Houston innovator bets on Bayou City to scale fast-growing unicorn tech co.

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 223

Omair Tariq of Cart.com joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share his confidence in Houston as the right place to scale his unicorn. Photo via Cart.com

Last November, Houston-founded logistics tech company Cart.com announced that it would be returning its headquarters to Houston after spending the last two years growing in Austin. But Co-Founder and CEO Omair Tariq says that while the corporate address may have changed, he actually never left.

"I've been in Houston now forever — and I don't think I'm planning on leaving anytime soon. I love Houston — this city has given me everything I have," Tariq says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I even love the traffic and everything people hate about Houston."

Tariq, who was born in Pakistan and grew up in Dubai before relocating as a teen to Houston, shared his entrepreneurial journey on the show, which included starting a jewelry business and being an early employee at Blinds.com before it was acquired in 2014 by Home Depot.

"For me to build something here was always a priority," Tariq says. He founded Cart.com in 2020.

He explains that the initial HQ relocation to Austin in 2021 was more of a co-location between the two Texas cities that was motivated by an increase in Austin activity for investors and potential customers for Cart.com.

"Austin was doing a really good job of branding itself as being the city in Texas to come to when you think about innovation or technology," Tariq says. "What we learned was that as we were building our own brand of being a technology company and being a company that wanted to gain global and at least national credibility, we thought that if we're closer to the action happening in Austin, we would get there faster."

Since the relocation, Cart.com raised a $60 million series C and grown its customer base to over 6,000 users. After making several acquisitions, the company also operates 14 fulfillment centers nationwide.

"I think Austin served its purpose. It certainly allowed us to be in the limelight in all the right ways, and I'm grateful for it," Tariq says. "But once we got to a point, once we closed our series C round and became a unicorn ... I think we're now at a scale where the infrastructure that Houston provides is probably something that will be more attractive and useful for us in the long term."

And Tariq adds on the show that he feels confident that he knows Houston well, and knows it is the right place to continue Cart.com's growth, which he says hopes includes 10 times the brands supported, a global footprint, and potentially an IPO.

Axiom Space's new Houston Spaceport facility is now open. Photo courtesy of Houston Airports

Space tech unicorn opens new 22-acre HQ in the Houston Spaceport

ribbon cutting

The Houston Spaceport has officially celebrated the opening of another facility from a fast-growing space tech company.

Axiom Space has opened its new Assembly Integration and Test Building, which will be the new headquarters for the Houston-based aerospace company at a new 22-acre campus at the Houston Spaceport at Ellington Airport in Southeast Houston. The building will include employee offices, facilities for astronaut training and mission control, testing labs and a high bay production facility to house Axiom Space Station modules currently under construction.

Axiom Space partnered with Jacobs, Turner Construction Company, Savills, and Griffin Partners to expand the company’s headquarters with the Houston spaceport building, which is the tenth spaceport in the nation.

For the first time in Houston’s history, the Space City is now home to the development of human-rated spacecraft with the Axiom Stations modules. Houston Spaceport has laboratory office space like technology incubator space and large-scale hardware production facilities, and is the world’s first urban commercial spaceport.

“These are historically exciting times for us all,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says in a news release. “As the city that helped put men on the moon, Houston continues to lead the way in technology and innovation. Axiom Space has set itself apart from others in the private space industry. Our city – Space City — is leading this second space race. And the work being done in our city will return humanity to the moon in a sustainable way.”

Axiom operates end-to-end missions to the International Space Station. They are also developing its successor, Axiom Station, and building next-generation spacesuits for the moon, low-Earth orbit, and other missions. The company describes itself as “the leading provider of human spaceflight services and developer of human-rated space infrastructure.”

Axiom joins Collins Aerospace and Intuitive Machines as the three tenants of the Houston Spaceport, which is an FAA-licensed, urban commercial spaceport for the aerospace community. Intuitive Machines supports NASA’s $93 billion Artemis program, which aims to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 and eventually send humans to Mars.

“Today’s celebration is the culmination of teamwork and tenacity, and it underscores a year of historic milestones for Houston Airports,” Mario Diaz, director of Aviation for Houston Airports, says in a news release. “It’s not enough that we operate world-class airports, Houston Airports must also endeavor to progress humanity’s reach out into space. Axiom space solidifies this unique urban center for collaboration and ideation. A place where the brightest minds in the world work closely together to lead us beyond the next frontier of space exploration.”

The Houston Spaceport Development Corp. received $5 million from funds administered by the Governor's Office of Economic Development and Tourism. Axiom Space is valued at $1 billion as of earlier this year, according to Bloomberg. Axiom joins Intuitive Machines, which opened its new Houston Spaceport headquarters earlier this year.

Last week, Axiom Space cut the ribbon on the new facility. Photo courtesy of Houston Airports

Last year, London-based Octopus Energy established its U.S. headquarters in Houston. Image via octopus.energy

Energy software company picks Houston as U.S. HQ

home sweet houston

Kraken Technologies, the software licensing arm of Octopus Energy Group, has picked Houston for its U.S. headquarters and aims to eventually employ hundreds of people here.

