Here's what startups took home wins at CERAWeek. Photo by Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Over 200 startups participated in CERAWeek this year, and 18 of those companies pitched at a Greater Houston Partnership event.

The Houston Energy Transition Initiative, an initiative to promote Houston's work within the energy transition, hosted its second annual HETI Energy Ventures Competition at CERAWeek Innovation Agora. The competition was divided into four categories. The first batch of startups consisted of five companies from the Texas Entrepreneurship Exchange for Energy, or TEX-E, a collaboration with Greentown Labs, MIT’s Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship, and universities across Texas.

The winning startups shared $50,000 of prizes, sponsored by TEX-E. Houston-based Helix Earth Technologies — which has developed high-speed, high-efficiency filter systems derived from technology originating at NASA — won both the first place prize and fan favorite for the category. Helix's co-founders, Rawand Rasheed and Brad Husick from Rice University, walked away with $25,000 in prizes

Founded by Bryon Praslicka, Daniel Zamarron, and Craig Newman from Texas A&M University, Flux Works LLC, and its magnetic gear technology, took second place and $15,000 home. Tierra Climate, a two-sided marketplace for carbon offsets and other sustainability efforts founded by Emma Konet and Jacob Mansfield from Rice University, won third place and $10,000.

Helix Earth Technologies walked away with the top prize of the TEX-E category. Photo via greentownlabs.com

The next sets of startup pitches we broken down by funding stages — pre-seed and seed, series A, and series B and beyond.

Red Shift Energy, uses plasma energy to produce hydrogen from hydrogen sulfide, won fan favorite in the pre-seed and seed category sponsored by HX Venture Fund. A member of Halliburton Labs, the company also was recognized as Chevron favorite.

Per the judging panel, CanaGas won the title of most promising in the pre-seed and seed category sponsored by Alchemy Industrial. The Canadian company liquifies natural gas without costly cryogenics or stripping of the gas.

Houston-based Criterion Energy Partners won both the most-promising series A company category sponsored by SLB, but also the fan favorite series A category sponsored by Guerrella LLC. A geothermal energy tech company, Criterion was also a member of Rice's inaugural Clean Energy Accelerator cohort.

OptiSeis Solutions also won in both categories for the series B track. The company, a geophysical acquisition design and software company, won the title of most promising in the series B category sponsored by Pana LCE Investments and the series B fan favorite category sponsored by Halliburton Labs.

Lastly, the competition named the Most Impactful DEI, a category sponsored by Pana LCE Investments. Austin-based Gazelle Ecosystems, a social innovation startup with eco-solutions for corporations, won that category.

Criterion Energy Partners is aiming to be a next-gen energy company. Photo via Getty Images

Houston startup gears up to deliver geothermal energy

ready to drill

Sean Marshall and Danny Rehg founded Criterion Energy Partners in 2020 with the hope that geothermal energy could be the cleaner, safer wave of the future. Less than three years later, the team is close to making their plan a reality thanks to a geothermal well that they hope to drill this year.

Entrepreneurship wasn’t always part of the plan for either partner. When Marshall enrolled in the MBA program at Rice University’s Jones School of Business in 2016, he had a successful career at Credit Suisse and had his eye set on a future political career. But then he met classmate Rehg, whose background was in petroleum engineering. Their wives were both attorneys in the Houston district attorney’s office and the couples became fast friends. They also realized that, as Marshall now puts it, Rehg knew how to drill wells and he knew how to make deals.

In the ensuing years, both Rehg and Marshall's careers evolved and, eventually, the pair started looking for other opportunities. That’s when they read an article in Rolling Stone about geothermal energy.

“It was really a place where it really felt like this was something we were put here to do,” says Marshall.

Marshall and Rehg spent the ensuing months “like rats in a dumpster” learning about the players and opportunities in the geothermal industry and built from there. They learned about Pleasant Bayou Power Plant, a 1989 geothermal energy project based in Brazoria County that was backed by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Last summer, Criterion Energy Partners, a member of Greentown Houston, closed on a 10,000-acre lease around the site of Pleasant Bayou.

"We hope by the end of this year we will be generating electrons,” says Marshall.

Though the company has a patented technology that connects wells to the grid, called Criterion Geothermal System, Marshall says that some of the best advice he’s gotten was, “Don’t fall in love with your technology; fall in love with the problem.” The 2021 Texas freeze reminded the founders what that was.

“People were looking for cleaner, lower-emission power sources and [there was] a need for energy resiliency,” says Marshall, explaining that the freeze created an ideal situation for the company, as people began to think more outside the grid.

