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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Early-stage accelerator returns to Houston, announces finalists

prepare for take-off

CodeLaunch, a traveling seed-stage accelerator, is returning to Houston for its latest cohort.

The startup competition sponsored by software development company Improving will have its ultimate showdown on February 28. The final competition pairs six startups with six startup consulting companies.

Jason W. Taylor, CodeLaunch president and founder, says CodeLaunch isn’t your typical startup showcase, as it incorporates music acts, comedy, and crowd networking. Mirroring the set-up of a TV show, the six finalists all present their working products in front of an audience amid these performances.

“I would describe CodeLaunch as the next generation of venture-tainment in North America and the greatest startup show on earth,” Taylor explains.

The 2024 Houston CodeLaunch participant startups — and their mentor partners — are as follows:

Prior to pitch day, all six teams will receive hands-on instruction from CodeLaunch mentors on how to construct their pitches and free professional software development from their partners. Taylor says the strong relationships between CodeLaunch and these developers played a major role in setting the competition in Houston.

“We love Houston and we’re back for a third year in a row because the Houston startup ecosystem works together better than other major startup ecosystems I’ve seen,” Taylor says. “We have some great software development partners in Houston that are building code for those startups.”

Last year, Houston-based startup Energy360, with the mentorship and help of Honeycomb Software, took home the Championship belt and a $100,000 investment offer from Cyrannus VC fund for their energy management system Matt Bonasera, Energy360’s enterprise architect, says he is grateful for the entrepreneurial community CodeLaunch provides, in particular the team’s mentor Oleg Lysiak, Honeycomb VP of Partnerships and Business Development.

“I happened along this great community of people who are really passionate about supporting each other,” Bonasera says.

Lysiak agrees that CodeLaunch is an ideal opportunity for young entrepreneurs looking to hone their skills and expand their product capabilities. Lysiak says he is looking forward to defending Honeycomb’s title as top consultant development team.

“My whole philosophy is to connect people and have different collisions and collaborations,” Lysiak says.

Houston startup completes testing, prepares biosimilar insulin drug for clinical trials

next steps

A Houston biotech startup is one step closer to releasing its marquee drug for the global insulin market, which is projected to break the $90 billion threshold by 2029.

rBIO says it recently completed testing of the properties of R-biolin, an insulin drug that’s biologically identical to Novo Nordisk’s Novolin drug. The patent for Novolin about two decades ago. In March 2023, the Dutch drugmaker announced it was slashing the list price of Novolin by 65 percent to $48.20 per vial and $91.09 per FlexPen.

Executives at rBIO are now pursuing a partnership with a contract research organization to manage clinical trials of R-biolin. If those trials go well, R-biolin will seek approval to supply its insulin therapy to diabetes patients around the world.

Washington University in St. Louis is rBIO’s academic partner for the R-biolin project.

The rBIO platform produces insulin at greater yields that traditional manufacturing techniques do. The company is striving to drive down the cost of insulin by 30 percent.

About 38 million Americans have diabetes, with the vast majority being treated for type 2 diabetes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many people with diabetes must take insulin to control their blood sugar levels.

Research company iHealthcareAnalyst predicts the global market for insulin will surpass the $90 billion mark in 2029.

“There has been a lot of talk in the media about reducing the cost of insulin for diabetic patients, but what is often overlooked is that the domestic demand for insulin will soon outpace the supply, leading to a new host of issues,” Cameron Owen, co-founder and CEO of rBIO, says in a news release.

“We’re dedicated to addressing the growing demand for accessible insulin therapies, and … we’re thrilled to announce the viability of our highly scalable manufacturing process.”

Professionals from the University of California San Diego and Johns Hopkins University established rBIO in 2020. The startup moved its headquarters from San Diego to Houston in 2022.

CEO Cameron Owen and Chief Scientific Officer Deenadayalan Bakthavatsalam work on insulin purification in the Houston lab. Photo courtesy

How AI is changing product management and what you need to know

guest column

For the past 14 months, everyone has been talking about ways artificial intelligence is changing the world, and product management is not an exception. The challenge, as with every new technology, is not only adopting it but understanding what old habits, workflows, and processes are affected by it.

Product managers — as well as startup founders leading a product function — more than any other role, face a challenge of bringing new life-changing products to market that may or may not be received well by their users. A product manager’s goal is complex — bring value, stay ahead of the competition, be innovative. Yet, the "behind the scenes" grind requires endless decision making and trade offs to inspire stakeholders to move forward and deliver.

As we dive into 2024, it is obvious that AI tools do not only transform the way we work but also help product managers create products that exceed customer expectation and drive businesses forward.

Market research and trends analysis

As product managers, we process enormous amounts of market data — from reviewing global and industry trend analysis, to social media posts, predictions, competition, and company goals. AI, however, can now replace hours, if not days, of analyzing massive amounts of data in an instant, revealing market trends, anticipating needs, and foreseeing what's coming next. As a result, it is easier to make effective product decisions and identify new market opportunities.

Competitive analysis

Constantly following competitors, reviewing their new releases, product updates, or monitoring reviews to identify competitor strengths and weaknesses is an overwhelming and time consuming task. With AI, you can quickly analyze competitors’ products, pricing, promotions, and feedback. You can easily compare multiple attributes, including metrics, and identify gaps and areas for improvement — all the insights that are otherwise much harder to reveal quickly and efficiently.

Customer and product discovery

Of course, the most intuitive use case that comes to mind is the adoption of AI in product and customer discovery. For example:

  • Use AI for customer segmentation and persona creation to help visualize personas, prioritize user motivations and expectations, and uncover hidden behavior and needs. You can then create and simplify customer questionnaires for interviews and user groups and target customers more accurately.
  • Analyze quantitative and qualitative data from surveys, support tickets, reviews, and in-person interviews to identify pain points and unmet user needs and help prioritize features for future updates and releases.

Roadmap and sprint management

AI provides value in simplifying roadmap planning and sprint management. Resource optimization is often a gruesome task and AI can help with feature prioritization and resource allocation. It helps teams focus on critical work and increase their productivity. You can even analyze and manage dependencies and improve results across multiple sprints months in advance.

Prototyping and mockup generation

There is no product manager’s routine without multiple mockups, wireframes, and prototypes that explain concepts and collect feedback among stakeholders. AI has become a critical tool in simplifying this process and bringing ideas to life from concept to visualization.

Today, you can use textual or voice descriptions to instantly create multiple visuals with slight variations, run A/B tests and gather valuable feedback at the earliest stage of a product life cycle.

Job search and job interviews

Consider it as a bonus but one of the less obvious but crucial advantages of AI is using it in job search. With the vulnerable and unstable job market, especially for product roles, AI is a valuable assistant. From getting the latest news and updates on a company you want to join, to summarizing insights on the executive team, or company goals, compiling lists of interview questions, and running mock interviews, AI has become a non-judgmental assistant in a distressing and often discouraging job search process.

Use AI to draft cold emails to recruiters and hiring managers, compare your skills to open positions’ requirements, identify gaps, and outline ideas for test assignments.

We already know that AI is not a hype; it is here to stay. However, remember that customers do not consume AI, they consume your product for its value. Customers care whether your product gets their need, solves their problem, and makes their lives easier. The goal of a product manager is to create magic combining human brain capabilities and latest technology. And the best result is with a human at the core of any product.

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Natasha Gorodetsky is the founder and CEO of Product Pursuits, a Houston company that helps early stage and venture-backed startups build products and create impact.