Established in 2019, Rice University's Carbon Hub has named its first batch of research grant recipients. Photo via rice.edu

Several clean energy research teams have been awarded grants from a Rice University hub that focuses on innovating zero-emissions technology.

The Carbon Hub has awarded seven seed grants to research teams working on solutions for clean energy. The selections represent the first from the hub, which was established in 2019 following a $10 million gift from Shell. The hub's goal is to fundamentally change how the world uses hydrocarbons and to lead $100 million of science and engineering initiatives.

"Our starting point is utilizing methane and other light hydrocarbons to co-produce clean hydrogen and high-value materials that can outcompete and displace heavy CO2 emitters like metals, construction ceramics and fertilizers," says Carbon Hub Director Matteo Pasquali in a news release.

The selected proposals, according to the release, are as follows:

  • Cambridge's Adam Boies, Simone Hochgreb, James Elliot and Matthew Juniper will investigate the fundamental kinetics of catalytic reactions that produce carbon nanotubes from methane. The research aims to gather necessary information for the design and scaleup of reactors for high-yield production.
  • UC Berkeley's Roya Maboudian, Paulo Monteiro, Carlo Carraro and Jiaqi Li will use experimental and computational techniques to investigate cement reinforced with carbon fibers. The team will investigate a wide range of fibers and concrete binders to find optimal blends.
  • Rice's Caroline Masiello and Daniel Cohan will use bench-scale experiments and computer models to investigate whether methane-derived carbon could reduce urban smog and/or reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations if added to soil as it is in popular charcoal soil amendments called biochar.
  • IMDEA's Juan Vilatela will address engineering challenges for using non-woven carbon nanotube fabrics in place of lithium battery components made of aluminum and copper. Replacing those metal components could eliminate more than 4 million tons of annual atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Rice's Geoffrey Wehmeyer, Junichiro Kono and Matthew Foster will lay the groundwork for replacing metal power transmission cables with carbon nanotube fibers. To allow side-by-side comparisons, they will investigate fundamental electrical and thermal conductivity at scales ranging from individual nanotubes to bundles of tubes, fibers of bundles and yarns of fibers.
  • Milan Polytechnic's Matteo Maestri and Matteo Pelucchi aim to pave the way for optimized co-production of hydrogen and carbon nanotubes by developing descriptive frameworks for competing catalytic reactions. The information would allow process engineers to minimize production of unwanted soot in large-scale reactors for nanotube production.
  • MIT's Mark Goulthorpe and UDRI's Paul Kladitis will test the performance of carbon nanotube materials in a variety of composites that could be used to construct homes and other buildings. The work complements Goulthorpe's CarbonHouse, a demonstration project supported by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy to validate the use of carbon from methane pyrolysis as both structural and non-structural building materials.
A new hub on Rice University campus, Houston receives national rankings, and more local innovation news. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Shell commits to $10M carbon initiative with Rice University, Houston startup acquired by Honeywell, and more innovation news

Short Stories

Even toward the end of the year and amid the holiday season, Houston's innovation news can be a lot to keep up with. Here are seven short stories of Houston innovation — from an exit for a Houston startup and a multimillion-dollar clean energy commitment from Shell to new national recognitions for Houston and 2020 plans unveiled for MassChallenge in Houston.

Shell commits $10 million to new Carbon Hub at Rice University

Matteo Pasquali will lead the new hub at Rice University. Courtesy of Rice University

Rice University has introduced its Shell-backed Carbon Hub — a research initiative to innovate zero-emissions technologies. According to a news release, Shell has committed to a $10 million arrangement for the hub.

"Trying to address climate change is like playing whack-a-mole; you think you're making something better, and you realize that made something else get worse," says Carbon Hub director, Matteo Pasquali, in the release. "For example, you make cars more fuel efficient by removing weight, and then realize you've increased CO2 emissions by using more aluminum and carbon fibers. Or you try to fix CO2 into a useful product, and you realize you now need much more energy than you had gotten by making the CO2 in the first place."

The plan is to "fundamentally change how the world uses hydrocarbons," reads the release. Rather than burning hydrocarbons for fuel, creating carbon dioxide, the hydrocarbons "will be split to make clean-burning hydrogen fuel and solid carbon materials that can be used to make buildings, cars, clothing and more."

Through the partnership with Shell — and other potential partners — the hub will help fund and lead $100 million of science and engineering initiatives. The inaugural meeting for the hub is expected to be early next year and will be hosted by The Center for Energy Studies at Rice's Baker Institute for Public Policy.

"Providing energy to the world's population in an economically and environmentally sustainable manner is the global energy challenge," says Ken Medlock, senior director of the Center for Energy Studies, in the release. "In part, this will require new technologies and forward-looking, creative thinking, which is exactly what Carbon Hub offers."

