This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Kaitlyn Allen of MendIt, Miguel Calatayud of iwi, and Tatiana Fofanova of Koda Health. 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 sustainability to health tech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Kaitlyn Allen, founder and chief strategy officer of MendIt

MendIt seeks to reduce textile waste by providing an easy-to-use app to make menders and customizers more accessible. Photo courtesy of MendIt

Kaitlyn Allen thought she had a great idea for a company — something that can help people repair clothing conveniently. And all of the pieces of the strategy already existed. There are plenty of seamstressing businesses around town, but not an easy way to navigate them. “

There’s a disconnect. There’s a market of people who potentially want to mend their clothes, but there’s no easy way of finding or accessing that service,” she says. “With this next generation, you need to meet them where they are.”

And where they are, Allen says, is on their phones.

MendIt is completing a pilot program with one mender — Connect Community in Gulfton area — in partnership with St. Luke's Gethsemane on Bellaire in Sharpstown. She also hopes to tap into a local artist who can help with customization — like embroidery, for instance. Click here to read more.

Miguel Calatayud, CEO of iwi

Miguel Calatayud, CEO of iwi, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his sustainable business of farming algae for nutritional products. Photo courtesy of iwi

Miguel Calatayud feels like he has the perfect storm of a product. Not only does his company iwi's nutritional supplement have a sustainability focus, it's also just a very competitive product in the marketplace. The company has created a sustainable suite of products from innovative algae farming in the deserts of Texas and New Mexico. These football field-sized farms operate on desert land using just salt water and sand and produce algae sustainably — all while absorbing CO2.

"We've been growing significantly for one main reason," Calatayud says. "It works."

Calatayud shares more about the impact he's making and why Houston is the ideal market for him to do it in on the Houston Innovators podcast.Click here to read more.

Tatiana Fofanova, co-founder and CEO of Koda Health

Tatiana Fofanova, co-founder and CEO of Koda, closed recent funding for the digital health startup. Image via LinkedIn

Tatiana Fofanova, Koda co-founder and CEO, has something to celebrate. The Houston-based startup announced this month that it raised $3.5 million in its latest seed round. The funding will be used to help the digital advanced care planning company double the size of its team in the next six months.

"Koda Health helps vulnerable people navigate and communicate difficult decisions about their health care journey. So, when hiring, we look for empathetic people who are phenomenal communicators," Tatiana Fofanova, Koda co-founder and CEO, says in a statement.

The Koda team will also use the funds to expand its operations to all 50 states. According to the statement, the team plans to focus on low-resource communities and operating in different languages. Click here to read more.

Miguel Calatayud, CEO of iwi, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his sustainable business of farming algae for nutritional products. Photo courtesy of iwi

How this Houston innovator plans to make a sustainable impact — one algae farm at a time

Houston innovators podcast episode 120

If there's one thing Miguel Calatayud is passionate about it's conscious capitalism — and specifically that his company, iwi, a Houston-based food and nutritional supplement company, is striking the perfect balance between impact and profit.

The company has created a sustainable suite of products from innovative algae farming in the deserts of Texas and New Mexico. These football field-sized farms operate on desert land using just salt water and sand and produce algae sustainably — all while absorbing CO2. Calatayud says the farms even area able to reuse 98 percent of the water involved in the process.

"In the past, you had to choose between making an impact and making a profit," Calatayud says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "In our case, the way we built the company and the business model we put together, it's actually the opposite. The bigger the impact we make, the bigger the business we're creating."

With all this sustainability to boast about, Calatayud says it's not even the best part. Iwi's products, which include Omega-3 supplements, multivitamins, and even a forthcoming protein — all made from the farmed algae, are also very competitive products in the market.

"We've been growing significantly for one main reason," Calatayud says." It works."

"That's what's really driving the growth in the company because once a customer starts taking iwi, they don't go back to whatever they were taking before," Calatayud continues on the show.

