DivInc is bringing another new accelerator program to Houston — this one is focused on clean energy. Photo via DivInc.com

A Texas-based accelerator is bringing its third diversity-focused program to Houston.

DivInc, a startup accelerator originating in Austin and established for people of color and women entrepreneurs, has announced that the title sponsors for the inaugural Clean Energy Accelerator are Chevron and Microsoft. The new program will join DivInc's existing accelerators — Women in Tech and Sports Tech — at the Ion.

"With Houston known as the energy capital of the world, DivInc has the opportunity to provide a pipeline of women, black, and latino-led high-growth, high-impact startups focused on clean energy," says Ashley DeWalt, DivInc Houston's managing director, in a news release. "We see this initiative ultimately driving a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive ecosystem within this clean energy transition sector for generations to come."

Applications for the Spring 2023 Clean Energy Accelerator are due today, February 10, according to the website. Startups accepted into the program should be led by BIPOC and women founders committed to working 10 to 15 hours per week during the 12 week program, which will start April 10.

The founders should be "working to shift the energy sector in the areas of clean energy production, energy storage and transmission, energy efficiency, carbon economy, and sustainable cities," per the release. In addition to the two title sponsors, the new program is also supported by Houston Premier Partners, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Verizon, The Ion, and Mercury.

"With a booming startup industry, a commitment to innovation, and a diverse workforce, Houston and organizations like DivInc are poised to play a vital leadership role and operate as a powerful force for energy progress," says Jim Gable, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, in the release.

The cohort, which will accept up to 10 companies, will work one-on-one with both the Microsoft and Chevron teams, as well as have access to DivInc's network of mentors and curriculum. Once the selected companies have completed the program, they will each receive $10,000 in non-dilutive seed funding.

"We are committed to enabling organizations in the clean energy transition while mindful of millions still without access to energy," said Darryl Willis, Corporate Vice President, Energy Industry at Microsoft. "This collaboration with DivInc and Chevron to support underserved entrepreneurs advancing the world's clean energy needs speaks to this climate commitment as well as diversity, equity and inclusion."

The future of Web3, investing in Houston, and how founders need to be prepared for 2023 — Samantha Lewis of Mercury joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Houston investor shares what startup founders need to prioritize in 2023

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Heading into the new year, startup founders in Houston and beyond need to focus on conserving and raising cash, says Samantha Lewis, principal of Houston-based venture capital firm Mercury.

“We all know it’s turbulent market times. We’re unsure where the market is going, and when there’s uncertainty in the public markets, that puts uncertainty in the private markets,” Lewis says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. “What I’ve been spending the past two quarters doing is working with our portfolio companies to just make sure our balance sheets are bulked up for what’s to come in 2023.”

She says Mercury's startup portfolio has focused on extending each company's runway financially through 2024 — and she recommends all startups to try to do the same. She advises on the show that even if a company raised funding within the past year, open on the same terms and valuation just to bridge the gap.

“In 2023, if things start to look up, great. But if things continue to be volatile, then we need to be prepared for it,” she says. “What we’re advising all of our startups to do is to get as much cash in the door right now as you can.”

She outlined a lot of this analysis in a report for Mercury looking back at the market in 2022. Lewis, who was named a member of the Class 27 of the Kauffman Fellows Program, a group of global innovation investors, factors in what she's experienced through the program at an international level.

Lewis is focused on what she calls the "power theme" at Mercury, which includes fintech, blockchain, web3, and more. She says these industries have been hit in particular within market uncertainty.

"Ultimately the companies that are now getting investment and see capital flow through them within Web3 are the ones that have been building a sustainable business from the beginning," she says. "And thinking about what are the real use cases that blockchain unlocks and how it adds economic value."

When it comes to VC activity, Lewis says 2023 has been plagued with "FOMO investing" — the fear of missing out on a buzzy new technology — and "hype projects." Investors were throwing money into Web3 technology that hadn't yet been vetted in a real way.

Mercury didn't do that, Lewis says. "We've been very disciplined about where we put dollars within Web3. We've done mostly infrastructure Web3, and the only thing we'll continue to do is infrastructure." She cites Topl, a Houston-founded blockchain network company, as an example.

