The U.S. Justice Department and the federal Environmental Protection Agency have reached an agreement with a Houston company on alleged violations of the federal Clean Air Act. Photo via Getty Images

Officials have reached an agreement with a Houston-based company over alleged violations of the federal Clean Air Act.

Under a proposed settlement with the U.S. Justice Department and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Derichebourg Recycling USA Inc. will prevent the release of ozone-depleting refrigerants and non-exempt substitutes from refrigerant-containing items at its 10 scrap metal recycling facilities in Texas and Oklahoma. Derichebourg also will pay a $442,500 penalty.

Derichebourg Recycling USA’s parent company is France-based Derichebourg SA, an operator of scrap metal recycling facilities.

A complaint filed in federal court alleges Derichebourg Recycling USA failed to recover refrigerant from appliances and motor vehicle air conditioners before disposal, and failed to verify with the supplier that refrigerant had been properly recovered before delivery.

The complaint focuses on alleged Clean Air Act violations at three Derichebourg scrap metal recycling facilities in Houston: 7501 Wallisville Rd., 8202 W. Montgomery Rd., and 1 Wharf St. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inspections in 2018 led to the complaint.

Derichebourg operates three other facilities in the Houston area: 3515 Almeda Genoa Rd. and 6648 N. Eldridge Pkwy., both in Houston, and 13319 FM 1764 in Santa Fe.

“To continue protecting stratospheric ozone, we need companies like Derichebourg to comply with the Clean Air Act when recycling appliances and motor vehicles containing harmful refrigerants,” Todd Kim, an assistant U.S. attorney general, says in a January 7 news release.

The refrigerant, R-12, is one of the most destructive ozone-depleting substances and has a global warming potential greater than 10,000 times the power of carbon dioxide, according to the news release.

“Refrigerants that are not captured properly can be damaging to the earth’s ozone layer and are known to increase greenhouse gasses, which leads to climate change,” says Larry Starfield, acting assistant administrator of the EPA.

The agreement, called a consent decree, still requires approval from a federal judge in Houston. The consent decree is signed by two EPA attorneys and the CEO of Derichebourg Recycling USA, Philippe Leonard.

The City of Houston has held the No. 1 spot on the municipal list since 2014. Photo via Getty Images

Houston continues its reign as the top city using renewables, per the EPA

seeing green

The City of Houston continues to electrify the country when it comes to the use of green power.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ranks the city first among municipal entities for the highest annual consumption of power from renewable sources. The list features participants in the EPA's Green Energy Partnership.

The EPA pegs the City of Houston's annual use of green power at a little over 1 billion kilowatt-hours. That's enough electricity to power more than 94,000 average U.S. homes in a year's time. No other municipal entity uses more than 1 billion kilowatt-hours of green power per year.

The City of Houston has held the No. 1 spot on the municipal list since 2014. Among all users of green power in the U.S. that participate in the EPA's Green Energy Partnership, the city ranks 19th.

Since July 2020, all City of Houston facilities have been powered by 100 percent renewable energy derived from solar and wind sources. Houston-based NRG supplies the electricity for those facilities.

In an August 11 news release, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says the EPA recognition is "great news for the city of Houston and, by extension, for the rest of the world. We are going big to set the example for cities around the world. If 100 percent renewable energy can happen in Houston, it can happen in any other city."

The news release points out that green power helps offset damage from ozone, acid rain, haze, fine particles, and other harmful pollutants. Fine particles come primarily from exhaust produced by vehicles, as well as from the burning of coal, wood, and heating oil, and from forest fires and grass fires.

The City of Houston isn't the only municipal outfit in Texas that shines on the EPA list. Here's are four others among the top 30 municipal users of green power:

  • City of Dallas, ranked second, 701.8 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, ranked fifth, 450.2 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • City of Austin, ranked sixth, 325.3 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • City of Irving, ranked 30th, 24.9 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.

Nationally, these five Texas businesses rank among the top corporate users of green power:

  • Dallas-based AT&T, ranked seventh, 2.36 billion kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • Irving-based Kimberly-Clark, ranked 18th, 1.03 billion kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • Round Rock-based Dell, ranked 46th, 365.6 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • Houston-based Solvay America, ranked 61st, 220 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • Plano-based Cinemark USA, ranked 95th, 120.2 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.

Two Texas schools appear on the list of the top colleges and universities for use of green power:

  • University of North Texas in Denton, ranked 17th, 80.3 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • Fort Worth-based Tarrant County College District, ranked 25th, 57.1 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.

Four Texas institutions show up on the list of the top K-12 users of green power:

  • Austin ISD, ranked second, 19.8 million kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • Lake Travis ISD (select schools), ranked 12th, 960,000 kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • The da Vinci School in Dallas, ranked 15th, 237,990 kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.
  • The Empower School in Austin, ranked 17th, 115,314 kilowatt-hours of green power used each year.

