PHIOGEN, based at Texas Medical Center Innovation, is headed to Austin next month. Photo courtesy of TMC

Houston biotech startup PHIOGEN is among 45 finalists that will present at this year’s SXSW Pitch showcase in Austin.

PHIOGEN is one of five food, nutrition, and health startups that will participate in the pitch competition, set for March 9 and 10. A panel of judges will listen to the pitches and then pick the winners. Since 2009, SXSW Pitch finalists have raised more than $23.2 billion in funding.

PHIOGEN has developed the world’s first biogenetics technology platform to harness the power of bacteriophages in the fight against serious drug-resistant infections. Bacteriophages — viruses that are found in bacterial cells — “are ubiquitous in the environment and are recognized as the most abundant biological agent on earth,” according to an article published in 2022 by StatPearls.

Founded in 2023, PHIOGEN is a spinoff of the Baylor College of Medicine’s TAILOR Labs. The startup, based at the Texas Medical Center’s Innovation Hub, has attracted more than $5 million in funding.

“Nothing about our treatments is fabricated; it boils down to creating natural environments that mimic real-life infections, driving biological changes to create ‘super phages’ against the superbugs,” Amanda Burkardt, CEO of PHIOGEN, said in 2023. “As a result, we receive high-performing phage fighters that are trained and ready to deliver safe and effective treatments for clinical applications.”

Professional services firm KPMG is the main sponsor of SXSW Pitch.

Six of this year’s SXSW Pitch judges are from Houston:

  • Heath Butler of Mercury Fund
  • Jesse Martinez of LSA Global
  • Trevor Purvis of the Houston Astros
  • Anu Puvvada of KPMG
  • Irene Tang of StartOut
  • Nate Thompson of HTX Sports Tech

“2024 is an exciting year for startups, and we are looking forward to showcasing these inspiring companies that are making waves in their respective industries and the world as a whole, as well as help connect them with the resources needed to continue advancing,” says Chris Valentine, producer of SXSW Pitch.

Anu Puvvada, KPMG Studio leader, shares how her team is advancing software solutions while navigating hype cycles and solving billion-dollar-problems. Photo courtesy of KPMG

How this Houston-based studio is tackling billion-dollar problems with internal innovation

Q&A

In 2021, KPMG, a New York-based global audit, accounting, and advisory service provider, formed a new entity to play in the innovation space. The Houston-based team finds innovative software that benefit KPMG's clients across industries.

"We're really focused on transformative businesses that we can offer our clients in the next three to five years to solve fairly large problems," Anu Puvvada, KPMG Studio leader, tells InnovationMap.

Now, almost two years later, KPMG Studio has spun out its first company, AI-based security startup Cranium, which has raised $7 million in a seed round led by SYN Ventures with support from KPMG.

Established to advance internal innovation, KPMG Studio's technologies don't always get spun out into startups like Cranium, but with support of the team, the early-stage ideas receive guidance from the company's resources with the potential to be rolled into KPMG's suite of services for its clients.

In an interview with InnovationMap, Puvvada shares more about the program, the Cranium spin out, and why she's passionate about leading this initiative from Houston.

InnovationMap: Tell me about KPMG Studio's structure and your overall goal with the program.

Anu Puvvada: I like to think about it more around framing. We frame the studio around three pillars: incubate, accelerate and amplify. We take in a lot of ideas that come from the business and from our clients and we incubate and see which of them are really high growth solving like a very large problem across verticals and horizontals. When I say a big problem — it's got to be a $1 billion-plus problem. With Cranium, we saw some very early indicators, like a rise in AI adoption amongst our clients. We saw that AI was in this spot where it was going to hit an exponential growth marker. We also saw a rise in cyber attacks. All of that plus conversations with clients made us realize that there's there's something big brewing here.

We're looking at a ton of ideas, and then parsing out maybe 10 that we create into the next Cranium. And then in accelerate, we're finding early adopters and we're growing the idea, building it, raising venture capital for the idea if we decide to spin it out.

IM: Seems like a mutually beneficial relationship between KPMG and these innovators, right?

AP: I would say it's good for KPMG because it allows us to innovate differently and innovate with agility. My group actually operates as a startup within a large organization. And then we create this ecosystem around startups inside KPMG, so when it exits, it's got the basis to run on its own. That's important for us because it gives us agility, it lets us really capitalize on our brand. It's not just what it brings us, but also what it brings our clients.