On the podcast, she shares more about the tumultuous ride blockchain has had in 2022, and why she's still bullish on Web3 despite the bad actors within cryptocurrency. She also shares some of the things Mercury has been up to with its Houston-based portfolio and what's next for them.

Listen to the episode below, or wherever you get your podcasts — just search "Houston Innovators Podcast."


Here's your latest roundup of Houston startup and innovation news you may have missed. Photo via Getty Images

Mobile ordering rolls out at resort, Houston VC's latest investment, and more local innovation news

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We're on the other side of the hill that is Houston's summer, but the Bayou City's still hot — especially in terms of innovation news, and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, a Houston venture capital fund has made its latest investment, Houston startups share big updates, and more.

Rivalry Technology rolls out mobile ordering at hot summer spot

You can now order poolside at this Houston-area resort. Image courtesy of Rivalry Tech

Lounging at Margaritaville Lake Resort at Lake Conroe was just made easier by Rivalry Tech, a Houston-based mobile ordering platform company. Rivalry Tech upgraded poolside ordering with its myEATz. According to a news release, customers can now order food and drinks from the 5 o’Clock Somewhere Bar and Lone Palm Bar via a custom QR code system for each lounge chair and table to increase operational efficiency for the Margaritaville Lake Resort staff.

“We wanted to be sure the rollout of the myEATz mobile ordering platform was helpful to the Margaritaville staff, not a hindrance to their existing process. We created custom QR codes and a color coded map to easily identify where the mobile orders are going,” says Charles Willis, COO of Rivalry Tech, in the release.

Rivalry, which provides mobile ordering at numerous sports stadiums and venues with sEATz, expanded into hospitality this year.

“The Rivalry Tech team helped us to seamlessly implement mobile ordering at Margaritaville Lake Resort. They created the marketing materials, established custom QR codes, uploaded mentors and trained our staff onsite. The whole process has been easy and collaborative,” says Amit Sen, director food and beverage for Margaritaville Lake Resort, in the release.

Mercury Fund invests in ReturnLogic's latest round

Mercury has led the latest fundraising round from a SaaS company. Image via Getty Images

Houston-based venture capital firm Mercury led Phillidelphia-based SaaS company ReturnLogic's $8.5 million series A funding round, which also had participation from Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Fund, White Rose Ventures, and Ben Franklin Technology Partners. The fresh funding will help the company double its workforce, accelerate product development, and expand Application Programming Interface capabilities, according to a news release.

Founded by CEO Peter Sobotta, Return Logic's SaaS platform, which can be plugged into existing e-commerce platforms, helps to enhance management of returns and prevent the challenging financial impacts of returns.

“While retailers have largely mastered forward logistics to get products into customers hands, the returns process remains an under-addressed, resource-draining problem that eats away at brands’ profits,” says Blair Garrou, managing director of Mercury, in a news release. “ReturnLogic is something entirely new to this market and uniquely built on Peter Sobotta’s deep operational experience in reverse logistics and supply chain management.

"While serving in the U.S. Navy, Peter specialized in reverse logistics and gained extensive expertise in ecommerce operations," Garrou continues. "With Peter at the helm, ReturnLogic’s innovative API-first returns solution is well-positioned to tackle the ever-growing operational returns problem facing retailers. We are excited to partner with Peter and his team as they continue to solve this massive problem for online retailers.”

Fluence Analytics named a top advanced manufacturing startup

Fluence Analytics was selected as one of 50 startups recognized. Graphic courtesy

Fluence Analytics, an analytics and process control solutions platform for the polymer and biopharmaceutical industries, was named as a Top 50 global advanced manufacturing startup by CB Insights. The Inaugural list breaks down 16 different cohorts, narrowed down from more than 6,000 companies who either submitted an application or were nominated. Fluence Analytics was one of three companies featured in the R&D Optimization category.

"Our team is very excited that our real-time process analytics, optimization and control products for the polymer and biopharma industries are included among such elite startups," says Jay Manouchehri, CEO of Fluence Analytics, in a statement to InnovationMap. "We wish to thank CB Insights for including Fluence Analytics in its inaugural list of the Top 50 global advanced manufacturing startups, as well as our customers and investors for supporting the development and roll-out of our transformative technology solutions."

Fluence Analytics moved to the Houston area from New Orleans last year. The company's tech platform allows for optimization and control products to polymer and biopharmaceutical customers worldwide.

