Houston is in the running to receive millions from a program from the National Science Foundation. Photo via Getty Images

The National Science Foundation announced 34 semifinalists for a regional innovation program that will deploy up to $160 million in federal funding over the next 10 years. Among the list of potential regions to receive this influx of capital is Houston.

The Greater Houston Partnership and the Houston Energy Transition Initiative developed the application for the NSF Regional Innovation Engine competition in collaboration with economic, civic, and educational leaders from across the city and five regional universities, including the University of Houston, The University of Texas at Austin, Texas Southern University, Rice University, and Texas A&M University.

The proposed project for Houston — called the Accelerating Carbon-Neutral Technologies and Policies for Energy Transition, or ACT, Engine — emphasizes developing sustainable and equitable opportunities for innovators and entrepreneurs while also pursuing sustainable and equitable energy access for all.

“The ACT Engine will leverage our diverse energy innovation ecosystem and talent, creating a true competitive advantage for existing and new energy companies across our region," says Jane Stricker, senior vice president of energy transition and executive director for HETI, in a statement. "Texas is leading the way in nearly every energy and energy transition solution, and this Engine can catalyze our region’s continued growth in low-carbon technology development and deployment."

If Houston's proposal is selected as a finalist, it could receive up to $160 million over 10 years. The final list of NSF Engines awards is expected this fall, and, according to a release, each awardee will initially receiving about $15 million for the first two years.

"Each of these NSF Engines semifinalists represents an emerging hub of innovation and lends their talents and resources to form the fabric of NSF's vision to create opportunities everywhere and enable innovation anywhere," NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan says in a news release. "These teams will spring ideas, talent, pathways and resources to create vibrant innovation ecosystems all across our nation."

The NSF selected its 34 semifinalists from 188 original applicants, and the next step for Houston is a virtual site visit that will assess competitive advantages, budget and resource plans for R&D and workforce development, and the proposed leadership’s ability to mobilize plans into action over the first two years.

"Houston is poised, like no other city, to lead the energy transition. The ACT Engine presents a remarkable opportunity to not only leverage the region's unparalleled energy resources and expertise but also harness our can-do spirit. Houston has a proven track record of embracing challenges and finding innovative solutions,” says Renu Khator, president of the University of Houston, in the statement. “Through the collaborative efforts facilitated by the ACT Engine, I am confident that we can make significant strides towards creating a sustainable future that harmonizes economic growth, environmental protection and social equity."

NSF Engines will announce awards this fall after a round of in-person interviews of finalists named in July. With Houston's track record for building thriving industry hubs in energy, health care, aerospace, and the culinary arts, the region is eager to establish the next generation of leaders and dreamers responding to some of the greatest economic and societal challenges ever seen in America.

“Our energy innovation ecosystem is inclusive, dynamic, and fast growing," says Barbara Burger, energy transition adviser and former Chevron executive, in the release. "The ACT Engine has the potential to increase the amount of innovation coming into the ecosystem and the capabilities available to scale technologies needed in the energy transition. I am confident that the members of the ecosystem — incubators, accelerators, investors, universities, and corporates — are ready for the challenge that the ACT Engine will provide."

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

According to a new report, the existing energy infrastructure of Texas makes it a great spot to lead the development of the hydrogen economy. Photo via Getty Images

Report: Texas is the best place to lead hydrogen economy

as the experts say

All signs point to Texas leading the development of a hydrogen market, says one new report out of Rice University.

The Baker Institute for Public Policy released a new report this week about the hydrogen economy and the role Texas will play in it. According to the experts, Texas’ legacy energy industry — as well as its geology — makes it an ideal hub for hydrogen as an energy source. Ken Medlock, senior director of the Baker Institute’s Center for Energy Studies, and Shih Yu (Elsie) Hung, research manager at the center, wrote the report.

“Texas is in a very advantageous position to play a leading role in driving hydrogen market growth, but the evolution of policy and market structure will dictate whether or not this comes to pass,” write the co-authors.

Medlock and Hung make the case for hydrogen's impact on the energy transition in the report.

