PHIOGEN, based at Texas Medical Center Innovation, is headed to Austin next month. Photo courtesy of TMC

Houston biotech startup PHIOGEN is among 45 finalists that will present at this year’s SXSW Pitch showcase in Austin.

PHIOGEN is one of five food, nutrition, and health startups that will participate in the pitch competition, set for March 9 and 10. A panel of judges will listen to the pitches and then pick the winners. Since 2009, SXSW Pitch finalists have raised more than $23.2 billion in funding.

PHIOGEN has developed the world’s first biogenetics technology platform to harness the power of bacteriophages in the fight against serious drug-resistant infections. Bacteriophages — viruses that are found in bacterial cells — “are ubiquitous in the environment and are recognized as the most abundant biological agent on earth,” according to an article published in 2022 by StatPearls.

Founded in 2023, PHIOGEN is a spinoff of the Baylor College of Medicine’s TAILOR Labs. The startup, based at the Texas Medical Center’s Innovation Hub, has attracted more than $5 million in funding.

“Nothing about our treatments is fabricated; it boils down to creating natural environments that mimic real-life infections, driving biological changes to create ‘super phages’ against the superbugs,” Amanda Burkardt, CEO of PHIOGEN, said in 2023. “As a result, we receive high-performing phage fighters that are trained and ready to deliver safe and effective treatments for clinical applications.”

Professional services firm KPMG is the main sponsor of SXSW Pitch.

Six of this year’s SXSW Pitch judges are from Houston:

  • Heath Butler of Mercury Fund
  • Jesse Martinez of LSA Global
  • Trevor Purvis of the Houston Astros
  • Anu Puvvada of KPMG
  • Irene Tang of StartOut
  • Nate Thompson of HTX Sports Tech

“2024 is an exciting year for startups, and we are looking forward to showcasing these inspiring companies that are making waves in their respective industries and the world as a whole, as well as help connect them with the resources needed to continue advancing,” says Chris Valentine, producer of SXSW Pitch.

Two Houston venture capitalists — Heath Butler and Stephanie Campbell — discussed how diversity and inclusion are force multipliers for investors and factoring that in is increasingly important. Photos courtesy

Houston experts: Diversity is key to venture capital success

force multiplying investments

Venture capital firms across the board have a goal of driving a return on their investments, but getting a good ROI and factoring in diversity and inclusion into the equation are not mutually exclusive.

In fact, on a panel at the HX Venture Fund's recent conference, Venture Houston, two investors focused on diversity and inclusion made the point that diversity is a key ingredient to successful investing. The panel, hosted by Michael Lipe, managing director at Insperity, consisted of Stephanie Campbell of The Artemis Fund and the Houston Angel Network and Heath Butler of Urban Capital Network and Mercury Fund.

"If you don't believe that diversity outperforms or that having diverse perspectives coming to the table helps your business outperform, then you probably have not been exposed to diverse thought," Campbell says on the panel.

And, as she continues, the proof is in the data "that diversity does outperform and can be a real force multiplier for your portfolio."

"In terms of returns, the Kauffman Fellows found that women-led teams generate 35 percent higher returns on investment than all-male-led teams," Campbell sites. "Pitchbook and All Raise found that women-led teams exit faster and at higher multiples than their all-male counterparts."

Butler recognizes that there's an emotional side of the discussion of diversity and inclusion — especially in this day and age — and that's nothing to disregard. But, he says, building onto that, VC is about discovering new opportunities — it's what VC funds' limited partners are expecting.

"From a more tangible perspective, we are in the business of finding untapped markets and opportunities to invest in and I believe our LPs expect us to leave no stone unturned," he says. "Ultimately you have to recognize that the hockey puck is moving in a direction where your LPs will require you to be looking under every stone to deliver a superior return."

Butler gives Mercury Fund as an example. At its founding, the team saw the middle of America as an untapped opportunity. The challenge is that investors tend to gravitate to ideas and people they know.

