This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Jim Gable of Chevon, Brad Burke of Rice Alliance, and Chris Romani of illumipure. Photos courtesy

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

Houston energy innovator on why now's the right time for energy transition innovation

Jim Gable, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy

The cleantech innovation space has momentum, and Chevron strives to be one of the incumbent energy companies playing a role in that movement, Jim Gable, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures, shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"People call it cleantech 2.0, but it's really cleantech 3.0," Gable says, explaining how he's been there for each wave of cleantech. "The people are better now — the entrepreneurs are better, the investors are better. Exits are here in the cleantech space."

"It's all driven by policy-enabled markets, and the policy is here now too. Twenty years ago, you didn't have nearly the same level of policy influence that you do now," he continues. "Things are coming together to help us really create and deliver that affordable, reliable, ever cleaner energy that's going to be needed for a long time." Read more.

Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship

Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, has received an impressive award for his leadership. Photo via Rice.edu

A figurehead in Houston's innovation ecosystem has received an award for his career leading innovation in higher education.

Brad Burke, who's served as managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship since its inception 22 years ago, received the Outstanding Contributions to Advancing Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Higher Education Award. Burke was presented with the award at the 2023 Deshpande Symposium for Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Higher Education.

Recognizing an individual who has proven to be successful in leading entrepreneurship within higher education, the award was founded by serial entrepreneur Desh Deshpande. The event attracts academics, policy planners, and practitioners every year to share thought leadership within higher education entrepreneurship and innovation. Read more.

Chris Romani, chief marketing officer for illumiPure

If mobile marketing isn't in your startup's toolkit, it should be. Photo courtesy

When it comes to marketing tools, there's a lot out there. Some aren't worth it, but some can make a huge difference. Chris Romani, chief marketing officer for illumiPure, Houston-based medical device company, in a guest column for InnovationMap, outlined some of the tools that make an impact.

"For startups, when and how to begin marketing their business can feel like a cumbersome task," he explains. "As a chief marketing officer, I was asked to list services and channels that I oversee, and I came up with 16. For founders of startups who must often take on the roles of CEO and COO in addition to CMO as they look to expand their teams, that time commitment is not reasonable for someone who also has a personal life." Read more.

If mobile marketing isn't in your startup's toolkit, it should be. Photo via Getty Images

How to leverage mobile marketing for your startup, according to this Houston expert

Guest column

Consumer privacy is driving startups to immediately begin marketing and data collection. Google and Apple have recently stressed the importance of first-party data collection for businesses. For the last two decades, businesses have had access to cookies to advertise to people who visited their digital assets. Digital advertising has already changed with Apple’s iOS 14.5 alterations, switching the default of ad tracking from yes to no and both Google and Apple expect data privacy to increase.

For startups, when and how to begin marketing their business can feel like a cumbersome task. As a chief marketing officer, I was asked to list services and channels that I oversee, and I came up with 16. For founders of startups who must often take on the roles of CEO and COO in addition to CMO as they look to expand their teams, that time commitment is not reasonable for someone who also has a personal life.

Entrepreneurs need tools that are simple to institute and not cost prohibitive, to meet their respective milestones. First, we need to collect first party data, so that when we get to our minimum viable product we have plenty of people waiting to buy it. Next, marketing must work even when we can’t focus on it. Third, we must focus on revenue generating activities, whether they are marketing or not. Finally, we want to create an environment where successful entrepreneurs have a work and life balance.

Before doing anything else — get a virtual phone number

A virtual phone number is the first marketing tool I would use for any business. This number can be connected to your cell phone during certain hours of the day and disconnected for others. This allows people to reach you on your schedule. Put this phone number on every asset you have, so it can be integrated into future tools, such as customer relationship management and Google My Business. With proper opt-in information, it also creates an immediate list for SMS marketing in the future. A virtual phone number typically runs $1 to $2 a month plus usage fees, so it can be used by any business.

It is important that this is set up first, because without this, you can’t use the following marketing tools effectively.

Tool 1: Missed Call – Text Back

An entrepreneurs’ worst nightmare is missing an important phone call, whether it’s an investor or closing your first sale. Constant phone and email checking causes anxiety, but more importantly, it is a low revenue activity, so you are actively hurting your business.

Missed Call – Text Back, or MCTB, allows a customizable text message to be delivered to a client when you miss their phone call. It moves the caller towards resolution (sales or otherwise) immediately encouraging them to give you more information about their problem. The best part is, that once you have the system in place, it costs you zero time. Imagine walking out of a meeting and instead of 10 missed calls, you have 10 text messages that you can quickly answer. How much time did you just get back?

