The five-year grant from NASA will go toward creating the NASA MIRO Inflatable Deployable Environments and Adaptive Space Systems Center at UH. Photo via UH.edu

The University of Houston was one of seven minority-serving institutions to receive a nearly $5 million grant this month to support aerospace research focused on extending human presence on the moon and Mars.

The $4,996,136 grant over five years is funded by the NASA Office of STEM Engagement Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) Institutional Research Opportunity (MIRO) program. It will go toward creating the NASA MIRO Inflatable Deployable Environments and Adaptive Space Systems (IDEAS2) Center at UH, according to a statement from the university.

“The vision of the IDEAS2 Center is to become a premier national innovation hub that propels NASA-centric, state-of-the-art research and promotes 21st-century aerospace education,” Karolos Grigoriadis, Moores Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of aerospace engineering at UH, said in a statement.

Another goal of the grant is to develop the next generation of aerospace professionals.

Graduate, undergraduate and even middle and high school students will conduct research out of IDEAS2 and work closely with the Johnson Space Center, located in the Houston area.

The center will collaborate with Texas A&M University, Houston Community College, San Jacinto College and Stanford University.

Grigoriadis will lead the center. Dimitris Lagoudas, from Texas A&M University, and Olga Bannova, UH's research professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Space Architecture graduate program, will serve as associate directors.

"Our mission is to establish a sustainable nexus of excellence in aerospace engineering research and education supported by targeted multi-institutional collaborations, strategic partnerships and diverse educational initiatives,” Grigoriadis said.

Industrial partners include Boeing, Axiom Space, Bastion Technologies and Lockheed Martin, according to UH.

UH is part of 21 higher-education institutions to receive about $45 million through NASA MUREP grants.

According to NASA, the six other universities to received about $5 million MIRO grants over five years and their projects includes:

  • Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage: Alaska Pacific University Microplastics Research and Education Center
  • California State University in Fullerton: SpaceIgnite Center for Advanced Research-Education in Combustion
  • City University of New York, Hunter College in New York: NASA-Hunter College Center for Advanced Energy Storage for Space
  • Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee: Integrative Space Additive Manufacturing: Opportunities for Workforce-Development in NASA Related Materials Research and Education
  • New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark:AI Powered Solar Eruption Center of Excellence in Research and Education
  • University of Illinois in Chicago: Center for In-Space Manufacturing: Recycling and Regolith Processing

Fourteen other institutions will receive up to $750,000 each over the course of a three-year period. Those include:

  • University of Mississippi
  • University of Alabama in Huntsville
  • Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge
  • West Virginia University in Morgantown
  • University of Puerto Rico in San Juan
  • Desert Research Institute, Reno, Nevada
  • Oklahoma State University in Stillwater
  • Iowa State University in Ames
  • University of Alaska Fairbanks in Fairbanks
  • University of the Virgin Islands in Charlotte Amalie
  • University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu
  • University of Idaho in Moscow
  • University of Arkansas in Little Rock
  • South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City
  • Satellite Datastreams

NASA's MUREP hosted its annual "Space Tank" pitch event at Space Center Houston last month. Teams from across the country — including three Texas teams — pitched business plans based on NASA-originated technology. Click here to learn more about the seven finalists.

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

Meet the Houston innovator who's creating a new market for decarbonizing energy storage

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 225

If the energy transition is going to be successful, the energy storage space needs to be equipped to support both the increased volume of energy needed and new energies. And Emma Konet and her software company, Tierra Climate, are targeting one part of the equation: the market.

"To me, it's very clear that we need to build a lot of energy storage in order to transition the grid," Konet says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The problems that I saw were really on the market side of things."

Konet says she was bullish on the energy storage side of things when she was an early hire at Key Capture Energy, a private equity-backed energy storage project developer. The issue with energy storage projects, as Konet describes, is they aren't being monetized properly and, in some cases, aren't sustainable and increasing emissions.

"The product we're building is solving these problems. It's a financial product, but what it's doing is solving a market deficiency," she says. "We're sending the right signal to the battery to operate in a way that reduces emissions, and then we're paying them for it because there's a demand to decarbonize."

For over a year, Konet, as co-founder and CTO, has worked on the platform, which is essentially a marketplace for corporates to buy carbon offsets, incentifying and monetizing storage projects.

