This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Allie Danziger of Ampersand, Wesley Okeke of CUBIO, and Libby Covington of The Craig Group. Courtesy photos

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


Allie Danziger, co-founder and CEO of Ampersand Professionals

Allie Danziger, is bridging the gap between the next generation — and their future employers. Photo courtesy of Ampersand

Allie Danziger has established herself as an expert in the future of work and all things Gen Z in the workplace. The founder of an internship matching and training platform called Ampersand, she's contributed numerous articles on related topics, including "The Great Resignation," which is affecting the workforce across industries. It's also something her platform can address, as she explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"When someone leaves, other people take on that work. If you don't hire proper support for the people still there, you see the trickle. You see more and more people leave, because they are just burnt out," Danziger says. "By hiring interns or entry-level support, it shows the employees still there that you've got them."

Danziger shares more on Ampersand's future and navigating the Gen Z workforce on the podcast. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Wesley Okeke, CEO of CUBIO Innovation Center

Wesley Okeke has established some much-needed new lab space in the Texas Medical Center. Photo courtesy

Look alive, Houston biotech innovators. CUBIO Innovation Center has some new space available for you. What originated as mostly coworking space, CUBIO has pivoted to provide more lab space for early stage biotech startups. The latest edition to CUBIO in the Texas Medical Center? A brand new wet lab.

“We have all the necessary equipment for a fully functioning biotech lab,” Okeke tells InnovationMap.

"For those working with cell culture, the dry lab provides almost no resources or infrastructure for you to build it out," he continues. "A wet lab brings in the necessary equipment and environment to be successful in developing pharmaceuticals, drug delivery devices, whatever you need in the biotech space.” Click here to read more.

Libby Covington, partner at The Craig Group

What should Houston startups know about marketing? Photo courtesy

How should startups be marketing themselves to venture capitalists? Libby Covington has some advice in a guest article for InnovationMap — from making your marketing plan and catering specifically to VCs.

"It is important to focus on efficient top line revenue growth as a business grows and scales," she writes. "Digital marketing is an important part of the overall growth plan, and should not be overlooked. The clock starts ticking on profitability growth once a business owner partners with investors. Make sure your business has an effective plan to meet the goals set out." Click here to read more.

Houston has some much-needed new lab space in the Texas Medical Center. Photo courtesy of CUBIO

Exclusive: Houston biotech coworking spot expands with new wet lab space

ready to rent

While Houston has been recognized as an emerging hub for life sciences, access to lab space is a huge factor in that equation — and one where the city has room for improvement.

CUBIO Innovation Center, located in the heart of the Texas Medical Center, has witnessed that first hand. First opening as a larger coworking concept, CEO Wesley Okeke says it was the smaller lab space that was booked every day. CUBIO pivoted and redistributed their operations to offer more dry lab space to its tenants. Now, the organization is ready to reach the next stage by introducing a new wet lab that opens doors for biotech innovators who need specific infrastructure, equipment, and environment.

“We have all the necessary equipment for a fully functioning biotech lab,” Okeke tells InnovationMap.

"For those working with cell culture, the dry lab provides almost no resources or infrastructure for you to build it out," he continues. "A wet lab brings in the necessary equipment and environment to be successful in developing pharmaceuticals, drug delivery devices, whatever you need in the biotech space.”

The new space can support 15 early stage biotech startups. Photo courtesy of CUBIO

Most of Houston's wet lab space is housed in academic or health care institutions. Getting into those labs can be competitive and complicated, especially when it comes to intellectual property. CUBIO wanted to offer an alternative for early stage biotech teams working on a tight budget and not looking for a long-term commitment.

“When it comes to finding wet lab space, it’s almost nonexistent," Okeke says. "There are a very few out there, but there are very few considering the ecosystem of biotech research in Houston.”

Okeke says CUBIO has seen interest from out-of-town startups looking for space — and not being able to find it without building it themselves.

"We have created what we call lab offices, which could be individual labs, but we have a main area with all our equipment," he says.

And the new space has room to grow. Right now, CUBIO can support 15 companies in its space. With potential to expand on its current sixth floor and to the fifth floor as well, that could grow to a capacity of 50 companies.

Monthly rent starts at $400 for a workbench and up to $950 for a private office and a workbench in the lab. All of CUBIO's memberships options include incubation support from the team and its network of mentors and experts.

“My personal dream and vision is to help these startups in Houston get what they need — get the resources they need and the support they need to launch," Okeke says.

The CUBIO team offers incubation support for its tenant startups. Photo courtesy of CUBIO

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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.