At a recent virtual event, experts discussed the hard tech wave that's coming for Houston. Photo via Getty Images

The past couple decades of innovation has been largely defined by software — and its been a bit of a boom. However, lately it's become evident that it's time for hardware innovation to shine.

At the HX Venture Fund's recent conference, Venture Houston, a few hard tech innovators joined a virtual discussion on the future of hardware — and what Houston's role will be in it.

When it comes to advancing technology for humankind, Adam Sharkawy, founder and managing partner of Boston-based Material Impact, a HXVF portfolio fund, says it's time to expand the walls of what is possible.

"Unlike other types of technologies that may facilitate the possible, deep and hard technologies expand what is in the realm of the possible," he says on the panel. "Software has caught up, and we need a new deep tech wave."

And the future looks promising, as Sharkawy says he's seen hard tech grow over the past 5 to 7 years by about 22 percent. Nic Radford, president and CEO of Houston Mechatronics agrees it's time to shift the focus to hard tech.

"The Information Age was the ubiquitous manipulation of the virtual world, but now we need to uncover the ubiquitous manipulation of the physical world is," he says. "And we need to make those investments toward that."

But investments seem, at least in the recent past, harder to come by for hard tech startups compared to software companies with quick exit strategies.

"Deep tech is traditionally thought of as requiring deep pockets," Sharkawy says.

Radford says there was over $167 billion in capital deployments last year, and only 8 percent of that went to industrial or hard tech. Hardware, he says, is tougher to evaluate, they take longer to exit and are tougher to scale.

"To me that's what makes them a gold mine," Radford adds. "It's an underserved market for sure, and that's because we're tougher to evaluate."

Something to note though, he continues, is that hard tech is going to have a bigger societal impact, but maybe it's not the one with the biggest return.

"I think corporates have an special role to play in the inevitability of hard tech," Radford says. "They aren't completely motivated by financial returns."

Gaurab Chakrabarti, CEO and co-founder of Solugen, says he's had a different experience with raising funds. The Houston entrepreneur has raised over $100 million and is planning to go public soon. He's achieved this by attracting investment from the top VC funds in the country. If you zero in on these powerful funds, you can see they are dedicating more and more funds to this arena. And, he predicts, other VC funds will follow.

"This is a unique time for hardware companies to go and and raise from the top venture capitals of the world," Chakrabarti says.

The city of Houston, with its firm footing in the energy and space industries has an important role to play in this new era.

"The Houston area has all the key ingredients to be an innovation hub — no question," Sharkawy says.

The panelists identified Houston's fine education institutions, major corporations present, access to talent, and more as indicators for success. But the innovation here needs to continue to develop intentionally.

"I'd love to see Houston not try to copycat into a general tech hub," Sharkawy says. "Instead it would be great for Houston leverage its unique position as a leader in energy and space and help its constituents of more traditional energy — big corporates, for example — transform into the new frontier."

Vanessa Wyche, deputy director at NASA's Johnson Space Center, says she's seen the space industry take off as the field becomes more and more commercialized. And locally there's a lot of potential for Houston and all the resources and infrastructure that already exists.

"It's about taking what you're good at, and making it better," she says.

Each of the panelists expressed confidence in this evolving wave of hard tech — and are keeping a close watch on the major players as well as the city of Houston.

"We're going to have to get into the world and do something," Radford says. "That next wave of innovation is specifically interacting with our environment, in my opinion."

The journey from ideation to creation, and then manufacturing can be difficult, but rewarding. Photo courtesy of OKGlobal

These are the risks and rewards of prototyping, according to Houston expert

Guest column

We live in a digital world. Music, movies, and even family photos have become primarily digital. Computer software offers us a range of comfort and efficiency and has become part of our daily routine. So, why would anyone want to build a career around physical product development?

Simple, almost every software product or next big thing relies on a well-executed physical product development project. Apps need a place to run, games need a console to be played, and pictures need a camera to be taken.

Physical product development means dreaming of something that does not yet exist and solves an existing problem. It means taking an intangible idea and making it into a physical item that people can see, touch, and use.

The journey from ideation to creation, and then manufacturing can be difficult, but rewarding. By understanding the process, you'll find that not only is your inspiration worth pursuing, but it may be one of the most fulfilling things you will ever do.

From inspiration to perspiration

Every product development project begins with a vision, the identification of a problem and a solution for that problem. That initial spark of inspiration is what drives the entire project.

