3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Kerri Smith of the Rice Alliance, Trevor Best of Syzygy Plasmonics, and Muriel Foster of gBETA Houston. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from cleantech to startup acceleration — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Kerri Smith, managing director of the Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator

Kerri Smith of the Rice Alliance joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Rice's Clean Energy Accelerator. Photo courtesy of Rice

As the managing director for the Rice Alliance for Entrepreneurship and Technology's Clean Energy Accelerator, Kerri Smith is focused not only on the program's cohorts but on supporting the Houston cleantech ecosystem as a whole. CEA works with Greentown Houston, which is just next door to the program's home at The Ion, and the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Initiative.

"Rice Alliance has a strong history of demonstrating collaboration with a number of organizations," Smith says. "I think one of the primary benefits that we have in these collaborative opportunities is to ensure that we are collectively building a capable and diverse pipeline of talent to solve for these problems and provide them with access to experiencing all of the benefits of our ecosystem."

Smith shares more about what she's looking for in the second cohort of CEA on a recent Houston Innovators Podcast episode, as well as what she sees as Houston's role in the energy transition. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Trevor Best, co-founder and CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics

Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the growth of his cleantech startup. Photo courtesy of Syzygy

Trevor Best is gearing up to fundraise for and scale his cleantech startup, Syzygy Plasmonics. The company has also grown its team to 60 people and is preparing to move into a new 45,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Pearland this summer.

"What we're seeing is the market's appetite for our kind of technology — deep tech for decarbonization in energy and chemicals — is really high. If we want to meet global demand for our product, we need to get ready to scale," Best says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Best is keeping a close eye what the market will be looking for, and the interest seems to be in hydrogen as a clean energy solution, which has positioned Syzygy in a great place. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Muriel Foster, director of gBETA Houston

Muriel Foster, a native Houstonian, is the new director of gBETA Houston. Image via LinkedIn

A national startup accelerator has announced its fifth local cohort, which includes five Houston companies participating in the spring 2022 class, and the new leader that will oversee the program. Muriel Foster is the newly named director of gBETA Houston, which is designed to help guide early-stage startups find early customer traction, connect with mentors, and more.

“The five companies selected for the Spring 2022 cohort tackle unique problems that have propelled them to create a business that solves the issues they once faced," Foster says in a news release. "From public speaking, apparel comfort, and food delivery from underrepresented restaurant owners, these founders have found their niche and are ready to continue to make an enormous impact on the Houston ecosystem."

A Houston native, she has her master’s in public administration from Texas Southern University and a bachelor’s in marketing from Oklahoma State University. Her background includes work in the nonprofit sector and international business consulting in Cape Town, South Africa, and she's worked within programming at organizations such as MassChallenge, BLCK VC, and now gener8tor. Click here to read more.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Kevin Coker of Proxima CRO, Gaurab Chakrabarti of Solugen, and Phil Sitter and Chris Chomenko of RepeatMD. Courtesy photos

4 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to four local innovators across industries — from marketing tech to synthetic biology — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Kevin Coker, CEO and co-founder of Proxima CRO, and Gaurab Chakrabarti, CEO and co-founder of Solugen

First Bight VC named two Houstonians to its board. Photos courtesy

First Bight Ventures, a new VC firm focused exclusively on early-stage synthetic biology startups founded by Veronica Wu in January, has named two new board members: Gaurab Chakrabarti, co-founder and CEO of Solugen, and Kevin Cocker, co-founder and CEO of Proxima CRO.

"We are excited to announce the addition of Dr. Gaurab Chakrabarti and Kevin Cocker," Wu says in a press release. "These two advisors are experts in their respective fields of medicine and biotechnology. They are proven leaders of Houston-based companies, which is key to our overall growth strategy, as we seek to establish Houston as a geographic center for innovation in Synthetic Biology." Click here to read more.

RepeatMD's CEO Phil Sitter and Vice President of Sales Chris Chomenko

RepeatMD's CEO Phil Sitter and Vice President of Sales Chris Chomenko join the Houston Innovators Podcast to explain how they are revolutionizing the aesthetics industry. Photos courtesy

Houston restaurateur pivoted his restaurant marketing business amid the pandemic — to a growing industry: aesthetics. Phil Sitter took the idea and tech he created with VIPInsiders to launch RepeatMD, a customizable marketing and fintech platform focused on the aesthetics industry, which includes plastic surgeons, dermatologists, etc.

