Houston-based Cemvita Factory has a new collaboration with a lithium-mining company. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based cleantech startup Cemvita Factory is embarking on a potentially game-changing pilot project in Arizona.

Cemvita has sealed a deal with Australia-based Arizona Lithium, a lithium mining company, to test the startup’s technology for extraction of lithium from clay and sedimentary materials. The project is being carried out at Arizona Lithium’s new Lithium Research Center in Tempe, Arizona, which is set to start operating early next year.

“We are excited to see the results of the partnership start to show in the next three to six months, at which time we will assess further partnership potential,” says Paul Lloyd, managing director of Arizona Lithium.

Cemvita, whose technology aims to reduce carbon emissions, says the new partnership will help develop more environmentally friendly ways of mining lithium for products such as electric car batteries.

As the startup explains, lithium is an important metal in the energy transition movement, but most commercial lithium extraction is done at salt-flat brines through a process of evaporation and chemical recovery or from lithium-bearing ores through a process that involves crushing, roasting, and acid leaching. However, these processes consume a lot of energy and damage the environment.

“This pilot work in Arizona is a great step forward in our drive to both reduce the footprint of mining and unlock the mineral resources that are crucial for our planet’s renewable energy future,” Marny Reakes, Cemvita’s vice president of mining biotech, says in a news release.

Cemvita says its team will rely on biomining from sedimentary resources, reducing carbon emissions and decreasing the generation of mining waste.

“Our goal,” says Charles Nelson, chief business officer of Cemvita, in the release, “is to enable the most environmentally friendly end to end process of mining lithium through the application of our technology. This includes utilizing cleaner methods of extraction with the option of layering Cemvita’s other beneficial technologies such as CO2 based fuels and decarbonizing processing in the mining space.”

Brother-and-sister team Moji and Tara Karimi founded the startup in 2017. Investors include Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, an investment arm of Houston-based Occidental Petroleum, as well as BHP Group, Mitsubishi, and United Airlines Ventures.

Cemvita’s technology enables the sustainable extraction of natural resources, carbon-negative production of chemicals and fuels, and regeneration of waste as feedstock.

Marny Reakes, Cemvita’s vice president of mining biotech, and Charles Nelson, chief business officer of Cemvita. Photos courtesy

Want to work for one of the top startups in Houston? These ones are hiring. Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

Here's which of the 2022 Houston Innovation Awards finalists are hiring

Growing biz

After scouring Houston for the best of the Houston innovation ecosystem and evaluating dozens of companies, InnovationMap and Houston Exponential have announced the finalists that will be honored at the 2022 Houston Innovation Awards. But which of these companies are growing their teams?

Turns out, almost all of them have open positions — some planning to double their teams over the next year. In fact, the 30 companies that make up the cohort of finalists are looking for over 150 new employees — some have these positions open now and others are seeking these new team members over the next 12 months.

Click here to get your tickets to the 2022 Houston Innovation Awards Gala.
Let's look at how many new hires these top startups are looking for.

Double-digit growth

When it comes to the awards finalists looking to scale their team by 10 or more new employees, five companies are looking to enter this type of hiring spree. Blue People, a finalist in the BIPOC-Founded Category, is hiring 25 new employees. The company was founded in 2015 in Mexico and relocated its primary operations to Houston in 2020. Blue People, which develops software innovation for tis clients, has over 150 employees — seven of whom, including C-level executives, are based in Houston. Some of the company's new hires will be based in town.

Another company that's also relocated its operations to Houston recently and is growing its team significantly is Venus Aerospace, creator of a hypersonic spaceplane capable of one-hour global travel. Venus, a finalist in the New to Hou category, currently has a team of 60 people and is based out of the Houston Spaceport. The company is hiring an additional 20 people.

Fast-growing B2B Software finalist Solidatus — a data management software solution — has 16 open positions, including five in the US. According to the company, they hope to have reached a headcount of about 140 within the next 12 months — up from their current 110 employees.

NanoTech, a Green Impact finalist and materials science company, is looking to nearly double its team of 20 to add an additional 15 new employees.

