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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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston startup grows C-suite, Deloitte opens awards apps, SDO names leader, and more innovation news

short stories

The Houston innovation ecosystem has been especially busy this year, and for this reason, local startup and tech news may have fallen through some of the cracks.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, local organizations announce new innovators, Deloitte opens apps for its annual tech awards, Houston Tech Rodeo prepares for its annual events, and more.

Early stage accelerator names new Houston leader

Kate Evinger will lead gBETA Houston. Photo via LinkedIn

A Houston early-stage startup accelerator has named its new director. Kate Evinger has joined gener8tor's gBETA Houston as director. She will run the third gBETA cohort in Houston, adding to the 10 alumni from the two cohorts held in 2020.

Evinger has replaced Anu Pansare, who was previously named director in February. Pansare, who replaced the accelerator's inaugural director Eléonore Cluzel, moved on to another opportunity, Evinger says.

Based in Houston's Downtown Launchpad, gBETA's third cohort of early stage startups will soon start its free 7-week program, which is designed to help participating companies gain early customer traction and develop key metrics that will make them more marketable for future investment.

Evinger has been a part of the gener8tor family since 2016 when she joined the team as associate for gBETA Madison. She was promoted to program manager in 2019 when she graduated from Indiana University with degrees in finance, entrepreneurship and corporate innovation, according to a news release.

"Downtown Launchpad's inclusive set of tools, resources and opportunities empower Houston founders to accelerate and scale their businesses to solve humankind's boldest challenges," says Robert Pieroni, director of economic development at Central Houston, in a news release. "Kate Evinger brings experience and valuable insights to the gBETA Houston program and will help us continue to support founders, Houston-based partners and the community."

Houston Tech Rodeo launches registration and names headliner

Master P will be the headlining guest for Houston Tech Rodeo. Photo courtesy of HTR

Houston Tech Rodeo, a week-long collaboration of events hosted by Houston Exponential, has opened registration and announced Percy Miller, also known as musical artist Master P, as the headliner.

Miller, who began his career as an international rap artist, later became a CEO, investor, and founder of Nemesis RR.

"I'll be sharing my journey, my secrets, my success, my feelings, and my rebuilding. Transitioning from international artist to CEO to investing in philanthropy, I want to educate you and give you that gain," says Miller in a news release. "I want to add diversity into technology and the automotive industry."

HTR kicks off May 16 at Saint Arnold Brewing Company with live music, beer, and swag bag pick ups with registration. The week concludes on May 23. Registration is free and available online.

Houston industrial blockchain company expands C-suite

Data Gumbo has a new C-level executive. Photo courtesy of Data Gumbo

Data Gumbo, a Houston-based industrial smart contract network powered by blockchain — announced that it has brought on Robin Macmillan as chief corporate development officer to lead the company's corporate development team.

"The sheer breadth of Macmillan's experience will serve as an invaluable asset to Data Gumbo as we continue to exponentially grow and mature our company into new industrial markets and further solidify our leadership in energy," says Andrew Bruce, CEO and founder of Data Gumbo, in a news release. "Macmillan has the experience to expand Data Gumbo's commercial market penetration to aid companies in undertaking digital transformation with smart contracts to reveal streamlined efficiencies and cost savings, sustainability insights across supply chains and transactional certainty in any commercial relationship."

Macmillan has over 40 years of experience in the energy industry, most recently at National Oilwell Varco and is the vice president of drilling services at the International Association of Drilling Contractors,

"There is tremendous opportunity right now to change how business is executed," says Macmillan in the release. "Data Gumbo is poised to deliver trust through automated, auditable blockchain-backed smart contracts that execute transactions in real-time. I am thrilled to be a part of the Data Gumbo executive team as the company is in a period of hyper growth into new industries, serving as a harbinger for significant digital transformation across commercial relationships and transparent, accurate sustainability impact data."

Deloitte opens annual tech awards nominations

Calling all fast-growing tech companies. Image via Deloitte

Deloitte's Technology Fast 500 awards — which celebrate the fastest growing, most innovative technology, media, telecommunications, life sciences and energy tech companies in the country — has opened applications for its 2021 program.

Applications opened online on April 9 and will remain open until June 29. Winners will be announced on November 15. The program ranks applicants based on percentage of fiscal year revenue growth and the list is compiled from applications. For more information, visit the Technology Fast 500 website.

"Each year, we are excited to see the variety of Houston's Fast 500 applicants, which represent the city's positive momentum in both diversifying its core competencies and highlighting the boom in technology innovations coming to market," says Amy Chronis, vice chair and Houston managing partner at Deloitte LLP. "We look forward to seeing what Houston's innovators will bring in 2021."

Energy incubator announces latest cohort

Fifteen energy startups are joining the Plug and Play family. Gif courtesy of Plug and Play

Plug and Play Tech Center has announced 154 startups into its 2021 summer program — 15 of which were named to the Houston-based Batch 8 Energy Program. During the course of the next three months, these companies will receive access to our corporate, venture capital, and mentor network.

The new energy cohort consists of the following companies:

Texas expert: Energy reliability and climate sustainability are not mutually exclusive

Guest Column

It's no secret that Texas has long been a leader in energy production, but it may surprise you to learn that Texas leads the nation in wind-powered generation, producing 28 percent of all US wind-powered electricity in 2019.

