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

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.'"

The Welch Foundation, led by Adam Kuspa, funds basic research across the state of Texas — research that's important both in and out of pandemic. Photo courtesy of The Welch Foundation

Houston-based nonprofit leader believes COVID-19 will have long-term effects on important research

Q&A

It's Adam Kuspa's job to provide support to Texas researchers as they attempt to create innovative chemical and biochemical solutions for the betterment of mankind.

Formerly the dean of research at Baylor College of Medicine, Kuspa now serves as president of Houston-based Welch Foundation, which has, over the past several decades, provided nearly $800 million in research funding across the state.

Kuspa, through the organization, regularly sees revolutionary chemical discoveries being innovated in Texas across the 60 institutions he works with. It's usually an exciting job.

"I've spent my career, at least the last 15 years or so, helping other people do their research — before as being in research at Baylor College of Medicine," Kuspa tells InnovationMap. "I really enjoy enabling very, very smart people to do creative, innovative science. It's a lot of fun."

However, as the race to find a cure and vaccine to COVID-19 heats up, Kuspa — along with other researchers and scientists — is watching carefully to see how the disease and its to-be solutions will affect research and medical innovations as a whole.

"What people forget in the rush to get a drug out is that you could also make matters worse," he says. "Drugs don't automatically cure or are neutral. They can also do harm. So, you want to be careful not to make the situation worse."

Kuspa sat down with InnovationMap to discuss The Welch Foundation's mission, as well as some of his observations on potential cures for COVID-19 and what concerns he has.

InnovationMap: Tell me about the Welch Foundation and what role it plays in Texas?

Adam Kuspa: For over 65 years, the Welch Foundation has pursued its mandate based on Robert Welch's thought from the 1950s that chemistry was very important to the improvement of mankind. And so, our mandate is to fund foundational research in chemistry in the state of Texas, working through academic institutions throughout the state. We've done that consistently for the past 65 years through several programs.

IM: What type of research does the foundation fund usually?

AK: The research grant program gives grants to individual investigators, and we're doing about 300 to 400 continuously throughout the state of Texas. There's also block grants to departments to encourage students to become involved in chemical research. And we have other programs such as our endowed chair programs. We've given out about 40 endowed professorships, which support specific professors at individual institutions and their chemical research.

I should point out that chemistry research from our perspective is broadly defined and includes biochemistry of material sciences, et cetera. Currently our grant portfolio consists of 50 percent biomedical research grants, which is relevant to current current situation with COVID-19.

IM: How do you connect to Texas research institutions usually?

AK: We have fairly typical calls for applications for research grants or departmental grants and for our two award programs: the Welch Award in Chemistry, which is given out every year in Houston, and the Norman Hackerman Award, for junior faculty researchers in state of Texas.

A lot of the work is going out in the community to visit with the researchers and our academic institution partners. That, of course, has been curtailed, but typically we would visit any one of the 60 or so institutions that we support on a cycle of several years. So, that involves going to the chemistry departments, speaking with faculty, hearing how the research is going, and getting feedback on how our programs can be improved.

We also have an annual research conference, which unfortunately has been canceled this year, but typically draws 200 to 800 participants from around the state with speakers coming in around the world. This year, it was meant to be on neuroscience. Last October, the conference concerned genome editing. So, it's quite exciting, and the conferences, which are always held in Houston, are generally very well attended. They are a good way to start to interact with the scientific community in general.

IM: What has been the organization’s focus during the pandemic?

AK: We are obligated to fund foundational research in chemistry and allied fields, like biochemistry. So, we're not at liberty to fund development of therapies, for instance. However, I would say an interesting way to look at this is that we hear a lot about a search for a therapeutic for COVID-19 and, obviously, a search for vaccine — these begin with research.

