Here's your latest roundup of innovation news you may have missed. Photo via Getty Images

Houston startup news is in full swing this year, and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, Venus Aerospace makes an impressive appointment, a sportstech startup is headed to SXSW, and more.

Houston space startup names former NASA administrator to board

Jim Bridenstine, formerly NASA's administrator, has joined Venus Aerospace. Photo courtesy of Venus

A Houston-based company that's creating reusable hypersonic drones and spaceplanes has named its latest adviser. Jim Bridenstine, who served as the 13th administrator for NASA, is Venus Aerospace's latest addition to the team.

"I'm excited to be on the board of advisors for Venus Aerospace," Bridenstine says in a statement. "We have been plowing through the atmosphere at Mach 0.7 for over 70 years. This not only wastes time, but it also costs too much money and places greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. It's time to disrupt the transportation business and Venus Aerospace has the talent to do it."

"Now we're going above the atmosphere, at hypersonic speeds, to get from one side of the planet to the other in a much cleaner way," he continues.

Founded in California in 2020 and then relocated to the Houston Spaceport, Venus is scaling after raising a $20M series A last spring.

"Jim brings a very unique perspective and capabilities from aviator to congressman to administrator," says Andrew Duggleby, CTO and co-founder, in the release. "The thing that gets me most excited is his ability to jump in, understand the context, and know exactly where he can make an immediate difference."

Houston startup snags spot as SXSW Pitch alternate

This Houston tech company has been named an alternate for the 2023 SXSW pitch. Photo via SXSW

SXSW announced 40 finalists for the 15th annual SXSW Pitch competition taking place March 11 to 12.

"Since its inception, SXSW Pitch has been front row to some of the most ambitious startups from around the world, using creative ideas to change their industry’s future," says SXSW Pitch Event Producer Chris Valentine in a news release. "We are thrilled to play a role in helping shape these early-stage ventures and connect them with the resources they need to thrive. This year’s competition will be a representation of the incredible and innovative work being done around the world."

In addition to the finalists for each category, SXSW names a handful of alternates. This year, Houston-based AiKYNETIX was included in the Artificial Intelligence, Robotics & Voice category.

AiKYNETIX, which was founded in January 2021, uses real-time video analytics technology to provide a new option for runners on treadmills. App users — runners and their coaches — then can measure running form and running performance metrics to improve training.

Houston IT and software services company claims spot on 2023 cloud tech awards

Rajasekhar Gummadapu is the CEO of Techwave. Photo via Techwave

Houston-based Techwave has won a prestigious award. The company claimed the “Best Cloud Migration or Systems Integration Solution” award at the 2022-2023 International Cloud Awards.

The award, which recognizes and honors industry leaders, innovators, and organizational transformation in cloud computing, was announced earlier this month.

"It is an honor to receive the Best Cloud Migration award at the International Cloud Awards," says Raj Gummadapu, co-founder and CEO, in a news release. "This accolade is a reflection of our relentless pursuit of innovation and delivering exceptional solutions."

Techwave is a global IT and engineering services and solutions company revolutionizing digital transformations.

Houston startup secures latest level of compliance

Koda Health has cleared a new level of compliance. Image via kodahealthcare.com

Growing Houston company Koda Health has announced that it achieved SOC 2 Type II compliance, a distinction that indicates a certain standard of securing customer data.

"This compliance demonstrates our commitment to protecting our partners and their data through enterprise-level security protocol and standards," the company announced on LinkedIn.

Koda Health was audited by Prescient Assurance, a leader in security and compliance attestation for B2B, SAAS companies worldwide, according to the company.

This energy tech startup is using tech to change the game within the exploration and production industry. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based startup makes a splash with cloud technology for E&P in oil sector

big computing

A Houston area environmental and energy tech company offers a new pay-as-you-go SaaS application that uses chemistry, physics, artificial intelligence, and cloud technology to build simulation platforms for major exploration and production companies.

AquaNRG Consulting's new technology has already been used by major independent E&P companies, helping to increase energy production and optimization. With new products like aiRock™, it uses cloud-based technology to simulate the physical and chemical processes in natural and human-made porous media driven by data.

The company, founded in 2017 by Babak Shafei, a Ph.D. in Earth and Environmental Sciences, uses data chemistry-physics in a new scientific methodology that uses data-driven methods including machine learning to complement and enhance theoretical modeling on reactive transport modeling (RTM) principles.

"We have been working on the product while also thinking of new ways to provide services needed in the energy industry for a number of years," says Shafei.

Babak Shafei founded Houston-based AquaNRG. Photo courtesy of AquaNRG

AquaNRG has been awarded three prestigious Small Business Innovation Research grants totaling $1.4 million from the US Department of Energy and National Science Foundation.