We're not just producing a lot of renewable energy, we're increasingly consuming it.

Contrary to the caricaturistic portrayal of Texans in mainstream culture, a recent study by the University of Houston revealed that 4 out of 5 Texans believe the climate crisis is real.

In an effort to reduce their carbon footprint, more and more households are making the decision to switch to 100 percent renewable energy. And this adoption isn't isolated to core urban areas. We're witnessing a diverse spread in smaller, more rural markets.

These reasons and more are why Bulb, one of Europe's fastest growing company that provides 100 percent renewable energy, chose Texas as its first home in the U.S. Less than a year after launching here, it's safe to say we made the right choice as we're experiencing even faster growth in Texas than we did in our early stages in the United Kingdom.

One of the many reasons Texans have rapidly adopted our simpler, cheaper and greener energy is because they no longer have to choose between being budget and climate conscious. Sadly, the progress the state has made could be knocked back following the recent winter storm.

After the nation witnessed Texas' massive outages during the winter storm, our state leaders understandably feel the pressure to "do something," quickly.

We share our leaders' determination in avoiding another crisis of this magnitude, but we fear that Texas may be heading in the wrong direction. In the mad rush to avoid another catastrophe, some regulators and politicians wrongly and disproportionately blamed renewable energy sources for the outages.

Numerous media outlets and energy experts have overwhelmingly refuted these claims. An AP fact check described the efforts to blame renewable energy sources as "false narratives." And, they're not alone in their conclusion.

According to Reuters' fact check, "These claims are misleading, as they shift blame for the crisis away from what appears, so far, to be the root cause...The state's woes mainly stem from issues surrounding its independent power grid. The cold weather affected all fuel types, not just renewables."

Determining what went wrong isn't a blame game. A proper diagnosis is essential to any problem solving. And a failure to conduct a thorough analysis could have serious consequences. Currently, a number of legislative solutions are floating around the state Capitol that would shift the blame and consequences to renewable energy.

These proposals would increase the financial burden on Texas consumers, many of whom are still recovering from the storm, and hamper new investments in renewable energy. Additionally, and perhaps even more concerning, they don't adequately address the root cause of the winter storm energy crisis, further exposing Texans to another meltdown.

Texas' leadership on renewable energy production is no small feat, and it didn't happen by chance. For two decades, our lawmakers have made strategic decisions that led to the advancement of renewable energy production, and it has paid dividends in terms of jobs, economic growth, energy reliability, sustainability and even the state's reputation.

We are at a critical juncture, but Texas doesn't have to choose between reliability, affordability and sustainability. We can offer reliable energy and green energy, stop another crisis before it happens again and move forward with renewable energy investments.

Continuing to promote policies that pushed Texas to its leadership position will unleash even more investments and innovation, which is good for Texas, good for Texans and good for the planet.

As we observe Earth Day, we would urge our leaders to consider the possibilities. Rather than turn the clock back, let's use this storm as an opportunity to innovate further.

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Vinnie Campo is the general manager for Bulb U.S., a new type of energy company that aims to make energy simpler, cheaper, and greener by providing renewable electricity to its members from Texas wind and solar. He is based in Texas.

Houston-based software startup aims to connect workers with wages in real time

there's an app for that

Could you incur an unexpected $400 expense if it hit your bank account today? According to Jeff Price, founder and CEO of Houston-based Pronto Pay, many hourly workers could not. He's set out to change that.

"When you think about it, payroll hasn't changed in nearly two centuries. As far as we can remember, you get paid weekly or bi-weekly. And that's precisely the point we're trying to solve," Price says.

A recent graduate from Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business, Price founded Pronto Pay in the first quarter of 2021. The software aims to connect hourly works with transparent access to wages earned before pay day without disrupting the employers' books. Currently the company has seven staff members, is actively hiring and is looking to expand outside of Houston soon.

Pronto Pay partners with the employers to seamlessly build out connections with their time and attendance system and payroll processor. After the company signs up, ProntoPay automatically creates an account for each employee, which allows them to view their accrued wages and withdraw their earnings instantly from the app or next-day for automated clearing house payments — all via the Pronto Pay App. When an employee wishes to withdraw funds prior to their normal pay cycle, Pronto Pay applies a small fixed fee — $2.99 — for completing the transaction. .

Come pay day, the employer's system will automatically balance the difference and route the withdrawn money back to Pronto Pay. As Price describes it, Pronto Pay aims to compete "directly with (while severely undercutting the price of) payday and other predatory lenders."

The idea was born out of a series of simple questions Price started to ask himself when he envisioned what his newborn son's first job would be earlier this year.

"My wife and I were having our son and it challenged me to ask questions like, 'Hey, why do we get paid bi-weekly? If I can Venmo 100 bucks in real time, why can't a company do that?'" Price recalls.

Apart from the impact of advanced pay, Price envisions that earned wages access will improve workplace culture and retention, too. Pronto Pay has already on-boarded users in the local staffing and warehousing markets, in the janitorial and security guard fields, and at call centers. As Price describes, Pronto Pay's clients "typically have a lot of hourly employees that struggle with employee retention and keeping folks at the same job for longer than three to 12 months."

"We're hoping that we can permanently change that employee-employer relationship," he adds. "And help those employees."

Jeff Price is the founder and CEO of Pronto Pay.