This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Tim Crain of Intuitive Machines, Chelsea Williams of Northwestern Mutual, and Nicolaus Radford of Nauticus Robotics. Photos courtesy

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

Tim Crain, co-founder and CTO of Intuitive Machines

Tim Crain joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via intuitivemachines.com

It might surprise many to learn that publicly traded, NASA-backed Intuitive Machines, which has emerged as a commercial leader within lunar access technology development, had several pivots before finding its niche within space innovation.

In fact, as Co-Founder and CTO Tim Crain explains on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, the company was founded as a space-focused think tank. Crain, along with his co-founders CEO Steve Altemus and Chairman Kamal Ghaffarian, came together in 2013 to start Intuitive Machines, which recently moved into a $40 million headquarters in the Houston Spaceport.

"At the time, our thought was, 'let's take the best of human space flight engineering processes, disciplines, and know how, and look at how we might commercially deploy that for biomedical, energy, big data, and aerospace,'" Crain says on the show. "We wanted to look at how we use great engineering for some of the hard problems outside of NASA's aerospace sphere." Read more.

Chelsea Williams, financial adviser at Northwestern Mutual

Houston-based financial adviser Chelsea Williams helps clients overcome their unique generational financial uncertainties by equipping them with tips and resources to get them on the path to financial wellness. Photo courtesy

In a guest column for InnovationMap, Chelsea Williams, financial adviser at Northwestern Mutual, shared tips on overcoming financial uncertainty across different generations.

"While the types of financial stressors might vary across generations and cities, the most important step to managing financial uncertainty is initiating a conversation with an adviser," she writes in her column. "Just like going to the doctor regularly, routine financial check-ups are incredibly important to catch financial headaches early on and stay ahead of long-term financial health." Read more.

Nicolaus Radford, founder and CEO of Nauticus Robotics

Houston-based Nauticus Robotics founder, Nicolaus Radford, celebrated an acquisition for his company. Image via LinkedIn

A Houston company that harnesses the power of robotics hardware and programing for underwater use has made an acquisition.

Nauticus Robotics Inc. (NASDAQ: KITT) announced it has acquired 3D at Depth Inc., a Colorado-based company with a subsea light detection and range, LiDAR, technology for inspection and data services. The deal closed for approximately $34 million in stock, before certain purchase price adjustments and the assumption of debt, per the news release.

“The future of subsea services lies in autonomy, data gathering, and analytics,” Nicolaus Radford, Nauticus’ founder and CEO, says in the release. “LiDAR has long since been core to terrestrial autonomy and by adding 3D’s capabilities to the Nauticus Fleet, we enhance autonomous vehicles in the offshore market. This acquisition increases the value of Nauticus’ fleet services and positions the Company to capitalize on data acquisition and analytics for subsea operations.” Read more.

Houstonians in particular expressed more stress than other communities in terms of household finances and physical and mental health. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert on tips on overcoming financial uncertainty across different generations

guest column

Whether you’re a millennial or baby boomer, financial uncertainty is not limited by age, with new data from Northwestern Mutual’s 2023 Planning & Progress Study revealing that most Americans are losing sleep at night because of it. Houstonians in particular expressed more stress than other communities in terms of household finances and physical and mental health, according to a recent survey.

While the types of financial stressors might vary across generations and cities, the most important step to managing financial uncertainty is initiating a conversation with an adviser. Just like going to the doctor regularly, routine financial check-ups are incredibly important to catch financial headaches early on and stay ahead of long-term financial health.

As a Houston-based financial adviser, I help my clients overcome their unique generational financial uncertainties by equipping them with tips and resources to get them on the path to financial wellness.

Understanding where financial uncertainty comes from generationally

  • GenZ: Studies have shown that even while Gen Z is the most confident that they’ll be prepared for retirement when the time comes, they still struggle with feelings of uncertainty on how to achieve their specific financial goals. In my experience, I have found that uncertainty among this age group often stems from a lack of financial literacy surrounding their finances. A recent financial literacy study revealed that Gen Z respondents averaged the lowest at 43 percent in answering finance-related questions correctly.
  • Millennials: Millennials equally suffer from feelings of anxiety about money, with 54 percent of millennial respondents in the P&P study indicating that financial anxiety causes them to feel depressed compared to just 20 percent of baby boomers. Millennials have lived through a pandemic, The Great Recession and slow economic growth, making their mental health and financial wellness a top priority.
  • GenX: Even while financial uncertainty typically starts to recede later in life at this age, Gen X is facing a turning point as they get closer and closer to retirement. Studies have shown that most Americans believe they will need about $1.27 million to retire comfortably and yet, I see many individuals only recognizing the importance of retirement planning between the ages of 40 and 50. With Gen X holding about six times more debt than their parents did at that age, it’s important for this age group to consider some proactive debt and retirement strategies.
  • Babyboomers: This group has the lowest amount of financial uncertainty, but that doesn’t mean it is nonexistent. I hear a lot of baby boomers state that they wish they had started investing sooner or they wish they had conversations about their finances sooner. As such, this group is typically the most concerned about managing their existing assets and living comfortably for the rest of their lives.

