Here's what student-founded startups are leaving CERAWeek with fresh funding. Photo courtesy of HETI

For the third year, the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Institute hosted its startup pitch competition at CERAWeek by S&P Global. A dozen startups walked away with recognition — and three some with cash prizes.

HETI joined partners Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship and TEX-E for the 2024 Energy Venture Day and Pitch Competition at CERAWeek on Wednesday, March 20. Forty-two companies, which have collectively raised over $265 million in investment funding already, pitched to judges. Nine startups won awards across three tracks.

TEX-E, a Texas nonprofit that supports student-founded upstarts, had five of its companies pitch and three winners walked away with monetary prizes. Teams that competed in the TEX-E Prize track, many of which come from Houston universities, include:

  • AirMax, University of Texas at Austin
  • BeadBlocker, University of Houston
  • Carvis Energy Solutions, Texas A&M University
  • Coflux Purification, Rice University
  • Solidec, Rice University

Solidec, which is working on a platform to produce chemicals from captured carbon, won first place and $25,000. The company also recently scored a $100,000 grant from Rice's One Small Step Grant program, as well as a voucher from the DOE. Coflux Purification, which has a technology that destroys PFAS in filtration, won second place and$15,000. The company also secured a One Small Step Grant to the tune of $80,000. AirMax, which focuses on optimizing sustainability for air conditioning equipment, won third place and $10,000.

Last year, Houston-based Helix Earth Technologies took home the top TEX-E price and $25,000 cash awards. The venture, founded by Rawand Rasheed and Brad Husick from Rice University, developed high-speed, high-efficiency filter systems derived from technology originating at NASA.

The rest of the companies that pitched competed for non-monetary awards. Here's what companies won:

  • Group A (CCUS, oilfield solutions, analytics and minerals):
    • First place: Ardent
    • Second place: Vaulted Deep
    • Third place: Mitico
  • Group B (batteries, renewables, water, and grid technology):
    • First place: SungreenH2
    • Second place: FeX Energy
    • Third place: Mercurius Biorefining
  • Group C (Mobility, Materials, and hydrogen solutions)
    • First place: Thiozen
    • Second place: Power2Hydrogen
    • Third place: Arolytics
HETI, Rice Alliance, and TEX-E celebrated the winners at a private reception on Wednesday evening.
Houston is in the running to receive millions from a program from the National Science Foundation. Photo via Getty Images

Houston named semifinalist for major energy transition funding opportunity

making moves

The National Science Foundation announced 34 semifinalists for a regional innovation program that will deploy up to $160 million in federal funding over the next 10 years. Among the list of potential regions to receive this influx of capital is Houston.

The Greater Houston Partnership and the Houston Energy Transition Initiative developed the application for the NSF Regional Innovation Engine competition in collaboration with economic, civic, and educational leaders from across the city and five regional universities, including the University of Houston, The University of Texas at Austin, Texas Southern University, Rice University, and Texas A&M University.

The proposed project for Houston — called the Accelerating Carbon-Neutral Technologies and Policies for Energy Transition, or ACT, Engine — emphasizes developing sustainable and equitable opportunities for innovators and entrepreneurs while also pursuing sustainable and equitable energy access for all.

“The ACT Engine will leverage our diverse energy innovation ecosystem and talent, creating a true competitive advantage for existing and new energy companies across our region," says Jane Stricker, senior vice president of energy transition and executive director for HETI, in a statement. "Texas is leading the way in nearly every energy and energy transition solution, and this Engine can catalyze our region’s continued growth in low-carbon technology development and deployment."

If Houston's proposal is selected as a finalist, it could receive up to $160 million over 10 years. The final list of NSF Engines awards is expected this fall, and, according to a release, each awardee will initially receiving about $15 million for the first two years.

"Each of these NSF Engines semifinalists represents an emerging hub of innovation and lends their talents and resources to form the fabric of NSF's vision to create opportunities everywhere and enable innovation anywhere," NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan says in a news release. "These teams will spring ideas, talent, pathways and resources to create vibrant innovation ecosystems all across our nation."

The NSF selected its 34 semifinalists from 188 original applicants, and the next step for Houston is a virtual site visit that will assess competitive advantages, budget and resource plans for R&D and workforce development, and the proposed leadership’s ability to mobilize plans into action over the first two years.

"Houston is poised, like no other city, to lead the energy transition. The ACT Engine presents a remarkable opportunity to not only leverage the region's unparalleled energy resources and expertise but also harness our can-do spirit. Houston has a proven track record of embracing challenges and finding innovative solutions,” says Renu Khator, president of the University of Houston, in the statement. “Through the collaborative efforts facilitated by the ACT Engine, I am confident that we can make significant strides towards creating a sustainable future that harmonizes economic growth, environmental protection and social equity."

NSF Engines will announce awards this fall after a round of in-person interviews of finalists named in July. With Houston's track record for building thriving industry hubs in energy, health care, aerospace, and the culinary arts, the region is eager to establish the next generation of leaders and dreamers responding to some of the greatest economic and societal challenges ever seen in America.

