Alex Reed, co-founder and CEO of Fluence Analytics, joined InnovationMap for a Q&A on the company's move to Houston and its growth plans. Photo courtesy of Fluence Analytics

Founded in 2012 in New Orleans, a tech company that provides software and hardware solutions for the chemicals industry has entered its next phase of growth by moving its headquarters to Houston following a $7.5 million venture capital raise

Fluence Analytics, which announced its recent raise led by Yokogawa Electric Corp. last month, has officially moved to the Houston area. The company's new HQ is in Stafford. Alex Reed, co-founder and CEO of the company, joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about what led up to the move and the future of the company, which includes expanding into the life science field.

InnovationMap: Tell me about Fluence Analytics — what does the technology do and why did you decide to start the company?

Alex Reed: We have developed a patented technology that can optimize chemical production. We basically are able to measure what's happening in real time in a process. Imagine if you're baking a cake, and you follow this recipe and sometimes you get the cake you want, sometimes it's too dry, and sometimes it's not cooked enough. And so the polymers industry, for simplistic terms, has that type of an issue. You don't really know exactly where you're at your equipment behaves differently. Basically, what we're able to do is give them real-time information on what's happening as they're baking the cake so that every time they can get a perfect cake.

We have a software and hardware solution that we install in these plants to get these measurements so that our customers can optimize production — and they want to do that to improve their yield, reduce waste, increase safety, and improve quality. There are a lot of different reasons that companies are interested in our technology and we have managed to grow globally. We have customers in Asia, Europe, and the U.S.

We spun out of Tulane University. It's an interesting story because my dad is the inventor of the technology — he's a physics professor at Tulane. I grew up working in the lab with him literally since the age of 12, and I was super interested in technology and science and saw that he was working with all these chemical companies. They were always very interested in what he was working on. I got to the point where I realized that I didn't want to be a scientist — I was far more interested in the commercialization and how you go from lab to product. That transition is very difficult. So, I stepped into the role of the entrepreneur. We had the patents and technology for my dad, I had an excellent mentor, and then our other co-founder was a technical founder.

IM: When and why did you start considering an HQ move? 

AR: We raised our first institutional venture funding in April 2017. Up until that point, it was primarily working with customers and grant funding. We worked with actually a group that has an office here called Energy Innovation Capital. They came in and invested in us and supported us, and George Coyle joined our board.

So, we had that tie to Houston, and I was in Houston a lot because there was a concentration of partners and customers — and not just like chemical plant customers, but also technology and R&D centers. As we started to scale, we brought on some other investors — Mitsubishi Chemical, JSR Corp., and most recently Yokogawa Electric Corp., which has its North American headquarters in Sugar Land.

We started to just build momentum towards it. I'd say we first had the conversations pre-COVID and then COVID hit, and we'd kind of just stopped everything for a while, just to make sure we knew where the business was heading. We've made it through COVID fine and did well on coming out of it. Then we felt it was the right time to pick that thread back up. We knew it made sense. The labor pool is amazing here, and there's just so many reasons why we were looking at it. So then we just pulled the trigger.

IM: How did you decide on the Houston area? What drew you to Stafford?

AR: Initially, we had a little landing pad in the East End Maker Hub, so we got in there and they were awesome. We actually had started hiring remote people here in 2019 because we knew the move was going to happen at some point. We had a place for them to go work out of EEMH while we searched for a permanent facility. We connected with the Greater Houston Partnership, and they plugged us in to Houston Exponential, and they have been very good at introducing us to the right people. We just don't know the lay of the land to be honest, so they've been a great resource. We were looking originally on the northside of Houston, and then we saw the Stafford area. There's a huge concentration of similar type companies — automation, some software, some hardware. There were some tax advantages. We settled in the Stafford area and are very happy with the choice we made to end up here.

IM: I know you recently raised a $7.5M venture funding round. What does that funding mean for growth?

