The United and Occidental investment arms are planning to form a joint venture to commercialize the technology. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Houston cleantech startup Cemvita Factory has scored a $5 million investment from United Airlines Ventures, the venture capital fund of the Chicago-based airline.

The equity investment is aimed at propelling commercialization of sustainable aviation fuel through a process involving carbon dioxide (CO2) and synthetic microbes.

Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, a subsidiary of Houston-based Occidental Petroleum that’s a founding investor in Cemvita, and United Airlines Ventures are financing the startup’s work on sustainable jet fuel. United Airlines operates a hub at George Bush Intercontinental/Houston Airport.

If that work pans out, the United and Occidental investment arms plan to form a joint venture to commercialize the technology. The joint venture might include construction of plants for the production of sustainable aviation fuel.

Sustainable aviation fuel, known as SAF, is an alternative to jet fuel that uses non-petroleum feedstock and offers lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Founded by brother-sister team Moji and Tara Karimi in 2017, Cemvita Factory relies on synthetic biology to turn carbon dioxide into chemicals and alternative fuels, including SAF. The startup, founded in 2017, is among the first companies to employ this technology to support heavy-industry decarbonization and find ways to take advantage of microbiology to convert CO2 into fuel.

“The use of SAF is a promising approach that we believe can significantly reduce global emissions from aviation and further decarbonization initiatives to combat climate change,” Richard Jackson, president of operations for U.S. onshore resources and carbon management at Occidental, says in a news release.

Cemvita is the third SAF-related startup to receive an investment from United Airlines Ventures.

The partnership among Cemvita, Occidental, and United is among many initiatives seeking to ramp up production of SAF. For instance, the U.S. Department of Energy is collaborating with the U.S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other federal agencies to develop a strategy for scaling SAF technology.

The global SAF market is projected to grow from $219 million in 2021 to more than $15.7 billion by 2030, according to Research and Markets.

The International Air Transport Association says more than 370,000 flights have been fueled by SAF since 2016. Over 26.4 million gallons of SAF were produced last year.

Last month in France, aircraft manufacturer Airbus flew a A380 test jet for about three hours with one of the four engines operating solely on SAF. The three other engines ran on conventional fuel.

In December 2021, United flew a 737 MAX 8 jet from Chicago O’Hare International Airport to Washington Reagan National Airport outside Washington, D.C., with one of the two engines operating only on SAF. It was the first commercial flight with passengers aboard to use SAF in that capacity. The other engine ran on conventional fuel.

United CEO Scott Kirby, who was aboard the historic flight, said the flight was “not only a significant milestone for efforts to decarbonize our industry, but when combined with the surge in industry commitments to produce and purchase alternative fuels, we’re demonstrating the scalable and impactful way companies can join together and play a role in addressing the biggest challenge of our lifetimes.”

For now, airlines are allowed to use up SAF for up to 50 percent of the fuel on commercial flights.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Joey Sanchez of The Ion, Nisha Desai of Intention, and Moji Karimi of Cemvita Factory. 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 — from startup development to energy transition — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Joey Sanchez, senior director of ecosystems at the Ion Houston

Joey Sanchez joins the Houston Innovator Podcast to discuss his new role at The Ion Houston. Photo via LinkedIn

Joey Sanchez, who previously served as director of corporate engagement at Houston Exponential, has been in his new role as senior director of ecosystem at The Ion for about three months now.

"I'm focusing specifically on the communities of entrepreneurs, startups, investors — and trying to bridge connections among them," Sanchez says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "This is the biggest challenge in Houston and we want to flip that with density. Density is really the key to solving connections."

Sanchez joined the Houston Innovators Podcast and shares about what gets him so excited about Houston innovation on the show. Click here to listen and read more.

Nisha Desai, founder and CEO of Intention

Four climatetech-focused individuals have been named to Greentown Lab's board. Photo via LinkedIn

Greentown Labs named new board members, including two community board members to act as liaisons between startups and Greentown Labs. Greentown Houston's appointed representation is Nisha Desai, founder and CEO of Intention, and community member.

Desai's current startup, Intention, is climate impact platform for retail investors, and she has previously worked at six energy-related startups including Ridge Energy Storage, Tessera Solar, and ActualSun, where she was co-founder and CEO. She's also worked in a leadership role at NRG Energy and spent several years as a management consultant with the energy practice of Booz Allen Hamilton — now Strategy&, a PWC company.