Pro Tip: In many cases, you can automate your emails in a similar way.

Tool 2: A funnel page

Now that we have a tool that allows us to work productively without constant phone checking, we need to increase our book of business. This is where a funnel comes in.

A funnel is a unique digital experience you would like a specific person — a client or investor — to have. When you start a business, a funnel can be your website because you only have one specific thing you want any visitor to do, like collect information.

Almost every consultant to new businesses is promoting funnel building. Why? Because a good funnel motivates people to act in a specific way. If you are raising funds, you want an investor to have a specific experience to garner interest, not hope they navigate to the correct webpage. If you have a new technology, you want early adopters to learn and then provide a simple way to collect their information, so that you can contact them when your product is ready. Finally, if you’re about to hit the market with your new product, providing customers with a simple purchase method will improve revenue during your important proof-of-concept period.

Funnels, like MCTB, can grow and adapt with your business, providing different groups of people with different experiences, with minimal effort. For instance, suppose I created a dating app and needed early adopters. Instead of creating one funnel, let’s say I created two. The only difference between the two funnels, is the first one’s headline was “The No. 1 new dating app for men” and then the second one said women. Everything else remains the same, but the experience is immediately different for the consumer. The more you can change the funnel to cater to their personal experience, the better it will be, but even simple changes can go a long way.

Pro Tip: Funnels are easiest to keep track of when they are subdomains of your website.

Tool 3: Automated SMS marketing

The final tool I recommend to start is Automated SMS Marketing. Assuming you have people properly opted in from your funnel — review Telephone Consumer Protection Act (1991) to ensure legal compliance — you can make sure they receive a welcome message in the first 5 minutes.

The most important part of text messaging marketing is allowing your customer to believe they are really having a conversation with you. If you can avoid it, never tell a customer that your digital number is automated. If you need, tell them it is automated but overseen by you. You are the owner of the business or the inventor of the technology, people want to talk to you. Customers want to pretend that they know you. Allow them this feeling. Once the customer responds, you should be picking up an organic conversation with them anyway.

Bringing it together

Using these tools, we have created a simple, repeatable method to gather customer data and start their customer journey. Your funnel may also help you gather an email list, but your most active prospects will be more than willing to communicate with you over the phone.

When you can’t take calls, whether it’s because you are in a meeting or with your kids, you can rest easier, knowing that potential customers get an immediate response that helps them get where they need to go, or at the very least, when you get back to work, you can help them quickly.

And the best part for a new entrepreneur is that this can all be done cost effectively. Personally, I recommend a service called HighLevel, a feature-rich cost-effective CRM, that includes all of the tools previously discussed. Most tech savvy entrepreneurs can figure out how to institute all these practices quickly from one platform in a no code environment. If you’d rather have assistance, there are 20,000 agencies that use the platform and just as many YouTube videos.

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Chris Romani is the chief marketing officer for illumiPure, a Houston-based medical device company.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes John Higgins of illumiPure, Natara Branch of HX, and Daniel Murray of Covenant Underwriters. Photos courtesy

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 insurtech to entrepreneurship — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

John Higgins, CEO of illumiPure

CleanWhite can quickly and continuously sanitize high-touch areas through its light-based technology. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston-based illumiPure recently announced that it has received a worldwide patent for its LED white light disinfectant earlier this year, known as CleanWhite. The product can quickly and continuously sanitize high-touch areas while a room remains occupied and has shown an elimination of 99 percent of surface bacteria, spores, mold, biofilms, and viruses including SARS-CoV-2 through light-based technology. It's intended to be used in areas like kitchens, restrooms, and locker rooms and is safe for humans and pets.

CleanWhite uses spikes of light wavelengths at 405 and 470 nanometers to kill surface pathogens. Unlike other products on the market, CleanWhite can emit these levels without also emitting a visible purple-violet light while also suppressing blue light wavelengths.

"CleanWhite features technology that makes it the first of its kind, achieving a sought-after solution to produce 405+470 nm blue light as white light," John Higgins, CEO of illumiPure, says in a statement. "As a result of this revolutionary finding, we anticipate the patent’s success across a myriad of industries, including education, healthcare, hospitality, and retail.” Click here to read more.

Natara Branch, CEO of Houston Exponential

Meet Natara Branch — the new CEO of HX. Photo courtesy of Natara Branch

Ever since she accepted the new position as CEO of Houston Exponential, Natara Branch has been on a listening tour of Houston's innovation ecosystem. Branch explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that she has a passion for the city of Houston, and she's got open ears to anyone in the ecosystem who wants to contribute to the advancement of the city's tech ecosystem.