Look for a problem that hasn't been solved and solve that problem, or try the reverse. Think of a product idea, and then work backwards to find the need. Regardless, one cannot be successful without the other.

Projects require this problem, or need, because it embodies the product's target market. A product idea without a well-defined need has no reason to exist, and if it did, it would be downright perplexing.

Once you identify your need and idea, start your research.

Test the validity of your idea. How much of a market exists for your problem-solving miracle? Send out surveys, look at various markets, conduct data analyses, and generally, do everything in your power to ensure that your product should be made.

Then, start making something.

From concept to reality

The design, prototype and manufacturing stages are what bring your inspiration closer to reality. Turning it into a concrete product means letting go, and that can be scary.

Initial concept designs can be done in a variety of different ways. Detailed sketches and blueprints could be drawn up, or CAD drawings can be created. This concept design can help you explain your idea to others, including partners and investors. What works even better, though, are prototypes.

A prototype is a preliminary model of your product that can help you determine the feasibility of different aspects of your design. You can make a functional prototype, which acts as a proof-of-concept for your idea, or you may create aesthetic prototypes that will test the look and feel of your product.

Once you nail down the ideal appearance and physicality of your product, you will need to combine the two disciplines as seamlessly as possible. This performance prototype will effectively demo your final product.

Finally, you can prepare your product for production. Designing for manufacturability (DFM) means ensuring that your product can be made efficiently and cost-effectively. DFM allows you to mistake-proof your product by choosing the best manufacturing materials and methods, while keeping in mind the appropriate regulations for your desired market.

From nothing into something

The product development process often changes. Trends like crowdsourcing and innovative fast-to-market solutions constantly upend the process and make it new again. Some automakers, for example, want to innovate the design process using existing customer data — similar to how companies like Microsoft and Apple create iterative versions of their software product development projects.

Getting your product to market can be tough, but certain approaches can ease the burden. Create a simpler product. Fail fast and fail cheap with lean development, meaning limit your risk to maximize your return. Also, never underestimate the importance of customer feedback and intellectual property protection throughout the process.

With that said, invest in yourself and your inspiration, and you will avoid that nagging what if-mentality that drives regret. Great reward always requires risk, but there are also ways to invest smarter. Use available resources and give your dream the best chance for success.

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Onega Ulanova is the founder of OKGlobal.

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Houston cleantech company sees shining success with gold hydrogen

bling, bling

Houston-based cleantech startup Cemvita Factory is kicking things into high gear with its Gold Hydrogen product.

After successfully completing a pilot test of Gold Hydrogen in the oil-rich Permian Basin of West Texas, Cemvita has raised an undisclosed amount of funding through its new Gold H2 LLC spin-out. The lead investors are Georgia-based equipment manufacturer Chart Industries and 8090 Industries, an investment consortium with offices in New York City and Los Angeles.

Gold Hydrogen provides carbon-neutral hydrogen obtained from depleted oil and gas wells. This is achieved through bioengineering subsurface microbes in the wells to consume carbon and generate clean hydrogen.

Cemvita says it set up Gold H2 to commercialize the business via licensing, joint ventures, and outright ownership of hydrogen assets.

“We have incredible conviction in next-generation clean hydrogen production methods that leverage the vast and sprawling existing infrastructure and know-how of the oil and gas industry,” Rayyan Islam, co-founder and general partner of 8090 Industries, says in a news release.

Traditional methods of producing hydrogen without greenhouse gas emissions include electrolysis powered by renewable sources like wind, solar or water, according to Cemvita. However, production of green hydrogen through normal avenues eats up a lot of energy and money, the startup says.

By contrast, Cemvita relies on depleted oil and gas wells to cheaply produce carbon-free hydrogen.

“The commercialization and economics of the hydrogen economy will require technologies that produce the hydrogen molecule at a meaningful scale with no carbon emissions. Gold H2 is leading the charge … ,” says Jill Evanko, president and CEO of Chart Industries.

Investors in Cemvita include Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, an investment arm of Houston-based Occidental Petroleum, as well as BHP Group, Mitsubishi, and United Airlines Ventures.

Oxy Low Carbon Ventures and United Airlines Ventures are financing Cemvita’s work on sustainable jet fuel. United Airlines operates a hub at George Bush Intercontinental Airport Houston.