Sitter, who serves as the company's CEO, says once he dived into learning about the industry, he found out these types of business are seeing incredible growth following the pandemic.

"They call it the 'Zoom boom' — everyone saw themselves on Zoom daily and decided to invest in themselves and their facial treatments." says Chris Chomenko, vice president of sales for the company, on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"And they had the time," Sitter adds. "When you think about aesthetic procedures — whether its invasive or non-invasive, it takes time for recovery." Click here to read more.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Enrique Gomez of Texas Medical Center Innovation, Katie Eick of Rockin' Pets Rollin' Vets, and Jim Gable of Chevron. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from health care innovation to energy — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Enrique Gomez, entrepreneur in residence at Texas Medical Center Innovation

Enrique Gomez joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Houston as an oncology innovation hub. Photo via TMC.edu

When it comes to leading oncology innovation, Houston has a seat at the table, Enrique Gomez, entrepreneur in residence at Texas Medical Center Innovation's Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"Houston is a place where everyone looks at when it comes to novel research and approaches to treating cancer," Gomez says. "The landscape here is going to be accelerated because we see much more collaboration between the founding institutions — and that's a very important element of growth. Houston has no comparison to any other place in terms of what's going on here and the level and quality of research." Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Katie Eick, founder of Rollin' Vets

Katie Eick always wanted to be able to offer mobile services. Photo courtesy of Rollin' Vets

Houston-based Rockin' Pets, Rollin' Vets, a full-service mobile veterinary clinic based in Houston, has closed a $5 million equity raise with plans to expand across the Lone Star State. Founded by Dr. Katie Eick, who is the company's CEO, Rollin’ Vets Group flips the switch on pet health care by bringing vets to its patients' homes.

This fresh funding helps Eick take that first step toward expansion. According to a news release, Rockin’ Pets, Rollin’ Vets expects to have a presence in Dallas and Austin by March of next year.

“This equity raise allows us to not only hire additional talent, but also increase our mobile clinic fleet, while expanding into other cities at an expedited rate. There is a vast opportunity to serve animals and people that need non-traditional veterinary care in other Texas markets. We are ready to tap into these markets and bring convenient, state-of-the-art care straight to pet owners’ doorsteps,” says Eick in the release. Click here to read more.

Jim Gable, incoming vice president of innovation and president of Chevron Technology Ventures

Barbara Burger has led Chevron's innovation efforts for almost a decade and is passing the responsibilities to Jim Gable. Photo courtesy

Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures, is retiring, and passing the role to Jim Gable.

Gable brings his 23 years of experience to the role. Based in Chevron's office on the West Coast, he will be relocating to Houston, per the release. He currently oversees the development and deployment of downstream-related technology for Chevron.

“CTV has a 22-year history of investing in startups across a wide cross section of energy innovation and a track record of collaboration to bring innovation to scale,” Bonner continues. “Jim’s experience at Chevron is deep and diverse. Combined with his technology commercialization experience with CTV early in his career, as well as in his current role, Jim is poised to lead CTV to even greater success.” Click here to read more.

Clemmie Pierce Martin will oversee marketing and strategy for Houston Exponential. Photo via LinkedIn

Exclusive: Houston Exponential makes strategic marketing hire

innovator to know

Houston Exponential has made another new hire. Clemmie Pierce Martin has joined Houston Exponential as director of marketing and strategy. The nonprofit helps spur the growth of Houston’s innovation ecosystem.

She most recently was director of strategic partnerships and products at Houston-based startup Goodfair, which operates an online thrift store. Before that, she was head of client success at Austin-based startup Mesa Cloud, which offers a platform for tracking student progress.

Martin, who grew up in Houston and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin and Houston’s The Kinkaid School, says her new employer “sees the potential in Houston and our startup ecosystem that I’ve always felt was underserved and underrepresented nationally. I couldn’t be more excited to join a team that is working tirelessly to make sure that for founders and startups anywhere in the world, Houston is not just a choice but rather the clear choice of venue.”

