First Bight Ventures has added two Houstonians to its advisory board. Image via Getty Images

Earlier this year, a new synthetic biology-focused venture capital fund launched in Houston, and now its added to its esteemed set of advisers.

Veronica Wu, former Apple and Tesla exec, founded First Bight Ventures, a new VC firm focused exclusively on early-stage synthetic biology startups, in January and named her initial board members. This month, she's added to those ranks with two Houstonians joining the advisory board — Gaurab Chakrabarti, co-founder and CEO of Solugen, and Kevin Coker, co-founder and CEO of Proxima CRO.

"We are excited to announce the addition of Dr. Gaurab Chakrabarti and Kevin Coker," Wu says in a press release. "These two advisors are experts in their respective fields of medicine and biotechnology. They are proven leaders of Houston-based companies, which is key to our overall growth strategy, as we seek to establish Houston as a geographic center for innovation in Synthetic Biology."

Gaurab co-founded Solugen, a Houston unicorn that creates enzymes that can turn sugar into chemicals, in 2016. He studied computational neuroscience at Brown University and received his master's and PhD in cancer biology and enzymology at the University of Texas.

Representing the health care side of synthetic biology, Kevin Coker runs Houston-based Proxima CRO, a regulatory and clinical partner for the emerging biotech and medical device industry. He is also the founder and partner of the M1 MedTech accelerator and the Host of the Inventing Tomorrow podcast.

"I couldn't be more excited to work with Veronica and First Bight Ventures," Coker says in the release. "The time is now for companies developing Synthetic Biology products and platforms. Much of this technology has reached commercial level maturity and we are beginning to see exciting things happen, particularly in Houston."

The two join six other advisers on the board:

  • Dr. Ethel Rubin, an experienced life sciences executive with commercialization and investment experience across multiple therapeutic areas and modalities.
  • Lekan Akinyanmi, founder and CEO of Cambridge Growth Partners, a holding company with interests in mining, finance, oil/gas, and renewable energy.
  • Dr. Guochun Liao, founder of IDbyDNA, which focuses on utilizing next-generation sequencing and AI/ML for infectious disease management.
  • Mario Maia, leader of the corporate investment arm of Novozymes.
  • Peter Oleksiak, former CFO senior vice president for DTE Energy Co., a Fortune 500 diversified energy compan.
  • Davy Wang, senior director at Oracle Cloud.
Veronica Wu joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share why she's looking to invest in synthetic biology startups. Photo courtesy of First Bight Ventures

Silicon Valley transplant bets on Houston to lead synthetic biology

houston innovators podcast episode 119

Veronica Wu isn't afraid of jumping head first into a new field or technology. In fact, the former Apple, Tesla, and Motorola executive has built her career around getting in on the ground floor.

"A lot of my career has been about looking for the next thing. One of the things I've found is I have a strong passion for building and scaling big ambitions or innovations," Wu says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "When I see the opportunity, it gets me really excited. One of the reasons I have a passion for technology is how it constantly changes and pushes the boundaries."

Wu's next big thing she's betting on? Synthetic biology — and she's doing it here in Houston. Wu recently relocated from Silicon Valley to Houston last year, and now she's launched First Bight Ventures, a venture capital firm focused on finding and investing in early-stage synbio companies.

The industry as a whole is still nascent, Wu explains, because most of these emerging innovations weren't able to be accomplished until recently. Additionally, a lot of people don't fully understand what the field encompasses, but she's hoping to shine a spotlight on the industry and the innovators in the space with First Bight Ventures.

"Think of synthetic biology as a cell programming, like we can program software in the virtual world," Wu explains on the show. "Now we're able to reprogram our physical world."

In Houston, Wu gives two examples of companies working in the synbio space: Cemvita Factory and Solugen. However, Houston is an ideal market for synthetic biology because of two of the city's top industries — health care and energy.

"Both of (these industries) have tremendous opportunities and challenges for us as humanity," Wu explains. She says that reprogramming biology can both help reduce carbon emissions and protect humans from emerging diseases.

"I see Houston — with its tremendous resources and talent already existing in these industries — really has that potential to leverage the technologies and become an innovation leader in this particular area," Wu says.

Wu shares more on her first impressions of Houston and what she hopes to accomplish with the new VC firm on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Veronica Wu of First Bight Ventures, BJ Schaknowski of symplr, and Mikyoung Jun of the University of Houston. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

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Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know — the first of this new year — I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from health care innovation to energy — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures

Veronica Wu, who moved to Houston from Silicon Valley last year, has launched a new venture capital firm to help accelerate synthetic biology startups. Photo courtesy of First Bight Ventures

Veronica Wu is a relative newcomer to Houston. She made the move from Silicon Valley to the Bayou City in the middle of 2021. Wu has announced the launch of First Bight Ventures, a new VC firm focused exclusively on early-stage synthetic biology startups, and based right here in Houston. She plans to leverage the local market to incubate these startups locally, according to the release.