"So much of investing in early-stage innovation is intuitive, and investors will usually invest in what they know and resonates with them," Butler says. "But we have to recognize that there's a natural inefficiency in trying to relate intuitively to someone who's different from you."

The key is creating a team and mission with a clear intent and focus on measuring the impact. This goes down to hiring the right people with in your VC team as well as setting up a culture for diversity to succeed.

"If two hiring managers with similar needs," Butler says, "and one has a naturally inclusive mindset and the other feels pressure to meet a diversity quota — in the long run, which team will truly leverage and profit from a diverse perspective?"

Campbell says now is the time to invest in diversity — especially in Houston. During the pandemic, overall seed funding went up but funding for female founders reached a three-year low. Houston has a population doesn't have a racial majority — and that's what the entire country will look like in 2055, Campbell says.

"The opportunity we have in Houston to capitalize on diverse talent can really be a great opportunity to show the nation what can be done with that diverse talent pool," she says.

Houston also has an opportunity to support and invest in women or people of color who have been overlooked but have innovative solutions for society's most urgent problems.

"The more that we invest in diverse perspectives and diverse founders the more solutions, products, and services are going to come into the market for a broader populations and empower those economies to solve some of our deepest problems," Campbell says.

Both experts end on a call to action for their fellow investors: take inventory of the impact you have now and make intentional moves toward inclusion and equity — otherwise you're leaving money and talent on the table.

"If you don't have a diverse team, you don't have a diverse perspective, which means you have an incomplete perspective," Butler says. "You're missing out on opportunity to connect with people, purchasing power, and ultimately profits."

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Kathryn Worsham Humphries of All You Need Method, Heath Butler of Mercury Fund, and Serafina Lalany of HX. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three innovators who have tons to share — from recent venture capital data and observations to public relations and marketing tips for startups.

Kathryn Worsham Humphries, co-founder of All You Need Method

What does your company plan on bringing into the new year — and how do you plan to communicate your efforts? Photo courtesy of All You Need Method

It's a new year — and it's time for a new marketing and public relations plan for your startup. Thankfully, that's exactly what Houstonian Kathryn Worsham Humphries and her Los Angeles-based business partner Carla M. Nikitaidis specialize in with their new company, All You Need Method. The duo penned a guest column for InnovationMap last week with tips for refocusing on your target audience and prioritizing authenticity.

"Remember, these challenging times will pass," they write. "There is massive opportunity for the businesses and brands who are willing to reflect, pivot, and plan for a brighter future." Read more.

Heath Butler, network partner at Mercury Fund

Mercury Fund's Heath Butler joins the Houston Innovators Podcast this week to discuss Houston, venture capital, and more. Photo via mercuryfund.com

After 14 years at human resources company Insperity, Heath Butler has a specialty when it comes to thinking about the future of work. Butler was recently promoted within Mercury and the the move represents another aspect the firm is focusing on — something Butler discusses on last week's Houston Innovators Podcast episode.

"The world continues to be shaped by how the workforce and the workplace — and the actual work gets — done, and that couldn't have been put to the forefront more than during COVID," Butler says. "The promotion really reflects my focus on building out a very broad and deep theme for the firm around the future of work." Read more and stream the episode.

Serafina Lalany, chief of staff at Houston Exponential

HX has released a report on Houston venture capital. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Serafina Lalany and her team at Houston Exponential have crunched the numbers again to look at what sort of venture capital deals Houston startups brought in last year.

According to her report based on Pitch Book data, the Bayou City dredged up $715 million across 117 VC deals in 2020 — a year marked by challenges and opportunities from the pandemic and the oil price drop.

In the report, Lalany found that 2020 VC trends in Houston included fewer, larger deals and a rise in angel investment. Read more.

Mercury Fund's Heath Butler joins the Houston Innovators Podcast this week to discuss Houston, venture capital, and more. Photo via mercuryfund.com

Houston VC fund's new partner to grow focus on the future of work and underrepresented entrepreneurs

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 67

When Mercury Fund was founded in 2005, the goal was to focus on funding underrepresented entrepreneurs.

