliades, a former heart surgeon, BiVACOR is based on a system of magnetic levitation. Photo courtesy

A Houston company with a breakthrough heart health tech has received a green light from the FDA.

BiVACOR, a Houston-headquartered medical device company, has received FDA approval for its Total Artificial Heart (BTAH) IDE first-in-human early feasibility study (EFS). The BTAH device itself is designed to take over all function for patients with heart failure. The BTAH is roughly the size of a human fist, which means that, while it could support an active adult male, it may also fit many women and children.

Led by CEO Thomas Vassiliades, a former heart surgeon, BiVACOR is based on a system of magnetic levitation.

“Our pump is just one moving impeller that sits in the middle of the housing where the blood is. Imagine an artificial heart — the container that has your blood — and the device spinning in the inside — basically a wheel spinning your blood to the rest of your body. The device is suspended by magnets — it's not touching anything,” Vassiliades told InnovationMap in a podcast earlier this year. Continue reading.

Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures

First Bight Venture's BioWell has received a $741,925 grant to continue supporting bioindustrial startups. Photo courtesy

A Houston-based nonprofit accelerator that works with early-stage synthetic biology startups has secured nearly $750,000 to support its mission.

First Bight Ventures' accelerator, BioWell, secured $741,925 of the $53 million doled out as a part of the "Build to Scale" Grant program that the U.S. Economic Development Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, has established. First Bight was one of 60 organizations to receive funding.

The funding will support the BioWell's mission to establish a "vibrant bioeconomy" by helping startups scale and commercialize "through access to a unique combination of pilot bioproduction infrastructure," according to a news release from First Bight.on.

"Often times, early-stage startups gain momentum and hit important milestones, but ultimately find themselves heading toward the 'Valley of Death,' where progress is made on their enterprise, but no sufficient revenue is generated for the company's stability and longevity," Wu says in the release. "This 'Build to Scale' program's support will help offset these inevitable challenges in our bio-industrial space." Continue reading.

Moji Karimi joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share how Cemvita has evolved with three distinct lines of energy transition businesses. Photo courtesy of Digital Wildcatters

Houston biotech company expands as a network of startups with energy transition solutions

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 217

A lot has changed since Moji Karimi co-founded his biotech company Cemvita with his sister Tara in 2017. In fact, a lot has changed just in 2023 — for Cemvita, for the energy transition, and for world as a whole.

In the past year, Cemvita has evolved its business to target three verticals, all within the company's mission of using synthetic biology to create solutions for the energy transition. Now, as Karimi explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast, Cemvita is a startup of startups.

Its eCO2 business line targets carbon dioxide utilization for feedstock, the technology's legacy application. But this year, Cemvita spun out its gold hydrogen arm into Gold H2, which has celebrated a successful pilot in the Permian Basin and raised early-stage funding. Cemvita has another vertical, a resource mining operation — under its Endolith spinoff — that operates out of a satellite office in Colorado.

While tackling the various verticals might seem ambitious, Karimi explains that they are all aligned with Cemvita's core mission and technology.

"If you think about it, everything we're doing has something to do with nature," he says on the show. "Environmental microbiology, biotech, and synthetic biology — it's now available, and we have the tools to do it. We want to be the company that goes and finds those applications and translates it from the idea and the science to the technology, and then scale it up into the engineer solution."



The way Cemvita is doing it is through partnerships. Karimi says he doesn't care about his logo being on the side of his plant, rather that a company can take the technology and apply it on a greater scale.

"The core of what we do is collaboration," he says. "What we care about is for the solutions to come to life."

Cemvita has a longstanding partnership with Oxy, first as an early investor in 2019, and later committing to establishing a plant around Cemvita's CO2-converting tech. Similarly, United Airlines invested in Cemvita before securing a massive offtake agreement with the airline for sustainable aviation fuel.

On the podcast, Karimi share some of his advice and observations on tackling startup-corporate relationships, as well as how these partnerships will continue in the new year. Karimi described 2023 as a year of resiliency, and he has big plans to deliver on for 2024.

"This next year is all about focused execution," he says, noting specifically a pre-commercial demo plant for CO2 utilization, a gold hydrogen field trial to prove out tech for Gold H2, and ongoing speed column tests for Endolith.

"We're graduating from the startup phase," Karimi says. "We need to make sure we don't lose the agility of being a startup."

