3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Niloufar Molavi of Central Houston Inc., Dan Purvis of Velentium, and Chris Staffel of Goose Capital. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three innovators — each either new to their role or with a bit of acquistion news.

Niloufar Molavi, board chair at Central Houston Inc.

Niloufar Molavi will lead Central Houston Inc.'s board this year — and she's got fostering innovation on her to-do list. Photo courtesy of CHI

Last week, Nilofar Molavi assumed the role of board chair for Central Houston. She leads PwC's Global energy practice and has served on the CHI board since 2011 and chairs the organization's innovation committee. CHI was among the partners behind the Downtown Launchpad, a 17,000-square-foot innovation hub, which had its grand opening last fall.

"With the fall 2020 opening of Downtown Launchpad, we have deepened our investment in innovation, which we hope will garner long-term results and economic vitality for downtown as well as the Houston region at large," she continues. "We look forward to developing bridge programs with area universities and organizations and leveraging existing resources to bring more high-tech prospects to our central city." Read more.

Dan Purvis, CEO of Velentium

A Houston company has made a strategic acquisition. Photo courtesy of Velentium

Houston-based Velentium, which specializes in the design and manufacturing of medical devices announced that it has acquired Texas company Oasis Testing, a designer of automated test systems for the energy and manufacturing industries.

"Despite the immense challenges facing the business community in 2020, last year was a monumental year of growth for our firm, and we're pleased to start 2021 building upon our world-class team of technical experts," says Dan Purvis, CEO of Velentium, in a news release. "Oasis Testing has been a trusted partner for the last five years and shares in our commitment to solving clients' most complex challenges to change lives for a better world. We're incredibly excited to welcome them to the Velentium family and expand our business more deeply into energy and manufacturing."

Purvis will lead the new combined company as CEO. Read more.

Chris Staffel, managing director at Goose Capital

Goose Capital recently named its new managing director. Photo courtesy of Chris Staffel

Houston-based investment group Goose Capital Inc. named Chris Staffel as managing director — along with Jeff Smisek as the firm's president and Jay Collins as chair of the board of directors.

A serial entrepreneur and investor in over 30 startups, Staffel joins Goose to lead day-to-day operations and drive new investment opportunities.

"It is an honor to join the team at Goose Capital and work alongside experienced industry leaders," Staffel says in the release. "I look forward to leveraging my entrepreneurial experience to help the start-ups in which we invest, while strategically identifying early stage investment opportunities." Read more.

Dan Purvis, CEO of Velentium, will lead the new combined company. Photo courtesy of Veletium

Houston-area medical device engineering firm acquires Texas company

M&A

A engineering firm based in Katy has made a strategic acquisition of a Magnolia, Texas-based company to start of the new year.

Velentium, which specializes in the design and manufacturing of medical devices announced that it has acquired Oasis Testing, a designer of automated test systems for the energy and manufacturing industries.

"Despite the immense challenges facing the business community in 2020, last year was a monumental year of growth for our firm, and we're pleased to start 2021 building upon our world-class team of technical experts," says Dan Purvis, CEO of Velentium, in a news release. "Oasis Testing has been a trusted partner for the last five years and shares in our commitment to solving clients' most complex challenges to change lives for a better world. We're incredibly excited to welcome them to the Velentium family and expand our business more deeply into energy and manufacturing."

The companies will operate under the Velentium name, and Demetri White, co-founder at Oasis Testing, will assume the role of senior program manager to focus on "growing the testing business, serving the oil and gas industry's need for high-pressure high-temperature test, as well as testing in the medical device sector," according to the release.

"We admire and share Velentium's approach to client service, company culture, and results-focused business strategy, and quickly recognized this would be an excellent fit for our team," says White in the. "From our years of partnership, we know that Oasis' expertise in servicing the energy and manufacturing sectors goes hand-in-hand with their ability to provide innovative and world class solutions. Together, we will leverage knowledge across industries to bring mechanical, electrical and software-based solutions that benefit our client base."

The new company will have expanded abilities and will be increasing its production space and headcount as it continues to place an emphasis on its testing and manufacturing capabilities. The added resources for automation and the combined team will lead to dramatic reductions in product test times and increased test system utilization.

Earlier this year, Velentium played a key role in mobilizing thousands of ventilators in the United States at a time when the pandemic and the uncertainty around it was surmounting around the country.

The company's long-time clients Ventec Life Systems, a manufacturer of ventilators based in Washington, said they could increase production of their much-needed ventilators five-fold if they only had the right resources and partners. Velentium first aimed to help the small factory double or triple their production, and later General Motors jumped in to help grow the initiative.