"I'm honored to join the board of Greentown Labs as a representative of the startup community," she says in the release. "This is a pivotal time for climate and energy transition. I look forward to working with the rest of the board to expand the collective impact of the Greentown Labs ecosystem." Click here to read more.

Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita Factory

Moji Karimi joins InnovationMap to discuss how Cemvita Factory has deployed its recent investment funding and what's next for the company and Houston as a whole when it comes to biomanufacturing. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Moji Karimi and his sister Tara had the idea for a company that could transform carbon emissions and mitigate new damage to the environment. Only, it seems, they were a bit ahead of their time.

Houston-based Cemvita Factory, founded in 2017, uses synthetic biology and take carbon emissions and transform them into industrial chemicals. However, it's only been since recently that the conversation on climate change mitigation has focused on carbon utilization.

"I think people are realizing more about the importance of really focusing on carbon capture and utilization because fossil fuels are gonna be here, whether we like it or not, for a long time, so the best thing we could do is to find ways to decarbonize them," Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO, tells InnovationMap. "There's been this focus around carbon capture and storage, and I think the next awakening is going to be utilization." Click here to read more.

Moji Karimi joins InnovationMap to discuss how Cemvita Factory has deployed its recent investment funding and what's next for the company and Houston as a whole when it comes to biomanufacturing. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Energy transition innovator shares how Houston could be a biomanufacturing hub​

Q&A

Moji Karimi and his sister Tara had the idea for a company that could transform carbon emissions and mitigate new damage to the environment. Only, it seems, they were a bit ahead of their time.

Houston-based Cemvita Factory, founded in 2017, uses synthetic biology and take carbon emissions and transform them into industrial chemicals. However, it's only been since recently that the conversation on climate change mitigation has focused on carbon utilization.

"I think people are realizing more about the importance of really focusing on carbon capture and utilization because fossil fuels are gonna be here, whether we like it or not, for a long time, so the best thing we could do is to find ways to decarbonize them," Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO, tells InnovationMap. "There's been this focus around carbon capture and storage, and I think the next awakening is going to be utilization."

Karimi joins InnovationMap for a Q&A about what the next year has in store for Cemvita and why Houston has some of the ingredients to become a hub for this type of innovation.

InnovationMap: You recently closed your series A round. What does that mean for Cemvita and what’s next when it comes to your funding journey?

Moji Karimi: With the series A in the bank, we started allocating that to expand the team and the footprint of our operations in Texas Technology Park off Kirby. This is where we had our initial lab and office space, which was about 6,000 square feet. And now we're expanding with an additional 3,000 square feet just for the office space and turning our initial 6,000 square feet into a big lab to support some of the new projects we're onboarding.

Another big part of that use of funds was establishing our Denver operations for biomining. That office went from having one person to a team of six. Our facility there is about 5,500 square feet with lab and office space to support new projects that we're getting.

The rest of the series A will be utilized for the new space and new people to accomplish the goals that we have for 2022. Toward the end of 2022, we'll launch the campaign for our series B.

IM: With the expanded offices and growing team, what has that meant in terms of Cemvita's capabilities?

MK: We have established our biofoundry, which is basically the engine for what we do. It's where we engineer the microbes and where we do a lot of the screening — small scale testing and fermentation and where we streamline our scale up process. What that allows us to do is, when we take on new projects, more efficiently go from engineering the microbe and doing tests in a test tube, to testing from one liter, 10 liters, 100 liters, and then even 1,000 liters all within our facilities.

Part of what's unique about Cemvita is to be able to do this scale up. A lot of our competitors engineer the microbes and then they just give the licensing to the client. For our customers, we need to also do their scale up. We have the right setup for the products that we have right now, the main one being bio ethylene, and the big milestone for this year is to have that pilot plant and to get to that one ton per month of ethylene production.

IM: You've recently grown your team significantly — are you still hiring?

MK: We're about 35 people right now. The last time we talked, we're like 15 or 20 or something. That's full-time people and there's another 10 to 15 contractors and part-timers as well. I think before our series B, we'll probably add another 10 to 15 people, but then we'll slow down before the series B. We have about 28 to 30 people in Houston and the other five or six are in Denver.

We are hiring for the biofoundry — so, microbiologists, molecular biologists, bioinformatics. Outside of the biofoundry, we're hiring for business development, process engineers, commercialization, and technical economic assessment. We're gonna have a position for an analyst coming up. On the Denver team, we have positions for about the same skill sets.