The opening of the pilot plant marks the debut of Cemvita’s eCO2 business as a wholly owned subsidiary. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Fast-growing startup with carbon-free solution sets up pilot plant in Houston

big moves

Cleantech startup Cemvita has set up a pilot plant in its hometown of Houston to develop technology for converting carbon emissions as feedstock to make products like fertilizer, plastics, methane, and fuel.

The opening of the pilot plant marks the debut of Cemvita’s eCO2 business as a wholly owned subsidiary. The term eCO2 refers to equivalent carbon dioxide, or a way to measure a combination of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

With a capacity of more than 14,000 gallons, the plant is producing eCO2 oil, an alternative to soybean oil. The company already is shipping samples of eCO2 products to customers, including renewable-fuel companies and plastics manufacturers.

Cemvita says the biofuel industry is facing feedstock shortages and price fluctuations. Biofuel feedstocks produce starches or sugars that can be converted to produce ethanol, while others produce oil that can be used in biodiesel production, according to the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) program.

“Traditional biofuels, including renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel, have relied on oils derived from crops, such as soybean and corn, as well as recycled vegetable oils,” Cemvita says. “As demand grows for petroleum-free alternatives, feedstock is in short supply and must compete with food markets. Crops of soybeans, sugar, and corn use huge swaths of land, and the raw materials require extensive refining — two factors that impede the processes from being sustainable.”

By contrast, eCO2 plants like Cemvita’s can supply feedstock production with minimal land and electricity requirements, and without relying on hydrogen or sunlight, the company says. Furthermore, the output of eCO2 plants is designed to carbon-negative, not just carbon-neutral.

Cemvita’s eCO2 biomanufacturing platform uses engineered microbes that absorb and convert carbon dioxide into feedstocks and finished products.

“The energy transition requires completely new, cost-effective approaches for heavy industry,” Charlie Nelson, chief operating officer of Cemvita, says in a news release. “We built this next-generation pilot plant in response to strong demand from … partners who are actively seeking sustainable solutions to the … feedstock shortage.”

Brother-and-sister team Moji and Tara Karimi founded Cemvita in 2017.

Investors in Cemvita include Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, an investment arm of Houston-based Occidental Petroleum, as well as BHP Group, Mitsubishi, and United Airlines Ventures.

Oxy Low Carbon Ventures and United Airlines Ventures are financing Cemvita’s work on sustainable jet fuel. United Airlines operates a hub at George Bush Intercontinental Airport Houston.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Veronica Wu of First Bight Ventures, Lydia Davies of TEAMATES, and Liz Dennett of Cemvita. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from synthetic biology to consumer app development — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures

Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to outline Houston's opportunities in synthetic biology and biomanufacturing. Photo courtesy

Houston has all the ingredients to lead biomanufacturing — but it needs one thing: The BioWell. Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures, introduced her plans for The BioWell last month. It aims to be a public-private partnership that aims to provide access to pilot and lab space, mentorship and programming, and more support that biomanufacturing innovators critically need.

"The way we envision The BioWell is it will provide a holistic, curated support for startups to be able to get across the Valley of Death," Wu says, explaining that startups transitioning from research and development into commercialization need extra support. The BioWell will provide that, as well as allow more engagement from corporations, investors, and other players.

Now that her plans for The BioWell have been announced, Wu is looking for those who want to be a part of it. Read more.

Lydia Davies, founder of TEAMATES

At the end of the day, Lydia Davies created her app to inspire new connections and fun activities. Photo courtesy of TEAMATES

Lydia Davies had an idea for an app that would allow golfers to connect when traveling or on nice weekends when other friends might not be free, and, amid peak COVID-19 shutdown times, she cranked out her early concept and design.

"I started building the app right then and there in this tornado of noise and chaos, and it kind of just became my sanity in that early COVID time because I had something to work on and build," Davies says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

The idea turned into TeeMates, which launched in 2021 and focused on golf exclusively, and evolved into the TEAMATES App, the current platform that now has a growing selection of sports and activities for users to sync up with others on. Read more.

Liz Dennett, CTO of Cemvita

Cemvita has some news regarding its C-level execs. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Cemvita, which is working with energy companies to decarbonize their operations has, has named a new CTO. Liz Dennett has been hired for the role, replacing Co-Founder Tara Karimi, who's transition to chief science officer.

