Houston researchers are commercializing their organ 3D printing technology. Jordan Miller/Rice University

There may come a time when you or someone you love is in need of a new pair of lungs. Or perhaps it's a liver. It's not a scenario anyone dreams of, but thanks to Houston company Volumetric, you may never end up on a waiting list. Instead, that organ is made to order and 3D printed using a mix of medical plastics and human cells.

And this possibility isn't necessarily in the distant future. On the cover of the May 3 issue of the journal Science, is a contraption that looks a bit like a futuristic beehive. It's a working air sac complete with blood vessels, the beginnings of a technology that is perhaps only a decade from being implanted in humans. And it was crafted on a 3D printer in Jordan Miller's lab at Rice University.

Yes, there are shades of another Houston story — Denton Cooley's implantation of the first artificial heart — but Cooley only inserted the organ. Miller and his bioengineering graduate student Bagrat Grigoryan are primed to profit from their inventions.

In 2018, they started Volumetric Inc., a company that sells both the hydrogel solutions used for printing organs like theirs and the printers themselves. Touring Miller's lab in the Houston Medical Center is a visual timeline of his team's progress designing printers. The version being manufactured is a slick little number, small enough to fit under chemical exhaust hoods, but fitted with everything necessary to print living tissues. It's made and sold in cooperation with CellInk, a larger bioprinting company.

"Our technology is based on projection," Miller explains. Specifically, it's stereolithography, a type of 3D printing that produces the finished product layer-by-layer. Shining colored light of the right intensity turns the polymers into a solid gel.

But why start a company when Miller and Grigoryan are already busy with research?

"If we want to do translational research, commercialization is important," reasons Miller. "We need to build the market to get that technology into the world."

Miller explains that usually the inventor of a technology is the best one to bring it to market.

"When we were building this technology in the lab we saw the potential for commercialization," he recalls. "We do see that this technology is highly scalable. We do think it can have a positive impact on tissue models in a lab."

Those tissue models could one day make not just scientists, but also animal rights activists, very happy. With the technology that Volumetric is developing, scientists could eventually print human cells so well that animal models would be far less accurate in predicting the success that the product being tested would have on humans.

As academics, though, Miller and Grigoryan weren't sure how to start a company. Fortunately, there is the National Science Foundation (NSF) and its I-Corps program. The pair spent a couple of weeks doing a regional program that taught scientists how to commercialize their technology.

"They want to see funded research get out of the lab," Miller says, explaining that they moved on to the national I-Corps program while Miller was on sabbatical from teaching at Rice, allowing them to interview potential customers.

This gave them the confidence to launch last year. Grigoryan now works full-time at the Med Center incubator and accelerator, Johnson & Johnson's JLabs. He has a team of two other scientists on staff.

"It would have been a lot harder to get started if we didn't have a space like JLabs available," Miller says. It also helps, he adds, that JLabs takes no equity, only helping the fledgling brand to finalize its market and get hooked in with potential investors.

Volumetric has its demo units ready to go and expects to start shipping printers in late June, pending final certifications.

"We believe we have technology to make organ replacements for people," Miller says.

And someday soon, long waits for a new set of lungs and a life of antirejection drugs could be a thing of the past.


Rice University bioengineers (from left) Bagrat Grigoryan, Jordan Miller and Daniel Sazer and collaborators created a breakthrough bioprinting technique that could speed development of technology for 3D printing replacement organs and tissues. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Houston is still — but most accounts — emerging as a tech and innovation hub, which could seem to mean that the startups that make up the innovation ecosystem reside in early stages of business scale.

However, this week's sampling of Houston innovators to know demonstrate the scope in scale of Houston's companies — from a CEO to a newly public company and recently hired CEO of a rapidly scaling software company to a health tech leader fresh out of the gates.

