A TMCx company has raised money in Houston, UH's online program named best in the nation, and more Houston innovation news. Courtesy of TMCx

Houston's innovation ecosystem has seen a busy January so far — the city has claimed a unicorn in High Radius, The Ion has named a series of new execs, and so much more.

Given this influx of news, you might've missed some other Houston innovation headlines, like UH being recognized for its online master's program, recent fundings, and Texas being named a state for female entrepreneurs. Here's a few short stories to catch you up.

Texas Halo Fund invests in TMCx company

Photo via kegg.tech

A medical device company that focuses on keeping its female users in control of their fertility health just received an investment from a Houston venture capital firm.

Texas Halo Fund invested $200K in kegg, a San Francisco-based startup that participated in the Texas Medical Center's TMCx09 cohort. The device is an easy-to-use fertility tracker that easily analyzes cervical fluid to help detect a woman's ovulation up to 7 days in advance. Kegg pairs with a smartphone app to inform and track the user's fertility.

"kegg appeals to us for many reasons. We believe the FemTech space is growing and that women are looking take charge of their fertility. There is an increased desire to have insights into one's health and understanding trends in fertility is a natural progression, says Kyra Doolan, managing Director at Texas Halo Fund, in a news release.

"We've been impressed by the company's CEO Kristina Cahojova and how far she's taken the company with a limited budget. We look forward to seeing the product hit the consumer market."

University of Houston recognized for online graduate program

Photo courtesy of University of Houston

The University of Houston's College of Education's online master's degree programs have been recognized by U.S. News & World Report as among the top in the nation.

The college ranked No. 8 for its program in a ranking that factored in student engagement, technology tools, surveys of deans, faculty credentials, and student excellence, according to a news release from UH.

"Our faculty and staff strive to give students a top-notch experience online," says Bob McPherson, dean of the UH College of Education, in the news release. "We work to emphasize high-quality instruction and support while allowing students the flexibility and personalization of an online learning environment."

UH's program tied for No. 8 with six other schools, but it's still a huge step up from last year's ranking of No. 19.

Texas ranks No. 5 for female entrepreneurs

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According to a new ranking from Fit Small Business, Texas is the fifth best state for female entrepreneurs. The Lone Star State is holding strong in the top tier but slipped from its No. 1 ranking last year.

"High start-up growth, no corporate income tax, and a moderate cost of living are all big pluses for the state, but how does it do regarding a friendly women's business and safety climate?" the report reads. "Well, sort of 'middle-of-the-road,' by the numbers we sourced."

Each state was evaluated by four equally weighted factors: its general business climate and opportunity, the number of female-owned businesses, economic and financial health, and safety and well-being for women. Texas's startup climate and opportunity, which was weighted by 35 percent in the study, was ranked No. 4. When it came to economic and financial health, weighted at 15 percent, Texas also snagged the No. 4 spot.

Rice Business Plan Competition startup raises $1.1 million

Photo via resonado.com

Resonado, the runner-up at the 2019 Rice Business Plan Competition, has raised $1.1 million in funding for its thinner, better-sounding speaker system technology.

The company was founded by four University of Notre Dame University classmates — Brian Cho, Christian Femrite, Erik Perez-Perez, and Peter Moeckel.

Rice University's OWL Investment contributed to the round.

Fannin Innovation Studio makes strategic hire

Praveen Kudithipudi

Photo via fannininnovation.com

Praveen Kudithipudi has been named as director of business development at Houston-based Fannin Innovation Studio. He supports the licensing of Fannin's portfolio technologies as well as collaborations with pharmaceutical companies and academic partners.

"I am excited to have a wonderful opportunity to work at Fannin," says Kudithipudi in the news release. "Fannin builds successful life sciences startups while helping to catalyze the formation of a thriving and sustainable life sciences entrepreneurship ecosystem in Houston. The opportunity to lead licensing, diligence, and collaboration efforts with academic institutions and biotechnology companies here in Houston is truly a unique opportunity."

Kudithipudi received his medical degree in India and specialized in neuroscience in the United Kingdom. He received his MBA from New York University. Prior to this role, he worked in banking, venture capital, and investments in New York.

"We are excited to have someone with the range of experiences and caliber of Praveen on the team," says Atul Varadhachary, Fannin managing partner, in the release. "In our business, we look for high potential technologies at an early stage. Having someone with both a medical background and Wall Street know-how is invaluable to us as we review opportunities and reach out to prospective development partners."

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

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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.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.