HTX Labs secures $1.7M contract to expand within United States Air Force

HTX Labs' EMPACT product will be further developed to support the Air Force. Image courtesy of HTX Labs

HTX Labs, a Houston-based company that designs extended reality training for military and business purposes, that it has been awarded a $1.7 million Small Business Innovation Research Phase II Tactical Funding Increase with the US Air Force to enhance and operationalize to its product, EMPACT Immersive Learning Platform, in support of training modernization.

“We are very thankful to AFWERX and AFDT for this great opportunity to play an increasingly important role in helping the USAF accelerate training modernization," says Chris Verret, president HTX Labs, in a news release. "This TACFI award shows continued confidence in HTX Labs, with a strong commitment to accelerate usage and adoption of EMPACT.”

HTX Labs will leverage this contract to expand EMPACT's ability to rapidly create and distribute interactive, immersive training, collaborating closely with Advanced Force Development Technologies, per the release.

OpenStax to publish free edition of updated science textbook

OpenStax is growing its access to free online textbooks. Image via openstax.org

OpenStax, a tech initiative from Rice University that uploads free learning resources, has announced it will publish the 10th edition of an organic chemistry textbook by Cornell University professor emeritus John McMurry.

“This is a watershed moment for OpenStax and the open educational resources (OER) movement,” says Richard Baraniuk, founder and director of OpenStax, in a news release. “This publication will quickly provide a free, openly licensed, high-quality resource to hundreds of thousands of students in the U.S. taking organic chemistry, removing what can be a considerable cost and access barrier.”

Usually a big expense for organic chemistry students, McMurry, with the support of publisher Cengage, made the decision to offer the latest edition online as a tribute to his son, Peter McMurry, who died in 2019 after a long struggle with cystic fibrosis.

“If Peter were still alive, I have no doubt that he would want me to work on this 10th edition with a publisher that made the book free to students,” McMurry says in the release. “To make this possible, I am not receiving any payment for this book, and generous supporters have covered not only the production costs but have also made a donation of $500,000 to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation to help find a cure for this terrible disease.”

Topl's latest fundraising round includes participation from a Houston investor as well as international partners. Image via Getty Images

Houston-founded blockchain startup raises $15M series A to increase international impact

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A blockchain technology company that was founded out of Rice University has closed its latest round of funding.

Founded in 2017, Topl is a blockchain-as-a-service company that's developing a purpose-built blockchain ecosystem to empower impact and sustainability within its userbase of businesses. The company's $15 million series A round was co-led by Houston-based Mercury, Republic Asia, and Malta-based Cryptology Asset Group.

“Topl’s blockchain was purpose built to power the next wave of supply chains and markets, that are more sustainable and inclusive,” says Chris Georgen, founder and managing director of Topl, in a news release. “Every decision we’ve made has been relentlessly focused on this problem and it’s exciting to see this approach yielding results with more than 30 different impact-forward use cases already live or approaching launch. Through this latest fundraise and with the strong network we’ve built, we’re looking to accelerate the growth of our ecosystem and setting a goal of at least 100 applications launched by next year.”

The company, which is now headquartered in Austin but still has a presence in Houston, has raised over $20 million in investment to date. Topl announced its $3 million seed round of funding — also led by Mercury — in 2020.

“Despite broader market dynamics across the Web3 sector, Topl’s strategic and early focus on users allowed the team to build an incredibly strong foundation that can weather cycles by providing an increasingly in-demand service to companies implementing various sustainable initiatives,” says Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury, in the release. “We are excited to support Topl in this pivotal growth period.”

The round included two new international investors in Topl. Republic Asia is a newly launched arm of private investing platform Republic that is focused on fintech and web3 solutions. Houstonian Youngro Lee leads the division as executive vice president at Republic and head of Republic Asia and will join Topl's board to assist with international expansion.

“Sustainability and climate considerations are no longer mere luxuries, but an absolute necessity for companies to contribute to global finance and commerce,” Lee says in the release. “Topl will make it easier than ever for any organization around the world to harness the power of blockchain to track and monetize their positive environmental impact.”

Cryptology, with its European operations, also brings Topl key international presence.