Since it normally takes 15 to 18 years to bring a drug to market from first principles of how you're going to interrupt the human biology to effecting a cure, you're hearing a lot about testing existing drugs or their potential therapeutic effect on COVID-19. The reason we're able to do that is because we have a lot of drugs that are in the process of being developed and drugs that are already approved for human use. It's a lot more efficient to try to look at the potential utility of those already human-approved drugs and their potential effect on viral replication.

So, we sort of view our role as the Welch Foundation as funding that foundational research — either in drug development from a chemical perspective or in funding foundational work in how viruses attack the human body in the first place. And, although we give out grants for basic research, our investigators are pretty industrious. When there's a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of them turned their attention towards the problem at hand.

Another way that we've supported the general availability of potential therapeutics is that we've made a large grant to The Center for Drug Discovery at the Baylor College of Medicine directed by Martin Matzuck. And the reason we were interested in helping to get that center started is because they had an idea to make a drug discovery and development much more efficient and cost effective. That promotes a general capability of Houston and Texas in terms of being able to bring about potential therapeutics to wide range of diseases, but potentially for COVID-19 specifically.

IM: What’s the usual process of getting a drug from research stage to use?

AK: There are four phases of testing. Phase one is for safety, phase two is for dosing and potential efficacy, and phase three is for broad range of efficacy — large numbers of patients and trials that take hundreds of millions of dollars to perform. Approval by FDA occurs after phase three, but then there's actually a phase four study, which is following the drug for potential adverse effects once it is in common use by the public.

You may remember there's a drug called Vioxx — it's a very good pain reliever. But, in the phase four study, after millions of prescriptions were written already, it was found to cause rare heart problems and heart attacks. People were dying spontaneously, and it was hard to pin that specifically on Vioxx, but you can do it statistically from the phase four trial after the drug was introduced.

So, the reason you hear about hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19 is because you sort of get the short circuit and skip those phases and jump right to phase four studies where you know it's basically safe and you roughly know how to dose. But what you don't though is how that approved drug can be used for particular indications like COVID-19 and how safe it is.

You can't actually jump the normal 18-year process, and with existing drugs you're still only at year 15, where you're got another few years to figure out how to actually use them in the context of the COVID-19.

IM: Scientists and researchers are working on solutions, but what are the challenges they are facing?

AK: That's a great question. Given that we have so many research grants around the state, we get input literally on an hourly basis from our grantees on the status of their research because of the interruption. And the short story is that all research has been shut down in the state of Texas except for research directly related to coronavirus.

Large biomedical research centers, which have hundreds of millions of dollars a year in external research funding going to cure a broad range of disease have shut all of their labs down, except for the few labs that are working directly on COVID-19. That includes vaccine discovery and production.

A lot of work has been wasted because often biological experiments take weeks and months of progression, and if can't complete the final steps, you'll have to start over.

IM: Do you think this will have a long-term effect on research?

AK: I think so. Science, as it turns out, is a very creative, human-interactive activity. It's actually much more social than people realize. It's not the individual scientist working at the lab bench only. It's a lot of travel, seminars given by out-of-town speakers, scientific conferences, gatherings of hundreds of people.

The annual neuroscience conference attracts 40,000 people every year from all over the world — and that's not happening. As far as we can tell, all scientific conferences have been canceled for the rest of 2020. When I talked to my colleagues and professors around the country, every out of town seminar has been canceled. So, the exchange of information that's been so vital to stimulate creativity and collaboration between laboratories isn't happening, and there are new venues have to be found to do that online. But there is going to be a limitation. I think people are adapting, and we'll just have to see how it unfolds.

The published literature is one to one-and-a-half years behind what's actually happening in the laboratory. So, the way people learn about what's going on — the failed experiments, the things you're trying out, the exciting new ideas — is generally through face-to-face interactions. And that happens by scientists traveling between universities and at conferences in the hallways between the formal sessions. That aspect is absolutely vital to the progress of science.

IM: What is something you want people to know about the basic research that the Welch Foundation is funding?