“Houston is well positioned to become a major center for synthetic biology with its existing talent, industries, and capital," she says.

Wu has over 20 years of experience in managerial positions at tech companies like Apple, Tesla, and Motorola, and she served as a founding team member of McKinsey & Company’s Greater China office's business technology practice. Click here to read more.

BJ Schaknowski, CEO of symplr

Houston-based symplr has made another strategic acquisition as it grows its software offerings to its health care clients. Image via symplr.com

Houston-based symplr, which provides software solutions for governance, risk management, and compliance and is backed by California-based Clearlake Capital Group L.P. and Massachusetts-based Charlesbank Capital Partners, announced last week that it will acquire Midas Health Analytics Solutions.

Symplr will acquire the Midas platform, which provides users with operations efficiency via data analytics, from New Jersey-based Conduent Incorporated (Nasdaq: CNDT). The deal, valued at $340 million, is expected to close in the first quarter of 2022.

"Midas Health Analytics Solutions brings actionable data and insights to help symplr's health system clients improve patient care and deliver better outcomes," says BJ Schaknowski, CEO of symplr, in a news release. "With integrated quality outcomes and machine learning-based advanced analytics, our combined compliance, quality and safety software portfolio can better predict patient specific risks, deliver population health insights, and proactively improve and support business intelligence performance further advancing symplr's mission of transforming healthcare operations." Click here to read more.

Mikyoung Jun, ConocoPhillips professor of data science at the UH College of Natural Science and Mathematics

A new UH-led program will work with energy corporations to prepare the sector's future workforce. Photo via UH.edu

The Data Science for Energy Transition project, which is funded through 2024 by a $1.49 million grant from the National Science Foundation, includes participation from UH, the University of Houston-Downtown, the University of Houston-Victoria, the University of Houston-Clear Lake, and Sam Houston State University.

At the helm of the initiative is principal investigator Mikyoung Jun, ConocoPhillips professor of data science at the UH College of Natural Science and Mathematics.

“It’s obvious that the Houston area is the capital for the energy field. We are supporting our local industries by presenting talented students from the five sponsoring universities and other Texas state universities with the essential skills to match the growing needs within those data science workforces,” Jun says in the release. “We’re planning all functions in a hybrid format so students located outside of Houston, too, can join in.” Click here to read more.

Veronica Wu, who moved to Houston from Silicon Valley last year, has launched a new venture capital firm to help accelerate synthetic biology startups. Photo courtesy of First Bight Ventures

Former Apple exec starts Houston-based VC firm focused on synthetic biology

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Calling all startups with synthetic biology solutions — there's a new venture capital firm looking to invest in you.

Veronica Wu has announced the launch of First Bight Ventures, a new VC firm focused exclusively on early-stage synthetic biology startups.

“Synthetic Biology aims to take parts of natural biology systems to produce organisms/cells/biological systems with novel or enhanced characteristics. It sits at the convergence of technology and biology, and provides us a powerful tool to address some of the biggest challenges humanity faces, like cancer/incurable diseases, sustainability and climate change," Wu says in a news release.

Wu has over 20 years of experience in managerial positions at tech companies like Apple, Tesla, and Motorola, and she served as a founding team member of McKinsey & Company’s Greater China office's business technology practice.

As an investor, Wu has funded 300 early-stage tech companies in the past six years. She's seen her portfolio companies reach major accomplishments, including 34 unicorns, six SPACs, and four IPOs to date, per the release.

She's betting on synthetic biology by launching First Bight Ventures — the first and only VC firm completely devoted to this field. The firm has already struck up a partnership with Ginkgo Bioworks, a leading synthetic biology platform provider.

"The potential applications are far reaching in scope as well as impact.” Wu says. “Presently, we stand at a significant inflection point. Synthetic Biology is to 2022 what the ‘.com’ era was to the 90s.”

Wu is a relative newcomer to Houston. She made the move from Silicon Valley to the Bayou City in the middle of 2021. She plans to leverage Houston's market to incubate these startups locally, according to the release.

“Houston is well positioned to become a major center for synthetic biology with its existing talent, industries, and capital," she says.

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Houston SaaS startup raises $10M to keep up with customer growth

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A Houston software company has announced its latest funding.

Liongard, an IT software provider, has raised an additional $10 million led by Updata Partners with contribution from TDF Ventures — both existing investors in the company. The funding, according to a news release, will go toward providing the best customer service for Liongard's growing customer base.

The technology is providing managed service providers, or MSPs, improved visibility across the IT stack and an optimized user experience.

“Since working with our first MSP partners, we’ve seen time and again the power of visibility into IT data, reducing the time they spend researching customer issues and allowing them to respond faster than their peers,” says Joe Alapat, CEO and co-founder of Liongard, in the release. “This investment enables us to continue to achieve our vision of delivering visibility into each element of the IT stack.”

