Mobile vet business, virtual reality for space, plant-based biotech, and more — all this innovation and more is coming out of Houston startups. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: As 2020 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. This past year, InnovationMap featured profiles on dozens of these Houston startups — from blockchain and software companies to startups with solutions in health care and oil and gas. Here are excerpts of 10 that stood out throughout 2020 — be sure to click through to read the full story.

Houston health tech startup moves into new office amid major growth

BrainCheck has moved to a new office as it grows its team and expands its product. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Following a series A round of fundraising, a Houston digital health startup is on a bit of a hiring spree, leading to new office space the company has room to grow into.

BrainCheck, which was founded in 2015 by neuroscientist David Eagleman, is a cognitive assessment startup that has developed a software tool for primary care doctors to use to assess their patients' cognitive health so that they can more quickly diagnose and treat them for maladies like dementia.

The 19-person company headquartered in Houston — with a secondary office in Austin focused on product development — has relocated its operations from coworking space in the Texas Medical Center to an office in the Rice Village area. The move was made possible by an $8 million series A financing round that closed in October.

"It's pretty exciting to have reached this milestone where we need more space," Yael Katz, co-founder and CEO of BrainCheck, tells InnovationMap. "We were pretty much bursting at the seams in our old office." Click here to continue reading.

Houston startup raises $30M, plans to be 'next iconic chemical company' with plant-based alternatives

Solugen, which uses plant-centered biotechnology to produce environmentally friendly chemicals, has raised an additional $30 million and is speculated to soon reach unicorn status. Photo via solugentech.com

While Forbes recently anointed Houston-based Solugen Inc. as one of the next billion-dollar "unicorns" in the startup world, Dr. Gaurab Chakrabarti shrugs off the unicorn buzz.

Chakrabarti, a physician and scientist who's co-founder and CEO of the startup, concedes he doesn't know whether Solugen will be worth $1 billion or not. But he does know that the startup aspires to be a key competitor in the emerging "climate tech" sector, whose players strive to combat climate change. Chakrabarti estimates the climate-tech chemical space alone represents a global market opportunity valued at $1 trillion to $2 trillion per year.

Solugen's overarching goal in the climate-tech market: Replace petroleum-based chemicals with plant-based substitutes.

"I'd love it if we were the poster child that drives climate tech to be the next big, sexy trend," Chakrabarti says.

Chakrabarti acknowledges Solugen's investors, executives, and employees hope the startup succeeds financially. But success, he believes, goes beyond making money and plotting an exit strategy. Instead, Chakrabarti emphasizes "a shift in thinking" on climate tech that he says promises to transform the fledgling sector into a "true niche" that'll be "good for everyone." Click here to continue reading.

Houston mobile vet company plans to roll out services statewide

A Houston vet has seen growth in business for her mobile vet company due to the pandemic. Now, she's planning major growth. Photo courtesy of Rollin' Vets

It's safe to say that the real winners of work-from-home trends that sparked due to the pandemic are our pets. Dogs and cats that were used to not seeing their owners for eight hours every work day now have 24-hour access to attention, treats, and ear scratches.

This increased attention pets are getting from their owners has also meant an increased awareness of pet health, says Katie Eick, founder of Houston-based Rollin' Vets, a startup that has mobilized veterinary services.

"People are home and observing their animals more. They're seeing and recognizing things they might not have if they were at work all day," Eick says.

That's, of course, not the only way the pandemic has affected business for Eick. She founded her company in 2016 and was seeing steady growth as delivery and on-demand services like Uber, DoorDash, etc. increased in use and awareness. Click here to continue reading.

With fresh funds, this Houston entrepreneur plans to scale his industrial e-commerce startup

Tim Neal, CEO of Houston-based GoExpedi, shares how his company plans to scale following its recent series C closing. Photo by Colt Melrose for GoExpedi

Consumers are getting more and more used to picking up their laptops or phones and ordering everyday items in just a few clicks or taps — and seeing those items delivered in just a few days. To Tim Neal, CEO of Houston-based GoExpedi, ordering parts and tools for industrial businesses should be just as easy.

