Mobile vet business, virtual reality for space, plant-based biotech, and more — all this innovation and more is coming out of Houston startups. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: As 2020 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. This past year, InnovationMap featured profiles on dozens of these Houston startups — from blockchain and software companies to startups with solutions in health care and oil and gas. Here are excerpts of 10 that stood out throughout 2020 — be sure to click through to read the full story.

Houston health tech startup moves into new office amid major growth

BrainCheck has moved to a new office as it grows its team and expands its product. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Following a series A round of fundraising, a Houston digital health startup is on a bit of a hiring spree, leading to new office space the company has room to grow into.

BrainCheck, which was founded in 2015 by neuroscientist David Eagleman, is a cognitive assessment startup that has developed a software tool for primary care doctors to use to assess their patients' cognitive health so that they can more quickly diagnose and treat them for maladies like dementia.

The 19-person company headquartered in Houston — with a secondary office in Austin focused on product development — has relocated its operations from coworking space in the Texas Medical Center to an office in the Rice Village area. The move was made possible by an $8 million series A financing round that closed in October.

"It's pretty exciting to have reached this milestone where we need more space," Yael Katz, co-founder and CEO of BrainCheck, tells InnovationMap. "We were pretty much bursting at the seams in our old office." Click here to continue reading.

Houston startup raises $30M, plans to be 'next iconic chemical company' with plant-based alternatives

Solugen, which uses plant-centered biotechnology to produce environmentally friendly chemicals, has raised an additional $30 million and is speculated to soon reach unicorn status. Photo via solugentech.com

While Forbes recently anointed Houston-based Solugen Inc. as one of the next billion-dollar "unicorns" in the startup world, Dr. Gaurab Chakrabarti shrugs off the unicorn buzz.

Chakrabarti, a physician and scientist who's co-founder and CEO of the startup, concedes he doesn't know whether Solugen will be worth $1 billion or not. But he does know that the startup aspires to be a key competitor in the emerging "climate tech" sector, whose players strive to combat climate change. Chakrabarti estimates the climate-tech chemical space alone represents a global market opportunity valued at $1 trillion to $2 trillion per year.

Solugen's overarching goal in the climate-tech market: Replace petroleum-based chemicals with plant-based substitutes.

"I'd love it if we were the poster child that drives climate tech to be the next big, sexy trend," Chakrabarti says.

Chakrabarti acknowledges Solugen's investors, executives, and employees hope the startup succeeds financially. But success, he believes, goes beyond making money and plotting an exit strategy. Instead, Chakrabarti emphasizes "a shift in thinking" on climate tech that he says promises to transform the fledgling sector into a "true niche" that'll be "good for everyone." Click here to continue reading.

Houston mobile vet company plans to roll out services statewide

A Houston vet has seen growth in business for her mobile vet company due to the pandemic. Now, she's planning major growth. Photo courtesy of Rollin' Vets

It's safe to say that the real winners of work-from-home trends that sparked due to the pandemic are our pets. Dogs and cats that were used to not seeing their owners for eight hours every work day now have 24-hour access to attention, treats, and ear scratches.

This increased attention pets are getting from their owners has also meant an increased awareness of pet health, says Katie Eick, founder of Houston-based Rollin' Vets, a startup that has mobilized veterinary services.

"People are home and observing their animals more. They're seeing and recognizing things they might not have if they were at work all day," Eick says.

That's, of course, not the only way the pandemic has affected business for Eick. She founded her company in 2016 and was seeing steady growth as delivery and on-demand services like Uber, DoorDash, etc. increased in use and awareness. Click here to continue reading.

With fresh funds, this Houston entrepreneur plans to scale his industrial e-commerce startup

Tim Neal, CEO of Houston-based GoExpedi, shares how his company plans to scale following its recent series C closing. Photo by Colt Melrose for GoExpedi

Consumers are getting more and more used to picking up their laptops or phones and ordering everyday items in just a few clicks or taps — and seeing those items delivered in just a few days. To Tim Neal, CEO of Houston-based GoExpedi, ordering parts and tools for industrial businesses should be just as easy.

