This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes three founders celebrating recent funding — Omair Tariq of Cart.com, Moji Karimi of Cemvita Factory, and Moody Heard of Buildforce. 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 — who each recently announced new funding — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Omair Tariq, CEO of Cart.com

Omair Tariq's Cart.com raised a big round last week. Photo via Cart.com

Cart.com, an end-to-end e-commerce software startup, announced the close of its series B round at $98 million last week, which brings the company's total funding to $140 million since it launched eight months ago.

"At Cart.com, we believe e-commerce brands should be free to scale up without having to juggle countless outside vendors, and without compromising their unique vision for their brand," says Omair Tariq, CEO of Cart.com, in the release. "Our one-stop platform supports sellers across the full range of e-commerce functionality, empowering them to efficiently scale up and reach new markets using proven, best-of-breed services and technologies."

The new funding will go toward further developing the Cart.com platform. Click here to read more.

Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita Factory

Moji Karimi has something to celebrate after last week's news. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Houston-based biotech company Cemvita Factory announced the initial close of its series A round. Founded by brother-sister team Moji and Tara Karimi in 2017, the company's technology biomimics photosynthesis to take carbon dioxide and turn it into something else. Cemvita uses this synthetic biology to decarbonize heavy industry across chemical manufacturing, mining, and oil and gas.

"Decarbonizing heavy industry is one of the most critical challenges in addressing climate change," says Moji Karimi, who serves as CEO, in a news release. "Synthetic biology is now primed to revolutionize heavy industries because of its inherent low-carbon advantages, and Cemvita is taking the lead in identifying and derisking the key applications." Click here to read more.

Moody Heard, CEO of BuildForce

Houston-based Buildforce is developing a technology to better connect contractors and the trade professionals they employ. Photo courtesy of Buildforce

Houston-based construction app Buildforce closed its latest round of funding at $4 million. The round was led by Maryland-based TDF Ventures, with participation from existing investor Houston-based Mercury Fund and Austin-based S3 Ventures.

The company uses construction staffing and management software to more efficiently connect contractors to skilled workers across trades — electrical, mechanical, plumbing, flooring, concrete, painting, and more.

"Contractors depend on skilled and reliable tradespeople to meet project timelines," says Moody Heard, co-founder and CEO of Buildforce, in a news release. "Our key insight is that by optimizing the user experience for skilled tradespeople seeking higher pay and job security, we are able to help meet contractors' needs. We're thrilled to have become the partner of choice for the top contractors in our current markets looking to connect with this workforce." Click here to read more.

The brother-sister team at Houston-based Cemvita Factory is celebrating its series A initial closing. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Houston-based carbon negative biotech startup closes series A round

money moves

A promising Houston startup using biotechnology to reduce carbon emissions is celebrating the initial closing of its series A fundraising round.

Cemvita Factory announced the news of its round closing, but didn't disclose the amount raised. 8090 Partners, a new investment group of entrepreneurs turned investors, led the round. Existing investor Oxy Low Carbon Ventures also contributed, along with Seldor Capital, Climate Capital, and others.

Founded by brother-sister team Moji and Tara Karimi in 2017, the company's technology biomimics photosynthesis to take carbon dioxide and turn it into something else. Cemvita uses this synthetic biology to decarbonize heavy industry across chemical manufacturing, mining, and oil and gas.

"Decarbonizing heavy industry is one of the most critical challenges in addressing climate change," says Moji Karimi, who serves as CEO, in a news release. "Synthetic biology is now primed to revolutionize heavy industries because of its inherent low-carbon advantages, and Cemvita is taking the lead in identifying and derisking the key applications."

Cemvita is currently working. with a number of clients — including Oxy, which announced its pilot in April — to reduce their carbon footprints.

"We believe the adoption rate and market size growth of our target applications will only accelerate due to the urgency for a low-carbon energy transition," Karimi continues. "The future of manufacturing will be low-carbon biomanufacturing and the future of mining will be sustainable biomining."

According to the release, the fresh funds will go toward launching Cemvita's bio-hydrogen solution, as well as to support construction and operation of a bio-ethylene pilot plant with Oxy. The pilot project, which reported success in the lab, is expected to scale.

"While synthetic biology has proven to be effective in re-imagining food and proteins, we've long held a firm belief in synthetic biology's promise in the heavy industrial space, but have waited until we've seen the right technology and team to drive real innovation in the sector," says Rayyan Islam, partner at 8090 Partners, in the release. "Cemvita's technology is a fundamental game-changer that provides a real economic solution and major players across heavy industry have taken serious notice."