“It can be produced in a number of different ways — including steam-methane reforming, electrolysis and pyrolysis — so it can leverage a variety of comparative advantages across regions,” they write.

The report explains that — with the state's existing and robust oil and gas infrastructure — Texas is the best spot to affordably develop hydrogen while managing economic challenges. Plus, Texas's coastal geology is an advantageous spot for storage and transport.

One factor to be determined, write the authors, is whether or not the policy will support the industry's growth.

“(Hydrogen’s) expansion as an energy carrier beyond its traditional uses in industrial applications will depend heavily on significant investment in infrastructure and well-designed market structures with appropriate regulatory architectures,” they write. “A lack of either will risk coordination failure along hydrogen supply chains and, thus, threaten to derail any momentum that may currently be building.”

GTI Energy and The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation funded this report.

Last summer, the Center for Houston's Future reported how Houston-based assets can be leveraged to lead a global clean hydrogen innovation. The Houston region already produces and consumes a third of the nation’s hydrogen, according to the report, and has more than 50 percent of the country’s dedicated hydrogen pipelines. These assets can be utilized to accelerate a transition to clean hydrogen, and the report lays out how.

"Using this roadmap as a guide and with Houston’s energy sector at the lead, we are ready to create a new clean hydrogen economy that will help fight climate change as it creates jobs and economic growth,” says Center for Houston’s Future CEO Brett Perlman. “We are more than ready, able and willing to take on these goals, as our record of overwhelming success in energy innovation and new market development shows.”

The energy industry is finally prioritizing new technology and greener energy — both in light of and in spite of a global pandemic. Photo via Getty Images

Overheard: Here’s what these energy VCs think of the pandemic’s effect on the energy transition

eavesdropping online

In a lot of ways, venture capital firms are tasked with predicting the future. They put money into tech and business services that are going to disrupt the status quo, and energy VCs are tasked with taking bets on the energy transition.

At a virtual event as a part of the 18th annual Rice Alliance Energy Tech Venture Forum, which is taking place online this week, a group of panelists moderated by Sandy Guitar, managing partner at the HX Venture Fund, discussed how the pandemic has affected the energy transition. The group of experts talked about the future of work, decarbonization, and more.

If you missed the event, here are a few key moments from the discussion.

“The role of digitization is going to be huge. The pandemic really exacerbated just how far oil and gas had been behind in that.”

Sean Ebert, partner at Altira. Ebert explains that when times are good for energy companies, it's hard to get the attention of executives to introduce new technologies. Now, corporations are having to invest in tech that allows their employees to be mobile and remote.

“There’s never been a better time to invest in energy technology. … We are at a point where we can get the type of returns [we look for.]”

George Coyle, managing partner at Energy Innovation Capital. Coyle adds that he's seen the pandemic effect major growth opportunities in energy startups in his portfolio.

“What we have is a sense of urgency that didn’t exist 15 years ago. Public companies virtually all have a sustainability report and need to show some sort of progress."

Cory Steffek, managing director at Ara Partners. He adds, "I really think the opportunity in the near term is de-risking software or hardware technologies and showing people that you can construct assets where they can deploy substantial amounts of capital profitably. If you have that, from a returns standpoint, you have something that should generate significant yield."

“The part we have been focused on is how can you make the conventional more efficient, so energy-on-energy conversion is even better.”

Hossam Elbadawy, managing director at SCF Ventures and technology partner at SCF Partners. He's referring to the question of whether to prioritize new low-carbon innovations or to make conventional methods more sustainable. His observation is that the solution is going to be a hybrid of both.

“When we think about the future of work, we think about what are the capabilities going to be required in the future to be able to improve operations in the field today?”

Ricardo Angel, managing director and CEO of PIVA. Angel adds that, "a lot of activities might be replaced by AI," and he and his firm are thinking about how they can go about "developing the skills for the people who will be working with those tools."

The energy industry needs to re-evaluate its priorities for the workplace. Photo courtesy of Thomas Miller/Breitling Energy

Why Houston’s oil and gas leaders need to prioritize becoming a modern energy workplace

Guest column

The oil and gas industry today is being shaped by truly unprecedented conditions. In the face of a global economic crisis, players in this space are grappling with how best to spend and save resources in a way that's smart, deliberate and centered on expanding a company's value.

