The Corporate of the Year category for the Houston Innovation Awards has four finalists — each playing a role in Houston's innovation ecosystem across energy, tech, and health care innovation. Photos courtesy

What corporations are most supporting Houston's startup ecosystem? The Houston Innovation Awards sought to find that out with a new category for the 2023 event.

The Corporate of the Year category has four finalists — each playing a role in Houston's innovation ecosystem across energy, tech, and health care innovation. Learn about each of these finalists in the interviews below.

Click here to secure your tickets to the November 8 event where we announce the winner of this exciting new category.

Aramco Ventures

Jim Sledzik, North American managing director of Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures, leads the organization locally. Photo via Aramco

Describe your company's work within the Houston innovation ecosystem.

Aramco Ventures has supported the development of Houston's innovation ecosystem as a founding member of the Ion to advance energy transition and Houston's tech economy. Jim Sledzik, managing director, Aramco Ventures North America, serves on the Ion Advisory Council. In addition we support Greentown Labs with its offices in Boston and Houston with Sledzik also named to its Advisory Board. Aramco Venture professionals are frequently tapped as speakers and participants for numerous industry speaking events and "Pitch Competitions" for start-up companies. For example, the 20th Annual Energy Tech Venture Forum held in Houston and organized by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship; Climate Week NYC; and the first ever Women's Capital Summit in New York City.

Why has your company decided to support the Houston innovation ecosystem?

Houston is considered the energy capital of the world and Aramco's support and involvement will help amplify the city's reputation and presence as a global energy hub.

Describe your company's impact on the Houston innovation ecosystem.

Aramco's impact has been felt throughout the city by our involvement in major innovation events, activities, and investments.

Chevron Technology Ventures

Jim Gable, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures, leads the organization locally. Photo courtesy

Why has your company decided to support the Houston innovation ecosystem?

Investing in the communities where we operate is a core Chevron value, and Chevron is committed to building the innovation ecosystem in Houston. It’s good for our company and it’s good for the city.

The Houston region, with its deep pool of engineering and industry talent, world-class university expertise, growing startup community and vast energy infrastructure, is well-positioned to lead in the creation of lower carbon energy and improve the region’s global competitiveness. By leveraging its strengths, Houston can create its own model for how it’s going to disrupt the energy space.

Describe your company's impact on the Houston innovation ecosystem.

At Chevron Technology Ventures, we leverage our trial and deployment resources, venture investments and strategic partnerships – both internal and external – to support the technological breakthroughs that will enable the evolution to a lower-carbon energy system. CTV is an active sponsor of university programs and accelerators that build up the Houston energy ecosystem. It has led Chevron’s founding partnership with Greentown Labs Houston and was The Ion’s first tenant and program partner. CTV also backs The Cannon and Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator, among others. As a partner and supporter of the innovation ecosystem, Chevron is committed to helping the ecosystem thrive.

Houston Methodist

Michelle Stansbury, vice president of innovation and IT applications at Houston Methodist, leads the company's innovation efforts. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

Describe your company's work within the Houston innovation ecosystem.

Our new collaborative space, the Tech Hub at Ion, is one way we are expanding our culture of innovation within Houston and its growing innovation ecosystem. Beyond showcasing ongoing technology, the Tech Hub at Ion also serves as a nucleus for community engagement and networking and hosting educational initiatives, with additional programming opportunities like reverse pitch sessions in the works.

Why has your company decided to support the Houston innovation ecosystem?

Healthcare is evolving at a rapid pace thanks to digital technology, so it’s important to search for solutions that are beyond the traditional walls of the hospital and even beyond our own industry. Serving our patients both in and outside the walls, especially in the community, has been a priority for Houston Methodist since our inception. We’ve had success in the healthcare innovation space, so we think it’s important to pay it forward and support the Houston innovation community.

Describe your company's impact on the Houston innovation ecosystem.

Our new collaborative space, the Tech Hub at Ion, is one way we are expanding our culture of innovation within Houston and its growing innovation ecosystem. Beyond showcasing ongoing technology, the Tech Hub at Ion also serves as a nucleus for community engagement and networking and hosting educational initiatives, with additional programming opportunities like reverse pitch sessions in the works. Houston Methodist’s Center for Innovation often collaborates with technology companies with solutions that provide a better patient experience and/or support clinicians and often these are technology companies early in their start-up journey. One Houston start-up Houston Methodist at the beginning of the pandemic and continues to use is MIC Sickbay, the technology that powers the virtual ICU and uses algorithms and AI to monitor patients.