There's a big competitive advantage to innovating inside KPMG. These innovators get to work inside our walls protected by the infrastructure of KPMG. They, they get a technology team to help them build the idea. And they get to use their brand of KPMG, use our marketing engine, our comms engine, like everything that's behind us. A startup outside, it doesn't get any of that. So, it almost like accelerates them into market when the spin out happens. We use the differentiators and the competitive advantage of KPMG in order to amplify the story of that startup and their value proposition in the market.

IM: So there are two paths for these technologies, right?

AP: We either have what we call spin ins, which means it's created and spins into the business or we have spin outs, which is what Cranium is. We classify spin outs into its own startup or a sale of an asset. And then for the spin in, we would license to our clients under the mothership of KPMG.

IM: Is the studio operating completely in Houston?

AP: We source our ideas from all over nationally. I'm in Houston and a lot of my support team is actually in Houston as well. And I work with a lot of the Houston ecosystem around innovation. I really see Houston as a big future market. We are at the center of climate and ESG, the space economy, and medicine. Those are three big like curves that are going to be hitting in the next five years. So, it is integral for studio to be integrated into that ecosystem to position KPMG for the future.

IM: What's your vision for the studio?

AP: I definitely see us taking in more ideas into studio to build internally for our pioneers, which is what we call our innovators — Jonathan Dambrot, who is the founder of Cranium, he's the pioneer. We'll definitely be doing more Craniums that spin out of the firm. And we have a number that are spinning into the firm already.

I also see us evolving to bring in external startups into the studio so we can also give them the entire ecosystem a way to be lifted up and to shepherd each other into the future.

It's really important that anything that we invest in and we work on is staying measured through these hype cycles that are happening. We need to make sure that these ideas are grounded in the problem that's being solved in an adaptable way and that there's a strong market need for it. That's something that the studio really spends a lot of time doing in the beginning, which kind of helps mitigate some of these hype cycles for us and our clients.

When you think about innovation as a whole, it's mired with risk and uncertainty. You never know if something's going to work or not. And part of what we have to do with any idea that we're building in the studio or anything that our clients are doing around innovation, we have to do as much as we can to mitigate that risk and uncertainty. And that's kind of what KPMG's wheelhouse is.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

While most corporations should be optimizing their company cultures, energy companies specifically need to move the needle on driving forward innovative culture for its employees. Getty Images

Sustaining a culture of innovation is key to driving the energy industry, says this Houston expert

Guest column

The prevailing economic environment has made innovation essential to gaining a competitive edge in the oil and gas industry.

Global economic shifts and the unstable oil market have been considerable factors inhibiting the advancement of innovation in the oil and gas sector. Oil prices have not significantly increased in the past four to five years, while investors and Wall Street hold corporate executives accountable for capital discipline.

In light of these trends, corporate culture and innovation are key factors that hold the potential to drive novelty in the next upcycle. To bring value to shareholders, the oil and gas industry needs to nurture an environment that fosters a radically innovative culture to create new product lines and markets, unique ecosystems, product content, and processes.

Culture from the top down

Organizational culture is one of the essential dynamics that drive innovation. Employee behavior helps influence and promote the acceptance of innovation as a fundamental corporate value. Organizations are therefore admonished to concentrate on fostering an innovative culture that allows the growth of new ideas.

This culture needs to be created by deliberate action on the part of leaders of industry or by indirect measures such as composition and institutional policy directions. A model of innovative culture which translates into cultural transformation emerges as a result of this deliberate action and institutional policy directions.

Various studies over the years have examined innovative culture models focused on cultural characteristics or factors. A comprehensive, innovative culture model that incorporates cultural traits and their determinants is reviewed in this contemplative piece.

Execution  culture vs. innovative culture

In her book, "The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business," Erin Meyer explains that "ambidextrous culture" is the concurrent search of flexibility and alignment at a business unit/sector which is linked to several organizational outcomes including improved performance and innovation.

This ambidextrous culture can be divided into two broad categories: Execution culture and innovative culture. Execution culture is a working environment that is more process- and task-driven to get things done. The oil and gas industry has typically favored the execution culture, where there is a central decision-maker at the head of the table. Research and recommendations on pertinent matters are typically presented to decision-makers who sit through a PowerPoint presentation. Subsequently, a decision is made based on the facts presented via PowerPoint presentation.