IM: 2021 seemed to be a year of great accomplishment on a national scale, from recently being a finalist in the COP26 Pitch Battle to winning last summer’s GS Beyond Energy Innovation Challenge. What’s 2022 going to be defined by for you?

MK: I think 2021 was a great year for us, even though it did slow us down a little bit in COVID and not being able to get deals done faster, so took a bit longer than expected.

Now going into 2022, what I characterize where we are right right now is the end of the beginning. From here on is really the growth chapter. We're done with the early stage stuff, and we are starting to graduate out of being a startup and into a real company. This year we have a lot of goals to accomplish, including our pilot with Oxy. We also are going to be more active in working with the Department of Energy to get some grants and expand our customer base.

We've been, in some ways, selective because, you know, we're not a B-to-C company, so we don't need 200 customers. We just need a few who are both innovative companies that are truly thinking about 2030 and 2050, but also those who are a good fit for our technology and scale up. This year, we're also gonna focus heavily on the IP for a lot of these applications that we're focused on are still pretty nascent. We want to make sure that we protect IP, especially now that we have good amount of resources from our series A.

In February, we're launching a new solution for hydrogen during the 2nd American Hydrogen Forum in Houston. That's going to be really exciting. We're also doing a lot internally in terms of how our lab runs. We're developing processes for being more efficient in candidate screening methodology, and also for high throughput sequencing.

IM: When we originally spoke years ago in the early days of both Cemvita and InnovationMap, one of the things I remember talking to you about is how nascent the CO2 utilization industry was. How has that changed over the years and what does that evolution mean for you?

MK: That's a really good question, especially the way that you framed it. I think it's been really interesting the past two years. The energy transition went from people thinking that solar and wind are going to solve all these problems to then having a bit of a reality check. Throughout last year, people have realized, "oh, I guess we need fossil fuels anyways. We need to find ways to work with the oil and gas industry." At the end of the day, this is not the "energy switch," right? This is the "energy transition." Alongside that, there's been more of an education around the role that nuclear and geothermal are going to play. People are like a lot more open minded, especially for nuclear just over the past few months.

I think people are realizing more about the importance of really focusing on carbon capture and utilization because fossil fuels are gonna be here, whether we like it or not, for a long time, so the best thing we could do is to find ways to decarbonize them. There's been this focus around carbon capture and storage, and I think the next awakening is going to be utilization. At the end of the day, these companies are spending money to store CO2 — they don't make money doing that. Whereas if you could figure out how to use CO2 as feedstock and turn that into a valuable chemical, they could sell it and have that revenue, and also close that carbon loop. That's really the, the end goal and holy grail. That's been our vision and mission.

I think it's true by your observation that we were a bit mistimed in the market. We were a bit ahead of what people were asking for, but then again, that's part of having a vision.

IM: One thing you've been passionate about is establishing Houston as a biomining and biomanufacturing hub. Why does Houston make sense for this type of hub and what exactly needs to occur to make it happen?

MK: Houston has its Climate Action Plan that the city published, and just think about how many chemical plants and refineries that we have. Plus, we already know that a big part of the future of chemical manufacturing is going to be biomanufacturing. Chemical reactions use so much heat and electricity, and that's why we have high scope of emissions. A lot of these processes are going to be replaced by biomanufacturing and using microbes to make the chemicals — and microbes do that under ambient pressure temperature. It's more sustainable. That's really what Solugen is doing. You would think that Lyondellbasell, Chevron, Exxon, Oxy and more would all sit together say, "Hey guys, what are we doing about this? How could we start some initiatives for this?" Rice University has a program around synthetic biology and University of Houston has a lot of bioprocessing. But what happens is those guys graduate and then they leave Houston. They go find a job in Boston. I think that's something we have to work on that on for companies to think about their strategic direction and be involved with the city, with the academic institutions, and with the startups like us.

For chemicals, Houston plays a big role. The way to decarbonize, in part, is by biomanufacturing. It does make sense for Houston to be more proactive about that.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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

3 Houston innovators with fresh funds 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 — 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.

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Houston-based health tech startup is revolutionizing patient selection for clinical trials

working smarter

On many occasions in her early career, Dr. Arti Bhosale, co-founder and CEO of Sieve Health, found herself frustrated with having to manually sift through thousands of digital files.

The documents, each containing the medical records of a patient seeking advanced treatment through a clinical trial, were always there to review — and there were always more to read.