"The firm was really built around looking for the underrepresented entrepreneur and 15 years ago, that was just the middle of the country, because all the VC investments were on the coasts," says Heath Butler, network partner, on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "And over the years, the firm has continued to look for the blue ocean in the VC market."

Nowadays, that means also finding and funding female entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color. And Butler co-founded the Urban Capital Network — a group that aims to democratize VC funding by helping connect minority entrepreneurs and VC firms — to do just that.

Butler was recently promoted within Mercury and the the move represents another aspect the firm is focusing on: the future of work. Butler spent 14 years at Houston-based human resources service company, Insperity.

"The world continues to be shaped by how the workforce and the workplace — and the actual work gets — done, and that couldn't have been put to the forefront more than during COVID," Butler says. "The promotion really reflects my focus on building out a very broad and deep theme for the firm around the future of work."

Butler, who's on the board of several startups and hosts a monthly event with The Ion, is hands on with entrepreneurs and helps them make sure to keep their company culture front of mind as they grow.

"I grew up in an entrepreneurial family, led by my mother," he says. "I learned so much at such a young age around worth ethic and how the job of being an entrepreneur is."

Butler discusses more about his career and venture capital in Houston on the show. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


This week's innovators to know roundup includes Heath Butler and Samantha Lewis of Mercury Fund and Adam Kuspa of the Welch Foundation. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators across the city — each in their own ways financially support the region's top innovators.


Heath Butler and Samantha Lewis of Mercury Fund

Heath Butler has been promoted to managing director of Mercury Fund, and Samantha Lewis joins the firm as principal. Photos courtesy

Houston-based Mercury Fund, which focuses on early-stage startups located in central United States, announced the promotion of Heath Butler to managing director from network partner. Additionally, Samantha Lewis — formerly investment director at Houston-based Goose Capital — is joining the fund as principal.

"Over the past few years, we've continued to build our investment team with top talent from our ecosystem," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release.

"The promotion of Heath and the addition of Samantha will further Mercury's early-stage venture leadership in Middle America, and is illustrative of Mercury's deep commitment to diversity as a core value driver," continues Garrou. Click here to read more.

Adam Kuspa of The Welch Foundation

Adam Kuspa of The Welch Foundation joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the COVID-19 vaccine, materials science, and more. Photo courtesy of The Welch Foundation

It's been an interesting year for Adam Kuspa and the Welch Foundation as — just like any other organization — the pandemic has caused various disruptions for Kuspa and his team. At the same time, COVID-19 has forced an unprecedented public-private response from the medical community, the government, and more.

"I'm very proud of the scientific enterprise in this country and around the world — they way it's been supported, developed, and maintained over the years — to allow for something like this be even contemplated," Kuspa says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Over the last 40 to 50 years, researchers in the fields immunology, vaccine research, protein biochemistry, and more, have seen increased support, Kuspa says, and that's what made a difference in the pandemic and allowed for a vaccine to emerge so quickly. Click here to read more and to listen to the episode.

Heath Butler has been promoted to managing director of Mercury Fund, and Samantha Lewis joins the firm as principal. Photos courtesy

Houston venture capital firm makes strategic hire and promotion

fund news

A Houston-based venture capital firm has made some moves in its personnel. Mercury Fund has made one new hire and one promotion.

Mercury Fund, which focuses on early-stage startups located in central United States, announced the promotion of Heath Butler to managing director from network partner. Additionally, Samantha Lewis — formerly investment director at Houston-based Goose Capital — is joining the fund as principal.

"Over the past few years, we've continued to build our investment team with top talent from our ecosystem," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release.

"The promotion of Heath and the addition of Samantha will further Mercury's early-stage venture leadership in Middle America, and is illustrative of Mercury's deep commitment to diversity as a core value driver," continues Garrou.