One critical demerit of this setup is that it usually leans towards low-risk conservative judgment. The executive lifestyle has worked in the past in the oil and gas industry due to the high fixed cost, and the "failure is unacceptable" approach in the industry.

With new technologies such as 3D printing, predictive analytics, machine learning, and deep learning, one can test some ideas or thoughts through rapid prototyping in a lab setting to test their hypothesis. Therefore, this type of culture as a sole approach to decision-making in the industry may need to be reconsidered.

Meanwhile, innovative culture is a work environment where leaders encourage and nurture unorthodox thinking in approaching problem solutions and applications. If the energy industry leaned more toward this style of culture, it would help foster innovation and accelerate the innovation landscape in the industry.

Innovative culture is a more design-oriented approach that generates a large pool of options and also incorporates a visual thinking framework. It enhances a creative mode for the audience, and everybody in the company ends up being a decision-maker. This type of culture fosters open innovation, eliminates the fear of expression, and pushes for more collaboration and creativity in the ecosystem.

According to a recent survey done by Accenture Strategy, 76 percent of leaders say they regularly empower employees to be innovative, while only 42 percent of employees agree. This shows an apparent disparity in more than the perceptions of employers versus employees and the belief that innovative culture is not promoted by middle management. This barrier can be broken down by instituting and enforcing an innovative culture.

Staying agile in a transforming world

The world has changed, and it will continue to transform. Various factors are disrupting traditional methods of business management across the globe, and organizational behavior is being impacted significantly. For an organization to be competitive globally, it requires innovation and creativity.

The rate at which businesses are facing competition requires agility. Employees are pressured to give their best and to come up with new ideas at a level even beyond some of history's greatest minds. For many, uncertainty and insecurity abounds. The fear of being made redundant and a resulting lack of trust prevents creativity among employees.

Trust, productive gameplay, and fun — critical components of an innovative culture — can spark creativity and increase global competitiveness. Due to the recent downturn, most teams are burdened with the same amount of work, which was meant for double or tripled their workforce and are still expected to perform at their peak capability. They need the right conducive environment to function.

Implementing action

While the energy industry should avoid trying to copy innovative practices from technology companies, oil and gas companies should review possible case studies that can be incorporated in fostering an acceptable culture for millennials to be attracted to the industry.

Presentation is important

Take a look at your marketing materials, for instance. Skip the stereotypical image of the macho oil guy on a rig operating the brake handle and showcase how the industry is adapting open innovation across sectors such as using predictive analytics and rapid prototyping to help design a safe working environment. Showcasing the conducive culture we experience in oil and gas, which challenges us to think outside the box and solve the world's energy problems will be an excellent way to create opportunities internally in companies and also attract and retain talent from different backgrounds and industries to help solve the world's energy problems.

Consider flexible work initiatives

To help establish and foster an innovative culture in oil and gas, the industry needs to embrace virtual and remote working environments, retraining and refresher courses to keep employees' skills relevant to solving problems, leaders setting a positive example on work-life balance and cutting down or avoiding long-distance travel via virtual meetings. Others essential pointers to consider are, giving employees the freedom to be themselves at work, leadership or management having a positive attitude towards failure, allowing remote work on days on which employees have personal commitments, networking events with company leaders scheduled during office hours, having an open channel for the report of sexual discrimination/harassment incident(s) to the company, among others.


I'd like to close with a quote from another influential book, "The Innovator's Dilemma," by Harvard Professor Clay Christensen. He writes, "When an organization's capabilities reside primarily in its people, changing to address new problems is relatively simple. However, when the capabilities have come to live in processes and values and especially when they have become embedded in culture, change has become extraordinarily complicated."

Establishing a uniquely innovative culture within the energy industry will be a great foundation going forward, for spurring progress in the oil and gas sector.

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Nii A. Nunoo is senior associate and management consultant within Strategy and Energy Core Operations at KPMG.

From Rex Tillerson's thoughts on leadership and politics to Houston's role in the low-carbon energy movement, check out these powerful quotes from the 2020 KPMG Global Energy Conference. Getty Images

Overheard: Oil and gas experts weigh in on the future of low-carbon energy and Houston's role in the movement

Eavesdropping in Houston

As the energy capital of the world, Houston can't get complacent. The oil and gas industry is changing — carbon is out and finding clean energy alternatives is in.

