The 2022 Houston Innovation Awards revealed its big winners across 11 categories. Photos courtesy

That's a wrap on the Houston Innovation Awards Gala. InnovationMap and Houston Exponential announced the winners of the 2022 awards that celebrated Houston's booming innovation ecosystem, and 11 startups and individuals walked away with the awards.

The event, held November 9 at the Ion, honored all 43 finalists as well as Trailblazer Award recipient, Blair Garrou, managing director and founder of Houston-based venture capital firm Mercury. Click here to read about all the finalists.

Eight judges evaluated over 150 companies and individuals across 11 categories for the 2022 Houston Innovation Awards. This year's judges included Carolyn Rodz, founder and CEO of Hello Alice; Wogbe Ofori, founder of Wrx Companies; Scott Gale, executive director of Halliburton Labs; Ashley Danna, senior manager of regional economic development of Greater Houston Partnership; Kelly McCormick, professor at the University of Houston; Paul Cherukuri, vice president of innovation at Rice University; Lawson Gow, CEO of Houston Exponential; and Natalie Harms, editor of InnovationMap.

Without further adieu, here the winners from the 2022 Houston Innovation Awards.

BIPOC-Founded Business: Steradian Technologies

The winner for the BIPOC-Founded Business category, honoring an innovative company founded or co-founded by BIPOC representation, is: Steradian Technologies, a health tech startup that uses deep-photonics technology to diagnose respiratory diseases in seconds, all for the price of a latte.

Female-Founded Business: Sesh Coworking

The winner for the Female-Founded Business category, honoring an innovative company founded or co-founded by a woman, is: Sesh Coworking, a women and genderqueer inclusive coworking and community.

Hardtech Business: Fluence Analytics

The winner for the Hardtech Business category, honoring an innovative company developing and commercializing a physical technology across life science, energy, space, and beyond, is: Fluence Analytics, real-time analytics solution that optimizes processes and provides novel insights into material properties that enable customers to increase yields, improve product quality, and reduce costs.

B2B Software Business: Liongard

The winner for the B2B Software Business category, honoring an innovative company developing and programming a digital solution to impact the business sector, is: Liongard — software company that unlocks the intelligence hidden deep within IT systems to give MSPs an operational advantage that delivers both higher profits and an exceptional customer experience.

Green Impact Business: Cemvita Factory

The winner for the Green Impact Business category, honoring an innovative company providing a solution within renewables, climatetech, clean energy, alternative materials, and beyond, is: Cemvita Factory, a biotech company that uses a sustainable, economical, nature-inspired approach to empower companies with sustainable products and environmental technologies to decrease their carbon footprint, reverse climate change, and create a brighter future for the planet.

Smart City Business: Sensytec

The winner for the Smart City Business category, honoring an innovative company providing a tech solution within transportation, infrastructure, data, and beyond, is: Sensytec, an IoT Solutions platform that expedites and enhances concrete construction operations.

New to Hou Business: Venus Aerospace

The winner for the New to Hou Business category, honoring an innovative company, accelerator, or investor that has relocated its primary operations to Houston within the past three years, is: Venus Aerospace, the creator of a hypersonic spaceplane capable of one-hour global travel.

DEI Champion: Loretta Williams Gurnell

The winner for the DEI Champion category, honoring an individual who is leading impactful diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and progress within Houston and their organization, is: Loretta Williams Gurnell, founder of SUPERGirls SHINE Foundation.

Mentor of the Year: Kara Branch

The winner for the Mentor of the Year category, honoring an individual who dedicates their time and expertise to guide and support to budding entrepreneurs, is: Kara Branch, founder and CEO of Black Girls Do Engineer Corp. and developer and manager at Intel Corp.

Investor of the Year: John "JR" Reale

The winner for the Investor of the Year category, honoring an individual who is leading venture capital or angel investing, is: John (JR) Reale, managing director of Integr8d Capital and venture lead of the Texas Medical Center Venture Fund

People's Choice (Startup of the Year): Milkify

The winner for the People's Choice: Startup of the Year category, selected via an interactive voting portal during of the event, is: Milkify — creator of patent-pending process to freeze-dry breast milk into a powder that is easy to use and transport and lasts for three years on the shelf.

