METRO launches a driver-less route, Houston biotech company raises millions, and more quick innovation news. Courtesy of METRO

So much Houston innovation news — so little time. In order to help keep in touch with all the news happening among startups and technology in Houston, we're hitting the highlights in this innovation news roundup.

If you know of innovation-focused news happening, email me at natalie@innovationmap.com with the details andsubscribe to our daily newsletterthat sends fresh stories straight to your inboxes every morning.


METRO launches a self-driving shuttle on Texas Southern University's campus

Courtesy of Metro

The first autonomous shuttle in Houston recently had its maiden voyage on Texas Southern University's campus. The route is a one-mile stretch that is called the "Tiger Walk.' The EasyMile shuttle can transport 12 passengers and is operated by First Transit. The project is a pilot program for METRO to see if it has successful applications in other public transportation efforts.

"When passengers board this all electric vehicle they will be riding into the future and experiencing a mode of transportation that in just a few years may become commonplace," says METRO Chair Carrin Patman in a release.

The first phase of the pilot kicked off June 5, as reported in a previous InnovationMap article.

After being deemed a hot tech company by Crunchbase, Data Gumbo grows its C-suite

Courtesy of Data Gumbo

In June, Data Gumbo was named among Crunchbase's top 50 hottest tech companies. The list looked for growing tech startups that have raised between $5 million and $20 million, with a recent round closing in the past six months. The Houston-based company closed its most recent round of $6 million in the spring.

Following the round completion, Data Gumbo's CEO, Andrew Bruce, noted the funds were intended to further develop the company's technology and grow the team. As of last week, Bruce made good on the promise and announced the company's new chief commercial officer, Sergio A. Tuberquia.

"As our new capital is being used to expand our commercial blockchain network, we are also expanding our internal teams to support our rapid global growth," says Bruce in a news release. "With Sergio joining to lead revenue efforts, this will further our company's mission to help oil and gas companies — and ultimately all industries -—realize greater efficiencies and cost savings in the supply chain. Sergio's mix of startup technology and oil and gas industry experience will greatly benefit Data Gumbo and its customers as the industry moves into digital oilfield solutions like blockchain."

Biotech company extends its Series D round to $43 million

Getty Images

Following a $20 million commitment from Sanford Health, Houston-based InGeneron Inc. has extended its Series D round to $43 million. The funds will go toward further developing the company's regenerative medicine and cell therapy. InGeneron currently has a clinical study for rotator cuff recovery.

The investment by South Dakota-based Sanford Health was announced in March, and last month, InGeneron made the call to expand the series.

"Sanford Health's continued support helps advance InGeneron's regenerative cell therapy into the expansive pivotal trial phase, a significant step toward bringing our therapy into the clinic," says Angelo Moesslang, CEO of InGeneron, in a release. "This is an exciting time for the company, as one of the largest health systems in the United States further affirms the potential of adipose-derived regenerative cell therapy, while we diligently work to make it available to patients."

Rice Business Plan winner to ring the Nasdaq bell

Courtesy of Rice University

The company that won the top prize at the Rice Business Plan Competition and walked away with almost $700,000 is claiming another one of its prizes. Vita Inclinata Technologies will ring the opening bell at Nasdaq on July 3.

The company, which created a technology to advance helicopter safety, will be represented by its CEO, Caleb Carr, and Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, and Will Roper, the U.S. Air Force's assistant secretary for acquisition, will also attend. The livestream footage is available online, beginning at 8:30 am central.

Mercury Fund raising money

Texas Money

Getty Images

Crunchbase broke the news that Houston-based Mercury Fund has secured $82 million of its fourth fund, Mercury Fund Ventures IV, that will total $125 million, per a regulatory filing that PE Hub reported on. Mercury Fund refused to comment on the ongoing raise, but intends to release more information following the close, a representative confirmed to InnovationMap.

According to Crunchbase's proprietary data, it's the largest fund to date for the firm. The most recent fund closed in 2014 at $105 million. Mercury Fund specializes in SaaS, cloud, and data science technology, according to its website.

Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine researcher recognized

Courtesy of Rice University

Olga Dudchenko, a genomics researcher at Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine, been named to MIT Technology Review magazine's 2019 list of 35 Innovators Under 35.

Dudchenko, who is completing her postdoctoral fellowship at Rice's Center for Theoretical Biological Physics, has developed a method to sequence and assemble the genome of any organism for less than $1,000. Her process is comparable the that of the Human Genome Project, which cost $3 billion.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

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.

------

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."

Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.