Competing in the People's Choice category, LevelField Financial — a financial service platform that serves customers interested in the digital asset class — is looking to hire 10 people to join its team of 19 employees.

Steady as she grows

Six Houston Innovation Awards finalists are in the process of adding more than a few new team members. Rivalry Technologies, a finalist in the B2B Software and People's Choice categories, is hiring seven people to join its team of 13. The company created a mobile ordering solution — called sEATz — for arenas and recently rebranded and expanded to provide the technology to other industries.

Founded in New Orleans and relocated to the Houston area last year, Fluence Analytics has a total of 30 employees and is looking to hire an additional six new team members. The company, which created a real-time analytics solution for the chemicals industry, is also a finalist in two categories: Hardtech and New to Hou.

Biotech company Cemvita Factory — both a Green Impact and People's choice finalist — has already scaled to employ 75 team members. Now, the company is hiring an additional five more.

Encina Development Group — circular chemicals company for the consumer products and packaging, pharmaceuticals, construction, and other industries — is also looking to add five more team members to its 30 employees. The company is a finalist in the Green Impact category.

Another Green Impact finalist is IncentiFind, a database for green building incentives that's transforming real estate, is hiring five new employees to almost double their team of eight.

INGU, a New to Hou finalist, is a pipeline inspection solution to achieve Net Zero and ESG compliance for the water and oil and gas pipeline infrastructure. The company is seeking five new team members to join its 19 employees based in Houston and Canada.

Seeking selectively

The following awards finalists are looking to grow their teams by just a handful or so — between one and four — of new hires:

Find out which of these employers take home the win at the November 9 gala at the Ion. Click here to RSVP.

Cemvita reported a successful pilot program on its gold hydrogen project in the Permian Basin. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Houston cleantech company sees shining success with gold hydrogen

bling, bling

Houston-based cleantech startup Cemvita Factory is kicking things into high gear with its Gold Hydrogen product.

After successfully completing a pilot test of Gold Hydrogen in the oil-rich Permian Basin of West Texas, Cemvita has raised an undisclosed amount of funding through its new Gold H2 LLC spin-out. The lead investors are Georgia-based equipment manufacturer Chart Industries and 8090 Industries, an investment consortium with offices in New York City and Los Angeles.

Gold Hydrogen provides carbon-neutral hydrogen obtained from depleted oil and gas wells. This is achieved through bioengineering subsurface microbes in the wells to consume carbon and generate clean hydrogen.

Cemvita says it set up Gold H2 to commercialize the business via licensing, joint ventures, and outright ownership of hydrogen assets.

“We have incredible conviction in next-generation clean hydrogen production methods that leverage the vast and sprawling existing infrastructure and know-how of the oil and gas industry,” Rayyan Islam, co-founder and general partner of 8090 Industries, says in a news release.

Traditional methods of producing hydrogen without greenhouse gas emissions include electrolysis powered by renewable sources like wind, solar or water, according to Cemvita. However, production of green hydrogen through normal avenues eats up a lot of energy and money, the startup says.

By contrast, Cemvita relies on depleted oil and gas wells to cheaply produce carbon-free hydrogen.

“The commercialization and economics of the hydrogen economy will require technologies that produce the hydrogen molecule at a meaningful scale with no carbon emissions. Gold H2 is leading the charge … ,” says Jill Evanko, president and CEO of Chart Industries.

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.

Founded by brother-and-sister team Moji and Tara Karimi in 2017, Cemvita uses synthetic biology to turn carbon dioxide into chemicals and alternative fuels.

The United and Occidental investment arms are planning to form a joint venture to commercialize the technology. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Houston biotech startup scores $5M to fuel sustainable aviation innovation

seeing green

Houston cleantech startup Cemvita Factory has scored a $5 million investment from United Airlines Ventures, the venture capital fund of the Chicago-based airline.

The equity investment is aimed at propelling commercialization of sustainable aviation fuel through a process involving carbon dioxide (CO2) and synthetic microbes.

Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, a subsidiary of Houston-based Occidental Petroleum that’s a founding investor in Cemvita, and United Airlines Ventures are financing the startup’s work on sustainable jet fuel. United Airlines operates a hub at George Bush Intercontinental/Houston Airport.

If that work pans out, the United and Occidental investment arms plan to form a joint venture to commercialize the technology. The joint venture might include construction of plants for the production of sustainable aviation fuel.

Sustainable aviation fuel, known as SAF, is an alternative to jet fuel that uses non-petroleum feedstock and offers lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Founded by brother-sister team Moji and Tara Karimi in 2017, Cemvita Factory relies on synthetic biology to turn carbon dioxide into chemicals and alternative fuels, including SAF. The startup, founded in 2017, is among the first companies to employ this technology to support heavy-industry decarbonization and find ways to take advantage of microbiology to convert CO2 into fuel.

“The use of SAF is a promising approach that we believe can significantly reduce global emissions from aviation and further decarbonization initiatives to combat climate change,” Richard Jackson, president of operations for U.S. onshore resources and carbon management at Occidental, says in a news release.

Cemvita is the third SAF-related startup to receive an investment from United Airlines Ventures.

The partnership among Cemvita, Occidental, and United is among many initiatives seeking to ramp up production of SAF. For instance, the U.S. Department of Energy is collaborating with the U.S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other federal agencies to develop a strategy for scaling SAF technology.

The global SAF market is projected to grow from $219 million in 2021 to more than $15.7 billion by 2030, according to Research and Markets.

The International Air Transport Association says more than 370,000 flights have been fueled by SAF since 2016. Over 26.4 million gallons of SAF were produced last year.

Last month in France, aircraft manufacturer Airbus flew a A380 test jet for about three hours with one of the four engines operating solely on SAF. The three other engines ran on conventional fuel.

In December 2021, United flew a 737 MAX 8 jet from Chicago O’Hare International Airport to Washington Reagan National Airport outside Washington, D.C., with one of the two engines operating only on SAF. It was the first commercial flight with passengers aboard to use SAF in that capacity. The other engine ran on conventional fuel.

United CEO Scott Kirby, who was aboard the historic flight, said the flight was “not only a significant milestone for efforts to decarbonize our industry, but when combined with the surge in industry commitments to produce and purchase alternative fuels, we’re demonstrating the scalable and impactful way companies can join together and play a role in addressing the biggest challenge of our lifetimes.”

For now, airlines are allowed to use up SAF for up to 50 percent of the fuel on commercial flights.

Here are three of the latest updates on new execs and advisory appointments from two Houston startups and a local venture group. Photo via Getty Images

3 Houston organizations announce strategic appointments across biotech and VC

short stories

Five Houston innovators have new roles they're excited about this spring. From new advisory board members to c-level execs, here's who's moving and shaking in Houston innovation.

The Artemis Fund names new vice president of finance and operations

Adrienne Mangual has a background in finance and consulting. Photo courtesy of Artemis

The Artemis Fund, a venture capital firm that funds female-founded startups with technology solutions in fintech, e-commerce tech, and care-tech, has announced a new member of its leadership.

Adrienne Mangual is the new vice president of finance and operations at the firm, joining Artemis's co-founders and general partners, Stephanie Campbell, Leslie Goldman, and Diana Murakhovskaya, along with Austin-based Juliette Richert, a senior analyst.

Mangual received her MBA from Rice University in 2019 after working 15 years in finance roles at J.P. Morgan and Key Energy Services. Over the past few years, she's worked in consulting positions with startups and technology.

"This is an exciting time to join The Artemis Fund as the fund is growing and our reach is expanding and continuing to make an impact on female founders," Mangual tells InnovationMap. "I am looking forward to supporting existing and future female founders and working with Diana, Stephanie, and Leslie as part of the team making investment decisions for the fund."

