This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Grant Watkins and Keely McEnery of Earn Your Freedom, Richard Seline of the Resilience Manufacturing Hub, and Tim Latimer of Fervo Energy. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to four local innovators across industries — from financial edtech to geothermal energy — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Grant Watkins and Keely McEnery, co-founders of Earn Your Freedom

Grant Watkins and Keely McEnery, co-founders of Earn Your Freedom, join the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photos courtesy of EYF

Houston-based Earn Your Freedom combines edtech, fintech, and gaming, as the co-founders, Grant Watkins and Keely McEnery explain on last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Both Watkins and McEnery have overcome personal finance obstacles, as they share on the show, and they aren't alone. Sixty-seven percent of Americans are considered financially illiterate, McEnery says, and 60 percent lives paycheck to paycheck.

"It's becoming more and more apparent how financially illiterate our country is," she continues. "It's a different mindset. People could be making $100,000 a year but if they don't know how to manage their money, they're still going to be in a cycle of not being financially free."

EYF's solution is a comprehensive, entertaining way for high school students to learn. And the timing is great, since Texas recently passed a bill about providing financial literacy education in high schools. Read more.

Richard Seline, co-founder and managing director of the Resilience Innovation Hub

A 130,000-square-foot Resilience Manufacturing Hub is coming to the Second Ward. Photo courtesy

Houston will soon have a 130,000-square-foot Resilience Manufacturing Hub that will house functions such as R&D, manufacturing, and assembly for products aimed at improving the resilience of homes, office buildings, warehouses, and other components of the “built environment.”

“We are looking for any product or technology solution that can reduce the impact from the next generation of disasters … by helping people thrive, not just survive, in their own community,” says Richard Seline, co-founder and managing director of the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub. The innovation hub is a partner in the manufacturing hub.

Seline says the manufacturing hub, with an estimated price tag of $32 million, will directly employ about 60 people. He expects the facility to either generate or “upskill” about 240 off-site jobs. Read more.

Tim Latimer, CEO and co-founder of Fervo Energy

Houston-based Fervo Energy shared the results of its commercial pilot project with Google. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston-based Fervo Energy announced this week that its commercial pilot project has resulted in continuous carbon-free geothermal energy production. The full-scale commercial pilot, Project Red, is in northern Nevada and made possible through a 2021 partnership with Google.

“By applying drilling technology from the oil and gas industry, we have proven that we can produce 24/7 carbon-free energy resources in new geographies across the world," Tim Latimer, Fervo Energy CEO and co-founder, says in a news release. "The incredible results we share today are the product of many years of dedicated work and commitment from Fervo employees and industry partners, especially Google." Read more.

Grant Watkins and Keely McEnery, co-founders of Earn Your Freedom, join the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photos courtesy of EYF

Why these Houston founders are gamifying financial literacy education

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 195

Houston co-founders Grant Watkins and Keely McEnery are a team when it comes to building their business — but the two are locked into a very serious competition on their phones.

"Keeley and I are both avid users of Duolingo which is, in my opinion, still the best like best example of gamification for education," Watkins says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"Just the simple 'keep your streak alive,'" he explains, adding that he's recently crossed the one-year mark of daily participation, "it keeps me incentivized to keep my street going. I don't even want to learn Spanish anymore. I just want to I just don't want to lose to Keely."

Watkins is inspired by the app — not only to learn a foreign language, but to apply a similar gamification to financial literacy. He learned to code in 2021 and founded Earn Your Freedom, launching the Money Quest game in April after bringing on McEnery, a business student at the University of Houston, as co-founder and COO.

Both Watkins and McEnery have overcome personal finance obstacles, as they share on the show, and they aren't alone. Sixty-seven percent of Americans are considered financially illiterate, McEnery says, and 60 percent lives paycheck to paycheck.

"It's becoming more and more apparent how financially illiterate our country is," she continues. "It's a different mindset. People could be making $100,000 a year but if they don't know how to manage their money, they're still going to be in a cycle of not being financially free."

EYF's solution is a comprehensive, entertaining way for high school students to learn. And the timing is great, since Texas recently passed a bill about providing financial literacy education in high schools.

"Texas is not alone in this. There are actually 23 other states that have recently either passed or in the process of passing financial literacy bills, and most of them are aimed at high schools," Watkins explains. "I do believe high school is kind of the last best opportunity to teach them. When we're traveling around the state and talking to these kids, we're seeing the juniors and seniors in high school very engaged with this information."

The duo, which originally connected at the Ion and volunteering with the G-Unity Foundation, has tapped into the Houston innovation ecosystem to help grow their network and connections to do more of the game's testing in Houston schools. Most recently, EYF announced its first crowdfunding campaign with the support of Impact Hub Houston, a community supporting impact-driven startups and opportunities. The campaign, launched online earlier this month, is seeking $100,000 to further expand its testing in students.

