Haleh Ardebili (left) has been appointed as assistant vice president of Entrepreneurship and Startup Ecosystem, and Michael Harold as assistant vice president for Intellectual Property and Industrial Engagements at the University of Houston. Photo via UH

Two professors have assumed new leadership roles in the University of Houston’s Office of Technology, Transfer, and Innovation.

Haleh Ardebili, the Kamel Salama Endowed Professor of Mechanical Engineering, has been named assistant vice president of entrepreneurship and startup ecosystem. Michael Harold, Cullen Engineering Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, has been named assistant vice president for intellectual property and industrial engagements.

Ardebili and Harold “are both tested leaders in their respective areas —they are already contributing to our rich academic environment with their knowledge, expertise and commitment to innovation,” says Ramanan Krishnamoorti, vice president for energy and innovation at UH, in a statement. “Having them helm our growing team will help UH continue its culture of innovation and contribution to society.”

In her new role, Ardebili will oversee entrepreneurship and startup efforts at UH. She will direct the startup and entrepreneurship staff within the Office of Technology, Transfer, and Innovation (OTTI).

Ardebili, who joined the university in 2004, previously was director of the Cullen College of Engineering’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative.

In his new role, Harold will lead the university’s technology transfer activities. He will direct the OTTI licensing and IP management staff.

Harold worked at DuPont in various technical and managerial positions between 1993 and 2000. He joined UH in 2000 as chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering. He served as chair until 2008 and again from 2013 to 2020.

“Both positions will play integral roles in increasing faculty engagement, facilitating innovations from research labs to market, and enhancing collaboration with internal and external stakeholders. These appointments underscore UH’s commitment to driving innovation, economic development, and industry partnerships,” the university says in the release.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Don Frieden of P97, Haleh Ardebili of the University of Houston, and Babur Ozden of Aquanta Vision. 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 fintech to energy — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Don Frieden, president and CEO of P97

Don Frieden, president and CEO of P97, shares how he plans to streamline day-to-day transactions on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of P97

Before Don Frieden started his company, gas stations hadn't innovated their payment technology since 1997. He knew that needed to change.

P97, founded in 2012, exists to use innovative technologies to simplify and energize daily journeys, Frieden explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"We think about daily journeys from the time we leave home in the morning and when we get back at the end of the day — whether it's tolling, parking, buying fuel, fast food restaurants, it's all a part of your daily journeys, and our goal is to make things a little bit simpler each day," Frieden says on the show. Read more.

Haleh Ardebili, professor of Mechanical Engineering at University of Houston

Haleh Ardebili is the the Bill D. Cook Professor of Mechanical Engineering at UH. Photo courtesy

A new prototype out of the University of Houston feels more like science fiction than reality.

"As a big science fiction fan, I could envision a ‘science-fiction-esque future’ where our clothes are smart, interactive and powered,” according to a statement Haleh Ardebili, who last month published a paper on a new stretchable fabric-based lithium-ion battery in the Extreme Mechanics Letters.

“It seemed a natural next step to create and integrate stretchable batteries with stretchable devices and clothing," she said. "Imagine folding or bending or stretching your laptop or phone in your pocket. Or using interactive sensors embedded in our clothes that monitor our health.”

The battery uses conductive silver fabric as a platform and current collector, which stretches (or mechanically deforms) while allowing movement for electrons and ions. Traditional lithium batteries are quite rigid and use a liquid electrolyte, which are flammable and have potential risks of exploding. Read more.

Babur Ozden, founder of Aquanta Vision

Babur Ozden is the founder of Aquanta Vision. Photo via LinkedIn

Aquanta Vision Technologies, a Houston-based climate-tech startup, was selected to participate in the scale-up phase of Chevron Studio, a Houston program that matches entrepreneurs with technologies to turn them into businesses. Aquanta's computer vision software completely automates the identification of methane in optical gas imaging, or OGI. The technology originated from Colorado State University and CSU STRATA Technology Transfer.

Babur Ozden, a tech startup entrepreneur, along with Marcus Martinez, the lead inventor and Dan Zimmerle, co-inventor and director of METEC at CSU Energy Institute, came up with the technology to identify the presence and motion of methane in live video streams. Currently, this process of identifying methane requires a human camera operator to interpret the images. This can often be unreliable in the collection of emissions data.

Aquanta’s technology requires no human intervention and is universally compatible with all OGI cameras. Currently, only about 10 percent of the 20.5 million surveys done worldwide use this type of technology as it is extremely expensive to produce. Ozden said he hopes Aquanta will change that model.

“What we are doing — we are democratizing this feature, this capability, independent of the camera make and model,” Ozden says. Read more.

University of Houston Professor Haleh Ardebili (right) and Navid Khiabani, a graduate research assistant, are creating bendable batteries. Photo via UH.edu

Houston researchers develop new battery prototype to impact wearable technology

flexible innovation

A new breakthrough prototype out of the University of Houston was inspired by science fiction.

"As a big science fiction fan, I could envision a ‘science-fiction-esque future’ where our clothes are smart, interactive and powered,” according to a statement Haleh Ardebili, who last month published a paper on a new stretchable fabric-based lithium-ion battery in the Extreme Mechanics Letters.

“It seemed a natural next step to create and integrate stretchable batteries with stretchable devices and clothing," she said. "Imagine folding or bending or stretching your laptop or phone in your pocket. Or using interactive sensors embedded in our clothes that monitor our health.”

The battery uses conductive silver fabric as a platform and current collector, which stretches (or mechanically deforms) while allowing movement for electrons and ions. Traditional lithium batteries are quite rigid and use a liquid electrolyte, which are flammable and have potential risks of exploding.

The technology is only a prototype now, but Ardebili, who's the Bill D. Cook Professor of Mechanical Engineering at UH, and the paper's first author Bahar Moradi Ghadi, a former doctoral student, think the battery could have many applications, including in smart space suits, consumer electronics and implantable biosensors.

While it's just a prototype now, the technology has a lot of potential in the wearable tech space. Photo via UH.edu

The team's focus now is to ensure the battery is "as safe as possible" before it becomes available on the market.

“Commercial viability depends on many factors such as scaling up the manufacturability of the product, cost and other factors,” Ardebili said. “We are working toward those considerations and goals as we optimize and enhance our stretchable battery.”

Ardebili first conceptualized the product several years ago and has since earned several key wards and grants to support the design, including a five-year National Science Foundation CAREER Award in 2013, a New Investigator Award from the NASA Texas Space Center Grant Consortium in 2014 and an award from the US Army Research Lab in 2017.

A number of Houston-based organizations are working to create innovative batteries.

Earlier this summer, TexPower EV Technologies Inc. opened a 6,000-square-foot laboratory and three-ton-per-year pilot production line in Northwest Houston to help the University of Texas-born company to further commercialize its cobalt-free lithium-ion cathode, which can be used in electric vehicles.

Another Houston-based company Zeta Energy has also developed proprietary sulfur-based cathodes and lithium metal anodes that have shown to have higher capacity and density and better safety profiles than lithium sulfur batteries. The company landed a $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy's ARPA-E Electric Vehicles for American Low-Carbon Living, or EVs4ALL, program, in January.

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

brainiac

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.