This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Sarah Hein of March Biosciences, Sean Kelly of Amperon, Donnell Debnam Jr. of the Google in Residence program, and the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards judges. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries, from biotech to energy software, recently making headlines in Houston innovation — plus the decision makers for the Houston Innovation Awards.

Sarah Hein, CEO and co-founder of March Biosciences

Early-stage cell therapy startup March Biosciences has partnered with CTMC. Photo via march.bio

Named in part after one of the best months out of the year for Houstonians, March Biosciences has entered into a uniquely Houston partnership. Sarah Hein, CEO and co-founder of the cancer immunotherapy startup, met her co-founders at the TMC Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics.

“It's a perfect example of the opportunities here in Houston where you can go from bench to bedside, essentially, in the same institution. And Baylor has been particularly good at that because of the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy,” says Hein.

The company recently announced a partnership with another Houston institution, CTMC. Read more.

Sean Kelly, CEO and co-founder of Amperon

It's payday for a startup that's improving analytics for its energy customers. Photo via Getty Images

Amperon Holdings Inc. raised $20 million in its latest round of funding in order to accelerate its energy analytics and grid decarbonization technology.

The fresh funding will support the company in evolving its platform that conducts electricity demand forecasting to a comprehensive data analytics solution.

“The energy transition is creating unprecedented market volatility, and Amperon is uniquely positioned to help market participants better navigate the transitioning grid – both in the U.S. and as we expand globally,” Sean Kelly, CEO and co-founder of Amperon, says. Read more.

Donnell Debnam Jr., instructor in the Google in Residence program

Thanks to Google, Donnell Debnam Jr. is helping train future software engineers at Prairie View A&M University. Photo via LinkedIn

Computer science students at Prairie View A&M University are gaining firsthand knowledge this semester from a Google software engineer.

As an instructor in the Google in Residence program, Donnell Debnam Jr. is helping train future software engineers — and other potential tech professionals — who are enrolled this fall in Prairie View A&M’s introductory computer science course. Fifty-four students are taking the class.

“I participated in the Google in Residence program as a student, and I am honored to return as an instructor,” says Debnam. “This innovative program was created to support greater diversity in the tech industry, and as an instructor, I have the privilege of helping the next generation of software engineers create a more inclusive culture within the STEM fields.” Read more.

2023 Houston Innovation Awards judges

Bonus innovators to know: The 10 Houstonians deciding the finalists and winners for this year's Houston Innovation Awards. Photos courtesy

Ten Houstonians are in the hot seat for deciding the best companies and individuals in Houston's innovation ecosystem.

InnovationMap has announced its 2023 Houston Innovation Awards judging panel, which includes startup founders, nonprofit leaders, investors, corporate innovators, and more.

Meet the 10 selected judges who will evaluate applications from the nearly 400 nominations that were submitted this year. Read more.

Thanks to Google, Donnell Debnam Jr. is helping train future software engineers at Prairie View A&M. Photo via LinkedIn

Google program plants software expert at Houston-area university

meet the faculty

Computer science students at Prairie View A&M University are gaining firsthand knowledge this semester from a Google software engineer.

As an instructor in the Google in Residence program, Donnell Debnam Jr. is helping train future software engineers — and other potential tech professionals — who are enrolled this fall in Prairie View A&M’s introductory computer science course. Fifty-four students are taking the class.

“I participated in the Google in Residence program as a student, and I am honored to return as an instructor,” says Debnam. “This innovative program was created to support greater diversity in the tech industry, and as an instructor, I have the privilege of helping the next generation of software engineers create a more inclusive culture within the STEM fields.”

Prairie View A&M is one of 14 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic-serving schools that are benefiting this fall from the Google residency program. Since being founded in 2013, the program has enabled more than 8,000 college students across the country to absorb knowledge from Google tech professionals.

The Google program addresses a nationwide gap in tech diversity.

A 2023 report from CompTIA, a trade group for the tech industry, shows Black professionals make up 12 percent of the U.S. workforce but eight percent of tech occupations, while Hispanic professionals represent 17 percent of the U.S. workforce but eight percent of tech occupations.

Prairie View A&M, an HBUC, is one of two Texas universities in this fall’s program. The other is the University of Texas at El Paso, a Hispanic-serving school. The main campus of Prairie View A&M is roughly 45 miles northwest of Houston.

Google says Debnam is equipping students at Prairie View A&M “with the skills needed to enter the workforce, such as fundamental coding concepts, how to debug, and how to prepare for technical interviews.”

As a student in 2017, Debnam participated in the Google residency program at Hampton University, an HBCU in Hampton, Virginia. In a LinkedIn post, Debnam wrote that since then, “I always said to myself and others that if I could figure out a way to get into Google someday, I would make it a priority to try to be part of this program.”

After completing two Google internships and earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Hampton, Debnam joined the tech giant as a full-time software engineer in 2021.

“If you know me, you know I have a passion for tech, but an even deeper passion for working with students and being a resource in any way possible,” he wrote on LinkedIn.

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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.