This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes John Chappell of BlockApps, Kyra Doolan of Texas HALO Fund, and Shaun Noorian of Empower Pharmacy. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from venture capital to pharmacy — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

John Chappell, director of energy business development at BlockApps

Siloed data, lack of consistency, and confusing regulations are all challenges blockchain can address, says this expert. Photo courtesy

Houston has all the potential to lead the energy transition — it just needs to make sure it has all the right ingredients. According to John Chappell, a key ingredient is blockchain. He explains in a guest article for InnovationMap.

"Houston has earned its title as the Energy Transition Capital of the world, and now it has an opportunity to be a global leader of technology innovation when it comes to carbon emissions reporting," Chappell writes. "The oil and gas industry has set ambitious goals to reduce its carbon footprint, but the need for trustworthy emissions data to demonstrate progress is growing more apparent — and blockchain may hold the keys to enhanced transparency." Click here to read more.

Kyra Doolan, managing director at Texas HALO Fund

Kyra Doolan joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the huge opportunities for innovation within femtech. Photo via LinkedIn

When venture capitalist and angel investing expert Kyra Doolan started navigating her own fertility journey, her eyes were opened to a huge market opportunity across femtech. As managing director at Houston-based Texas HALO Fund, she took these opportunities to her team of investors.

"A lot of the issues that face women, are things that are not talked about," she says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, referencing things like miscarriage, injury during childbirth, etc. "For a lot time, women just sat back if they had these issues, and they kept it to themselves, so those problems weren't being addressed."

Doolan says she and other women aren't taught how to manage their own fertility journey, but it doesn't have to be that way. Click here to read more.

Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy

Empower Pharmacy has opened its new 86,000-square-foot facility features innovative technology for purifying water, automation, and more. Photo courtesy of Empower Pharmacy

Houston-based Empower Pharmacy has celebrated the grand opening of its new $55 million, 86,000-square-foot facility that includes extensive automation, a top-of-the line cleanroom, and equipment that generates purified water, clean steam, and clean compressed air. The space also features a warehouse capable of storing at least nine months of raw pharmaceutical ingredients to minimize supply chain problems.

"This innovative facility, combined with our more than 500 dedicated employees, enables us to increase our operational capacity, allowing us to prepare thousands of custom prescriptions each day for millions of patients across the country," Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy, says in a news release. "We are setting a new standard for compounded medicine, striving to achieve a superior pharmaceutical experience, from order placement to delivery."

The new Empower Pharmacy facility, at 7601 N. Sam Houston Parkway W., opened earlier this month. Click here to read more.

Kyra Doolan joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the huge opportunities for innovation within femtech. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston investor shares why she's focused on funding the future of femtech

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 98

Successful investors find gaps in the marketplace and direct funds into startups and technologies resolving those gaps. For Kyra Doolan, managing director at Houston-based Texas HALO Fund, femtech represents a huge opportunity for innovation.

"A lot of the issues that face women, are things that are not talked about," she says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, referencing things like miscarriage, injury during childbirth, etc. "For a lot time, women just sat back if they had these issues, and they kept it to themselves, so those problems weren't being addressed."

While Texas HALO Fund has invested in femtech since its first fund in 2012, Doolan shares on the show how she personally saw an investment opportunity with kegg, a fertility tracking device. Doolan says she and other women aren't taught how to manage their own fertility journey, but it doesn't have to be that way.

"I was at a stage in my life where my eyes were open to the gaps that are out there and the conversations that weren't being had," she says. "In looking into Kegg, it showed me what the market was and how many gapes there were in the market just around fertility."

Texas HALO Fund has a few femtech companies in its portfolio now, and the most recent addition is Houston-based Work & Mother, a company that builds out fully-equipped nursing accommodations in office buildings.

Despite it's growing femtech portfolio, the fund is industry agnostic, though, Doolan says, about a third of the companies Texas HALO Fund invests in reside in the health tech space. What makes HALO different is its focus on early-stage startups.

"We like to get in early," Doolan says. "We're, what you would historically consider 'pre-VC,' but now that's getting a little bit blurred. ... We're some of the earlier capital that's invested, and we continue to make investment as the companies continue to subsequent rounds."

Doolan shares more on her passion for femtech, as well as her advice for founders looking for funding and potential female investors looking to get into investing on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Unlike past awards programs hosted by Ignite Healthcare Network, the Ignite Madness winners accepted their awards via video call. Photo courtesy of Ignite

Houston female-focused health tech pitch competition names big winners

winner, winner

From the comfort of their own homes, several female entrepreneurs accepted investment and pitch prizes at the finals of an inaugural awards program created by a Houston-based, woman-focused health organization.

Ahead of the Ignite Madness finals on Thursday, October 29, Houston-based Ignite Healthcare Network named nine finalists that then pitched for three investment prizes. The finalists included:

  • Eden Prairie, Minnesota-based Abilitech Medical — medical device company that creates assistive devices to aid those with upper-limb neuromuscular conditions or injuries.
  • New Orleans, Louisiana-based Chosen Diagnostics — a biotech company focusing on custom treatment. First, Chosen is focused on creating two novel biomarker diagnostic kits — one for gastrointestinal disease in premature infants.
  • San Francisco, California-based Ejenta — which uses NASA tech and artificial intelligence to enhance connected care.
  • Highland, Maryland-based Emergency Medical Innovation — a company focused on emergency medicine like Bleed Freeze, a novel device for more efficiently treating nosebleeds.
  • Columbia, Missouri-based Healium — an app to quickly reduce burnout, self-manage anxiety, and stress.
  • Farmington, Connecticut-based Nest Collaborative — digital lactation solutions and support.
  • Palo Alto, California-based Nyquist Data — a smart search engine to enable medical device companies to get FDA approvals faster.
  • New Orleans-Louisiana based Obatala Sciences — a biotech startup working with research institutions across the globe to advance tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.
  • Perth, Australia-based OncoRes — a company that's developing a technology to provide surgeons with real-time assessment of tissue microstructure.
The inaugural event that mixed health care and basketball — two vastly different industries with strong connections to women — attracted support from partners and sponsors, such as Intel, Accenture, Morgan Lewis, Houston Methodist, Johnson & Johnson Innovation, and more, according to Ayse McCracken, founder and board chair of Ignite.