Overcoming financial uncertainty

  • Increase financial literacy: Both millennials and Gen Z grew up in the digital age and expect their financial experiences to be reflective of that. For employers with Gen Z employees, working with a Northwestern Mutual financial adviser on resources to increase financial literacy can be a helpful first step. This could include on-demand webinars, digital toolkits and interactive online portals to access and view their finances.
  • Ensure every dollar has a job: Across all generations, it’s important to ensure no dollar is wasted. In other words, understanding how much of your income should be allocated toward expenses, retirement, savings, etc. is crucial. I typically recommend a budgeting rule that no more than half of an individual’s income goes toward expenses.
  • Initiate financial planning discussions early on: While it may seem daunting, results from the P&P study show that an average of 76 percent of individuals who work with a financial adviser have an overall boost to confidence. With Gen Z often heavily relying on family members for money management, it is important that family members from older generations encourage them to start saving or to consult with a financial adviser at a young age.
  • Take proactive steps toward your finances: No matter what age you are, there are always active steps you can be taking with your finances. Consider increasing the contribution amount to your 401(k) savings plan or working with a financial adviser to diversify your existing investments – or talk to your financial adviser about refinancing opportunities or debt strategies that tackle higher interest loans you may have.

Whether you’re in your 20s or your 50s, financial advisers are uniquely prepared to help you at any stage of your life – and overcome whatever uncertainties you may be facing.


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Chelsea Williams is a financial adviser at Northwestern Mutual. She's based in Houston and has clients across the country.

Small businesses need to factor in employee benefit options from day one — and this Houston expert has some tips. Photo via Getty Images

Houston wealth management adviser weighs in on benefit options as key for small business success

guest column

While Small Business Appreciation month has come to an end, my work in aiding small businesses achieve financial success is continuous.

In 2009, I began my career as a financial adviser recently co-founded Volante Integrated Planning, a Houston-based office of Northwestern Mutual focused on comprehensive financial planning and helping clients achieve financial freedom.

After years of working with business owners, and as a small business owner myself, I have learned the importance of offering benefits that help attract and retain talent, foster improved work habits and provide a foundation for growth. According to the annual SHRM employee benefit survey, health-related benefits and retirement plans were ranked the two most important benefits for employees. Whether you are a new small business owner or an established one, it is important to be aware of the benefit options available to you and the considerations that go into mapping out a benefits strategy.

1. Retirement plan options

The most common retirement plans available to small business owners are 401(k), simplified employee pension (SEP) IRA and savings incentive match plan for employees (SIMPLE) IRA. The SEP IRA and SIMPLE IRA provide employers the ability to save on a pre-tax basis. While there are some required contributions on behalf of any full-time employees, the SEP and SIMPLE IRA’s are often recommended for the self-employed or businesses with part-time or contract employees. The 401(k) also provides employers with a pre-tax savings opportunity and the ability to save on a Roth basis. Because a 401(k) requires additional administration and ongoing requirements, it is often a valuable tool for business owners who have more full-time employees.

2. Health care benefit options

According to the Affordable Care Act, companies with fewer than 50 employees are not required to provide health insurance. However, offering a competitive health insurance benefits package is an increasingly important strategy to help boost both new employee acquisition and retention. Following the global pandemic, health benefits have become increasingly important. According to a study by McKinsey & Company, 51 percent of employers now offer health care benefits to attract new employees with dental, vision, and short-term disability as the most important for job-seekers.

Not only are these benefits of importance to employees, they provide protection for business owners by ensuring good health and protection from illness-related lost productivity. Some health care benefits available to small business owners include health reimbursement accounts, where you make contributions to an account that can be used by employees to pay for individual health insurance policies acquired on their own. Consider hiring a broker, benefits consultant or financial adviser to help compare your options.