Tierra Climate is technology agnostic, so while the company is seeing activity in the battery space, they can also work with other types of storage — like hydrogen, pumped water, and more. Konet says her ideal customers are companies with money and interest in playing a role in the energy transition and looking to offset their scope two and three emissions.

"The ultimate vision for our company is for this to be an accessible product that has a high degree of integrity that small to very large companies can execute on, because it's a pay-per-performance mechanism that doesn't lock companies into a really large contract," she says. "It's really scalable."

This year, she says the company, which won fourth place in the 2023 Rice Business Plan Competition, is focused on securing its first big contract and fundraising for its seed round.

Plus Power, which recently relocated its HQ to Houston, has moved into a larger office space. Image via cushmanwakefield.com

California energy storage startup doubles down on Houston with larger space, growing team

betting on HOU

A Northern California-born energy storage startup has established its headquarters in The Woodlands.

Plus Power, which develops battery systems designed to store backup power for electric grids, recently signed a lease for nearly 7,000 square feet at Three Hughes Landing in The Woodlands. The company previously was based in coworking space at the Rayford Office Park in Spring.

The company, founded in 2018, shifted its headquarters from San Francisco to the Houston area last year.

“We chose The Woodlands for its beauty, and walkable access to great nearby hotels, restaurants, and healthy groceries,” says Brandon Keefe, CEO of Plus Power. “A Houston base reflects our deep focus on the Texas market, as we are investing nearly $1 billion in several projects here that will be online by the first quarter of 2024, with more in [the works] behind that.”

About 40 employees work from Plus Power’s new office in The Woodlands. Across North America, the company employs about 130 people, including several in Austin. As of July 10, the startup listed nine job openings.

Plus Power develops, owns, and operates utility-scale systems that store energy in huge lithium-ion batteries during low-demand periods. In times of peak demand, power providers can tap into this stored energy.

“Standalone energy storage is rapidly transforming the U.S. energy markets, because it is cheaper than new natural gas plants, faster to build than fossil peakers or transmission, and able to perform diverse energy services,” the company explains in its job postings.

Peakers are backup power plants that run on fossil fuels.

One of Plus Power’s storage facilities is the 100-megawatt Gambit project, which opened two years ago in Angleton. The nearly eight-acre facility supports power supplies for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which runs the power grid for 90 percent of Texas.

The company says the Angleton facility has fed backup energy to ERCOT during this year’s and last year’s heatwaves, as well as last December’s winter freeze.

The Gambit facility might ring a bell with some folks in the Houston area. In January 2022, Austin-based automaker Tesla unveiled a backup power storage facility in Angleton. Plus Power bought the project from Tesla in June 2022.

Plus Power’s development pipeline contains 10 gigawatts’ worth of energy storage projects in 28 states and Canada. That includes massive projects on tap for Hawaii and Arizona.

Last November, Plus Power announced it had secured $219 million in debt financing for construction of the 185-megawatt Kapolei project on a roughly eight-acre site in Oahu, Hawaii. The facility will be tied to Hawaiian Electric’s power grid. Mizuho Securities USA and KeyBank led the financing.

This April, Plus Power held a groundbreaking ceremony for the Sierra Estrella project in Tolleson, a Phoenix suburb. The 250-megawatt system will serve Salt River Project (SRP), a utility provider in the Phoenix area. The roughly 11-acre Tolleson facility is set to open next year, as is another Plus Power project for SRP — the 90-megawatt Superstition facility in Gilbert, another Phoenix suburb.

As its development pipeline demonstrates, Plus Power is firmly plugged into the fast-growing energy storage market.

According to the Houston-based energy research and consulting firm Wood Mackenzie and the American Clean Power Association, the U.S. energy storage market installed a record-breaking 4.8 gigawatts of capacity in 2022. This year, that number is projected to approach 75 gigawatts.

In a March 2023 news release, John Hensley, the clean power group’s vice president of research and analytics, says the U.S. market “is on a rapid growth curve and is already a key component of building a resilient grid that supports abundant clean energy.”

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

DivInc is bringing another new accelerator program to Houston — this one is focused on clean energy. Photo via DivInc.com

Chevron, Microsoft back Houston-based clean energy program for BIPOC and female founders

ready to grow

A Texas-based accelerator is bringing its third diversity-focused program to Houston.