But even when the price of oil was four times what it is today, only 13 percent of the oil and gas industry's leaders said they were moving fast enough from a tech investment perspective, according to data my company, Quorum Software, pulled back in October. This was the writing on the wall that the industry was unprepared for a crisis of this magnitude, let alone two.

At the same time, there are a number of critical labor challenges that could curb Houston's oil and gas sector's ability to rebound. In order to future proof the energy industry and attract and retain young and innovative talent, Houston's oil and gas leaders need to prioritize investments in technology and start creating specific business advantages through tech.

Create a place young talent will want to land

In the Houston area, millennials age 25 to 34 make up the largest percentage of the adult population, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Despite this, oil and gas has historically suffered a gap in talent for this employee subset.

As the Houston energy economy seeks to attract talent from Gen Z and millennial pools, they must invest in transformative technology and become a modern energy workplace.

In our recently released industry report, oil and gas decision makers made it clear that they understand having better technology generates more efficient workplaces. What's more, four out of five of these industry leaders think employees will leave without access to sound technology.

Technology will play as an essential part of crisis recovery, and Houston's business leaders in this sector must align their tech investments over the next two quarters in order to both drive business success and also retain and attract a rich talent pool.

Prepare for the long road ahead

Oil and gas leaders in this region are familiar with managing volatility. Prices rise and fall much more quickly than in other industries, with fluctuating regulations, border skirmishes, trade deals, weather and local and global politics all impacting an ever-changing market. We have entered a period when short-term stability and long-term success are both in jeopardy unless you innovate now – especially as the prognosis for long-term structural change in the industry indicates that things might get a lot tougher before they turn around.

In my 30-plus years in the software industry, I've heard thoughtful people talk a lot about disruption. The idea that companies use software and/or technology to disrupt both their internal operations or disrupt markets to make sure that markets don't disrupt them. In just a few months, the commodity pricing shifts have disrupted economic forces on our businesses. As much as we've talked about technology for transformation and modernization, we need to adopt strategies that allows for more agility and sustainability during big market swings.

Judging by the responses in our recent report, oil and gas decision-makers are realistic about the business challenges ahead of them and their inability to solve the problems using the technologies they have in place. Like their IT decision-maker counterparts, 95 percent of oil and gas industry leaders agree that in today's marketplace, a company that doesn't embrace technological advances will not succeed in terms of streamlining operations (land management, accounting, etc.). In fact, in oil and gas, 97 percent of respondents believe the industry will decline if it doesn't adapt to the changes around it.

The takeaway? To survive today — and thrive tomorrow — you don't need to disrupt your business, but you do need to modernize it to be agile and sustain revenue production. You need to bring new technologies into the fold to improve your efficiencies. You need to challenge the status quo, not only to help you endure today's conditions, but also get where you want to go.

This point is only unscored by recent reports that highlight how the Texas Workforce Commission is relying on tech from the 1980s as unemployment claims overwhelm the system. Across industries, and especially those experiencing the volatility that the oil and gas industry is, technology holds the key to attracting and retaining talent, streamlining operations, and staying afloat in these uncharted waters.

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Gene Austin is the CEO of Houston-based Quorum Software.

Houston — known as the Energy Capital of the World — had several trending stories in 2019 focused on energy innovation. Photo courtesy of Thomas Miller/Breitling Energy

These were Houston's top energy innovation stories this year

2019 in review

Editor's note: With 2020 just days away, InnovationMap is looking back at 2019's top stories in Houston innovation. Within the energy category, top stories included game-changing energy tech companies, the future of oil and gas — as told by the industry's emerging leaders, the results of a reverse pitch competition for ExxonMobil, and more.

Rice Alliance names the 10 most promising startups at Houston's Offshore Technology Conference

Startups from across the world pitched at the Rice Alliance Startup Roundup at the Offshore Technology Conference. Getty Images

Over 50 different startups from across the globe gathered at the Offshore Technology Conference for the fifth annual Rice Alliance Startup Roundup event. The full day of speed pitching and presentations, hosted by Rice Alliance Managing Director Brad Burke, took place at NRG Arena on Monday, May 6.

