This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes John Higgins of illumiPure, Natara Branch of HX, and Daniel Murray of Covenant Underwriters. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from insurtech to entrepreneurship — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

John Higgins, CEO of illumiPure

CleanWhite can quickly and continuously sanitize high-touch areas through its light-based technology. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston-based illumiPure recently announced that it has received a worldwide patent for its LED white light disinfectant earlier this year, known as CleanWhite. The product can quickly and continuously sanitize high-touch areas while a room remains occupied and has shown an elimination of 99 percent of surface bacteria, spores, mold, biofilms, and viruses including SARS-CoV-2 through light-based technology. It's intended to be used in areas like kitchens, restrooms, and locker rooms and is safe for humans and pets.

CleanWhite uses spikes of light wavelengths at 405 and 470 nanometers to kill surface pathogens. Unlike other products on the market, CleanWhite can emit these levels without also emitting a visible purple-violet light while also suppressing blue light wavelengths.

"CleanWhite features technology that makes it the first of its kind, achieving a sought-after solution to produce 405+470 nm blue light as white light," John Higgins, CEO of illumiPure, says in a statement. "As a result of this revolutionary finding, we anticipate the patent’s success across a myriad of industries, including education, healthcare, hospitality, and retail.” Click here to read more.

Natara Branch, CEO of Houston Exponential

Meet Natara Branch — the new CEO of HX. Photo courtesy of Natara Branch

Ever since she accepted the new position as CEO of Houston Exponential, Natara Branch has been on a listening tour of Houston's innovation ecosystem. Branch explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that she has a passion for the city of Houston, and she's got open ears to anyone in the ecosystem who wants to contribute to the advancement of the city's tech ecosystem.

As she explains, she is getting her fair share of feedback — but she has an ask for anyone who she's met.

"I am challenging people. You're not just going to give me feedback and sit back and watch. You're going to participate," Branch says. "I have not met one person who doesn't want Houston to win — they wouldn't be here if they didn't." Click here to read more and listen to the podcast.

Daniel Murray, co-founder and chief underwriter of Covenant Underwriters

The emerging insurtech industry has a plethora of opportunities for job seekers and more. Photo courtesy

More than 100,000 Houstonians work in insurance, according to Daniel Murray, co-founder and chief underwriter of Covenant Underwriters, a Houston-based insurtech start-up, building e-commerce insurance products for underserved niches. But the 400-year-old industry is hungry for tech talent.

In a guest column for InnovationMap, Murray explains the need for tech and innovation within insurance — and the opportunity the industry has.

"The adage goes that everyone in the insurance industry was either born into it or tricked into it," he writes. "This may have applied to the last generation, but today’s insurance industry offers vast opportunities (including remote) for every discipline, especially for tech job seekers." Click here to read more.

The emerging insurtech industry has a plethora of opportunities for job seekers and more. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: The insurance biz is ripe for innovation — here's how to tap into it

guest column

The insurance industry is hungry for tech talent. This 400-year-old industry lays claim to many innovations from financial engineering to weather modeling and was among the first to widely adopt mainframe computing. However, while many sectors took up digital processes in the Internet Age, the $1.4 trillion insurance industry lost out on a generation of innovators to retail, social media, entertainment, and other financial services. Only recently have investors become wise to the massive opportunity of modernizing insurance.

More than 100,000 Houstonians work in insurance, mostly in sales and servicing of policies or claims. Many insurance agencies now employ IT professionals and graphic designers to support online experiences for customers and employees. Larger insurance companies are hiring data analysts, software developers, and cloud engineers to improve risk selection, mitigate losses, and drive efficiency. Such efforts to leverage technology in each function in the insurance value chain are broadly described by the term insurtech (or insuretech; it’s so novel that consensus has not been reached on its spelling).

The largest gathering of insurtech investors, entrepreneurs, and industry incumbents occurs at the InsureTech Connect conference. Last month saw nearly 10,000 insurtech leaders and hopefuls descend on Las Vegas for the 6th annual convention. Sound business models and partnerships with incumbents replaced the easy money and talk of disruption from prior years. Many speakers and panels highlighted the following opportunities for aspiring insurtech professionals:

​Embedded Insurance

Insurance has long been sold alongside other products, and omnipresent API ecosystems make the transaction that much more seamless. For a small premium, some insurtechs use embedded products that take the risk out of large purchases like event tickets, rentals, gadgets, and vacations. These companies need savvy designers and creative marketing pros to integrate their products with the right partners.

​Parametric Insurance

The fundamental principle of insurance is to make the policyholder whole after a loss, but agreeing on the amount of loss can take years and legal battles. Parametric insurance policies pay losses automatically based on pre-specified trigger events, such as a threshold based on wind speed or hail size. Cutting-edge products provide stability by tying coverage to indexes like oil price or crop yields and require experts in the underlying index to set the correct parameters.

​Internet of Things

Theoretically, more information will lead to more accurate prediction of insured loss. Cell phone geolocation, smart homes, and sensors on everything gives insurance companies a mountain of data. Translating all of this into actionable insights will require armies of data scientists. Machine learning algorithms, paired with good data, promise to uncover new ways to anticipate and avoid losses.

​Insurance Gigs

Many jobs in the burgeoning gig economy are related to insurance. For all the big data available, insurance companies still need ‘boots on the ground’ when inspecting a new policyholder’s property, assessing damage to a house or car, installing sensors, or responding to catastrophe. They especially need contract workers with drone licenses for inspecting roofs.