Within the first year, Kraken will create at least 50 new jobs in Houston, the company says. Employees here will work on rolling out the Kraken offering across the U.S.

“The decision to make Houston the [U.S.] home of Kraken recognizes this city’s growing reputation as a tech center,” Richard Hyde, British consul general in Houston, says in an Octopus Energy news release.

Last year, London-based Octopus Energy established its U.S. headquarters in Houston.

The Kraken platform, which launched three years ago, helps customers manage the entire energy supply chain, such as understanding customers’ energy consumption in real time and optimizing alternative energy sources. The platform hopes to reach 100 million customer accounts by 2027.

Octopus Energy explains that Kraken, based on advanced data and machine learning, helps create a “decentralized, decarbonized energy system.”

“Energy is one of the few global sectors still undisrupted by tech – Kraken changes that. It is essentially a big robot that eliminates all the inefficiencies that energy companies have built up over the decades, automating repetitive tasks, allowing humans to do what they are best at, and unlocking smart products,” says Greg Jackson, founder and CEO of Octopus Energy.

Octopus Energy supplies green energy to more than 3 million retail customers around the world. It entered the U.S. market in 2020. The company is valued at nearly $5 billion.

Alex Reed, co-founder and CEO of Fluence Analytics, joined InnovationMap for a Q&A on the company's move to Houston and its growth plans. Photo courtesy of Fluence Analytics

Fresh off $7.5M funding, this new-to-Houston tech company plans to grow and expand in life science space

q&A

Founded in 2012 in New Orleans, a tech company that provides software and hardware solutions for the chemicals industry has entered its next phase of growth by moving its headquarters to Houston following a $7.5 million venture capital raise.

Fluence Analytics, which announced its recent raise led by Yokogawa Electric Corp. last month, has officially moved to the Houston area. The company's new HQ is in Stafford. Alex Reed, co-founder and CEO of the company, joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about what led up to the move and the future of the company, which includes expanding into the life science field.

InnovationMap: Tell me about Fluence Analytics — what does the technology do and why did you decide to start the company?

AlexReed: We have developed a patented technology that can optimize chemical production. We basically are able to measure what's happening in real time in a process. Imagine if you're baking a cake, and you follow this recipe and sometimes you get the cake you want, sometimes it's too dry, and sometimes it's not cooked enough. And so the polymers industry, for simplistic terms, has that type of an issue. You don't really know exactly where you're at your equipment behaves differently. Basically, what we're able to do is give them real-time information on what's happening as they're baking the cake so that every time they can get a perfect cake.

We have a software and hardware solution that we install in these plants to get these measurements so that our customers can optimize production — and they want to do that to improve their yield, reduce waste, increase safety, and improve quality. There are a lot of different reasons that companies are interested in our technology and we have managed to grow globally. We have customers in Asia, Europe, and the U.S.

We spun out of Tulane University. It's an interesting story because my dad is the inventor of the technology — he's a physics professor at Tulane. I grew up working in the lab with him literally since the age of 12, and I was super interested in technology and science and saw that he was working with all these chemical companies. They were always very interested in what he was working on. I got to the point where I realized that I didn't want to be a scientist — I was far more interested in the commercialization and how you go from lab to product. That transition is very difficult. So, I stepped into the role of the entrepreneur. We had the patents and technology for my dad, I had an excellent mentor, and then our other co-founder was a technical founder.

IM: When and why did you start considering an HQ move? 

AR: We raised our first institutional venture funding in April 2017. Up until that point, it was primarily working with customers and grant funding. We worked with actually a group that has an office here called Energy Innovation Capital. They came in and invested in us and supported us, and George Coyle joined our board.

So, we had that tie to Houston, and I was in Houston a lot because there was a concentration of partners and customers — and not just like chemical plant customers, but also technology and R&D centers. As we started to scale, we brought on some other investors — Mitsubishi Chemical, JSR Corp., and most recently Yokogawa Electric Corp., which has its North American headquarters in Sugar Land.

We started to just build momentum towards it. I'd say we first had the conversations pre-COVID and then COVID hit, and we'd kind of just stopped everything for a while, just to make sure we knew where the business was heading. We've made it through COVID fine and did well on coming out of it. Then we felt it was the right time to pick that thread back up. We knew it made sense. The labor pool is amazing here, and there's just so many reasons why we were looking at it. So then we just pulled the trigger.

IM: How did you decide on the Houston area? What drew you to Stafford?

AR: Initially, we had a little landing pad in the East End Maker Hub, so we got in there and they were awesome. We actually had started hiring remote people here in 2019 because we knew the move was going to happen at some point. We had a place for them to go work out of EEMH while we searched for a permanent facility. We connected with the Greater Houston Partnership, and they plugged us in to Houston Exponential, and they have been very good at introducing us to the right people. We just don't know the lay of the land to be honest, so they've been a great resource. We were looking originally on the northside of Houston, and then we saw the Stafford area. There's a huge concentration of similar type companies — automation, some software, some hardware. There were some tax advantages. We settled in the Stafford area and are very happy with the choice we made to end up here.

IM: I know you recently raised a $7.5M venture funding round. What does that funding mean for growth?