As she explains, she is getting her fair share of feedback — but she has an ask for anyone who she's met.

"I am challenging people. You're not just going to give me feedback and sit back and watch. You're going to participate," Branch says. "I have not met one person who doesn't want Houston to win — they wouldn't be here if they didn't." Click here to read more and listen to the podcast.

Daniel Murray, co-founder and chief underwriter of Covenant Underwriters

The emerging insurtech industry has a plethora of opportunities for job seekers and more. Photo courtesy

More than 100,000 Houstonians work in insurance, according to Daniel Murray, co-founder and chief underwriter of Covenant Underwriters, a Houston-based insurtech start-up, building e-commerce insurance products for underserved niches. But the 400-year-old industry is hungry for tech talent.

In a guest column for InnovationMap, Murray explains the need for tech and innovation within insurance — and the opportunity the industry has.

"The adage goes that everyone in the insurance industry was either born into it or tricked into it," he writes. "This may have applied to the last generation, but today’s insurance industry offers vast opportunities (including remote) for every discipline, especially for tech job seekers." Click here to read more.

CleanWhite can quickly and continuously sanitize high-touch areas through its light-based technology. Photo via Getty Images

Houston tech company earns worldwide patent for LED disinfectant product

zip, zap

Houston-based illumiPure announced that it received a worldwide patent for its LED white light disinfectant earlier this year.

Known as CleanWhite, the product can quickly and continuously sanitize high-touch areas while a room remains occupied and has shown an elimination of 99 percent of surface bacteria, spores, mold, biofilms, and viruses including SARS-CoV-2 through light-based technology. It's intended to be used in areas like kitchens, restrooms, and locker rooms and is safe for humans and pets.

CleanWhite uses spikes of light wavelengths at 405 and 470 nanometers to kill surface pathogens. Unlike other products on the market, CleanWhite can emit these levels without also emitting a visible purple-violet light while also suppressing blue light wavelengths.

The product's ability to safely and continuously emit these levels of white light allows it to kill dangerous bacteria and pathogens in just a few hours.

"CleanWhite features technology that makes it the first of its kind, achieving a sought-after solution to produce 405+470 nm blue light as white light," John Higgins, CEO of illumiPure, said in a statement. "As a result of this revolutionary finding, we anticipate the patent’s success across a myriad of industries, including education, healthcare, hospitality, and retail.”

CleanWhite uses spikes of light wavelengths at 405 and 470 nanometers to kill surface pathogens. Photo via illumipure.com

The fixtures appear much like any other LED light and have been customized for the commercial, retail, healthcare, transportation, hospitality industries. illumiPure has already partnered with six Houston school districts, including Tomball ISD, Humble ISD, Galena Park ISD and Barbers Hill ISD.

“Nurses love illumiPure technologies because they feel protected,” Ricky Shelton, Energy Manager at Barbers Hill ISD, said in a statement.

According to the company, it is also in testing with a major sports franchise and is working with the Reem Mall in Abu Dhabi, which is slated to be the largest mall in the world once complete.

Founded in 2017, illumiPure focuses on air purification, surface disinfection and indoor/outdoor air quality monitoring.

In addition to CleanWhite, the company also has developed an air purifier product known as the Air Guardian, which has been shown to process air for longer dose times and uses intense ultraviolet light and plasma-like oxidizing energies to kill particles.

It also released The Portable by Air Guardian, a mobile version of the air purification system, and the Vertices AQS indoor/outdoor air quality sensor this year. A residential version of the Vertices sensor is slated to roll out later this year, as is one more new product, according to the company.

Earlier this year the company brought some of its production in-house, by the use of 25 3D printers for its Vertices units as well as other auxiliary components. The growing company plans to expand its headquarters in northwest Houston sometime next year.

John Higgins is the CEO of illumiPure. Photo via LinkedIn

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Houston college lands $5M NASA grant to launch new aerospace research center

to infinity and beyond

The University of Houston was one of seven minority-serving institutions to receive a nearly $5 million grant this month to support aerospace research focused on extending human presence on the moon and Mars.

The $4,996,136 grant over five years is funded by the NASA Office of STEM Engagement Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) Institutional Research Opportunity (MIRO) program. It will go toward creating the NASA MIRO Inflatable Deployable Environments and Adaptive Space Systems (IDEAS2) Center at UH, according to a statement from the university.

“The vision of the IDEAS2 Center is to become a premier national innovation hub that propels NASA-centric, state-of-the-art research and promotes 21st-century aerospace education,” Karolos Grigoriadis, Moores Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of aerospace engineering at UH, said in a statement.