AR: Like any capital, the objective is to use it to grow. For us, "grow" has several different areas. One is the product. There's a very long roadmap of both hardware and software improvements that we want to make. So basically we're accelerating a lot of the things on our roadmap to do things like closed-loop control based on our data — imagine running a whole plant autonomously based on measurements that we're making. We're moving more and more toward that autonomous operation world and improving a lot of the actual underlying hardware, making the measurements, building out sales and marketing as we start to serve more and more customers. Product sales and marketing and customer success are the areas that we're scaling.

IM: As you grow your local team, what are you looking for?

AR: Field applications, software, some automation technicians, and more. We do have some life science applications. So, in addition to our core area on the chemical side, we have a product we've sold into biopharma, and so we want to grow some of that. We're actually hiring for a product manager for the life science side of the business. So, that one's a pretty unique opportunity and role.

IM: Considering your life science application, it seems like Houston is a good fit for that vertical as well, right?

AR: We're working with the Houston of today, but also the Houston of tomorrow, which is this life science play. The next phase is kind of following that innovation value chain. So, figuring out what's the R&D and manufacturing of these pharmaceuticals, and how you can attract more of those technology centers and factories to make the stuff here. If you look at the talent pool here, those resources are somewhat fungible with the resources that serve petrochemical and oil and gas.

This cross pollination I think actually could be quite an interesting differentiator for Houston if the city can build that critical mass. So yes, I think there is an opportunity for us to leverage this vision that Houston has for life science. Now, we'll still have to go to the coast to go to our customers, but I think talent pool, and eventually you might even have customers here. It's certainly feasible.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Solugen closed its Series C funding round at $357 million to grow its chemical products. Photo via Getty Images

Houston chemicals company raises $357M, claims unicorn status

money moves

Houston-based Solugen, a startup that specializes in combating carbon dioxide emitted during the production of chemicals, has hauled in $357 million in a Series C funding round. That amount eclipses the size of any Houston VC funding round this year or last year.

The Series C round lifts Solugen's pre-money valuation to $1.5 billion, according to the Axios news website. This gives Solugen "unicorn" status as a startup with a valuation of at least $1 billion.

Singapore-based GIC and Edinburgh, Scotland-based Baillie Gifford led the round, with participation from Temasek Holdings, affiliates of BlackRock, Carbon Direct Capital Management, Refactor Capital, and Fifty Years.

Since its founding in 2016, Solugen has raised more than $405 million in venture capital, according to Crunchbase.

"Solugen's vision for cleaner chemicals through synthetic biology has the potential to be a fundamental shift in how chemicals are made, to help tackle the environmental challenges we face globally. The chemical market itself is colossal, and Solugen is just getting started," Kirsty Gibson, investment manager at Baillie Gifford, says in a September 9 news release.

Solugen's patented Bioforge processes produce "green" chemicals from bio-based feedstocks. These chemicals are aimed at reducing or eliminating carbon emissions from chemical producers. The Series C funding will help Solugen expand the Bioforge platform and broaden the reach of Solugen's products.

Carbon dioxide from chemical production ranks among the greatest contributors to industrial greenhouse gas emissions.

CNBC explains that Solugen designs and grows enzymes that can turn sugar into chemicals needed to make an array products used in many industrial settings. The company's bio-based chemical offering already includes water treatments, a chemical that makes concrete stronger, another chemical that makes fertilizers more efficient, and detergents that are strong enough to clean a locker room or mild enough to be used for facial wipes, according to CNBC.

"This fundraising round allows us to continue expanding the footprint of our Bioforge technology to give industries the products they need to reduce emissions in their existing supply chains, without compromising on performance or economics," Sean Hunt, co-founder and chief technology officer of Solugen, says in the news release.

Three days before the funding announcement, Solugen made news of a different sort.

Axios reported September 7 that Solugen plans to open a new R&D facility outside Texas because many of the state's social policies — including its abortion restrictions — are making it hard to recruit employees.

Solugen employs about 115 people, most of whom work from its Houston headquarters, Axios says. The startup plans to more than double its R&D capability over the next two years, representing around 100 jobs, with most of those workers expected to be assigned to a new facility that will be set up in California or Massachusetts.