The company has about 2,000 partners in support of more than 60,000 end customers. And has been recognized as a top employer by Forbes and Inc. magazine earlier this year.

“We are excited to deepen our commitment with Liongard,“ says Carter Griffin, general partner at Updata, in the release. “With its leading data platform for MSPs we expect continued fast-paced growth.”

Liongard's last funding round was in May of 2020 and was a $17 million series B round. Both Updata Partners and TDF ventures were involved in that round. The company's total funding now sits at over $30 million.

Rice University rises to No. 1 spot in new ranking of best college investments

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By one measure, earning a degree at Rice University is the smartest move in the Lone Star State.

In its eighth annual ranking of colleges and university that give students the best return on their educational investment, personal finance website SmartAsset places Rice at No. 1 in Texas and No. 10 in the U.S. It’s the only Texas school to break into the national top 10.

To determine the best-value colleges and universities in each state, SmartAsset crunched data in these categories: scholarships and grants, starting salary for new graduates, tuition, living costs, and retention rate.

While the tuition ($47,350) and student living costs ($17,800) at Rice are the highest among the top 10 Texas schools on the list, the average amount of scholarships and grants ($43,615), average starting salary ($77,900), and retention rate (97 percent) also are among the highest.

According to Rice, tuition, fees, on-campus room and board, books, and personal expenses for the 2022-23 academic year add up to $74,110. That figure, which excludes financial aid, applies to a full-time, degree-seeking student living on campus.

“Rice University is consistently ranked as a best value in higher education and is one of America’s leading teaching and research universities,” the school’s Office of Financial Aid says. “By attending Rice, you will not only receive a superior education at a reasonable cost, you also will benefit from having a Rice degree long after graduation.”

Three other schools in or near the Houston metro area appear on SmartAsset’s list of the biggest-bang-for-your-buck schools in Texas:

  • Prairie View A&M University, No. 4. The university posted the lowest retention rate (74 percent) among the 10 schools. The remaining figures sit roughly in the middle of the pack.
  • University of Houston, No. 5. The university’s tuition ($8,913) was the lowest in the top 10, as was the average amount of scholarships and grants ($6,544).
  • Texas A&M University-College Station, No. 6. The university’s living costs are the second highest among the top 10 ($17,636), while its average starting salary for new grads lands at No. 3 ($64,400).

Other schools in the state’s top 10 are:

  • University of Texas at Austin, No. 2.
  • University of Texas at Dallas (Richardson), No. 3.
  • Texas Tech University in Lubbock, No. 7.
  • LeTourneau University in Longview, No. 8.
  • University of North Texas in Denton, No. 9.
  • Texas State University in San Marcos, No. 10.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston expert addresses the growing labor shortage within health care

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Long before COVID-19 became a part of our new normal, the concerns around shortages in health care staffing were present.

To put this in real terms, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the latest projection of employment through the end of this decade is an increase of nearly 12 million jobs. A fourth of those — 3.3 million to be exact — are expected to go towards health care and social assistance roles.

Before the pandemic, the concerns centered around managing a growing retired population and a slowing in higher education nurse enrollment. Then amid the growing shortage concerns surrounding the support for aging baby boomers, we were all thrusted into a pandemic.

The stressors on health care professional staffing have doubled down and what the increased shortage has shown us is the need to intervene and change the traditional hiring practices. Speed to place a nurse on assignment doesn’t just ensure productivity — it is a matter of life or death.

Over the past several years, the evolution of technology has drastically changed how health care facilities operate and interact with their employees as well as patients. There was a point in time where the structure in health care staffing was rigid without flexibility or varieties of employment type. Conversations around travel positions, per diem, and permanent are all now commonplace as the recent shortages caused us to normalize the discussion around role type and use of technology to influence speed to hire.

This whole evolution was put to test when April 2020 came, and the initial brunt of the pandemic was in full swing. The entire world was in panic mode. During these quarantine times, we were in a state of a health care emergency with thousands of patients seeking health care. Unfortunately, hospitals could not keep up with this demand with their existing nurse professionals, and became severely overloaded and dangerous. Due to this the United States saw unprecedented labor shortages, impacting a large number of nurses and health care workers as it pertains to both their physical and mental health.

What we are seeing now is a period classified as the “The Great Rethinking,” where nurses and health care workers alike are speaking up for what they believe in and deserve. Salary transparency and flexibility are just the tip of the iceberg for this movement.

SkillGigs is unique in that we are giving the power back to registered nurses and health care professionals, while meeting the demand created by the pandemic. Our team has been fortunate to be a catalyst to direct the change in the future of work, and we look forward to continuing to innovate.

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Bryan Groom is the division president of health care at Houston-based SkillGigs.