It's not just investors and industrial players who have taken notice. Cemvita won the recent GS Beyond Energy Innovation Challenge from Cleantech.org. The company was also selected as a cohort member at Carbon2Value Initiative.

"Cemvita's technology is truly revolutionary in its use of CO2 and as a resource to provide viable economic solutions as more and more companies seek ways to reduce their carbon footprint. We remain impressed and excited about Cemvita's technology's positive impact on Earth and beyond," says Sidney N. Nakahodo, founder and general partner of Seldor Capital, in the release.

Three Houston companies are going into the semifinals of Cleantech.org's competition. Photo via Getty Images

3 Houston companies named to semifinals of clean energy competition

game on

Three Houston energy startups are in the running for the $100,000 cash prize in Cleantech.org's GS Beyond Energy Innovation Challenge.

Amperon Holdings, Cemvita Factory, and Veloce Energy are among the competition's 24 semifinalists, which were announced June 17. Five semifinalists will be chosen to pitch their concepts during a virtual event July 21, and then the winner of the $100,000 prize will be named.

"This is not like the cleantech sector was 10 years ago. Getting down to 24 [semifinalists] was hard. Getting down to five finalists will be extremely challenging," Neal Dikeman, chairman and founder of Cleantech.org and a partner at one of the prize sponsors, Houston-based Energy Transition Ventures, says in a news release.

Amperon, with an office in Houston and headquarters in New York City, is a semifinalist in the "digitization of energy" category. The company, founded in 2017, builds real-time electricity demand tools for utilities, energy retailers, grid operators, and institutional traders. So far, Amperon has raised $4.3 million in funding, according to Crunchbase.

Houston-based Cemvita, founded in 2017 by siblings Tara and Moji Karimi, is a semifinalist in the "new fuels" category. Its biotechnology transforms carbon dioxide emissions into sustainable chemicals and polymers. In a recent interview for the Houston Innovators Podcast, Moji Karimi explained how unprecedented his work is — and how ready for collaboration his team is.

"There weren't biotech companies working with oil and gas companies for this use case that we have now," Karimi says. "We're defining this new category for application of synthetic biology in heavy industries for decarbonization."

Veloce, with an office in Houston and headquarters in Los Angeles, is a semifinalist in the "e-mobility in cities" category. The company, founded in 2020, aims to make installation of electric vehicle charging stations cheaper and faster. Veloce is an inaugural member of Greentown Houston, an incubator for climate technology startups.

Houston-based Cemvita Factory, which biomimics photosynthesis to turn carbon emissions into feedstock, has been selected for a new international accelerator. Photo courtesy of Cemvita Factory

Houston startup selected for international carbontech accelerator

the future of climatech

A new international accelerator focused on the commercialization of carbontech has announced its new cohort — and one Houston-based company has made the cut.

Cemvita Factory has been accepted into the Carbon to Value Initiative, a recently launched accelerator supported by The Urban Future Lab at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, Greentown Labs, and Fraunhofer USA. The program is focused on supporting companies with technologies that capture, convert, and store carbon dioxide (CO₂) into valuable end products or services, according to a news release.

"In addition to being absolutely necessary to stave off dangerous climate impacts, carbontech innovations represent a potential $3 trillion market opportunity," says Pat Sapinsley, managing director at the Urban Future Lab, in the news release. "We are excited to welcome 10 startups, each proposing different business models and technology innovations to realize that opportunity."

Cemvita Factory, which was founded by siblings Tara and Moji Karimi in 2017, has created a way to biomimic photosynthesis to take CO2 and turn it into something usable for its energy clients, like feedstocks. Cemvita has 30 different molecules its technology can produce and works with the likes of BHP, Oxy, and more.

"We are excited to represent Houston in the first cohort for the Carbon to Value Initiative," Moji Karimi tells InnovationMap. "We want to send a message that Houston is not just the Oil and Gas capital of the world, but also the center of gravity for a sustainable Energy Transition."The C2V Initiative selected 10 startups out of over 130 applications from 26 countries. The cohort has technologies ranging from carbon utilization product and process innovations to carbon capture and carbon sequestration solutions.

Cemvita isn't alone in repping the Lone Star State. San Antonio-based CarbonFree, which has commercial technologies that capture and convert industrial CO2 emissions into minerals for sale or storage, also made the cohort.