"It's been an honor to see Topl progress from when it first entered Iconic Lab's accelerator program back in 2018 to where it is today," says Patrick Lowry, CEO of Cryptology, in the release. "Cryptology is hyper-focused on driving crypto adoption in an impact-focused, sustainable manner. We are proud to add Topl to our portfolio of companies and excitedly await Topl's network decentralization."

In addition to increasing its international impact, Topl will reportedly continue to build out its blockchain and technology. Per the release, Topl expects to launch a traceability platform for ethically and sustainably sourced products later this year.

Topl, which launched a grant program to fund Web3 startups and developers with inclusive and sustainable solutions, plans to announce its first 20 grant awards early next year. The grant recipients will also receive development, go-to-market, and fundraising support from Topl's team and network.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Kelly Pracht of nVenue, Aimee Gardner of SurgWise, and Kelly Avant of Mercury. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

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

Kelly Pracht, CEO and co-founder of nVenue

nVenue's proprietary predictive analytics appear at the bottom right corner of the screen on Apple TV broadcasts. Photo via nvenue.com

Next time you're watching an Astros game on Apple TV, check the bottom right-hand side of the screen. That prediction data comes by way of a Texas startup with deep Houston roots. nVenue, co-founded by Houstonian Kelly Pracht, struck a deal earlier this year that allowed her data-driven sports analytics platform on the screens of baseball viewers this season.

"In under two weeks we structured the deal, convinced them it worked, pulled together every bit of testing we could — by then we only had one week of pre-season games to test — and we pulled it off," Pracht says.

The technology has a lot of potential when it comes to microbetting — a part of sports fandom that's growing by the second. Click here to read more.

Aimee Gardner, CEO and president of SurgWise

SurgeWise is giving surgical teams the right support for hiring. Photo via SurgWise.com

Hiring surgeons is a whole thing — tons of paperwork, inequitable and archaic processes, and lots of medical practitioners' time wasted. Five years ago, Aimee Gardner came up with a solution and founded SurgWise Consulting, where she serves as president and CEO.

"We help provide assessments to help screen competencies and attributes that people care about," Gardner says. "(Those) are really hard to assess, but really differentiate people who really thrive in training in their careers and people who don't."

Now, Gardner is tapping into the last five years of data she's accumulated and has big plans for developing a tech platform for her solution. Click here to read more.

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Mercury Fund

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant's resume might not make sense to you at first. She went from a gender studies major in undergrad, followed by a stint in the Peace Corps, before heading to law school. After moving on to get her MBA over her JD, Avant realized a way she could really make the biggest impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A. Click here to read more.


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Investor advocates now is the time to position Houston as a leading biomanufacturing hub

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Houston has all the ingredients to be a successful synthetic biology hub, says Veronica Wu. She believes so strongly in this that she relocated to Houston from Silicon Valley just over a year ago to start a venture capital firm dedicated to the field. Since then, she's doubled down on her passion for Houston leading in biotech — especially when it comes to one uniquely Houston opportunity: biomanufacturing.

While Houston's health care innovation scene is actively deploying synthetic biology applications, Wu points to Houston-based Solugen, a plant-based chemical producer, as an example of what Houston has to offer at-scale industrial biomanufacturing. Houston has the workforce and the physical space available for more of these types of biomanufacturing plants, which have a huge potential to move the needle on reducing carbon emissions.

"This is really fundamental technology that's going to change the paradigm and whole dialogue of how we are making a significant impact in reducing a carbon footprint and improving sustainability," says Wu, founder and managing partner of First Bight Ventures, on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Several aspects — government funding, corporate interest, advances in technology — have converged to make it an ideal time for synthetic biology innovators and investors, Wu explains on the show, and she has an idea of what Houston needs to secure its spot as a leader in the space: The BioWell.

First introduced at a Houston Tech Rodeo event at the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Factory, The BioWell is a public-private partnership that aims to provide access to pilot and lab space, mentorship and programming, and more support that biomanufacturing innovators critically need.

"The way we envision The BioWell is it will provide a holistic, curated support for startups to be able to get across the Valley of Death," Wu says, explaining that startups transitioning from research and development into commercialization need extra support. The BioWell will provide that, as well as allow more engagement from corporations, investors, and other players.

Now that her plans for The BioWell have been announced, Wu is looking for those who want to be a part of it.