John Berger, CEO of Sunnova

Photo courtesy of Sunnova

Taking a company public brings on a slew of changes. One that might be overlooked is the change for the leader of that company. John Berger —CEO of Sunnova, a Houston-based solar energy company that went public last summer — joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the changes and where his company is headed.

Transitioning from a private company CEO to a public company CEO has been eye opening, Berger says on the podcast, joking that he now has to watch what he says. But change is ultimately something Berger says he embraces.

"I really look at myself and how I can change myself," Berger says. "I'm a different CEO today than I was 12 months ago, and hopefully I'll be a different CEO in 12 months, because the company demands it." Read more and stream the episode here.

Mary Beth Snodgrass, co-founder of Healthiby

Mary Beth Snodgrass is convinced she can help people make life-enhancing changes that affect health and financial situations because, well, science.

The co-founder of Healthiby created the platform to use financial incentives to drive positive health and wellness decisions. The Houston company is in pilot mode but has plans to expand.

"What we're really focused on this year is, in addition to our incentives, digital content and coach guidance, is making sure that participants are engaging among themselves," Snodgrass tells InnovationMap. "Science shows there are benefits to surrounding yourself with other people who share similar health goals." Read more.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software

Photo courtesy of Quorum

A new CEO is tasked with exponential growth at a Houston-based software company. Gene Austin joined Houston-based Quorum Software last year at a time of rapid M&A activity.

The energy industry software solutions provider, which is a portfolio company of California-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo LLC since 2018, has big plans to continue the exponential growth with more acquisitions that diversify their portfolio of services and a Houston office expansion later this year. According to Austin, he expects this growth spurred by M&A activity to double Quorum's revenue of $200 million in the next 3 to 5 years.

"We are always thinking about how to best serve our customers," Austin says. "We've made millions of dollars of investments in our support organization and cloud team services that are foundational to reinvigorate innovation and help our customers see how the future can unfold for them." Read more.

Houston listed among top cities expected to see office job growth

new hires

Texas cities — including the Houston area — will see a slew of new office jobs this year, according to a new projection.

Commercial real estate services company CBRE predicts Houston will see a 1.9 percent rise in office jobs this year compared to last year. That ranks Houston as the No. 4 spot for anticipated office-job growth in 2020 among U.S. markets with at least 37.5 million square feet of office space. Office jobs include those in the tech, professional services, and legal sectors.

"Tech, talent, and low taxes continue to fuel Texas' rising status as an inevitable, leading force in the U.S. economy," Ian Anderson, Americas head of office research at CBRE, says in the release. "2020 will be another year where companies and people from around the country relocate to the Lone Star State, leaving most of the rest of the country in envy of the growth in Dallas, Houston, and Austin."

Dallas only narrowly outpaced Houston in the ranking coming in at No. 3 with 2.1 percent expected growth. Austin, however, is the big Texas winner with an expected 2.6 percent rise in office jobs this year compared with last year. That puts Austin in first place on the ranking, edging out San Francisco for the top spot in CBRE's forecast, published January 9. The company predicts a 2.5 percent increase in San Francisco office jobs this year versus last year.

Personal finance website WalletHub recently ranked San Francisco and Austin third and fourth, respectively, on its list of the U.S. best cities to find a job.

"It's not surprising that the forecast for Austin is extremely bright, and we expect that technology companies and professional firms will still drive the demand for more [offices]," Troy Holme, executive vice president in the Austin office of CBRE, says in a January 22 release.

In November, Austin's unemployment rate decreased to 2.5 percent from 2.6 percent in October and 2.7 percent in September, according to the Texas Workforce Commission. Austin's jobless rate in November was the third lowest among the state's metro areas; Dallas-Fort Worth's rate was at 3 percent, while Houston's was at 3.6 percent.

CBRE says the growth of office jobs was more robust in the top U.S. markets last year than it is estimating for 2020. Dallas (5.7 percent) leads the 2019 list, followed by San Francisco (5.2 percent), Seattle (4.2 percent), Houston (3.7 percent), and Charlotte, North Carolina (3.6 percent).

