This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Kelsey Hultberg of Sunnova, Brad Burke of Rice Alliance, and Yaxin Wang of the Texas Heart Institute. 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 health care to energy tech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Kelsey Hultberg, executive vice president of corporate communications and sustainability of Sunnova Energy International

Kelsey Hultberg, executive vice president of corporate communications and sustainability at Sunnova Energy, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Sunnova

Several years ago, Kelsey Hultberg decided to make a pivot. Looking for a role with career growth opportunities, the communications professional thought she'd find something at an oil and gas company, but then she met John Berger, founder and CEO of Sunnova, who was looking for someone to stand up their communications team amidst the solar energy company's growth.

"He hooked me," Hultberg shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "He said, 'I've got big plans for this company. I see where this energy industry is going, I see that we're prime for a transition, and I want to take this company public.' And I started a few weeks later."

Hultberg has been telling the story for Sunnova — which equips customers with solar and storage technology, providing them with energy independence — ever since, through scaling, new technologies, and its IPO in 2019. Read more.

Houston Innovation Awards names longtime Rice leader as 2023 Trailblazer

Brad Burke has been named the 2023 Trailblazer Award recipient. Photo via alliance.rice.edu

In less than a month, all of Houston's innovation community's movers and shakers will gather to celebrate the Houston Innovation Awards, and the night's first honoree has officially been named.

Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, was selected to receive the 2023 Trailblazer Award. The award was established to recognize an individual who has already left a profound impact on Houston's business and innovation ecosystem and is dedicated to continuing to support Houston and its entrepreneurs.

The award, which is selected from a group of internal and external nominations, was decided by a vote of the 2023 awards judges, who represent Houston's business, investment, and entrepreneurial community across industries. Read more.

Yaxin Wang leads the IDEA Lab at the Texas Heart Institute. Photo via texasheart.org

Meet Yaxin Wang, PhD. The research engineer leads the IDEA Lab at the Texas Heart Institute. IDEA stands for Innovative Device & Engineering Applications, an apt description of what Wang and her colleagues do. She’s currently focused intensely on projects that could radically change transplantation for patients in need of an artificial heart or new, healthy lungs.

Specifically, Wang is helping to develop a pediatric left ventricular assist device (NeoVAD) to mechanically pump that part of the heart in infants and small children born with heart defects.

“There aren’t a lot of options for very small kids,” explains Wang. “That’s why we’re working on an implantable LVAD for very young kids.” Read more.

Kelsey Hultberg, executive vice president of corporate communications and sustainability at Sunnova Energy, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Sunnova

Houston corporate communications expert on importance of messaging when scaling a tech company

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 207

Several years ago, Kelsey Hultberg decided to make a pivot. Looking for a role with career growth opportunities, the communications professional thought she'd find something at an oil and gas company, but then she met John Berger, founder and CEO of Sunnova, who was looking for someone to stand up their communications team amidst the solar energy company's growth.

"He hooked me," Hultberg shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "He said, 'I've got big plans for this company. I see where this energy industry is going, I see that we're prime for a transition, and I want to take this company public.' And I started a few weeks later."

Hultberg has been telling the story for Sunnova — which equips customers with solar and storage technology, providing them with energy independence — ever since, through scaling, new technologies, and its IPO in 2019.



Each phase of the company represented different challenges for Hultberg and her communications team. As she explains on the podcast, consistently conveying a strong message is key in any industry, but especially energy.

"Communication is critical," Hultberg says, "having a strategy and really being able to articulate who you are, what you stand for, what is your mission, what is your vision — and really beyond that, what is your strategy for how you move forward. ... You can never say the same thing to the same people too many times, especially when you're a company that some people have never heard of before."

And while there's a unique challenge to communications for energy transition companies, Hultberg says she views it as a huge opportunity as long as you have the right structure in place.

"Of course communications and being as strategic as possible with the story that you're telling and the narrative that you're weaving for your different audiences, but then you layer on an industry that's rapidly changing and is tumultuous at times," she says. "Being able to come back to the core mission and values is really incredible."

Hultberg says that when she originally joined the team in 2017, she thought a solar energy company in Houston was an interesting choice — and it was. Texas was not one of Sunnova's biggest markets at the time, Hultberg explains, but things are different now.

"Over the last couple of years, especially after Winter Storm Uri, where you saw a lot of people go without power. ... We had a lot of customers say, 'That can't happen again,'" she says. "You're seeing the adoption and uptick in solar in storage because they are looking for grid reliability and affordability and they aren't getting it from their utility providers."

