This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Jason Pesterfield of Optellum, Jane Stricker of HETI, and Michael Lee of Octopus Energy. Photos courtesy

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

Jason Pesterfield, CEO of Optellum

Jason Pesterfield joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share how he plans on getting the company to commercialization right here from Houston. Photo courtesy of Optellum

Last year, Optellum, based in the United Kingdom, opened its United States headquarters in Houston, and shortly after Jason Pesterfield joined to lead the team. On a recent Houston Innovators Podcast episode, Pesterfield explained it's just the start of the company's presence in Houston.

"We're really at the beginning of it," he says. "This is the epicenter of medicine within the United States. There's no bigger or better place for health care than Houston. It's great to be a part of that and to have access to those facilities and those world class physicians and care teams." Read more.

Jane Stricker, executive director of the Houston Energy Transition Initiative at the GHP

These organizations are teaming up to advance development of a regional clean industrial hub. Photo courtesy of GHP

The Houston Energy Transition Initiative and the Center for Houston’s Future have teamed up with the Mission Possible Partnership to lead the city of Houston through the accelerated development of a regional clean industrial hub geared at decarbonization of the industrial sector, including petrochemicals, cement plants, heavy transportation, and more.

The two-year project is focused on development and deployment of clean energy projects — such as "low-carbon hydrogen, carbon capture, use and storage, electrification of industrial processes, and the production and use of low carbon fuels," according to a press release.

“There is no geography in the world better positioned to support the transition to and integration of abundant, low-carbon energy solutions than Houston," says Jane Stricker, executive director and senior vice president of HETI, in the release. "As the Energy Transition Capital of the World, Houston is leveraging its energy leadership to accelerate global solutions for a low-carbon future. This partnership with MPP is a critical component in the region’s efforts to develop and deploy technologies, policies and strategies for broad decarbonization." Read more.

Michael Lee, CEO of Octopus Energy US

Now is the time for your tech company to become a climate company, says this Houston expert. Photo via LinkedIn

In a guest column for InnovationMap, Michael Lee, CEO of Octopus Energy, called for tech innovators to change lanes to focus on the climatetech industry.

"We used to say, 'every company will become a tech company.' We’re now moving towards a world where 'every company is a climate company,'" Lee writes. "And that is creating opportunities throughout the economy for people to contribute their skills and support their families while building something that actually matters." Read more.

Now is the time for your tech company to become a climate company, says this Houston expert. Photo via Getty Images

Houston energy startup CEO calls for tech players to join the climate fight

guest column

This year, over 100,000 workers were laid off from major technology companies in an economic slowdown, leaving many people wondering what the future holds. There’s a bright spot, however. These closed doors create an opening for individuals to begin a new career in climate tech, especially as these former tech employees possess skills needed to find and develop novel ways to innovate.

The story of a techie turning to climate isn’t new by any means. For example, Alex Roetter was the former head of engineering at Twitter but later pivoted to climate tech, becoming a managing director and general partner of Moxxie Ventures and the founder of Terraset, a nonprofit focused on funding high-quality carbon removal. Raj Kapoor followed a similar path as he now serves as the co-founder and managing partner of Climactic, a venture capital firm solving climate-related issues using technology, after working as Lyft’s chief strategy officer.

What’s unique now is that the climate tech industry is ready for it – public and private companies have made climate pledges that need industry-disrupting tech solutions, and there is federal, state, and private funding that are backing these solutions up.

When I started out in the energy industry nearly a dozen years ago, there was no such thing as a career in climate tech. Shortly after the 2008 financial crisis, I found a job at a firm backed by smart investors who saw through the noise and realized renewable energy investments are some of the most stable and predictable ways to earn financial returns. Now that Wall Street recognizes investments in climate-related industries as the best way to achieve their long term financial obligations, we’ve seen nearly every company realize they don’t have an economic future unless they also focus on climate results.

We used to say, “every company will become a tech company.” We’re now moving towards a world where “every company is a climate company.” And that is creating opportunities throughout the economy for people to contribute their skills and support their families while building something that actually matters.

