From a Houston startup exit to the growth of a Rice University startup, here's the short stories of Houston innovation news you may have missed. Pexels

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and it's likely some might have fallen through the cracks.

For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, Texas Halo Fund makes three new investments, a Houston energy company exits, a growing Rice University startup gets grants, and more.

Octopus Energy acquires Houston-founded Evolve Energy

The $5 million deal means a new focus on Texas for the new parent company. Photo via evolvemyenergy.com

London-based renewable energy company Octopus Energy announced that it's acquired Houston-founded Evolve Energy in a $5 million deal, which represents Octopus's $100 million expansion into the United States market.

Octopus, which reached Unicorn status with a $1 billion valuation in April, will start its expansion in Texas, according to a news release, operating under the new name Octopus Energy US. Evolve Energy, which was founded in 2018 by Michael Lee, is a Texas-based Capital Factory portfolio company and finished first place in the 2019 EarthX startup competition. The company also has a Silicon Valley office, in addition to its local operation in Houston's Galleria area.

"Octopus Energy is inspirational in growing a customer base of over 1 million households in just four years. It has done so while also achieving customer satisfaction scores similar to Netflix and Amazon. It matches our aspiration for innovation and we're thrilled to be part of the Octopus family," says Lee in the release. "The US energy market is rapidly moving towards ultra-low cost renewable energy and is prime for a true digital transformation."

Texas Halo Fund makes three new investments

Texas Money

Here are the three latest investments from Texas Halo Fund. Getty Images

Houston-based Texas Halo Fund has made three recent investments in August and September.

  • Nexus AI, based in Chicago, the workforce management tech company uses artificial intelligence and organizational behavioral science to predict the best teams or individuals for a project on the startup's cloud-based platform.
  • Rellevate is a Connecticut-based digital fintech company that optimizes employer-based digital account and financial services.
  • MFB Fertility, a Colorado company, has created game-changing at-home test stripts for assaying the hormone progesterone branded as Proov.

Rice University program seeking data projects

The Rice D2K Lab wants to help startups and small businesses solve business concerns with data science. Photo courtesy of Rice

Adata-focused lab at Rice University is seeking data challenges for its group of next generation of data scientists to solve. The Rice D2K Lab is looking for sponsors for its Rice D2K Capstone project in Spring 2021. Rice's D2K Capstone program forms interdisciplinary teams of advanced undergraduate and graduate students to solve pressing real-world data science challenges. The program is accepting project proposals for the Spring 2021 semester through Monday, October 19.

Click here to learn more about the program, and click here to get involved.

California startup joins Chevron's Catalyst Program

CTV has a new startup in its Catalyst Program. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures announced that Oakland, California-based Brimstone Energy Inc. has joined CTV's Catalyst Program to continue its development of its decarbonization platform, which focuses on the generation of low-emissions hydrogen, as well as various commodity products, according to a release.

"Brimstone Energy is excited to be supported by Chevron, a multi-national industrial company," says Cody Finke, Ph.D., co-founder and CEO of Brimstone Energy, in the release. "It is good to see Chevron continue to back companies with decarbonization in their mission."

Rice University-born startup racks up $12.5 million in grants

OpenStax is growing its access to free online textbooks. Image via openstax.org

Rice University's OpenStax is able to greatly expand its library of free online textbooks thanks to new grants totaling $12.5 million. The funds derive from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation and the Stand Together community, according to a press release from Rice.

The new funds will more than double OpenStax's files from 42 books to 90. Already, the platform has saved 14 million students around the world more than $1 billion.

"Nine years ago, we dreamed about solving the textbook affordability and access crisis for students," says Richard Baraniuk, the Victor E. Cameron Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice and founder and director of OpenStax, in the release. "Now, with this tremendous investment in open education, we will be able to not only accelerate educational access for tens of millions of students but also drive innovation in high-quality digital learning, which has become commonplace due to COVID-19."

OpenStax is planning to raise $30 million for continued library expansion as it aims to lower the barrier to higher education.

Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, discusses Chevron's deal with The Ion and its commitment to Houston. Courtesy of CTV

Chevron exec shares why the company is invested in the Houston innovation community

Q&A

Chevron's innovation arm continues to be a leader among Houston's innovation ecosystem, and recently the energy company announced it is the first to lease space at a rising innovation hub.

Last week, Chevron was announced to be the first tenant at The Ion, and that includes opportunities for Chevron Technology Ventures as well as the whole company. Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, discussed with InnovationMap why this is a great opportunity for the company and what else she's excited about in terms of Houston innovation.

InnovationMap: Chevron has been announced as the first tenant in The Ion. Why are you and CTV excited about this new innovation hub?

Barbara Burger: Chevron is excited because the innovation of The Ion is really a great example of the burgeoning innovation ecosystem in Houston. The Ion actually is almost a model of the ecosystem. It is a physical space, it is a set of programs, and it is a community and Chevron wants to be a part of all of that. We're excited about being able to be the first tenant and encourage others to join in with us because the community will work when it is full, diverse, and active. If we can lead the charge or play a role in leading the charge, we will.

I also want to say we are excited because this isn't just for CTV. We also want to encourage Chevron Houston employees — some 8,000 of them — to be a part of this innovation ecosystem. And The Ion is one place where they can venture out and see what's happening — outside of our office buildings in town and outside of their daily responsibilities — and get a taste and a feel and let it go from there.

IM: What opportunity does the new space provide for you and your team?

BB: We need innovation from everyone. Our industry and our company, like any other industry or company is undergoing dramatic change. And the more you know about where the world is going and the more you can partner with all kinds of different players, the more solutions you have to navigate successfully in that transformation.

We're known as a company that partners. Partnership, I think, is going to be critical in the world going forward and we value the ability to partner with firms and people that are both like us and not like us. I view The Ion is one example where you're bringing together lots of different kinds of people, because if you only just bring the same kinds of people together, you're missing the element of diversity. So, this allows our employees to experience that on one more level.

IM: CTV has been an integral part of Houston innovation for 21 years now. What do you see you and CTV’s role in the ecosystem?

BB: I've told this story many times, but when I moved here and took the job as the head of CTV, I did some homework and found out that we had more portfolio companies from Stavanger, Norway, than from Houston, Texas. And, that was a data point that, to be honest, baffled me a little. And the more we've looked at that we've said we will invest around the globe. We will collaborate with all kinds of players, but how come there's no hometown advantage? And so that sort of thirst and quest for that coincided with the GHP and the mayor's initial work on innovation. It was like right place, right time. And then we saw a role as a longstanding player in corporate venture and that investing in the ecosystems will bear fruit for us and for the work we do.

We prioritized helping to grow this ecosystem — investing in it for the future. It is our home court. We had a lot of the relationships and we continued to build them. And we also knew, because of our longstanding experience in tech ventures and our large presence in Houston, that when Chevron did something people would notice, and they would want to get on board. And it's not a competitive thing. It's really a leadership thing because it will take a lot of us to make that happen.

IM: You also serve as board chair for Houston Exponential. Why are you passionate about serving on the board?

BB: Every single board member wears a hat associated with their role in the ecosystem. And everybody wears a hat that says Houston on it. Without their sort of self-interest hat, they would have no interest in being on this board. But without the Houston hat, they don't work together towards the goal.

IM: You recently spoke at the HTX TechList launch. What difference is the new platform going to make for corporate venture?

BB: Corporate venture is a diverse group. There are some of us who have been around for a really long time and new companies, just starting out. And it is all in our best interest to help each other be good corporate ventures. I think the tech list is one of the tools by which you do that so that you know who's out there — it's like the global address list except for external.

IM: How does Chevron’s Catalyst Program work with CTV’s investment arm?

BB: We think holistically about how to access external innovation and really do the integration play with Chevron. We have to look really broadly at a complete set of tools.