We need consistency and support for basic research because, during a pandemic, we want to have a cure, but we don't think about the hundreds of thousands of scientists across the country who are struggling to get funding for the basic research when there's not a pandemic.

Additionally, this basic research is also the engine for industry — particularly the biotech industry in Houston, and folks have been really working hard to try to ensure that there's an ecosystem for new companies to be formed out of Houston. I think part of the reason why we might survive this current oil glut as opposed to the mid 1980s is that the Houston economy is diversified with — not just with the port and NASA — but with biomedical research and patient care. In Houston, health care is the largest employer — it's larger than oil and gas. That kind of diversification is good for the economy and good for the innovation environment that people in Houston have tried really to make happen for the last 10 years or so.

------

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

New Houston venture studio emerges to target early-stage hardtech, energy transition startups

funding the future

The way Doug Lee looks at it, there are two areas within the energy transition attracting capital. With his new venture studio, he hopes to target an often overlooked area that's critical for driving forward net-zero goals.

Lee describes investment activity taking place in the digital and software world — early stage technology that's looking to make the industry smarter. But, on the other end of the spectrum, investment activity can be found on massive infrastructure projects.

While both areas need funding, Lee has started his new venture studio, Flathead Forge, to target early-stage hardtech technologies.

“We are really getting at the early stage companies that are trying to develop technologies at the intersection of legacy industries that we believe can become more sustainable and the energy transition — where we are going. It’s not an ‘if’ or ‘or’ — we believe these things intersect,” he tells EnergyCapital.

Specifically, Lee's expertise is within the water and industrial gas space. For around 15 years, he's made investments in this area, which he describes as crucial to the energy transition.

“Almost every energy transition technology that you can point to has some critical dependency on water or gas,” he says. “We believe that if we don’t solve for those things, the other projects won’t survive.”

Lee, and his brother, Dave, are evolving their family office to adopt a venture studio model. They also sold off Azoto Energy, a Canadian oilfield nitrogen cryogenic services business, in December.

“We ourselves are going through a transition like our energy is going through a transition,” he says. “We are transitioning into a single family office into a venture studio. By doing so, we want to focus all of our access and resources into this focus.”

At this point, Flathead Forge has seven portfolio companies and around 15 corporations they are working with to identify their needs and potential opportunities. Lee says he's gearing up to secure a $100 million fund.

Flathead also has 40 advisers and mentors, which Lee calls sherpas — a nod to the Flathead Valley region in Montana, which inspired the firm's name.

“We’re going to help you carry up, we’re going to tie ourselves to the same rope as you, and if you fall off the mountain, we’re falling off with you,” Lee says of his hands-on approach, which he says sets Flathead apart from other studios.

Another thing that's differentiating Flathead Forge from its competition — it's dedication to giving back.

“We’ve set aside a quarter of our carried interest for scholarships and grants,” Lee says.

The funds will go to scholarships for future engineers interested in the energy transition, as well as grants for researchers studying high-potential technologies.

“We’re putting our own money where our mouth is,” Lee says of his thesis for Flathead Forge.

------

This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston-based lunar mission's rocky landing and what it means for America's return to the moon

houston, we have a problem

A private U.S. lunar lander tipped over at touchdown and ended up on its side near the moon’s south pole, hampering communications, company officials said Friday.

Intuitive Machines initially believed its six-footed lander, Odysseus, was upright after Thursday's touchdown. But CEO Steve Altemus said Friday the craft “caught a foot in the surface," falling onto its side and, quite possibly, leaning against a rock. He said it was coming in too fast and may have snapped a leg.

“So far, we have quite a bit of operational capability even though we’re tipped over," he told reporters.

But some antennas were pointed toward the surface, limiting flight controllers' ability to get data down, Altemus said. The antennas were stationed high on the 14-foot (4.3-meter) lander to facilitate communications at the hilly, cratered and shadowed south polar region.