Shafei says that his team of in the research lab continues to develop and improve the set of techniques that can optimize the oil and gas industry. The technology offers a number of solutions in the geology area, including geochemistry or petrophysical calculations, or even in the environmental area for biogeochemistry and remediation calculations.

"Our technology is oriented to big data and big computing," says Shafei. "The platform is armed machine learning and artificial intelligence that uses the chemistry-physics methodology while using a cloud-based application that is very popular and essential for the energy sector."

Shafei says that during the ongoing coronavirus crisis, the digitization of the energy industry has only increased, and helped AquaNRG grow their brand. They plan to use this upward push to their advantage, by expanding their business and thinking well into the future.

"Our team of researchers is focused on our product and our offerings," says Shafei. "There's a lot of exciting things on our mind, including different verticals in terms of new hiring and new facilities, we're looking forward to rolling forward with that."

Nicolaus Radford — CEO, CTO, and co-founder of Houston Mechatronics Inc. — joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his plans to take his cloud robotics company global. Photo courtesy of HMI

Houston robotics company founder plans to take his startup global

houston innovators podcast episode 45

What do space and the ocean have in common? Both have a lot left to explore — while also having environments that aren't so easy for human exploration. A former robotics expert at NASA, Nicolaus Radford founded his cloud robotics company six years ago to create a fleet of robots that can help better complete the tasks that offshore industries need.

Radford remembers his time at NASA and how the organization was looking for opportunities to incorporate more public-private partnerships. Through some meetings and tours, Radford began to see that there was an emerging interest in underwater robotics.

"It became evident that not only was there a huge desire and requirement for what people wanted to do under water, but Houston was likely an epicenter for it," Radford says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

With this in mind — and an entrepreneurial itch — Radford started Houston Mechatronics Inc. in 2014. He's grown the company through a few venture capital raises and across the energy biz and into new industries. Now, he's looking to take the company global with plans for opening new offices in the United Kingdom and in the Asia Pacific region.

"We're absolutely going to be a global company," Radford says, explaining that new clients in these areas are what's calling for the new offices. "The next 12 months of this company are going to be extremely vibrant and dynamic."

Radford also discusses how the pandemic has affected his business and his challenges raising a round in the episode of the podcast. You can listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes

Jay Bhatty looked at how pipeline data reached traders and thought of a better way. Getty Images

Growing Houston company makes pipeline data more accessible for natural gas trading

Digital upgrade

In the energy capital of the world, Houston entrepreneur Jay Bhatty has established a rapidly growing technology hub for the natural gas industry.

Bhatty, a veteran of the natural-gas-trading business, founded Houston-based NatGasHub.com in October 2016 to streamline the traditionally complicated processes of moving natural gas from one point to another, and of unearthing data about natural gas pipelines. After only a little over two years in business, NatGasHub.com already is profitable — a rare feat in the startup world.

The NatGasHub.com platform, which runs on cloud-based software, launched in late 2017. The startup participated in the final accelerator class of the Houston Technology Center; the accelerator program shut down in early 2018.

Bhatty hatched the idea for NatGasHub.com while he was vice president of energy trading at JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s investment-banking arm, where for more than eight years he felt frustrated by the sluggish nature of natural-gas-trading activities.

First off, data about natural gas pipelines — such as whether a pipeline has capacity issues that could trigger a spike in prices — has, for years, been scattered across the web. Now, NatGasHub.com aggregates pipeline data from dozens upon dozens of websites.

Secondly, transferring natural gas from Point A to Point B has historically involved the tedious task of manually typing a "nomination" to enable the sale of natural gas. NatGasHub.com automates that job, freeing up workers' time so they can tackle meatier projects.

Bhatty compares the now-streamlined nomination process to buying an airline ticket on Expedia or booking a hotel room on Hotels.com. Like those travel websites, NatGasHub.com also serves as a one-stop shop, only in this case it offers a single dashboard for selling natural gas. Until NatGasHub.com came along, U.S. companies had relied on cadres of employees to enter natural gas nominations by hand into about 100 gas pipeline websites, and to track gas flow around the clock via spreadsheets and phone calls, Bhatty says.

In a nutshell, NatGasHub.com serves as both a data supplier and a logistics provider for the natural gas industry.

"Software automation has led to reduced costs for our clients," Bhatty says.

As of early December 2018, NatGasHub.com's customer roster featured 32 companies. Bhatty declines to identify the startup's clients, but he says they're well-known names in energy circles. Bhatty says energy producers, utilities, banks, and hedge funds are among the types of clients that benefit from NatGasHub.com.

"We're adding customers at a pretty fast rate," Bhatty says. "We're definitely in growth mode right now."

NatGasHub.com also is adding revenue at a pretty fast rate. From October 2017 to October 2018, revenue soared by 300 percent, while profit skyrocketed by 5,500 percent, according to Bhatty.