3. Life and disability insurance options

As a small business owner, you have a duty to your family, employees and business partners. It is often the unexpected that can derail the success of a business. To that extent, taking the steps to ensure you and your business are protected if you are unable to work is important. Disability insurance is a versatile product that can be used to protect you, as the owner, and your employees against loss of income due to the inability to work. Additionally, disability overhead coverage and disability buy-out insurance can protect the business and any business partners from an owner’s disability, ensuring that the business can still run smoothly. Life insurance is also important, and often required if seeking a business-related loan, to provide income replacement for your family and any business partners in the event of an owner’s death.

4. Get creative with your benefit options

The small business world is ever changing, which is why it is essential — and sometimes difficult — to keep up with benefit options. I encourage small business owners to get creative with their benefit options by exploring a professional employer organization (PEO) and a multiple employer welfare arrangement (MEWA). PEO is designed to help small businesses manage their administrative overhead, benefits and compliance duties. Through MEWA, small businesses are able to collaborate on group insurance benefits for a low cost. Lastly, if your family members contribute to your small business, make sure they are on the payroll and eligible for various benefits. This may allow you to increase the benefits your household takes home.

While creating a small business employee benefits plan can be tedious, it will take your small business to the next level. Consult in a CPA, business attorney, and financial adviser to help navigate what benefits are a good fit for you and your small business.

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Jennifer Steil is principal and wealth management adviser at Volante Integrated Planning, a private client group at Northwestern Mutual.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Stuart Corr of Pumps & Pipes, Trevor Best of Syzygy, and Jennifer Steil of Northwestern Mutual. 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 clean energy technology to financial planning — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Stuart Corr, executive director of Pumps & Pipes

What do Houston's three key industries — aerospace, medicine, and energy — have in common? Pumps and pipes, Stuart Corr explains. Photo via pumpsandpipes.org

Stuart Corr, executive director of Pumps & Pipes, and his team are gearing up for the organization's big annual event — which is returning to its in-person capacity. Though most people would not connect the dots on what all the health care, energy, and aerospace industries have in common, but for Stuart Corr, the connection is clear. It's all a bunch of pumps and pipes.

The Houston organization was founded in 2007 to strengthen the collaboration across Houston's three key industries. The city has NASA down the street, the world's largest medical center, and is regarded as the "energy capital of the world." Through the Pumps & Pipes network, innovators across these entities can share resources and collaborate.

"Pumps & Pipes is all about our network — about innovation on demand. It's the idea that we understand what's in other people's toolkits and innovation and technology portfolios," Corr says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovator Podcast. "Ideally, we want to use these new technologies to solve our own problems."

The event is on December 5 at the Ion. Tickets are on sale now. Read more.Read more.

Trevor Best, co-founder and CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics

Syzygy Plasmonics has raised a series C round of funding. Photo courtesy of Syzygy

Houston-based Syzygy Plasmonics closed a $76 million series C financing round led by New York-based Carbon Direct Capital.

The investment funding raised will help the company to "further development and delivery of all-electric reactor systems that eliminate fossil-based combustion from chemical manufacturing and reduce the carbon intensity of hydrogen, methanol, and fuel," per a news release.

"Closing this fundraising round with such strong support from financial and strategic investors and with commercial agreements in hand is a signal to the market," Syzygy Plasmonics CEO and Co-Founder Trevor Best says in the release. "Forward-thinking companies have moved beyond setting decarbonization goals to executing on them. Syzygy is unique in that we are developing low-cost, low-carbon solutions to offer across multiple industries." Read more.

Jennifer Steil, wealth management adviser for Northwestern Mutual

In observance of Women’s Entrepreneurship Day on November 19, a Houstonian shares her four key considerations for women who want to start their own businesses. Photo courtesy

Saturday was Women’s Entrepreneurship Day, and one Houston-based financial planner shared some tips and considerations for aspiring female founders.

In her guest column for InnovationMap, Jennifer Steil, financial planner for Northwestern Mutual, explained the importance of authenticity and advice on building the right team and support network.

"Being a female business owner has its challenges, but it is also extremely rewarding. If you’re considering starting your own business, it’s important to remember to stay true to yourself and do your due diligence to prepare for whatever unique challenges may be thrown your way," she writes. Read more.

In observance of Women’s Entrepreneurship Day on November 19, here are four key considerations for women who want to start their own businesses. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: 4 things female founders should know before starting a business

guest column

Almost four years ago my business partner and I started Volante Integrated Planning, a Houston-based office of Northwestern Mutual focused on comprehensive financial planning. I always aspired to run a business; however, I knew there were many factors to consider before making that leap.

According to the 2022 Northwestern Mutual Great Realization survey, 24 percent of respondents say they want to start a new business in the next two years. While starting your own business sounds appealing, leaving your current job and becoming an entrepreneur can be a difficult transition and it’s no secret that women have to approach our career paths differently than men.