Why climate tech is a safe bet 

Taking a career twist into climate tech is a safe bet for a few reasons. The first is, unfortunately and obviously, the fact that climate change is getting worse. Between extreme weather events becoming more frequent around the world and the past eight years becoming the hottest on record, there is a huge need for climate mitigation solutions in every sector. What’s more, with the Earth’s population hitting eight billion, we will need to scale technology that addresses challenges like grid instability and food security, as governments try to balance resources. In fact, the Biden-Harris Administration just announced $13B of programs to expand the U.S.’s power grid.


To tackle climate change, federal, state, and private sector capital investment in climate tech is at an all time high. As leaders pledge to reach net zero by 2050, investments and commitments to accelerate solutions to decarbonize the planet and make it more sustainable are being prioritized. This year, there was a whopping $26.8 billion poured into climate tech. In five years, the climate tech market is estimated to near $1.4 trillion and with new energy plans in the Inflation Reduction Act announced earlier this year, investors are heavily influenced in funding the climate tech space.

An easier career shift

A switch to climate tech can be daunting, but it’s not just hard sciences like chemistry and materials engineering. It’s software engineers, social media savvants, and sales specialists. We have employees who have worked at places such as Google and Square come and support us with building our backend tech stack and consumer app. One of our tech leaders is a famous author, having written several books about coding in Django.

We’ve also recently heard about the “great resignation” over the past couple of years, but I think that framing is wrong. I think it's a “great reconsideration”. The reality is, for most of us on a given day, we spend more of our waking hours at work than any other activity. People need purpose — lack of purpose is the biggest reason for burnout. In fact not only have we not been impacted by the “great resignation” that many other firms have been, but we’ve actually received over tens of thousands of applications for our open roles in the past year alone. The career pivot to something meaningful is happening, and it’s happening today.

For example, one of our data engineers graduated from MIT and used to work in Houston as a chemical engineer — after some reskilling, she’s now a data engineer for our Kraken Technologies platform. Another one of our colleagues worked in the traditional marketing space and has transitioned over to climate tech to lead our global marketing. The climate industry needs as many out-of-the-box people as possible to draw new perspectives for reaching climate goals and getting us closer to a clean future.

Not sure where to start? There are several resources dedicated to onboarding people into the climate tech world. Some of my favorite are:

  • Climatebase: this platform is essentially a LinkedIn for climate tech — people can discover climate jobs and learn how they can transition to the space.
  • Climate Change Careers: founded in 2020, this site features job postings, educational opportunities, and information about switching to a climate-focused career.
  • Climate Draft: a member supported coalition comprising climate tech startups and venture capitalists who aim to bring more top talent, investment and commercial opportunities to the table.
  • ClimatEU: a leading resource for climate jobs and employers in Europe consisting of job postings, and opportunities for companies to find additional investment opportunities.
  • Climate People: a platform dedicated to mobilizing a workforce transition towards climate careers.

My inbox is also always open to people interested in joining the energy end of the world — whether it’s to talk about different openings at Octopus Energy, discuss how your expertise transfers to climate tech, or just to say hello.

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Michael Lee is the CEO of Octopus Energy. He is based in Houston.

Octopus Energy's valuation is now at $5 billion. Image via octopus.energy

Energy company with US HQ in Houston secures $300M in investment

money moves

Renewable energy retailer Octopus Energy Group, whose U.S. headquarters is in Houston, has landed a $300 million investment from the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board that will further propel the company’s global expansion.

The deal with the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPP Investments), one of the world’s largest pension funds, follows a recent $600 million funding round from Al Gore’s Generation Investment Management and boosts Octopus Energy Group’s estimated valuation to $5 billion.

CPP Investments now owns a 6 percent stake in Octopus Energy Group. Generation Investment Management controls a 13 percent stake.

The infusion of cash will enable Octopus to grow its Kraken technology platform and to activate 30 more wind turbines, among other activities. Octopus aims to have 100 million energy accounts on Kraken, the company’s proprietary smart grid technology platform for customer service, by 2027. Today, the Kraken platform has about 17 million accounts.

The CPP Investments deal caps a busy 2021 for London-based Octopus. Earlier this year, for instance, the company established its U.S. headquarters in Houston.