NatGasHub.com has accomplished all of that without taking one penny from outside investors, Bhatty says.

The energy industry has taken notice of NatGasHub.com's success. In August, Energy CIO Insightsnamed it one of North America's 10 best energy technology startups for 2018.

Today, NatGasHub.com employs 18 people in Houston. Bhatty envisions the workforce growing to 30 to 35 employees by the end of 2019. Planned expansions into other segments of the energy industry, such as crude oil, and into the Canadian market could bump up that projection. Currently, NatGasHub.com operates only in the U.S.

Among the kinds of workers NatGasHub.com will be hiring over the next year are software programmers, database administrators, and sales representatives.

"It's hard to find any kind of qualified people in this economy with the unemployment rate so low," Bhatty says. "But the good part has been that there's a lot of qualified people who want to work in a startup environment — they want to leave the bigger companies and try something different."

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City of Houston approves $13M for new security tech at renovated IAH​ terminal

hi, tech

A new terminal currently under construction at George Bush Intercontinental Airport just got the green light for new security technology.

This week, Houston City Council unanimously approved the funding for the new Mickey Leland International Terminal's security equipment. The Mickey Leland International Terminal Project is part of the $1.43 billion IAH Terminal Redevelopment Program, or ITRP, which is expected to be completed by early next year.

This new IAH International Terminal will feature an International Central Processor, or ICP, with state-of-the-art technology in a 17-lane security checkpoint — among the largest in the country — as well as ticket counters and baggage claim.

“Houston Airports strives to get passengers through TSA Security in 20 minutes or less. Today, we meet that goal at Bush Airport more than 90 percent of the time,” Jim Szczesniak, director of aviation for Houston Airports, says in a news release. “This investment in innovative technology will enhance our efficiency and ensure that our passengers have a world-class experience each time they visit our airports.”

Going through security at IAH is about to be smoother sailing. Rendering courtesy of Houston Airports

The funding approval came from two ordinances, and the first one appropriates $11.8 million from the Airports Improvement Fund to buy, service, install, and train staff on nine new automated screening lanes, called Scarabee Checkpoint Property Screening Systems, or CPSS.

Per the news release, each of these CCPS automated lanes "is capable of screening more than 100 additional people and bags/hour than existing equipment used today." Currently, Terminal D's TSA is using eight CPSS Lanes, so the additional nine lanes will bring the total to 17 lanes of security.

The other appropriates another $1.2 million from the Airports Improvement Fund to buy, install, maintain, and train staff on six new Advanced Imaging Technology Quick Personnel Security Scanners.

The new scanners, which don't require the traveler to raise their arms, "is capable of screening more than 100 additional people/hour than existing equipment used today," per the release.

“These new security screening machines are faster, have fewer false alarms and have improved detection rates, which creates a safer experience for our passengers and airlines,” Federal Security Director for TSA at IAH Juan Sanchez adds.

The Mickey Leland International Terminal originally opened in 1990 and is currently under renovation. Rendering courtesy of Houston Airports

Texas has the 5th highest health care costs in the nation, Forbes says

dollar signs

A new Forbes Advisor study shedding light on Americans' top financial worries has revealed Texas has the fifth highest health care costs in the nation.

Forbes Advisor's annual report compared all 50 states and Washington, D.C. across nine different metrics to determine which states have the most and least expensive health care costs in 2024.

Factors include the average annual deductibles and premiums for employees using single and family coverage through employer-provided health insurances and the percentage of adults who chose not to see a health care provider due to costs within the last year, among others. Each state was ranked based on its score out of a total 100 possible points.

Texas was No. 5 with a score of 91.38 points. North Carolina was No. 1, followed in order by South Dakota, Nebraska, and Florida.

According to Forbes, out-of-state families considering a move to the Lone Star State should be aware of the state's troubling statistics when it comes to family health care. More specifically, nearly 15 percent of Texas children had families who struggled to pay for their medical bills in the past 12 months, the highest percentage in the nation.

Furthermore, Texans have the highest likelihood in the U.S. to skip seeing a doctor because of cost. The report showed 16 percent of Texas adults chose not to see a doctor in the past 12 months due to the cost of health care.

"Unexpected medical bills and the cost of health care services are the top two financial worries for Americans this year, according to a recent KFF health tracking poll," the report said. "These financial fears have real-world consequences. The high cost of healthcare is leading some Americans to make tough choices—often at the expense of their health."

In the category for the percentage of adults who reported 14 or more "mentally unhealthy" days out of a month, who could not seek health care services due to cost, Texas ranked No. 3 in the U.S. with 31.5 percent of adults experiencing these issues.

The report also highlighted the crystal clear inequality in the distribution of health care costs across the U.S.

"In some states, residents face much steeper health care expenses, including higher premiums and deductibles, which make them more likely to delay medical care due to costs," the report said.

