These are the 10 finalists heading to MassChallenge's virtual awards program next month. Photo courtesy of MassChallenge

Boston-based MassChallenge has named its top picks from its second Houston cohort ahead of its awards event. This year's programming, due to the pandemic, was held completely online.

"Great entrepreneurs don't let a crisis go to waste: this cohort was assembled from virtually every industry across 13 different countries and through the twists and turns, their passion became a beacon for the future," says Jon Nordby, managing director of MassChallenge Texas in Houston. "These top startups represent the best qualities of all of us: resilient, ingenious, and able to push ourselves further than we think we are capable. They embody the entrepreneurial spirit that brings hope and progress to society."

The 10 companies — which represent the top 18 percent of the cohort — will now compete in a final round of judging for up to $250,000 in equity-free cash prizes. The winners will be revealed at the 2020 MassChallenge Virtual U.S. Awards, which will be held online.

The 2020 MassChallenge Texas in Houston top 10 finalists are:

  • B2B Pay, based in Helsinki, Finland, is a fintech startup with a multi-bank platform.
  • FloodFrame, based in Richmond just outside of Houston, is a self-deploying flood protection system that can be easily installed to existing houses.
  • Healium, based in Columbia, Missouri, is an extended reality device created for self-management of anxiety.
  • Houston-based Integricote uses nanotechnology research that originated from the University of Houston in the treatment and fortification of materials like wood and concrete.
  • Ozark Integrated Circuits Inc., based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, specializes in problem solving using technology and software in the harshest environments – from jet engines to earth orbit.
  • Houston-based PATH EX Inc. is focused on the rapid diagnosis and treatment of sepsis through a pathogen extraction platform.
  • PREEMIEr Diagnostics, based in Southfield, Michigan, created a way to identify which premature infants need an adjustment to their glucose levels to prevent them from losing vision.
  • Scout Inc., based in Alexandria, Virginia, is developing the first commercial in-space satellite inspection service.
  • Sunnydale, California-based Sizzle is using artificial intelligence to automatically create gaming highlights for the billion gaming viewers.
  • Starling Medical, based in Houston, has tapped into tech to optimize urinary catheter for patients with neurogenic bladder dysfunction.

The 54-company cohort, which is the second based in Houston since the program's launch last year, was challenged early on — much like the other MassChallenge cohorts — to pivot to virtual acceleration over the four-month experience.

Robert Pieroni, director of Economic Development for Central Houston, which was part of the group that worked to bring MCTX to Houston, says he sees a need for this type of accelerator now more than ever.

"MassChallenge's work sources ground-breaking ideas from around the world and invites them into an inclusive village surrounded by a network of tools, resources, and opportunities that help founders accelerate and scale their business to solve humankind's boldest challenges head-on," he says. "The addition of virtual and the rise of distributed teams in response to the pandemic will make it easier for startups to launch and build businesses anywhere."

MassChallenge's Houston cohort will be one of a few featured at the virtual awards event on October 22 at 4 p.m. Headliners for the event include Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global, and Linda Pizzuti Henry, managing director of the Boston Globe, and Chris Denson of Innovation Crush will be the host. For more information about the event and to register, visit the MassChallenge website.

"There's something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it." Photo via Getty Images

Overheard: Local innovation leaders share what they see has changed in Houston for venture investing

Eavesdropping online

Houston's seen a growth in startup and venture investment — even amid the pandemic — and a group of Houston innovators sat down for a virtual event to discuss what's lead to this evolution.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted an installment of its Houston Industry Series focused on Digital Tech on Thursday, September 24. The panel of experts, moderated by Krisha Tracy of Google Cloud, discussed how they've observed the paradigm shift that's occurred in Houston over the past few years — and why.

Missed the discussion? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual event.

“I think there really is an interest for venture capital here, both locally and also welcoming it from outside of Houston. … There’s something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it. I think that magical piece is a renewed interest in collaborating.”

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of Houston Angel Network and co-founder of The Artemis Fund. "I think a lot [of this progress] is due to the GHP, Houston Exponential, and the founding of the HX Venture Fund to bring those venture funds to Houston to say, 'what's happening here?'" Campbell adds, saying that this connectivity and collaboration that's happening in Houston VC is unique.

“I think there’s a misconception around all we do is oil and gas and life science in Houston, but when you think about what VC-backable companies look like, they’re tech, they’re B2B SaaS, they’re highly scalable, and they don’t tend to be capital-intensive types of things we see corporate venture backing.”

Campbell says, adding "the connectivity and the interest in VC is really taking off. It's an exciting time to be in Houston and Texas in general."

“Plug and Play’s ventures team is based in Silicon Valley and one thing they enjoy about meeting Houston-based founders is valuations tend to be more reasonable than in the Bay Area."