The other eight non-Texas companies are:

  • Air Company, based in New York City, transforms CO2 into high-purity alcohols that can be used in spirits, sanitizers, and a variety of consumer industries.
  • Reykjavík, Iceland-based Carbfix provides a natural and permanent carbon storage solution by turning CO2 into stone underground.
  • CarbonQuest, based in New York City, provides decarbonization technologies and solutions for buildings with a focus on modular carbon capture.
  • Toronto, Canada-based CERT converts CO2 to chemicals such as ethylene via electrolysis.
  • Made of Air, based in Berlin, Germany creates drop-in ready, durable thermoplastics using carbon captured by biomass.
  • Oakland, California-based Mars Materials develops a new pathway for carbon fiber production using CO2 as a raw material.
  • San Francisco-based Patch is a platform for negative emissions.
  • Planetary Hydrogen, based in Dartmouth, Canada, combines hydrogen production with CO2 sequestration via ocean air capture.

The program kicks off at a virtual event on May 6 from 3-5 p.m. The six-month program will provide its cohort with a customized curriculum, hands-on mentorship, and knowledge-sharing sessions with C2V Initiative's Carbontech Leadership Council — an invitation-only group of international corporate, academic, and government thought leaders.

The cohort will also receive complimentary membership and access to the Greentown Labs community, which includes is recently opened facility in Houston.

"We know that to effectively address the climate crisis and mitigate the effects of climate change, we need to rapidly scale and deploy carbontech solutions to accelerate the energy transition," says Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs. "We're proud to support these startups from all over the world and look forward to the collaborations that will spark among the startups and our CLC members."

Listen to Cemvita Factory's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast below.


Cemvita Factory is working on a pilot plant with Oxy to scale its biotechnology. Photo via OxyLowCarbon.com

Oxy taps Houston startup's carbon negative biotechnology for new pilot plant

sustainability moves

Occidental's venture arm — Oxy Low Carbon Ventures — has announced its plans to construct and operate a one metric ton per month bio-ethylene pilot plant featuring Houston-based Cemvita Factory's technology that biomimics photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide into feedstocks.

The new plant will scale the process, which was jointly developed between Cemvita and OLCV, and is expected sometime next year, according to a press release from Oxy.

"Today bio-ethylene is made from bio-ethanol, which is made from sugarcane, which in turn was created by photosynthesizing CO2. Our bio-synthetic process simply requires CO2, water and light to produce bio-ethylene, and that's why it saves a lot of cost and carbon emissions," says Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita Factory, in the release. "This project is a great example of how Cemvita is applying industrial-strength synthetic biology to help our clients lower their carbon footprint while creating new revenue streams."

Oxy and Cemvita have been working together for a while, and in 2019, OLCV invested an undisclosed amount into the startup. The investment, according to the release, was made to jointly explore how these advances in synthetic biology can be used for sustainability efforts in the bio-manufacturing of OxyChem's products.

"This technology could provide an opportunity to offer a new, non-hydrocarbon-sourced ethylene product to the market, reducing carbon emissions, and in the future benefit our affiliate, OxyChem, which is a large producer and consumer of ethylene in its chlorovinyls business," says Robert Zeller, vice president of technology at OLCV, in a news release.

Moji Karimi founded the company with his sister and Cemvita CTO, Tara, in 2017. The idea was to biomimic photosynthesis to take CO2 and turn it into something else. The first iteration of the technology turned CO2 into sugar — the classic photosynthesis process. Karimi says the idea was to create this process for space, so that astronauts can turn the CO2 they breathe out into a calorie source.

"Nature provided the inspiration," noted Dr. Tara Karimi, co-founder and CTO of Cemvita Factory. "We took a gene from a banana and genetically engineered it into our CO2-utilizing host microorganism. We are now significantly increasing its productivity with the goal to achieve commercial metrics that we have defined alongside OLCV."

A couple weeks ago, Moji Karimi joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss growth and challenges Cemvita Factory faced.

"We're defining this new category for application of synthetic biology in heavy industries for decarbonization," he shares on the show. Stream the episode below.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Moji Karimi of Cemvita Factory, Shanna Jin of Rice University, and Trent Crow of Real Simple Energy. 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 in Houston innovation.

Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita Factory

Moji Karimi joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how his technology is offering energy execs an innovative way to meat their climate change pledge goals. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

A lot of startups are working on technology that makes existing practices more efficient, cheaper, or faster — or all of the above. But Cemvita Factory, founded by siblings Moji and Tara Karimi, is doing something that's never been done before: biomimicking photosynthesis to convert carbon emissions into useful chemicals.

"There weren't biotech companies working with oil and gas companies for this use case that we have now," Moji Karimi says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We're defining this new category for application of synthetic biology in heavy industries for decarbonization."

With this uncharted territory comes unique challenges and opportunities. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Shanna Jin, communications and marketing specialist of the Data to Knowledge Lab at Rice University

Startups and small businesses are accumulating data daily — here's how to use that to your advantage, according to this Houston expert. Photo via rice.edu

Ironically, the power of data management is almost incalculable. With the right practices and processes in place, businesses can make better decisions and grow more strategically. But, it's not something a lot of startups or small businesses look at regularly. That's where the Rice University Data To Knowledge group comes into play.

"Being able to interpret data and making data-driven decisions becomes the key to the success of a business," writes Shanna Jin in a guest column for InnovationMap. "It is not just a privilege for big companies anymore. Small businesses need it more than ever to make sustainable growth in the digital era." Click here to read more.

Trent Crow, founder and president of Real Simple Energy

Trent Crow, founder and president, and the Real Simple Energy team have moved over to Arcardia with the acquisition. Photo courtesy of Real Simple Energy

Earlier this month, a Houston startup exited to a larger tech company. Trent Crow, co-founder and CEO of Real Simply Energy, says all eight of the company's employees have moved over to Arcadia and more workers will be hired soon. The company has maintained a mix of office and remote workers. Arcadia will look for Houston office space later this year, Crow says.

"Expansion plans include doing more of what we're doing now and offering more features for customers," says Crow, who now is Arcadia's general manager of energy services in Texas. Click here to read more.

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Greentown Labs hires former Houston sustainability exec

new hire

The country's largest climatetech startup incubator has made a strategic new hire.

Lara Cottingham is the new chief of staff for Greentown Labs, a Boston-area company that opened in Houston earlier this year. Cottingham previously served as the city of Houston's chief sustainability officer and the chief of staff for the city's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department for the past seven years. In her new role, Cottingham will oversee the day-to-day operations and communications for Greentown's CEO Emily Reichert, along with key stakeholder engagements and strategic initiatives for the incubator.

"Lara brings a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience to our team from her dynamic leadership role at the City of Houston," says Reichert in a news release. "Her breadth of knowledge in sustainability, climate, and the energy transition, and her expertise in regulatory and stakeholder aspects of the energy industry, will be incredibly valuable to our team and community."

Under her leadership at the city of Houston, Cottingham was the chief author of Houston's Climate Action Plan, an initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Houston, and getting the city to a point where it meets the Paris Agreement goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Cottingham helped the city move to 100 percent renewable electricity, according to the release, and helped turn a 240-acre landfill into the nation's largest urban solar farm.

"In leading the Climate Action Plan, Lara helped spark Houston's leadership in what has become a global energy transition and was a passionate advocate for climate action in Houston," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "While she will be missed, this new role will only strengthen our partnership with Greentown. I look forward to working with Emily, Lara, and the Greentown team to meet our climate goals and make Houston the energy capital of the future."

Before her work at the city, Cottingham worked at Hill+Knowlton Strategies' Houston office range of clients across the energy sector. Earlier in her career, she served as communications director for two congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives. She began her work with the city in 2014.

"In working with Mayor Turner and Climate Mayors across the U.S., I saw how important partnerships are to helping cities decarbonize," says Cottingham in the release. "There is no better partner or place for climate action at work than Greentown Labs. Greentown is 100 percent committed to attracting and nurturing the energy companies of the future and making Houston the energy transition capital of the world. I'm excited to join the team and see how climatetech can help cities reach their climate goals."

Greentown Labs first announced its entrance into the Houston market last summer. The new 40,000-square-foot facility in Midtown across the street from The Ion opened its prototyping and wet lab space, offices, and community gathering areas for about 50 startup companies opened in April. Greentown was founded in 2011 in Somerville, Massachusetts, and has supported more than 400 startups, which have raised more than $1.5 billion in funding.

Houston edtech nonprofit grows its technology with $440K grant from Kinder Foundation

student-focused

As the learning landscape shifted from in-person to virtual, the ability to provide students with necessary support systems and resources became compromised. However, one Houston edtech company worked hard to close that gap.