Watkins and McEnery share more about the game, their plans for the business, and more on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Houston's health tech and startup ecosystem has some recent news to catch up on. Photo via Getty Images

Houston health tech startups announce exec, funding — plus more innovation news

SHORT STORIES

Houston startup founders have been moving and shaking in the local innovation ecosystem — from growing their executive boards to raising fresh grant funding.

In this roundup of Houston startup and innovation news, a startup opens a crowdfunding round, a Houston hospital system taps into new technology, and more.

Coya Therapeutics names new president and chief medical officer

Fred Grossman will assume his new role next week. Photo via LinkedIn

Coya Therapeutics Inc. (NASDAQ: COYA), a revolutionary biotech company based in Houston, named Dr. Fred Grossman as president and chief medical officer. The clinical-stage company, which has developed a biologics therapy that prevents further spreading of neurodegenerative diseases by making regulatory T cells functional again, announced the closing of its $15.25 million IPO in January.

According to the company, Dr. Grossman's position, which was held by Dr. Adrian Hepner, is effective July 17.

“We are grateful for Dr. Hepner’s leadership and excellence in positioning Coya and look forward to having him continue to collaborate with the company in moving our assets forward," Howard H. Berman, CEO of Coya, says in a news release. "We also welcome Dr. Grossman, who brings decades of clinical development experience and successful execution."

Dr. Grossman has held executive positions at Eli Lilly, Johnson & Johnson, Bristol Myers Squibb, Sunovion, Glenmark Pharmaceuticals, and Mesoblast Inc. (NASDAQ: MESO), developing allogeneic cellular therapies for inflammatory diseases.

CellChorus receives another SBIR grant

CellChorus, a biotech startup operating out of the University of Houston Technology Bridge, has secured additional funding. Photo via Getty Images

Fresh off a $2.3 million grant last month, Houston-based CellChorus, a single-cell analysis company, has another grant to celebrate.

The U.S. National Science Foundation has awarded CellChorus a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant to advance development of its Time-lapse Imaging Microscopy In Nanowell Grids, known as TIMING. The funding will be used to develop novel microscale arrays to support scaling dynamic single-cell analysis.

“This funding will further development of novel arrays to build on the success of our early access laboratory based in Houston,” says Mohsen Fathi, head of technology at CellChorus, in a press release. “This project will support scaling the only platform that can evaluate migration, contact dynamics, killing, survival, subcellular activity, and biomolecule secretion for the same individual cell over time and in high throughput to improve development and delivery of novel therapies.”

According to the release, the company is receiving more than $274,000 as a part of the grant, but CellChorus has the potential of receiving up to $2 million from the second phase.

“This award builds on our recent funding from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to advance development of a dedicated instrument platform for TIMING,” says Daniel Meyer, CEO of CellChorus, in the release.

Memorial Hermann partners with TMC-backed virtual OB-GYN care

Two Houston-area hospitals now have access to this digital health startup's platform. Photo via Getty Images

The Memorial Hermann Health System has entered into a partnership with Washington, D.C.-based Babyscripts, a virtual care platform for managing obstetrics. The company is backed by the Texas Medical Center's venture fund and has existing ties to the city.

"Memorial Hermann strives to make Greater Houston a place where every woman's pregnancy, delivery and postpartum experience is successful and safe. This innovative partnership is a continuation of that commitment," says Dr. Victoria Regan, vice president of Women's and Children's Services at Memorial Hermann, in a news release.

Now, Memorial Hermann patients will be able to access Babyscripts myJourney, an app that delivers educational content, email campaigns, satisfaction surveys, appointment reminders, and more. The first two hospitals to receive access are Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center and Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Medical Center, with plans to expand the program.

"The ability to access adequate prenatal and postpartum care is one of the largest predictors of maternal and infant health outcomes," says Anish Sebastian, CEO and co-founder of Babyscripts in the release. "With Babyscripts, Memorial Hermann is able to streamline the maternal health experience across their system, adding opportunities for access and providing consistent, high-quality pregnancy care to all patients, regardless of race, income, geography or risk."

Earn Your Freedom launches crowdfunding campaign with Houston nonprofit's support

Earn Your Freedom is looking for financial support from its community. Photo via houston.impacthub.net

Earn Your Freedom, a Houston startup that's gamifying personal finance education, has launched its first crowdfunding campaign in partnership with Impact Hub Houston.

The goal for EYF is to raise $100,000 to support its gaming programs with local schools. Impact Hub Houston is the fiscal sponsor for the raise, which is officially live and open for contributions.

The innovative and interactive web and mobile video game, which officially launched earlier this year to celebrate Financial Literacy Month, was designed to help kids build a strong foundation in money management, economics and investment in a fun and engaging way. It features challenges and real-world scenarios such as renting a first apartment, opening a first bank account, budgeting at the grocery store, buying stocks and index funds and renting or buying real estate.

“We envision a society where financial literacy is accessible to all, and where individuals are enabled with the tools to take control of their financial futures," says Keely McEnery, EYF co-founder and COO, in a press release. "We are bridging the gap between education and application, stepping in before the real-world consequences take place.”