She shares more about her mission and what's next for First Bight Ventures on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

California-founded biotech startup relocates to join Houston's emerging bioeconomy

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Cameron Owen had an idea for a synthetic biology application, and he pitched it to a handful of postdoctoral programs. When he received the feedback that he didn't have enough research experience, he decided to launch a startup based in San Diego around his idea. He figured that he'd either get the experience he needed to re-apply, or he'd create a viable company.

After three years of research and development, Owen's path seems to have taken him down the latter of those two options, and he moved his viable company, rBIO, to Houston — a twist he didn't see coming.

“Houston was not on my radar until about a year and a half ago,” Owen says, explaining that he thought of Houston as a leading health care hub, but the coasts still had an edge when it came to what he was doing. “San Diego and the Boston area are the two big biotech and life science hubs.”

But when he visited the Bayou City in December of 2021, he says he saw first hand that something new was happening.

“Companies from California like us and the coastal areas were converging here in Houston and creating this new type of bioeconomy,” he tells InnovationMap.

Owen moved to Houston last year, but rBIO still has an academic partner in Washington University in St. Louis and a clinical research organization it's working with too, so he admits rBIO's local footprint is relatively small — but not for long.

"When we look to want to get into manufacturing, we definitely want to build something here in Houston," he says. "We’re just not to that point as a company."

In terms of the stage rBIO is in now, Owen says the company is coming out of R&D and into clinical studies. He says rBIO has plans to fundraise and is meeting with potential partners that will help his company scale and build out a facility.

With the help of its CRO partner, rBIO has two ongoing clinical projects — with a third coming next month. Owen says right now rBIO is targeting the pharmaceutical industry’s biologics sector — these are drugs our bodies make naturally, like insulin. About 12 percent of the population in the United States has diabetes, which translates to almost 40 million people. The demand for insulin is high, and rBIO has a way to create it — and at 30 percent less cost.

This is just the tip of the iceberg — the world of synthetic biology application is endless.

“Now that we can design and manipulate biology in ways we’ve never been able to before,” Owen says, "we’re really only limited by our own imagination.”

Synthetic biology is a field of science that involves programing biology to create and redesign natural elements. While it sounds like science fiction, Owen compares it to any other type of technology.

“Biology really is a type of software,” he says. “Phones and computers at their core run on 1s and 0s. In biology, it’s kind of the same thing, but instead of two letters, it’s four — A, C, T, and G.”

“The cool thing about biology is the software builds the hardware,” he continues. “You put that code in there and the biology builds in and of itself.”

Owen says the industry of synthetic biology has been rising in popularity for years, but the technology has only recently caught up.

“We’re exploring a brave new world — there’s no doubt about that,” Owen says.

Houston Airports soar with first-class awards in international ceremony

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We can now dub Houston the city of first-class airports and first-class service.

During the 2023 Skytrax World Airport Awards in Amsterdam, the Houston airport system earned several prestigious honors, including a second consecutive five-star rating.

Skytrax is the leading international air transport rating organization; they determine their ratings based on annual audits of every airport. This year, the Houston airport system won in a new category that was unveiled at the ceremony – “Best Art in the Airport” – which was determined by a panel of judges.

Mario Diaz, the director of aviation for Houston Airports, said in a press release that superior customer service is the “guiding light” for the city’s airport system.

“Excellent customer service is at our core; an expansive and eclectic arts program, just awarded World’s Best Art Program in 2023, provides a meaningful and memorable experience,” said Diaz.

The awards continued to stack up. William P. Hobby Airport maintained its five-star rating for the second year in a row. It is one of 18 total five-star airports in the world, but the one and only five-star Skytrax airport in North America.

Other accolades the Hobby Airport earned include:

  • Best Regional Airport in North America, for the second consecutive year
  • No. 2 Best Airport in the United States
  • No. 3 Best Airport in North America

George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) maintained its four-star classification for the sixth year in a row. It was also named the fourth best airport in North America, and third best in the United States.

Houston mayor Sylvester Turner said the Skytrax awards reaffirm the city airports’ “dedication to detail and commitment to customer service.”

“Houston truly is a global city where our guests are valued and celebrated,” he praised. “Another year of [five]-star and [four]-star ratings is proof that the investments we continue to make in our Houston Airports arts program, airport infrastructure and technology and team members are smart and successful investments that lead to a world-class and award-winning passenger experience.”

More information about the awards can be found on fly2houston.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.