On a panel for Houston Climate Week, three energy experts discussed the importance of Houston taking the right steps in the energy transition. Getty Images

Overheard: Experts call for Houston to become the 'energy transition capital of the world'

eavesdropping online

Before the inaugural Houston Climate Week was shutdown — ironically by a major climate event — event attendees heard from a panel of energy experts that spoke of certain challenges the city's economy faces as the energy transition continues.

One of the last events of the programmed week that took place ahead of cancelations due to the threat of Hurricane Laura, was a virtual panel entitled, ENERGY TRANSITION: Making Houston a Global Leader in Energy Innovation. The conversation centered around what Houston is currently doing — and what it still needs to focus on — when it comes to the need to prioritize sustainability in oil and gas and new green alternatives in the greater energy industry.

Here are some of the highlights from the discussion.

“Houston has a spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. We’ve all heard Houston be called the oil and gas capital of the world, but we’re the energy capital of the world — and we have the opportunity right now to become the energy transition capital of the world. We see that here — we want to be a part of that.”

— Kelsey Hultberg, vice president and chief of staff of Sunnova, a Houston-based residential solar energy company that went public last year.

“When you think about energy 2.0, it’s about what the energy industry look like in the future. In Houston, we are working hard to present ourselves not just as a current global energy leader, but the future energy leader of the world."

— Jose Beceiro, senior director of Energy 2.0 at the Greater Houston Partnership.

"The energy capital of the world has to be engaged and become the energy transition capital of the world."

— Juliana Garaizar, launch director of Greentown Labs - Houston.

“One of the thing we’re really focused on is energy resiliency and reliability. … After Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, really fundamentally as an organization as that there is a need for energy reliability.”

— Hultberg says, adding that around a third of the company's solar sales include a battery.

"The oil and gas industry knows it is going to have to hire a whole new workforce going forward that’s much more technical in terms of data analytics, cloud computing, and edge computing. One method you’re seeing these companies try is investing in new types of energy resources. … Another method you’re seeing is these companies forming closer alliances in the tech industry.”

— Beceiro says, adding that these tech companies — like Amazon and Google — have zoomed in on Houston and increased their local presence.

“I really believe that innovation happens at the intersection of things and for that you really need a convening space for that.”

Garaizar says, adding that she hopes Greentown Labs can help provide this convening space.

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New Houston venture studio emerges to target early-stage hardtech, energy transition startups

funding the future

The way Doug Lee looks at it, there are two areas within the energy transition attracting capital. With his new venture studio, he hopes to target an often overlooked area that's critical for driving forward net-zero goals.

Lee describes investment activity taking place in the digital and software world — early stage technology that's looking to make the industry smarter. But, on the other end of the spectrum, investment activity can be found on massive infrastructure projects.

While both areas need funding, Lee has started his new venture studio, Flathead Forge, to target early-stage hardtech technologies.

“We are really getting at the early stage companies that are trying to develop technologies at the intersection of legacy industries that we believe can become more sustainable and the energy transition — where we are going. It’s not an ‘if’ or ‘or’ — we believe these things intersect,” he tells EnergyCapital.

Specifically, Lee's expertise is within the water and industrial gas space. For around 15 years, he's made investments in this area, which he describes as crucial to the energy transition.

“Almost every energy transition technology that you can point to has some critical dependency on water or gas,” he says. “We believe that if we don’t solve for those things, the other projects won’t survive.”

Lee, and his brother, Dave, are evolving their family office to adopt a venture studio model. They also sold off Azoto Energy, a Canadian oilfield nitrogen cryogenic services business, in December.

“We ourselves are going through a transition like our energy is going through a transition,” he says. “We are transitioning into a single family office into a venture studio. By doing so, we want to focus all of our access and resources into this focus.”

At this point, Flathead Forge has seven portfolio companies and around 15 corporations they are working with to identify their needs and potential opportunities. Lee says he's gearing up to secure a $100 million fund.

Flathead also has 40 advisers and mentors, which Lee calls sherpas — a nod to the Flathead Valley region in Montana, which inspired the firm's name.

“We’re going to help you carry up, we’re going to tie ourselves to the same rope as you, and if you fall off the mountain, we’re falling off with you,” Lee says of his hands-on approach, which he says sets Flathead apart from other studios.

Another thing that's differentiating Flathead Forge from its competition — it's dedication to giving back.

“We’ve set aside a quarter of our carried interest for scholarships and grants,” Lee says.

The funds will go to scholarships for future engineers interested in the energy transition, as well as grants for researchers studying high-potential technologies.

“We’re putting our own money where our mouth is,” Lee says of his thesis for Flathead Forge.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston-based lunar mission's rocky landing and what it means for America's return to the moon

houston, we have a problem

A private U.S. lunar lander tipped over at touchdown and ended up on its side near the moon’s south pole, hampering communications, company officials said Friday.