FibroBiologics appoints scientific advisory board member

Former astronaut Kate Rubins, who's spent a total of 300 days in space, has joined the a Houston company's scientific advisory board. Photo courtesy of FibroBiologics

Houston-based clinical-stage therapeutics company FibroBiologics announced the appointment of Kathleen “Kate” Rubins, Ph.D., to its scientific advisory board. A microbiologist and NASA astronaut, Rubins has conducted medical research on earth at academic institutions as well as on board the International Space Station.

“We are honored to welcome Dr. Rubins to our SAB,” says Pete O’Heeron, CEO and chairman of FibroBiologics, in a news release. “She has distinguished herself in both terrestrial research at the Salk and Whitehead Institutes and through her ethereal work on the International Space Station.

"It’s rare to have such a unique perspective on microbiology," he continues. "Dr. Rubins joins a board of world-renowned scientists who will help to guide us as we advance fibroblast cell-based therapeutics through preclinical and clinical development. We are the only company focused on this unique opportunity in leveraging fibroblasts as treatments for chronic diseases and Dr. Rubins will be a key advisor in our pursuit to bring relief to the patients.”

In 2016, Rubins completed her first spaceflight on Expedition 48/49, where she became the first person to sequence DNA in space. Most recently, she served on the ISS as a flight engineer for Expedition 63/64. Across her two flights, she has spent a total of 300 days in space, the fourth most days in space by a U.S. female astronaut, according to the release.

Cemvita Factory hires, promotes within its leadership team

Tara Karimi, co-founder and CTO, stands with Cemvita Factory's two new hires and recently promoted employee. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Cemvita Factory has made big moves in its leadership team. The low-carbon biotech and synthetic biology solution provider has recently made three strategic appointments: Charles Nelson was hired as chief business officer, Roger A. Harris was promoted to chief commercial officer, and Alex Juminaga was recruited as head of strain development.

“Scaling to meet market demand requires the right team at the right time,” says Tara Karimi, co-founder and CTO of Cemvita, in a news release. “With Charlie, Roger, and Alex’s leadership, we’re well-positioned for growth at a time when the demand for decarbonization solutions is greater than ever.”

With over 10 years in product development, engineering, and technology commercialization experience, Nelson will oversee all aspects of sales, business development, and customer success.

“At Cemvita, we create sustainable solutions to challenges across heavy industries,” says Nelson in the release. “Our goal is to reinvent heavy industries in ways that speak to the future, reduce companies’ carbon footprints, and even create jobs; I’m delighted to help lead the charge.”

Harris originally joined Cemvita as vice president of technology commercialization a year ago and has over two decades of experience in research and development, and engineering. In his new role, he is responsible for scaling and commercializing the startup's technology.

“Cemvita is positioned incredibly well to support heavy industry in efforts to innovate, and to help oil and gas diversify offerings and reduce dependency on carbon-intensive products,” says Harris in the release. “It is an exciting time and I’m thrilled to be with Cemvita.”

Lastly, Alex Juminaga will lead the Cemvita biofoundry’s production of novel biomolecules. He brings over a decade of laboratory experience — specializing in metabolic engineering, protein expression/purification, enzyme kinetics and binding assays, analytical chemistry, and more.

“The field of synthetic biology is just getting started, with thousands of microbes yet to be discovered,” says Juminaga. “I’m excited to work alongside the brilliant scientists at Cemvita as we uncover new microbiomes and new uses for these tiny treasures.”

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Joey Sanchez of The Ion, Nisha Desai of Intention, and Moji Karimi of Cemvita Factory. Courtesy photos

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 startup development to energy transition — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Joey Sanchez, senior director of ecosystems at the Ion Houston

Joey Sanchez joins the Houston Innovator Podcast to discuss his new role at The Ion Houston. Photo via LinkedIn

Joey Sanchez, who previously served as director of corporate engagement at Houston Exponential, has been in his new role as senior director of ecosystem at The Ion for about three months now.

"I'm focusing specifically on the communities of entrepreneurs, startups, investors — and trying to bridge connections among them," Sanchez says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "This is the biggest challenge in Houston and we want to flip that with density. Density is really the key to solving connections."

