This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Angela Holmes of Mercury Data Science, Meredith Wheeler and Maggie Segrich of Sesh Coworking, and Shaun Zhang of the University of Houston. 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 data science to cancer therapeutics — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Angela Holmes, CEO of Mercury Data Science

Angela Holmes is the CEO of MDS. Photo via mercuryds.com

A Houston-based AI solutions consultancy has made changes to its C-suite. Dan Watkins is passing on the CEO baton to Angela Holmes, who has served on MDS's board and as COO. As Holmes moves into the top leadership position, Watkins will transition to chief strategy officer and maintain his role on the board of directors.

"It is an exciting time to lead Mercury Data Science as we advance the development of innovative data science platforms at the intersection of biology, behavior, and AI," says Holmes in the release. "I am particularly excited about the demand for our Ergo insights platform for life sciences, allowing scientists to aggregate a vast set of biomedical data to better inform decisions around drug development priorities." Click here to read more.

Meredith Wheeler and Maggie Segrich, co-founders of Sesh Coworking

Sesh Coworking and its founders Maggie Segrich and Meredith Wheeler are on a roll. Photo courtesy of Sesh

Sesh Coworking, described as Houston’s first female-focused and LGBTQIA+ affirming coworking, has been operating its 2808 Caroline Street location's second-floor space since January, but the first floor, as of this week, is now open to membership and visitors. The new build-out brings the location to over 20,000 square feet of space.

Called The Parlor, the new space includes additional desks, common areas, a wellness room, and a retail pop-up space. Since its inception in early 2020, Sesh has overcome the pandemic-related obstacles in its path and even seen a 60 percent increase in membership with an overall 240 percent increase in sales over the past year.

“Our growth is a testament to the ever-changing landscape of Houston’s office and retail industry after the workplace dramatically changed in 2020,” says Maggie Segrich, co-founder of Sesh Coworking, in a news release. “We are ecstatic to welcome current and prospective members to our new, inclusive space.” Click here to read more.

The duo also joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Sesh's growth. Click here to listen.

Shaun Zhang, director of the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling at the University of Houston

A UH professor is fighting cancer with a newly created virus that targets the bad cells and leaves the good ones alone. Photo via UH.edu

A Houston researcher is developing a cancer treatment — called oncolytic virotherapy — that can kill cancer cells while being ineffective to surrounding cells and tissue. Basically, the virus targets the bad guys by "activating an antitumor immune response made of immune cells such as natural killer (NK) cells," according to a news release from the University of Houston.

However exciting this rising OV treatment seems, the early stage development is far from perfect. Shaun Zhang, director of the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling at the University of Houston, is hoping his work will help improve OV treatment and make it more effective.

“We have developed a novel strategy that not only can prevent NK cells from clearing the administered oncolytic virus, but also goes one step further by guiding them to attack tumor cells. We took an entirely different approach to create this oncolytic virotherapy by deleting a region of the gene which has been shown to activate the signaling pathway that enables the virus to replicate in normal cells,” Zhang says in the release. Click here to read more.

A new report on best markets for startup compensation — and more Houston innovation news. Photo via Getty Images

Data science firm names new exec, how Houston ranks for startup compensation, and more local innovation news

short stories

Houston's summer has been heating up 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 unicorn is reportedly opening a new facility, a data science organization names new CEO, and more.

Mercury Data Science names new CEO

Angela Holmes, former COO of Mercury Data Science, has been named the CEO. Photo courtesy of MDS

A Houston-based AI solutions consultancy has made changes to its C-suite. Dan Watkins is passing on the CEO baton to Angela Holmes, who has served on MDS's board and as COO. As Holmes moves into the top leadership position, Watkins will transition to chief strategy officer and maintain his role on the board of directors.

"Over the last three years, as COO and a member of the board of directors, Angela has been instrumental in MDS’s growth, especially in building MDS’s Strategy Consulting practice and UI/UX and Machine Learning Engineering capabilities," saus Watkins in a news release. "The magic at Mercury Data Science is all about the diverse team who have created a culture of excellence, trust and purpose with the goal of using AI/ML to solve some of the most important health and social problems facing the world today.

"Angela was instrumental in building our culture and customer base over the last three years and will do a great job taking the company to the next level," he continues.

Mercury Data Science was incubated and launched out of Houston-based VC firm Mercury Fund. MDS works with the Mercury portfolio companies as well other startups in the life sciences and health care space.

