With its blend of biotechnology, conservation, and education, RioRaiz seeks to inspire a new generation of conservationists. Photo via RioRaiz/Instagram

For centuries, humans have been negatively impacting the natural world around them. A Houston organization is looking to leave an impact on the environment — but this time for the better.

Based in Houston, RioRaiz is a 501c3 nonprofit organization charting a unique course in the world of conservation and education. Founded in March of 2021, RioRaiz – meaning "root of the river" in Spanish, a nod to its deep-rooted connection with South American culture – seeks to preserve biodiversity through biotechnology and offer transformative learning experiences to contribute to a healthier planet.

Led by Jeff Carlson, the president and CEO, RioRaiz's mission is driven by three core pillars: conservation, scientific discovery, and education.

Currently, the nonprofit's efforts are focused on regions on the edge of ecological disruption, specifically the East Texas area and the Tropical Andes. In Texas, the organization aims to expand the biome of the Big Thicket National Preserve in Kountze as well as engaging locals by hosting clean-up drives. In the Andes, RioRaiz aspires to establish biological corridors between national parks and natural reserves, diminishing potential disruptions to animal migration patterns.

The timeline for these critical initiatives, Carlson said, hinges on donations.

"We have a list of priorities that is cataloged from input from our scientific collaborators, as well as our ability to deliver on our promises to our donors and supporters,” Carlson said.

Partnerships form a critical role in RioRaiz's work, notably those with academic institutions in the United States and Colombia. One of these collaborations saw Carlson spend three months in Colombia, working with the local Páez tribe, also known as the Nasa, to explore the potential of their traditional medicines for modern treatments.

"We're really excited to learn and to share our techniques and our knowledge," Carlson said, underlining the organization's commitment to partnering with traditional and indigenous knowledge sources.

With its blend of biotechnology, conservation, and education, RioRaiz seeks to inspire a new generation of conservationists. By offering an intimate virtual glimpse into the world's biomes, the nonprofit aims to instill a deep-rooted respect for nature and encourage sustainable action.

"If you expose students to these different kinds of environments at an early age, that might inspire somebody to go into conservation," Carlson said.

With a progressive effort, RioRaiz is harnessing the power of virtual reality to redefine education. The organization uses specialized filming equipment during its expeditions, capturing moments like the discovery of new species or conducting bio surveys. RioRaiz's visually compelling stories will surpass language barriers, transporting students virtually to different biomes. In time, Carlson hopes to distribute pre-loaded systems to communities with limited internet access, taking the classroom to every corner of the world. These virtual reality experiences are expected to launch within the next year.

"We want to bring the rainforest into the classroom," Carlson said.

Through its work, RioRaiz aims to demonstrate that the route to a sustainable future lies not just in face-to-face interactions, but in a global, interconnected approach to education and conservation. Its vision is clear — to grow far beyond traditional reaches, preserving biodiversity and fostering a healthier world.

Memorial Park, which is currently undergoing a master plan renovation, and other Houston parks can be a great opportunity for introducing urban conservation inside the city limits. Rendering courtesy of Nelson Byrd Woltz

Houston conservationist is helping to find new ways to protect local species and ecosystems

Living on a prairie

The Houston toad is a species that was discovered in Harris County in the 1950s. It has a very distinct, loud call that reverberates at quite a high pitch. But the Houston toad's call hasn't been heard in the city of Houston for almost 50 years. The species is locally extinct and critically endangered elsewhere. In fact, it's the most endangered amphibian in North America, says Cassidy Brown Johnson, a Rice University lecturer and president of the Coastal Prairie Partnership.

"When we think about extinction, we think of the dodo bird or the woolly mammoth," Johnson says. "But extinction is happening right underneath our noses."

The Houston Zoo has a breeding facility for Houston toad, but other than that, it's extremely unlikely that the Houston toad will ever reside naturally in its namesake city.

"We have modified the environment so heavily, that it'd be a bit of a dicey thing to do [to reintroduce the species] because there are so few of them, it's better to focus on an environment where it's still OK for them," Johnson says. The largest population of the Houston toad is actually in Bastrop, however due to the Bastrop fires in 2011, the species is only just recently back to a good place even there.

Johnson is giving a free lecture in April at Rice regarding extinction, where she'll bring her Astros-named Houston toads, Springer and Julia Morales, as her teacher aids.

Changing tides in conservation
As cities like Houston continue to be developed, scientists and researchers are challenged with finding new ways to effect conservation. Johnson says within the industry, there's been a shift in thinking when it comes to preserving nature.

"There's a new burgeoning movement in conservation called urban conservation," she says. "For a long time, if you talked to the traditional conservationists, the idea of conservation is to protect big spaces — the national and state park systems are the perfect example."

But large parks are expensive and a huge undertaking. It's still the strongest form of conservation, but introducing conservation efforts in a city — perhaps in some of Houston's parks, like Memorial Park or Hermann Park — helps not only the species of animals involved, but also educates the local population and forms a connection with residents.

"That has a twofold kind of benefit," Johnson says. "It protects the greenspace so species to live with us, and then also it makes the connection to this place we try to protect."

Of course, this type of effort is new, and there's not a lot of data to show how this would affect the ecosystem and its species, from the migratory and genetic diversity standpoints. Despite the lack of data, Johnson says this type of effort needs to happen.

"We're going to continue to manipulate the world, and maybe if we started thinking about this now, that we can get to a point were we understand enough were we can make these some sort of functioning ecosystem," she says.

Part of the shift in thinking about these ecosystems has to do with new ways of tracking species and understanding their environments.

"Technology is helping us ask a lot of these questions," Johnson says. "Ecology is surprisingly complicated. There's so many variables. ... I think technology and our advance with computing is definitely going to help us understand it."

Using preservation to solve flooding
The educational component is also very important to conservation, and Johnson is making strides on campus with her class. Last year, her department and her class introduced a pocket prairie right on the Rice campus.

Before it was the fourth largest city in America, Houston was a prairie. That type of ecosystem — thick with prairie grass — is very absorbing when it comes to rain water.

"It's really surprising to people that the trees and all this lushness is actually all artificial," Johnson says. "We know that this ecosystem evolved with the cyclical flooding events that happened here."

This movement to bring back Houston's ancient ecosystem is a new focus on a few prairie conservationist groups — and even the Harris County Flood Control. This has been going on for a while, but recent flooding events have opened the eyes of people now looking for reliable solutions to flooding problems.

"After Hurricane Harvey, people started realizing that this might be one of the solutions we could actually investigate and see if it can help us," Johnson says. "A green space is going to absorb way more water than a parking lot."

Of course, there are other flood solutions being discussed — some even incorporating tech or even a tube system underground.

"Historically, there has been some budding of heads between the environment and technology, but I really think moving forward, those two fields have to work together. We need to use technology to save the environment," Johnson says. "I think Houston is one of the places where that conversation is starting to happen."

Missing the toads

Courtesy of Cassidy Brown Johnson

The Houston toad has been locally extinct since the 1970s.

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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.