Sanchez joined the Houston Innovators Podcast and shares about what gets him so excited about Houston innovation on the show. Click here to listen and read more.

Nisha Desai, founder and CEO of Intention

Four climatetech-focused individuals have been named to Greentown Lab's board. Photo via LinkedIn

Greentown Labs named new board members, including two community board members to act as liaisons between startups and Greentown Labs. Greentown Houston's appointed representation is Nisha Desai, founder and CEO of Intention, and community member.

Desai's current startup, Intention, is climate impact platform for retail investors, and she has previously worked at six energy-related startups including Ridge Energy Storage, Tessera Solar, and ActualSun, where she was co-founder and CEO. She's also worked in a leadership role at NRG Energy and spent several years as a management consultant with the energy practice of Booz Allen Hamilton — now Strategy&, a PWC company.

"I'm honored to join the board of Greentown Labs as a representative of the startup community," she says in the release. "This is a pivotal time for climate and energy transition. I look forward to working with the rest of the board to expand the collective impact of the Greentown Labs ecosystem." Click here to read more.

Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita Factory

Moji Karimi joins InnovationMap to discuss how Cemvita Factory has deployed its recent investment funding and what's next for the company and Houston as a whole when it comes to biomanufacturing. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Moji Karimi and his sister Tara had the idea for a company that could transform carbon emissions and mitigate new damage to the environment. Only, it seems, they were a bit ahead of their time.

Houston-based Cemvita Factory, founded in 2017, uses synthetic biology and take carbon emissions and transform them into industrial chemicals. However, it's only been since recently that the conversation on climate change mitigation has focused on carbon utilization.

"I think people are realizing more about the importance of really focusing on carbon capture and utilization because fossil fuels are gonna be here, whether we like it or not, for a long time, so the best thing we could do is to find ways to decarbonize them," Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO, tells InnovationMap. "There's been this focus around carbon capture and storage, and I think the next awakening is going to be utilization." Click here to read more.

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Growing Houston-based drone software company snags government contract

ready for liftoff

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Report: Houstonians lose days-worth of time each year due to rush hour

not in the fast lane

Traffic is a part of life in Houston. But a new study quantifies just how much time the average Bayou City dweller spends sitting in rush hour gridlock every year—and the results are eye opening.

According to a study released this month by CoPilot, Houstonians lose nearly four days of time each year due to rush hour commuting.

The report found that rush hour extends Houstonians' commute by an extra 22 minutes per day. Annually, that totaled an additional 91.6 hours commuting due to rush hour.

This earned the Houston area (including the Woodlands and Sugar Land) a No. 8 spot on CoPilot's list of cities where commuters lose the most time to rush hour.

Evening commutes saw the highest increase in time in Houston, with the average commuter spending 14 additional minutes on roadways due to rush hour. Morning rush hour in Houston added about eight minutes to commuters' daily drives.

Houston was the only Texas city to make CoPilot's list of the top 15 cities that lost the most time to rush hour traffic. New York drivers lost the most time to rush hour, which adds about 32 minutes to daily commutes and 132 hours a year, according to the report. Los Angeles drivers lost the second-most time, followed by urban Honolulu, Miami, Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Birmingham, Alabama.

The report found that drivers in Houston spend about eight more minutes commuting during rush hour than the average driver in the county. That totals to about 30 more hours per year than the average U.S. driver.

Commute times have been dropping nationally, reaching a low of 25.6 minutes in 2021 compared to 27.6 minutes in 2019, as more workers have transitioned to hybrid schedules or working from home, according to CoPilot

In 2020, Houston drivers even witnessed a 33 percent drop in traffic compared to in 2019, according to a study from Rice.

Still, Houston roadways are consistently ranked among the most congested in the country. Last year, a similar study found that the typical Houston driver wasted 46 hours due to traffic congestion.

Portions of the 610 West Loop are notorious for being ranked as the state's most congested roadways, and other stretches of roads are known as some of the worst bottlenecks in Texas.