"It is an exciting time to lead Mercury Data Science as we advance the development of innovative data science platforms at the intersection of biology, behavior, and AI," says Holmes in the release. "I am particularly excited about the demand for our Ergo insights platform for life sciences, allowing scientists to aggregate a vast set of biomedical data to better inform decisions around drug development priorities.

"The increasing understanding of biology, accessibility of large data sets, and accelerating computational capabilities is creating a golden age of life science innovation," she adds. "We are committed to using our expertise to accelerate our clients’ advances in human health, nutrition, therapeutics, diagnostics, and behavior, to create profound advances for humanity."

Here's how Houston ranks in terms of startup compensation

This chart from Carta shows the four tiers of the US markets. Houston, in 15th place, leads the third tier. Image courtesy of Carta

A new report looked into compensation at startups across the country, and the Texas market fared pretty well overall. The report from Carta, a San Francisco, California-based technology company that specializes in capitalization table management and valuation software, factored in data using more than 127,000 employee records from startups that use Carta Total Comp, the premier compensation management platform for private companies.

"At Carta, we see it as our responsibility to share the insights that come from an unmatched amount of data about the private market," per the report. "That includes data on startup headcount, payroll and equity metrics, salary medians, and remote work."

The greater Houston area ranked No. 15 in the list, which lands it at the top of the third tier just ahead of Dallas. As the chart depicts, Houston has 88 percent of the compensation of the top market — which this year is a four-way tie between the San Francisco, New York, San Jose, and Seattle areas. Austin landed in the middle of the top tier, and San Antonio snuck into the bottom of the third tier. The full report with national trends is online.

Axiom to open in former electronics store space

Axiom Space will reportedly move engineering into a former retail space. Photo via Facebook

According to a Facebook post from Deer Park Economic Development, Houston unicorn startup Axiom Space has leased a 146,000-square-foot space in what used to be a Fry's Electronics store in Webster. Reportedly, the new facility will house its engineering operations.

"Axiom's initial plans for the building are to support 400 employees, all assigned to engineering work on the Axiom Station, including development across all of its subsystems," reads the post from July 6. "The buildout will be able to accommodate up to 540 people. Axiom plans a move in late July or early August."

Axiom hasn't put out an official news release on this particular facility, but in May the company broke ground on its headquarters at Ellington Airport, the site of the Houston Spaceport. That campus just down the street will house employee offices, astronaut training, and mission control facilities, engineering development and testing labs, and a high bay production facility to house Axiom’s space station modules under construction, according to Axiom.

TRISH awards three postdoctoral fellowships to further space health research

Three scientists were tapped for funding from this Houston organization. Photo via Pexels

Baylor College of Medicine's Translational Research Institute for Space Health — along with its partners California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology — announced the new fellowship cohort of postdoctoral researchers supported by the TRISH Academy of Bioastronautics who will receive funding and resources for further career growth for two years.

“Cultivating the next generation of space health researchers is one of our strategic goals,” says Dr. Dorit Donoviel, TRISH executive director and associate professor in Baylor’s Center for Space Medicine, in a news release. “We aim to prepare a diverse workforce from a variety of scientific backgrounds to help us solve the challenges facing space explorers on future missions to the Moon and beyond. We are thrilled to welcome this next batch of postdocs as they help bring us closer to that goal.”

These fellows join a cohort of more than 20 previously supported TRISH postdoctoral researchers.

"My career was launched with a fellowship from the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI), the predecessor to TRISH, so I greatly appreciate the value of mentorship and community to those starting out in the field of space biomedical research,” says Dr. Jeffrey Willey, associate professor of radiation oncology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, in the release.

This 2022 postdoctoral fellows and their research projects are:

  • Xu Cao —Identifying Genetic Factors in Radiation Injury with Pooled Single Cell Sequencing
  • Ashley Nemec-Bakk — The Use of Two New Ground-based Models of Deep Space Travel to Study the Role of Mitochondria and Oxidative Stress in Cardiovascular Effects
  • David Temple — Systematically Assessment of Noisy Galvanic Vestibular Stimulation as a Sensorimotor Countermeasure

Greentown Labs announces second carbon innovation cohort

Greentown Labs announced its latest carbon-focused cohort. Photo via GreentownLabs.com

The The Carbon to Value Initiative is a multi-year collaboration between the Urban Future Lab at NYU Tandon School of Engineering, Greentown Labs, and Fraunhofer USA, which is supported by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. In its second year, the carbontech accelerator program has selected eight startups in partnership with Fluor Corporation, the initiative’s Year Two Cohort Champion.