"We want to make sure we're hiring the top enzymologists and chemical engineers," Solugen CEO Gaurab Chakrabarti tells Axios. "We've come to the conclusion after talking to lots of candidates that they want to join Solugen, but they don't feel comfortable coming to Texas, so for us it's become a no-brainer to have R&D facilities elsewhere."

Solugen, which uses plant-centered biotechnology to produce environmentally friendly chemicals, has raised an additional $30 million and is speculated to soon reach unicorn status. Photo via solugentech.com

Houston startup raises $30M, plans to be 'next iconic chemical company' with plant-based alternatives

climate tech

While Forbes recently anointed Houston-based Solugen Inc. as one of the next billion-dollar "unicorns" in the startup world, Dr. Gaurab Chakrabarti shrugs off the unicorn buzz.

Chakrabarti, a physician and scientist who's co-founder and CEO of the startup, concedes he doesn't know whether Solugen will be worth $1 billion or not. But he does know that the startup aspires to be a key competitor in the emerging "climate tech" sector, whose players strive to combat climate change. Chakrabarti estimates the climate-tech chemical space alone represents a global market opportunity valued at $1 trillion to $2 trillion per year.

Solugen's overarching goal in the climate-tech market: Replace petroleum-based chemicals with plant-based substitutes.

"I'd love it if we were the poster child that drives climate tech to be the next big, sexy trend," Chakrabarti says.

Chakrabarti acknowledges Solugen's investors, executives, and employees hope the startup succeeds financially. But success, he believes, goes beyond making money and plotting an exit strategy. Instead, Chakrabarti emphasizes "a shift in thinking" on climate tech that he says promises to transform the fledgling sector into a "true niche" that'll be "good for everyone."

"Who cares if people are all hyped up for the wrong reasons?" says Chakrabarti, referring to the unicorn speculation.

Solugen sits at the crossroads of biology and chemistry. In short, the startup taps into plant-centered biotechnology to produce environmentally friendly chemicals and "decarbonize" the chemical industry.

"Quite simply, we want to become the next DowDuPont or the next iconic chemical company, but using principles of green chemistry instead of principles from petroleum chemistry," Chakrabarti says.

If Solugen does reach the icon stratosphere, Chakrabarti envisions it doing so on a speedy schedule. In the traditional petrochemical market, it can take 10 to 20 years to put a new product on the market, he says. "I don't have that kind of time. I'm a very impatient person," Chakrabarti says.

Gaurab Chakrabarti Gaurab Chakrabarti, CEO and co-founder of Solugen, isn't paying any mind to his company's predicted unicorn status — rather he's focusing on the difference he can make on reducing carbon emissions. Photo via solugentech.com

Spurred by that restlessness, Chakrabarti seeks to propel Solugen's products from concept to commercialization in the span of two years. He says the startup already has proven the ability to do that with its sugar-derived hydrogen peroxide product.

"We're going to continue to do that, and it would be great if we can continue demonstrating new [products] coming to market once a year," says Chakrabarti, who grew up in Sugar Land.

Solugen seems to have plenty of financial fuel to make that happen. In April, Solugen raised $30 million in venture capital as an add-on to its Series B funding, which initially closed May 2019. That brings its total VC haul to $68 million since it was founded in 2016, according to Forbes. The recent funding lifted the company's valuation to $250 million, putting it $750 million away from unicorn territory.

Chakrabarti doesn't dismiss the notion of an eventual IPO for Solugen but says being acquired isn't "terribly interesting to me."

"If you want to make money, you can always go be a banker," he notes.

Chakrabarti estimates Solugen will generate $30 million to $40 million in revenue this year, up from $12 million in 2019. Profit remains elusive, though, as the company pours its gains into R&D. The company graduated in 2017 from the Y Combinator startup accelerator. Aside from Y Combinator and Unicorn Venture Partners, investors include Founders Fund, Refactor Capital, Fifty Years, and KdT Ventures.

Solugen's current lineup features fewer than a half-dozen products, which are sold to industrial and government customers. Hundreds more products are in the pipeline for use in sectors like agriculture and energy, Chakrabarti says.