DivInc, a startup accelerator originating in Austin and established for people of color and women entrepreneurs, has announced that the title sponsors for the inaugural Clean Energy Accelerator are Chevron and Microsoft. The new program will join DivInc's existing accelerators — Women in Tech and Sports Tech — at the Ion.

"With Houston known as the energy capital of the world, DivInc has the opportunity to provide a pipeline of women, black, and latino-led high-growth, high-impact startups focused on clean energy," says Ashley DeWalt, DivInc Houston's managing director, in a news release. "We see this initiative ultimately driving a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive ecosystem within this clean energy transition sector for generations to come."

Applications for the Spring 2023 Clean Energy Accelerator are due today, February 10, according to the website. Startups accepted into the program should be led by BIPOC and women founders committed to working 10 to 15 hours per week during the 12 week program, which will start April 10.

The founders should be "working to shift the energy sector in the areas of clean energy production, energy storage and transmission, energy efficiency, carbon economy, and sustainable cities," per the release. In addition to the two title sponsors, the new program is also supported by Houston Premier Partners, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Verizon, The Ion, and Mercury.

"With a booming startup industry, a commitment to innovation, and a diverse workforce, Houston and organizations like DivInc are poised to play a vital leadership role and operate as a powerful force for energy progress," says Jim Gable, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, in the release.

The cohort, which will accept up to 10 companies, will work one-on-one with both the Microsoft and Chevron teams, as well as have access to DivInc's network of mentors and curriculum. Once the selected companies have completed the program, they will each receive $10,000 in non-dilutive seed funding.

"We are committed to enabling organizations in the clean energy transition while mindful of millions still without access to energy," said Darryl Willis, Corporate Vice President, Energy Industry at Microsoft. "This collaboration with DivInc and Chevron to support underserved entrepreneurs advancing the world's clean energy needs speaks to this climate commitment as well as diversity, equity and inclusion."

Houston-based Quidnet Energy has secured funding from a Department of Energy program. Image via quidnetenergy.com

Houston energy storage startup secures $10M in federal funding

seeing green

A Houston-based company that's got a solution to renewable energy storage has just secured funding from a federal entity.

The U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, is granting Quidnet Energy $10 million in funding, the Houston company announced this week. The funding is a part of the ARPA-E Seeding Critical Advances for Leading Energy technologies with Untapped Potential, the SCALEUP program. This initiative is aimed at providing funding to previous ARPA-E teams "that have been determined to be feasible for widespread deployment and commercialization domestically," per a news release.

“We’re honored that ARPA-E has selected Quidnet Energy as an awardee of the SCALEUP program,” says Joe Zhou, CEO of Quidnet Energy, in the release. “This funding will support continued work on our Geomechanical Pumped Storage (GPS) project with CPS Energy, which will demonstrate the benefits of using proven pumped hydro technology to create a long-duration energy storage resource that doesn’t require mountainous terrain. We look forward to continuing our partnership with CPS Energy and thank ARPA-E for acknowledging the potential of GPS for long-duration storage.”

The company's technology can store renewable energy for long periods of time in large quantities. The process includes storing pressurized water underground and, when the stored energy is needed, the water propels hydroelectric turbines and produces the electricity to support the grid at a fraction of the cost, per the news release. The concept is similar to existing gravity-powered pumped storage, but with less land required.

The fresh funding will be used toward Quidnet Energy’s ongoing project with San Antonio-based utilitary provider CPS Energy. This collaboration is scaling the company's GPS to a 1 MW/10 MWh commercial system, per the release, that will provide CPS Energy with over 10 hour long-duration energy storage system.

In 2020, Quidnet closed its $10 million series B financing round and secured a major contract with the New York State Energy Development Authority. The series B round included participation from Bill Gates-backed Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Canada-based Evok Innovations, which both previously invested in the company, as well as new investors Trafigura and The Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham Environmental Trust.

Houston-based Pason Power just inked a major deal that's giving it an edge in the industry. Getty Images

Houston energy storage software company inks major deal with Canadian tech co.

Energizing plans

Houston-based Pason Power, which provides Internet of Things services to energy storage and solar providers, has been quietly innovating in the energy industry for years. And earlier this year, Pason Power inked a partnership with a multimillion-dollar energy tech company that's quickly expanding its US footprint.