With almost 100 applicants from about 20 countries, the C2V Initiative named the following startups to the program, per a release from Greentown:

  • Aluminum Technologies (New Orleans, U.S.) has developed Carbo-Chloride Reduction (CCR) aluminum manufacturing technology, which captures process CO2 and also reduces power consumption relative to conventional methods.
  • Carbon Upcycling Technologies (Calgary, Canada) utilizes point-source CO2 and mineralizes it with waste materials to create supplementary cementitious materials (SCMs) that can be used in building materials.
  • Carbonova Corp (Calgary, Canada) utilizes CO2 and methane as a feedstock to produce carbon nanofibers (CNF) that may be used in various fields such as transportation and buildings.
  • ecoLocked (Berlin, Germany) converts waste biomass into biochar to create admixes that can replace a share of the cement used in concrete manufacturing, and thus sequester carbon within buildings.
  • Full Cycle Bioplastics (San Jose, U.S.) has a patented bacteria-based technology that converts organic waste into Polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), a biopolymer that can be used to replace a wide range of oil-based plastic applications.
  • Lydian (Somerville, U.S.) develops an electro-thermal reactor technology that converts captured CO2 into fuels and chemicals.
  • Molecule Works (Richland, U.S.) develops a solid sorbent Direct Air Capture (DAC) system using a novel reactor and contactor configuration.
  • Osmoses (Boston, U.S.) develops polymers for gas separation, enabling membrane-based carbon capture applications.

“If we are to succeed in reaching carbon neutrality, then carbontech must play a critical role,” says Ryan Dings, COO and general counsel of Greentown Labs. “For carbontech to do so, we must convene entrepreneurs, market leaders, investors, and policymakers deeply committed to rapidly creating a carbontech ecosystem, which is what our efforts with the C2V Initiative represent and why we’re so proud to be working with this incredible group of partners.”

While the program and its cohort companies aren't based in Houston, Greentown's local presence and member companies will play a role in the initiative.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Angela Holmes of Mercury Data Science, Ashok Gowda of BioTex, and Rachel Moncton of ClassPass. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — data science, consumer tech, and medical device innovation — recently making headlines.

Angela Holmes, chief operating officer of Mercury Data Science

Mercury Data Science has taken a tool it originally developed for COVID-19 research and applied it into new areas of research and innovation. Photo courtesy of MDS

When the pandemic hit, the team at Mercury Data Science knew data was going to have a huge role to play. Last fall, MDS released an AI-driven app designed to help researchers unlock COVID-19-related information tucked into biomedical literature. The app simplified access to data about subjects like genes, proteins, drugs, and diseases.

Now, a year into the coronavirus pandemic, the company is applying this technology to areas like agricultural biotech, in which the platform enables researchers to sift through literature to dig up data about plant genetics, says Angela Holmes, chief operating officer at MDS. The lack of gene-naming standards in the world of plants complicates efforts to search data about plant genetics, she says.

The platform's ability to easily ferret out information about plant genetics "allows companies seeking gene-editing targets to make crops more nutritious and more sustainable as the climate changes to have a rapid way to de-risk their genomic analyses by quickly assessing what is already known versus what is unknown," Holmes says. Click here to read more.

Ashok Gowda, founder and CEO of BioTex

Houston-based BioTex works with medical device and health tech companies from all stages, from R&D to commercialization. Photo via biotexmedical.com

In the process of building a medical device company called Visualase and exiting it to Medtronic for over $100 million, Ashok Gowda learned a lot. And, over the past two decades, he's been sharing that knowledge and expertise of his and his team to medtech companies of all stages at Houston-based BioTex.

"Ultimately we built a nice infrastructure by supporting (the Visualase) spin out," Gowda tells InnovationMap. "And we learned a lot about not just product development, but about commercializing and creating a new market that may not exist. And we had some really good, experienced commercial folks we had hired on the Visualase side. I just think it's a good learning lesson that you can't really teach this stuff — you gotta experience it really to understand." Click here to read more.

Rachel Moncton, vice president of Global Marketing at ClassPass

Rachel Moncton shares why ClassPass tapped Houston as a prime place to expand. Photo courtesy of ClassPass

Rachel Moncton has lived all over the world in her career at fitness and wellness-focused consumer tech company, ClassPass — and her latest assignment has been standing up the company's fourth domestic office right here in Houston, Texas.