“Our energy innovation ecosystem is inclusive, dynamic, and fast growing," says Barbara Burger, energy transition adviser and former Chevron executive, in the release. "The ACT Engine has the potential to increase the amount of innovation coming into the ecosystem and the capabilities available to scale technologies needed in the energy transition. I am confident that the members of the ecosystem — incubators, accelerators, investors, universities, and corporates — are ready for the challenge that the ACT Engine will provide."

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

EnergyCapitalHTX is now live and reporting on Houston's role in the energy transition. Photo via Getty Images

Gow Media's media platform launches to report on Houston energy transition news

it's go time

Houston's newest media platform has officially gone live.

EnergyCapitalHTX.com, originally announced in March, is now up and running. Houston-based Gow Media, a multi-platform media company and the parent company of InnovationMap, CultureMap, SportsMap, and ESPN Radio 97.5FM and 92.5FM, launched the site tonight at an event at Gow Media's office.

“We are excited to roll out our new outlet, EnergyCapitalHTX.com. We have been very impressed by Houston’s efforts to lead the global transition of energy and to address the 'dual challenge' of meeting the world’s growing demand for energy while at the same time reducing carbon emissions,” says David Gow, CEO of Gow Media.

“On our new site, we plan to provide informative, unbiased coverage of the Houston-based initiatives, spanning big corporations and startups," he continues. "We hope that a site dedicated to the transition will bring visibility to the city’s substantive progress and to the path forward.”

The site will cover Houston's energy transition ecosystem — the people, companies, capital sources, and numerous initiatives in Houston. Lindsey Ferrell serves as the inaugural editor of the site.

The site’s inaugural sponsor is HETI, which launched in 2021. Led by Executive Director Jane Stricker, HETI was founded to drive economic growth in the Houston area within the energy transition toward a lower carbon future.

“We are excited to support Gow Media with the launch EnergyCapitalHTX.com,” Stricker says in an earlier news release. "There is so much innovative and exciting activity in our ecosystem. Houston is the Energy Capital of the World, and this platform will amplify the energy leadership that is already happening here.”

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Houston investors back new platform for retail traders looking to follow financial influencers

making a splash

As anyone who witnessed the impact Gamestop's meme stock had on the country already realizes, influential investors can drive momentum within the financial sector. And one company with fresh funding from a Houston firm is betting on that exactly.

CashPool is a new mobile platform that gives everyday investors the opportunity to derive influence from the investment strategies and trades made by trusted and influential stock traders who have built substantial followings on social media platforms. By allowing retail traders the chance to join social media influencers’ various “pools” on its platform, CashPool is primed to change the way the masses acquire wealth.

This is the kind of algorithmic trading aimed at a new generation of investors that gets the attention of early-stage venture capital funds like Houston-based Ten X Labs, a pre-seed angel fund that recently invested in CashPool to help the trading platform continue its mission of transforming the investment landscape.

"We are thrilled to receive funding from Ten X Labs, as it validates our innovative approach to trading and investing," CashPool Founder and CEO Averett Barksdale says in a news release. "This investment will enable us to further enhance our platform, expand our user base and continue to revolutionize the industry. We believe that everyone should have transparent, governed access to profitable trading and investment opportunities, and through CashPool we are making that vision a reality."

Connecting the dots

CashPool is broker agnostic connector, allowing its users to keep their current brokers like Robinhood, Coinbase, Charles Schwab, Acorns, Fidelity, ETRADE, Stash, Sofi and Betterment and creates a seamless investment experience.

“We are that middle piece,” says Barksdale. “So your money stays on whatever brokerage you’ve connected to the platform, and we just execute the trades on your brokerage for you.”

Considering that users’ money remains with their original brokerage, how does CashPool monetize its platform?

“We don’t charge users to execute trades,” says Barksdale. “We charge per pool you join. So, on our platform, strategies are called pools and a user can join as many strategies as they want.”

Financial influencers set the strategies. These are profitable traders who have become influencers on various social media platforms and built-up followings comprised of people who are or are desiring to be retail traders themselves.

“There are a ton of people out there who actually are profitable traders,” says Barksdale. “Same as what we saw happen with GameStop and the whole Reddit situation. That was a financial influencer, right? It just so happens that he had a strategy that he thought would work and it turned out for a while it did work, right?

“We want to not only empower the retail trader, but empower these financial influencers who are profitable as well. Just because it's a whole marketplace out there for it. But a lot of times the retail trader doesn't quite understand who to go with. On our platform, you could see the results of these financial influencers right before your eyes on our platform. So you can see if they're profitable or not, or if someone's just on Instagram or whatever, social media platform posting screenshots but aren’t actually executing those trades.”

Increasing transparency

With trading, past success can be an arbiter for future performance, so with CashPool, users can choose to join the pools of influencers who have documented success as a trader on the platform.