Here's why three New to Hou finalists from the Houston Innovation Awards have committed to Houston. Photo via Getty Images

Overheard: Why these 3 startups relocated to Houston

eavesdropping at the houston innovation awards gala

Houston is attracting more and more businesses big and small, old and new. So much that it seemed worthy of an award for the Houston Innovation Awards Gala.

The awards event, which is on November 9 and hosted by InnovationMap and Houston Exponential at the Ion, is honoring five finalists selected by judges — and naming one winner — who have recently relocated or significantly expanded to Houston.

Here's why three of these New to Hou finalists have committed to Houston.

"The move to the Houston area allowed us to be much closer to our strategic partners, customers and suppliers. We are also impressed by the vast talent pool in the area. Houston has a highly skilled workforce with diverse experiences, particularly in oil and gas, petrochemicals, and a broad range of technical areas."

Photo courtesy

Jay Manouchehri, CEO of Fluence Analytics, which relocated from Louisiana to Stafford last year, just outside of Houston. "We have been able to engage very actively with many customers since the move and also have developed valuable supplier relationships."

"In 2019, Chevron and EIC (both Houston based) became investors and we already had a lot of US clients, so we wanted to create a Houston footprint."

Photo courtesy

John van Pol, co-founder and CEO of INGU, which opened its new Houston office in 2021. Van Pol adds that the pandemic delayed their expansion initially.

"Houston has a quickly-growing biotechnology sector and already has existing oil and gas talent, making it an ideal place to find the people we need to grow our business."

Photo courtesy

Zimri T. Hinshaw, founder and CEO of BUCHA BIO, which relocated to Houston from New York in January 2022. "Our most prominent investor is Houston-based New Climate Ventures," he adds.

Want to work for one of the top startups in Houston? These ones are hiring. Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

Here's which of the 2022 Houston Innovation Awards finalists are hiring

Growing biz

After scouring Houston for the best of the Houston innovation ecosystem and evaluating dozens of companies, InnovationMap and Houston Exponential have announced the finalists that will be honored at the 2022 Houston Innovation Awards. But which of these companies are growing their teams?

Turns out, almost all of them have open positions — some planning to double their teams over the next year. In fact, the 30 companies that make up the cohort of finalists are looking for over 150 new employees — some have these positions open now and others are seeking these new team members over the next 12 months.

Click here to get your tickets to the 2022 Houston Innovation Awards Gala.
Let's look at how many new hires these top startups are looking for.

Double-digit growth

When it comes to the awards finalists looking to scale their team by 10 or more new employees, five companies are looking to enter this type of hiring spree. Blue People, a finalist in the BIPOC-Founded Category, is hiring 25 new employees. The company was founded in 2015 in Mexico and relocated its primary operations to Houston in 2020. Blue People, which develops software innovation for tis clients, has over 150 employees — seven of whom, including C-level executives, are based in Houston. Some of the company's new hires will be based in town.

Another company that's also relocated its operations to Houston recently and is growing its team significantly is Venus Aerospace, creator of a hypersonic spaceplane capable of one-hour global travel. Venus, a finalist in the New to Hou category, currently has a team of 60 people and is based out of the Houston Spaceport. The company is hiring an additional 20 people.

Fast-growing B2B Software finalist Solidatus — a data management software solution — has 16 open positions, including five in the US. According to the company, they hope to have reached a headcount of about 140 within the next 12 months — up from their current 110 employees.

NanoTech, a Green Impact finalist and materials science company, is looking to nearly double its team of 20 to add an additional 15 new employees.

Competing in the People's Choice category, LevelField Financial — a financial service platform that serves customers interested in the digital asset class — is looking to hire 10 people to join its team of 19 employees.

Steady as she grows

Six Houston Innovation Awards finalists are in the process of adding more than a few new team members. Rivalry Technologies, a finalist in the B2B Software and People's Choice categories, is hiring seven people to join its team of 13. The company created a mobile ordering solution — called sEATz — for arenas and recently rebranded and expanded to provide the technology to other industries.

