Kahuna CEO Jai Shah shares how he plans on deploying the $21 million his Houston company just raised. Photo courtesy of Kahuna

With a recent $21 million series B funding round set to fuel more growth and expand an impressive client roster, Kahuna Workforce Solutions is riding a big wave into 2024.

CEO Jai Shah tells InnovationMap that the Houston skills management software service company’s Hawaiian name captures their style.

“Kahuna is that kind of expert, competent leader in a tribe or family,” Jai says. “That’s all because we had this concept of really wanting to be providing a very..family-oriented consulting approach. Treat our customers like family, and with respect, love and really just try and deliver on that promise.”

For Shah, Kahuna represents a natural progression, and grew out of his first startup, Hula Partners, a Houston consulting company acquired by GP Strategies Corp. in 2017.

Shah says his initial work in human resource technology transformation for energy giants like Marathon Oil exposed the poor functionality of HR software, especially for employees. The very technology that has revolutionized the workplace has often not met the needs of many American workers, even as they face more demands on their time.

“We saw a need in the marketplace, relative to the consulting, where technology really wasn’t filling the gap,” says Shah, who now lives in San Diego.

Kahuna’s skills management software service bridges that gap, enabling employees train and grow within their field, and employers to track and monitor their progress in key competencies.

Whether it’s a nurse assessing a patient, or a worker turning a wrench properly on an oil rig, employers observe those skills and record them in Kahuna’s software.

“What Kahuna does, is give the organization a lot more confidence in their ability to have these workers do their jobs,” Shah says.

Those frontline workers drive the company’s ethos. “That workforce is super key to the economy, and it’s really been undeserved by technology for many years. That’s why we exist,” says Shah.

Kahuna caught the attention of Baltimore, Maryland-based Resolve Growth Partners, which chose Kahuna as the first investment in their second funding group with the series B. Kahuna’s series A funding came from venture capital group Houston Ventures.

Chip Davis, of Houston Ventures, who remains a key figure in Kahuna, says he experienced his “Eureka moment” when he saw how Kahuna could solve a problem that he witnessed firsthand in another company. He had another investment client in the oil industry, that had tons of data, but didn’t know what to do with it. He saw that Kahuna provides a way.

“The type of data that Kahuna developed, is not easy to develop,” Davis says. “It knows not that just that you went to college; it knows how well you did, and it knows how well you’re doing now, and it knows why you’re doing well now."

Shah says Kahuna’s ability to leverage that granular data sets the company apart from other HR applications. And that technology may even extend to the future workforce.

Memorial Hermann, a new customer, is in discussions with Kahuna to implement its software early in the journey for nursing candidates, in secondary education curriculum.

Students as young as seventh grade who aspire to a nursing career, could use Kahuna software to find out what skills they’ll need, and keep

Shah says the funds from Resolve, divided in two tranches, will help grow his staff of 50 employees by 30 percent. He also says he plans three or four major initiatives in product development, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning and developing new software modules.

The company will remain headquartered at its Houston office on upper Kirby, but plans are underway to expand operations in about a year into Northern Europe, where many energy clients do business.

Kahuna will maintain growth with a laser focus on frontline workers, Shah says, and solidify its position as a category leader in the energy, manufacturing, and health care verticals.

“A lot of these companies are being challenged in more technically tough environments,” he says. “We’re drilling for oil in deeper and deeper ocean centers. Nurses are asked to do more these days than they were five years ago, or 10 years ago.”

Kahuna’s move upmarket may bring challenges common to companies making that same progression, with a more sophisticated buying process and the scrutiny that comes with it.

“An upmarket customer wants to know how you can support them. They’re going to examine you, in a way you’re not used to being examined,” Davis says.

Houston-based LiquidFrameworks has been acquired by San Francisco-based Luminate Capital. Pexels

Houston startup exits to Bay Area private equity firm

Grand exit

A Houston startup has entered a deal with a San Francisco-based private equity firm, the companies announced on January 10. LiquidFrameworks, which provides cloud-based, mobile field operations management solutions to oil and gas, environmental, and industrial service companies, is now operating under Luminate Capital following the acquisition.

While not all the terms of the deal have been disclosed, Chip Davis, managing partner at Houston Ventures, says the transaction exceeded $50 million of PE investment from Luminate Capital. HV has been involved with LiquidFrameworks since 2012 and has invested a cumulative $6 million, Davis says, and brought in the company's current CEO and head of sales — both of who are still a part of the company's team.

"When we got involved, it was a very small company," says Davis. "As of today, it has enterprise customers of some of the largest oilfield services companies in the world."

According to the release, Hollie Haynes, Mark Pierce, and Sanjay Palakshappa from Luminate have joined the LiquidFrameworks board of directors. The PE fund's investment is a part of the recently closed $425 million Fund II.

"For over a decade, we have served field services companies by reducing revenue leakage, shortening cash collection cycles, and increasing overall operational efficiencies. We have streamlined the day-to-day operations for field services professionals and increased transparency across organizations by transforming previously paper- or excel-based workflows," says Travis Parigi, founder and COO of LiquidFrameworks, in the release.

"With a partner like Luminate Capital, we will continue to invest and develop product capabilities to better serve field services industries that have previously been overlooked by software innovation."

One of LiquidFrameworks' tools is FieldFX, which enhances companies' data accuracy and accelerates revenue capture and cash flow.

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.