A Houston innovator has created a video game that teaches users money fundamentals. Image via eyf.money

Houston startup launches gamified financial education tool

let's play

The fact that the average American would struggle to cover a $400 emergency expense is a sign that there’s a dire need for a better understanding of financial literacy in this country.

But where is the proper starting point? What is the best age to start learning about debt, credit, inflation, loans, stocks, index funds, and personal finance?

According to Grant Watkins, founder of Earn Your Freedom, or EYF, and the startup’s new educational video game, Money Quest, the best time for people to start learning the basics of personal finance and economics is when they’re young.

“I stress to kids that the biggest advantage they have right now is their youth,” says former salesman turned entrepreneur Watkins. “If nothing else, I want kids to play our game to learn the value of compound interest. They’re young, so they should start early, plan early, be strategic, and have fun, life isn’t just all work. But the more you invest early, the more you’re going to have later.”

After realizing that it was best to teach solid financial principles to young people, it was a no-brainer to reach the conclusion that the best way for them to learn was via an educational video game.

That’s where Money Quest comes in.

The innovative and interactive web and mobile video game, which officially launched this month to celebrate Financial Literacy Month, was designed to help kids build a strong foundation in money management, economics and investment in a fun and engaging way. It features challenges and real-world scenarios such as renting a first apartment, opening a first bank account, budgeting at the grocery store, buying stocks and index funds and renting or buying real estate.

All of this is set up in the game’s imaginary city called Prosperity Point.

But before Watkins was able to get to his own Prosperity Point, he was in dire straits financially himself.

At only 27 years old, the native of Katy, Texas, and graduate of Oral Roberts University, found himself trying to get his own personal finances in order three or four years ago and quickly realized that had he been taught how to be an adult and all of the different financial obligations that come with that, it could have saved him from racking up thousands of dollars in debt and making other costly financial mistakes.

“After diving into it, I said, ‘Well, this is a pain, but I bet whoever solves this problem, it would be pretty great for them and everyone else in society,’” says Watkins, who lived in Beijing, China and worked in contract sales, before moving back to the United States. “So, I started working on this idea for Money Quest with the central focus on how I could make financial literacy more engaging?”

With the thread of an idea, Watkins joined Houston’s startup community in August 2021 and began to pull at it and after a prompt from Gamification Advisor Cal Miller, began learning how to code so he could build out his educational video game.

“After getting to the point where it was apparent that I couldn’t afford to get someone else to do it, I rolled up my sleeves and started teaching myself how to code,” says Watkins. “I learned it from free resources like Free Code Camp and Code Academy and we started building it in this specific programming language that we built this game in and just started from scratch.

“We went from one little house, to building an 8-bit character, to building out a road, to now it’s grown into a full-fledged city, with banks and grocery stores and cafes.”

For Watkins, half of his job is building the game and the other half is learning how to be better at building it.

When it came time to market Money Quest, he turned to CMO Keely McEnery, a 22-year-old student at the University of Houston’s Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship.

“Grant is a very smart, driven person, so I’m happy to be on this team, we complement each other very well,” says McEnery. “Money Quest is still a work in progress, it has come a long way since the beginning. Moving forward, we are going to be adding content to the game on a monthly basis and always creating more value.”

The partnership between Watkins and McEnery came at the right time because Texas has started passing laws like Texas Senate Bill 1063, which requires a semester of financial literacy in schools.

“Before COVID-19, there were only three states that had any sort of financial literacy requirements,” says Watkins. “But now, post-COVID, there’s 17 states that have already passed or are in the process of passing financial literacy bills.”

To that end, EYF is working diligently to make sure Money Quest meets the requirements of school curriculums across the country.

“All the studies coming out right now about gaming and education are overwhelmingly positive,” says McEnery. “With things like higher retention rates through gaming education. In fact, it’s dramatically higher.”

In addition to working with the Texas Education Agency and school districts like HISD all over the state of Texas, Watkins and team are working with banks that want to connect with their local high schools and middle schools to talk about financial literacy.

“We’re that perfect partner to connect with those schools and banks,” says Watkins. “They need to work with us because of Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) credits and it makes it a lot easier to connect with their local communities using us instead of just using pamphlets.”

As Watkins continues to bring Money Quest to the masses, he’s experimenting with creative ways for supporters of the game to get involved such as purchasing special NPC’s.

But as EYF builds its game’s brand recognition and begins to proliferate school curriculums, Watkins remains steadfast in his original goal to empower the next generation with the knowledge and skills to achieve financial freedom, which is the best kind of freedom as far as he’s concerned.

“At the end of the day, I want kids to learn to use money wisely, and not blow all their money in their 20s and get into high debt,” says Watkins. “I want to see them learn to be very strategic with their money from the beginning because not doing so will have repercussions down the line.

“I want to instill in them the importance of financial responsibility, smart money management, and economic literacy, so they can build a better financial future for themselves and their communities.”

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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.