On last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Moncton shares how Houston as a hub offers the growing company a chance to be a big fish in a small consumer tech pond.

"I get a lot of people saying, 'Houston? That's an interesting choice and not what we'd expect,'" Moncton says. "But that's one of the things we like about it. There's a good startup scene here but not a million different consumer tech companies, so it's nice that we are able to make a bit of a splash." Click here to read more.

Mercury Data Science has taken a tool it originally developed for COVID-19 research and applied it into new areas of research and innovation. Photo via Getty Images

Houston data science company expands pandemic-inspired research tool

by the numbers

Last fall, Houston-based Mercury Data Science released an AI-driven app designed to help researchers unlock COVID-19-related information tucked into biomedical literature. The app simplified access to data about subjects like genes, proteins, drugs, and diseases.

Now, a year into the coronavirus pandemic, Mercury Data Science is applying this technology to areas like agricultural biotech, cancer therapeutics, and neuroscience. It's an innovation that arose from the pandemic but that promises broader, long-lasting benefits.

Angela Holmes, chief operating officer of Mercury Data Science, says the platform relies on an AI concept known as natural language processing (NLP) to mine scientific literature and deliver real-time results to researchers.

"We developed this NLP platform as a publicly available app to enable scientists to efficiently discover biological relationships contained in COVID research publications," Holmes says.

The platform:

  • Contains dictionaries with synonyms to identify things like genes and proteins that may go by various names in scientific literature.
  • Produces data visualizations of relationships among various biological functions.
  • Summarizes the most important data points on a given topic from an array of publications.
  • Depends on data architecture to automate how data is retrieved and processed.

In agricultural biotech, the platform enables researchers to sift through literature to dig up data about plant genetics, Holmes says. The lack of gene-naming standards in the world of plants complicates efforts to search data about plant genetics, she says.


Angela Holmes is the COO of MDS. Photo via mercuryds.com


The platform's ability to easily ferret out information about plant genetics "allows companies seeking gene-editing targets to make crops more nutritious and more sustainable as the climate changes to have a rapid way to de-risk their genomic analyses by quickly assessing what is already known versus what is unknown," Holmes says.

The platform allowed one of Mercury Data Science's agricultural biotech customers to comb through scientific literature about plant genetics to support targeted gene editing in a bid to improve crop yields.

In the field of cancer therapeutics and other areas of pharmaceuticals, the platform helps prioritize drug candidates, Holmes says. One of Mercury Data Science's customers used the platform to extract data from about 2 terabytes (or 2 trillion bytes) of information to evaluate drug candidates. The information included drug studies, clinical trials, and patents. Armed with that data, Mercury Data Science's cancer therapy client signed agreements with new pharmaceutical partners.

The platform also applies to the hunt for biomarkers in neuroscience, including disorders such as depression, anxiety, autism and multiple sclerosis. Data delivered through the platform helps bring new neurobehavioral therapeutics to market, Holmes says.

"An NLP platform to automatically process newly published literature for more insight on the search for digital biomarkers represents a great opportunity to accelerate research in this area," she says.

Mercury Data Science has experience in the field of digital biomarkers, including work for one customer to develop a voice and video platform to improve insights into patients with depression and anxiety in order to improve treatment of those conditions.

The new platform — initially developed as a tool to combat COVID-19 — falls under the startup's vast umbrella of artificial intelligence and data science. Founded in 2017, Mercury Data Science emerged because portfolio companies of the Houston-based Mercury Fund were seeking to get a better handle on AI and data science.

Last April, Angela Wilkins, founder, co-CEO and chief technology officer of Mercury Data Science, left the company to lead Rice University's Ken Kennedy Institute. Dan Watkins, co-founder and managing director of the Mercury Fund, remains at Mercury Data Science as CEO.

The Ken Kennedy Institute fosters collaborations in computing and data. Wilkins replaced Jan Odegard as executive director of the institute. Odegard now is senior director of industry and academic partnerships at The Ion, the Rice-led innovation hub.

Wilkins "is an academic at heart with considerable experience working with faculty and students, and an entrepreneur who has helped build a successful technology company," Lydia Kavraki, director of the Ken Kennedy Institute, said in a news release announcing Wilkins' new role. "Over her career, Angela has worked on data and computing problems in a number of disciplines, including engineering, life sciences, health care, agriculture, policy, technology, and energy."

In honor of International Women's Day on Sunday, here are three female Houston innovators to know this week. Courtesy photos

3 female Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

In honor of International Women's Day yesterday, today's roundup of Houston innovators features three of the city's entrepreneurs.

