Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt were originally named regional winners in this year's competition this summer along with nine other Houston entrepreneurs. Photos via solugen.com

Houston’s Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt, the founders of the transformative chemical manufacturing company Solugen, have been named EY’s US National Award winners for Entrepreneur of the Year.

Solugen, also recently named a finalist in the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards, is an environmentally friendly approach that relies on smaller chemical refineries that helps in reducing costs and transportation-related emissions. Some of their noted accomplishments includes innovations like the proprietary reactor, dubbed the Bioforge, which is a carbon-negative molecule factory and manufacturing process produces zero wastewater or emissions compared with traditional petrochemical refineries.The Bioforge uses a chemienzymatic process in converting plant-sourced substances into essential materials that can be used instead of fossil fuels.

Chakrabarti and Hunt were originally named regional winners in this year's competition this summer along with nine other Houston entrepreneurs.

Founded in 2016 by Hunt and Gaurab Chakrabarti, Solugen has raised over $600 million from investors like Sasol that believe in the technology's potential. The company is valued at reportedly over $2 billion. Solugen is headquartered in Houston, not because it is the hometown of Chakrabarti, but for what Houston brings to the company.

“There’s no way our business could succeed in the Bay Area," Chakrabarti said in a 2023 interview at SXSW where he detailed the offers Hunt and he received to move the business out of state. “For our business, if you look at the density of chemical engineers, the density of our potential customers, and the density of people who know how to do enzyme engineering, Houston happened to be that perfect trifecta for us.”

Even though they are headquartered in Houston, Solugen recently secured plans to expand to the Midwest, as in November they announced its newest strategic partnership with sustainable solutions company ADM (NYSE:ADM) in Marshall, Minnesota. The partnership includes plans for Solugen to build a 500,000-square-foot biomanufacturing facility next to an existing ADM facility , with the two companies working together on producing biomaterials to replace fossil fuel products.

“The strategic partnership with ADM will allow Solugen to bring our chemienzymatic process to a commercial scale and meet existing customer demand for our high-performance, cost-competitive, sustainable products,” Chakrabarti said in a news release. “As one of the few scaled-up and de-risked biomanufacturing assets in the country, Solugen’s Bioforge platform is helping bolster domestic capabilities and supply chains that are critical in ensuring the U.S. reaches its ambitious climate targets.”

For Chakrabarti and Hunt, Solugen was born out of a 12-year friendship, and the journey began after a friendly card game. After an entrepreneurship contest at MIT, which earned them second place and a $10,000 prize, they invested the winnings to work on what would become Solugen, a proof-of-concept reactor with materials bought from a local home improvement store.

"We had a conviction that we were building something that could be impactful to the rest of the world,” Chakrabarti said at SXSW in 2023.

The 11 executives now will move on to national Entrepreneur Of The Year program. National winners will be named in November. Photos courtesy

Houston innovators recognized at annual regional entrepreneur competition

Meet the winners

Eleven Houston-based executives have been crowned regional winners in the Entrepreneur Of The Year program, run by professional services firm EY.

The 11 executives now will move on to national Entrepreneur Of The Year program. National winners will be named in November.

“Every year, we are completely blown away by the accomplishments of our Entrepreneur Of The Year Regional Award winners, and 2023 is no different,” AJ Jordan, director of the Entrepreneur Of The Year program for EY Americas, says in a news release. “They are change-makers and champions of business and community, and we are so proud to be honoring them. We can’t wait to see how these leaders will continue to improve lives and disrupt industries.”

Here are the 11 local winners from the program’s Gulf South region.

Steve Altemus, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines

Intuitive Machines, founded in 2013, is a publicly traded space exploration company. The company’s upcoming mission will send the first U.S. spacecraft to the moon since 1972 as well as the first-ever commercial lunar lander. Its Nova-C spacecraft will carry commercial and NASA payloads.

Earlier this year, a joint venture led by Intuitive Machines nabbed a contract valued at up to $719 million for work on NASA’s Joint Polar Satellite System. The company, which went public in February 2023, forecasts revenue of $174 million to $268 million this year.

“Steve’s visionary mindset and ability to assemble and inspire a talented team have been instrumental in our collective success,” the company says in a statement about the Entrepreneur Of The Year award. “He consistently fosters a culture of excellence, empowering our diverse group of engineers, scientists, and visionaries to pioneer groundbreaking solutions and deliver outstanding results.”

Gaurab Chakrabarti, co-founder and CEO of Solugen, and Sean Hunt, co-founder and CTO

Solugen, founded in 2016, makes and distributes specialty chemicals derived from feedstock. The startup is reportedly valued at more than $2 billion. To date, Solugen has raised $642.2 million, according to Crunchbase.

