This week's Houston innovators to know includes Aleece Hobson of HX Venture Fund, Leland Putterman of Trivie, and Eleonore Cluzel of gBETA Houston. Photos courtesy

This week's roundup of who's who in Houston innovation include the HX Venture Fund's newest team member, a startup founder whose app is gamifying corporate training, and a Houston accelerator leader who's pivoted to digital.

Aleece Hobson, venture partner at the HX Venture Fund

Aleece Hobson joined the HX Venture Fund as venture partner. Photo courtesy of HXVF

The HX Venture Fund has expanded its portfolio of venture capital finds its invested in, and with that came a new team member for the fund of funds. Managing director Sandy Guitar — who runs the fund with Guillermo Borda — brought on Houston native Aleece Hobson as venture partner.

"Aleece joining is a phenomenal step for us — a dedicated resource and venture partner on activation," says Guitar on the hire. "I think it speaks to the seriousness of purpose we have to make this not just an investment platform, but one that moves the needle on Houston." Read more.

Leland Putterman, co-founder of Trivie Inc.

Trivie, which gamifies corporate training, has launched a new way for employees to connect with remote learning amid the pandemic. Photo via Trivie.com

Texas-based corporate training tool Trivie already had many clients with needs for safety training, COVID-19 has brought new compliance guidelines to the forefront of every industry. Currently, Trivie has made the CDC's coronavirus guidelines available to all of its clients for no additional charge to be used across their entire employment bases.

Additionally, with most of America's workforce working from home, Putterman expressed that it's common for employees to feel disconnected.

"The only way to maintain that company culture and close communication with confidence is to use something like Trivie," he says. "There's no feedback loop right now. The only way to bridge that gap is to have something like Trivie that's the glue." Read more.

Eléonore Cluzel, director of gBETA Houston

Eléonore Cluzel, director of gBETA Houston, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share how the cohort has been going — and to introduce each member of the inaugural cohort. Photo courtesy of gBETA

Things aren't going according to plan for Eléonor Cluzel, who is running the inaugural gBETA Houston cohort virtually. While it isn't ideal, Cluzel shares on the Houston Innovator's Podcast how she's adapted the program for digital — as well as introduces the five Houston companies in the program.

"Going virtual was a really good pivot on our end. I think that the cohort has adjusted very well," Cluzel says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It is tough. They put tremendous effort into it and I'm proud to be working with them." Read more.

Eléonore Cluzel, director of gBETA Houston, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share how the cohort has been going — and to introduce each member of the inaugural cohort. Photo courtesy of gBETA

Houston accelerator leader shares how the cohort has seen success through virtual programming

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 34

In January, when Eléonore Cluzel was named the director of gBETA Houston, she had no clue Houston's first cohort of the international, early-stage accelerator would be conducted virtually. Now, five weeks in, the program and its five startups have adapted to provide programming and mentorship online only.

"Going virtual was a really good pivot on our end. I think that the cohort has adjusted very well," Cluzel says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It is tough. They put tremendous effort into it and I'm proud to be working with them."

Last week, gBETA Houston announced the five companies currently in the program. And, Cluzel is already excited about the second cohort, which opens applications after the first cohort's virtual pitch night on June 18. Cluzel says in light of how many applications she got for the first time around, she knows there's a lot of impact gBETA can make in Houston,

"I was really quite surprised — in a good way — how the first application round was really competitive," Cluzel says, "which shows that there is a lot of room to grow for accelerators in town."

Cluzel shares some of the challenges and opportunities gBETA Houston has seen throughout this time, and introduces each of the companies in the cohort, which represents sports tech, consumer tech, and more. Listen to the full interview with Cluzel below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

gBETA has five Houston startups growing through its early-stage program virtually. Getty Images

Early-stage accelerator announces inaugural Houston cohort

now streaming

Even amid a pandemic, a Houston startup accelerator focused on local, early-stage companies has announced its new cohort and is operating its program virtually.

International accelerator gener8tor announced last fall that its early-stage program, gBETA, was coming to Houston following a $1.25 million grant approved by Houston's Downtown Redevelopment Authority. gBETA, which named its local leader and opened applications in January, now has revealed the five companies that will participate in the free, no-equity accelerator.

"This cohort was selected from among a highly competitive pool of applicants, and I'm so pleased with how they have adapted to the impacts of COVID-19 on the program and their businesses," says Eleonore Cluzel, director of gBETA Houston, in a news release.

The program kicked off April 30 and the five companies will graduate at a virtual pitch event June 18. While completely virtual this time around, the plan was to co-locate the program with MassChallenge Texas in Amegy Bank's Downtown Launchpad. The program is expecting to continue with its second cohort later this year.

"We are committed to establishing Downtown as a nexus for innovation and a leader in urban entrepreneurship and we applaud the talent of the first cohort, especially under these unprecedented circumstances," says Jonathan Brinsden, Central Houston's board chair, in a news release. "We look forward to them joining MassChallenge in the Downtown Launchpad at Amegy at Main this coming summer."

The spring 2020 gBETA cohort includes:

  • Best Bites Houston — a food tourism company that conducts exclusive food tours both in-person and virtually, exploring culture within cuisine.
  • Blown Assignments LLC — a web tool geared at improving communication between student athletes and their coaches.
  • GRIND — a sportstech company that merges sports and design to create products and services for athletic training.
  • Learn2Code.Live — a provider of computer science programming company that serves both students and teachers virtually.
  • Zent LLC — the creator of an innovative toothbrush called the Zent Flex that improves oral disease prevention and — no matter how hard a user brushes — physically limits brushing pressure to the optimal pressure.