"It's one of the blessings and curses of this company — there's always something to work on, always something big to scale up," says Chakrabarti, who earned his M.D. and Ph.D. from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

Working on selling Solugen's current products and developing its new products are 70 employees, located at its headquarters in Houston and its new production facility in Lubbock. By the end of this year, the startup should employ close to 100 people, Chakrabarti says.

Chakrabarti hesitates to identify Solugen's competitors, as he believes a perceived rival very well could end up becoming a partner.

"I think everyone eventually should be a partner of Solugen, not competition," he says. "It's an ideology that's actually the competition, an ideology like, 'We've always used petrochemistry. This is just how it's been done.'"

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Rice rises to top of new ranking of Texas colleges and universities

hoot there it is

If Texas had one Ivy League school, it would have to be Rice University.

Time after time, the Houston school ranks as the best college or university in Texas and one of the best in the country. Personal finance website WalletHub just added to Rice's accolades with a No. 1 ranking in Texas and a No. 6 ranking nationally among colleges and universities.

In Texas, Rice appears at No. 1 for admission rate, graduation rate, gender and racial diversity, and post-school median salary. Not every ranking is that stellar, though. Rice ranks 50th for on-campus crime among 55 Texas schools and 52nd for net cost.

More students soon will be able to take advantage of Rice's top-tier education. In March, the school said it would enlarge its undergraduate enrollment by 20 percent — to 4,800 — by the fall of 2025, up from more than 4,200 in the fall of 2020.

In a news release, Robert Ladd, chairman of the Rice Board of Trustees, called expansion of the student body "a strategic imperative."

"Expanding the student body now will also expand Rice's future alumni base across the nation and around the world," he added. "Welcoming more students to the Rice campus today will have an impact on the university for generations to come."

Elsewhere on the WalletHub list, the University of Houston lands at No. 10 within Texas and No. 238 in the country.

To determine the top-performing schools, WalletHub compared more than 1,000 institutions in the U.S. across 30 key measures, including student-to-faculty ratio, graduation rate, and post-school median salary.

Here are the top 15 colleges and universities in Texas, according to WalletHub, along with their national rankings:

  1. Rice University, No. 6 nationally.
  2. University of Texas at Austin, No. 45 nationally.
  3. Trinity University in San Antonio, No. 61 nationally.
  4. Texas A&M University in College Station, No. 127 nationally.
  5. Southwestern University in Georgetown, No. 144 nationally.
  6. University of Dallas, No. 152 nationally.
  7. Southern Methodist University in University Park, No. 178 nationally.
  8. Austin College in Sherman, No. 192 nationally.
  9. LeTourneau University in Longview, No. 231 nationally.
  10. University of Houston, No. 238 nationally.
  11. University of Texas at Dallas, No. 252 nationally.
  12. Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, No. 253 nationally.
  13. Baylor University in Waco, No. 357 nationally.
  14. Texas Lutheran University in Seguin, No. 375 nationally.
  15. Southwest Adventist University in Keene, No. 407 nationally.
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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

With $150M in VC raise, this Houston company is re-envisioning the future of e-commerce operations

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 106

If you're operating a business that sells a product online, you have several options for software to support your efforts and needs as a merchant. However, as one group of Houston entrepreneurs realized, there wasn't a streamlined, one-stop-shop for e-commerce software. That is until Cart.com launched just over a year ago.

And it's been a busy year. The startup is led by CEO Omair Tariq, Chief Commercial Officer Remington Tonar, who previously served in a few leadership roles at The Cannon, and a several other co-founders and C-level execs. Following strategic growth and several acquisitions, the Houston e-commerce software provider now employs over 300 people and has raised around $150 million in venture capital. The suite of software services includes everything a company needs — from managing a storefront to collecting important data and metrics.

"Our platform is really geared toward ambitious companies that have their foot in the door, have sales, and have product-market fit, and now need to level up," says Tonar on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "E-commerce as an industry is highly fragmented — you have so many players, but they don't play well together. Through our end-to-end offering, we are bringing all these things together."

Described as a competitor to Amazon, Cart.com connects the dots for e-commerce companies, and, in fact, works alongside Amazon, too. While Cart.com clients can use the suite of software services to create their own shop, ship out of Cart.com's distribution centers, etc., they can also list their products on Amazon too.