AR: Like any capital, the objective is to use it to grow. For us, "grow" has several different areas. One is the product. There's a very long roadmap of both hardware and software improvements that we want to make. So basically we're accelerating a lot of the things on our roadmap to do things like closed-loop control based on our data — imagine running a whole plant autonomously based on measurements that we're making. We're moving more and more toward that autonomous operation world and improving a lot of the actual underlying hardware, making the measurements, building out sales and marketing as we start to serve more and more customers. Product sales and marketing and customer success are the areas that we're scaling.

IM: As you grow your local team, what are you looking for?

AR: Field applications, software, some automation technicians, and more. We do have some life science applications. So, in addition to our core area on the chemical side, we have a product we've sold into biopharma, and so we want to grow some of that. We're actually hiring for a product manager for the life science side of the business. So, that one's a pretty unique opportunity and role.

IM: Considering your life science application, it seems like Houston is a good fit for that vertical as well, right?

AR: We're working with the Houston of today, but also the Houston of tomorrow, which is this life science play. The next phase is kind of following that innovation value chain. So, figuring out what's the R&D and manufacturing of these pharmaceuticals, and how you can attract more of those technology centers and factories to make the stuff here. If you look at the talent pool here, those resources are somewhat fungible with the resources that serve petrochemical and oil and gas.

This cross pollination I think actually could be quite an interesting differentiator for Houston if the city can build that critical mass. So yes, I think there is an opportunity for us to leverage this vision that Houston has for life science. Now, we'll still have to go to the coast to go to our customers, but I think talent pool, and eventually you might even have customers here. It's certainly feasible.

------

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

NRG's sole HQ will be in Houston. NRG.com

Energy giant makes Houston sole headquarters in massive move

HQ move

Power player NRG Energy is laser focused on Houston. The Bayou City will be the energy giant's new sole headquarters; the company will no longer split between Houston and Princeton, New Jersey.

The move to a single headquarters simplifies business operations, as a large number of the company's employees and customers reside in Texas, the company noted in a press release and report.

The company, having recently acquired Direct Energy, will maintain regional offices in the markets that it serves and "evaluate real estate needs and consolidate as appropriate," the report adds.

Mayor Sylvester Turner welcomed the news in a statement, relaying that he and his team have had "substantive conversations" with NRG president and CEO Mauricio Gutierrez. "I believe the decision is confirmation that Houston is a smart city for business," said Turner.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also chimed in, adding in part:

With this move, NRG joins 50 other Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Texas, including 22 in the Houston area alone. America's leading businesses continue to invest in Texas — and grow jobs in Texas — because of our welcoming business climate, low taxes, reasonable regulations, and our young, growing, and skilled workforce.
I thank NRG Energy for designating Texas — the energy capital of the world — as their corporate headquarters, and I look forward to our continued partnership as we ensure a more prosperous future for all who call the Lone Star State home.

Turner noted that more than a year ago, the City of Houston committed to purchasing 100 percent renewable energy through a renewed partnership with NRG Energy as the City's retail electric provider. "The plan is helping us build a more sustainable future, save over $9 million on our electric bill, and reduce emissions," he said.

NRG Energy boasts some 3,000 employees in Houston alone. In its report, the company reported a net loss of $83 million due the impact of Winter Storm Uri.

------

This article originally ran on CultureMap.

This week's innovators to know in Houston includes Kyle Judah of Rice University, and Devin and Peter Licata of Headquarters. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: This week's Houston innovators to know are each looking to positively effect Houston's startup and innovation ecosystem. From making innovation more representative starting with on campus to looking to help companies most affected by COVID-19, here's what these innovators are up to.

Kyle Judah, executive director of Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Rice University

Kyle Judah joins the Houston Innovators Podcast last week. Photo courtesy of Lilie

To Kyle Judah, who recently joined Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, establishing Houston's innovation ecosystem as unique and reflective of the city is of extreme importance. From diversity of people to diversity of industry, Judah is hard at work at making Rice's programs reflective of Houston.

"We can't just copy and paste what works for the Bay Area or what works for Boston," he says. "We have to figure out what is going to be the authentic right sort of centers of excellence for Rice and for Houston — areas like energy, health care, space. It just so happens that these areas that Houston and Rice have historically done better at than anyone else — those happen to be the most grand challenges for all of humanity."

Judah joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss this and what else he has on his radar in his new role. Read more and stream the episode here.

Devin and Peter Licata of Headquarters

Headquarters is looking to give away coworking space to two startups affected by the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Headquarters

A brother-sister team, Peter and Devin Licata are running Headquarters, a coworkering space just east of downtown Houston. And, after watching how COVID-19 has affected startups, they are looking to donate space to two deserving companies.

"For Devin and I being local Houstonians," says Peter. "It was very exciting to bring a product to Houston that we had never seen before in the city. When we started the search for a building, we had a very specific idea of how we wanted it to look and feel, and the amenities we wanted to provide."

Headquarters is currently accepting submissions from startups, founders, and entrepreneurs to be considered for free office space through Friday, October 2, with recipients set to be announced the week of October 5th.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

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.