GoExpedi, which just closed a $25 million series C round, has seen rising demand for its e-commerce platform focused on industrial orders, and Neal credits this demand on a change in mindset within the industrial sector. Additionally, he says he's seen clients more and more focused on cutting costs.

Neal shared his company's plans for growth and scale, as well as how fundraising during a pandemic went, in an interview with InnovationMap. Click here to continue reading.

Family-owned composting startup redesigns how Houston disposes of waste

A Houston-area family has made it their business to help Houstonians reduce waste in a convenient, sustainable way. Photo courtesy of Happy Earth Compost

Jesse Stowers has always strived to do his part for the environment. From recycling and making eco-conscious choices, the Stowers were doing everything right, but was it enough?

The family of five was throwing away two trash bags of waste a day that would later end up in landfills until Stowers stumbled on composting as a solution. In May, he launched Happy Earth Compost, a company set on making Houston more sustainable.

If you're unfamiliar with composting, get ready for a crash course. Composting is a sustainable method of decomposing organic solid wastes and turning that waste into compost, a substance that helps plants grow. Food scraps and household items like rice, pasta, meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, fruits, coffee grounds, spoiled food, and tea bags are just a few of the many things that can be composted rather than thrown away.

"Your food waste and compostable waste is anywhere from 25 to 50 percent depending on the family," explains Stowers. According to Happy Earth Compost, one human creates an estimated 1,642 pounds of trash each year. Click here to continue reading.

Houston virtual reality company collaborates with space health organization

Houston-based Z3VR has been granted $500,000 to work or virtual reality applications in space. Photo courtesy of Z3VR

Houston-based startup Z3VR received a $500,000 grant from Baylor College of Medicine's Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, last month to continue exploring how the wide world of virtual reality can boost mental and physical health for astronauts on a mission to Mars.

Founded in 2017 by a group of emerging tech enthusiasts, Z3VR discovered its niche in what CEO Josh Ruben calls the "intersection of biosensors and VR" and began consulting with TRISH in 2018. Last year, the company received its first funding from the institution to create virtual reality platforms that promote exercise and provide additional sensory experiences for isolated Mars-bound astronauts.

This new grant, however, takes Z3VR's mission one step farther. The year-long grant will allow Z3VR, in partnership with NASA labs in California and Houston, to further develop their VR platform to use eye movement tracking to identify cognitive, psychiatric, or ophthalmological issues before they arise.

Getting out ahead of issues is more important than ever on the Mission to Mars. Because of the duration and distance of the mission, these astronauts will be uniquely isolated and will face a communication lag of up to 45 minutes between space shuttle and command center.

"What that means from a health care perspective is that pretty much everything you need to treat and diagnose these astronauts needs to be self contained on the spacecraft itself," Ruben says. "The system that we are building is sensitive enough to pick up on these cognitive, ophthalmological, and psychiatric conditions well before they become clinically relevant. It'll be long before the astronaut knows there's a problem. That's the hope." Click here to continue reading.

Houston startup — buoyed by Halliburton — plans to scale

Houston-based Nanotech was the first company to be selected for Halliburton Labs, a recently announced startup incubator. Photo via halliburtonlabs.com

A Houston-based material science startup that uses nanotechnology for thermal insulation and fireproofing has been chosen as the first participant of Halliburton Labs, an innovation incubator, announced late last month by the oil and gas giant.

Halliburton Company chose Nanotech Inc., among a round of contenders to be the first participant of their 12-month program located at their Houston headquarters. Halliburton will provide Nanotech with its own office space, access to Halliburton facilities, technical expertise, and an extensive network to accelerate their product to market.

"With Nanotech's shield material we can have fireproofing infrastructure, saving lives and helping save the planet," says Mike Francis, CEO of Nanotech. "But it's tremendously difficult to scale our small lab to take our product globally, so when we heard about this opportunity with Halliburton Labs, we jumped immediately on it."

Nanotech Inc., started with a singular technology and a simple mission to fireproof the world and reduce energy consumption globally. The base nano shield, flex shield, and forged shield products contain nanoparticles ranging from 1 micrometer to 1 nanometer in a water-based solution with other inorganic compounds. The coating is heat resistant, non-flammable, and the nontoxic properties ensure it is sustainable for the environment. Click here to continue reading.Click here to continue reading.