By September 1, Project V delivered its first order of 30,000 ventilators just 154 days after launching. Photo by AJ Mast for General Motors and Ventec

Houston company partners with General Motors, others to boost country’s ventilator supply

vetting ventilators

Houston-based Velentium played a key role in mobilizing thousands of ventilators in the United States at a time when the pandemic and the uncertainty around it was surmounting around the country.

The medical technology company primarily worked in code, software, and cloud-based programs up until March.

"Then we had this opportunity come up in COVID that changed everything for us," says CEO Dan Purvis.

On March 14, an article for Forbes referenced one of Velentium's long-time clients Ventec Life Systems, a manufacturer of ventilators based in Washington. In the article, their client said they could increase production of their much-needed ventilators five-fold if they only had the right resources and partners. Purvis quickly decided that he and his team at Velentium would be one of them.

Velentium first aimed to help the small factory double or triple their production.

"When we first joined the process we were just going to our client, which was a relatively young start up firm, to try to help them go from 120 to 250 [units]," Purvis says.

But then General Motors showed up. And the scale changed dramatically.

The automotive behemoth launched Project V, which would marry it's manufacturing prowess with the technical expertise of the technology and engineering companies to mass produce Ventec's VOCSN ventilator systems. By March 25, operations launched at GM's Kokomo, Indiana, powerhouse plant where they were to produce 10,000 ventilators per month in just about eight week's time.

Velentium was charged with creating 141 automated test stands to verify that every one of Project V's 10,000 units were up to FDA standards. The stands featured 27 unique test systems that monitored 14 critical subcomponents, like air flow in metering valves and oxygen blends, and ultimately approved a ventilator for use through two final tests.

"It's one thing to build [ventilators]," Purvis says. "You need to build them safely, accurately, and in a repeatable way that is going to help people. And that's what our test systems insured."

And though Velentium had created many of these systems before, they had never done so at this scale or speed. Success required around-the-clock work from the then-60-person firm and new risks, that today Purvis says were worth taking.

"I was like, 'If we really want this to work we have to jump on this like nobody's business,'" Purvis recalls. "We bought $2 million worth of parts for test systems essentially at risk. We had not gotten our negotiation with General Motors done yet. But there was no way I could wait an extra week if I had eight weeks to do it. It was kind of terrifying, but it was the right thing to do. It totally aligned with our culture of saving lives."

By September 1, Project V delivered its first order of 30,000 ventilators to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, just 154 days after launching.

Today, Velentium maintains a few team members at the Kokomo facility who run sustaining engineering. Throughout the project, Velentium added 60 team members to their staff and doubled down on manufacturing capabilities. They plan to double their production space again as they continue to place more emphasis on their manufacturing arm, which Purvis says opens up new opportunities for the firm that he hopes only continues to grow.

"One of the big goals for me as a strategic leader at the company was to make sure that pre-Project V to post-Project V the transformation that happened to our company through that period would not regress to where we were before," he says. "We had so much impact and so much growth through that time I didn't ever want to change."

He adds: "We asked the question over and over again during the first few weeks of the pandemic in March: Why not us? If I will continue to ask the question…we can accomplish major things."

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5 can't-miss innovation events at CERAWeek featuring Houston speakers

where to be online

While usually hundreds of energy experts, C-level executives, diplomats, members of royal families, and more descend upon Houston for the the annual CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference, this year will be a little different. Canceled last year due to COVID-19, CERAWeek is returning — completely virtually.

The Agora track is back and focused on innovation within the energy sector. The Agora track's events — thought-provoking panels, intimate pods, and corporate-hosted "houses" — can be accessed through a virtual atrium.

Undoubtedly, many of the panels will have Houston representatives considering Houston's dominance in the industry, but here are five innovation-focused events you can't miss during CERAWeek that feature Houstonians.

Monday — New Horizons for Energy & Climate Research

The COVID-19 pandemic has made vivid and real the risks of an uncontrolled virus. Risks posed by climate change are also becoming more palpable every day. At the forefront of understanding these risks, universities are developing solutions by connecting science, engineering, business, and public policy disciplines. Along with industry and governments, universities are critical to developing affordable and sustainable solutions to meet the world's energy needs and achieve net-zero emission goals. Can the dual challenge of more energy and lower emissions be met? What is some of the most promising energy and climate research at universities? Beyond research, what are the roles and responsibilities of universities in the energy transition?

Featuring: Kenneth B. Medlock, III, James A. Baker, III, and Susan G. Baker Fellow In Energy And Resource Economics, Baker Institute and Senior Director, Center For Energy Studies at Rice University

Catch the panel at 1 pm on Monday, March 1. Learn more.