Founded in New Orleans and relocated to the Houston area last year, Fluence Analytics has a total of 30 employees and is looking to hire an additional six new team members. The company, which created a real-time analytics solution for the chemicals industry, is also a finalist in two categories: Hardtech and New to Hou.

Biotech company Cemvita Factory — both a Green Impact and People's choice finalist — has already scaled to employ 75 team members. Now, the company is hiring an additional five more.

Encina Development Group — circular chemicals company for the consumer products and packaging, pharmaceuticals, construction, and other industries — is also looking to add five more team members to its 30 employees. The company is a finalist in the Green Impact category.

Another Green Impact finalist is IncentiFind, a database for green building incentives that's transforming real estate, is hiring five new employees to almost double their team of eight.

INGU, a New to Hou finalist, is a pipeline inspection solution to achieve Net Zero and ESG compliance for the water and oil and gas pipeline infrastructure. The company is seeking five new team members to join its 19 employees based in Houston and Canada.

Seeking selectively

The following awards finalists are looking to grow their teams by just a handful or so — between one and four — of new hires:

Find out which of these employers take home the win at the November 9 gala at the Ion. Click here to RSVP.

Here's your latest roundup of Houston startup and innovation news you may have missed. Photo via Getty Images

Mobile ordering rolls out at resort, Houston VC's latest investment, and more local innovation news

short stories

We're on the other side of the hill that is Houston's summer, but the Bayou City's still hot — especially in terms of innovation news, and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, a Houston venture capital fund has made its latest investment, Houston startups share big updates, and more.

Rivalry Technology rolls out mobile ordering at hot summer spot

You can now order poolside at this Houston-area resort. Image courtesy of Rivalry Tech

Lounging at Margaritaville Lake Resort at Lake Conroe was just made easier by Rivalry Tech, a Houston-based mobile ordering platform company. Rivalry Tech upgraded poolside ordering with its myEATz. According to a news release, customers can now order food and drinks from the 5 o’Clock Somewhere Bar and Lone Palm Bar via a custom QR code system for each lounge chair and table to increase operational efficiency for the Margaritaville Lake Resort staff.

“We wanted to be sure the rollout of the myEATz mobile ordering platform was helpful to the Margaritaville staff, not a hindrance to their existing process. We created custom QR codes and a color coded map to easily identify where the mobile orders are going,” says Charles Willis, COO of Rivalry Tech, in the release.

Rivalry, which provides mobile ordering at numerous sports stadiums and venues with sEATz, expanded into hospitality this year.

“The Rivalry Tech team helped us to seamlessly implement mobile ordering at Margaritaville Lake Resort. They created the marketing materials, established custom QR codes, uploaded mentors and trained our staff onsite. The whole process has been easy and collaborative,” says Amit Sen, director food and beverage for Margaritaville Lake Resort, in the release.

Mercury Fund invests in ReturnLogic's latest round

Mercury has led the latest fundraising round from a SaaS company. Image via Getty Images

Houston-based venture capital firm Mercury led Phillidelphia-based SaaS company ReturnLogic's $8.5 million series A funding round, which also had participation from Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Fund, White Rose Ventures, and Ben Franklin Technology Partners. The fresh funding will help the company double its workforce, accelerate product development, and expand Application Programming Interface capabilities, according to a news release.

Founded by CEO Peter Sobotta, Return Logic's SaaS platform, which can be plugged into existing e-commerce platforms, helps to enhance management of returns and prevent the challenging financial impacts of returns.

“While retailers have largely mastered forward logistics to get products into customers hands, the returns process remains an under-addressed, resource-draining problem that eats away at brands’ profits,” says Blair Garrou, managing director of Mercury, in a news release. “ReturnLogic is something entirely new to this market and uniquely built on Peter Sobotta’s deep operational experience in reverse logistics and supply chain management.

"While serving in the U.S. Navy, Peter specialized in reverse logistics and gained extensive expertise in ecommerce operations," Garrou continues. "With Peter at the helm, ReturnLogic’s innovative API-first returns solution is well-positioned to tackle the ever-growing operational returns problem facing retailers. We are excited to partner with Peter and his team as they continue to solve this massive problem for online retailers.”