After interacting with all the various startups, the Rice Alliance's panel of experts voted on the 10 most promising startups. Half of the companies that were recognized are based in Houston — and even more have an office or some sort of operations in town. Here's which technologies the offshore oil and gas industry has its eye on. Click here to read more.

Overheard: Here's the future of oil and gas tech, according to this panel at OTC

Three young professionals took the stage to discuss the future tech of offshore operations in oil and gas. Courtesy photos

The oil and gas industry has a reputation for being a slow adapter when it comes to technology advances, but that's changing — as is the workforce. In the next few years, half of the United States workforce will be millennials, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A panel at the 2019 Offshore Technology Conference discussed the future of oil and gas technology — and the young professionals who are taking over the industry. Click here to read more.

ExxonMobil taps two new technologies in a Houston reverse pitch program

ExxonMobil named two winners in its inaugural reverse pitch competition with BBL Ventures. Courtesy of OctoRD

ExxonMobil and BBL Ventures have teamed up to flip the script on pitch competitions. Rather than have startups pitch themselves, the two companies collaborated on a reverse pitch event where Exxon identifies a few problems and search for companies that can build a solution.

The purpose of the event, says Tim Westhoven, technology scouting and venturing at ExxonMobil at the Baytown refinery, was to get the company out of its day-to-day to spark new ideas and innovation.

"Typically, as an engineer, when we think about how we solve a problem, we start inside the organization," Westhoven says at the event, which took place on Wednesday, June 5, at Station Houston. "Then we think about what problems we want to solve. Sometimes, you don't even think at all about what's available on the outside. This reverse pitch is us thinking about the impact we want to have and what the outside can offer." Click here to read more.

5 emerging energy tech companies in Houston revolutionizing the industry

It might not be surprising to discover that the energy capital of the world is a hub for energy startups. Getty Images

If you thought Houston's wildcatter days were exciting, just you wait. Houston has an emerging ecosystem of tech startups across industries — from facial recognition devices used at event check in to a drone controller that mimics movement in space.

A somewhat obvious space for Houston entrepreneurs is oil and gas. While the energy industry might have a reputation of being slow to adapt new technologies, these five Houston startups are developing the future of the industry — one device at a time. Click here to read more.

Exclusive: Plug and Play announces 15 energy tech companies for inaugural Houston cohort

Plug and Play Technology Center has named its first 15 startups in its Houston Energy and Sustainability cohort. Getty Images

A Silicon Valley accelerator program has announced the companies that will participate in its first Houston cohort just as the program begins to foster energy tech innovation in town.

Plug and Play Technology Center, which announced its entry into the Houston market this summer, named the 15 companies that will complete the program. While there are only two Houston-based companies in the mix this time around, all 15 companies will be operating locally with Houston corporate partners and startup development organizations.

"By being a part of this Plug and Play cohort, our corporate partners have validated that there is an interest in these startups' technology solutions," says Payal Patel, director of corporate partnerships for Plug and Play in Houston. "This will encourage these non-Houston based startups to spend more time in Houston, likely (and hopefully) leading to them doing business with our corporations, raising money from local investors, hiring local talent, and setting up an office in Houston." Click here to read more.

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Innovative coastline project on Bolivar Peninsula receives federal funding

flood mitigation

The Galveston’s Coastal Barrier Project recently received federal funding to the tune of $500,000 to support construction on its flood mitigation plans for the area previously devastated by Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Known as Ike Dike, the proposed project includes implementing the Galveston Bay Storm Surge Barrier System, including eight Gulf and Bay defense projects. The Bolivar Roads Gate System, a two-mile-long closure structure situated between Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, is included in the plans and would protect against storm surge volumes entering the bay.

The funding support comes from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and will go toward the preconstruction engineering and design phase of Ecosystem Restoration feature G-28, the first segment of the Bolivar Peninsula and West Bay Gulf Intracoastal Waterway Shoreline and Island Protection.

Coastal Barrier Project - Galveston Projects

The project also includes protection of critical fish and wildlife habitat against coastal storms and erosion.