The EPA's ranking of the largest users of green power across the country "is proof that good business practices can also benefit the environment," says James Critchfield, director of the EPA's Green Power Partnership.

From a lab in Rice University to a potential shelf life in stores, the innovation of food coating is just beginning. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Houston researchers find new eco-friendly way to preserve produce

preventing waste

Hunger impacts over 800 million people worldwide, leaving nearly 10 percent of the population suffering from chronic undernourishment. The distressing reality of food shortages co-exists in a world where 1.3 billion tons of food — nearly a third of what's produced — is wasted each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rice University's scientific research team's latest discovery takes a crack at ending food shortages and improving sustainability with a common kitchen necessity: eggs.

The discovery of egg-based coating is promising to researchers, as it manages to both prolong produce shelf-life by double while impacting the environment.

"We are reducing the cost, and at the same time we are reducing the waste," says Muhammad M. Rahman, a research scientist at Rice University. "One in every eight people are hungry...on the other side, 33 percent of food is wasted."

It's no secret that overflowing landfills contribute to the climate crisis, piling high with food waste each year. While the United States produces more than seven billion eggs a year, manufacturers reject 3 percent of them. The Rice University researchers estimate that more than 200 million eggs end up in U.S. landfills annually.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, half of all landfill gas is methane, a hazardous greenhouse gas that contributes to detrimental climate change. Landfills are the third-largest contributor to methane emissions in the country, riding the coattails of agriculture and the energy industry.

COVID-19 has upended supply chains across the nation, and in recent months food waste has become an even more pressing issue. The disruptions of consumer purchasing habits and the indefinite closures of theme parks and select restaurants put a burden on farmers who planned for larger harvests and restaurants unsure of how to adjust. With more Americans cooking at home, panic-buying from grocery stores is also playing a role in accumulating waste.

To understand the challenges of the food industry, it's important to acknowledge the biggest menace to the supply chain: perishability. Fruits and vegetables only last a few days once arriving in grocery stores due to culprits like dehydration, texture deterioration, respiration and microbial growth. Rice University researchers sought to create a coating that addresses each of these issues in a natural, cost-effective way.

Brown School of Engineering materials scientist, Pulickei Ajayan, and his colleagues, were looking for a protein to fight issues like food waste. Rahman, a researcher in Ajayan's lab, received his Ph.D. from Cornell University studying the structure-property relationship in green nanocomposites. He and his fellow researchers found that egg whites were a suitable protein that wouldn't alter the biological and physiological properties of fruit. The study published in Advanced Materials took one year and three months to complete.

According to Rahman, the egg-based coating is non-toxic, biodegradable and healthier than other alternatives on the market. Wax is one common method of fruit preservation that can result in adverse effects on gut cells and the body over time.

"Long-term consumption of wax is not actually good and is very bad for your health," says Dr. Rahman. After wax is consumed, gut cells fragment the preservatives in wax to ions. This process can have a negative impact on "membrane disruption, essential metabolite inhibition, energy drainage to restore homeostasis, and reductions in body-weight gain," according to the research abstract.

Preservation efforts like wax, modified atmospheric packaging and paraffin-based active coatings are not only more expensive and less healthy, but they also alter the taste and look of fruits.

"Reducing food shortages in ways that don't involve genetic modification, inedible coatings or chemical additives is important for sustainable living," Ajayan states in a press release.

The magic of preservation is all in the ingredients. Rice University's edible coating is mostly made from household items. Seventy percent of the egg coating is made from egg whites and yolk. Cellulose nanocrystals, a biopolymer from wood, are mixed with the egg to create a gas barrier and keep the produce from shriveling. To add elasticity to the brittle poly-albumen (egg), glycerol helps make the coating flexible. Finally, curcumin—an extract found in turmeric—works as an antibacterial to reduce the microbial growth and preserve the fruit's freshness.

The experiment was done by dipping strawberries, avocados, papayas and bananas in the multifunctional coating and comparing them with uncoated fruits. Observation during the decaying process showed that the coated fruits had about double the shelf-life of their non-coated counterparts.

For people with egg allergies, the coating can be removed simply by rinsing the produce in water. Rice University researchers are also beginning to test plant-based proteins for vegan consumers.

For its first iteration, Rahman finds that the coating shows "optimistic results" and "potential" for the future of food preservation.

"These are already very green materials. In the next phase, we are trying to optimize this coating and extend the samples from fruits to vegetables and eggs," says Rahman.

Researchers will also work to test a spray protein, making it easier for both commercial providers as well as consumers looking for an at-home coating option. From a lab in Rice University to a potential shelf life in stores, the innovation of food coating is just beginning.