The catalyst program is early stage — some people call it seed stage. It's a milestone-based grant program. It is an early look and an early relationship with a company that has something that we're interested in and is aligned with some of the problem sets we're looking for. We want to take an early look and we want to support them there. There is a financial support in the form of a grant — so that's good for the startup. It's a chance for them to demonstrate their abilities — not just technical, they're a company, so also their ability to execute and get things done. It's a chance for us to see, "does this really align with the problem sets we want to do?" And then, their last milestone is a series A term sheet. So, we have plenty of chances to invest in them afterwards. We didn't have a tool in that space. And I think, you know, pre-series A or pre-institutional investment is an important area of support that's required for innovation.

IM: Chevron is also a launch partner for Greentown Labs. What are you excited about for that partnership?

BB: We've supported Greentown in Boston since the early days, and what we liked about Greentown as an incubator was that they're trying to solve tough problems. A lot of their innovation involves either hard tech or process tech. They provide physical space, a set of programs, and community — similar to the three prongs I talked about with The Ion. And, importantly, they provide a specialized facility that early companies can never afford to have on their own — lab space, machine shop type of things, etc.

As a city, we do want to be — and we can be — the leader in the energy transition. So, we need to have the pieces of the puzzle so that we can play a leading role in that. And we saw Greentown as one of the ingredients in that overall recipe.

IM: What is it that Houston needs to do to be a leader in the energy transition?

BB: We're doing a lot of things right — almost in spite of the world being crazy. I think commitment to that vision is important, including collaboration across the different parts of the city — at the city level, at the corporate level, at the investor level, at the universities. I think just like everybody in Houston is connected to the industry — even if you're not in the energy industry, you know a lot about it just by living in Houston. So, I think being able to rally around that as a city is going to be important.

Again, I think constancy of purpose is important. Despite the headwinds from COVID and despite the headwinds that industries are facing, we need to stay committed to that. That's what I think we need to do. All these pieces are like pieces of a puzzle. But innovation is not a straight path. We've got to plant a bunch of these seeds and see how they grow — we need to water them every day, and then I think we'll have a beautiful garden.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Chevron has brought on two startups as a part of its Catalyst Program that helps accelerate and mature energy tech companies. Photo via Getty Images

Chevron's Houston-based venture group taps two companies for its startup-focused program

energy tech

Chevron's corporate venture arm that invests into energy tech innovation and supports startups within the industry has tapped two companies for its Chevron Technology Ventures Catalyst Program.

Entech Solutions and mIQroTech have both recently been named new partners in the program, which allows the startups support and guidance during growth and acceleration from Chevron and its network.

Norway-based Entech Solutions AS has developed itsSuperstage Pinpoint Stimulation to address high intensity stimulation in increasingly long horizontal wells, according to a press release. The product aims to improve production performance and lower costs.

"Collaboration with Chevron will allow us to demonstrate Superstage efficiencies in a variety of basins worldwide," says Anthony Kent, co-inventor of Superstage and Entech's General Manager for North America, in the release.

"Working with a leading global operator gives us access to expertise needed to standardize this robust and versatile hardware technology," he continues.

Meanwhile, Tampa, Florida-based mIQroTech is addressing pipeline leak concerns within the energy industry by using artificial intelligence and internet of things. The startup joined the Catalyst Program in July.

"Our goal is to deliver a transformative change to the global oil and gas industry," says founder and chief executive officer, Meade Lewis, in a press release.

"Better data, analytics, and intelligence will add efficiencies to pipeline operations and empower more informed and faster decision-making. We appreciate that Chevron recognizes our potential to deliver solutions to enable safer delivery of oil and gas," Lewis continues.

The company, which has received investments from Plug and Play, Ocean Capital, Republic, and Harvard Business School Alumni Angels, and more, will focus on growing its team and customer base.

Chevron also recently contributed to Houston-based ThoughtTrace's $10 million series B round in May and signed on as a partner for the Houston expansion of cleantech accelerator Greentown Labs.