In naming Solugen one of the most innovative companies of 2022, Fast Company noted that the carbon-negative process embraced by Solugen and the startup’s “ability to sell flexible amounts of chemicals to companies looking to lower their own footprint have helped the company make inroads in a traditionally slow-moving industry.”

Daryl Dudum and Matthew Hadda, founders and co-CEOs of Specialty1 Partners

Specialty1 Partners, which launched in 2019, supplies business services to dental surgery practices. These services include HR, recruiting, payroll, accounting, operations, marketing, business development, compliance, IT, and legal.

In 2022, Specialty1 Partners appeared at No. 72 on the Inc. 5000 list with two-year revenue growth of 2,921 percent.

“Supporting our partners and helping them grow while continuing to build partnerships with industry-leading, innovative surgical specialists is what we focus on every day,” Dudum says in a 2022 news release. “It’s not just about growing our network — we are committed to helping our partner practices grow and succeed on their terms.”

Ludmila Golovine, president and CEO of MasterWord Services

MasterWord Services offers translation and interpretation in more than 400 languages for customers such as energy, health care, and tech companies. The woman-owned business was founded in 1993.

“I’m grateful to our exceptional team and to each of our translators and interpreters who every day live our mission of connecting people across language and culture,” Golovine says in a news release about the Entrepreneur Of The Year honor.

Roger Jenkins, president and CEO of Murphy Oil

Murphy Oil is involved in oil and natural gas exploration and production primarily onshore in the U.S. and Canada, and offshore along the Gulf of Mexico. The publicly traded Fortune 1000 company, founded in 1944, racked up revenue of nearly $4 billion in 2022.

“Over the years, the company has grown and evolved to become a leading independent energy company, with strategic assets around the world,” Murphy says on its website. “All the while, we have remained true to our mission — to challenge the norm, tap into our strong legacy, and use our foresight and financial discipline to deliver inspired energy solutions.

Mohammad Millwala, founder and CEO of DM Clinical Research

DM Clinical Research, founded in 2006, runs 13 sites for clinical trials. Its areas of specialty include vaccines, internal medicine, pediatrics, gastrointestinal, psychiatry, and women’s health.

“DM Clinical Research is in a period of rapid growth with multiple new study sites added over the last two years in addition to the quadrupling of our staff to over 500 employees,” Millwala says in a January 2023 news release. “We expect this transformational growth trajectory to continue for the foreseeable future, on the road to becoming the leading independent clinical research network in the nation.”

Mark Walker, co-founder, chairman and CEO of Direct Digital Holdings, and Keith Smith, co-founder and president

Publicly traded Direct Digital Holdings owns three operating companies that offer online platforms for advertising. Three years after its founding in 2018, the company became the ninth Black-owned business to go public in the U.S.

The company posted revenue of $88 million in 2022, up 131 percent from the previous year.

“Direct Digital Holdings’ success is rooted in the hard work and commitment we have long seen in taking advantage of advertising opportunities targeting underserved communities and [that] markets often overlook,” Smith says in a news release about the Entrepreneur Of The Year award.

Omair Tariq, co-founder and CEO of Cart.com

While technically headquartered in Austin, Houston-funded Cart.com's co-founder and CEO, Omair Tariq, also was a Gulf South winner in the Entrepreneur Of The Year program.

The e-commerce company moved its headquarters from Houston to Austin in 2021. However, Tariq remains in Houston. In May 2023, Tariq delivered the commencement address to MBA recipients from Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business, where he earned his MBA.

Cart.com, founded in 2020, offers software and services to thousands of online merchants. To date, the pre-IPO company has raised $421 million in funding, according to Crunchbase.

“We want to be the commerce-enablement infrastructure for the largest brands in the world,” Tariq told the Insider news website in 2022.

Craig Taylor has been named 2022 Veteran Entrepreneur of the Year by the Rice Business Veterans Association and has made it to the finals for EY's Entrepreneur Of The Year 2022. Photo courtesy of Iapetus

Houston energy entrepreneur recognized for 2 leadership awards

vet rep

Houston’s Craig Taylor is basking in the entrepreneurial spotlight.

On May 10, Taylor, founder and CEO of Houston-based Iapetus Holdings, and Tejpal Singh, co-founder and chief operating officer, were named Entrepreneur Of The Year 2022 finalists in the program’s Central South region. That region includes the Houston area. Professional services giant Ernest & Young sponsors the program.

Meanwhile, Taylor last month was named 2022 Veteran Entrepreneur of the Year by the Rice Business Veterans Association at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business.

Iapetus Holdings is a minority- and veteran-owned portfolio of eight self-funded, multimillion-dollar companies in the energy sector.

“When you set off to become a self-funded entrepreneur, you start with a vision and a ton of grit, but you never really have assurance of the fact that you’re going to be successful,” Taylor says in a news release. “The road to business success takes many turns and that’s why, to find ourselves among those honored with this distinction, to be among the EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalists, is so meaningful.”