Houston-based Rebellion Photonics acquired by Honeywell

Photo via rebellionphotonics.com

Innovative gas monitoring technology company, Rebellion Photonics, founded by Allison Sawyer and Robert Kester in Houston in 2009, has been acquired by Honeywell for an undisclosed amount.

The business will be rolled into Honeywell's Safety and Productivity Solutions business, as well as through Honeywell's Performance Materials and Technologies business, according to a press release.

"Honeywell is an amazing company and a recognized leader in our industry. We are excited to be part of their world-class family," Kester, who serves as CEO of Rebellion Photonics, says in the release. "Automated visual monitoring is the future of gas leak detection. Combining our products with Honeywell's platform will make this the new industry standard for safety and environmental monitoring globally."

MassChallenge to announce details of its second Houston cohort

Photo courtesy of MassChallenge

MassChallenge Texas has released new details of its second cohort in Houston. The zero equity startup accelerator based in downtown will run its second cohort from June to September of next year. Up to 100 startups will be selected for the Houston program, and another cohort of up to 100 startups will run along the same timeline in Austin.

On the line for prizes this year is six months of free office space, experts and mentors, the MassChallenge curriculum, access to top corporate leaders, as well as cash prizes and in-kind support — valued at over $500,000.

Both Austin and Houston will celebrate the launch of the two programs on January 29 — Houston's event will take place at the Four Seasons Hotel (1300 Lamar St.) from 5:30 to 7:30 pm.

MassChallenge recently announced its new home in The Cannon's Downtown Launch Pad in partnership with Amegy Bank.

Houston named in Inc.'s top 50 cities to start a business

houston skyline

Getty Images

Houston just made it onto the list of the top 50 cities to start a business, according to Surge Cities index, Inc., and Startup Genome. Coming in at No. 45, the Bayou City ranked behind Austin (No. 1) and Dallas (No. 29).

"Houston wants to be known as the Third Coast, a place that is both a business and cultural hub," the blurb on Inc. reads. "A place where people want to be. And this city, one of the most diverse in the country, is well on its way."

The report highlights Houston's historic hold on the oil and gas industry, the Texas Medical Center's established presence, and the space innovation happening at NASA. Roger Griesmeyer, a partner at Hunton Andrews Kurth, says in the article that Houston has low regulations and taxes coupled with "a highly educated populace, great weather, and a bunch of money."

"There's such diversity and a confluence of talent and opportunity in one place," says Griesmeyer in the article. "Houston is selling a lifestyle brand with all the resources to bear."

Houston was ranked highly on three factors:

  • No. 23 for job creation
  • No. 20 for wage growth
  • No. 25 for population growth

Accenture announces finalists for Houston-based competition

Courtesy of Accenture

In February, Accenture's Houston innovation hub will host the fourth annual Accenture HealthTech Innovation Challenge. Eleven companies have been named finalists and are headed to Houston in the new year.

"This annual HealthTech challenges creates an exciting opportunity to connect healthcare incumbents with emerging businesses to drive health system evolution focused on improving the lives of consumers and clinicians by enhancing access, affordability, quality and experience," says Brian Kalis, managing director of digital health and innovation services at Accenture, in the news release. "We are all looking forward to the final round and awards ceremony on February 6, 2020 in Houston when the finalists will present to an exclusive panel of healthcare executive judges."

No Texas companies were selected as finalists. The 11 selected startups are: New York-based Capital Rx, Minneapolis-based Carrot Health, San Francisco-based Cleo, Boston-based DynamiCare Health, San Francisco-based InsightRX, United Kingdom-based Lantum, Washington, D.C.-based Mira, Denver-based Orderly Health, New York City-based Paloma Health, St. Louis-based TCARE, and Seattle-based Xealth.

Houston area ranked the 18th best-paying city for software developers

Chart via heytutor.com

According to a new report from HeyTutor.com, the Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land metroplex is the 18th best-paying city for software developers. The report factored in salary and employment statistics for Houston and other U.S. metropolitan areas using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics.

Houston's mean adjusted software developer salary is $107,672 annually, according to the report. Here are some other interesting statistics regarding the Houston area from the data:

  • Mean software developer salary (adjusted): $107,672
  • Mean software developer salary (unadjusted): $109,503 — compared to $109,914 nationally
  • Mean salary across all occupations (unadjusted): $54,290 — compared to $51,960 nationally
  • Number of software developer jobs: 20,400 — compared to $51,960 nationally
  • Median home price: $205,600 — compared to $226,800 nationally

Business idea competition calls for applications

Photo courtesy of LILIE

The Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship has announced the applications for the 2020 H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge business idea competition, which will take place on March 25. On the line is $60,000 in prize money to the teams, and the applications are open to Rice-affiliated teams until 11:59 pm on January 20.

To apply, click here.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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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.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.