Intuitive Machines initially believed its six-footed lander, Odysseus, was upright after Thursday's touchdown. But CEO Steve Altemus said Friday the craft “caught a foot in the surface," falling onto its side and, quite possibly, leaning against a rock. He said it was coming in too fast and may have snapped a leg.

“So far, we have quite a bit of operational capability even though we’re tipped over," he told reporters.

But some antennas were pointed toward the surface, limiting flight controllers' ability to get data down, Altemus said. The antennas were stationed high on the 14-foot (4.3-meter) lander to facilitate communications at the hilly, cratered and shadowed south polar region.

Odysseus — the first U.S. lander in more than 50 years — is thought to be within a few miles (kilometers) of its intended landing site near the Malapert A crater, less than 200 miles (300 kilometers) from the south pole. NASA, the main customer, wanted to get as close as possible to the pole to scout out the area before astronauts show up later this decade.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will attempt to pinpoint the lander's location, as it flies overhead this weekend.

With Thursday’s touchdown, Intuitive Machines became the first private business to pull off a moon landing, a feat previously achieved by only five countries. Japan was the latest country to score a landing, but its lander also ended up on its side last month.

Odysseus' mission was sponsored in large part by NASA, whose experiments were on board. NASA paid $118 million for the delivery under a program meant to jump-start the lunar economy.

One of the NASA experiments was pressed into service when the lander's navigation system did not kick in. Intuitive Machines caught the problem in advance when it tried to use its lasers to improve the lander's orbit. Otherwise, flight controllers would not have discovered the failure until it was too late, just five minutes before touchdown.

“Serendipity is absolutely the right word,” mission director Tim Crain said.

It turns out that a switch was not flipped before flight, preventing the system's activation in space.

Launched last week from Florida, Odysseus took an extra lap around the moon Thursday to allow time for the last-minute switch to NASA's laser system, which saved the day, officials noted.

Another experiment, a cube with four cameras, was supposed to pop off 30 seconds before touchdown to capture pictures of Odysseus’ landing. But Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s EagleCam was deliberately powered off during the final descent because of the navigation switch and stayed attached to the lander.

Embry-Riddle's Troy Henderson said his team will try to release EagleCam in the coming days, so it can photograph the lander from roughly 26 feet (8 meters) away.

"Getting that final picture of the lander on the surface is still an incredibly important task for us,” Henderson told The Associated Press.

Intuitive Machines anticipates just another week of operations on the moon for the solar-powered lander — nine or 10 days at most — before lunar nightfall hits.

The company was the second business to aim for the moon under NASA's commercial lunar services program. Last month, Pittsburgh's Astrobotic Technology gave it a shot, but a fuel leak on the lander cut the mission short and the craft ended up crashing back to Earth.

Until Thursday, the U.S. had not landed on the moon since Apollo 17's Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closed out NASA's famed moon-landing program in December 1972. NASA's new effort to return astronauts to the moon is named Artemis after Apollo's mythological twin sister. The first Artemis crew landing is planned for 2026 at the earliest.

3 female Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

If the energy transition is going to be successful, the energy storage space needs to be equipped to support both the increased volume of energy needed and new energies. And Emma Konet and her software company, Tierra Climate, are targeting one part of the equation: the market.

"To me, it's very clear that we need to build a lot of energy storage in order to transition the grid," Konet says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The problems that I saw were really on the market side of things." Read more.

Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. Photo courtesy of Sage

A Houston geothermal startup has announced the close of its series A round of funding.

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. The proceeds aim to fund its first commercial geopressured geothermal system facility, which will be built in Texas in Q4 of 2024. According to the company, the facility will be the first of its kind.

“The first close of our Series A funding and our commercial facility are significant milestones in our mission to make geopressured geothermal system technologies a reality,” Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems, says. Read more.

Clemmie Martin, chief of staff at The Cannon

With seven locations across the Houston area, The Cannon's digital technology allows its members a streamlined connection. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

After collaborating over the years, The Cannon has acquired a Houston startup's digital platform technology to become a "physical-digital hybrid" community.

Village Insights, a Houston startup, worked with The Cannon to create and launch its digital community platform Cannon Connect. Now, The Cannon has officially acquired the business. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“The integration of a world-class onsite member experience and Cannon Connect’s superior virtual resource network creates a seamless, streamlined environment for member organizations,” Clemmie Martin, The Cannon’s newly appointed chief of staff, says in the release. “Cannon Connect and this acquisition have paved new pathways to access and success for all.” Read more.