ProUnitas, a Houston-based nonprofit, partnered with Thoughtworks, a global technology consultancy, to expand its PurpleSENSE platform to mobile. This partnership was ensured through significant private investment, including a one-time gift of $440,000 from the Kinder Foundation.

ProUnitas promises that this expansion will allow student support teams to take the power of PurpleSENSE with them on the go for easier, real-time response using the new PurpleSENSE mobile app.

"A mobile version of PurpleSENSE will empower student support teams to work more rapidly, efficiently and effectively towards their mission and goals," Chris Murphy, CEO of Thoughtworks North America, says in a news release.

Committed to ensuring that no students fall through the cracks, ProUnitas' purpose is focused on providing all students, including those most impoverished, with support services such as food assistance programs, mental health counseling, and after-school clubs.

"Every day many of our students carry the burden of poverty on their shoulders to school, and despite the availability of services, schools do not have the technology infrastructure necessary to connect students to resources in a coordinated way. We want to change this reality," says Adeeb Barqawi, president and CEO of ProUnitas, says in the release.

Engaged in similar work, the Kinder Foundation was a natural partner.

"The Kinder Foundation believes that children cannot succeed if they are juggling significant personal challenges," says Nancy Kinder, president and CEO of the Kinder Foundation, in the release. "As a result of the pandemic, we are seeing mental health and the impact of stress with fresh eyes. Now is the time to support our children and help them thrive and learn. We are proud to help elevate the work of ProUnitas to reach more schools and more students in this critical time of need."

In a press release, ProUnitas states that through these new mobile capabilities, up to 60 percent of administrative work in providing social service options is eliminated. It also shortens the response time for a student to be identified and receive services by 90 percent.

The expansion of PurpleSENSE to mobile is a critical step for ProUnitas to effectively support more schools and students.

Renewables are Houston's next chapter, says this expert

guest column

Houston has long been known as an innovative city — from medicine to technology to creative cuisines (see Viet-Cajun). I am always proud to see how cultures, education, and change come together to build the fabric of our city. As we look forward to a new future, we need to look no further than one of our strongest industries: energy. As many before me, I've sat down to ask: What does that next chapter look like for Houston?

Renewable energy has rapidly grown in Texas and across the country. Emerging technology has furthered this innovation, bringing wind and solar projects that are more powerful and reliable online from the Panhandle to deep in the Rio Grande Valley. As these new projects come online, aging wind facilities built in the early 2000s are beginning to be revitalized, gleaming bright white with newer, longer blades. And, similar to cleaning out your closet of old clothes, the current blades have to go somewhere. Where others see a problem, we saw an opportunity: We've made a business out of recycling them.

At Everpoint, we are demolishing and removing blades all across the US, with projects in North Dakota, Colorado, and even here in another Texas city, Sweetwater. In this rural Texas town, wind investment took Nolan County market value from $607 million in 1998 to $3.2 billion as development peaked in 2009. This growth enabled the school districts, county, and hospital district to expand and upgrade their facilities. As a trailblazer in the industry, we worked closely with the Sweetwater team to handle a smooth transition, allowing their community to look forward to a breezier future.

The industry is quickly innovating to meet the demands of Texas' future, and new opportunities are forming every day, something we're proud to be a part of, especially as a veteran-owned company. We are driven to make the future of energy more transparent and traceable, that's why we partner with firms like Media Sorcery which uses sensors and an ESG based blockchain built by another Houston firm, Topl, to maintain full accountability throughout the decommissioning process.

Beyond our company, the renewable energy industry employs veterans at a higher rate than the national average, with more than 11,000 in the wind industry alone. As a veteran myself it only made since to team with another veteran founded company to pursue this opportunity. I appreciate meeting fellow veterans every day that are applying the skills they learned in the military: a technical knowledge base, teamwork, and discipline.

Across Texas, renewable energy is powering 40,200 well-paying careers that I know are building toward a better, brighter Houston. It's in our blood to continue the Texas legacy of welcoming energy industries, like wind and solar, into our state. I believe in an all-energy approach to the energy transition. Renewable energy is about more than hearts and minds, it's about dollars and cents.

In honor of that, we are celebrating American Clean Power Week this week, October 25-29, and we hope you will join us. Not to celebrate one industry, but to embrace an all of the above, made in Texas energy future — a future that I know we can all be proud of, and where Houston will be the Energy Capital of the Future.

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Kevin Doffing is the chief commercial officer of Everpoint Services.