A Houston-based software startup received a multimillion-dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health for its work within neurophysiology. Getty Images

Armed with a nearly $3.8 million federal grant, a Houston startup aims to boost neuroscience research around the world.

Vathes LLC, a developer of data management software that collaborates with neuroscience research labs in North America and Europe, recently received the $3.78 million grant from the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). That initiative is part of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Vathes says the NIH funding will enable the startup to ramp up its DataJoint Pipelines for Neurophysiology project. The project aims to make open-source software for data science and engineering available to researchers who specialize in neurophysiology, a branch of neuroscience that looks at how the nervous system functions. The pipeline project holds the promise of benefiting research in areas like autism, Alzheimer's disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease).

The project's principal investigator is Dimitri Yatsenko, vice president of research and development at Vathes. Technologically speaking, neuroscientists are playing catch-up with their counterparts in fields like astrophysics, genomics, and bioinformatics, according to Yatsenko.

Neuroscience "is undergoing a fast transformation in terms of moving toward much more data-centric, data-intensive, computation-intensive, and collaborative projects," Yatsenko says. This means that neuroscientists are "now finding themselves having to quickly adapt to an environment," he adds, "where they have to share big data and computations with their collaborators in very dynamic settings and perform them in a very fluid way."

Yatsenko says the NIH-funded project will help smaller research groups tap into the technical expertise of larger research labs.

Vathes' DataJoint Neuro platform and services, which help create so-called DataJoint pipelines, enable neuroscientists to streamline, analyze, and visualize complex data. Among its customers are Princeton University's Neuroscience Institute and Columbia University's Zuckerman Institute. The federally funded project will empower smaller labs to capitalize on existing DataJoint pipelines as ready-to-go turnkey packages, Yatsenko says.

In essence, Vathes' technology acts as a translator. Big research labs collect data in databases that can vary by computer language and platform. Through the Vathes setup, that data can be incorporated by a lab of any size into algorithmic, machine learning, and artificial intelligence mechanisms, regardless of the computer language or platform.

Edgar Walker, CEO of Vathes, says this simplifies the construction and use of databases, giving scientists "more room to focus on the logic of their data pipeline rather than on the physical implementation of it."

Founded in 2016, Vathes is housed at the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute. It employs 10 people. The startup previously received a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Yatsenko says the project backed by the $3.78 million NIH grant will propel the startup's growth, as it "gives us a big window of opportunity" to provide tools and services that support the startup's open-source software.

"As the NIH and other funding agencies are shifting a lot of their focus to collaborative projects that are distributed among multiple institutions," Walker says, "we've established a reputation as the company that can facilitate such research, be efficient, and actually be cost-effective as well, and make the projects very smooth."

"We expect to continue to grow this business at the same exponential rate," he adds. "We'll keep our fingers crossed and see how things go."


CEO Edgar Walker (left) and Dimitri Yatsenko, vice president of research and development, lead Houston-based Vathes. Photos courtesy of Vathes

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Rice Alliance event identifies 4 most-promising energy tech companies at CERAWeek

startups to watch

Wondering what energy tech companies you should keep an eye on? Wonder no more.

As a part of 2021 CERAWeek by IHS Markit, the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship hosted a virtual pitch competition today featuring 20 companies in four sessions. Each entrepreneur had four minutes to pitch, and then a few more to take questions from industry experts.

"Of the companies here today, we've intentionally selected a diverse group," says Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance at the start of the event. "They range from companies looking for their seed funding to companies that have raised $20 million or more."

The following companies pitched at the event: 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.

At the end of each session, attendees voted via Zoom poll on which startup had the most potential. According to the event attendees, the most promising energy tech companies are:

REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies

Asheville, North Carolina-based REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies is working to "put a green spin on power." The company's micro-Expansion Turbine System produces green power for digital oilfield and pipeline initiatives through the recovery of excess natural gas pressure.

"RTT's technology provides a scalable, clean energy source to reliably power digital oilfield and pipeline initiatives at a significantly low operating cost," says Christopher Bean, founder and CEO, in his presentation. "Never has it been more important to make production and pipeline operations greener, safer, and efficient."

Connectus Global

Connectus Global, based in Calgary, provides custom technology solutions that can increase productivity, profits, and competitiveness. Connectus' Real-Time Location System, or RTLS, uses Ultra-Wide Band for communication and triangulation while hosting a Radio Frequency Identification Device, which come in the form of badges, tags, and receivers.

"In our first year, we received $800,000 in revenue and are on track to hit our numbers — $3.6 million — at the end of this fiscal year," says Mike Anderson, CEO of the company, in his presentation." We have a global white labeling agreement with Honeywell and we make up about 75 percent of their digitized workforce management portfolio."

The company's U.S. office is located in Houston.