Since it launched as a wholly owned subsidiary of Calgary-based Pason Systems Inc. in 2016, Pason Power offers an array of technologies — including AI, IoT, real-time automation — that support energy storage systems throughout a project's lifecycle. Energy storage systems is a wide umbrella that includes everything from the massive systems used to store renewable energy and biofuels, to household batteries, which store electricity.

"We have intelligent energy management system, which is an intelligent brain that sits inside an energy storage system," says Enrico Ladendorf, founder and managing partner of Pason Power. "We have this intelligent, fully-autonomous system that knows the physical operation of (energy storage), and it makes it brain-dead simple."

Pason's latest deal is one that'll help it continue to expand into the U.S. and Canadian markets. The company's iEMS, or intelligent energy management system, was chosen to service Eguana Technologies, a large Canadian energy storage company that reported $2.8 million in 2018 revenue, per the company's public filings, and $7 million in sales in 2018.

The deal arose from Pason Power's history with Eguana Technologies. A member of Pason Systems' leadership team has known one of Eguana's founders, Brent Harris, for more than 20 years.

"When (Pason Power) got into new ventures, and we were looking into renewables, we talked to Brent," Ladendorf says. Ladendorf adds that the companies Eguana was working with were "not very good," and that there weren't a lot of alternatives in the space.

Ladendorf declined to provide financial details associated with the deal, but said Pason Power is continuing to growing its footprint in the commercial energy sector.

"The opportunity is quite large," Ladendorf says.

Ninety five percent of the drilling rigs that Pason Systems services are in Canada, Ladendorf says, but its U.S. business is its most profitable.

"We have a huge presence (in Canada)," Ladendorf says of Pason Systems. "We are the highest market-cap oilfield services company on the Toronto stock exchange."

As of press time, shares of Pason Systems Inc. were trading at $19.97, down $0.34 from the market's opening.

Enrico Ladendorf is the founder and managing partner of Houston-based Pason Power.Courtesy of Pason Power

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Booming Houston suburb, other Texas towns among the fastest-growing U.S. cities in 2023

by the numbers

One Houston suburb experienced one of the most rapid growth spurts in the country last year: Fulshear, whose population grew by 25.6 percent, more than 51 times that of the nation’s growth rate of 0.5 percent. The city's population was 42,616 as of July 1, 2023.

According to U.S. Census Bureau's Vintage 2023 Population Estimates, released Thursday, May 16, Fulshear — which lies west of Katy in northwest Fort Bend County - ranked No. 2 on the list of fastest-growing cities with a population of 20,000 or more. It's no wonder iconic Houston restaurants like Molina's Cantina see opportunities there.

The South still dominates the nation's growth, even as America’s Northeast and Midwest cities are rebounding slightly from years of population drops. The census estimates showed 13 of the 15 fastest-growing cities in the U.S. were in the South — eight in Texas alone.

The Texas cities joining Fulshear on the fastest-growing-cities list are:

  • Celina (No. 1) with 26.6 percent growth (42,616 total population)
  • Princeton (No. 3) with 22.3 percent growth (28,027 total population)
  • Anna (No. 4) with 16.9 percent growth (27,501 total population)
  • Georgetown (No. 8) with 10.6 percent growth (96,312 total population)
  • Prosper (No. 9) with 10.5 percent growth (41,660 total population)
  • Forney (No. 10) with 10.4 percent growth (35,470 total population)
  • Kyle (No. 11) with 9 percent growth (62,548 total population)

Texas trends
San Antonio saw the biggest growth spurt in the United States last year, numbers-wise. The Alamo City added about 22,000 residents. San Antonio now has nearly 1.5 million people, making it the the seventh largest city in the U.S. and second largest in Texas.

Its population boom was followed by those of other Southern cities, including Fort Worth; Charlotte, North Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida; and Port St. Lucie, Florida.

Fast-growing Fort Worth (978,000) surpassed San Jose, California (970,000) to become the 12th most populous city in the country.

Meanwhile, population slowed in the Austin area. Jacksonville, Florida (986,000), outpaced Austin (980,000), pushing the Texas capital to 11th largest city in the U.S. (barely ahead of Fort Worth).

Population growth in Georgetown, outside Austin, slowed by more than one-fourth its population growth in 2022, the report says, from 14.4 percent to 10.6 percent. It's the same story in the Central Texas city of Kyle, whose population growth decreased by nearly 2 percent to 9 percent in 2023.