Insurtech is not disrupting insurance companies but transforming them to meet modern customer needs They can no longer succeed with just snappy TV ads and countless storefronts. Insurance quotes and claim payments need to be fast and fair. In an industry this large, a great idea that captures 1 percent of market share or improves efficiency by 1 percent can be lucrative. Today’s rate environment has cooled off insurtech valuations but not before 25 US and UK insurtech start-ups rose to billion-dollar unicorn status in the past decade.

The adage goes that everyone in the insurance industry was either born into it or tricked into it. This may have applied to the last generation, but today’s insurance industry offers vast opportunities (including remote) for every discipline, especially for tech job seekers.

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Daniel Murray is co-founder and chief underwriter of Covenant Underwriters, a Houston-based insurtech start-up, building e-commerce insurance products for underserved niches.

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Innovative coastline project on Bolivar Peninsula receives federal funding

flood mitigation

The Galveston’s Coastal Barrier Project recently received federal funding to the tune of $500,000 to support construction on its flood mitigation plans for the area previously devastated by Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Known as Ike Dike, the proposed project includes implementing the Galveston Bay Storm Surge Barrier System, including eight Gulf and Bay defense projects. The Bolivar Roads Gate System, a two-mile-long closure structure situated between Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, is included in the plans and would protect against storm surge volumes entering the bay.

The funding support comes from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and will go toward the preconstruction engineering and design phase of Ecosystem Restoration feature G-28, the first segment of the Bolivar Peninsula and West Bay Gulf Intracoastal Waterway Shoreline and Island Protection.

Coastal Barrier Project - Galveston Projects

The project also includes protection of critical fish and wildlife habitat against coastal storms and erosion.

“The Coastal Texas Project is one of the largest projects in the history of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” says Col. Rhett A. Blackmon, USACE Galveston District commander, in a statement. “This project is important to the nation for many reasons. Not only will it reduce risk to the vulnerable populations along the Texas coast, but it will also protect vital ecosystems and economically critical infrastructure vital to the U.S. supply chain and the many global industries located here.”

Hurricane Ike resulted in over $30 billion in storm-related damages to the Texas coast, reports the Coastal Barrier Project, and created a debris line 15 feet tall and 40 miles long in Chambers County. The estimated economic disruption due to Hurricane Ike exceeded $150 billion, FEMA reported.

The project is estimated to take two years to complete after construction starts and will cost between $4 billion and $6 billion, reports Texas A&M University at Galveston.

Houston organization selects research on future foods in space health to receive $1M in funding

research and development

What would we eat if we were forced to decamp to another planet? The most immediate challenges faced by the food industry and astronauts exploring outside Earth are being addressed by The Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) at Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Space Medicine’s newest project.

Earlier this month, TRISH announced the initial selection for its Space Health Ingress Program (SHIP) solicitation. Working with California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Baylor-based program chose “Future Foods for Space: Mobilizing the Future Foods Community to Accelerate Advances in Space Health,” led by Dr. Denneal Jamison-McClung at the University of California, Davis.

“TRISH is bringing in new ideas and investigators to propel space health research,” says Catherine Domingo, TRISH operations lead and research administration associate at Baylor College of Medicine, in the release. “We have long believed that new researchers with fresh perspectives drive innovation and advance human space exploration and SHIP builds on TRISH’s existing efforts to recruit and support new investigators in the space health research field, potentially yielding and high-impact ideas to protect space explorers.”

The goal of the project is to develop sustainable food products and ingredients that could fuel future space travelers on long-term voyages, or even habitation beyond our home planet.

Jamison-McClung and her team’s goal is to enact food-related space health research and inspire the community thereof by mobilizing academic and food-industry researchers who have not previously engaged with the realm of space exploration. Besides growing and developing food products, the project will also address production, storage, and delivery of the nutrition created by the team.

To that end, Jamison-McClung and her recruits will receive $1 million over the course of two years. The goal of the SHIP solicitation is to work with first-time NASA investigators, bringing new minds to the forefront of the space health research world.

“As we look to enable safer space exploration and habitation for humans, it is clear that food and nutrition are foundational,” says Dr. Asha S. Collins, chair of the SHIP advisory board, in a press release. “We’re excited to see how accelerating innovation in food science for space health could also result in food-related innovations for people on Earth in remote areas and food deserts.”

Clean energy nonprofit CEO to step down, search for replacement to begin

moving on

Greentown Labs, which is co-located in the Boston and Houston areas, has announced its current CEO is stepping down after less than a year in the position.

The nonprofit's CEO and President Kevin Knobloch announced that he will be stepping down at the end of July 2024. Knobloch assumed his role last September, previously serving as chief of staff of the United States Department of Energy in President Barack Obama’s second term.

“It has been an honor to lead this incredible team and organization, and a true privilege to get to know many of our brilliant startup founders," Knobloch says in the news release. “Greentown is a proven leader in supporting early-stage climatetech companies and I can’t wait to see all that it will accomplish in the coming years.”

The news of Knobloch's departure comes just over a month after the organization announced that it was eliminating 30 percent of its staff, which affected 12 roles in Boston and six in Houston.

According the Greentown, its board of directors is expected to launch a national search for its next CEO.

“On behalf of the entire Board of Directors, I want to thank Kevin for his efforts to strengthen the foundation of Greentown Labs and for charting the next chapter for the organization through a strategic refresh process,” says Dawn James, Greentown Labs Board Chair, in the release. “His thoughtful leadership will leave a lasting impact on the team and community for years to come.”

Knobloch reportedly shifted Greentown's sponsorship relationships with oil companies, sparking "friction within the organization," according to the Houston Chronicle, which also reported that Knobloch said he intends to return to his clean energy consulting firm.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.