Here's who's making the call for this year's Houston Innovation Awards. Photos courtesy

Ten Houstonians are in the hot seat for deciding the best companies and individuals in Houston's innovation ecosystem.

InnovationMap has announced its 2023 Houston Innovation Awards judging panel, which includes startup founders, nonprofit leaders, investors, corporate innovators, and more.

The 10 selected judges will evaluate applications from the nearly 400 nominations that were submitted this year. The judges will be using their expertise to evaluate the nominees' applications, which are due to InnovationMap by midnight on October 4.

Read about this year's judges below, and don't forget to secure your tickets to the November 8 event to see who the panel selects as the winners for the annual celebration of Houston innovation.

Natara Branch, CEO of Houston Exponential

Houston Exponential was founded to amplify and support the city's innovation ecosystem, and Natara Branch has been leading this initiative since appointed as CEO last year. For the second year, HX is partnering with InnovationMap on the Houston Innovation Awards.

Born in Germany and raised all around Texas, Branch — a University of Houston alumna — previously was the first African American woman to hold a vice president position at the NFL. Based in New York, she oversaw operations in various leadership roles at the NFL for over 18 years.

Barbara J. Burger, former Trailblazer Award recipient

Barbara J. Burger, former vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures, was the inaugural recipient of the Trailblazer Award at the 2021 Houston Innovation Awards, which was previously called the InnovationMap Awards.

A self-proclaimed “graduate” from Chevron, she is senior adviser to Lazard, a member of the Greentown Labs Board of Directors, adviser to Syzygy Plasmonics, Epicore Biosystems, and Sparkz Inc., and several other energy transition and philanthropic roles. Burger holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Rochester, a doctoral degree in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology, and an academic honor MBA in finance from the University of California, Berkeley.

Devin Dunn, head of the Accelerator for Health Tech at TMC Innovation

As head of the Accelerator for Health Tech at the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Factory, Devin Dunn works hands on with startups — specifically to help them refine their business models and plan to scale — every day.

Prior to joining TMCi, Dunn was an early employee at a London-based digital health startup. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Biological Basis of Behavior and Healthcare Management from the University of Pennsylvania and received her Master’s in Public Health from the University of Texas Health Science Center.

Noah Fons, senior coordinator of regional economic development at the Greater Houston Partnership

Working within regional economic development at the Greater Houston Partnership, Noah Fons has the pulse on companies expanding to Houston. Previously, he worked at Houston Exponential, so he also understands Houston's evolving innovation ecosystem. He studied economics at Rice University.

Aziz Gilani, managing director at Mercury Fund

As managing director at Houston-based venture capital firm Mercury, Aziz Gilani focuses on investments in enterprise SaaS, Cloud, and data science startups. He's worked at the firm for over 15 years.

A Kauffman Fellows Program graduate, he received his bachelor's degree from the University of Texas and his MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Gilani also serves in advisory roles for the Mayor of Houston’s Tech and Innovation Council, Seed Accelerator Rankings, and SXSW Interactive and is an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business where he teaches a course on venture capital.

Natalie Harms, editor of InnovationMap

For the third year, Natalie Harms will represent InnovationMap on the annual awards judging panel as the founding editor of InnovationMap the host of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Recently named the editor of EnergyCapitalHTX, a newly launched sister site to InnovationMap focused on Houston's role within the energy transition, she reports on innovation, technology, energy transition — and their impact on the city of Houston. A Houston native, she's worked as a business journalist for almost a decade and has a degree in journalism from the University of Houston and a certificate in publishing from New York University.

Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita Factory

Moji Karimi and his co-founder and sister, Tara Karimi, were honored at last year's Houston Innovation Awards as the winners of the Green Impact Business award. Cemvita Factory, their fast-growing startup, uses biotech to sustainably create materials to lower its customers carbon footprints.

Prior to launching Cemvita in 2018, Karimi held leadership roles at Weatherford and Biota Technology. He serves as a board member for CleanTX and adviser to Houston-based ComboCurve Inc.

Margarita Kelrikh, associate at Latham & Watkins

As associate in the Emerging Companies group at Latham & Watkins in Houston, Margarita Kelrikh has supported the firm's growing startup clients since her appointment last year. Prior to joining the firm, she held in-house counsel positions at a few companies, including WeWork.

She received her bachelor's degree at the University of Chicago and her law degree at Columbia School of Law.

Brad Rossacci, creative director at Accenture

Brad Rossacci is creative director at Accenture, where he's worked since 2018. He also co-founded and co-hosts the Curiosity Podcast. A Texas A&M University alumnus and self-proclaimed "rebellious optimist," Rossacci is passionate about Houston and innovation.

Maggie Segrich, co-founder of Sesh Coworking

As co-founder and CFO of inclusive coworking company, Sesh Coworking, Maggie Segrich is dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs of all backgrounds. Last year, Sesh Coworking won the Female-Founded Business category for the Houston Innovation Awards.

She serves as board member for Midtown Management District, where Sesh is located, and board chair for nonprofit, Magpies & Peacocks.

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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.