As I recognize there is no one-size-fits-all approach to starting and managing your own business, I wanted to share a few valuable lessons and key takeaways that I learned from my own experience:

1. Seek advice and counsel

When it comes to starting your own business, it’s important to go through the proper financial and legal steps. In order to do this, there are three people you should consider developing a relationship with. The first is a financial planner who can assist you in growing your business by creating a budget and finding ways to leverage your current assets to set you up for long-term success. The second is a Certified Public Accountant who has experience in your industry to help you navigate the unique intricacies of being a business owner. Lastly, an attorney who can help you draw up the necessary documents and think through what needs to be included to protect you and your family.

2. Build your team

You will always need a support system and business team to lean on no matter how much experience you have in your industry or in running a business. I knew early on that I wanted to partner with someone to make it more fun and add higher value to our clients. Before launching our business partnership, we went through varying business cycles together to ensure we would mesh well, from a value standpoint, both financially and personally. This business “courtship” is critical to ensure you build the kind of trust needed. It is also important to develop the culture and values you want for your business first and choose partners or team members that align with those values.

3. Don’t be afraid to be authentic

People are drawn to authenticity rather than if you try to fit into a box, which is why it’s important to stay true to yourself in all aspects of your business. By being your true, authentic self, you can put a plan in place to start a business that is a reflection of your values and morals. If being a working mom is a part of your identity, don’t be afraid to make that known to the team. There is nothing that says you have to start a business a certain way, so make it yours and own it.

4. Give yourself grace

As women, we have a tendency to want to do it all, but it’s important to give yourself grace and be intentional with how you prioritize your time. There are certain life factors and considerations that ultimately influence how women prepare for their financial futures, especially when it comes to running a business. If starting or managing your business is the priority at the time, it’s OK to let your social life or fitness routine, for example, take the back burner for a period of time.

Being a female business owner has its challenges, but it is also extremely rewarding. If you’re considering starting your own business, it’s important to remember to stay true to yourself and do your due diligence to prepare for whatever unique challenges may be thrown your way.

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Jennifer Steil is a Houston-based Northwestern Mutual wealth management adviser.

One in two Houstonians say they have a great business idea — and two-thirds have gotten the ball rolling on making their idea a reality. Getty Images

New data shows over half of Houston has an idea for a business

City of innovation

If you're sitting on a game-changing business idea, you're not alone. According to data from Northwestern Mutual, over half of Houstonians surveyed said they they've got something up their sleeves for a startup — and a third of that group said their idea has the capability to change the industry.

Of the respondents who said they had a business idea, almost 60 percent have already taken first steps to making their idea a reality. But for those yet to take a plunge, the factors holding these aspiring entrepreneurs back were primarily financial. More than 60 percent said not having enough finances were what's stopped them from taking the next step, while over a third indicated that they weren't sure what their next step would be. About 30 percent identified the fear of failure as what's held them back.

Similarly, when asked what the biggest hurdle in starting a company for their business idea, almost half of those surveyed said financial support, followed by "making money" with 17 percent. Of course, that's what Carrie Neumann, director of Multicultural Market Strategy at Northwestern Mutual, expected. Enter: Northwestern Mutual's financial advising services.

"A personalized, holistic plan sets business owners on track to achieve their goals, and it also puts protections — for the business, the owner and current or future employees — in place for the expected and unexpected," says Neumann in a release.

"For entrepreneurs, a trusted financial adviser is not only a great resource for the many questions that come up when starting a business, but an adviser can also help plan for the longterm."

Northwestern Mutual conducted a survey in partnership with OnePoll with a sample of 8,000 individuals in the United States. Houston was one of the 12 major metros included in the survey — and the lone Texas city. The other cities included in the survey were Chicago; Cincinnati; Denver; Miami; New York; Los Angeles; Omaha, Nebraska; Raleigh, North Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; San Francisco, and Washington D.C.

Houston skewed a tad more ambitious than the other metros surveyed. Across the sample, 41 percent of survey respondents said they have an idea for a business compared to Houston's 51.4 percent. Miami, New York City, and Los Angeles all had a higher percentage of respondents that said they had a great business idea. Los Angeles had over 60 percent of its surveyed participants respond affirmatively to that question.

The city of Houston has its advantages for entrepreneurs. A recent study shows that salaries stretch further in Houston, with the Bayou City ranking as No. 7 nationally. The study conducted by BusinessStudent.com factored in average pay of common jobs and the cost of living.

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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.