The year 2022 was a big one for Criterion Energy Partners. Oil and gas powerhouse Patterson-UTI invested in the company, followed by funding from the Department of Energy. The money not only allowed Criterion Energy Partners to lease their land, they are also now paying 12 salaries, including those of the founders. The team offices in The Cannon’s Esperson coworking space.

“Our mission is to make geothermal commercially viable everywhere,” says Marshall. “I still believe in that.”

However, Criterion Energy Partners may be even bigger than proving an alternative energy source. Marshall says that geothermal is the foundation on which they are building “a next-generation energy company.” Criterion Energy Partners could be the more stable basis for a whole new energy system.

Sean Marshall and Danny Rehg founded Criterion Energy Partners in 2020. Photos courtesy

Twelve Houston startups will pitch at the World Petroleum Congress, which will be hosted in Houston this year. Photo via Getty Images

International energy conference names 12 Houston companies to pitch at inaugural innovation track

it's (almost) go time

A dozen Houston companies will take the stage next month for a pitch competition during the World Petroleum Congress at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

In all, 32 innovators have been selected to make presentations at the World Petroleum Congress' first-ever Innovation Zone. Presented by ConocoPhillips, the Innovation Zone will let startups showcase their solutions to challenges facing the energy sector. The winner of the pitch competition will receive the inaugural Energy Innovator Award.

The World Petroleum Congress is set for December 5-9.

The 12 Houston companies chosen for the Innovation Zone are:

  • CeraPhi Energy, whose technology helps companies transition to clean energy.
  • Chainparency, whose blockchain technology digitizes and secures records shared throughout the supply chain.
  • Criterion Energy Partners, an exploration and production company whose energy projects are co-located with commercial and industrial customers to promote emission reductions and improve operating efficiencies.
  • CruxOCM, whose technology powers autonomous control rooms in heavy industrial settings.
  • dataVediK, whose AI and machine learning technology fuels performance optimization, energy transition, and carbon footprint reduction at energy companies.
  • DrillDocs, whose software allows real-time analysis of activity at onshore and offshore drilling rigs.
  • Hess, an oil and gas exploration and production company that will show off technology enabling autonomous fracturing. (Hess is one of the sponsors of this year's World Petroleum Congress.)
  • Ionada Carbon Solutions, a producer of carbon capture systems.
  • Nesh, a creator of subject-matter avatars.
  • Oilify, whose WhaleShark technology advances the process of separating gas and solids.
  • Sourcenergy, which specializes in upstream energy and water intelligence supported by AI and machine learning.
  • Water Lens, whose mobile system provides lab-quality tests for over 30 water quality factors.

"For more than a century, innovation has enabled our industry to keep pace with the growing demand for safe and reliable energy," W.L. "Bill" Bullock Jr., executive vice president and chief financial officer of ConocoPhillips, said in an August news release. The Innovation Zone will shine a spotlight on "innovations that can propel our industry's purposeful journey through the energy transition and into the future," he added.

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Investor advocates now is the time to position Houston as a leading biomanufacturing hub

houston innovators podcast episode 178

Houston has all the ingredients to be a successful synthetic biology hub, says Veronica Wu. She believes so strongly in this that she relocated to Houston from Silicon Valley just over a year ago to start a venture capital firm dedicated to the field. Since then, she's doubled down on her passion for Houston leading in biotech — especially when it comes to one uniquely Houston opportunity: biomanufacturing.

While Houston's health care innovation scene is actively deploying synthetic biology applications, Wu points to Houston-based Solugen, a plant-based chemical producer, as an example of what Houston has to offer at-scale industrial biomanufacturing. Houston has the workforce and the physical space available for more of these types of biomanufacturing plants, which have a huge potential to move the needle on reducing carbon emissions.

"This is really fundamental technology that's going to change the paradigm and whole dialogue of how we are making a significant impact in reducing a carbon footprint and improving sustainability," says Wu, founder and managing partner of First Bight Ventures, on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Several aspects — government funding, corporate interest, advances in technology — have converged to make it an ideal time for synthetic biology innovators and investors, Wu explains on the show, and she has an idea of what Houston needs to secure its spot as a leader in the space: The BioWell.

First introduced at a Houston Tech Rodeo event at the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Factory, The BioWell is a public-private partnership that aims to provide access to pilot and lab space, mentorship and programming, and more support that biomanufacturing innovators critically need.

"The way we envision The BioWell is it will provide a holistic, curated support for startups to be able to get across the Valley of Death," Wu says, explaining that startups transitioning from research and development into commercialization need extra support. The BioWell will provide that, as well as allow more engagement from corporations, investors, and other players.