Martin is a great-niece of the late President George H.W. and the late first lady Barbara Bush.

Serafina Lalany, the new executive director of Houston Exponential (HX), says Martin’s experience with startups “is an invaluable asset to the organization.”

“Her insights and experiences … couldn’t be more fitting for HX’s mission to lower the barrier of entry for early stage startups in the city,” Lalany says in a news release.

Lalany became executive director of HX in September. She had been the organization’s vice president of operations and chief of staff. Lalany succeeds Harvin Moore, who resigned this summer as president and CEO of the four-year-old nonprofit.

Earlier this month, HX named Ivery Boston III as director of inclusive innovation. He previously worked for the Miami Downtown Development Authority.

Aside from the new hires, the organization recently restructured its board of directors. The board transitioned to a more informal “convening” board, and an executive committee now oversees HX’s operations.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Remington Tonar of Cart.com, Joey Sanchez of The Ion, and P.J. Popovic of Rhythm. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from e-commerce to energy — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Remington Tonar, chief commercial officer of Cart.com

With $150M in VC raise, this Houston company is re-envisioning the future of e-commerce operations Remington Tonar of Cart.com joins the Houston Innovators Podcast this week. Photo via Cart.com

In a world where Amazon dominated the e-commerce world, Cart.com is offering merchants but an alternative and a supplemental tool.

As Remington Tonar, chief commercial officer of Cart.com, explains on the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Cart.com connects the dots for e-commerce companies, and, in fact, works alongside Amazon, too. While Cart.com clients can use the suite of software services to create their own shop, ship out of Cart.com's distribution centers, etc., they can also list their products on Amazon too.

"I like to view Amazon as co-op-etition. We can coexist with Amazon," Tonar says on the show. "We're not antithetical to Amazon. We're not mutually exclusive. We can work with folks who are selling on Amazon to build their direct-to-consumer business, and we are doing that today." Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Joey Sanchez, senior director of ecosystems at The Ion

Joey Sanchez is now the senior director of ecosystems at The Ion. Photo via HX.com

Joey Sanchez, who's worked in corporate partnerships for Houston Exponential for a few years, has hopped over and into a new role at The Ion.

In his new role, he will work with the Houston early-stage investing and startup community, including founders, early-stage startups, scaled startups, early-stage angel investors, venture capital investors, and corporate partners, to grow the Ion's presence in Houston.

"Houston and Texas are seeing unprecedented growth in tech and innovation. I am excited for the opportunity to continue building and supporting the Houston innovation ecosystem," says Sanchez the release. "An ecosystem needs harmony among all aspects involved, and I have always enjoyed connecting people. The overarching goal remains to build a vibrant ecosystem that supports a high frequency of connections between critical stakeholders to realize outsized success." Click here to read more.

​P.J. Popovic, CEO of Houston-based Rhythm

P.J. Popovic, CEO of Houston-based Rhythm, explains Renewable Energy Certificates work and their impact on Texas. Photo courtesy of Rhythm

What are RECs and what difference do they make? P.J. Popovic, CEO of Houston-based Rhythm, shares his expertise on Renewable Energy Certificates in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"Through PPAs, various risks, credit needs, and long-term commitments create challenges for many organizations to meet their sustainability goals. So, while RECs do not provide as material of a market signal as PPAs, with the recent changes in market prices, RECs can now be considered a meaningful, profitable market signal for renewable projects." Click here to read the article.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Amy Chronis of Deloitte, James Reinstein of Saranas, and Tatiana Fofanova of Koda Health. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from energy to health tech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Amy Chronis, Houston managing partner of Deloitte LLP

The Houston location is one of six Greenhouses in the U.S. and one of 40 around the world. Photo courtesy Deloitte/AlexandersPortraits.com

Co-located with the company's downtown Houston headquarters, the 14,000-square-foot Deloitte Greenhouse is intended to help executives plant and foster new ways of thinking, working, and experimenting in the energy industry.

Amy Chronis, Houston managing partner, at Deloitte LLP, says that as the energy capital of the world, Houston is an ideal location for one of six Greenhouses in the U.S. and one of 40 around the world.

"The oil and gas industry is at a crossroads where business transformation is no longer an option," says Chronis. "We are providing a controlled, safe environment for companies to experiment and test various workforce, technology and market scenarios to help them right-size and future-proof their businesses in this rapidly changing landscape." Click here to read more.