Microsoft

Rob Schapiro, Energy Acceleration Program director and Houston site leader for Microsoft, leads the company's local innovation support efforts. Photo courtesy of Microsoft

Describe your company's work within the Houston innovation ecosystem.

Microsoft is committed to driving tech and innovation in the Houston community with a specific focus on underrepresented communities. Microsoft is financially supporting the ion, Greentown Labs Accel, DivInc, Tejano Tech Summit, and the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator as well as programs designed to bring the next generations of Houston founders to the forefront (G-Unity Business Lab, SuperGirls Shine Foundation, Tech Fest Live, PVAMU). Aside from the financial support, Microsoft brings a dedicated team of volunteers and mentors to each of these engagements, and they are helping shape the future of innovation in the city of Houston.

Why has your company decided to support the Houston innovation ecosystem?

We believe that it is our duty to be an active and engaged corporate partner to any and all communities in which we operate. We decided to invest in Houston because of the rich, diverse talent pool and the growing energy transition industry.

Describe your company's impact on the Houston innovation ecosystem.

  • Partnered with DivInc to create an Energy Tech Accelerator program that had its first cohort of seven companies this year.
  • Driving thought leadership and bringing attention to valuable initiatives through serving on the advisory boards of the Ion (Vice Chair position), Greentown Labs Houston, Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator.
  • Supporting the next generation of innovators: 120 high school students received hands on training in innovation and prototyping as part of the G-Unity Business Lab. This program doubled in size due to its success. Microsoft sponsored prototyping and design thinking training. We also seated one of the Hustle Tank judges.
  • Graduated 14 students from the Level Up fellowship program in partnership with Prairie View A&M University and Accenture; most students received and accepted employment offers from Accenture.
  • Sponsored 20 high school girls who participated in the SuperGirls Shine Foundation's 40/40 mentorship program.
  • Ten women founders received mentoring and training as part of the DivInc Women in Tech Cohort
  • Held a four-week high school internship program for BIPOC students

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Michelle Stansbury of Houston Methodist, Barclay Jumet of Rice University, and Collin McLelland of Digital Wildcatters. Photos courtesy

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 health care to energy tech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Michelle Stansbury, vice president of innovation and IT applications at Houston Methodist

Michelle Stansbury joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

Houston Methodist has a small group of leaders — the Digital Innovation Obsessed People, or DIOP — that lead external and internal innovation efforts, from pilots to implementation. Michelle Stansbury is one of those leaders. As vice president of innovation and IT applications at Houston Methodist, she oversees the system's IT department and serves as a leader within its innovation efforts. This includes the Center for Innovation Technology Hub — which opened in 2020 in the Texas Medical Center location and opened its Ion outpost last week.

Stansbury explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast how effective this distribution of innovation responsibilities has been for Houston Methodist. With everyone having a seat at the table — operations knows the biggest problems that need solutions, IT knows how to deploy technology, etc. — implementation of new innovations has been sped up.

"If we partner together, we should be able to succeed fast or fail fast," she says on the show. "We've been able to find a solution, pilot it, and, if it works well, roll it out at a speed that most other organizations have not been able to do. It's been highly successful for us." Read more.

Barclay Jumet, researcher at Rice University

A team at Rice University is designing wearable technology that can be used for navigation for users with visual and auditory impairments. Photo by Brandon Martin/Rice University

A group of Rice researchers have tapped into the sense of touch to improve how wearable technology can communicate with its user.

Barclay Jumet, a mechanical engineering PhD student at Rice working in the labs of Daniel Preston and Marcia O’Malley, published the findings in the August issue of “Device.” The study outlines the group's new system of haptic accessories that rely heavily on fluidic control over electrical inputs to signal or simulate touch to a wearer.

“In the future, this technology could be directly integrated with navigational systems, so that the very textiles making up one’s clothing can tell users which way to go without taxing their already overloaded visual and auditory senses—for instance by needing to consult a map or listen to a virtual assistant,” Jumet said in a release from Rice. Read more.

Collin McLelland, co-founder and CEO of Digital Wildcatters

This Houston-based media company launched a networking platform to help solve the energy crisis. Photo courtesy

Houston-based media organization Digital Wildcatters has officially launched the beta program of their networking app to help bridge the hiring gap in the energy industry. By providing a platform for individuals to get their questions answered by experts and a space for companies seeking qualified talent, Collide is structured to ignite the next generation of energy innovators.