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Houston startup rolls out B2B program for onboarding new hires

job training

After seeing success with her internship training and matchmaking platform, Allie Danziger, founder and CEO of Ampersand Professionals, has expanded the concept to include a new hire training service that allows employers to better optimize the onboarding process and have a well-trained new staff member from day one.

In just over a year, Ampersand has worked with over 7,000 professionals through its original concept of upskilling and matching young professionals to internship programs. A few months ago, Danziger and her team expanded to include career development training for students first entering the workforce with the City of Houston's Hire Houston Youth program. Danziger says it was developing out the platform for this program that proved there was a need for this type of training.

"While we have focused on matching professionals with businesses for paid internships, we recognized a further gap with employers that have their own recruiting/talent acquisition teams, or just their own preferred way of bringing on entry-level talent, and didn’t have a need for our matching platform," Danziger tells InnovationMap. "But, they recognized the benefit of our proven training platform that pre-vets and de-risks their hires, and still wanted access to the training for their own hires."

The new program has evolved from training interns to new hires, so parts of the program that focuses on interviewing or applying for a job have been removed. Instead, the 8.5 hours of training focuses on networking, best practices for working with a manager and team, performance reviews, common software training, and more.

Danziger says usually new hires need the most experienced mentor or manager, but they don't usually get that support — especially when it comes to businesses that don't have their own built-out mentorship or training program.

"Ampersand’s new training product fills that gap — it gives employers of any size any easy solution to provide basic job readiness training to employees, access to our team of dedicated coaches, and a detailed report at the end of their training summarizing how their new hire did in the training and any trends recognized and tips for managing this employee based on what the platform uncovered," she says. "Businesses can also sign up for additional coaching sessions and customize training materials, as an add-on if interested."

The program costs the employer $100 per new employee, and checkout online takes less than a minute. Through both this program and the original internship program, Ampersand is constantly evolving its training content.

"These professionals are going through the same training experience that we have proven out over the last year, and we are constantly adding to based on data we see in the user experience," Danziger says.

Danziger recently joined the Houston Innovators Podcast discuss some of the benchmarks she's met with Ampersand, as well as the importance of investing in Gen Z hires. Listen to that episode below.


Houston thought leaders look for extraterrestrial intelligence at Future Focus event

Out of This World

The latest Future Focus discussion held by alliantgroup was out of this world! The company teamed up with InnovationMap to host Dr. Seth Shostak from the SETI Institute at alliantgroup headquarters in the Galleria area. The conversation focused on how new technology is helping in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Dr. Robert Ambrose, alliantgroup strategic advisory board member, was the moderator for the night. He recently retired from NASA as the chief of software, robotics, and the simulation division, and clarified why it is crucial we have these conversations with Dr. Shostak about space and ask the question: Do aliens exist?

“We should be looking up. We should be thinking about what is coming and how we are going to be a part of it. It is an exciting time in space,” said Dr. Ambrose.

Dr. Shostak has been the senior astronomer and director at the SETI Institute in San Francisco for the past 20 years. He explained to the audience there is a difference between the search for aliens and the search for life in the universe.

“SETI stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, but it's not the same as the search for life, which it's often confused with,” explained Dr. Shostak. “You might find life on Mars, but it's not going to be very clever. But when you look for extraterrestrial intelligence, you are looking for the kind of aliens you might see on television or in the movies. Are they intelligent, can they communicate with us, and can they hold a conversation?”

Dr. Shostak believes we can infer aliens exist because of the number of planets and stars there are in the universe. But he also believes the search is heating up thanks to new technology and satellites currently being developed.

“Do I think we probably will find them in our lifetime? I honestly do," he said. "You could say that's just wishful thinking and perhaps it is, but it's more than that. It is the fact that the equipment is getting better very quickly."

He bets that by 2035 we will have found and communicated with extraterrestrial intelligence. Both Dr. Shostak and Dr. Ambrose agree, once we have found this life, our world will change for the better.