Founded by brother-and-sister team Moji and Tara Karimi in 2017, Cemvita uses synthetic biology to turn carbon dioxide into chemicals and alternative fuels.

Houston named best city in Texas and No. 11 in U.S. in prestigious report

best in tx

At least according to one new report, Houston is not only the Energy Capital of the World but also the livability capital of Texas.

A new study from Best Cities, powered by Resonance Consultancy, puts Houston at No. 11 among the best cities in the U.S. That’s the top showing among the six Texas cities included in the ranking. Houston appeared at No. 17 on last year’s list.

“Educated, diverse and hard-working, Houston is America’s stealthy powerhouse on the rise,” Best Cities proclaims.

Best Cities notes that while Austin grabs much of the best-city attention, “the promise of the Lone Star State drawing Californians and New Yorkers is quietly being fulfilled in Houston.” The website points out that the Houston metro area has gained nearly 300,000 residents in the past year, thanks to both domestic and international migration.

Here are some of the individual rankings that contribute to Houston’s 11th-place finish:

  • No. 4 for restaurants
  • No. 7 for culture
  • No. 8 for foreign-born population

“Houston is a diverse and vibrant metro where individuals can start a family, grow their business, attend world-class institutions and universities, or be immersed in the 145 languages that are spoken by our residents,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says in a news release. “The quality of life we have in Houston is second to none, and the data we receive from placements such as … Best Cities further reaffirm the strength and resiliency that has come to define this great city of ours.”

A few spots behind Houston on the Best Cities list are No. 14 Dallas and No. 15 Austin.

What lifts Dallas to the No. 14 spot? These are some of the factors cited by Best Cities:

  • Location of more than 10,000 corporate headquarters
  • Strong showing (No. 2) in the airport connectivity category
  • Kudos for the soon-to-be-expanded Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center Dallas
  • Home of the country’s sixth largest LGBTQ+ community
  • Presence of the 28-block, 68-acre Dallas Arts District

Austin comes in at No. 15, one notch behind Dallas.

Best Cities praises Austin as “a place that’s incredibly livable. Talk to any entrepreneur leaving Silicon Valley or Seattle and chances are they’ve considered Austin.”

The website points to a number of Austin’s assets, such as:

  • Growing presence of Fortune 500 headquarters
  • Comparatively low unemployment rate
  • Location of the University of Texas’ flagship campus
  • Status as the Live Music Capital of the World
  • Home of the annual SXSW gathering

Two other Texas cities make the Best Cities list: No. 34 San Antonio and No. 94 McAllen.

Best Cities bases its list of the best U.S. cities on Resonance Consultancy’s combination of statistical performance plus qualitative evaluations by locals and visitors. Those figures are grouped into six main categories. This year’s ranking features 100 U.S. cities. To come up with the ranking, Resonance Consultancy assessed all U.S. metro areas with at least 500,000 residents.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

How a Houston med device startup pivoted to impact global health and diagnostics

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 153

In the span of a couple years, a Houston startup went from innovating a way for patients with degenerative eye diseases to see better to creating a portable and affordable breath-based diagnostics tool worthy of a prestigious grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.

Steradian Technologies, founded in 2018, set out to create human super-sight via proprietary optics. In early 2020, the company was getting ready to start testing the device and fundraising. Then, the pandemic hit, knocking the company completely off course.

Co-founder and CEO of the company, Asma Mirza, says on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast that the Steradian co-founders discussed how their optic technology could detect diseases. Something just clicked, and the RUMI device was born.

"We are from Houston, Texas, which is one of the most diverse and accessible cities in the country, and we were having trouble with basic diagnostic accessibility. It was taking too long, it was complicated, and people were getting sick and didn't know if they were positive or negative," Mirza says on the show. "That's when we pivoted the company and decided we were going to pivot the company and use optics to detect diseases in breath."

Fast forward two years and the company has been recognized by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with a grant to sport the development of the tool — which costs about the same price as a latte to make. The impact for global health is huge, Mirza says, allowing for people to test their breath for diseases from their own homes in the same time it takes to take your temperature.

"You blow into a cartrige and we're able to take the air from your breath into a liquid sample," Mirza says, explaining how the device uses photons to produce quick results. "It's wild that we still don't have something like that yet."

She shares more details about the grant and the future applications for the technology — as well as the role Houston and local organizations have had on the company — on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.