Collin McLelland, co-founder and CEO of Digital Wildcatters, says he aims to expand their professional community through this networking platform. Rather than being a transition away from Digital Wildcatters’ roots as a digital media organization McLelland explains Collide is an integration of the community they have built through podcasts and events into an interactive platform.

“If you look at what we’ve done historically with Digital Wildcatters, we’ve built an extremely engaged community of energy professionals — it’s a next generation community, very young forward thinking professionals that are working towards solving the world’s energy crisis,” McLelland shares. Read more.

Michelle Stansbury, vice president of innovation and IT applications at Houston Methodist, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

Houston innovator powers health care innovation by collaboration — inside and outside of the hospital setting

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 202

It might surprise most to know that Houston Methodist doesn't have an innovation department within their hospital system — at least not one set up as you'd imagine, with a team specifically dedicated to innovation. Instead, Houston Methodist's Digital Innovation Obsessed People, or DIOP, consists of leaders across departments.

Michelle Stansbury is one of those leaders. As vice president of innovation and IT applications at Houston Methodist, she oversees the system's IT department and serves as a leader within its innovation efforts. This includes the Center for Innovation Technology Hub — which opened in 2020 in the Texas Medical Center location and opened its Ion outpost last week.

Stansbury explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast how effective this distribution of innovation responsibilities has been for Houston Methodist. With everyone having a seat at the table — operations knows the biggest problems that need solutions, IT knows how to deploy technology, etc. — implementation of new innovations has been sped up.

"If we partner together, we should be able to succeed fast or fail fast," she says on the show. "We've been able to find a solution, pilot it, and, if it works well, roll it out at a speed that most other organizations have not been able to do. It's been highly successful for us."

The newest way Houston Methodist is mixing up how it brings in innovative solutions to its team and patients is by taking its team outside of the Texas Medical Center and its hospitals in general. Now, Houston Methodist has a permanent tech hub in the Ion, owned and operated by Rice Management Company, on the lower level of the building, completely open to any of the Ion's visitors.

"We've always had a great partnership with Rice. This almost felt like an extension with Houston Methodist and our Rice collaboration with the Ion," Stansbury says. "Our main goals have been how can we utilize the talent that's housed out of that facility."

She explains that the new hub is an extension of the original hub in the TMC hospital, and that innovators who are interested in collaborating with Houston Methodist — especially those with solutions applicable to health care — can visit the Ion hub as an entry point.

Both hub locations showcase pilot technology Houston Methodist is working on, and that technology will then get deployed out into its hospital locations — and especially its Cypress hospital, which is being billed as being the "smart hospital of the future." The construction is underway and expected to deliver in 2025.

Stansbury shares more about this ninth location for Houston Methodist as well as more details on the new tech hub on the podcast. Listen to the interview here — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Houston Methodist opened a new tech hub in the Ion this week. Photo by Shannon O’Hara/Ion

Photos: Houston hospital opens tech hub in the Ion

innovation outpost

A Houston hospital has opened an innovation outpost in the Ion this week in order to showcase health tech innovation and connect with Houston innovators.

The Houston Methodist Tech Hub at Ion hub has officially opened. The 1,200-square-foot space was created in addition to the Center for Innovation Technology Hub that's in Houston Methodist’s flagship location in the Texas Medical Center, which opened in February 2020.

The new space, located on the lower level of the Ion, exists to serve as a common ground for innovators across industries to promote collisions and innovation, as well as interaction with Houston Methodist team members

“Our new Tech Hub at Ion supports not only our commitment to the Houston innovation community but also to the rapidly shifting healthcare industry,” Michelle Stansbury, vice president of innovation and IT applications at Houston Methodist, says in a statement. “We know we can’t solve the healthcare challenges of the future if we confine ourselves within our hospital walls or even within our own industry.

"We look forward to the collaborative space our new Tech Hub will provide and the future programming opportunities we can create together to inspire, challenge, and foster a spirit of innovation in our city.”

The new hub, according to the news release, also will host educational events, reverse pitch sessions, and more. Visitors can schedule a time to view the space or connect with the Houston Methodist innovation team by filling out a form online.

The hub, which was originally announced last year, is the latest partner to open within the Ion's space. Earlier this year, the organization announced other new tenants.

“Houston Methodist’s space at the Ion opens up even more opportunities for our start-up and entrepreneur community to embed and gain exposure to the latest innovations in health care, health technology, and digital health,” Jan E. Odegard, executive director of Ion, says. “This partnership and opportunity provided by Houston Methodist, a leading healthcare organization in the country, is a testament to the ecosystem we’re building and the talent within our building. Furthermore, Houston Methodist’s approach and appetite for cross-industry innovation and collaboration meshes seamlessly with the Ion’s ongoing plans to support Houston’s growing innovation community in industries and fields that will change the world.”