Butler joined Mercury over a year ago and has over 20 years of experience in the Houston startup ecosystem. A serial entrepreneur, he recently co-founded Houston-based Urban Capital Network, an angel investment group dedicated to democratizing capital and wealth generation for underrepresented investors. In his new role, he will continue this work to engage underrepresented founders in the community for Mercury Fund.

Meanwhile, Lewis — a Rice University MBA graduate — joins Mercury from a few years serving Goose Capital, a group of high-networth investors and serial entrepreneurs. At Goose, Lewis was responsible for leading deal sourcing, structuring, and portfolio management. Formerly a startup founder herself, Lewis will be responsible for assisting in in the review and diligence of new early-stage investment opportunities and continues to improve and diversify Mercury's deal sourcing processes.

Mercury Fund was founded in 2005 in Houston by Garrou and Dan Watkins. The firm has an office in Ann Harbor, Michigan, and has funded several Houston-founded startups, including Spruce, Ambyint, and more.

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New Houston venture studio emerges to target early-stage hardtech, energy transition startups

funding the future

The way Doug Lee looks at it, there are two areas within the energy transition attracting capital. With his new venture studio, he hopes to target an often overlooked area that's critical for driving forward net-zero goals.

Lee describes investment activity taking place in the digital and software world — early stage technology that's looking to make the industry smarter. But, on the other end of the spectrum, investment activity can be found on massive infrastructure projects.

While both areas need funding, Lee has started his new venture studio, Flathead Forge, to target early-stage hardtech technologies.

“We are really getting at the early stage companies that are trying to develop technologies at the intersection of legacy industries that we believe can become more sustainable and the energy transition — where we are going. It’s not an ‘if’ or ‘or’ — we believe these things intersect,” he tells EnergyCapital.

Specifically, Lee's expertise is within the water and industrial gas space. For around 15 years, he's made investments in this area, which he describes as crucial to the energy transition.

“Almost every energy transition technology that you can point to has some critical dependency on water or gas,” he says. “We believe that if we don’t solve for those things, the other projects won’t survive.”

Lee, and his brother, Dave, are evolving their family office to adopt a venture studio model. They also sold off Azoto Energy, a Canadian oilfield nitrogen cryogenic services business, in December.

“We ourselves are going through a transition like our energy is going through a transition,” he says. “We are transitioning into a single family office into a venture studio. By doing so, we want to focus all of our access and resources into this focus.”

At this point, Flathead Forge has seven portfolio companies and around 15 corporations they are working with to identify their needs and potential opportunities. Lee says he's gearing up to secure a $100 million fund.

Flathead also has 40 advisers and mentors, which Lee calls sherpas — a nod to the Flathead Valley region in Montana, which inspired the firm's name.

“We’re going to help you carry up, we’re going to tie ourselves to the same rope as you, and if you fall off the mountain, we’re falling off with you,” Lee says of his hands-on approach, which he says sets Flathead apart from other studios.

Another thing that's differentiating Flathead Forge from its competition — it's dedication to giving back.

“We’ve set aside a quarter of our carried interest for scholarships and grants,” Lee says.

The funds will go to scholarships for future engineers interested in the energy transition, as well as grants for researchers studying high-potential technologies.

“We’re putting our own money where our mouth is,” Lee says of his thesis for Flathead Forge.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston-based lunar mission's rocky landing and what it means for America's return to the moon

houston, we have a problem

A private U.S. lunar lander tipped over at touchdown and ended up on its side near the moon’s south pole, hampering communications, company officials said Friday.

Intuitive Machines initially believed its six-footed lander, Odysseus, was upright after Thursday's touchdown. But CEO Steve Altemus said Friday the craft “caught a foot in the surface," falling onto its side and, quite possibly, leaning against a rock. He said it was coming in too fast and may have snapped a leg.

“So far, we have quite a bit of operational capability even though we’re tipped over," he told reporters.

But some antennas were pointed toward the surface, limiting flight controllers' ability to get data down, Altemus said. The antennas were stationed high on the 14-foot (4.3-meter) lander to facilitate communications at the hilly, cratered and shadowed south polar region.