From a French ex-pat eliminating cellulite and promoting lymphatic health to a data scientist with a growing company, here are Houston's leading ladies to keep an eye on.

Reda Hicks, founder of GotSpot Inc.

Reda Hicks created GotSpot — a digital tool that helps connect people with commercial space with people who need it. Courtesy of GotSpot

Reda Hicks is a female founder — but more importantly, she supports her fellow female founders. In a lot of ways, its another one of Hicks' side hustles.

This year for SXSW, Hicks, founder of GotSpot — a temporary space finding tool, teamed up with Denise Hamilton, founder of WatchHerWork — a professional women's resource, to create an activation at the festival on March 12 called Texas Female Founders Day, which will feature female founder-focused programming. Despite SXSW being canceled, Texas Female Founders Day will continue.

"The two of us had been to SXSW together for the past two years, and we just saw a whole where a lot of female founders were being lost," Hicks says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We can solve both of those problems by creating an experience where it's an entire day that doesn't cost attendees anything and put together a lot of different content that would be really helpful for women growing their business."

Click here to read more.

Angela Wilkins, CTO and co-CEO of Mercury Data Science

It's all a numbers game, and Angela Wilkins of Mercury Data Science is about setting up startups for success. Photo courtesy of MDS

Mercury Fund realized the power of equipping its portfolio companies with data science and artificial intelligence, and the Houston VC fund's first move was to tap data scientist Angela Wilkins to help. The efforts expanded outside Mercury's portfolio, to companies that ranged from early seed stage startups to companies that had raised over $100 million — and they wanted Wilkins' help, either with the basics of data science or execution of analytics.

"In fact, many of the more established companies were sitting on data assets with plans to build AI-enabled products but didn't have the time or people to really start that process," Wilkins says. "After helping a few companies, we realized the need was pretty deep, and bigger than the Mercury Fund portfolio."

Click here to read more.

Emeline Kuhner-Stout, founder of Élastique Athletics

Emeline Kuhner-Stout, founder of Élastique Athletics, wanted to create a product that was easy to wear and benefitted lymphatic health. Photo courtesy of Élastique Athletics

When Emeline Kuhner-Stout was new to Houston, she was a new mom and the only times she had for herself were her daily trips to the gym, and she wanted to make it worth her while.

"There were so many more things I wanted to do for myself, and I just didn't have the time," Kuhner-Stout tells InnovationMap. "It would be so much more efficient if there was a way to combine [elements] to make products that would perform for us."

She got to thinking about creating a product that promoted lymphatic health while being stylish and wearable, so she created Élastique Athletics.

Click here to read more.

It's all a numbers game, and Mercury Data Science is about setting up startups for success. Getty Images

Data-focused Houston company arms startups with the AI tools they need to grow

numbers game

While some say a picture is worth a thousand words, having the right data can be make or break. Houston-based Mercury Data Science is using data and artificial intelligence to paint some really specific pictures for its clients.

MDS was born out of a need for Houston-based Mercury Fund's portfolio companies that wanted a firmer handle on artificial intelligence and data science.

"Three years ago, a number of Mercury Fund portfolio companies and potential investments began to have increasingly important data science and AI components," says Dan Watkins, co-founder and managing director of Mercury Fund. "Mercury's partners wanted a deeper understanding of AI, to understand how the cutting edge meets industry use cases."

Mercury Fund's first move was to tap data scientist Angela Wilkins to lead some training, which then turned into even more workshops and advising. The companies ranged from early seed stage startups to companies that had raised over $100 million — and they wanted Wilkins' help, either with the basics of data science or execution of analytics.

"In fact, many of the more established companies were sitting on data assets with plans to build AI-enabled products but didn't have the time or people to really start that process," Wilkins says. "After helping a few companies, we realized the need was pretty deep, and bigger than the Mercury Fund portfolio."

Wilkins, who serves the company as CTO and co-CEO with Watkins, has seen her efforts grow MDS client base. InnovationMap sat down with Wilkins to see how far MDS has come — and where it's going.

InnovationMap: What sort of problems and data solutions are you providing clients?

Angela Wilkins: We love projects that have a direct impact on human health. In health, we build machine learning driven products to create new forms of digital diagnostics to help improve diagnosis in areas like cognitive functioning and depression. We have helped several therapeutics companies accelerate drug discovery and development by extracting insights from biological and imaging data. We have internal tools that use natural language processing to extract knowledge from millions of scientific publications and patents.