At the 2020 KPMG Global Energy Conference on June 5 and 6, hundreds of energy professionals listened to the O&G elite — even including former Secretary of State and former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson — give their two cents about the revolution. Day two of the conference featured the Houston Low Carbon Energy Climate Summit by the Center for Houston's Future.

In case you missed it, here are a few powerful quotes from both days of the program — from Houston's role in the low-carbon energy movement to Tillerson's leadership expertise.

"Texas is one of those places where you can just get stuff done.”

— Cindy Yeilding, senior vice president at BP, says Texans are willing to collaborate on this. In the "Visions of our Energy Future" panel during the Low Carbon Energy Summit on Thursday, June 6, she predicted Houston will be a net zero carbon city by 2040 or 2035.

“One of the things we need to focus on is being able to attract and retain talent.”

— Mary Anne Brelinsky, CEO of EDF Trading, stressing the importance of talent in the effort to keep Houston the energy capital of the world. Brelinsky advocated for corporations and its execs getting involved with local universities. "We're competing against Silicon Valley," she says in the panel.

"You’ve got the source, and you’ve got the sinks. … Houston is going to be one of our focal points.”

— Charlene Olivia Russell, vice president of Low Carbon Strategies at Oxy, on how Houston is set up for success when it comes to staying as a power player in the global low carbon energy platform, but, during the panel, she emphasizes collaboration needs to continue happening.

“When Shell agreed to sponsor this summit, it was pitched as a climate change summit. It was changed to a low-carbon summit because some people in this room are uncomfortable with the phrase 'climate change.'"

— Jason Klein, vice president of U.S. Energy Transition Strategy at Shell, says at the "Energy Transformations" panel during the Low Carbon Energy Summit on Thursday, June 6.

"If we want to be the leader and the energy capital of the world, we need to attract talent, capital investment, and innovation, and if the people are going to do those things think that we don’t even like to talk about those things, then they aren’t going to come here — they’re going to go to San Francisco.”

— Klein continues. The audience responded with a round of applause.

“I think it is important as Americans to remember that our greatest strength and the most important element to our national security has been that we are a nation that has many allies and friends. Our adversaries — Russia, China, North Korea, Iran — have no allies or friends.”

— Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who served as CEO of ExxonMobil from 2006 to 2016. Tillerson discussed a wide range of topics on Wednesday, June 5, at the 2020 KPMG Global Energy Conference in his fireside chat with Regina Mayor, global sector head and U.S. national sector leader of energy and natural resources at KPMG US. Click here to watch the full interview.

“We’re all a work in progress. You’re never done. I’m not done — I’m still a work in progress. If you have that view and you have that set of values that are never going to change … [then] I can keep developing as a human being.”

— Tillerson says of leadership lessons learned. He's an avid proponent of the Boy Scouts of America organization, and cited many valuable lessons he's learned about himself and about leading people from his involvement in the nonprofit.

At a conference focused on women in business, three Houston entrepreneurs gave their advice for the next generation of female innovators. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Overheard: Houston female entrepreneurs share advice and experience

Eavesdropping in Houston

Hundreds of women gathered for the Greater Houston Women's Chamber of Commerce's annual Greater Houston Conference for Women. The full-day event on April 18th shined a spotlight on the work women are doing in business in the Bayou City.

One part of the programing included a panel of three Houston entrepreneurs who told their stories and meant to inspire the next generation of businesswomen.

"Innovation is critically important to our city," says Tandra Jackson, KPMG's Houston office partner and moderator of the panel. "Having an ecosystem where we bring innovative capabilities, solutions, and organizations to our community is absolutely paramount to the longevity of our city."

If you missed the event, here are some powerful quotes overheard at the panel.

“I look for a passionate entrepreneur with a point of difference — there’s got to be a reason for you to be doing this company. What are you bringing to [the industry]?”

—Janet Gurwitch, founder of Laura Mercier Cosmetics and private equity investor focused on cosmetics companies, when asked if there was a difference between male and female entrepreneurs. "Other than biologically, no," she says.

“It’s extraordinarily important that you find an investor who basically gets it — whether it’s the financial [concern of] how to you do revenue recognition in the software world, or how do you capitalize and understand the valuations. It’s important that you get the right player.”