Payal Patel, director of Plug and Play Tech Center in Houston. "There are gems to be found," she adds.

“I don’t know what it is — if it’s something in the water or just Texans being very friendly, but the investors here share deal flow. It takes a village, and I think we all understand a rising tide lifts all boats."

Patel says on the collaborative nature of Houston. "It's really magical."

“What you’re witnessing is a city that has been waiting for industrial innovation to reach the point where it can be adopted at a really high scale, and that happened around 2017.”

Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge Texas in Houston. Nordby adds that MassChallenge in Houston hasn't been keen on consumer tech, or the "grilled cheese delivery apps," as he describes. "We like companies that are in love with problems, not so much in love with solutions. … We build really meaningful tech."

“Over the last year or two, we’ve seen that sleeping giant get awoken. Open and external innovation is newly adopted by more legacy industries where it wasn’t before — and that’s just created a mountain of opportunities for startups and investors alike.”

Nordby says on the shift toward this meaningful, problem-solving technology, which Houston is full of, as he observes.

MassChallenge Houston's 2020 cohort has been selected. Photo courtesy of MassChallenge Texas

MassChallenge names 56 startups to newest Houston cohort along with new space and sports tracks

meet the cohort

After launching in Houston with a smaller cohort last year, MassChallenge Texas has announced its latest, full-scale cohort and is kicking off virtual programming this month.

"Today's world is up against new challenges that require creative solutions to help us get back to speed as quickly and as efficiently as possible," says Jon Nordby, MassChallenge Texas in Houston's managing director in a news release. "The incoming cohort is uniquely positioned to make an impact because of their ability to act swiftly and adapt to new market needs. These founders will go on to create the impact and the jobs that will underpin the recovery of our economy for years to come."

The program begins this June 22 and concludes in October. According to the news release, the accelerator will operate as a hybrid — combining virtual and in-person programming. The startups will pitch virtually at the MassChallenge Virtual Startup Showcase on July 16 and 17, as well as at the conclusion of the program at the the MassChallenge Texas in Houston 2020 Awards.

The cohort represents 12 countries and 13 states — with over a third being female founded. The program is also introducing two new tracks: Sports tech, which was announced in April, and space commercialization. Some startups from this cohort will also be participating in the tracks, but MCTX hasn't identified the new tracks' cohorts yet.

Here are the members of the 2020 MassChallenge Texas Houston cohort and where they are based.

Energy and clean tech

General and retail

Health care and life science

Technology

Social impact

A new accelerator program is looking for startups that are using technology to enhance the sports industry. Getty Images

International accelerator launches sports tech program in Houston

on the right track

MassChallenge, an international accelerator with headquarters in Boston, is seeking startups with tech solutions in sports and athletics.

The MassChallenge SportsTech track is made possible with the organization's partnership with St. Louis, Missouri-based Stadia Ventures, an early stage investment and innovation hub focusing on sports and esports.

"Our goal with the MassChallenge SportsTech track is to provide a conduit for that knowledge to orient itself to the most promising sportstech startups from across the world," says Jon Nordby, who leads MassChallenge Texas in Houston.

The program is an additional track to MassChallenge's seed stage accelerator, which accepts innovative startups that have raised less than $1 million in funding and generated less than $2 million in revenue. Houston's program launched just over a year ago.

InnovationMap asked Nordby a few questions about what startups can expect from the program and why Texas

InnovationMap: Why is Texas a market for sports tech?

Jon Nordby: We have the great fortune of living in a part of the country where sports are not a hobby — they are a way of life. There are 10 professional sports teams across the Texas Triangle covering every major league sport. More importantly, the Texas business community has for decades worked at the intersection of industry and technology and there is a huge knowledge base here that can use the sportstech industry as a vehicle to have a major impact on the world.

The inventions, product, and discoveries being made on the field today will make their way to commercial markets within the next five years or so. These discoveries are possible only if these startups have access to experts in health, materials, analytics, and communications — all of which Texas has in droves.

IM: What type of startups is the program for?

JN: For the SportsTech Track we are looking for companies that fit that criteria and have a product, service, or offering for the sports world. This could include anything to help humans perform better in a competitive environment (field, arena or online) or teams and leagues to better support their players and fans.

The seed stage accelerator is open to all early-stage startups from any industry. MassChallenge defines early stage as young companies whose founders are building creative and disruptive solutions to meet a market need. They have raised less than $1 million in funding and generated less than $2 million in revenue.

IM: What does the partnership with Stadia Ventures bring to the table?

JN: Stadia Ventures is a premier force in the sportstech industry with their startup accelerator and investment fund. Together we are creating a pipeline of support for startups from seed stage, through scale-up, and beyond. Stadia's elite network of more than 200 professional sports and esports executives paired with MassChallenge's global startup programs and curriculum will offer benefits to entrepreneurs from all industries.