GoExpedi, which just closed a $25 million series C round, has seen rising demand for its e-commerce platform focused on industrial orders, and Neal credits this demand on a change in mindset within the industrial sector. Additionally, he says he's seen clients more and more focused on cutting costs.

Neal shared his company's plans for growth and scale, as well as how fundraising during a pandemic went, in an interview with InnovationMap. Click here to continue reading.

Family-owned composting startup redesigns how Houston disposes of waste

A Houston-area family has made it their business to help Houstonians reduce waste in a convenient, sustainable way. Photo courtesy of Happy Earth Compost

Jesse Stowers has always strived to do his part for the environment. From recycling and making eco-conscious choices, the Stowers were doing everything right, but was it enough?

The family of five was throwing away two trash bags of waste a day that would later end up in landfills until Stowers stumbled on composting as a solution. In May, he launched Happy Earth Compost, a company set on making Houston more sustainable.

If you're unfamiliar with composting, get ready for a crash course. Composting is a sustainable method of decomposing organic solid wastes and turning that waste into compost, a substance that helps plants grow. Food scraps and household items like rice, pasta, meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, fruits, coffee grounds, spoiled food, and tea bags are just a few of the many things that can be composted rather than thrown away.

"Your food waste and compostable waste is anywhere from 25 to 50 percent depending on the family," explains Stowers. According to Happy Earth Compost, one human creates an estimated 1,642 pounds of trash each year. Click here to continue reading.

Houston virtual reality company collaborates with space health organization

Houston-based Z3VR has been granted $500,000 to work or virtual reality applications in space. Photo courtesy of Z3VR

Houston-based startup Z3VR received a $500,000 grant from Baylor College of Medicine's Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, last month to continue exploring how the wide world of virtual reality can boost mental and physical health for astronauts on a mission to Mars.

Founded in 2017 by a group of emerging tech enthusiasts, Z3VR discovered its niche in what CEO Josh Ruben calls the "intersection of biosensors and VR" and began consulting with TRISH in 2018. Last year, the company received its first funding from the institution to create virtual reality platforms that promote exercise and provide additional sensory experiences for isolated Mars-bound astronauts.

This new grant, however, takes Z3VR's mission one step farther. The year-long grant will allow Z3VR, in partnership with NASA labs in California and Houston, to further develop their VR platform to use eye movement tracking to identify cognitive, psychiatric, or ophthalmological issues before they arise.

Getting out ahead of issues is more important than ever on the Mission to Mars. Because of the duration and distance of the mission, these astronauts will be uniquely isolated and will face a communication lag of up to 45 minutes between space shuttle and command center.

"What that means from a health care perspective is that pretty much everything you need to treat and diagnose these astronauts needs to be self contained on the spacecraft itself," Ruben says. "The system that we are building is sensitive enough to pick up on these cognitive, ophthalmological, and psychiatric conditions well before they become clinically relevant. It'll be long before the astronaut knows there's a problem. That's the hope." Click here to continue reading.

Houston startup — buoyed by Halliburton — plans to scale

Houston-based Nanotech was the first company to be selected for Halliburton Labs, a recently announced startup incubator. Photo via halliburtonlabs.com

A Houston-based material science startup that uses nanotechnology for thermal insulation and fireproofing has been chosen as the first participant of Halliburton Labs, an innovation incubator, announced late last month by the oil and gas giant.

Halliburton Company chose Nanotech Inc., among a round of contenders to be the first participant of their 12-month program located at their Houston headquarters. Halliburton will provide Nanotech with its own office space, access to Halliburton facilities, technical expertise, and an extensive network to accelerate their product to market.

"With Nanotech's shield material we can have fireproofing infrastructure, saving lives and helping save the planet," says Mike Francis, CEO of Nanotech. "But it's tremendously difficult to scale our small lab to take our product globally, so when we heard about this opportunity with Halliburton Labs, we jumped immediately on it."