DrillDocs

Houston-based DrillDocs has created an automated drilling cuttings characterization service, called CleanSight, that supports an operator's understanding of their wellbore's state of stability and cleanness in real time.

"We're taking computer vision to the drilling rig," says Calvin Holt, CEO and co-founder at DrillDocs, in his presentation. "Now for the first time, drilling and geomechanics teams will have unique, real-time data to ascertain the well's condition."

Revterra

Revterra, a Houston-based company and inaugural Greentown Houston member company, is creating a flywheel energy storage system for long-duration grid-scale applications.

"For those of us in Texas, the power outages we experienced a couple weeks ago are a stark reminder that the stability and the resiliency of our electric grid should be a top priority as we transition to low-emission power sources," says Ben Jawdat, founder and CEO at Revterra, in his presentation. "Energy storage is a critical element in both grid stability and enabling our transition to sustainable energy."

Houston makes top 10 list for major metros based on startup growth

by the numbers

Houston is a bustling hub for startup activity — and the numbers don't lie.

A new ranking from real estate investment marketplace Roofstock places Houston at No. 10 among the major U.S. metro areas with the highest rates of startup formation. Roofstock's ranking, based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, puts the Houston area's startup formation rate at 9.48 percent. The startup formation rate refers to the number of new businesses in a given year divided by the total number of businesses.

Here's the other Houston startup data cited by Roofstock:

  • Annual number of startup formations: 9,214
  • Annual number of jobs created by startups: 55,475
  • Number of jobs created by startups as a share of all new jobs: 14.44 percent

"In the past years, Houston has seen a massive burst in its startup ecosystem. … Houston is one of the best places in the United States for entrepreneurs to launch and grow a business," Houston-based app developer Bixlabs says.

As a matter of fact, the Houston area's ratio of new business founders to total business founders stood at a healthy 21 percent as of December 2020, according to career website LinkedIn. Houston was sandwiched between Salt Lake City (26 percent) and Dallas-Fort Worth (20 percent). Also in 2020 and 2019, Houston ranked sixth on a list published by residential real estate platform Clever of the most affordable U.S. metros for startups.

"Considering Houston's metro is tied with San Antonio's for the highest average investment in small business, and the proximity to great food, the Gulf of Mexico coast, and attractions like Minute Maid Park and the NASA Space Center, we would definitely suggest considering starting a business here," Clever says.

Two other Texas metros appear on Roofstock's list — Austin at No. 3 (startup formation rate of 10.61 percent) and Dallas-Fort Worth at No. 5 (startup formation rate of 9.82 percent).

Here's the additional data for the Austin metro area:

  • Number of annual startup formations: 3,858
  • Number of annual new jobs created by startups: 21,357
  • Number of jobs created by startups as a share of all new jobs: 16.49 percent

Here's the additional data for the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area:

  • Number of annual startup formations: 10,731
  • Number of annual new jobs created by startups: 69,696
  • Number of jobs created by startups as a share of all new jobs: 15.11 percent

The Las Vegas metro area holds the No. 1 spot on the Roofstock list, with a startup formation rate of 11.44 percent.

Houston venture capitalist says it's time for more women in VC

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 73

In all the turmoil of 2020, Samantha Lewis had at least one silver lining. The former director of Goose Capital transitioned into her new position as principal at Mercury Fund.

However fortunate she feels to have her new position, she shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast this week that there's not nearly enough of women like her in venture capital.

"The bottom line is there has to be more women with check-writing abilities," Lewis says on the show. "And when there is more women with check-writing abilities, more women will get funded."

Joining the podcast at the start of Women's History Month, Lewis says that the pandemic disproportionately affected women's careers across the board — but when it comes to VC, the solution is growing the female representation at firms.

"It is up to the people in VC hiring or the institutional investors who are giving money to funds to make sure there's a woman on the investment team," she says — adding that just one isn't enough.

In her role at Mercury, Lewis is helping build up the fund's processes — something she specialized in at Goose. She's also focused on building up the portfolio around a specific theme.

"One of the things specifically that Mercury brought me over to focus on from an investment perspective is something we're calling our 'power theme,'" Lewis says. "Think about it as giving people the power to make decisions that are authentic to their values around sustainability and impact."

There have been significant changes in consumer values driven by millennials, and businesses are prioritizing sustainability and transparency in order to keep up. Lewis discusses how Houston-based Topl, which is one of Mercury's portfolio companies, has a major role to play in this space.

Another key area of interest for Lewis is fintech.

"The other piece of the theme is thinking about the democratization of financial services," Lewis says. "Legacy financial institutions have ignored large groups of our population here in America and broader for a very long time. Technology is actually breaking down a lot of those barriers, so there are all these groups that have traditionally been ignored that now technology can reach to help them build wealth."

Lewis discusses more about how Mercury Fund is at an inflection point and how the Houston innovation ecosystem is developing with intention on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.