Odysseus — the first U.S. lander in more than 50 years — is thought to be within a few miles (kilometers) of its intended landing site near the Malapert A crater, less than 200 miles (300 kilometers) from the south pole. NASA, the main customer, wanted to get as close as possible to the pole to scout out the area before astronauts show up later this decade.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will attempt to pinpoint the lander's location, as it flies overhead this weekend.

With Thursday’s touchdown, Intuitive Machines became the first private business to pull off a moon landing, a feat previously achieved by only five countries. Japan was the latest country to score a landing, but its lander also ended up on its side last month.

Odysseus' mission was sponsored in large part by NASA, whose experiments were on board. NASA paid $118 million for the delivery under a program meant to jump-start the lunar economy.

One of the NASA experiments was pressed into service when the lander's navigation system did not kick in. Intuitive Machines caught the problem in advance when it tried to use its lasers to improve the lander's orbit. Otherwise, flight controllers would not have discovered the failure until it was too late, just five minutes before touchdown.

“Serendipity is absolutely the right word,” mission director Tim Crain said.

It turns out that a switch was not flipped before flight, preventing the system's activation in space.

Launched last week from Florida, Odysseus took an extra lap around the moon Thursday to allow time for the last-minute switch to NASA's laser system, which saved the day, officials noted.

Another experiment, a cube with four cameras, was supposed to pop off 30 seconds before touchdown to capture pictures of Odysseus’ landing. But Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s EagleCam was deliberately powered off during the final descent because of the navigation switch and stayed attached to the lander.

Embry-Riddle's Troy Henderson said his team will try to release EagleCam in the coming days, so it can photograph the lander from roughly 26 feet (8 meters) away.

"Getting that final picture of the lander on the surface is still an incredibly important task for us,” Henderson told The Associated Press.

Intuitive Machines anticipates just another week of operations on the moon for the solar-powered lander — nine or 10 days at most — before lunar nightfall hits.

The company was the second business to aim for the moon under NASA's commercial lunar services program. Last month, Pittsburgh's Astrobotic Technology gave it a shot, but a fuel leak on the lander cut the mission short and the craft ended up crashing back to Earth.

Until Thursday, the U.S. had not landed on the moon since Apollo 17's Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closed out NASA's famed moon-landing program in December 1972. NASA's new effort to return astronauts to the moon is named Artemis after Apollo's mythological twin sister. The first Artemis crew landing is planned for 2026 at the earliest.

3 female Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

If the energy transition is going to be successful, the energy storage space needs to be equipped to support both the increased volume of energy needed and new energies. And Emma Konet and her software company, Tierra Climate, are targeting one part of the equation: the market.

"To me, it's very clear that we need to build a lot of energy storage in order to transition the grid," Konet says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The problems that I saw were really on the market side of things." Read more.

Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. Photo courtesy of Sage

A Houston geothermal startup has announced the close of its series A round of funding.

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. The proceeds aim to fund its first commercial geopressured geothermal system facility, which will be built in Texas in Q4 of 2024. According to the company, the facility will be the first of its kind.

“The first close of our Series A funding and our commercial facility are significant milestones in our mission to make geopressured geothermal system technologies a reality,” Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems, says. Read more.

Clemmie Martin, chief of staff at The Cannon

With seven locations across the Houston area, The Cannon's digital technology allows its members a streamlined connection. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

After collaborating over the years, The Cannon has acquired a Houston startup's digital platform technology to become a "physical-digital hybrid" community.

Village Insights, a Houston startup, worked with The Cannon to create and launch its digital community platform Cannon Connect. Now, The Cannon has officially acquired the business. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“The integration of a world-class onsite member experience and Cannon Connect’s superior virtual resource network creates a seamless, streamlined environment for member organizations,” Clemmie Martin, The Cannon’s newly appointed chief of staff, says in the release. “Cannon Connect and this acquisition have paved new pathways to access and success for all.” Read more.