Most populated cities
New York City with nearly 8.3 million people remained the nation's largest city in population as of July 1, 2023. Los Angeles was second at close to 4 million residents, while Chicago was third at 2.7 million and Houston was fourth at 2.3 million residents.

The 15 populous U.S. cities in 2023 were:

  1. New York, New York (8.3 million)
  2. Los Angeles, California (4 million)
  3. Chicago, Illinois (2.7 million)
  4. Houston, Texas (2.3 million)
  5. Phoenix, Arizona (1.7 million)
  6. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1.6 million)
  7. San Antonio (1.5 million)
  8. San Diego, California (1.4 million)
  9. Dallas (1.3 million)
  10. Jacksonville, Florida (986,000)
  11. Austin (980,000)
  12. Fort Worth (978,000)
  13. San Jose (970,000)
  14. Columbus, Ohio (913,000)
  15. Charlotte, North Carolina (911,000)

Modest reversals of population declines were seen last year in large cities in the nation's Northeast and Midwest. Detroit, for example, which grew for the first time in decades, had seen an exodus of people since the 1950s. Yet the estimates released Thursday show the population of Michigan’s largest city rose by just 1,852 people from 631,366 in 2022 to 633,218 last year.

It's a milestone for Detroit, which had 1.8 million residents in the 1950s only to see its population dwindle and then plummet through suburban white flight, a 1967 race riot, the migration to the suburbs by many of the Black middle class and the national economic downturn that foreshadowed the city's 2013 bankruptcy filing.

Three of the largest cities in the U.S. that had been bleeding residents this decade staunched those departures somewhat. New York City, which has lost almost 550,000 residents this decade so far, saw a drop of only 77,000 residents last year, about three-fifths the numbers from the previous year.

Los Angeles lost only 1,800 people last year, following a decline in the 2020s of almost 78,000 residents. Chicago, which has lost almost 82,000 people this decade, only had a population drop of 8,200 residents last year.

And San Francisco, which has lost a greater share of residents this decade than any other big city — almost 7.5 percent — actually grew by more than 1,200 residents last year.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

How this Houston clean energy entrepreneur is navigating geothermal's hype to 100x business growth

houston innovators podcast Episode 237

Geothermal energy has been growing in recognition as a major player in the clean energy mix, and while many might think of it as a new climatetech solution, Tim Latimer, co-founder and CEO of Fervo Energy, knows better.

"Every overnight success is a decade in the making, and I think Fervo, fortunately — and geothermal as a whole — has become much more high profile recently as people realize that it can be a tremendous solution to the challenges that our energy sector and climate are facing," he says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

In fact, Latimer has been bullish on geothermal as a clean energy source since he quit his job as a drilling engineer in oil and gas to pursue a dual degree program — MBA and master's in earth sciences — at Stanford University. He had decided that, with the reluctance of incumbent energy companies to try new technologies, he was going to figure out how to start his own company. Through the Stanford program and Activate, a nonprofit hardtech program that funded two years of Fervo's research and development, Latimer did just that.

And the bet has more than paid off. Since officially launching in 2017, Fervo Energy has raised over $430 million — most recently collecting a $244 million series D round. Even more impressive to Latimer — his idea for drilling horizontal wells works. The company celebrated a successful pilot program last summer by achieving continuous carbon-free geothermal energy production with Project Red, a northern Nevada site made possible through a 2021 partnership with Google.

Next up for Fervo is growing and scaling at around a 100x pace. While Project Red included three wells, Project Cape, a Southwest Utah site, will include around 100 wells with significantly reduced drilling cost and an estimated 2026 delivery. Latimer says there are a dozen other projects like Project Cape that are in the works.

"It's a huge ramp up in our drilling, construction, and powerplant programs from our pilot project, but we've already had tremendous success there," Latimer says of Project Cape. "We think our technology has a really bright future."

While Latimer looks ahead to the rapid growth of Fervo Energy, he says it's all due to the foundation he put in place for the company, which has a culture built on the motto, "Build things that last."

“You’re not going to get somewhere that really changes the world by cutting corners and taking short steps. And, if you want to move the needle on something as complicated as the global energy system that has been built up over hundreds of years with trillions of dollars of capital invested in it – you’re not going to do it overnight," he says on the show. "We’re all in this for the long haul together."

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.