IM: How will this program differ from MassChallenge's industry agnostic programming?

JN: The SportsTech track is in addition to the core MassChallenge program. Startups invited to participate in the SportsTech track will have access to additional industry-specific programming, events, and dedicated experts. These startups are eligible to compete for the equity-free cash awards and receive all other benefits and access associated with being a MassChallenge finalist.

IM: What are you looking for in mentors?

JN: MassChallenge experts are the foundation for all MassChallenge accelerators. They serve as our judges, mentors, and curriculum facilitators, interfacing directly with the startups and helping them identify scalable solutions for their businesses. Experts come from a variety of backgrounds including business executives, industry experts, subject matter experts, local political leaders, lawyers, engineers and beyond. All of them share one common thread: they want to help create the future. Anyone interested in applying to be a MassChallenge expert and supporting the startups in this year's cohorts can apply online.

As the city grows, Houston faces more and more challenges from transportation and infrastructure to gentrification and climate change. Getty Images

Overheard: Expert panel weighs in on the future of Houston — from mobility to climate change

Eavesdropping in houston

As technology and infrastructure evolves, Houston is growing and evolving with it — in both good ways and bad.

On October 30, Gensler hosted its annual Evolution Houston forum that brings together various personalities and industries to discuss the future of the city of Houston. The panelists discussed gentrification, climate change, mobility, smart cities, and so many other hot topics Houstonians hear or think about on a regular basis.

Missed the event? Here are some powerful quotes from the discussion.

“I like to think of Houston as an adolescent city, struggling for its identity.”

Peter Merwin, design principal at Gensler, who adds, "If you look at places like New York, London, Paris — those are all luxury cities. They are fully formed, and a consequence of that is that they become unaffordable. It's something that we have to be careful about in Houston."

“One of the things that has been echoed by many of the artists and many of the poor people over the last few years is, [people] ‘want the culture but they don’t want us.’ It’s very reflective when you go [into the communities.]”

Kam Franklin, activist and singer-songwriter of The Suffers. Franklin described how she would move from the various neighborhoods she's lived in after they've grown in culture. She would see such a huge increase in her rent as people were more willing to pay the premium to live in these newly desirable neighborhoods because of the culture, but its pricing out the original inhabitants. Franklin added, "I'm not going to tell any of y'all where I moved."

“We have to continue to support the diversification of mobility options.”

Abbey Roberson, vice president of planning at the Texas Medical Center. Roberson says transportation is something she particularly focuses on considering how many people filter in and out of the TMC on a daily basis. The medical center wouldn't be able to support the traffic with out various modes of transportation — busses, light rails, etc. Roberson adds that this translates to the rest of the city. "We can't just be doing one thing or the other."

“We’re creating this great culture of trail activation.”

Steve Radom, founder & managing principal at Radom Capital LLC, which developed Heights Mercantile off a bike path and is now building out The MKT, which is also along the same bike path. Radom notes that the city has seen a 300 percent year over year in walkability and a 70 percent increase in bike traffic.

“Climate change is not something the city of Houston can change alone.”

Lara Cottingham, chief of staff & chief sustainability officer at the city of Houston. The city's climate action plan is a result of the devastating floods has seen almost annually. The plan is still being drafted but a version is expected to be released before the end of the year. Every city is facing sustainability challenges, and partnerships are what's going to drive change. "In Houston success means partnership," Cottingham adds.

“How do you talk about a city this big and diverse — every neighborhood has its own identity.”

Jon Nordby, managing director of MassChallenge in Houston, discussed how Houston functions differently from other cities in that it its various neighborhoods — the Heights, Montrose, downtown — are different from each other.

NASA technology is up for grabs and InnovationMap has a new podcast — here are some innovators to know this week. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Another Monday means another weekly roundup of who's who in Houston innovation.

This week, we have our first Houston Innovators Podcast guest to feature, as well as a NASA expert who wants to loan you space technology.

Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge Texas

Courtesy of MassChallenge

On our first episode of the new Houston Innovators Podcast, we discuss Houston accelerators with Jon Nordby, managing director for MassChallenge Texas. The first Houston program launched this year, and, as the organization looks toward its next cohort, the Houston innovation ecosystem is evolving in front of our eyes.

To read more about Nordby and MassChallenge, click here to read the story and listen to the podcast.

Sara Kelly, founder of Rigby

Courtesy of Rigby

Sara Kelly thinks you shouldn't have to get married or buy a house to have a nice dish set. She created Rigby, a Houston-based direct-to-consumer tableware company that is flipping the script on dishes.

"The reaction to the brand and the product has been great," says Kelly. "It's been so exciting for me to see that. At this point, we're focused on organic growth since we're so new."