“This investment delivers a huge boost to our mission of expanding access to renewable energy and delivering exceptional customer service across all markets, ” Michael Lee, CEO of Octopus Energy U.S., says in a news release. “Octopus Energy has turned energy on its head — thrown away the call centers, confusing bills, and tired systems — to create a better customer experience for everyone that takes into consideration how consumers interact with their energy and smart home devices, while making the experience more enjoyable, visually appealing and understandable.”

Octopus’ renewable energy investment arm, Octopus Energy Generation, is one of Europe’s largest renewable energy investors and manages assets exceeding $4.5 billion.

“Octopus has pioneered the technology that allows citizens to benefit from cheaper energy as it gets greener,” says Greg Jackson, founder and CEO of Octopus Energy Group.

Octopus serves more than 3 million customers in the United Kingdom, and also supplies energy in the U.S., Germany, Spain, Italy, New Zealand, and Japan. Octopus is on track to supply enough wind and solar energy to power 2 million more homes by 2025.

No one should be overpaying for energy, especially as a result of sneaky price hikes that they didn't know about. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: Texas energy customers deserve transparency

guest column

As Texas continues to grapple with fallout from Winter Storm Uri and state regulators determine the next steps forward to strengthen the electricity grid, protecting consumers and providing transparency regarding their energy bills must be the top priority.

When you think about it, asking for transparency from energy suppliers in the state is a simple and direct request. Free markets thrive only when customers have full transparency and information. There are large discrepancies, however, between notification requirements when it comes to variable rate products—where energy prices change monthly based on the market, versus fixed-rate energy products—where prices are locked in for a defined amount of time. Often, consumers are presented with variable rates that can be twice as much as the original fixed rates, and more transparency is needed to fix this.

Due to new regulations enacted recently as a result of HB16, suppliers are required to notify residential consumers of any change to their fixed rate plans. The legislation falls short, however, in protecting the larger segment of energy consumers, those who are already on a variable rate plan either because their plan expired in the past or they actively chose variable short-term rates, by not requiring notification of rate change for these variable rates. As a steadfast, customer-focused energy provider, we are encouraging the Public Utilities Commission of Texas to adopt legislation that would require that any customer on a variable rate be notified ahead of time of a change so they can make more informed decisions — a pricing notification that 82 percent of consumers are in favor of.

Why are notifications important? 

Unfortunately, many energy suppliers thrive by remaining opaque and confusing to the very customers who have invested their trust, and hard earned dollars, in them. In fact, many suppliers have crafted entire business models around the idea that customers will forget that they are on variable rate products and take gross advantage by not notifying customers when the rate changes. This is not a good business practice.

In this type of system, energy providers hike up rates and count on their customers to not notice — it is how they make the most money and secure their bottom line, all at the expense of the customer. As a result, energy consumers are potentially overpaying significant amounts for their energy. We have found some customers were paying almost twice our standard rate before they switched to us.

Second, it is incredibly low cost for energy suppliers to provide this basic notification while also extremely high value to customers. It is consumer protection at its core: providing the consumer with necessary information so that they can make informed decisions about their energy.

Transparency by consumer services is the norm

Rather than keeping business as usual, new legislation should be introduced to mandate email or text message notifications well in advance of any rate change on a variable energy product. If a customer is on a monthly variable rate, for example, this means suppliers would be required to send a notification every month before a rate changes, providing consumers with the opportunity to change energy providers or products as they see fit. These notifications on price hikes and slashes are already in demand: The majority of customers (83 percent) have noted that it is important that their energy provider is transparent with rate changes. We are simply advocating that customers want and should be informed. Life is busy. Customers should have all the important information, such as their energy rates, at their fingertips.

Other consumer services that we use every day, including streaming platforms such as Netflix, Hulu and Disney+, regularly provide this information to their customers. When prices increase on these platforms, customers are notified ahead of time via email and can choose whether to continue service at the new rate or cancel. This simple act of consumer transparency, no matter how long a customer has been a subscriber, is simple, effective and shows trustworthiness from the companies. Most importantly, consumers are always informed and are provided the information needed to make a decision that best fits their lifestyle. Despite the energy industry's long history of opaqueness, the same should be the case for energy suppliers and their customers.