— Samina Farid, founder of Merrick Systems Inc., an energy software company when asked about advice for young women interested in starting their own company.

“One of the things I see is [the importance of] really knowing the problem that you solve. When you’re early on, [you have to know] what is the core market that you’re going to serve and is the market large enough that you’re going to attract enough customers to solve that problem.”

— Janette Marx, CEO of Airswift, an international workforce solutions provider. Marx contributes as a mentor in GHWCC's office hours and advises entrepreneurs to look into the program.

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Houston fintech startup acquired by California unicorn

M&A moves

A Houston fintech innovator is celebrating his latest startup's exit.

Brassica Technologies Inc., a fintech infrastructure company that's provides a platform for alternative assets, has been acquired by BitGo, a Palo Alto, California-based tech company with digital asset services. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

"Joining forces with BitGo is a significant step towards Brassica's ultimate vision of building the financial infrastructure of the future," Youngro Lee, founder and CEO of Brassica, says in a news release. "Our strength lies in our 'one stop shop' approach of providing API-enabled infrastructure for the alternative assets industry.

"This sector is rapidly growing and bringing in new investors around the world," Lee continues. "Our technology-focused development, combined with our deep domain expertise in securities and banking laws, uniquely position us in the market, especially for sophisticated clients dealing with the complexities of private securities and digital assets."

Lee founded Brassica in 2020 after his first fintech company, NextSeed, was acquired by Republic. Brassica raised its $8 million seed round led by Houston-based Mercury last year.

The acquisition is a strategic move by BitGo, which was valued at $1.75 billion last year, according to the company after its $100 million raise. Adding Brassica's suite of technology expands on BitGo's ability to grow its customer base.

"We currently have a dichotomy in financial services — one side deals with traditional securities and the other deals with up-and-coming blockchain-based assets and cryptocurrencies," Mike Belshe, CEO of BitGo, says in the release. "With this acquisition, BitGo becomes the first major financial services firm to be able to provide comprehensive infrastructure support for both traditional private securities and blockchain-based assets, while significantly expanding our global presence."

Last year, Lee joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Brassica and his overarching mission of democratizing fintech and investment tools. He explains there hasn't been a seamless solution created for the backend of alternative asset transactions, things like custody of those assets or transferring and keeping track of them.

"The reason why I thought this was what I wanted to focus on next was exactly because it was an issue I struggled with as a founder of NextSeed," Lee says on the show. "The backend was always an issue. There's not one single vendor that we felt really understood our business, was doing it efficiently, or enabled us to deliver those services to our end clients."

Houston innovation hub restructures, pulls in more Rice resources

cha-cha-changes

Rice University is leaning in on the Ion by restructuring the innovation hub's team and increasing the university's presence at the hub.

Paul Cherukuri, vice president for innovation, tells InnovationMap that the changes being made at the Ion — Rice's Midtown innovation hub — are a reflection of Rice President Reginald DesRoches's vision for the hub and for the university as a leader of innovation.

"We're embracing the community even further by what we've done with this restructuring," Cherukuri says. "The restructuring is really a result of Reggie's vision of us wanting to move forward with helping the community to grow innovation across Houston, throughout Texas, if not the world."

He adds that the university is "putting resources from Rice Alliance and amping up what's happening at the Ion."

Earlier this month, Rice announced that Brad Burke, executive director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, has been named associate vice president for industry and new ventures reporting to Cherukuri's Office of Innovation.

Cherukuri confirms that the Rice Alliance will take over programming at the Ion, and that he too will have an increased presence at the hub. The restructuring includes elimination of positions at the Ion; however, Rice declined to comment on matters of personnel.

"We have members of the Ion staff who are going to be integrated to the Rice Alliance," Cherukuri says. "The direction of this is really so that we can no longer stay behind the hedges and do more for the Houston community."

Cherukuri says the university has already made a concerted effort on this, and soon will deliver on the Rice Nexus, a hub within the Ion for showcasing and connecting Rice innovation. Additionally, Rice announced last month that it's partnering with Woodside Energy, which committed $12.5 million over the next five years to create the Woodside Rice Decarbonization Accelerator.

Last year, Cherukuri joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to expound upon his vision for the Ion in his role as the inaugural vice president for innovation, which he was named to in 2022.