Calatayud says iwi is ready to expand more internationally. The company recently closed an $8 million deal — $5.5 million in senior secured term debt and a $2.5 million direct equity investment — with GP Capital Partners, an investor and strategic partner for the company. The influx of funding will help iwi accelerate sales of its existing products and ramp up development, marketing, and growth of new protein-based product, according to the release. Iwi will also enter new international markets.

"What we are going to do with [GP] and other investors that we have is to take this brand to the next level," Calatayud says. "Last year, we grew 91 percent. This year, we are planning to grow around 200 percent."

Calatayud says the pond systems iwi operates are replicable, and as the company grows he could see building these types of algae farms across the world and even in the Middle East, creating jobs and opportunities globally.

Calatayud shares more about the impact he's making and why Houston is the ideal market for him to do it in on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Houston university teams up with angel group to reach, upskill future investors

Through a new partnership with the Houston Angel Network and Houston Exponential, the University of Houston will help cultivate startup investors among UH alumni.

The partnership will bolster accredited early-stage investors and accelerate opportunities for aspiring startup investors, the university says in a news release.

“Investors play a vital role in the startup ecosystem and this initiative gives our alumni a rapid path to becoming angels. Our vision is to activate more investors with deep connections to UH who support world-class innovation in our community and beyond,” says Ramanan Krishnamoorti, the university’s vice president for energy and innovation.

The partnership is based at UH’s Technology Bridge. Tech Bridge promotes tech commercialization, industrial partnerships, and startup development.

“Our founders are launching many exciting new companies, but they need better access to capital,” says Tanu Chatterji, associate director of startup development at UH. “This partnership will help us mobilize angel investors who want to support these innovators with knowledge and financial resources.”

UH alumni interested in participating in the new partnership should contact Chatterji at tchatte@uh.edu.

The angel network will lend its investing expertise to early-stage businesses in tech, energy, life sciences, consumer, and aerospace sectors. Meanwhile, tech startup incubator Houston Exponential will provide support for entrepreneurs and the startup ecosystem.

“This relationship is a testament to the collaborative spirit of Greater Houston’s business and academic communities,” says Mitra Miller, vice president of the Houston Angel Network, an organization for early-stage investors. “By leveraging the combined expertise and resources of our three organizations, we can increase the flow of early-stage capital in our region in support of great innovators and high-growth enterprises.”

Natara Branch, CEO of Houston Exponential, says the new initiative “promises to be a roadmap for investment education, and support for aspiring investors and entrepreneurs alike.”

“An active and educated investor base is an essential component of a thriving startup ecosystem,” says Branch.

Houston lab sees progress with breakthrough light-harvesting processes

Hi, tech

A groundbreaking Rice University lab has made further strides in its work to make harvesting light energy more efficient and stable.

Presented on the cover of a June issue of Science, a study from Rice engineer Aditya Mohite's lab uncovered a method to synthesize a high-efficiency perovskite solar cell, known as formamidinium lead iodide (FAPbI3), converting them into ultrastable high-quality photovoltaic films, according to a statement from Rice. Photovoltaic films convert sunlight into electricity.

The new process makes solar cells that are about 10 times more durable than traditional methods.

“Right now, we think that this is state of the art in terms of stability,” Mohite said in a statement. “Perovskite solar cells have the potential to revolutionize energy production, but achieving long-duration stability has been a significant challenge.”

The change come from "seasoning" the FAPbI3 with 2D halide perovskites crystals, which the Mohite lab also developed a breakthrough synthesis process for last year

The 2D perovskites helped make the FAPbI3 films more stable. The study showed that films with 2D perovskites deteriorated after two days of generating electricity, while those with 2D perovskites had not started to degrade after 20 days.

“FAPbI3 films templated with 2D crystals were higher quality, showing less internal disorder and exhibiting a stronger response to illumination, which translated as higher efficiency," Isaac Metcalf, a Rice materials science and nanoengineering graduate student and a lead author on the study, said in the statement.