Nanotech Inc., started with a singular technology and a simple mission to fireproof the world and reduce energy consumption globally. The base nano shield, flex shield, and forged shield products contain nanoparticles ranging from 1 micrometer to 1 nanometer in a water-based solution with other inorganic compounds. The coating is heat resistant, non-flammable, and the nontoxic properties ensure it is sustainable for the environment. Click here to continue reading.Click here to continue reading.

This Houston tech startup is helping businesses find the funds during COVID-19 crisis and beyond

Houston startup Grant Source, which helps its clients find the right grants to apply for, has seen a surge in business amid the coronavirus shutdown. Getty Images

Since 2015, Grant Source has perfected the art of helping businesses, foundations, and organizations find and secure grant funding — and now their expertise has become vital to COVID-19 response initiatives.

With the devastation caused by the novel coronavirus, America's medical organizations have been scrambling to obtain the funds required to purchase the testing kits, masks, PPE, and other life-saving products needed to help curb the effects of the global pandemic and now, thanks to the mobile and web platform, they're getting the assistance they need to accomplish that goal.

"COVID-19 response is actually our claim to fame right now," says Allen Thornton, founder and CEO of Grant Source. "We have probably done more business in the last few months than we have since we started. Simply because we are helping people find grants with the CARES Act. There's over $500 billion out there, which has created overnight a $40 billion market opportunity for us."

Grant Source has worked extensively with city, county, state, and government agencies to secure grant funding, which is why they have become a game changer for those that need emergency capital to combat COVID-19's challenges. Click here to continue reading.

Houston energy tech startup raises $11M to grow its team locally

Houston-based Datagration Solutions Inc. has raised millions in its latest round — led partially by a local VC firm — to grow its local presence. Photo via Datagration Solutions/Facebook

An $11 million round of funding will fuel national and international growth at Houston-based Datagration Solutions Inc., whose cloud-based software aggregates data to improve workflows and analytics at upstream oil and gas operators.

Houston-based venture capital firm Quantum Energy Partners LLC and New York City-based venture capital firm Global Reserve Group LLC led the round. Datagration represents the sixth investment in energy tech involving the duo of Quantum Energy Partners and Global Reserve Group.

Braxton Huggins, chief marketing officer at Datagration, says the new capital will enable the company to build a technology team in Houston; add to its operations, sales, and marketing team in Houston; and supplement its development team in Austria. These new hires will help Datagration expand its national and international market presence, he says.

Huggins says Datagration aims to more than double in size by the end of 2021. The startup currently employs more than 30 people. Click here to continue reading.

Houston startup uses artificial intelligence to bring its clients better business forecasting calculations

Houston-based Complete Intelligence was just recognized by Capital Factory as the "Newcomer of the Year." Photo via completeintel.com

The business applications of artificial intelligence are boundless. Tony Nash realized AI's potential in an underserved niche.

His startup, Complete Intelligence, uses AI to focus on decision support, which looks at the data and behavior of costs and prices within a global ecosystem in a global environment to help top-tier companies make better business decisions.

"The problem that were solving is companies don't predict their costs and revenues very well," says Nash, the CEO and founder of Complete Intelligence. "There are really high error rates in company costs and revenue forecasts and so what we've done is built a globally integrated artificial intelligence platform that can help people predict their costs and their revenues with a very low error rate."

Founded in 2015, Complete Intelligence is an AI platform that forecasts assets and allows evaluation of currencies, commodities, equity indices and economics. The Woodlands-based company also does advanced procurement and revenue for corporate clients.

"We've spent a couple years building this," says Nash. "We have a platform that is helping clients with planning, finance, procurement and sales and a host of other things. We are forecasting equity markets; we are forecasting commodity prices, currencies, economics and trades. We built a model of the global economy and transactions across the global economy, so it's a very large, very detailed artificial intelligence platform."

That platform, CI Futures, has streamlined comprehensive price forecasting and data analysis, allowing for sound, data-based decisions.

"Our products are pretty simple," says Nash. "We have our basic off the shelf forecast which is called CI Futures, which is currencies, commodities, equities and economics and trade. Its basic raw data forecasts. We distribute that raw data on our website and other data distribution websites. We also have a product called Cost Flow, which is our procurement forecasting engine, where we build a material level forecasting for clients." Click here to continue reading.