We have also worked quite a bit in consumer behavior and some of our physics-oriented data scientists are now working on noise reduction in geophysics technologies.

IM: What feedback do you get from clients?

AW: Company leaders in every sector are feeling the pressure to gain the advantages of AI or risk falling behind. There are many expert level teams available to Fortune 500 organizations. We are one of the very few teams that is entrepreneurial and agile enough to work with earlier stage, high growth organizations.

IM: How does MDS work with Mercury Fund? Has that relationship evolved over the years?

AW: We continue to work with the Mercury Fund portfolio companies but that is a smaller part of what we do. We are venture backed ourselves, and have now become a Mercury Fund portfolio company, with the same growth ambitions as all venture backed companies.

IM: Recently, MDS has seen some growth. How many employees have you added and are you still hiring?

AW: We are up to 20 employees, mostly data scientists, many with 5 to 8 years of experience working in AI, bioinformatics, and data science to provide insights and build products. We are always looking for great data scientists and data engineers to join our team. We also started a fellowship position for recent graduates, and so we can identify and train the next generation of data scientists

IM: What's been the biggest surprise for you as MDS has grown?

AW: We have been able to create this unique culture that thrives on diversity of thought and background. Half of our team is women. We are solving hard problems that benefit from the creativity you get from a wide variety of views.

IM: Where are MDS clients based?

AW: We have clients from San Francisco to Basel. We have learned how to build an integrated, high communication team with the client, so location is not critical.

That being said, we are active in and committed contributors to the Houston innovation ecosystem. Many of us are from a computational biology and bioinformatics background with deep roots in the Texas Medical Center institutions. Houston has amazing talent and we want to show the data scientists that they don't have to leave Houston to work on interesting problems and continue to build skills at the cutting edge while working for companies all over the world.

IM: What sort of trends are you seeing in venture capital? Are these trends happening in Houston?

We are seeing increasing investments in health AI. Fierce Healthcare reports that health AI topped all other sectors last year with $4B invested into AI startups. Andreesen Horowitz has announced their third and largest biotech and health care fund with $750 million to invest: "Machine learning and artificial intelligence [will] have an outsize impact on how we discover drugs and diagnose disease."

We see similar trends in other areas from industrial software to financial services. The upshot is that the adoption of AI creates significant opportunities for startups and significant challenges for larger companies that are not entrepreneurial and able to build their own data science skill set.

As far as Houston goes, the same trends are there but we tend to lag the major technology hubs in adoption. Efforts like TMC Innovation, Station, Rice University/The Ion and Houston Exponential are having a big impact on both the number and pace of startups and, increasingly, those have AI as a key part of their technology stack.

IM: We've talked about how MDS flies under the radar — why do you think that is? Do you think that'll change as you grow?

AW: Our initial focus was on the work for our clients and on building our team. We are ready to be noticed. Thank you for helping us tell the story with this article.

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7 lessons from a Houston-based unicorn startup founder

taking notes

At a fireside chat at SXSW, a Houston founder pulled back the curtain on his entrepreneurial journey that's taken him from an idea of how to make the chemicals industry more sustainable to a company valued at over $2 billion.

Gaurab Chakrabarti, the CEO and co-founder of Solugen, joined the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston House at SXSW on Monday, March 13, for a discussion entitled, "Building a Tech Unicorn." In the conversation with Payal Patel, principal of Softeq Ventures, he share the trials and tribulations from the early days of founding Solugen. The company, which has raised over $600 million since its founding in 2016, has an innovative and carbon negative process of creating plant-derived substitutes for petroleum-based products.

The event, which quickly reached capacity with eager SXSW attendees, allowed Chakrabarti to instill advice on several topics — from early customer acquisition and navigating VC investing to finding the right city to grow in and setting up a strong company culture.

Here are seven pieces of startup advice from Chakrabarti's talk.

1. Don’t be near a black hole.

Chakrabarti began his discussion addressing the good luck he's had standing up Solugen. He's the first to admit that luck is an important element to his success, but he says, as a founder, you can set yourself up for luck in a handful of ways.

“You do make your own luck, but you have to be putting in the work to do it," Chakrabarti says, adding that it's not an easy thing to accomplish. “There are things you can be doing to increase your luck surface area."

One of the principals he notes on is not surrounding yourself with black holes. These are people who don't believe in your idea, or your ability to succeed, Chakrabarti explains, referencing a former dean who said he was wasting his talent on his idea for Solugen.