Texas has been deemed inefficient when it comes to energy. Photo courtesy of Thomas Miller/Breitling Energy

National report declares Texas dim when it comes to energy efficiency

Power Problems

For a state that's home to the "Energy Capital of the World," Texas falls flat when it comes to energy efficiency. WalletHub, a personal finance site, ranked the most and least energy-efficient states, and Texas was named No. 42 of the 48 states evaluated.

The states were scored on home and auto efficiency out of an available 100 points. Home efficiency was calculated based on the ratio of total residential energy consumption to annual degree days, the days of the year in each region that require buildings to engage heating or cooling. Auto efficiency was established by factoring in the annual miles driven per year, gallons of gasoline consumed, and population. At the top of the national ranking were New York, Vermont, Utah, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.

Texas, with its hot climate and underdeveloped public transportation systems, scored only 33.34 total points on the report. The state ranked No. 35 on home energy efficiency and No. 42 for auto energy efficiency. Texans drive over 271 billion miles annually and use over 19 billion gallons of gas, the second worst and worst rankings, respectively, among the states considered for this study.

The Environmental Protection Agency's research tells a different story of Texas' sustainability. The EPA's Green Power Partnership named its 2018 top local governments, and Texas cities claimed three spots in the top five. Houston was ranked No. 1, followed by Dallas at No. 2 and Austin at No. 5. This ranking is based on the annual green power usage — Houstonians use almost 1.1 million kilowatt hours of wind and solar energies annually.

According to the WalletHub report, each American household spends at least $2,000 annually on utilities and another $1,968 on gasoline and oil, which is up $59 from last year. New technologies and energy-efficient measures can reduce household utility costs by up to 25 percent, and a fuel-efficient car could save drivers over $700 annually, says WalletHub. The report's experts advised in properly weatherproofing homes; smart technology, such as thermostats; solar panels; and more.

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This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

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Early-stage accelerator returns to Houston, announces finalists

prepare for take-off

CodeLaunch, a traveling seed-stage accelerator, is returning to Houston for its latest cohort.

The startup competition sponsored by software development company Improving will have its ultimate showdown on February 28. The final competition pairs six startups with six startup consulting companies.

Jason W. Taylor, CodeLaunch president and founder, says CodeLaunch isn’t your typical startup showcase, as it incorporates music acts, comedy, and crowd networking. Mirroring the set-up of a TV show, the six finalists all present their working products in front of an audience amid these performances.

“I would describe CodeLaunch as the next generation of venture-tainment in North America and the greatest startup show on earth,” Taylor explains.

The 2024 Houston CodeLaunch participant startups — and their mentor partners — are as follows:

Prior to pitch day, all six teams will receive hands-on instruction from CodeLaunch mentors on how to construct their pitches and free professional software development from their partners. Taylor says the strong relationships between CodeLaunch and these developers played a major role in setting the competition in Houston.

“We love Houston and we’re back for a third year in a row because the Houston startup ecosystem works together better than other major startup ecosystems I’ve seen,” Taylor says. “We have some great software development partners in Houston that are building code for those startups.”

Last year, Houston-based startup Energy360, with the mentorship and help of Honeycomb Software, took home the Championship belt and a $100,000 investment offer from Cyrannus VC fund for their energy management system Matt Bonasera, Energy360’s enterprise architect, says he is grateful for the entrepreneurial community CodeLaunch provides, in particular the team’s mentor Oleg Lysiak, Honeycomb VP of Partnerships and Business Development.

“I happened along this great community of people who are really passionate about supporting each other,” Bonasera says.

Lysiak agrees that CodeLaunch is an ideal opportunity for young entrepreneurs looking to hone their skills and expand their product capabilities. Lysiak says he is looking forward to defending Honeycomb’s title as top consultant development team.

“My whole philosophy is to connect people and have different collisions and collaborations,” Lysiak says.

Houston startup completes testing, prepares biosimilar insulin drug for clinical trials

next steps

A Houston biotech startup is one step closer to releasing its marquee drug for the global insulin market, which is projected to break the $90 billion threshold by 2029.

rBIO says it recently completed testing of the properties of R-biolin, an insulin drug that’s biologically identical to Novo Nordisk’s Novolin drug. The patent for Novolin about two decades ago. In March 2023, the Dutch drugmaker announced it was slashing the list price of Novolin by 65 percent to $48.20 per vial and $91.09 per FlexPen.

Executives at rBIO are now pursuing a partnership with a contract research organization to manage clinical trials of R-biolin. If those trials go well, R-biolin will seek approval to supply its insulin therapy to diabetes patients around the world.

Washington University in St. Louis is rBIO’s academic partner for the R-biolin project.