Singh says he and Taylor “have much greater ambitions” for Iapetus as well as Atlas Scholars, the nonprofit they launched to provide internships and scholarships to high school students.

“It has taken a ton of dedication and effort to realize our ambition of building this group of energy solutions businesses, creating this number of jobs, serving this quantity and quality of clients,” Singh says.

Regional Entrepreneur Of The Year winners will be announced June 23.

The Entrepreneur Of The Year nod follows Taylor’s acceptance April 23 of Rice’s Veteran Entrepreneur of the Year honor.

Navy veteran Charles “Reid” Schrodel, an officer with Rice Business Veterans Association, says Taylor was chosen for the honor because of his success in business and philanthropy.

“For the Veteran Entrepreneur of the Year award, “we were looking for veteran entrepreneurs that are successful in their field, and we wanted to find a vet entrepreneur whose organization also gave back to their communities,” Schrodel says.

Taylor received the award during the Rice Veterans Business Battle competition. He and Alex Danielides, head of business development at Iapetus Holdings, were judges for the competition. In the competition, 16 early stage companies vied for funding. The 2022 winners were Libre, Opera Bioscience, and Bonappesweet.

In a news release, Taylor notes that veterans who own businesses face an array of challenges.

“Being an entrepreneur is not easy, but the Navy instilled in me a strong sense of responsibility and grit, which are critical characteristics of a successful entrepreneur,” he says.

Businesses under the Iapetus umbrella are:

  • Atlas Commodities, a commodity brokerage firm.
  • Atlas Field Services, which provides safety inspections and audits for energy providers.
  • Atlas Retail Energy, a provider of energy management services for commercial and industrial customers.
  • Gold Coast Utility Specialists, which provides risk management services for energy suppliers.
  • Hyperion Safety Environmental Solutions, whose services include safety programming and environmental planning.
  • Iapetus Infrastructure Services, which encompasses five of the holding company’s eight subsidiaries.
  • Soaring Eagle Technologies, a provider of mapping services.
  • UATI (Unmanned Aviation Training Institute), which trains drone operators.

Collectively, annual revenue for the eight subsidiaries is around $100 million.

“Our customers rely on Iapetus employees who are innovating and are making a difference on the most critical issues of our times. We’re affecting everything from energy security to sustainability to infrastructure reliability, and we do so as a cohesive group of diverse perspectives working toward common goals,” Taylor said in a 2021 news release.

“Our companies are working closely with utilities on strategies to help prevent risks, plan vegetation management, keep the lights on and employees safe,” he added. “We’re also helping commercial and industrial clients procure energy efficiently and sustainably, while providing international energy trade brokerage services in this intense-demand landscape.”

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New Houston venture studio emerges to target early-stage hardtech, energy transition startups

funding the future

The way Doug Lee looks at it, there are two areas within the energy transition attracting capital. With his new venture studio, he hopes to target an often overlooked area that's critical for driving forward net-zero goals.

Lee describes investment activity taking place in the digital and software world — early stage technology that's looking to make the industry smarter. But, on the other end of the spectrum, investment activity can be found on massive infrastructure projects.

While both areas need funding, Lee has started his new venture studio, Flathead Forge, to target early-stage hardtech technologies.

“We are really getting at the early stage companies that are trying to develop technologies at the intersection of legacy industries that we believe can become more sustainable and the energy transition — where we are going. It’s not an ‘if’ or ‘or’ — we believe these things intersect,” he tells EnergyCapital.

Specifically, Lee's expertise is within the water and industrial gas space. For around 15 years, he's made investments in this area, which he describes as crucial to the energy transition.

“Almost every energy transition technology that you can point to has some critical dependency on water or gas,” he says. “We believe that if we don’t solve for those things, the other projects won’t survive.”

Lee, and his brother, Dave, are evolving their family office to adopt a venture studio model. They also sold off Azoto Energy, a Canadian oilfield nitrogen cryogenic services business, in December.

“We ourselves are going through a transition like our energy is going through a transition,” he says. “We are transitioning into a single family office into a venture studio. By doing so, we want to focus all of our access and resources into this focus.”

At this point, Flathead Forge has seven portfolio companies and around 15 corporations they are working with to identify their needs and potential opportunities. Lee says he's gearing up to secure a $100 million fund.

Flathead also has 40 advisers and mentors, which Lee calls sherpas — a nod to the Flathead Valley region in Montana, which inspired the firm's name.

“We’re going to help you carry up, we’re going to tie ourselves to the same rope as you, and if you fall off the mountain, we’re falling off with you,” Lee says of his hands-on approach, which he says sets Flathead apart from other studios.