"I like to view Amazon as co-op-etition. We can coexist with Amazon," Tonar says. "We're not antithetical to Amazon. We're not mutually exclusive. We can work with folks who are selling on Amazon to build their direct-to-consumer business, and we are doing that today."

And business are indeed looking for that help, Tonar says on the show. He describes the marketplace as a bit of a monopoly between Amazon, Walmart, and some other players that are essentially squeezing out small or even mid-market companies that can't compete with these larger companies. Walmart and Amazon have the scale necessary to control the end-to-end marketplace, and very few companies have that, Tonar explains.

"Now Cart.com has done the hard work and spent the money to go out and aggregate all of these capabilities. The difference is, we aren't hoarding them. We're offering them as services," he says.

Heading into the holidays, where potential new clients will be focusing on delivering on orders and sales, Cart.com is expecting a busy 2022 in terms of growth. In a lot of ways, the COVID-19 pandemic played a major role in the development of e-commerce and, by extension, Cart.com.

"The pandemic has played a role in overall accelerating the growth of ecommerce as a category and an industry. That growth was going to happen anyways, but it made it more ubiquitous faster," Tonar says. "It's just commerce now. This is just how people purchase and consume things."

Tonar discusses what else you can expect to see from Cart.com in terms of growth, more fundraising, and more. He also shares how he's observed the Houston innovation ecosystem grow over his years in the business. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


2 Houston startups announce new execs to their leadership

short stories

A pair of Houston tech startups have recently announced new appointments to their leadership staff. An e-commerce company has a new chief people officer and a blockchain company named a new president to lead commercialization.

Meet Cart.com's new C-suite hire

Sara Patterson is a human resources veteran. Photo courtesy of Cart.com

Houston-based Cart.com, an end-to-end ecommerce services provider, appointed Sara Patterson as chief people officer. She will lead all aspects of the company's talent acquisition and employee experience of the fast-growing startup.

As the company grows its team and its ecommerce-as-a-service platform, it's Patterson job to forge a strong, unified culture and develop a compelling talent acquisition strategy to support continuing growth, according to a press release from Cart.com.

"Sara is one of the most accomplished and experienced HR leaders in the business. She has a real gift for talent management, and unrivaled expertise driving success for fast-growing companies across a wide range of industries," says Omair Tariq, CEO of Cart.com, in the release. "Her experience and dedication are exactly what we need as we forge a unified workforce to support our end-to-end ecommerce platform. After all, we aren't just growing our workforce at record speed. We're also building a unified culture and delivering incredible employee experiences to ensure that our entire team — from office workers to warehouse pickers — can stay laser-focused on our core goal of helping ecommerce brands to thrive."

She has three decades of experience in human resources, including serving as CPO of Lemonade, which included managing over 500 employees. She also worked as vice president of HR and head of talent management at Walmart eCommerce, which had more than 15,000 employees. She has also held senior leadership positions at Bonobos, Tribune Media, Conde Nast, Coach, and Gilt.

"People are the key to success for any growing company, and I'm thrilled to be joining one of the fastest-growing and most transformative companies in the ecommerce space," Patterson says in the release. "Cart.com's leaders have made it clear that they see a strong culture as the key to lasting success, and I couldn't agree more. I'm delighted to be joining such a talented team, and supporting their continuing mission to unlock scalable growth for ecommerce brands."

Here's who will lead commercialization for Topl

Tim Marx has transitioned from adviser to employee at Topl. Photo courtesy of Topl

Tim Marx has joined Topl as president, the company recently announced. Marx will lead Topl's commercialization efforts and scaling. He previously supported the blockchain company as adviser.

A Fulbright Scholar, Stanford MBA, and former Boston Consulting Group partner and managing director, Marx has consulted on the ground in more than 20 countries, including those of Latin America, Europe, and Asia. He will continue to support Baird Capital as a venture partner, which he has since 2018.

"My overall thesis for getting involved in Topl is that I finally saw a really solid business use case versus a classic solution looking for a problem to solve," Marx says.

To learn more about him, read his recent Topl team member blog.