“The Coastal Texas Project is one of the largest projects in the history of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” says Col. Rhett A. Blackmon, USACE Galveston District commander, in a statement. “This project is important to the nation for many reasons. Not only will it reduce risk to the vulnerable populations along the Texas coast, but it will also protect vital ecosystems and economically critical infrastructure vital to the U.S. supply chain and the many global industries located here.”

Hurricane Ike resulted in over $30 billion in storm-related damages to the Texas coast, reports the Coastal Barrier Project, and created a debris line 15 feet tall and 40 miles long in Chambers County. The estimated economic disruption due to Hurricane Ike exceeded $150 billion, FEMA reported.

The project is estimated to take two years to complete after construction starts and will cost between $4 billion and $6 billion, reports Texas A&M University at Galveston.

Houston organization selects research on future foods in space health to receive $1M in funding

research and development

What would we eat if we were forced to decamp to another planet? The most immediate challenges faced by the food industry and astronauts exploring outside Earth are being addressed by The Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) at Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Space Medicine’s newest project.

Earlier this month, TRISH announced the initial selection for its Space Health Ingress Program (SHIP) solicitation. Working with California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Baylor-based program chose “Future Foods for Space: Mobilizing the Future Foods Community to Accelerate Advances in Space Health,” led by Dr. Denneal Jamison-McClung at the University of California, Davis.

“TRISH is bringing in new ideas and investigators to propel space health research,” says Catherine Domingo, TRISH operations lead and research administration associate at Baylor College of Medicine, in the release. “We have long believed that new researchers with fresh perspectives drive innovation and advance human space exploration and SHIP builds on TRISH’s existing efforts to recruit and support new investigators in the space health research field, potentially yielding and high-impact ideas to protect space explorers.”

The goal of the project is to develop sustainable food products and ingredients that could fuel future space travelers on long-term voyages, or even habitation beyond our home planet.

Jamison-McClung and her team’s goal is to enact food-related space health research and inspire the community thereof by mobilizing academic and food-industry researchers who have not previously engaged with the realm of space exploration. Besides growing and developing food products, the project will also address production, storage, and delivery of the nutrition created by the team.

To that end, Jamison-McClung and her recruits will receive $1 million over the course of two years. The goal of the SHIP solicitation is to work with first-time NASA investigators, bringing new minds to the forefront of the space health research world.

“As we look to enable safer space exploration and habitation for humans, it is clear that food and nutrition are foundational,” says Dr. Asha S. Collins, chair of the SHIP advisory board, in a press release. “We’re excited to see how accelerating innovation in food science for space health could also result in food-related innovations for people on Earth in remote areas and food deserts.”

Clean energy nonprofit CEO to step down, search for replacement to begin

moving on

Greentown Labs, which is co-located in the Boston and Houston areas, has announced its current CEO is stepping down after less than a year in the position.

The nonprofit's CEO and President Kevin Knobloch announced that he will be stepping down at the end of July 2024. Knobloch assumed his role last September, previously serving as chief of staff of the United States Department of Energy in President Barack Obama’s second term.

“It has been an honor to lead this incredible team and organization, and a true privilege to get to know many of our brilliant startup founders," Knobloch says in the news release. “Greentown is a proven leader in supporting early-stage climatetech companies and I can’t wait to see all that it will accomplish in the coming years.”

The news of Knobloch's departure comes just over a month after the organization announced that it was eliminating 30 percent of its staff, which affected 12 roles in Boston and six in Houston.

According the Greentown, its board of directors is expected to launch a national search for its next CEO.

“On behalf of the entire Board of Directors, I want to thank Kevin for his efforts to strengthen the foundation of Greentown Labs and for charting the next chapter for the organization through a strategic refresh process,” says Dawn James, Greentown Labs Board Chair, in the release. “His thoughtful leadership will leave a lasting impact on the team and community for years to come.”

Knobloch reportedly shifted Greentown's sponsorship relationships with oil companies, sparking "friction within the organization," according to the Houston Chronicle, which also reported that Knobloch said he intends to return to his clean energy consulting firm.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.