Fluence Analytics named a top advanced manufacturing startup

Fluence Analytics was selected as one of 50 startups recognized. Graphic courtesy

Fluence Analytics, an analytics and process control solutions platform for the polymer and biopharmaceutical industries, was named as a Top 50 global advanced manufacturing startup by CB Insights. The Inaugural list breaks down 16 different cohorts, narrowed down from more than 6,000 companies who either submitted an application or were nominated. Fluence Analytics was one of three companies featured in the R&D Optimization category.

"Our team is very excited that our real-time process analytics, optimization and control products for the polymer and biopharma industries are included among such elite startups," says Jay Manouchehri, CEO of Fluence Analytics, in a statement to InnovationMap. "We wish to thank CB Insights for including Fluence Analytics in its inaugural list of the Top 50 global advanced manufacturing startups, as well as our customers and investors for supporting the development and roll-out of our transformative technology solutions."

Fluence Analytics moved to the Houston area from New Orleans last year. The company's tech platform allows for optimization and control products to polymer and biopharmaceutical customers worldwide.

HTX Labs secures $1.7M contract to expand within United States Air Force

HTX Labs' EMPACT product will be further developed to support the Air Force. Image courtesy of HTX Labs

HTX Labs, a Houston-based company that designs extended reality training for military and business purposes, that it has been awarded a $1.7 million Small Business Innovation Research Phase II Tactical Funding Increase with the US Air Force to enhance and operationalize to its product, EMPACT Immersive Learning Platform, in support of training modernization.

“We are very thankful to AFWERX and AFDT for this great opportunity to play an increasingly important role in helping the USAF accelerate training modernization," says Chris Verret, president HTX Labs, in a news release. "This TACFI award shows continued confidence in HTX Labs, with a strong commitment to accelerate usage and adoption of EMPACT.”

HTX Labs will leverage this contract to expand EMPACT's ability to rapidly create and distribute interactive, immersive training, collaborating closely with Advanced Force Development Technologies, per the release.

OpenStax to publish free edition of updated science textbook

OpenStax is growing its access to free online textbooks. Image via openstax.org

OpenStax, a tech initiative from Rice University that uploads free learning resources, has announced it will publish the 10th edition of an organic chemistry textbook by Cornell University professor emeritus John McMurry.

“This is a watershed moment for OpenStax and the open educational resources (OER) movement,” says Richard Baraniuk, founder and director of OpenStax, in a news release. “This publication will quickly provide a free, openly licensed, high-quality resource to hundreds of thousands of students in the U.S. taking organic chemistry, removing what can be a considerable cost and access barrier.”

Usually a big expense for organic chemistry students, McMurry, with the support of publisher Cengage, made the decision to offer the latest edition online as a tribute to his son, Peter McMurry, who died in 2019 after a long struggle with cystic fibrosis.

“If Peter were still alive, I have no doubt that he would want me to work on this 10th edition with a publisher that made the book free to students,” McMurry says in the release. “To make this possible, I am not receiving any payment for this book, and generous supporters have covered not only the production costs but have also made a donation of $500,000 to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation to help find a cure for this terrible disease.”

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Zain Shauk of Dream Harvest, Juliana Garaizar of Greentown Houston, and Jay Manouchehri of Fluence Analytics. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from sustainability to chemical analytics — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Zain Shauk, CEO of Dream Harvest

Zain Shauk, co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast just ahead of Earth Day. Photo courtesy of Dream Harvest

Zain Shauk is focused on future of farming, and the industry's success depends on making more environmentally friendly changes to the supply chain, and new technologies are enabling vertical indoor farming to effect these changes in some part. Shauk's company Dream Harvest recently received a $50 million investment from Orion Energy Partners to open a 100,000-square-foot indoor farming facility in Houston to scale production.

Shauk says he's also using the funding to support research and development to expand into other types of produce, but he has a lot to consider — affordability of the produce, maintaining sustainability, and more.