Additionally, researchers say their findings could make developing light-harvesting technologies cheaper, and can also allow light-harvesting panels to be lighter weight and more flexible.

"Perovskites are soluble in solution, so you can take an ink of a perovskite precursor and spread it across a piece of glass, then heat it up and you have the absorber layer for a solar cell,” Metcalf said. “Since you don’t need very high temperatures ⎯ perovskite films can be processed at temperatures below 150 Celsius (302 Fahrenheit) ⎯ in theory that also means perovskite solar panels can be made on plastic or even flexible substrates, which could further reduce costs.”

Mohite adds this has major implications for the energy transition at large.

“If solar electricity doesn’t happen, none of the other processes that rely on green electrons from the grid, such as thermochemical or electrochemical processes for chemical manufacturing, will happen,” Mohite said. “Photovoltaics are absolutely critical.”

The Mohite lab's process for creating 2D perovskites of the ideal thickness and purity was published in Nature Synthesis last fall. At the time, Mohite said the crystals "hold the key to achieving commercially relevant stability for solar cells."

About a year ago, the lab also published its work on developing a scalable photoelectrochemical cell. The research broke records for its solar-to-hydrogen conversion efficiency rate.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

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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 a health tech data scientist, a CEO celebrating an international expansion, and a founder who won a big DOE prize.

Angela Wilkins, chief data scientist at Starling Medical

Angela Wilkins joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the intersection of data and health care. Photo courtesy

When most people hear about Houston startup Starling Medical, they might think about how much potential the medical device company has in the field of urinalysis diagnostics. But that's not quite where Angela Wilkins's head went.

Wilkins explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that when she met the company's co-founders, Hannah McKenney and Drew Hendricks, she recognized them as very promising startup leaders taking action on a real health care problem. Starling's device can collect urine and run diagnostics right from a patient's toilet.

"It was one of those things where I just thought, 'They're going to get a bunch of data soon,'" Wilkins says. "The opportunity is just there, and I was really excited to come on and build their AI platform and the way they are going to look at data."

For about a year, Wilkins supported the startup as an adviser. Now, she's working more hands on as chief data officer as the company grows. Read more.

Sean Kelly, CEO and co-founder of Amperon

Amperon officially expanded in Europe. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston-based, AI-powered electricity forecasting and analytics services company Amperon Holdings is live in Europe. The expansion, which Co-Founder and CEO Sean Kelly previously told InnovationMap about, is official, the company announced this month. In addition to the expansion, Amperon announced Jon Ecker as general manager, Europe, and Kelsey Hultberg as executive vice president, communications, and chief of staff.

Now, European companies that buy and sell energy in the renewable energy producers, financial institutions, and utilities markets can leverage Amperon's platform of AI and machine learning technologies to access short- and long-term forecasts for their individual meters and generation assets.

“As a warmer-than-expected June ushers in a hot summer, and increasing uncertainty looms for the calmer fall months due to the influx of wind and solar generation, we are eager to assist our European customers in navigating the power market volatility caused by heat waves, extreme weather events, and shifts in power usage across the region,” Kelly says in a news release. Read more.

Laureen Meroueh, founder of Hertha Metals

Hertha Metals, based in Conroe, won first place at the 2024 Summer Energy Program for Innovation Clusters (EPIC) Startup Pitch Competition. Photo via LinkedIn

Four startups from across the country won over $160,000 in cash prizes from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Technology Transitions earlier this month, and a Houston-area company claimed the top prize.

Hertha Metals, based in Conroe, won first place at the 2024 Summer Energy Program for Innovation Clusters (EPIC) Startup Pitch Competition. The program honors and supports clean energy innovators nominated by clean technology business incubators.

Hertha Metals was founded by Laureen Meroueh, a mechanical engineer and materials scientist, in 2022. Read more.