2. The co-founder dynamic is the most important thing.

Early on, Chakrabarti emphasizes how important having a strong co-founder relationship is, crediting Solugen's co-founder and CTO Sean Hunt for being his "intellectual ping-pong partner."

“If you have a co-founder, that is the thing that’s going to make or break your company,” he says. “It’s not your idea, and it’s not your execution — it’s your relationship with your co-founder.”

Hunt and Chakrabarti have been friends for 12 years, Chakrabarti says, and, that foundation and the fact that they've been passionate about their product since day one, has been integral for Solugen's success.

"We had a conviction that we were building something that could be impactful to the rest of the world," he says.

3. Confirm a market of customers early on.

Chakrabarti says that in the early days of starting his company, he didn't have a concept of startup accelerators or other ways to access funding — he just knew he had to get customers to create revenue as soon as possible.

He learned about the growing float spa industry, and how a huge cost for these businesses was peroxide that was used to sanitize the water in the floating pods. Chakrabarti and Hunt had created a small amount of what they were calling bioperoxide that they could sell at a cheaper cost to these spas and still pocket a profit.

“We ended up owning 80 percent of the float spa market,” Chakrabarti says. “That taught us that, ‘wow, there’s something here.”

While it was unglamourous work to call down Texas float spas, his efforts secured Solugen's first 100 or so customers and identified a path to profitability early on.

“Find your niche market that allows you to justify that your technology or product that has a customer basis,” Chakrabarti says on the lesson he learned through this process.

4. Find city-company fit.

While Chakrabarti has lived in Houston most of his life, the reason Solugen is headquartered in Houston is not due to loyalty of his hometown.

In fact, Chakrabarti shared a story of how a potential seed investor asked Chakrabarti and Hunt to move their company to the Bay Area, and the co-founders refused the offer and the investment.

“There’s no way our business could succeed in the Bay Area," Chakrabarti says. He and Hunt firmly believed this at the time — and still do.

“For our business, if you look at the density of chemical engineers, the density of our potential customers, and the density of people who know how to do enzyme engineering, Houston happened to be that perfect trifecta for us," he explains.

He argues that every company — software, hardware, etc. — has an opportunity to find their ideal city-company fit, something that's important to its success.

5. Prove your ability to execute.

When asked about pivots, Chakrabarti told a little-known story of how Solugen started a commercial cleaning brand. The product line was called Ode to Clean, and it was marketed as eco-friendly peroxide wipes. At the time, Solugen was just three employees, and the scrappy team was fulfilling orders and figuring out consumer marketing for the first time.

He says his network was laughing at the idea of Chakrabarti creating this direct-to-consumer cleaning product, and it was funny to him too, but the sales told another story.

At launch, they sold out $1 million of inventory in one week. But that wasn't it.

“Within three months, we got three acquisition offers," Chakrabarti says.

The move led to a brand acquisition of the product line, with the acquirer being the nation's largest cleaning wipe provider. It meant three years of predictable revenue that de-risked the business for new investors — which were now knocking on Solugen's door with their own investment term sheets.

“It told the market more about us as a company,” he says. “It taught the market that Solugen is a company that is going to survive no matter what. … And we’re a team that can execute.”

What started as a silly idea led to Solugen being one step closer to accomplishing its long-term goals.

“That pivot was one of the most important pivots in the company’s history that accelerated our company’s trajectory by four or five years," Chakrabarti says.

6. Adopt and maintain a miso-management style.

There's one lesson Chakrabarti says he learned the hard way, and that was how to manage his company's growing team. He shares that he "let go of the reins a bit" at the company's $400-$500 million point. He says that, while there's this idea that successful business leaders can hire the best talent that allows them to step back from the day-to-day responsibilities, that was not the right move for him.

“Only founders really understand the pain points of the business," Chakrabarti says. "Because it’s emotionally tied to you, you actually feel it."

Rather than a micro or macro-management style, Chakrabarti's describes his leadership as meso-management — something in between.

The only difference, Chakrabarti says, is how he manages his board. For that group, he micromanages to ensure that they are doing what's best for his vision for Solugen.

7. Your culture should be polarizing.

Chakrabarti wrapped up his story on talking about hiring and setting up a company culture for Solugen. The company's atmosphere is not for everyone, he explains.

“If you’re not polarizing some people, it’s not a culture,” Chakrabarti says, encouraging founders to create a culture that's not one size fits all.