Odysseus — the first U.S. lander in more than 50 years — is thought to be within a few miles (kilometers) of its intended landing site near the Malapert A crater, less than 200 miles (300 kilometers) from the south pole. NASA, the main customer, wanted to get as close as possible to the pole to scout out the area before astronauts show up later this decade.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will attempt to pinpoint the lander's location, as it flies overhead this weekend.

With Thursday’s touchdown, Intuitive Machines became the first private business to pull off a moon landing, a feat previously achieved by only five countries. Japan was the latest country to score a landing, but its lander also ended up on its side last month.

Odysseus' mission was sponsored in large part by NASA, whose experiments were on board. NASA paid $118 million for the delivery under a program meant to jump-start the lunar economy.

One of the NASA experiments was pressed into service when the lander's navigation system did not kick in. Intuitive Machines caught the problem in advance when it tried to use its lasers to improve the lander's orbit. Otherwise, flight controllers would not have discovered the failure until it was too late, just five minutes before touchdown.

“Serendipity is absolutely the right word,” mission director Tim Crain said.

It turns out that a switch was not flipped before flight, preventing the system's activation in space.

Launched last week from Florida, Odysseus took an extra lap around the moon Thursday to allow time for the last-minute switch to NASA's laser system, which saved the day, officials noted.

Another experiment, a cube with four cameras, was supposed to pop off 30 seconds before touchdown to capture pictures of Odysseus’ landing. But Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s EagleCam was deliberately powered off during the final descent because of the navigation switch and stayed attached to the lander.

Embry-Riddle's Troy Henderson said his team will try to release EagleCam in the coming days, so it can photograph the lander from roughly 26 feet (8 meters) away.

"Getting that final picture of the lander on the surface is still an incredibly important task for us,” Henderson told The Associated Press.

Intuitive Machines anticipates just another week of operations on the moon for the solar-powered lander — nine or 10 days at most — before lunar nightfall hits.

The company was the second business to aim for the moon under NASA's commercial lunar services program. Last month, Pittsburgh's Astrobotic Technology gave it a shot, but a fuel leak on the lander cut the mission short and the craft ended up crashing back to Earth.

Until Thursday, the U.S. had not landed on the moon since Apollo 17's Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closed out NASA's famed moon-landing program in December 1972. NASA's new effort to return astronauts to the moon is named Artemis after Apollo's mythological twin sister. The first Artemis crew landing is planned for 2026 at the earliest.

3 female Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

If the energy transition is going to be successful, the energy storage space needs to be equipped to support both the increased volume of energy needed and new energies. And Emma Konet and her software company, Tierra Climate, are targeting one part of the equation: the market.

"To me, it's very clear that we need to build a lot of energy storage in order to transition the grid," Konet says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The problems that I saw were really on the market side of things." Read more.

Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. Photo courtesy of Sage

A Houston geothermal startup has announced the close of its series A round of funding.

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. The proceeds aim to fund its first commercial geopressured geothermal system facility, which will be built in Texas in Q4 of 2024. According to the company, the facility will be the first of its kind.

“The first close of our Series A funding and our commercial facility are significant milestones in our mission to make geopressured geothermal system technologies a reality,” Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems, says. Read more.

Clemmie Martin, chief of staff at The Cannon

With seven locations across the Houston area, The Cannon's digital technology allows its members a streamlined connection. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

After collaborating over the years, The Cannon has acquired a Houston startup's digital platform technology to become a "physical-digital hybrid" community.

Village Insights, a Houston startup, worked with The Cannon to create and launch its digital community platform Cannon Connect. Now, The Cannon has officially acquired the business. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“The integration of a world-class onsite member experience and Cannon Connect’s superior virtual resource network creates a seamless, streamlined environment for member organizations,” Clemmie Martin, The Cannon’s newly appointed chief of staff, says in the release. “Cannon Connect and this acquisition have paved new pathways to access and success for all.” Read more.