Andrew Chang, managing director of United Airlines Ventures, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

When it comes to the future of aviation — namely, making it more sustainable, a rising tide lifts all boats. Or, in this case, planes.

Andrew Chang, managing director of United Airlines Ventures, explains that working together is the key for advancing sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF. That's why United Airlines started the Sustainable Flight Fund, a $200 million initiative with support from industry leaders, including Air Canada, Boeing, GE Aerospace, JPMorgan Chase, Honeywell, Aramco Ventures, Bank of America, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Ventures, and several others.

"We all recognize that we may compete in our core business, but with the importance of sustainable aviation fuel and given that it's an industry that doesn't exist — you can't compete for something that doesn't exist — let's collaborate and work together to explore technologies that can directly or indirectly support the commercialization and production of sustainable aviation fuel," he says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Within United Airline Ventures, Chang's job is to find technology to invest in across the aviation industry spectrum — from SAF to digital technologies that will improve the United customer experience. This means working with startups and other organizations to find the best fit — and, because he's based in Houston, one of United's seven key hubs, this means knowing and interacting with local innovators.

"The knowledge base and the capabilities are here — that's undebatable," Chang says of the Houston innovation ecosystem. "The next step is making sure we're accessing, promoting, collaborating, and learning from one another."

Again, as Chang recognizes, collaboration is key to further developing the ecosystem, "so that we're not trying to solve the same problem in a vacuum," he explains.

United Airlines recently signed an offtake agreement with Cemvita Factory, a Houston biotech startup that's working on SAF. Chang discusses this partnership on the show, as well as explaining how he works with other startups and what he's looking for.

At a recent SXSW panel, four Houston energy experts discussed the importance of research, commercialization, and more in Houston to drive the energy transition. Photo via Getty Images

Experts address Houston's energy transition role — from research to commercialization

Houston @ SXSW

Every part of the energy industry is going to have a role in the energy transition — from the universities where the research and development is happening to the startups and the incumbent industry leaders, as a recent SXSW panel discussed.

“We are well known in Houston for being the energy capital of the world," Jane Stricker, executive director of the Houston Energy Transition Initiative, says as moderator of the panel. "The industry typically comes together with stakeholders to think about the solutions and how to solve this dual challenge of continuing to provide more energy to the world but doing it in a way that significantly reduces emissions at the same time.”

The panel, entitled "Ground Zero: Creating Pathways from Research to Scale Deployment," was put on by HETI, an organization under the Greater Houston Partnership, and took place Sunday, March 12, in Austin at SXSW.

“I often say that I believe Houston is ground zero for the transition because we have this unique combination of assets, infrastructure, innovation, research at universities, and a collective understanding of the importance of energy to people’s lives that allows us to tackle this problem in new ways," she continues.

Sticker was joined by Paul Cherukuri, vice president for innovation at Rice University; Juliana Garaizar, chief development and investment officer at Greentown Labs; and Tara Karimi, co-founder and CTO of Cemvita Factory. The panel highlighted the challenges facing Houston as it promises to lead the energy transition.

For Cherukuri, whose innovation-focused position was newly created when he was appointed to it last August, it's a pivotal moment for research institutions.

"It's really an exciting time in Houston because universities are changing," says Cherukuri. "Rice University itself is changing in dramatic ways, and it's a great opportunity to really plug into the energy transition inside of Houston."

The role he plays, as he explains, is to connect Rice innovators to the rest of the city and the world.

"We have to partner through the accelerators as well as with with companies who can catch what we've made and take it to scale," he continues. "That's uniquely something that we can do in Houston. It's not something that a lot of cities can do."

Representing the scaling efforts is Greentown Labs, and Garaizar explains how the Massachusetts-based organization, which has its second outpost in Houston, connects its member companies to corporate partners that can become funders, pilot partners, customers, and more. But scaling can only be accomplished with the right technologies and the proper funding behind them.

"Sixty percent of the technologies that are going to be used to decarbonize the world haven't yet been invented," she says on the panel. "So, there's a huge pull for technology right now. And we see people who are only on the private equity space now finally invested in a lot of earlier series like series A, but there's still some road to to be made there."

Houston-based Cemvita Factory is in the scale phase, and Karimi explains how she's actively working with companies to apply the company's unique biotechnology to convert CO2 to natural resources to accommodate each customer's needs. Cemvita is on the front lines of interacting with incumbent energy businesses that play a major role in the future of energy.

"The way we communicate with energy companies, we tell them that us to be the innovation arm for you and we work together," Karimi says. "I think it's everybody needs to understand it's a transition. There is no way to just change the way that chemicals are produced just immediately and replace it with something new. It's a transition that needs both aspects."

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

Innovative Houston company forms partnership to test tech on lithium mining

new collaboration

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.

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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.