James Reinstein, president and CEO of Saranas

James Reinstein joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss what's next for growing medical device company, Saranas. Photo courtesy

When James Reinstein took the helm of Houston-based Saranas in March 2020, he was tasked with taking the medical device company through its series B funding round and into larger clinical trials. Navigating these tasks during a global pandemic wasn't part of the plan.

"There was just so much uncertainty," Reinstein says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "All of the funds didn't know which end was up, what hospitals would be doing, what procedures were going to begin again."

Saranas received FDA approval and began its clinical trials for its Early Bird Bleed Monitoring System in 2019. The device is designed to detect and track bleeding complications related to endovascular procedures. These medical procedures treat problems, such as aneurysms, that affect blood vessels. Around 20 percent of patients suffer a bleeding complication during endovascular procedures. Click here to read more.

Tatiana Fofanova, co-founder and CEO of Koda Health

Koda Health, Houston, uses AI to help guide difficult conversations in health care, starting with end-of-life care planning. Image via LinkedIn

Founded by Tatiana Fofanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry, Koda Health uses AI to help patients create advance medical care directives and documents—such as a living will—through an easy to use web-based interface.

The app then autogenerates legal and medical documents, which patients can notarize or electronically witness the forms through the app or on their own.

According to Fofanova, who earned her PhD in in Molecular Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and now acts as the company's CEO, what historically has been a time consuming and expensive process, through Koda Health, takes an average of 17 minutes and is completely free of charge to the end user.

"We hope to reduce any outstanding barriers to access that might exist," Fofanova says. "It is very frequently the oldest and the poorest that are the highest utilizers of health care that don't have access to these solutions." Click here to read more.

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Houston innovator joins VC world to increase her social impact

Q&A

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Houston college system plans to open $30M resiliency-focused center

to the rescue

Houston’s initiative to protect the city from catastrophes is getting a big boost from Houston Community College.

The college is developing the Resilience Center of Excellence to aid the city’s resilience campaign. At the heart of this project is the 65,000-square-foot, $30 million Resiliency Operations Center, which will be built on a five-acre site HCC’s Northeast campus. The complex is scheduled to open in 2024.

HCC estimates the operations center will train about 3,000 to 4,000 local first responders, including police officers and firefighters, during the first three years of operation. They’ll be instructed to prepare for, manage, and respond to weather, health and manmade hazards such as hurricanes, floods, fires, chemical spills, and winter freezes.

According to The Texas Tribune, the operations center will include flood-simulation features like a 39-foot-wide swift water rescue channel, a 15-foot-deep dive area, and a 100-foot-long “rocky gorge” of boulders.

The college says the first-in-the-nation Resilience Center of Excellence will enable residents, employers, civic organizations, neighborhoods, and small businesses to obtain education and certification aimed at improving resilience efforts.

“Our objective is to protect the well-being of our citizens and our communities and increase economic stability,” Cesar Maldonado, chancellor of HCC, said when the project was announced.

Among the programs under the Resiliency Center of Excellence umbrella will be non-credit courses focusing on public safety and rescue, disaster management, medical triage, and debris removal.

Meanwhile, the basic Resilience 101 program will be available to businesses and community organizations, and the emergency response program is geared toward individuals, families, and neighborhoods.

HCC’s initiative meshes with the City of Houston’s Resilient Houston, a strategy launched in 2020 that’s designed to protect Houston against disasters. As part of this strategy, the city has hired a chief resilience and sustainability officer, Priya Zachariah.

“Every action we take and investment we make should continue to improve our collective ability to withstand the unexpected shocks and disruptions when they arrive — from hurricanes to global pandemics, to extreme heat or extreme cold,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said last year. “The time is now to stop doing things the way we’ve always done them because the threats are too unpredictable.”

In an InnovationMap guest column published in February 2021, Richard Seline, co-founder of the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub, wrote that the focus of resilience initiatives should be pre-disaster risk mitigation.

“There is still work to be done from a legislative and governmental perspective, but more and more innovators — especially in Houston — are proving to be essential in creating a better future for the next historic disaster we will face,” Seline wrote.