As CTO, Dennett will lead the development of Cemvita's unique biotech products that tap into microbes to decarbonize operations on energy plants. Most recently, Dennett was vice president of data architecture and data engineering at Wood Mackenzie. She previously worked in tech and sustainability-focused roles at Hess Corp., Biota Technology, and Amazon Web Services.

“Working with biological systems presents a unique challenge but also a unique opportunity," says Dennett in the release. "It’s uniquely difficult to go from benchtop to in-situ reactors or oil wells with microbes and to achieve the kind of incredible results that we’re seeing in the lab. You need to build teams with deep specializations in chemistry, biology, energy systems, and geology.” Read more.

Cemvita has some news regarding its C-level execs. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Houston biotech company expands leadership team

growing biz

An innovative Houston startup that's working with energy companies to decarbonize their operations has made changes to its C-suite.

Tara Karimi, who co-founded Cemvita with her brother Moji, has transition to the company's chief science officer. Liz Dennett has been hired to Karimi's previous role of CTO. The changes enable Karimi to focus on leading Cemvita's scientific research and development efforts as well as participating in driving innovation within the biotech industry as a whole, according to the company's press release.

"I'm excited to take on the role of chief science officer at Cemvita and what it represents for our company's growth," says Karimi in the release. "As chief science officer, I look forward to shaping policy and driving the conversation around the role of biotechnology in the energy transition."

As CTO, Dennett will lead the development of Cemvita's unique biotech products that tap into microbes to decarbonize operations on energy plants. Most recently, Dennett was vice president of data architecture and data engineering at Wood Mackenzie. She previously worked in tech and sustainability-focused roles at Hess Corp., Biota Technology, and Amazon Web Services.

“Working with biological systems presents a unique challenge but also a unique opportunity," says Dennett in the release. "It’s uniquely difficult to go from benchtop to in-situ reactors or oil wells with microbes and to achieve the kind of incredible results that we’re seeing in the lab. You need to build teams with deep specializations in chemistry, biology, energy systems, and geology.”

Dennett, who has her PhD and Master's from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has served on Cemvita's advisory board for about a year, will report to CEO Moji Karimi directly.

“I know that Tara and Liz are going to make history at Cemvita,” says Moji Karimi in the release. “With 15 years of experience using data-driven approaches to solve pressing energy challenges, Liz brings to bear the kind of creativity and expertise that can quickly and meaningfully advance Cemvita’s impact on the Energy Transition.”

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Health tech startup launches Houston study improve stroke patients recovery

now enrolling

A Houston-born company is enrolling patients in a study to test the efficacy of nerve stimulation to improve outcomes for stroke survivors.

Dr. Kirt Gill and Joe Upchurch founded NeuraStasis in 2021 as part of the TMC Biodesign fellowship program.

“The idea for the company manifested during that year because both Joe and I had experiences with stroke survivors in our own lives,” Gill tells InnovationMap. It began for Gill when his former college roommate had a stroke in his twenties.

“It’s a very unpredictable, sudden disease with ramifications not just for my best friend but for everyone in his life. I saw what it did to his family and caregivers and it's one of those things that doesn't have as many solutions for people to continue recovery and to prevent damage and that's an area that I wanted to focus myself on in my career,” Gill explains.

Gill and Upchurch arrived at the trigeminal and vagus nerves as a potential key to helping stroke patients. Gill says that there is a growing amount of academic literature that talks about the efficacy of stimulating those nerves. The co-founders met Dr. Sean Savitz, the director of the UTHealth Institute for Stroke and Cerebrovascular Diseases, during their fellowship. He is now their principal investigator for their clinical feasibility study, located at his facility.

The treatment is targeted for patients who have suffered an ischemic stroke, meaning that it’s caused by a blockage of blood flow to the brain.

“Rehabilitation after a stroke is intended to help the brain develop new networks to compensate for permanently damaged areas,” Gill says. “But the recovery process typically slows to essentially a standstill or plateau by three to six months after that stroke. The result is that the majority of stroke survivors, around 7.6 million in the US alone, live with a form of disability that prevents complete independence afterwards.”

NeuraStasis’ technology is intended to help patients who are past that window. They accomplish that with a non-invasive brain-stimulation device that targets the trigeminal and vagus nerves.

“Think of it kind of like a wearable headset that enables stimulation to be delivered, paired to survivors going through rehabilitation action. So the goal here is to help reinforce and rewire networks as they're performing specific tasks that they're looking to improve upon,” Gill explains.