“On our platform you can't hide,” says Barksdale. “We're connected to their brokerage account, so we see what trades they're making in real time. We also see their performance in real time, and we display that on the platform. That's something that you really can't get around. So if someone on Instagram says they traded this stock, then I made X amount of dollars and had this percentage of return, then you go to the platform and look at your pool and see they didn't do that and were lying the whole time, it’s literally just putting everything out there in the open. We have the kind of transparency that doesn't exist currently right now in the space.”

Broadcasting one’s successes is easy, but what about the losses?

“I thought it was going to be a lot more difficult just thinking, do people really want to show what they're doing?” says Barksdale. “But the thing that I've seen is a lot of these traders are a whole lot more competitive. And the traders who are doing it, they're constantly talking out against people who aren't actually doing it in real life.

“A lot of the traders who are actually profitable, they do live trades every day. But how do users if they should pay to get into a specific trader’s live trading session? Like, how do they know they're profitable already?

“On CashPool, users can see an actual influencer's win rate and say, 'Okay, 86 percent of the time they are profitable, and I could see how many trades they've made in total.' From that standpoint, users can make an educated decision on what pools to join and pay for.”

CashPool users can join as many pools as they see fit, but the cost of each pool’s membership may vary due to the popularity or success percentage rate of the financial influencer.

“You can join as many pools as you want, but what we suggest is you start by joining the pools of influencers that you already follow and trust, that you're already following like on Twitter or YouTube or Instagram or whatever it may be,” says Barksdale. “We are suggesting that you follow them first and you join their pools first. What we do is on the monetization side is we allow the creators on our platform who are the influencers to set their own price for their pool.”

Building a secure network

Outside of who or what to follow, information security is likely a concern for potential users. Financial influencers’ trade information is readily available (win percentages and number of trades, not dollar amounts), but users’ won’t be able to see other users’ information on the platform.

“Currently, we have a list of 10 brokerages who are on board, and then we're working to onboard more as we keep going on,” says Barksdale. “So, we have like your Interactive brokerages, and we also have a few other ones that are UK specific and Canada specific. We would love to have every single brokerage on the platform, but unfortunately, there are a couple that are still kind of playing hard to get, so to speak.”

The first rollout of CashPool is set, but version two will likely include content creation from the financial influencers.

Barksdale, who has a background in product development and experience working at companies like Charles Schwab and Fidelity, is mostly excited about the prospect of CashPool unlocking expert financial strategies for everyone, not just the financial advisors behind the closed doors of Wall Street.

“Yes, my philosophy is that financial health and financial growth should be accessible for all,” says Barksdale. “The thing that gets me is it needs to be responsible. So, for example, RobinHood is a platform that doesn't necessarily care if you are making responsible decisions, they just care that you're trading on that platform.

“Our platform is strictly focused on actually being the place where these retail traders can make responsible decisions centered around investing and trading.”

Tech companies contribute to recovery fund for those affected by Houston storm

helping hands

The past month in Houston has been marked by severe flooding and a sudden storm that left nearly a million residents without power. The Houston Disaster Alliance has established the Severe Weather and Derecho Recovery Fund to help those impacted by the weather.

“The Greater Houston Disaster Alliance was formed so that in times of crisis, there is a swift and efficient response to help those severely impacted begin the process of recovery,” said Stephen Maislin, president and CEO, Greater Houston Community Foundation. “When disaster strikes, it requires a collaborative and coordinated response from the nonprofit, for-profit, public sector, and philanthropic community to ensure the most vulnerable in our region get the help they need to start the recovery and rebuilding process.”

At least a million dollars has been donated to the fund, courtesy of $500,000 from the CenterPoint Energy Foundation and another $500,000 from Comcast. With Houston now a federally declared disaster area by President Joe Biden, impacted residents are able to apply for various grants and aid.

Those still struggling from the weather events should call the 211 Texas/United Way HELPLINE. Assistance is available for housing, utilities, food, elder assistance, and other areas. Crisis counseling is also available.

“Outside of times of disaster, we know that 14 percent of households in our region are struggling on income below the federal poverty line and 31 percent of households in our region are working hard but struggling to make ends meet. It’s these neighbors who are disproportionately impacted when disaster strikes,” said Amanda McMillian, president and CEO, United Way of Greater Houston. “This fund allows us to lift up the most vulnerable who have been impacted by recent weather events to ensure they can not only recover from the immediate crisis, but also prepare themselves for future disasters.”

The derecho storm that hit Houston on Thursday, May 16 had wind gusts up to 100mph. Nearly a million people in the Houston area were left without power, and as of Wednesday CenterPoint was still working to restore electricity to more than 60,000 people. Photos showed that the storm toppled massive power pylons, took down trees, and even ripped the sides off buildings. Miniature tornadoes touched down in parts of the city, adding to the devastation.

The Houston Disaster Alliance was launched in 2023 as a joint effort between the Greater Houston Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Houston to help mitigate the damage of weather crises year-round. This has become increasingly necessary as Houston's weather has become more unpredictable than ever.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.