Tuesday — Conversations in Cleantech: Powering the energy transition

With renewables investment outperforming oil and gas investment for the first time ever in the middle of a pandemic, 2020 was a tipping point in the Energy Transition. Low oil prices intensified energy majors' attention on diversification and expansion into mature and emerging clean technologies such as battery storage, low-carbon hydrogen, and carbon removal technologies. Yet, the magnitude of the Energy Transition challenge requires an acceleration of strategic decisions on the technologies needed to make it happen, policy frameworks to promote public-private partnerships, and innovative investment schemes.

Three Cleantech leaders share their challenges, successes, and lessons learned at the forefront of the Energy Transition. What is their vision and strategy to accelerate lowering emissions and confronting climate change? Can companies develop clear strategies for cleantech investments that balance sustainability goals and corporate returns? What is the value of increasing leadership diversity for energy corporations? Can the Energy Transition be truly transformational without an inclusive workforce and a diverse leadership?

Featuring: Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, which is opening a location in Houston this year.

The event takes place at 11:30 am on Tuesday, March 2. Learn more.

Wednesday — Rice Alliance Venture Day at CERAWeek

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship pitch event will showcase 20 technology companies with new solutions for the energy industry. Each presentation will be followed by questions from a panel of industry experts.

Presenting Companies: Acoustic Wells, ALLY ENERGY, Bluefield Technologies, Cemvita Factory, Connectus Global, Damorphe, Ovopod Ltd., DrillDocs, GreenFire Energy, inerG, Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, Nesh, Pythias Analytics, REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, Revterra, ROCSOLE, Senslytics, Subsea Micropiles, Syzygy Plasmonics, Transitional Energy, and Universal Subsea.

The event takes place at 9 am on Wednesday, March 3. Learn more.

Thursday — How Will the Energy Innovation Ecosystem Evolve?

Although the cleantech innovation ecosystem—research institutions, entrepreneurs, financiers, and support institutions—is diverse and productive, converting cleantech discoveries and research breakthroughs into commercially viable, transformative energy systems has proven difficult. With incumbent energy systems economically efficient and deeply entrenched, cleantech innovation faces a fundamental dilemma—the scale economies necessary to compete require a large customer base that does not yet exist. How is our clean energy innovation ecosystem equipped to be transformative? What needs to be strengthened? Is it profitable to focus on individual elements, or should we consider the system holistically, and reframe our expectations?

Featuring: Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president at Chevron Technology Ventures

The event takes place at 7:30 am on Thursday, March 4. Learn more.

Friday — Cities: Managing crises & the future of energy

Houston is the capital of global energy and for the past four decades the home of CERAWeek. Mayor Sylvester Turner will share lessons from the city's experience with the pandemic, discuss leadership strategies during times of crisis, and explore Houston's evolving role in the new map of energy.

The event takes place at 8 am on Friday, March 5. Learn more.

Rice University develops 2 new innovative tools to detect COVID-19

pandemic tech

Rice University is once again spearheading research and solutions in the ongoing battle with COVID-19. The university announced two developing innovations: a "real-time sensor" to detect the virus and a cellphone tool that can detect the disease in less than an hour.

Sensing COVID
Researchers at Rice received funding for up to $1 million to develop the real-time sensor that promises to detect minute amounts of the airborne virus.

Teams at Rice and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston are working to develop a thin film electronic device that senses as few as eight SARS-CoV-2 viruses in 10 minutes of sampling air flowing at 8 liters per minute, per a press release.

Dubbed the Real-Time Amperometric Platform Using Molecular Imprinting for Selective Detection of SARS-CoV-2 (or, RAPID), the project has been funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Rice notes. Further funding will be contingent upon a successful demonstration of the technology.

Attacking with an app
Meanwhile, the university announced that its engineers have developed a plug-in tool that can diagnose COVID-19 in around 55 minutes. The tool utilizes programmed magnetic nanobeads and a tool that plugs into a basic cellphone.

First, a stamp-sized microfluidic chip measures the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein in blood serum from a standard finger prick.

Then, nanobeads bind to SARS-CoV-2 N protein, a biomarker for COVID-19, in the chip and transport it to an electrochemical sensor that detects minute amounts of the biomarker. Paired with a Google Pixel 2 phone and a plug-in tool, researchers quickly secured a positive diagnosis.

This, researchers argue, simplifies sample handling compared to swab-based PCR tests that must be analyzed in a laboratory.

"What's great about this device is that it doesn't require a laboratory," said Rice engineer Peter Lillehoj in a statement. "You can perform the entire test and generate the results at the collection site, health clinic or even a pharmacy. The entire system is easily transportable and easy to use."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.