Both of Houston Methodist's tech hubs will showcase its latest technologies its implementing in its hospital system, including the "hospital of the future" it's building out in Cypress.

Collaborative effort

Photo by Shannon O’Hara/Ion

Houston experts at the annual Pumps and Pipes event discussed the importance of open innovation. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

Overheard: Houston experts call for more open innovation at industry-blending event

eavesdropping at the Ion

Open innovation, or the practice of sourcing new technologies and idea across institutions and industries, was top of mind at the annual Pumps & Pipes event earlier this week.

The event, which is put on by an organization of the same name every year, focuses on the intersection of the energy, health care, and aerospace industries. The keynote discussion, with panelists representing each industry, covered several topics, including the importance of open innovation.

If you missed the discussion, check out some key moments from the panel.

“If we want to survive as a city, we need to make sure we can work together.”

Juliana Garaizar of Greentown Labs. "From being competitive, we’ve become collaborative, because the challenges at hand in the world right now is too big to compete," she continues.

“The pace of innovation has changed.”

Steve Rader of NASA. He explains that 90 percent of all scientists who have ever lived are alive on earth today. “If you think you can do it all yourself — and just find all the latest technology yourself, you’re kidding yourself.”

“You can’t close the door. If you do, you’re closing the door to potential opportunities.”

— Michelle Stansbury, Houston Methodist. “If you think you can do it all yourself — and just find all the latest technology yourself, you’re kidding yourself.” She explains that there's an influx of technologies coming in, but what doesn't work now, might work later or for another collaborator. "I would say that health care as a whole hasn’t been very good at sharing all of the things we’ve been creating, but that’s not the case today," she explains.

“The thing that makes Houston great is the same thing that makes open innovation great: diversity.”

— Rader says, adding that this makes for a great opportunity for Houston.

“Some of our greatest innovations that we’ve had come from other industries — not from health tech companies.”

— Stansbury says. "I think that's the piece everyone needs to understand," she says. "Don't just look in your own industry to solve problems."

“Nobody knows what is the best technology — the one that is going to be the new oil."

— Garaizar says. “All of this is going to be a lot of trial and error," she continues. “We don’t have the luxury of time anymore.”

The Ion will house a new innovation hub focused on the future of medicine. Image courtesy of The Ion

Houston Methodist to open health innovation center in the Ion

coming soon

The Houston Methodist healthcare system has teamed up with the Ion innovation hub to open a health care innovation center.

The 1,200-square-foot tech hub is expected to open later this year. It initially will be geared toward activities like entrepreneurial programming, networking, mentoring, and pitching.

The space will be modeled after Houston Methodist’s Center for Innovation Technology Hub, which opened in 2020. In fact, the new hub will be a smaller “twin” of the existing hub, according to a news release.

Jan Odegard, executive director of the Ion, says the collaboration with Houston Methodist “will advance the Ion’s ability to support entrepreneurs and innovators that are already at the Ion as we embark on a new focus in health care innovation.”

Amid the rise of artificial intelligence and other tech advancements, along with the health care sector’s continuing drive to cut costs, one forecast indicates the value of the global market for digital health care will jump from $216.4 billion in 2022 to $441 billion by 2026. That would represent an increase of 104 percent.

Houston Methodist is the Ion’s first health care partner. The Ion already has partnerships in the aerospace and energy sectors.

“We are advancing the evolution of the hospital’s role in health care through digital transformation,” said Michelle Stansbury, vice president of innovation and IT applications at Houston Methodist. “Having a footprint at the Ion will not only provide the Ion’s network and Houston community with a window into what we are doing for patients, consumers and providers, but also gives The Ion community and rising innovators an opportunity to bring its own ingenuity and ideas to life with ours.”

Houston Methodist operates eight hospitals in the Houston area.

The 266,000-square-foot Ion anchors a 16-acre innovation district in Midtown. Rice Management Co. developed the district on behalf of Rice University.

“By enhancing opportunities for our network of academics, businesses, entrepreneurs, and innovators to collaborate across the Ion District and globally, we’re creating a more resilient future economy for our region,” says Bryson Grover, investment manager of real estate at Rice Management.

The space will be modeled after Houston Methodist’s Center for Innovation Technology Hub, which opened in 2020. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

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.