The rBIO platform produces insulin at greater yields that traditional manufacturing techniques do. The company is striving to drive down the cost of insulin by 30 percent.

About 38 million Americans have diabetes, with the vast majority being treated for type 2 diabetes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many people with diabetes must take insulin to control their blood sugar levels.

Research company iHealthcareAnalyst predicts the global market for insulin will surpass the $90 billion mark in 2029.

“There has been a lot of talk in the media about reducing the cost of insulin for diabetic patients, but what is often overlooked is that the domestic demand for insulin will soon outpace the supply, leading to a new host of issues,” Cameron Owen, co-founder and CEO of rBIO, says in a news release.

“We’re dedicated to addressing the growing demand for accessible insulin therapies, and … we’re thrilled to announce the viability of our highly scalable manufacturing process.”

Professionals from the University of California San Diego and Johns Hopkins University established rBIO in 2020. The startup moved its headquarters from San Diego to Houston in 2022.

CEO Cameron Owen and Chief Scientific Officer Deenadayalan Bakthavatsalam work on insulin purification in the Houston lab. Photo courtesy

How AI is changing product management and what you need to know

guest column

For the past 14 months, everyone has been talking about ways artificial intelligence is changing the world, and product management is not an exception. The challenge, as with every new technology, is not only adopting it but understanding what old habits, workflows, and processes are affected by it.

Product managers — as well as startup founders leading a product function — more than any other role, face a challenge of bringing new life-changing products to market that may or may not be received well by their users. A product manager’s goal is complex — bring value, stay ahead of the competition, be innovative. Yet, the "behind the scenes" grind requires endless decision making and trade offs to inspire stakeholders to move forward and deliver.

As we dive into 2024, it is obvious that AI tools do not only transform the way we work but also help product managers create products that exceed customer expectation and drive businesses forward.

Market research and trends analysis

As product managers, we process enormous amounts of market data — from reviewing global and industry trend analysis, to social media posts, predictions, competition, and company goals. AI, however, can now replace hours, if not days, of analyzing massive amounts of data in an instant, revealing market trends, anticipating needs, and foreseeing what's coming next. As a result, it is easier to make effective product decisions and identify new market opportunities.

Competitive analysis

Constantly following competitors, reviewing their new releases, product updates, or monitoring reviews to identify competitor strengths and weaknesses is an overwhelming and time consuming task. With AI, you can quickly analyze competitors’ products, pricing, promotions, and feedback. You can easily compare multiple attributes, including metrics, and identify gaps and areas for improvement — all the insights that are otherwise much harder to reveal quickly and efficiently.

Customer and product discovery

Of course, the most intuitive use case that comes to mind is the adoption of AI in product and customer discovery. For example:

  • Use AI for customer segmentation and persona creation to help visualize personas, prioritize user motivations and expectations, and uncover hidden behavior and needs. You can then create and simplify customer questionnaires for interviews and user groups and target customers more accurately.
  • Analyze quantitative and qualitative data from surveys, support tickets, reviews, and in-person interviews to identify pain points and unmet user needs and help prioritize features for future updates and releases.

Roadmap and sprint management

AI provides value in simplifying roadmap planning and sprint management. Resource optimization is often a gruesome task and AI can help with feature prioritization and resource allocation. It helps teams focus on critical work and increase their productivity. You can even analyze and manage dependencies and improve results across multiple sprints months in advance.

Prototyping and mockup generation

There is no product manager’s routine without multiple mockups, wireframes, and prototypes that explain concepts and collect feedback among stakeholders. AI has become a critical tool in simplifying this process and bringing ideas to life from concept to visualization.

Today, you can use textual or voice descriptions to instantly create multiple visuals with slight variations, run A/B tests and gather valuable feedback at the earliest stage of a product life cycle.

Job search and job interviews

Consider it as a bonus but one of the less obvious but crucial advantages of AI is using it in job search. With the vulnerable and unstable job market, especially for product roles, AI is a valuable assistant. From getting the latest news and updates on a company you want to join, to summarizing insights on the executive team, or company goals, compiling lists of interview questions, and running mock interviews, AI has become a non-judgmental assistant in a distressing and often discouraging job search process.

Use AI to draft cold emails to recruiters and hiring managers, compare your skills to open positions’ requirements, identify gaps, and outline ideas for test assignments.

We already know that AI is not a hype; it is here to stay. However, remember that customers do not consume AI, they consume your product for its value. Customers care whether your product gets their need, solves their problem, and makes their lives easier. The goal of a product manager is to create magic combining human brain capabilities and latest technology. And the best result is with a human at the core of any product.

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Natasha Gorodetsky is the founder and CEO of Product Pursuits, a Houston company that helps early stage and venture-backed startups build products and create impact.