For example, Texas' average annual premiums for both plus-one health insurance coverage ($4,626, according to the study) and family coverage ($7,051.33) through employer-provided policies was the No. 4-highest in the nation.

Elsewhere in the U.S.

The state with the most expensive health care costs is North Carolina, with a score of 100 points. 27 percent of adults in North Carolina reported struggling with their mental health who could not seek a doctor due to cost, and 11.3 percent of all adults in the state chose not to see a doctor within the last 12 months because of costs.

Hawaii (No. 50) is the state with the least expensive health care costs, according to Forbes. Hawaii had the lowest percentages of adults struggling with mental health (11.6 percent) and adults who chose not to see a doctor within the last year (5.7 percent). The average annual premium for employees in Hawaii using a family coverage plan through employer-provided health insurance is $5,373.67, and the average annual deductible for the same family coverage plan is $3,115.

The top 10 states with the most expensive health care are:

  • No. 1 – North Carolina
  • No. 2 – South Dakota
  • No. 3 – Nebraska
  • No. 4 – Florida
  • No. 5 – Texas
  • No. 6 – South Carolina
  • No. 7 – Arizona
  • No. 8 – Georgia
  • No. 9 – New Hampshire
  • No. 10 – Louisiana

The full report and its methodology can be found on forbes.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston startup recognized for inclusivity on journey to commercialize next-gen therapeutics

future of medicine

A new Houston biotech company won a special award at the 16th Annual SXSW Pitch Award Ceremony earlier this month.

Phiogen, one of 45 companies that competed in nine categories, was the winner for best inclusivity, much to the surprise of the company’s CEO, Amanda Burkhardt.

Burkhardt tells InnovationMap that while she wanted to represent the heavily female patient population that Phiogen seeks to treat, really she just hires the most skilled scientists.

“The best talent was the folks that we have and it ends up being we have three green card holders on our team. As far as ethnicities, we have on our team we have Indian, African-American, Korean, Chinese Pakistani, Moroccan and Hispanic people and that just kind of just makes up the people who helped us on a day-to-day basis,” she explains.

Phiogen was selected out of 670 companies to be in the health and nutrition category at SXSW.

“We did really well, but there was another company that also did really well. And so we were not selected for the pitch competition, which we were a little bummed about because I killed the pitch,” Burkhardt recalls.

But Phiogen is worthy of note, pitch competition or not. The new company spun off from research at Dr. Anthony Maresso’s TAILOR Labs, a personalized phage therapy center at Baylor College of Medicine, last June.

“Our whole goal is to create the next generation of anti-infectives,” says Burkhardt.

That means that the company is making alternatives to antibiotics, but as Burkhardt says, “We’re hoping to be better than antibiotics.”

How does it work? Bacteriophages are viruses that infect bacteria.

“You can imagine them as the predators in the bacteria world, but they don't infect humans. They don't affect animals. They only infect bacteria,” Burkhardt explains.

Phiogen utilizes carefully honed bacteriophages to attack bacteria that include the baddies behind urinary tract infection (UTI), bacteremia (bacteria in the blood), and skin wounds.

The team’s primary focus is on treatment-resistant UTI. One example was a male patient who received Phiogen’s treatment thanks to an emergency-use authorization from the FDA. The gentleman had been suffering from an infection for 20 years. He was treated with Phiogen’s bacteriophage therapy for two weeks and completely cleared his infection with no recurrence.

Amanda Burkhardt is the CEO of Phiogen. Photo via LinkedIn

But Phiogen has its sights set well beyond the first maladies it’s treated. An oft-quoted 2016 report projected that by 2050, 10 million people a year will be dying from drug-resistant infections.

“A lot of scientists call it the silent pandemic because it's happening now, we're living in it, but there's just not as much being said about it because it normally happens to people who are already in the hospital for something else, or it's a comorbidity, but that's not always the case, especially when we're talking about urinary tract infections,” says Burkhardt.

Bacteriophages are important because they can be quickly trained to fight against resistant strains, whereas it takes years and millions of dollars to develop new antibiotics. There are 13 clinical trials that are currently taking place for bacteriophage therapy. Burkhardt estimates that the treatment method will likely gain FDA approval in the next five years.

“The FDA actually has been super flexible on progressing forward. Because they are naturally occurring, there's not really a safety risk with these products,” she says.

And Burkhardt, whose background is in life-science commercialization, says there’s no better place to build Phiogen than in Houston.

“You have Boston, you have the Bay [Area], and you have the Gulf Coast,” she says. “And Houston is cheaper, the people are friendlier, and it’s not a bad place to be in the winter.”

She also mentions the impressive shadow that Helix Park will cast over the ecosystem. Phiogen will move later this year to the new campus — one of the labs selected to join Baylor College of Medicine.

And as for that prize, chances are, it won’t be Phiogen’s last.