This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Andrew Chang of United Airlines Ventures, Omair Tariq of Cart.com, and Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt of Solugen. Photos courtesy

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


Andrew Chang, managing director of United Airlines Ventures

Andrew Chang, managing director of United Airlines Ventures, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

When it comes to the future of aviation — namely, making it more sustainable, a rising tide lifts all boats. Or, in this case, planes.

Andrew Chang, managing director of United Airlines Ventures, explains that working together is the key for advancing sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF. That's why United Airlines started the Sustainable Flight Fund, a $200 million initiative with support from industry leaders, including Air Canada, Boeing, GE Aerospace, JPMorgan Chase, Honeywell, Aramco Ventures, Bank of America, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Ventures, and several others.

"We all recognize that we may compete in our core business, but with the importance of sustainable aviation fuel and given that it's an industry that doesn't exist — you can't compete for something that doesn't exist — let's collaborate and work together to explore technologies that can directly or indirectly support the commercialization and production of sustainable aviation fuel," he says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Read more.

Omair Tariq, founder and CEO of Cart.com

Omair Tariq's Cart.com is coming home. Photo via Cart.com

While originally founded in Houston in 2020, Cart.com has called Austin home for the past two years. Now, the scaling software company is coming home.

Cart.com, a tech company providing commerce and logistical solutions for businesses, announced today that its corporate headquarters has returned to Houston amid its rapid growth.

“I couldn’t be happier to bring Cart.com back home to Houston as we continue to revolutionize how merchants sell and fulfill products to meet customers anywhere they are,” Cart.com Founder and CEO Omair Tariq says in a news release. “The idea for Cart.com was born in Houston and we’ve always maintained a strong local presence with the majority of our executive team and board based here. As our customer mix increasingly moves upmarket and our own needs evolve, I’m confident Houston has what we need as we look towards the next stage of Cart.com’s growth story.” Read more.

Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt, co-founders of Solugen

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. Read more.

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 founders named winners for 2023 Entrepreneur of the Year awards

winner, winner

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.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Gaurab Chakrabarti of Solugen, Andy Grolnick of Graylog, and Stuart Corr of Pumps and Pipes. Photos courtesy

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 software to biotech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Gaurab Chakrabarti, CEO and co-founder of Solugen

Solugen has announced two major partnerships. Photo via solugentech.com

Solugen had a busy week. The Houston-based company that makes sustainable chemicals announced two new partnerships.

Solugen and Sasol Chemicals, a business unit of Saslo Ltd., revealed that they are working together to explore commercialization of sustainably-made home and personal care products. Read more.

Later last week, Solugen announced that it has scored a partnership with ADM to build a biomanufacturing facility adjacent to an existing corn complex in Marshall, Minnesota. Read more.

Andy Grolnick, CEO of Graylog

Graylog, a Houston SaaS company, has new fuel to scale and develop its product. Photo via Graylog

A Houston software-as-a-service company has secured $39 million in financing and announced its latest upgrade to its platform.

Graylog, which has created an innovative platform for cybersecurity and IT operations, raised equity funding with participation from new investor Silver Lake Waterman and existing investors Piper Sandler Merchant Banking and Harbert Growth Partners leading the round.

“The growth we are seeing globally is a response to our team’s focus on innovation, a superior user experience, low total cost of ownership, and strong execution from our Go-To-Market and Customer Success teams,” Andy Grolnick, CEO of Graylog, says in a news release. “We expect this momentum to continue as Graylog expands its reach and raises its profile in the security market.” Read more.

Stuart Corr, executive director of Pumps & Pipes

A Houston expert shares reasons to swap screen time for extended reality. Photo via pumpsandpipes.org

Virtual and augmented reality are having a moment, as Stuart Corr, executive director of Pumps & Pipes, explains in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"The COVID-19 pandemic saw an unprecedented shift to even more screen time and interactions using remote video communication platforms," he writes. "It was also around this time that wireless virtual reality headsets were, for the first time ever, economically accessible to the consumer due to the large push of one multinational corporation. Fast forward to 2023, there are even more companies beginning to enter the market with new extended reality (XR) headsets (i.e. virtual, mixed, and augmented reality) that offer spatial computing – the ability for computers to blend into the physical worlds (amongst other things)."Read more.

Houston-based Solugen will build a 500,000-square-foot biomanufacturing facility in the Midwest thanks to a new strategic partnership. Photo courtesy of ADM

Houston sustainable chemicals unicorn to build Midwestern biomanufacturing facility

making moves

Solugen has scored a partnership with a global company to build a biomanufacturing facility adjacent to an existing corn complex in Marshall, Minnesota.

Solugen, a Houston company that's designed a process that converts plant-derived substances into essential materials, has announced its newest strategic partnership with sustainable solutions company ADM (NYSE:ADM). The partnership includes plans for Solugen to build a 500,000-square-foot biomanufacturing facility next to an existing ADM facility in the Midwest. The two companies will collaborate on producing biomaterials to replace fossil fuel-based 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,” Gaurab Chakrabarti, co-founder and CEO of Solugen, says 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.”

The company plans to begin on-site construction early next year, with plans to startup in the first half of 2025. The project should create at least 40 permanent jobs and 100 temporary construction positions.

“Sustainability is one of the enduring global trends powering ADM’s growth and underpinning the strategic evolution of our Carbohydrate Solutions business,” Chris Cuddy, president of ADM’s Carbohydrate Solutions business, says in the release. “ADM is one of the largest dextrose producers in the world, and this strategic partnership will allow us to further diversify our product stream as we continue to support plant-based solutions spanning sustainable packaging, pharma, plant health, construction, fermentation, and home and personal care.”