Houston-based Datagration Solutions Inc. has raised millions in its latest round — led partially by a local VC firm — to grow its local presence. Photo via Datagration Solutions/Facebook

Houston energy tech startup raises $11M to grow its team locally

now hiring

An $11 million round of funding will fuel national and international growth at Houston-based Datagration Solutions Inc., whose cloud-based software aggregates data to improve workflows and analytics at upstream oil and gas operators.

Houston-based venture capital firm Quantum Energy Partners LLC and New York City-based venture capital firm Global Reserve Group LLC led the round. Datagration represents the sixth investment in energy tech involving the duo of Quantum Energy Partners and Global Reserve Group.

Braxton Huggins, chief marketing officer at Datagration, says the new capital will enable the company to build a technology team in Houston; add to its operations, sales, and marketing team in Houston; and supplement its development team in Austria. These new hires will help Datagration expand its national and international market presence, he says.

Huggins says Datagration aims to more than double in size by the end of 2021. The startup currently employs more than 30 people.

Datagration, formerly known as Oilsphere Inc., is a relative newcomer in the oil and gas industry. In May, Datagration acquired Austria-based Myr:Conn Solutions GmbH, which had operated the PetroVisor platform since 2010.

The PetroVisor platform lets customers pull data from legacy systems to streamline processes, keep operating costs and capital expenses in line, and improve workforce efficiency, Huggins says. All of those outcomes are "precisely what is required, given today's low and volatile commodity price environment," he says.

"PetroVisor has already delivered game-changing financial results for many E&P companies and is ready to scale globally," Peter Bernard, executive chairman of Datagration, says in a release. "The platform increases returns [from] legacy brownfield and greenfield reservoirs, and gives engineers more time to make engineering decisions that will improve profitability."

Nine days after Datagration announced the $11 million in funding, the company formally unveiled its executive management team. Aside from Bernard and Huggins, team members are:

  • J. Ike Epley, vice chairman.
  • Jorge Machnizh, president and CEO.
  • Michael Stundner, executive vice president of technology.
  • Dale Sperrazza, chief commercial officer.
  • Kenton Gray, chief technology officer.
  • David Freer, chief financial officer.
  • Carol Piovesan, senior vice president.
  • Tom Jordan, vice president of corporate development.
  • Lars Olrik, vice president of sales.

"Datagration strongly believes that the next industry opportunity is to provide a platform ecosystem that enables open integration and agnostic access to the most valuable company asset, the customer's data," Machnizh says in a letter posted on the company's website.

Market research and advisory firm Mordor Intelligence LLC says price volatility and stepped-up competition in the oil and gas industry are driving the use of big data to make "smart decisions." As a result, the firm says, big data in oil and gas is expected to see "exponential growth" from 2020 to 2025. A paper published in 2018 in the journal Petroleum identified big data analytics as an "emerging trend" for exploration, drilling, reservoir engineering, and production engineering in the upstream sector.

Darryl Willis, global vice president for energy at Microsoft Corp., said at a conference last year in Norway that the industry should brace for a "tsunami" of big data. "Data is the new common denominator that every industry, including the oil and gas business, is grappling with," Willis said.

Ravindra Puranik, oil and gas analyst at data analytics and consulting company GlobalData PLC, says concerns over the decline of profits and the rise of renewable energy are propelling incremental growth of big data in oil and gas.

"The oil and gas industry has always generated huge volumes of data daily across the value chain. However, despite being awash with money, it has been poor at data management," Puranik says. "It is only when profits drop that the industry starts to investigate how to use data to improve operational efficiency. However, this laissez-faire approach is less prevalent now."

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Amazon rolls out hundreds of new electric vans for Houston's holiday delivery season

Electric avenue

Amazon CEO/occasional space traveler Jeff Bezos is doing his best to supplant a certain jolly fellow from the North Pole as tops for holiday gift delivery.