Despite the tediousness of prescreening, which could take years, the idea of missing a patient and not giving them the opportunity to go through a potentially life-altering trial is what kept her going. The one she didn’t read could have slipped through the cracks and potentially not given someone care they needed.

“Those stories have stayed with me,” she says. “That’s why we developed Sieve.”

When standard health care is not an option, advances in medical treatment could be offered through clinical trials. But matching patients to those trials is one of the longest standing problems in the health care industry. Now with the use of new technology as of 2018, the solution to the bottleneck may be a new automated approach.

“Across the globe, more than 30 percent of clinical trials shut down as a result of not enrolling enough patients,” says Bhosale. “The remaining 80 percent never end up reaching their target enrollment and are shut down by the FDA.”

In 2020, Bhosale and her team developed Sieve Health, an AI cloud-based SaaS platform designed to automate and accelerate matching patients with clinical trials and increase access to clinical trials.

Sieve’s main goal is to reduce the administrative burden involved in matching enrollments, which in turn will accelerate the trial execution. They provide the matching for physicians, study sponsors and research sites to enhance operations for faster enrollment of the trials.

The technology mimics but automates the traditional enrollment process — reading medical notes and reviewing in the same way a human would.

“I would have loved to use something like this when I was on the front lines,” Bhosale says, who worked in clinical research for over 12 years. “Can you imagine going through 10,000 records manually? Some of the bigger hospitals have upwards of 100,000 records and you still have to manually review those charts to make sure that the patient is eligible for the trial. That process is called prescreening. It is painful.”

Because physicians wear many hats and have many clinical efforts on their plates, research tends to fall to the bottom of the to-do list. Finding 10-20 patients can take the research team on average 15-20 months to find those people — five of which end up unenrolling, she says.

“We have designed the platform so that the magic can happen in the background, and it allows the physician and research team to get a jumpstart,” she says.” They don’t have to worry about reviewing 10,000 records — they know what their efforts are going to be and will ensure that the entire database has been scanned.”

With Sieve, the team was able to help some commercial pilot programs have a curated data pool for their trials – cutting the administrative burden and time spent searching to less than a week.

Sieve is in early-stage start up mode and the commercial platform has been rolled out. Currently, the team is conducting commercial projects with different research sites and hospitals.

“Our focus now is seeing how many providers we can connect into this,” she says. “There’s a bigger pool out there who want to participate in research but don’t know where to start. That’s where Sieve is stepping in and enabling them to do this — partnering with those and other groups in the ecosystem to bring trials to wherever the physicians and the patients are.”

Arti Bhosale is the co-founder and CEO of Sieve Health. Photo courtesy of Sieve

Houston nonprofit unveils new and improved bayou cleaning vessel

litter free

For over 20 years, a nonprofit organization has hired people to clean 14 miles of bayou in Houston. And with a newly updated innovative boat, keeping Buffalo Bayou clean just got a lot more efficient.

Buffalo Bayou Partnership unveils its newest version of the Bayou-Vac this week, and it's expected to be fully operational this month. BBP Board Member Mike Garver designed both the initial model of the custom-designed and fabricated boat as well as the 2022 version. BBP's Clean & Green team — using Garver's boat — has removed around 2,000 cubic yards of trash annually, which is the equivalent of about 167 commercial dump trucks. The new and improved version is expected to make an even bigger impact.

“The Bayou-Vac is a game changer for our program,” says BBP field operations manager, Robby Robinson, in a news release. “Once up and running, we foresee being able to gain an entire workday worth of time for every offload, making us twice as efficient at clearing trash from the bayou.”

Keeping the bayou clean is important, since the water — and whatever trash its carrying — runs off into Galveston Bay, and ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico. The improvements made to the Bayou-Vac include removable dumpsters that can be easily swapped out, slid off, and attached to a dump truck. The older model included workers having to manually handle trash and debris and a secondary, land-based vacuum used to suck out the trash from onboard.

Additionally, the Bayou-Vac now has a moveable, hydraulic arm attached to the bow of the vessel that can support the weight of the 16-foot vacuum hose. Again, this task was something done manually on the previous model of the Bayou-Vac.

“BBP deeply appreciates the ingenuity of our board member Mike Garver and the generosity of Sis and Hasty Johnson and the Kinder Foundation, the funders of the new Bayou-Vac,” BBP President Anne Olson says in the release. “We also thank the Harris County Flood Control District and Port Houston for their longtime support of BBP’s Clean & Green Program.”