"It's going to take a lot of work and a lot of research. What I do know is we've come a long way with leafy greens," Shauk says. "When we started, we weren't growing in a way that makes financial sense with the amount of money we have to spend growing the product — and now we do." Click here to read more.

Juliana Garaizar, head of the Houston incubator and vice president of innovation

Greentown Houston's first year was surprising for Juliana Garaizar. Photo courtesy

Greentown Houston opened a year ago and, in just those 365 days, grew to over 60 member companies – something that took the original Boston-area location years. Juliana Garaizar says in a recent Q&A that this is due to companies outside of Houston looking for an entry point into the city for access to businesses, employees, and more. Specifically, she calls out Austin companies and businesses from Latin America.

"There are plenty of companies from Latin America coming over and choosing Houston as a landing pad and choosing Greentown as the place to start settling," she says. "We help them with funding. We help them with hiring local people." Click here to read more.

Jay Manouchehri, CEO of Fluence Analytics

Jay Manouchehri is now CEO of Fluence Analytics, and co-founder Alex Reed has transitioned to president and chief commercial officer. Photo courtesy of Fluence Analytics

Fluence Analytics, which moved its headquarters to the Houston area from New Orleans last year, has named Jay Manouchehri as the company's CEO. Manouchehri has worked in leadership roles within digital transformation at ABB and Honeywell all around the world, as well as in consulting and private equity.

Manouchehri tells InnovationMap he is focused on leading industrial growth.

“The next step for Fluence is really that we are industrializing our product and getting it into the industrial market," Manouchehri says. "That's exactly why we moved to Houston — it's where a lot of our clients are. We're building up and structure the company in such a manner that it could scale, get the right partnerships, and hire a team to take us to the next level and deliver the technology." Click here to read more.

Jay Manouchehri (left) is now CEO of Fluence Analytics, and co-founder Alex Reed has transitioned to president and chief commercial officer. Photo courtesy of Fluence Analytics

Exclusive: Houston startup names new CEO to lead industrial growth

next phase

Teamwork makes the dream work, and a Houston-based tech startup is one step closer to its dream team, according to the company's leadership.

Fluence Analytics, which moved its headquarters to the Houston area from New Orleans last year, has named Jay Manouchehri as the company's CEO. Manouchehri has worked in leadership roles within difital transformation at ABB and Honeywell all around the world, as well as in consulting and private equity.

"As you (can see) from Jay's background he is exactly the type of person we need to help take our company the next level," says co-founder Alex Reed. "I think he's gonna be critical as we did this Houston move and go to this next phase of growth and eventually drive to an exit."

Reed has transitioned from CEO to chief commercial officer, but Manouchehri tells InnovationMap the two really lead the company together and balance each other out. Reed says he's focused on commercial product strategy and Manouchehri is leading industrial growth.

“The next step for Fluence is really that we are industrializing our product and getting it into the industrial market," Manouchehri says. "That's exactly why we moved to Houston — it's where a lot of our clients are. We're building up and structure the company in such a manner that it could scale, get the right partnerships, and hire a team to take us to the next level and deliver the technology."

Fluence's technology is changing the game within the polymer space. The industrial and laboratory monitoring solutions — a combination of software and hardware — track and report key data in real time allowing industrial polymer producers to improve process control.

"When I saw what Alex is doing, it wasn't like it's a startup looking for a problem to solve. It's a startup trying to crack a nut that a lot of people in this industry have be in trying for 20 or 30 years and haven't been able to do so," Manouchehri says.

The move to Houston has allowed the company access to new and existing customers within the industry, but also potential acquirers and the company says an exit could be possible over the next few years. Additionally, Houston provides an opportunity to expand into the biomedical space. Recently, Fluence hired a Houston employee to build out this vertical.

"MRNAs and DNAs are all polymers. So, we use the same IP and same technology and do analysis, sensing, and data analytics for the biopharma industry," Manouchehri says. "We actually are pushing that quite strongly. Our client base is growing rapidly."

Another avenue Fluence is excited about is chemical recycling or polymerization recycling. Reed says they are closely watching the traction within the circular economy.