Now that her plans for The BioWell have been announced, Wu is looking for those who want to be a part of it.

She shares more about her mission and what's next for First Bight Ventures on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

California-founded biotech startup relocates to join Houston's emerging bioeconomy

new to hou

Cameron Owen had an idea for a synthetic biology application, and he pitched it to a handful of postdoctoral programs. When he received the feedback that he didn't have enough research experience, he decided to launch a startup based in San Diego around his idea. He figured that he'd either get the experience he needed to re-apply, or he'd create a viable company.

After three years of research and development, Owen's path seems to have taken him down the latter of those two options, and he moved his viable company, rBIO, to Houston — a twist he didn't see coming.

“Houston was not on my radar until about a year and a half ago,” Owen says, explaining that he thought of Houston as a leading health care hub, but the coasts still had an edge when it came to what he was doing. “San Diego and the Boston area are the two big biotech and life science hubs.”

But when he visited the Bayou City in December of 2021, he says he saw first hand that something new was happening.

“Companies from California like us and the coastal areas were converging here in Houston and creating this new type of bioeconomy,” he tells InnovationMap.

Owen moved to Houston last year, but rBIO still has an academic partner in Washington University in St. Louis and a clinical research organization it's working with too, so he admits rBIO's local footprint is relatively small — but not for long.

"When we look to want to get into manufacturing, we definitely want to build something here in Houston," he says. "We’re just not to that point as a company."

In terms of the stage rBIO is in now, Owen says the company is coming out of R&D and into clinical studies. He says rBIO has plans to fundraise and is meeting with potential partners that will help his company scale and build out a facility.

With the help of its CRO partner, rBIO has two ongoing clinical projects — with a third coming next month. Owen says right now rBIO is targeting the pharmaceutical industry’s biologics sector — these are drugs our bodies make naturally, like insulin. About 12 percent of the population in the United States has diabetes, which translates to almost 40 million people. The demand for insulin is high, and rBIO has a way to create it — and at 30 percent less cost.

This is just the tip of the iceberg — the world of synthetic biology application is endless.

“Now that we can design and manipulate biology in ways we’ve never been able to before,” Owen says, "we’re really only limited by our own imagination.”

Synthetic biology is a field of science that involves programing biology to create and redesign natural elements. While it sounds like science fiction, Owen compares it to any other type of technology.

“Biology really is a type of software,” he says. “Phones and computers at their core run on 1s and 0s. In biology, it’s kind of the same thing, but instead of two letters, it’s four — A, C, T, and G.”

“The cool thing about biology is the software builds the hardware,” he continues. “You put that code in there and the biology builds in and of itself.”

Owen says the industry of synthetic biology has been rising in popularity for years, but the technology has only recently caught up.

“We’re exploring a brave new world — there’s no doubt about that,” Owen says.

Houston Airports soar with first-class awards in international ceremony

top of the line

We can now dub Houston the city of first-class airports and first-class service.

During the 2023 Skytrax World Airport Awards in Amsterdam, the Houston airport system earned several prestigious honors, including a second consecutive five-star rating.

Skytrax is the leading international air transport rating organization; they determine their ratings based on annual audits of every airport. This year, the Houston airport system won in a new category that was unveiled at the ceremony – “Best Art in the Airport” – which was determined by a panel of judges.

Mario Diaz, the director of aviation for Houston Airports, said in a press release that superior customer service is the “guiding light” for the city’s airport system.

“Excellent customer service is at our core; an expansive and eclectic arts program, just awarded World’s Best Art Program in 2023, provides a meaningful and memorable experience,” said Diaz.

The awards continued to stack up. William P. Hobby Airport maintained its five-star rating for the second year in a row. It is one of 18 total five-star airports in the world, but the one and only five-star Skytrax airport in North America.

Other accolades the Hobby Airport earned include:

  • Best Regional Airport in North America, for the second consecutive year
  • No. 2 Best Airport in the United States
  • No. 3 Best Airport in North America

George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) maintained its four-star classification for the sixth year in a row. It was also named the fourth best airport in North America, and third best in the United States.

Houston mayor Sylvester Turner said the Skytrax awards reaffirm the city airports’ “dedication to detail and commitment to customer service.”

“Houston truly is a global city where our guests are valued and celebrated,” he praised. “Another year of [five]-star and [four]-star ratings is proof that the investments we continue to make in our Houston Airports arts program, airport infrastructure and technology and team members are smart and successful investments that lead to a world-class and award-winning passenger experience.”

More information about the awards can be found on fly2houston.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.