Another thing that's differentiating Flathead Forge from its competition — it's dedication to giving back.

“We’ve set aside a quarter of our carried interest for scholarships and grants,” Lee says.

The funds will go to scholarships for future engineers interested in the energy transition, as well as grants for researchers studying high-potential technologies.

“We’re putting our own money where our mouth is,” Lee says of his thesis for Flathead Forge.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston-based lunar mission's rocky landing and what it means for America's return to the moon

houston, we have a problem

A private U.S. lunar lander tipped over at touchdown and ended up on its side near the moon’s south pole, hampering communications, company officials said Friday.

Intuitive Machines initially believed its six-footed lander, Odysseus, was upright after Thursday's touchdown. But CEO Steve Altemus said Friday the craft “caught a foot in the surface," falling onto its side and, quite possibly, leaning against a rock. He said it was coming in too fast and may have snapped a leg.

“So far, we have quite a bit of operational capability even though we’re tipped over," he told reporters.

But some antennas were pointed toward the surface, limiting flight controllers' ability to get data down, Altemus said. The antennas were stationed high on the 14-foot (4.3-meter) lander to facilitate communications at the hilly, cratered and shadowed south polar region.

Odysseus — the first U.S. lander in more than 50 years — is thought to be within a few miles (kilometers) of its intended landing site near the Malapert A crater, less than 200 miles (300 kilometers) from the south pole. NASA, the main customer, wanted to get as close as possible to the pole to scout out the area before astronauts show up later this decade.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will attempt to pinpoint the lander's location, as it flies overhead this weekend.

With Thursday’s touchdown, Intuitive Machines became the first private business to pull off a moon landing, a feat previously achieved by only five countries. Japan was the latest country to score a landing, but its lander also ended up on its side last month.

Odysseus' mission was sponsored in large part by NASA, whose experiments were on board. NASA paid $118 million for the delivery under a program meant to jump-start the lunar economy.

One of the NASA experiments was pressed into service when the lander's navigation system did not kick in. Intuitive Machines caught the problem in advance when it tried to use its lasers to improve the lander's orbit. Otherwise, flight controllers would not have discovered the failure until it was too late, just five minutes before touchdown.

“Serendipity is absolutely the right word,” mission director Tim Crain said.

It turns out that a switch was not flipped before flight, preventing the system's activation in space.

Launched last week from Florida, Odysseus took an extra lap around the moon Thursday to allow time for the last-minute switch to NASA's laser system, which saved the day, officials noted.

Another experiment, a cube with four cameras, was supposed to pop off 30 seconds before touchdown to capture pictures of Odysseus’ landing. But Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s EagleCam was deliberately powered off during the final descent because of the navigation switch and stayed attached to the lander.

Embry-Riddle's Troy Henderson said his team will try to release EagleCam in the coming days, so it can photograph the lander from roughly 26 feet (8 meters) away.

"Getting that final picture of the lander on the surface is still an incredibly important task for us,” Henderson told The Associated Press.

Intuitive Machines anticipates just another week of operations on the moon for the solar-powered lander — nine or 10 days at most — before lunar nightfall hits.

The company was the second business to aim for the moon under NASA's commercial lunar services program. Last month, Pittsburgh's Astrobotic Technology gave it a shot, but a fuel leak on the lander cut the mission short and the craft ended up crashing back to Earth.

Until Thursday, the U.S. had not landed on the moon since Apollo 17's Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closed out NASA's famed moon-landing program in December 1972. NASA's new effort to return astronauts to the moon is named Artemis after Apollo's mythological twin sister. The first Artemis crew landing is planned for 2026 at the earliest.

3 female Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate

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

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." Read more.

Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. Photo courtesy of Sage

A Houston geothermal startup has announced the close of its series A round of funding.

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. The proceeds aim to fund its first commercial geopressured geothermal system facility, which will be built in Texas in Q4 of 2024. According to the company, the facility will be the first of its kind.

“The first close of our Series A funding and our commercial facility are significant milestones in our mission to make geopressured geothermal system technologies a reality,” Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems, says. Read more.

Clemmie Martin, chief of staff at The Cannon

With seven locations across the Houston area, The Cannon's digital technology allows its members a streamlined connection. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

After collaborating over the years, The Cannon has acquired a Houston startup's digital platform technology to become a "physical-digital hybrid" community.

Village Insights, a Houston startup, worked with The Cannon to create and launch its digital community platform Cannon Connect. Now, The Cannon has officially acquired the business. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“The integration of a world-class onsite member experience and Cannon Connect’s superior virtual resource network creates a seamless, streamlined environment for member organizations,” Clemmie Martin, The Cannon’s newly appointed chief of staff, says in the release. “Cannon Connect and this acquisition have paved new pathways to access and success for all.” Read more.