Another goal of the grant is to develop the next generation of aerospace professionals.

Graduate, undergraduate and even middle and high school students will conduct research out of IDEAS2 and work closely with the Johnson Space Center, located in the Houston area.

The center will collaborate with Texas A&M University, Houston Community College, San Jacinto College and Stanford University.

Grigoriadis will lead the center. Dimitris Lagoudas, from Texas A&M University, and Olga Bannova, UH's research professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Space Architecture graduate program, will serve as associate directors.

"Our mission is to establish a sustainable nexus of excellence in aerospace engineering research and education supported by targeted multi-institutional collaborations, strategic partnerships and diverse educational initiatives,” Grigoriadis said.

Industrial partners include Boeing, Axiom Space, Bastion Technologies and Lockheed Martin, according to UH.

UH is part of 21 higher-education institutions to receive about $45 million through NASA MUREP grants.

According to NASA, the six other universities to received about $5 million MIRO grants over five years and their projects includes:

  • Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage: Alaska Pacific University Microplastics Research and Education Center
  • California State University in Fullerton: SpaceIgnite Center for Advanced Research-Education in Combustion
  • City University of New York, Hunter College in New York: NASA-Hunter College Center for Advanced Energy Storage for Space
  • Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee: Integrative Space Additive Manufacturing: Opportunities for Workforce-Development in NASA Related Materials Research and Education
  • New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark:AI Powered Solar Eruption Center of Excellence in Research and Education
  • University of Illinois in Chicago: Center for In-Space Manufacturing: Recycling and Regolith Processing

Fourteen other institutions will receive up to $750,000 each over the course of a three-year period. Those include:

  • University of Mississippi
  • University of Alabama in Huntsville
  • Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge
  • West Virginia University in Morgantown
  • University of Puerto Rico in San Juan
  • Desert Research Institute, Reno, Nevada
  • Oklahoma State University in Stillwater
  • Iowa State University in Ames
  • University of Alaska Fairbanks in Fairbanks
  • University of the Virgin Islands in Charlotte Amalie
  • University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu
  • University of Idaho in Moscow
  • University of Arkansas in Little Rock
  • South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City
  • Satellite Datastreams

NASA's MUREP hosted its annual "Space Tank" pitch event at Space Center Houston last month. Teams from across the country — including three Texas teams — pitched business plans based on NASA-originated technology. Click here to learn more about the seven finalists.

Booming Houston suburb, other Texas towns among the fastest-growing U.S. cities in 2023

by the numbers

One Houston suburb experienced one of the most rapid growth spurts in the country last year: Fulshear, whose population grew by 25.6 percent, more than 51 times that of the nation’s growth rate of 0.5 percent. The city's population was 42,616 as of July 1, 2023.

According to U.S. Census Bureau's Vintage 2023 Population Estimates, released Thursday, May 16, Fulshear — which lies west of Katy in northwest Fort Bend County - ranked No. 2 on the list of fastest-growing cities with a population of 20,000 or more. It's no wonder iconic Houston restaurants like Molina's Cantina see opportunities there.

The South still dominates the nation's growth, even as America’s Northeast and Midwest cities are rebounding slightly from years of population drops. The census estimates showed 13 of the 15 fastest-growing cities in the U.S. were in the South — eight in Texas alone.

The Texas cities joining Fulshear on the fastest-growing-cities list are:

  • Celina (No. 1) with 26.6 percent growth (42,616 total population)
  • Princeton (No. 3) with 22.3 percent growth (28,027 total population)
  • Anna (No. 4) with 16.9 percent growth (27,501 total population)
  • Georgetown (No. 8) with 10.6 percent growth (96,312 total population)
  • Prosper (No. 9) with 10.5 percent growth (41,660 total population)
  • Forney (No. 10) with 10.4 percent growth (35,470 total population)
  • Kyle (No. 11) with 9 percent growth (62,548 total population)

Texas trends
San Antonio saw the biggest growth spurt in the United States last year, numbers-wise. The Alamo City added about 22,000 residents. San Antonio now has nearly 1.5 million people, making it the the seventh largest city in the U.S. and second largest in Texas.

Its population boom was followed by those of other Southern cities, including Fort Worth; Charlotte, North Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida; and Port St. Lucie, Florida.

Fast-growing Fort Worth (978,000) surpassed San Jose, California (970,000) to become the 12th most populous city in the country.

Meanwhile, population slowed in the Austin area. Jacksonville, Florida (986,000), outpaced Austin (980,000), pushing the Texas capital to 11th largest city in the U.S. (barely ahead of Fort Worth).