Founded in 2016 by Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt, Solugen's carbon-negative molecule factory, named the Bioforge, uses its chemienzymatic process in converting plant-sourced substances into essential materials that can be used instead of fossil fuels. The manufacturing process is carbon neutral, and Solugen has raised over $600 million from investors that believe in the technology's potential.

“The initial phase of the project will significantly increase Solugen’s manufacturing capacity, which is critical for commercializing our existing line of molecules and kicks off plans for a multi-phase large-scale U.S. Bioforge buildout,” Hunt, CTO of Solugen, says in the release. “The increase in capacity will also free up our Houston operation for research and development efforts into additional molecules and market applications.”

The project should create at least 40 permanent jobs and 100 temporary construction positions.

"As a community with a strong foundation of agriculture and innovation, we look forward to welcoming Solugen to Marshall. This industry-leading facility will serve as a powerful economic driver for the city, creating new jobs and diversifying our industry,” City of Marshall Mayor Bob Byrnes says in the statement. "We are thankful for ADM’s longstanding commitment and impact to Marshall, which has paved the way for this remarkable partnership and continues to further economic growth to our region."

It's the second major company partnership announcement Solugen has made this month, with a new arrangement with Sasol being secured last week.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Solugen and Sasol have entered into a strategic partnership. Photo via Getty Images

Sustainability startup based in Houston scores major corporate partnership

teaming up

A Houston company that's creating cleaner chemicals with little to no impact on the environment has scored a partnership with a major chemicals producer.

Solugen and Sasol Chemicals, a business unit of Saslo Ltd., revealed that they are working together to explore commercialization of sustainably-made home and personal care products.

“This agreement is an example of our approach of partnering to find innovative solutions for our customers,” Jonathan Ward, senior manager of Strategy and Sustainable Growth for Sasol’s Essential Care Chemicals business division, says in a news release. “Our focus is delivering high-performing products with lower carbon footprints at competitive prices, and we are eager to see how Solugen’s products might help us do that.”

Founded in 2016 by Sean Hunt and Gaurab Chakrabarti, Solugen's carbon-negative molecule factory, named the Bioforge, uses a chemienzymatic process in converting plant-sourced substances into essential materials that can be used instead of fossil fuels. The manufacturing process is carbon neutral, and Solugen has raised over $600 million from investors that believe in the technology's potential.

"We are thrilled to partner with Sasol Chemicals, one of the world’s largest producers of surfactants, to drive positive impact in the home and personal care market,” Chakrabarti, CEO of Solugen, says in the release. “Sasol’s commitment to sustainability makes it an ideal partner for Solugen. We look forward to leveraging our combined strengths in technology, production, and market development to meet increasing consumer demand for our high-performance, bio-based solutions.”

Chakrabarti shared some of the secrets to Solugen's success and early partnerships at a SXSW panel earlier this year. The company was also recently named a finalist in the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards.

Hit the highlights of Venture Houston 2023 with these overheard moments from the event. Photo courtesy of HX Venture Fund

Founders, investors sound off on Houston's VC scene, energy innovation potential, and more

EAVESDROPPING in Houston

Last week, nearly 1,000 people convened in Houston to discuss venture capital activity, startups, and decarbonization, and the Houston factor among it all.

On September 7, Venture Houston hosted several keynote addresses and panels throughout the day's programming, and investors from across the country discussed with Houston-based startup and corporate leaders on topics from seed funding to cultivating an ecosystem.

The annual event, presented by HX Venture Fund, a fund of funds that deploys capital into VC funds with an interest in Houston, had one significant through line throughout the day, and it was Houston's role within innovation and the energy transition.

Whether you missed the event or were there to soak in every second, here's a roundup of key statements on this topic from the panelists.

“We mapped out Texas as a high priority because we knew you can’t do energy without Texas. You can’t do energy without Houston."

Carmichael Roberts, investment committee co-lead for Breakthrough Ventures. "The opportunity that Houston has to be the unambiguous leader is because everywhere else can do energy transition, but they still can’t do what Houston does,” he continues.

“There’s no better place in the world than Houston to build and scale a climate tech startup.”

Tim Latimer, CEO and co-founder of Fervo Energy. “But I don’t know if I’m ready to make the claim that we’re the best place to start a business,” he adds.

“Houston needs that first, higher-profile investor who’s Houston-based, Houston-first, and wants to put as much capital as possible into energy transition and climate tech companies.”

Craig Wilson, managing director of NYU’s Tandon Future Labs. “Houston is blessed with an incredible amount of CVC and late stage capital," he continues. "What it really could use is early stage capital.”

“There are a couple aspects you need for an ecosystem, and Houston has been putting a lot of those in place, but it’s not perfect yet, and there’s still work that this ecosystem needs to do."

Trevor Best, CEO and co-founder of Syzygy Plasmonics. Startups need talent, facilities, capital, and customers. “Here in Houston, for energy transition technologies, I don’t know if there’s an ecosystem that can check the box (for customers) stronger than Houston," he adds, explaining that talent is here too. Where Houston needs improvement, according to Best, is in facilities, which is seeing some progress, and capital development.

“I think Houston is actually the perfect place for becoming the energy transition capital. If you ask me, I think we already are.” 

Andrea Course, venture principal of Shell Ventures. “It really just takes people doing what we’re doing now to make it even greater," she adds.

“We have to figure out ways for how big energy companies work with new technology providers in partnership and not say it’s a David versus Goliath thing.”

Gaurab Chakrabarti, co-founder and CEO of Solugen. “That’s a philosophical misalignment,” he continues. “Instead of saying it’s an absolute problem, accept that it’s a transition.”

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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.