"Imagine taking plastic bottles and being able to recycle them back to the original molecule and then reprocess them into a bottle again," Reed says. "Mechanical recycling is more typical now and has a lot of disadvantages because of the additives and the properties that you get when you melt down all the different types of plastics. (Chemical recycling) would actually allow you to make new plastic from the old plastic, just by taking the original molecule out."

Fluence Analytics, which raised a $7.5 million round led by Energy Innovation Capital last summer, has its headquarters in Stafford, just southwest of Houston.

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Houston biopharma company launches equity crowdfunding campaign

money moves

A clinical-stage company headquartered in Houston has opened an online funding campaign.

FibroBiologics, which is developing fibroblast cell-based therapeutics for chronic diseases, launched a campaign with equity crowdfunding platform StartEngine. The platform lets anyone — regardless of their net worth or income level — to invest in securities issued by startups.

The funding, according to a press release, will be used to support ongoing operations of Fibrobiologics and advance its clinical programs in multiple sclerosis, degenerative disc disease, wound care, extension of life, and cancer.

"We're excited to partner with StartEngine on this campaign. StartEngine has over 600,000 investors as part of their community and has raised over half a billion dollars for its clients," says FibroBiologics' Founder and CEO Pete O'Heeron, in the release.

"This is an exciting time at FibroBiologics as we continue progressing our clinical pipeline and developing innovative therapies to treat chronic diseases," he continues. "This new funding will fuel our growth in the lab and bring us one step closer to commercialization."

The campaign, launched this week, already has over 100 investors, at the time of publication, and has raised nearly $2 million, according to the page. The minimum investment is set at around $500, and the company's indicated valuation is $252.57 million.

In 2021, FibroBiologics announced its intention of going public. Last year, O'Heeron told InnovationMap on the Houston Innovators Podcast of the company's growth plans as well as the specifics of the technology.

Only two types of cells — stem cells and fibroblasts — can be used in cell therapy for a regenerative treatment, which is when specialists take healthy cells from a patient and inject them into a part of the body that needs it the most. As O'Heeron explains in the podcast, fibroblasts can do it more effectively and cheaper than stem cells.

"(Fibroblasts) can essentially do everything a stem cell can do, only they can do it better," says O'Heeron. "We've done tests in the lab and we've seen them outperform stem cells by a low of 50 percent to a high of about 220 percent on different disease paths."


Texas ranks as a top state for female entrepreneurs

women in business

Texas dropped three spots in Merchant Maverick’s annual ranking of the top 10 states for women-led startups.

The Lone Star State landed at No. 5 thanks in part to its robust venture capital environment for women entrepreneurs. Last year, Texas ranked second, up from its No. 6 showing in 2021.

Merchant Maverick, a product comparison site for small businesses, says Texas “boasts the strongest venture capital scene” for women entrepreneurs outside California and the Northeast. The state ranked fourth in that category, with $6.5 billion invested in the past five years.

Other factors favoring Texas include:

  • Women solely lead 22 percent of all employees working for a business in Texas (No. 4).
  • Texas lacks a state income tax (tied for No. 1).

However, Texas didn’t fare well in terms of the unemployment rate (No. 36) and the rate of business ownership by women (No. 29). Other Texas data includes:

  • Average income for women business owners, $52,059 (No. 19).
  • Early startup survival rate, 81.9 percent (No. 18).

Appearing ahead of Texas in the 2023 ranking are No. 1 Colorado, No. 2 Washington, No. 3 California, and No. 4 Arizona.

Another recent ranking, this one from NorthOne, an online bank catering to small businesses, puts Texas at No. 7 among the 10 best states for women entrepreneurs.

NorthOne says Texas provides “a ton of opportunities” for woman entrepreneurs. For instance, it notches one of the highest numbers of women-owned businesses in the country at 1.4 million, 2.1 percent of which have at least 500 employees.

In this study, Texas is preceded by Colorado at No. 1, Nevada at No. 2, Virginia at No. 3, Maryland at No. 4, Florida at No. 5, and New Mexico at No. 6. The rankings are based on eight metrics, including the percentage of woman-owned businesses and the percentage of women-owned businesses with at least 500 employees.