This Houston tech startup is helping businesses find the funds during COVID-19 crisis and beyond

Houston startup Grant Source, which helps its clients find the right grants to apply for, has seen a surge in business amid the coronavirus shutdown. Getty Images

Since 2015, Grant Source has perfected the art of helping businesses, foundations, and organizations find and secure grant funding — and now their expertise has become vital to COVID-19 response initiatives.

With the devastation caused by the novel coronavirus, America's medical organizations have been scrambling to obtain the funds required to purchase the testing kits, masks, PPE, and other life-saving products needed to help curb the effects of the global pandemic and now, thanks to the mobile and web platform, they're getting the assistance they need to accomplish that goal.

"COVID-19 response is actually our claim to fame right now," says Allen Thornton, founder and CEO of Grant Source. "We have probably done more business in the last few months than we have since we started. Simply because we are helping people find grants with the CARES Act. There's over $500 billion out there, which has created overnight a $40 billion market opportunity for us."

Grant Source has worked extensively with city, county, state, and government agencies to secure grant funding, which is why they have become a game changer for those that need emergency capital to combat COVID-19's challenges. Click here to continue reading.

Houston energy tech startup raises $11M to grow its team locally

Houston-based Datagration Solutions Inc. has raised millions in its latest round — led partially by a local VC firm — to grow its local presence. Photo via Datagration Solutions/Facebook

An $11 million round of funding will fuel national and international growth at Houston-based Datagration Solutions Inc., whose cloud-based software aggregates data to improve workflows and analytics at upstream oil and gas operators.

Houston-based venture capital firm Quantum Energy Partners LLC and New York City-based venture capital firm Global Reserve Group LLC led the round. Datagration represents the sixth investment in energy tech involving the duo of Quantum Energy Partners and Global Reserve Group.

Braxton Huggins, chief marketing officer at Datagration, says the new capital will enable the company to build a technology team in Houston; add to its operations, sales, and marketing team in Houston; and supplement its development team in Austria. These new hires will help Datagration expand its national and international market presence, he says.

Huggins says Datagration aims to more than double in size by the end of 2021. The startup currently employs more than 30 people. Click here to continue reading.

Houston startup uses artificial intelligence to bring its clients better business forecasting calculations

Houston-based Complete Intelligence was just recognized by Capital Factory as the "Newcomer of the Year." Photo via completeintel.com

The business applications of artificial intelligence are boundless. Tony Nash realized AI's potential in an underserved niche.

His startup, Complete Intelligence, uses AI to focus on decision support, which looks at the data and behavior of costs and prices within a global ecosystem in a global environment to help top-tier companies make better business decisions.

"The problem that were solving is companies don't predict their costs and revenues very well," says Nash, the CEO and founder of Complete Intelligence. "There are really high error rates in company costs and revenue forecasts and so what we've done is built a globally integrated artificial intelligence platform that can help people predict their costs and their revenues with a very low error rate."

Founded in 2015, Complete Intelligence is an AI platform that forecasts assets and allows evaluation of currencies, commodities, equity indices and economics. The Woodlands-based company also does advanced procurement and revenue for corporate clients.

"We've spent a couple years building this," says Nash. "We have a platform that is helping clients with planning, finance, procurement and sales and a host of other things. We are forecasting equity markets; we are forecasting commodity prices, currencies, economics and trades. We built a model of the global economy and transactions across the global economy, so it's a very large, very detailed artificial intelligence platform."

That platform, CI Futures, has streamlined comprehensive price forecasting and data analysis, allowing for sound, data-based decisions.

"Our products are pretty simple," says Nash. "We have our basic off the shelf forecast which is called CI Futures, which is currencies, commodities, equities and economics and trade. Its basic raw data forecasts. We distribute that raw data on our website and other data distribution websites. We also have a product called Cost Flow, which is our procurement forecasting engine, where we build a material level forecasting for clients." Click here to continue reading.