“We are going to learn all sorts of things about physics and the rules of the universe that we’ve never uncovered,” explained Dr. Ambrose. “Imagine everything we could have taught humans about the universe a couple hundred years ago. What if we can find someone who could teach us those lessons today? What an acceleration we would have.”

This was just the second Future Focus discussion alliantgroup has hosted, and CEO Dhaval Jadav said he hopes to continue to lead these innovative conversations around technology.

“We started this future focus series of roundtables to engage thought leaders and industry experts on topics related to the development of new technologies," Jadav said. "We are living in a most exciting and heady time, with the adoption of new technologies and platforms accelerating at an unprecedented rate.

"In order for us to stay abreast of all these exciting innovations — from web 3 to sportstech, blockchain, AI/quantum computing, the metaverse and our ever-expanding universe, including the search for extraterrestrial intelligence – we must continue to hold thought-provoking dialogues to further explore and chart our path to the future."

You can click here to learn more about alliantgroup’s previous event and what’s to come.

Courtesy photo

Houston hospital ranked best in state according to recent report

top health care

It’s a three-peat for Houston Methodist Hospital.

For the third in a row, Healthgrades has named Houston Methodist the best hospital in Texas and one of the 50 best hospitals in the country. It’s the only Texas hospital in the top 50. Houston Methodist, a 907-bed facility at the Texas Medical Center, earned the same recognition in 2020 and 2021.

Four other hospitals in the Houston area made Healthgrades’ list of the top 250 hospitals in the U.S.:

  • Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center
  • Houston Methodist Baytown Hospital
  • Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital
  • Memorial Hermann – Texas Medical Center

Four Houston hospitals also excelled in several of Healthgrades’ specialty categories:

  • Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center, No. 3 in the state for heart surgery.
  • Memorial Hermann – Texas Medical Center, No. 1 in the state for stroke care and No. 2 for coronary intervention.
  • Houston Methodist Hospital, No. 2 in the state for critical care and No. 2 for pulmonary care.
  • Texas Orthopedic Hospital, No. 1 in the state for joint replacement.

Healthgrades, an online platform for finding physicians, hospitals, and other health care providers, rates hospitals based on clinical outcomes such as rates for patient deaths and treatment complications. For this year’s list, Healthgrades evaluated clinical performance at nearly 4,500 hospitals.

“For almost 25 years, our mission has been to provide consumers with clear and accessible information to make more informed health care decisions,” Dr. Brad Bowman, chief medical officer and head of data science at Healthgrades, says in a news release.

The Healthgrades rankings “provide consumers with increased transparency regarding the care in their areas, and empowers them to make more confident care decisions for themselves and their families,” Bowman adds.

For Houston Methodist, kudos like those from Healthgrades are common. For instance, the hospital last year landed at No. 16 on U.S. News & World Report’s national honor roll for the best hospitals, up from No. 20 the previous year. It was the top-rated Texas hospital on the list.

“These national accolades are something to be proud of, but most important, our patients are benefiting from all of our hard work. Ultimately, they are the reason we need to be one of the best hospital systems in the country,” Dr. Marc Boom, president and CEO of Houston Methodist, said last year in a news release about the U.S. News award.

The Healthgrades honor is one of several pieces of good news for Houston Methodist this year.

The hospital recently unveiled plans for the 26-story Centennial Tower. Scheduled to open in 2027, the $1.4 billion tower will include a larger emergency department and hundreds of patient beds, among other features. The new tower will replace the Houston Main building and West Pavilion.

Shortly after that announcement, the Houston Methodist system said it had received an anonymous $50 million gift. It’s the second largest donation in the system’s 102-year history.

Joining Houston Methodist Hospital in Healthgrades’ national top 250 this year are:

  • Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – McKinney
  • Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Temple
  • Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in Edinburg
  • Hendrick Medical Center in Abilene
  • Medical City Arlington
  • Medical City McKinney
  • Methodist Hospital in San Antonio
  • St. David’s Medical Center in Austin
  • St. David’s South Austin Medical Center
  • William P. Clements Jr. University Hospital in Dallas