The study, which hopes to enroll around 25 subjects, is intended to help people with residual arm and hand deficits six months or more after their ischemic stroke. The patients enrolled will receive nerve stimulation three times a week for six weeks. It’s in this window that Gill says he hopes to see meaningful improvement in patients’ upper extremity deficits.

Though NeuraStasis currently boasts just its two co-founders as full-time employees, the company is seeing healthy growth. It was selected for a $1.1 million award from the National Institutes of Health through its Blueprint MedTech program. The award was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The funding furthers NeuraStasis’ work for two years, and supports product development for work on acute stroke and for another product that will aid in emergency situations.

Gill says that he believes “Houston has been tailor-made for medical healthcare-focused innovation.”

NeuraStasis, he continues, has benefited greatly from its advisors and mentors from throughout the TMC, as well as the engineering talent from Rice, University of Houston and Texas A&M. And the entrepreneur says that he hopes that Houston will benefit as much from NeuraStasis’ technology as the company has from its hometown.

“I know that there are people within the community that could benefit from our device,” he says.

Texas Space Commission launches, Houston execs named to leadership

future of space

Governor Greg Abbott announced the Texas Space Commission, naming its inaugural board of directors and Texas Aerospace Research and Space Economy Consortium Executive Committee.

The announcement came at NASA's Johnson Space Center, and the governor was joined by Speaker Dade Phelan, Representative Greg Bonnen, Representative Dennis Paul, NASA's Johnson Space Center Director Vanessa Wyche, and various aerospace industry leaders.

According to a news release, the Texas Space Commission will aim to strengthen commercial, civil, and military aerospace activity by promoting innovation in space exploration and commercial aerospace opportunities, which will include the integration of space, aeronautics, and aviation industries as part of the Texas economy.

The Commission will be governed by a nine-member board of directors. The board will also administer the legislatively created Space Exploration and Aeronautics Research Fund to provide grants to eligible entities.

“Texas is home to trailblazers and innovators, and we have a rich history of traversing the final frontier: space,” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick says in a news release. “Texas is and will continue to be the epicenter for the space industry across the globe, and I have total confidence that my appointees to the Texas Space Commission Board of Directors and the Texas Aerospace Research and Space Economy Consortium Executive Committee will ensure the Texas space industry remains an international powerhouse for cutting-edge space innovation.”

TARSEC will independently identify research opportunities that will assist the state’s position in aeronautics research and development, astronautics, space commercialization, and space flight infrastructure. It also plans to fuel the integration of space, aeronautics, astronautics, and aviation industries into the Texas economy. TARSEC will be governed by an executive committee and will be composed of representatives of each higher education institution in the state.

“Since its very inception, NASA’s Johnson Space Center has been home to manned spaceflight, propelling Texas as the national leader in the U.S. space program,” Abbott says during the announcement. “It was at Rice University where President John F. Kennedy announced that the U.S. would put a man on the moon—not because it was easy, but because it was hard.

"Now, with the Texas Space Commission, our great state will have a group that is responsible for dreaming and achieving the next generation of human exploration in space," he continues. "Texas is the launchpad for Mars, innovating the technology that will colonize humanity’s first new planet. As we look into the future of space, one thing is clear: those who reach for the stars do so from the great state of Texas. I look forward to working with the Texas Space Commission, and I thank the Texas Legislature for partnering with industry and higher education institutions to secure the future of Texas' robust space industry."

The Houston-area board of directors appointees included:

  • Gwen Griffin, chief executive officer of the Griffin Communications Group
  • John Shannon, vice president of Exploration Systems at the Boeing Company
  • Sarah "Sassie" Duggleby, co-founder and CEO of Venus Aerospace
  • Kirk Shireman, vice president of Lunar Exploration Campaigns at Lockheed Martin
  • Dr. Nancy Currie-Gregg, director of the Texas A&M Space Institute

Additionally, a few Houstonians were named to the TARSEC committee, including:

  • Stephanie Murphy, CEO and executive chairman of Aegis Aerospace
  • Matt Ondler, president and former chief technology officer at Axiom Space
  • Jack “2fish” Fischer, vice president of production and operations at Intuitive Machines
  • Brian Freedman, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership and vice chairman of Wellby Financial
  • David Alexander, professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Rice Space Institute at Rice University

To see the full list of appointed board and committee members, along with their extended bios, click here.