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston-based energy logistics software prepares to hire, raise funds as it scales up

now hiring

Many startups turn to offshore outsourcing to fuel their growth. The Now Network, a Houston-based energy tech startup, is doing just the opposite — relying on stateside in-sourcing.

The SaaS company is in the midst of building out its in-house development team, including full stack developers and UX/UI designers. This year, The Now Network plans to add another four to six developers, on top of the six who already are on board. Stacey McCroskey, the company's director of product since September 2019, leads the team.

Previously, the development team consisted of more than a dozen contract workers in Ukraine and India, says Mush Khan, president of The Now Network. Khan assumed the president's role in May 2019.

"We believe that having our own in-house team drives a sense of ownership over the product. We have to eat our own cooking. because what we build, we have to support," Khan says.

Compared with the outsourcing model, the in-house team enables the company to more quickly release higher-quality products and more quickly respond to customers' needs, he says.

"Over the years, The Now Network has seen immense growth, consistently advancing its technology framework to drive faster payments, increased driver retention, an expanded 3PL network, and increased business revenue," Sam Simon, the company's founder, chairman, and CEO, says in a release. "The addition of an in-house development team will only amplify this growth, promoting more opportunities for cross-collaboration and customer feedback, to expand upon and refine existing features."

Members of the in-house development team are working on expansion of The Now Network's last-mile logistics platform for wholesalers, third-party logistics (3PL) carriers, drivers, and users of fuel. Khan says the platform offers "complete visibility and accuracy" throughout the fuel delivery process.

Competition for tech talent in Houston industries like energy and manufacturing is ramping up as the region evolves as "a fast-paced, innovative environment," he says.

"We believe companies like ours offer an opportunity to build a product from the ground up," Khan says, "and in an environment that allows them to express themselves creatively."

In June 2019, staffing firm Robert Half Technology put Houston in fourth place for the anticipated volume of IT hiring in U.S. cities during the second half of the year.

"The technology market in Houston remains strong as more companies are investing in systems upgrades, focusing on security, and taking on digital projects," Robert Vaughn, Robert Half Technology's regional vice president in Houston, said in a release. "The candidate market remains tight, and companies that prolong the interview process or don't make competitive offers tend to have the hardest time staffing open roles."

Today, The Now Network employs 15 people, all but one of whom works in Houston. The company expects to grow its workforce to around 30 by the end of 2020, Khan says. To accommodate the larger headcount, The Now Network is moving this month from WeWork at the Galleria to a 6,000-square-foot office in the Upper Kirby neighborhood.

To help finance its growth, The Now Network will soon launch its first-ever fundraising effort. Khan says the company will seek more than $5 million in investment capital.

Founded in 2015, The Now Network strives to simplify the last mile of the "energy ecosystem," which Khan describes as "slow, opaque, and expensive." Its SaaS platform automates delivery functions in the energy supply chain, doing away with manual labor and tedious paperwork, he says.

Since early 2018, the startup has handled more than 180,000 customer transactions involving over 1.8 billion gallons of fuel.

The Now Network is a portfolio company of Simon Group Holdings, a private equity firm based in Birmingham, Michigan. One of its key areas of focus is the energy sector.

In 2017, The Now Network (previously known as FuelNow Network) entered a strategic partnership with Houston-based Motiva Enterprises LLC, a fuel refiner, distributor, and retailer owned by Saudi Refining Inc. Khan says his company is collaborating with Motiva to roll out The Now Network platform to U.S. fuel wholesalers.

"As of now, Motiva doesn't have a stake in our company," he says.

Motiva owns East Texas' 3,600-acre Port Arthur Refinery, the largest oil refinery in North America, with a daily capacity of more than 600,000 barrels. State-controlled Saudi Aramco — which went public last year in an IPO valued at $2 trillion — owns Saudi Refining.