Population growth in Georgetown, outside Austin, slowed by more than one-fourth its population growth in 2022, the report says, from 14.4 percent to 10.6 percent. It's the same story in the Central Texas city of Kyle, whose population growth decreased by nearly 2 percent to 9 percent in 2023.

Most populated cities
New York City with nearly 8.3 million people remained the nation's largest city in population as of July 1, 2023. Los Angeles was second at close to 4 million residents, while Chicago was third at 2.7 million and Houston was fourth at 2.3 million residents.

The 15 populous U.S. cities in 2023 were:

  1. New York, New York (8.3 million)
  2. Los Angeles, California (4 million)
  3. Chicago, Illinois (2.7 million)
  4. Houston, Texas (2.3 million)
  5. Phoenix, Arizona (1.7 million)
  6. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1.6 million)
  7. San Antonio (1.5 million)
  8. San Diego, California (1.4 million)
  9. Dallas (1.3 million)
  10. Jacksonville, Florida (986,000)
  11. Austin (980,000)
  12. Fort Worth (978,000)
  13. San Jose (970,000)
  14. Columbus, Ohio (913,000)
  15. Charlotte, North Carolina (911,000)

Modest reversals of population declines were seen last year in large cities in the nation's Northeast and Midwest. Detroit, for example, which grew for the first time in decades, had seen an exodus of people since the 1950s. Yet the estimates released Thursday show the population of Michigan’s largest city rose by just 1,852 people from 631,366 in 2022 to 633,218 last year.

It's a milestone for Detroit, which had 1.8 million residents in the 1950s only to see its population dwindle and then plummet through suburban white flight, a 1967 race riot, the migration to the suburbs by many of the Black middle class and the national economic downturn that foreshadowed the city's 2013 bankruptcy filing.

Three of the largest cities in the U.S. that had been bleeding residents this decade staunched those departures somewhat. New York City, which has lost almost 550,000 residents this decade so far, saw a drop of only 77,000 residents last year, about three-fifths the numbers from the previous year.

Los Angeles lost only 1,800 people last year, following a decline in the 2020s of almost 78,000 residents. Chicago, which has lost almost 82,000 people this decade, only had a population drop of 8,200 residents last year.

And San Francisco, which has lost a greater share of residents this decade than any other big city — almost 7.5 percent — actually grew by more than 1,200 residents last year.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

How this Houston clean energy entrepreneur is navigating geothermal's hype to 100x business growth

houston innovators podcast Episode 237

Geothermal energy has been growing in recognition as a major player in the clean energy mix, and while many might think of it as a new climatetech solution, Tim Latimer, co-founder and CEO of Fervo Energy, knows better.

"Every overnight success is a decade in the making, and I think Fervo, fortunately — and geothermal as a whole — has become much more high profile recently as people realize that it can be a tremendous solution to the challenges that our energy sector and climate are facing," he says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

In fact, Latimer has been bullish on geothermal as a clean energy source since he quit his job as a drilling engineer in oil and gas to pursue a dual degree program — MBA and master's in earth sciences — at Stanford University. He had decided that, with the reluctance of incumbent energy companies to try new technologies, he was going to figure out how to start his own company. Through the Stanford program and Activate, a nonprofit hardtech program that funded two years of Fervo's research and development, Latimer did just that.

And the bet has more than paid off. Since officially launching in 2017, Fervo Energy has raised over $430 million — most recently collecting a $244 million series D round. Even more impressive to Latimer — his idea for drilling horizontal wells works. The company celebrated a successful pilot program last summer by achieving continuous carbon-free geothermal energy production with Project Red, a northern Nevada site made possible through a 2021 partnership with Google.

Next up for Fervo is growing and scaling at around a 100x pace. While Project Red included three wells, Project Cape, a Southwest Utah site, will include around 100 wells with significantly reduced drilling cost and an estimated 2026 delivery. Latimer says there are a dozen other projects like Project Cape that are in the works.

"It's a huge ramp up in our drilling, construction, and powerplant programs from our pilot project, but we've already had tremendous success there," Latimer says of Project Cape. "We think our technology has a really bright future."

While Latimer looks ahead to the rapid growth of Fervo Energy, he says it's all due to the foundation he put in place for the company, which has a culture built on the motto, "Build things that last."

“You’re not going to get somewhere that really changes the world by cutting corners and taking short steps. And, if you want to move the needle on something as complicated as the global energy system that has been built up over hundreds of years with trillions of dollars of capital invested in it – you’re not going to do it overnight," he says on the show. "We’re all in this for the long haul together."