"Our partners and sponsors are an integral part of our organization" says McCracken. "Without each and every one of them, the networks, resources, and commitment to advancing women leaders, we would not have grown so rapidly in just four years and our IGNITE Madness event would not enjoy this vibrant ecosystem that now surrounds female entrepreneurs."

First up in selecting their winner for their investment was Texas Halo Fund. Chosen Diagnostics took home the $50,000 investment.

"While we were impressed by everyone who pitched tonight, one company stood out to us," says Kyra Doolan, managing partner. "[Chosen Diagnostics] exemplifies what we are looking for: an innovative solution, a strong CEO, and a real addressable market."

The second monetary award was presented by Tom Luby, director of TMC Innovation. The award was an $100,000 investment from the TMC Venture Fund, as well as admission to TMCx. The recipient of the investment was OncoRes.

"We are absolutely blown away," says Katharine Giles, founder of Onco. "We've already got a great link to Texas and looking forward to more."

The largest monetary award that was on the table was presented by Wavemaker Three-Sixty Health, a leading Southern-California based, early stage venture capital firm, for $150,000. However, at the time of the announcement, Managing Partner Jay Goss decided to award four startups an undisclosed amount of investment. Goss says he and his team will meet with each company to establish an investment.
The companies that were recognized by Wavemaker were: Healium, Ejenta, Emergency Medical Innovation, and Nest Collaborative.
Lastly, Ignite itself had $27,500 cash awards to give out to the pitch competition winners. The funds will be distributed between the winners. OncoRes took first place, Abilitech came in second place, and ObatalaSciences took third place.
Here's how the health tech investing industry has had to rethink investing amid a global pandemic. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Overheard: Experts share advice on investing in health tech amid the pandemic

Eavesdropping online

The coronavirus pandemic has upset countless industries, but if you zoom in on health tech you'll find a mix of opportunities and challenges for both health tech startups and investors.

On a virtual panel hosted by TMC Innovation and Ignite Healthcare Network, four female investors or founders discussed the health tech startup landscape. From advice for getting the attention of investors amid COVID-19 to inequities in health care and innovation, here's what the panel covered.

“I never thought I’d make an investment without meeting the founder face-to-face and visiting their site. The way I got comfortable with it was the opportunity was referred to me — it was a warm lead.”

— Karen Kerr, lead partner at Portfolia Rising America Fund. Kerr says those warm leads are more important now than ever, as is sharing a network.

“The first thing you need to do is understand our fund — or whatever fund you’re trying to go after — and pitch in a way that’s personal. You have to stand out from the beginning.”

— Kyra Doolan, managing director of Texas Halo Fund, says on reaching out to investors. She adds that she looks for a strong team, an innovative solution, a market need, and the terms of the deal. Meanwhile, red flags include if a startup says it has no competition, has unreasonable projections, is led by entrepreneurs who think they know everything, has an unwillingness to be upfront about COVID challenges, and doesn't have enough money in the bank.

“It’s important for companies to be upfront about the problems they’re facing — we all know these problems exist. Addressing that head-on with investors is a good way to go because having trust in a company you’re investing in is important.”

— Doolan continues on the importance of transparency between startup and investor.

“I’m looking for great entrepreneurs that are high integrity people. I’m looking to see that they really understand the industries they are in.”

— Kerr says on what she looks for in a founder. She adds that she tries to understand how they think and the advantages and disadvantages of their leadership are.

“You have to have the art of persuasion. You have this dream and vision — and there may not be anything there yet — but you need to be able to take people on this journey with you.”

— Damayanti Dipayana, CEO and co-founder of Manatee, a member of TMCx's 2020 cohort. She adds, representing the entrepreneur side of the table, that you really have to know yourself and your shortcomings.

“Any investor will look at it like if you can’t get the right people around and sell it to them, how are you going to uproot an industry.”

— Dipayana expands on the importance of growing your team and being persuasive.

“I think the pandemic has certainly shone a bright light on the inequities that exists, so solutions to these challenges are interesting things to think through.”

— Kerr says adding that the first investment from the Rising America Fund was into a fintech startup that serves underbanked communities.

“We’re seeing lower valuations maybe than we would have before this because the effects of this are going to go on for a long time, I would guess. Even when COVID starts to come down, the economic downturn is still going to exist.”

— Doolan says on where investment is at amid the pandemic.

“Ultimately if you want to have real bargaining power over your valuation, find other people who are interested.”

— Dipayana adds to the conversation about valuations. "If only one person interested, they are going to drive the valuation."

“Picking the right partners is such an important decision — don’t take that lightly just because they have money.”

—Chantell Preston, lead partner at Portfolio, co-founder and CEO of Facilities Management Group, and moderator of the event.

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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.

Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.