A Houston-area family has made it their business to help Houstonians reduce waste in a convenient, sustainable way. Photo courtesy of Happy Earth Compost

Family-owned composting startup redesigns how Houston disposes of waste

don't worry, be happy

Jesse Stowers has always strived to do his part for the environment. From recycling and making eco-conscious choices, the Stowers were doing everything right, but was it enough?

The family of five was throwing away two trash bags of waste a day that would later end up in landfills until Stowers stumbled on composting as a solution. In May, he launched Happy Earth Compost, a company set on making Houston more sustainable.

If you're unfamiliar with composting, get ready for a crash course. Composting is a sustainable method of decomposing organic solid wastes and turning that waste into compost, a substance that helps plants grow. Food scraps and household items like rice, pasta, meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, fruits, coffee grounds, spoiled food, and tea bags are just a few of the many things that can be composted rather than thrown away.

"Your food waste and compostable waste is anywhere from 25 to 50 percent depending on the family," explains Stowers. According to Happy Earth Compost, one human creates an estimated 1,642 pounds of trash each year.

When looking at striking statistics, it's clear composting has a direct impact on the future of our environment. In Houston, 81 percent of waste ends up in landfills that pile high, and the city exceeds the national waste average by 25 percent. While the smell of landfills may make you wince, the repercussions of exhausting those landfills are even more displeasing.

Not only are the plots of land permanently lost from agricultural and home development, but the landfills also emit methane gas, a greenhouse gas that's 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to The Independent.

What started as the Stowers family's resolution to be eco-friendly became a full-blown business plan. After Stowers attempted to compost at home for his own family, he soon partnered with New Earth Compost in Fulshear, Texas, as a drop-off location for the waste and did a test drive of the service with his neighbors back in March. Happy Earth Compost now serves 350 homes in the Greater Houston-area and has plans to expand to College Station.

Happy Earth Compost has created a service, with pricing ranging from $15 to $35, that provides Houstonians with the bins to compost and picks up the waste from your door. The buckets can be picked up weekly, bi-weekly or monthly while the company does all of the labor and dirty work to help you compost. A new $5 drop-off option is also available for Houstonians who are willing to drive to one of the applicable farmers' markets.

Subscribers can also get free compost to use in their gardens, what gardeners often call "black gold" because of its value and benefits, says Stowers.

Members receive equipment and instructions upon registration. Photo courtesy of Happy Earth

The family-owned business' typical week involves picking up buckets from 300 houses, dropping off compost, cleaning those buckets, and starting the process all over again.

"It's not the most glamorous thing, but it's getting people set up to do it. We're trying to make things easy for everybody by doing the hard work on our end," he says.

Ease is a key feature that helps the service stand out to Houstonians. Composting in Houston no longer requires the personal labor of investing in a compost bin, balancing the mixture of materials, measuring the temperature of your compost, and ordering worms to help accelerate the process (you read that right).

At various farmers' markets around Houston, Stowers is quick to point out the convenience of the program he's created. "It's hard to convince people to compost. It's easier to convince them to try something that's beneficial and simple," he explained.

Jenna Arbogast, a Happy Earth Compost customer, had dabbled in composting on her own but never committed to maintaining it at home. "When I found out about Happy Earth Compost, I so excited that someone was taking the initiative to extend this city-wide. Being that we are such a large city, we have such a great opportunity to heal our environment," says Arbogast. "I really love contributing to something as a collective. Even though I could compost at home, I really wanted to support this initiative," she says.

To Arbogast, who has been using the service for three months, convenience and transparency have made Happy Earth Compost a joy to work with. "You get all the benefits of composting without the maintenance, and you're supporting a good cause," she says.

Since its May launch, the Happy Earth Compost Instagram has grown by over 1,900 fans. The Stowers family has been amazed by the response and hopes to expand to more households in Houston.

"I think there's definitely a movement to be more sustainable to actually consider what we're doing and take care of our stuff, including the earth," says Stowers. He envisions a future where composting is taught to future generations as a fundamental need for the environment.

"It may not cost us now, but it will cost us eventually. What can we do now to make a difference now?" asks Stowers.


Jesse Stowers started his family business in May. Photo via happyearthcompost.com

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.