Click here to read more about Rigby.

Steven Gonzalez, technology transfer strategist at NASA

Courtesy of NASA

Steven Gonzalez's job is to move NASA technology out into the world. The Johnson Space Center has hundreds of technology applications and IPs, and so much more can be done with those ideas here on earth. In a guest column for InnovationMap, Gonzalez writes of the NASA Johnson Space Center Technology Transfer and Commercialization Office, which will loan technology licenses to startups for free for three years.

"New technologies have been researched, developed, and proven on the ground — as well as above the earth on the International Space Station — in fields including medical, communications, agriculture, manufacturing, materials, structures, and much more," he writes. "At NASA's JSC, we are proud of the exceptional innovators who continue to develop technologies that advance the space program and technology for society on our home planet, and we love to share our knowledge."

Click here to read more about the program.

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Rice University develops 2 new innovative tools to detect COVID-19

pandemic tech

Rice University is once again spearheading research and solutions in the ongoing battle with COVID-19. The university announced two developing innovations: a "real-time sensor" to detect the virus and a cellphone tool that can detect the disease in less than an hour.

Sensing COVID
Researchers at Rice received funding for up to $1 million to develop the real-time sensor that promises to detect minute amounts of the airborne virus.

Teams at Rice and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston are working to develop a thin film electronic device that senses as few as eight SARS-CoV-2 viruses in 10 minutes of sampling air flowing at 8 liters per minute, per a press release.

Dubbed the Real-Time Amperometric Platform Using Molecular Imprinting for Selective Detection of SARS-CoV-2 (or, RAPID), the project has been funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Rice notes. Further funding will be contingent upon a successful demonstration of the technology.

Attacking with an app
Meanwhile, the university announced that its engineers have developed a plug-in tool that can diagnose COVID-19 in around 55 minutes. The tool utilizes programmed magnetic nanobeads and a tool that plugs into a basic cellphone.

First, a stamp-sized microfluidic chip measures the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein in blood serum from a standard finger prick.

Then, nanobeads bind to SARS-CoV-2 N protein, a biomarker for COVID-19, in the chip and transport it to an electrochemical sensor that detects minute amounts of the biomarker. Paired with a Google Pixel 2 phone and a plug-in tool, researchers quickly secured a positive diagnosis.

This, researchers argue, simplifies sample handling compared to swab-based PCR tests that must be analyzed in a laboratory.

"What's great about this device is that it doesn't require a laboratory," said Rice engineer Peter Lillehoj in a statement. "You can perform the entire test and generate the results at the collection site, health clinic or even a pharmacy. The entire system is easily transportable and easy to use."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Chevron's Houston-based venture arm launches $300M fund focusing on low-carbon tech

show me the money

Chevron Corp.'s investment arm has launched a $300 million fund that will focus on low-carbon technology.

Chevron Technology Ventures LLC's Future Energy Fund II builds on the success of the first Future Energy Fund, which kicked off in 2018 and invested in more than 10 companies specializing in niches like carbon capture, emerging mobility, and energy storage. The initial fund contained $100 million.

"The new fund will focus on innovation likely to play a critical role in the future energy system in industrial decarbonization, emerging mobility, energy decentralization, and the growing circular carbon economy," Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures says in a February 25 release.

Future Energy Fund II is the eighth venture fund created by Chevron Technology Ventures since its establishment in 1999. In 2019, the investment arm started a $90 million fund to invest in startups that can help accelerate the oil and gas business of San Ramon, California-based Chevron.

Chevron Technology Ventures' portfolio for low-carbon technology comprises a dozen companies: Blue Planet, Carbon Clean, Carbon Engineering, ChargePoint, Eavor, Infinitum Electric, Natron Energy, Spear Power Systems, Svante, Voyage, Vutility, and Zap Energy.

Only one of the companies in the low-carbon portfolio is based in Texas — Infinitum Electric, located in Round Rock. However, Chevron Technology Ventures is active in the Houston entrepreneurial ecosystem as a participant in the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, Greentown Labs, The Cannon, and The Ion. Chevron's investment arm was the first tenant at The Ion.

In an August 2020 interview with InnovationMap, Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, said the investment arm places a priority on helping advance entrepreneurship in Houston. "It is our home court," she said.

Burger said that for Houston to succeed in energy innovation, companies, government agencies, investment firms, and universities must rally around the city.

"We're doing a lot of things right — almost in spite of the world being crazy. … I think constancy of purpose is important," she said. "Despite the headwinds from COVID and despite the headwinds that industries are facing, we need to stay committed to that."

Burger noted that innovation "is not a straight path."

"We've got to plant a bunch of these seeds and see how they grow — we need to water them every day, and then I think we'll have a beautiful garden," she said.