New age of innovation and consumer choice

In addition to acting in the best interest of consumers, legislation requiring energy suppliers to provide timely rate updates to customers on variable energy products would also encourage healthy market competition and spur more innovation within the energy industry. Suppliers would be pushed to think more creatively about the types of products they offer their customers, creating even more options for consumers to choose and benefit from.

No one should be overpaying for energy, especially as a result of sneaky price hikes that they didn't know about. While HB16 tries to address this, it doesn't go far enough. Transparency in energy pricing is necessary and simply the right thing to do.

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Michael Lee is the CEO of Octopus Energy. He is based in Houston.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Lawson Gow of The Cannon, Kate Evinger of gBETA, and Michael Lee of Octopus Energy. 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 — sports tech, energy, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Lawson Gow, founder of The Cannon

Lawson Gow is bullish on Houston becoming a sports tech hub. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

Is Houston the next hub for sports tech innovation? Lawson Gow thinks so.

"Sports tech is a thing we can win at. There's no global hub for sports tech — so Houston can do that," Gow says. "We've always had that in our heads as a direction we want the city to head down, so it just makes it so opportunistic to create a space for that kind of innovation at work for the city."

The founder of Houston coworking company, The Cannon, announced last week plans for a sports tech hub in partnership with Braun Enterprises and Gow Media (InnovationMap's parent company). Click here to read more.

Kate Evinger, director of gBETA Houston

Kate Evinger joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the latest from gBETA Houston. Photo courtesy of gBETA

Most accelerators are focused on growing startups in a specific way toward a specific goal. For gBETA Houston, that goal is toward a new round of funding or another accelerator, says Kate Evinger, director of gBETA Houston on last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"We look at early-stage companies, so those that are pre-seed or seed-stage that are looking for mentorship or support," Evinger says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, "and we help get to that next step whether that's to raise an upcoming round or if they are looking to get into an equity-based accelerator program."

Evinger shares more details on the ongoing cohort on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the show.

Michael Lee, CEO of Octopus Energy US

A $2.23 million deal means a growing presence Texas for Octopus Energy. Photo via LinkedIn

A United Kingdom-founded energy company has expanded yet again in the Texas market. Octopus Energy announced the acquisition of Houston-based Brilliant Energy last week, and it's a huge opportunity for the company says Octopus Energy's United States CEO Michael Lee.

"This is a major moment for us, as we work to bring our 100% renewable energy supply and outstanding technology to more Texans and their homes," he says. Click here to read more.

The $2.23 million deal means a growing presence Texas for Octopus Energy. Photo via octopusenergy.com

Energy company with U.S. HQ in Houston acquires local business

M&A

A renewable energy retailer based in the United Kingdom is once again expanding its presence in Texas with another strategic acquisition.

Octopus Energy US, which is based in Houston, announced that it has signed an agreement to acquire Houston-based energy provider Brilliant Energy LLC in a $2.23 million deal. With the acquisition, Octopus Energy will take on the 9,000 residential customers currently supplied by Brilliant Energy. These users will be transitioned onto Octopus Energy's technology platform Kraken.

"Brilliant Energy is a company that has always stood for quality and unique brand experiences. It complements our strong dedication to bringing unparalleled customer experience to our users," says Michael Lee, CEO of Octopus Energy US, in a press release. "This is a major moment for us, as we work to bring our 100% renewable energy supply and outstanding technology to more Texans and their homes."

The acquisition is the latest move from Octopus Energy's plans to invest $100 million into the U.S. energy market and target 25 million U.S. energy accounts by 2027, according to the release.

Last fall, Octopus acquired Houston-based Evolve Energy in a $5 million deal. Evolve was founded by Lee, and he transitioned into his role as Octopus CEO following the deal.

Octopus Energy, which was founded around five years ago, reached Unicorn status with a $1 billion valuation in April 2020.

Michael Lee is CEO of Octopus Energy US. Photo via LinkedIn

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Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

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.