His latest move: Amazon is rolling out more than 1,000 electric delivery vehicles, designed by electric vehicle manufacturer Rivian, ready to make deliveries in more than 100 cities across the U.S. On the Texas good list: Houston, Austin, and Dallas. Bezos' juggernaut began deliveries in Dallas in July, along with Baltimore, Chicago, Kansas City, Nashville, Phoenix, San Diego, Seattle, and St. Louis.

These zero-emissions vans have delivered more than 5 million packages to customers in the U.S., according to Amazon. The latest boost in vehicles now includes Houston and Austin; Boston; Denver; Indianapolis; Las Vegas; Madison, Wisconsin; Newark, New Jersey; New York, Oakland, California; Pittsburgh, Portland, Oregon; Provo, Utah; and Salt Lake City.

Plans for the Amazon and Rivian partnership call for thousands of vehicles on the road by the end of the year and 100,000 vehicles by 2030.

“We’re always excited for the holiday season, but making deliveries to customers across the country with our new zero-emission vehicles for the first time makes this year unique,” said Udit Madan, vice president of Amazon Transportation, in a statement. “We’ve already delivered over 5 million packages with our vehicles produced by Rivian, and this is still just the beginning—that figure will grow exponentially as we continue to make progress toward our 100,000-vehicle goal.”

This all comes as part of Amazon's commitment to reaching net-zero carbon by 2040, as a part of its The Climate Pledge; Amazon promises to eliminate millions of metric tons of carbon per year with it s commitment to 100,000 electric delivery vehicles by 2030, press materials note.

Additionally, Amazon announced plans to invest more than $1 billion over the next five years to further electrify and decarbonize its transportation network across Europe. This investment is meant to spark innovation and encourage more public charging infrastructure across the continent.

“Fleet electrification is essential to reaching the world’s zero-emissions goal,” said Jiten Behl, chief growth officer at Rivian, in a statement. “So, to see our ramp up in production supporting Amazon’s rollout in cities across the country is amazing. Not just for the environment, but also for our teams working hard to get tens of thousands of electric delivery vehicles on the road. They continue to be motivated by our combined mission and the great feedback about the vehicle’s performance and quality.”

A little about the vans: Drivers’ favorite features include a spacious cabin and cargo area, superior visibility with a large windshield and 360-degree cameras, and ventilated seats for fast heating and cooling — a must for Bayou City summers ... or winters, for that matter.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston low-carbon fuel company scores United investment, plans to IPO via spac

big moves

It’s been a momentous month for Houston-based NEXT Renewable Fuels Inc.

On November 15, United Airlines Ventures announced an investment of up to $37.5 million in the next-generation, low-carbon fuel producing company.

Just a week later, the company revealed it’s going public through a SPAC merger with Industrial Tech Acquisitions II Inc. The deal, expected to close in the second quarter of 2023, assigns a $666 million equity value to NEXT. The publicly traded company will be named NXTCLEAN Fuels Inc.

NEXT, founded in 2016, produces low-carbon fuels from organic feedstock. The company plans to open a biofuel refinery in Port Westward, Oregon, that’s set to start production in 2026. The refinery could produce up to 50,000 barrels per day of sustainable aviation fuel, renewable diesel, and other renewable fuels.

“West Coast states are demanding a clean fuels conversion of the transportation and aviation industries with aggressive targets necessitating rapid increases in clean fuel supplies,” Christopher Efird, executive chairman and CEO of NEXT, says in a news release. “[The company] is advancing toward becoming one of the largest U.S.-based suppliers of clean fuels for these markets, and is investigating and pursuing potential vertical expansion into other clean fuels.”

The proposed public listing of NEXT’s stock on the Nasdaq market and United’s investment are poised to help NEXT reach its goal of becoming a leader in the clean fuel sector. United’s investment appears to be the first equity funding for NEXT.

“Right now, one of the biggest barriers to increasing supply and lowering costs of sustainable fuel is that we don’t have the infrastructure in place to transport it efficiently, but NEXT’s strategic location and assets solve that problem and provide a blueprint for future facilities that need to be built,” Michael Leskinen, president of United Airline Ventures, says in a news release.

United’s investment arm, launched in 2021, targets ventures that will complement the airline’s goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.