Andrew Chang, managing director of United Airlines Ventures, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

When it comes to the future of aviation — namely, making it more sustainable, a rising tide lifts all boats. Or, in this case, planes.

Andrew Chang, managing director of United Airlines Ventures, explains that working together is the key for advancing sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF. That's why United Airlines started the Sustainable Flight Fund, a $200 million initiative with support from industry leaders, including Air Canada, Boeing, GE Aerospace, JPMorgan Chase, Honeywell, Aramco Ventures, Bank of America, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Ventures, and several others.

"We all recognize that we may compete in our core business, but with the importance of sustainable aviation fuel and given that it's an industry that doesn't exist — you can't compete for something that doesn't exist — let's collaborate and work together to explore technologies that can directly or indirectly support the commercialization and production of sustainable aviation fuel," he says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Within United Airline Ventures, Chang's job is to find technology to invest in across the aviation industry spectrum — from SAF to digital technologies that will improve the United customer experience. This means working with startups and other organizations to find the best fit — and, because he's based in Houston, one of United's seven key hubs, this means knowing and interacting with local innovators.

"The knowledge base and the capabilities are here — that's undebatable," Chang says of the Houston innovation ecosystem. "The next step is making sure we're accessing, promoting, collaborating, and learning from one another."

Again, as Chang recognizes, collaboration is key to further developing the ecosystem, "so that we're not trying to solve the same problem in a vacuum," he explains.

United Airlines recently signed an offtake agreement with Cemvita Factory, a Houston biotech startup that's working on SAF. Chang discusses this partnership on the show, as well as explaining how he works with other startups and what he's looking for.

Attention small business owners: it's time for a financial wellness exam. And Hello Alice has just the tool for you to use. Photo by Hero Images

Houston fintech company launches new tool for startups and small businesses

wellness check

Much like the humans that run them, businesses need the occasional wellness exam. A fintech company founded in Houston has created a tool for conducting that health check.

Hello Alice announced that its new tool Business Health Score has launched today. The assessment tool can be used by startups and small businesses to navigate their financial and business health. The tool is the first product rolling out from the Equitable Access Program, a new initiative from Hello Alice and the Global Entrepreneurship Network with support from Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Mastercard, and the Kauffman Foundation.

Hello Alice was co-founded by Elizabeth Gore and Carolyn Rodz and has worked with over one million small businesses to help them access capital. The idea of the Score is to give business owners "a comprehensive overview of a business's financial health," according to the news release from Hello Alice. This information is critical for decision making and works hand-in-hand with all of Hello Alice's existing resources.

Operating as a self-assessment questionnaire, the Score will provide entrepreneurs with a composite number by evaluating three business aspects: financial and business management practices, financial performance and position, and credit history.

“Over the last two years, Americans have applied to start 10.5 million new businesses, leading to a surge in the small business economy and more entrepreneurs who need support to properly grow their businesses," say Gore and Rodz in the release. "We recognized data was missing from the market that would give enterprise partners and financial institutions a clearer picture of the potential that small business owners possess for massive growth and investment."

The Score will help Hello Alice and its partners, which includes financial institutions, navigate the business's unique needs and provide the appropriate financial services and resources.

“We are providing unparalleled visibility through the Business Health Score that will empower small business owners to make more strategic decisions and optimize their growth while giving partners and institutions the insight to best help them through personalized service and product recommendations," the co-founders continue. "The Score and the larger Equitable Access Program we have launched with GEN are a huge step forward in opening up more growth opportunities for small businesses and ecosystem partners.”

Hello Alice and GEN are on a mission of democratizing access to capital so that entrepreneurs from all communities have the ability to grow their businesses sustainably. Last year, Hello Alice launched an entrepreneur-focused credit card that helped businesses more easily set up a line of credit.

“Entrepreneurs are well-equipped to deal with disruption and changing dynamics, but while talent is plentiful, opportunity is not,” says Jonathan Ortmans, founder and president of the Global Entrepreneurship Network, in the release. “The Equitable Access Program and Business Health Score will open doors for small business owners to better manage and grow their businesses, which will lead to more strategic partnership and funding opportunities.”

Three panelists representing the real estate, banking, and health care industries weighed in on innovation in Houston. Photo via Greater Houston Partnership/Facebook

Overheard: Houston execs weigh in on the innovation ecosystem and local startups

Eavesdropping in Houston

Something has shifted in Houston, and businesses across industries — whether it be real estate, health care, or energy — are focused on innovation, emerging technologies, and the role of startups within the business community.

At the Greater Houston Partnership's annual Economic Outlook on December 5, three panelists from various industries gathered to discuss some of the biggest issues in Houston — from the multifamily real estate market to what the local workforce needs. The panel was moderated by Eddie Robinson, the morning news anchor for Houston Public Radio, and the panelists did weigh in a few issues affecting innovation.

Missed the talk? Here are a few overheard moments from the discussion.

"Houston allows you to do what you do. And you don't get that in other places."

Photo via Greater Houston Partnership/Facebook

Bradley R. Freels, chairman of Midway Cos. Freels says, while the city's been overshadowed by other Texas cities for innovation and tech — and even by its large oil and gas industry presence, the city is becoming a great place for startups. "This is a great place to do business because it's easy to get started in business here. I think it's just over shadowed to some degree," he says, adding later that, "the initiative around the innovation corridor is real."

"Houston is unique, in my opinion, in how open and welcoming it is."

Photo via Greater Houston Partnership/Facebook

— David Milich, CEO of UnitedHealthcare - Texas & Oklahoma. Building off the panelists point that Houston is a spirited, can-do city, Milich specifies that it's the collaboration between people in Houston that sets the city apart. "When we present ourselves with something to get done, we generally get it down."

"We're realizing that the economy is shifting. As we move forward in the 21st century, our entire workforce needs to be tech fluent."

Photo via Greater Houston Partnership/Facebook

Nataly Marks, managing director and region manager at JPMorgan Chase. When asked about jobs needed in Houston, Marks specified technology positions. Moreover, JPMorgan Chase is emphasizing getting the entire staff proficient in the latest tech resources.

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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.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.