The cohort meets virtually via Zoom web meetings. Photo courtesy of gBETA Houston

This week's innovators to know are focused on bringing startup programming and venture capital to Houston. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This past week has been full of exciting innovation news in Houston — from big fundraising round closings to a new unicorn coming out of the Bayou City.

Houston innovators to know this week include a new program director for Houston's newest startup accelerator, a venture capital fund leader, and more.

Eléonore Cluzel, program director of gBETA Houston program as director

Courtesy of gBETA Houston

Houston's newest accelerator program, gBETA, named its new local leader. Eléonore Cluzel will lead the gBETA Houston program as director, and will be the point person for the program in the region for the two annual cohorts. Previously, Cluzel worked for Business France mentoring French startups and small businesses. In her new position, she says she's excited to support founders across all industries and foster innovation.

"We're adding another resource for local founders to grow their startups and to raise money, and not have to move to Silicon Valley to do it," she says. "We will also serve as a connector, introducing founders to mentors and investors within the community and across gener8tor broader network." Click here to read more.

Sandy Wallis, managing director of the HX Venture Fund

Courtesy of Sandy Wallis

After 20 years in the venture capital world, Sandy Guitar Wallis has seen the evolution of investing — on both coasts and here in Houston as well. Now, as managing director of the HX Venture Fund, Wallis leads the fund of funds that's investing in VCs around the country in order to bring investment to Houston.

"We have raised a fund of funds with the HX Venture Fund, and we're deploying that capital across probably 10 venture capital funds over time," Wallis explains on the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Each one of those funds, will invest in 15 to 20 underlying private companies. So, at the end of the day, HX Venture Fund 1 will have exposure to 10 VC funds, as an example, and — by virtue of those investments — maybe 300 private companies." Click here to read more.

James Y. Lancaster, Texas branch manager for Arkansas-based VIC Technology Venture Development

Photo courtesy of VIC

Startups fail — and there are a number of reasons why that is. James Y. Lancaster, who serves as Texas branch manager for Arkansas-based VIC Technology Venture Development, writes in a guest column for InnovationMap about the second most common reason for startup failure: funding.

"A key part of the startup CEO's job is to understand how much total cash remains on hand and whether it is enough to carry the startup towards a milestone that can lead to successful financing as well as a positive cash flow," Lancaster writes. "Just as important is how to allocate their time and efforts to the fundraising process along the way." Click here to read more.

Global accelerator gener8tor's early-stage program, gBETA, plans to begin its first cohort out of the Downtown Launch Pad in April. Courtesy of Downtown Launch Pad

New-to-Houston accelerator names program director, opens applications

Starting strong

The second of two top accelerator programs that have taken a bet on Houston has announced its new program director and opened applications for its spring 2020 cohort.

Wisconsin-based gener8tor announced in September that its pre-accelerator program, gBETA, would be launching in Houston. The program follows MassChallenge, another top accelerator, premiering in Houston last year. Both accelerator programs launched in Houston thanks to a $1.25 million grant approved by the Downtown Redevelopment Authority.

Eléonore Cluzel will lead the gBETA Houston program as director, and will be the point person for the program in the region for the two annual cohorts. Previously, Cluzel worked for Business France mentoring French startups and small businesses. In her new position, she says she's excited to support founders across all industries and foster innovation.

"We're adding another resource for local founders to grow their startups and to raise money, and not have to move to Silicon Valley to do it," she says. "We will also serve as a connector, introducing founders to mentors and investors within the community and across gener8tor broader network."

Ele\u0301onore CluzelEléonore Cluzel will lead the Houston gBETA Houston program as director. Courtesy of gBETA Houston

Currently, Cluzel has regular office hours out of The Cannon's space in the Downtown Launch Pad in Amegy Tower. gBETA will co-locate with MassChallenge on a separate floor of the building, and that space is expected to be ready ahead of the start of the first cohort in April.

"It's like having a one-stop shop of resources for the whole community in a central location," Cluzel says. "Since The Cannon is going to be among several coworking spaces in the community, we'll reach all areas of Houston, including Sugar Land, The Woodlands and Stratford and other neighborhoods"

Interested early-stage startups can apply online for the program until April 10, and the cohort begins on April 30. Only five companies are selected for the cohort, insuring individualized support and programming from gBETA. The free program is designed to equip its participating startups with early customer traction and preparation for later stage accelerators.

"I'm looking for a diverse cohort, encompassing underserved communities such as women, veterans and minorities," Cluzel tells InnovationMap. "I'm seeking highly unique, highly scalable businesses based in Houston. In Houston, we have a lot of venture capital firms that write huge checks, but we don't have a lot of investors that help with early seed-stage funding. We're looking for very early stage startups whose company we can help grow and connect with our local and national network of investors."

gBETA aims to act as a funnel to other accelerator programs, Cluzel says.

"We're looking forward to working cooperatively with other resources in town, such as Plug and Play, MassChallenge, The Founder Institute, Capital Factory, The Cannon, and other incubators, accelerators and resources."

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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.