He says he was attracted to early employees who got mad at the same things he did — that passion is what makes his team different from others.

Houston tech company to acquire IT infrastructure startup

M&A moves

Hewlett Packard Enterprise has announced its plans to acquire a San Jose, California-based startup.

HPE, which relocated its headquarters to Houston from the Bay Area a couple years ago, has agreed to acquire OpsRamp, a software-as-a-service company with an IT operations management, or ITOM, platform that can monitor, automate, and manage IT infrastructure, cloud resources, and more.

According to a news release from HPE, the OpsRamp platform will be merged with the HPE GreenLake edge-to-cloud platform, which supports more than 65,000 customers, powers over two million connected devices, and manages more than one exabyte of data with customers worldwide.

The new integrated system "will reduce the operational complexity of multi-vendor and multi-cloud IT environments that are in the public cloud, colocations, and on-premises," per the statement.

“Customers today are managing several different cloud environments, with different IT operational models and tools, which dramatically increases the cost and complexity of digital operations management,” says HPE's CTO Fidelma Russo in the release. “The combination of OpsRamp and HPE will remove these barriers by providing customers with an integrated edge-to-cloud platform that can more effectively manage and transform multi-vendor and multi-cloud IT estates.

"This acquisition advances HPE hybrid cloud leadership and expands the reach of the HPE GreenLake platform into IT Operations Management,” she continues.

HPE's corporate venture arm, Pathfinder, invested in OpsRamp in 2020. The company raised $57.5 million prior to the acquisition. Other investors included Morgan Stanley Expansion Capital and Sapphire Ventures, per TechCrunch.

“The integration of OpsRamp’s hybrid digital operations management solution with the HPE GreenLake platform will provide an unmatched offering for organizations seeking to innovate and thrive in a complex, multi-cloud world. Partners and the channel will also play a pivotal role to advance their as-a-service offerings, as enterprises look for a unified approach to better manage their operations from the edge to the cloud,” says Varma Kunaparaju, CEO of OpsRamp, in the release.

“We look forward to leveraging the scale and reach of HPE’s global go-to-market engine to deliver our unique offering and are excited for this journey ahead as part of HPE.”

3 Houston innovators to know this week

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


Michael Suffredini, CEO and president of Axiom Space

Axiom's CEO announced a new mission and space suit design. Photo courtesy of Axiom Space

It was a big news week for Axiom Space. The Houston company announced its next commercial space mission with NASA to the International Space Station a day before it unveiled its newly design space suit that will be donned by the astronauts headed to the moon.

“We’re carrying on NASA’s legacy by designing an advanced spacesuit that will allow astronauts to operate safely and effectively on the Moon,” says Micahel Suffredini, CEO of Axiom, in a statement. “Axiom Space’s Artemis III spacesuit will be ready to meet the complex challenges of the lunar south pole and help grow our understanding of the Moon in order to enable a long-term presence there.”

Called the Axiom Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or AxEMU, the prototype was revealed at Space Center Houston’s Moon 2 Mars Festival on March 15. According to Axiom, a full fleet of training spacesuits will be delivered to NASA by late this summer. Read more.

Julie King, president of NB Realty Partners

Houston's access to lab space continues to be a challenge for biotech companies. Photo via Getty Images

In terms of Houston developing as an attractive hub for biotech companies, Julie King says the city still has one major obstacle: Available lab space.

She writes in a guest column for InnovationMap that biotech startups need specialized space that can hold the right equipment. That's not cheap, and it's usually a challenge for newer companies to incur that cost.

"However, with realistic expectations about these challenges, the good news is that once settled into a facility that is a fit, Houston’s emerging biotech companies can thrive and grow," she writes. Read more.

Owen Goode, executive vice president at Zaelot

Houston software development firm Axon is planning its Texas expansion thanks to its recent acquisition. Photo via LinkedIn

Owen Goode is a huge fan of Houston. That's why when his software design firm, Axon, got acquired by Zaelot, led by CEO Jeff Lombard, in January, he made sure the deal would mean growth in the region.

Zaelot is a global, software firm with a presence in 14 countries, mostly focused in the United States, Uruguay, and Iceland. With the acquisition of Axon, the combined company is poised to expand in Texas, beginning in Houston, Goode says.

“Together we have a strong suite of offerings across a wide variety of domains including full-stack development, cloud/data engineering, design, staff augmentation, project management, and software architecture. We also have experience in multiple domains, including health care, aviation, defense, finance, and startups,” says Goode. Read more.