This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Jason Pesterfield of Optellum, Jane Stricker of HETI, and Michael Lee of Octopus Energy. 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 health tech to clean energy — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Jason Pesterfield, CEO of Optellum

Jason Pesterfield joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share how he plans on getting the company to commercialization right here from Houston. Photo courtesy of Optellum

Last year, Optellum, based in the United Kingdom, opened its United States headquarters in Houston, and shortly after Jason Pesterfield joined to lead the team. On a recent Houston Innovators Podcast episode, Pesterfield explained it's just the start of the company's presence in Houston.

"We're really at the beginning of it," he says. "This is the epicenter of medicine within the United States. There's no bigger or better place for health care than Houston. It's great to be a part of that and to have access to those facilities and those world class physicians and care teams." Read more.

Jane Stricker, executive director of the Houston Energy Transition Initiative at the GHP

These organizations are teaming up to advance development of a regional clean industrial hub. Photo courtesy of GHP

The Houston Energy Transition Initiative and the Center for Houston’s Future have teamed up with the Mission Possible Partnership to lead the city of Houston through the accelerated development of a regional clean industrial hub geared at decarbonization of the industrial sector, including petrochemicals, cement plants, heavy transportation, and more.

The two-year project is focused on development and deployment of clean energy projects — such as "low-carbon hydrogen, carbon capture, use and storage, electrification of industrial processes, and the production and use of low carbon fuels," according to a press release.

“There is no geography in the world better positioned to support the transition to and integration of abundant, low-carbon energy solutions than Houston," says Jane Stricker, executive director and senior vice president of HETI, in the release. "As the Energy Transition Capital of the World, Houston is leveraging its energy leadership to accelerate global solutions for a low-carbon future. This partnership with MPP is a critical component in the region’s efforts to develop and deploy technologies, policies and strategies for broad decarbonization." Read more.

Michael Lee, CEO of Octopus Energy US

Now is the time for your tech company to become a climate company, says this Houston expert. Photo via LinkedIn

In a guest column for InnovationMap, Michael Lee, CEO of Octopus Energy, called for tech innovators to change lanes to focus on the climatetech industry.

"We used to say, 'every company will become a tech company.' We’re now moving towards a world where 'every company is a climate company,'" Lee writes. "And that is creating opportunities throughout the economy for people to contribute their skills and support their families while building something that actually matters." Read more.

Now is the time for your tech company to become a climate company, says this Houston expert. Photo via Getty Images

Houston energy startup CEO calls for tech players to join the climate fight

guest column

This year, over 100,000 workers were laid off from major technology companies in an economic slowdown, leaving many people wondering what the future holds. There’s a bright spot, however. These closed doors create an opening for individuals to begin a new career in climate tech, especially as these former tech employees possess skills needed to find and develop novel ways to innovate.

The story of a techie turning to climate isn’t new by any means. For example, Alex Roetter was the former head of engineering at Twitter but later pivoted to climate tech, becoming a managing director and general partner of Moxxie Ventures and the founder of Terraset, a nonprofit focused on funding high-quality carbon removal. Raj Kapoor followed a similar path as he now serves as the co-founder and managing partner of Climactic, a venture capital firm solving climate-related issues using technology, after working as Lyft’s chief strategy officer.

What’s unique now is that the climate tech industry is ready for it – public and private companies have made climate pledges that need industry-disrupting tech solutions, and there is federal, state, and private funding that are backing these solutions up.

When I started out in the energy industry nearly a dozen years ago, there was no such thing as a career in climate tech. Shortly after the 2008 financial crisis, I found a job at a firm backed by smart investors who saw through the noise and realized renewable energy investments are some of the most stable and predictable ways to earn financial returns. Now that Wall Street recognizes investments in climate-related industries as the best way to achieve their long term financial obligations, we’ve seen nearly every company realize they don’t have an economic future unless they also focus on climate results.

We used to say, “every company will become a tech company.” We’re now moving towards a world where “every company is a climate company.” And that is creating opportunities throughout the economy for people to contribute their skills and support their families while building something that actually matters.

Why climate tech is a safe bet 

Taking a career twist into climate tech is a safe bet for a few reasons. The first is, unfortunately and obviously, the fact that climate change is getting worse. Between extreme weather events becoming more frequent around the world and the past eight years becoming the hottest on record, there is a huge need for climate mitigation solutions in every sector. What’s more, with the Earth’s population hitting eight billion, we will need to scale technology that addresses challenges like grid instability and food security, as governments try to balance resources. In fact, the Biden-Harris Administration just announced $13B of programs to expand the U.S.’s power grid.


To tackle climate change, federal, state, and private sector capital investment in climate tech is at an all time high. As leaders pledge to reach net zero by 2050, investments and commitments to accelerate solutions to decarbonize the planet and make it more sustainable are being prioritized. This year, there was a whopping $26.8 billion poured into climate tech. In five years, the climate tech market is estimated to near $1.4 trillion and with new energy plans in the Inflation Reduction Act announced earlier this year, investors are heavily influenced in funding the climate tech space.

An easier career shift

A switch to climate tech can be daunting, but it’s not just hard sciences like chemistry and materials engineering. It’s software engineers, social media savvants, and sales specialists. We have employees who have worked at places such as Google and Square come and support us with building our backend tech stack and consumer app. One of our tech leaders is a famous author, having written several books about coding in Django.

We’ve also recently heard about the “great resignation” over the past couple of years, but I think that framing is wrong. I think it's a “great reconsideration”. The reality is, for most of us on a given day, we spend more of our waking hours at work than any other activity. People need purpose — lack of purpose is the biggest reason for burnout. In fact not only have we not been impacted by the “great resignation” that many other firms have been, but we’ve actually received over tens of thousands of applications for our open roles in the past year alone. The career pivot to something meaningful is happening, and it’s happening today.

For example, one of our data engineers graduated from MIT and used to work in Houston as a chemical engineer — after some reskilling, she’s now a data engineer for our Kraken Technologies platform. Another one of our colleagues worked in the traditional marketing space and has transitioned over to climate tech to lead our global marketing. The climate industry needs as many out-of-the-box people as possible to draw new perspectives for reaching climate goals and getting us closer to a clean future.

Not sure where to start? There are several resources dedicated to onboarding people into the climate tech world. Some of my favorite are:

  • Climatebase: this platform is essentially a LinkedIn for climate tech — people can discover climate jobs and learn how they can transition to the space.
  • Climate Change Careers: founded in 2020, this site features job postings, educational opportunities, and information about switching to a climate-focused career.
  • Climate Draft: a member supported coalition comprising climate tech startups and venture capitalists who aim to bring more top talent, investment and commercial opportunities to the table.
  • ClimatEU: a leading resource for climate jobs and employers in Europe consisting of job postings, and opportunities for companies to find additional investment opportunities.
  • Climate People: a platform dedicated to mobilizing a workforce transition towards climate careers.

My inbox is also always open to people interested in joining the energy end of the world — whether it’s to talk about different openings at Octopus Energy, discuss how your expertise transfers to climate tech, or just to say hello.

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Michael Lee is the CEO of Octopus Energy. He is based in Houston.

A Houston company has announced a new service that will encourage electric vehicle use. Photo via Getty Images

Houston energy company announces new EV business arm

making moves

Houston-based energy retailer Octopus Energy U.S. is now getting its tentacles into the electric vehicle business.

Octopus Energy US on July 6 unveiled Octopus Electric Vehicles, whose first offering is EV Concierge. This new service will help customers lease an EV, and integrate smart charging and billing into their existing energy plan.

New and existing customers in Texas can apply for the beta leasing program at octoev.us. Employees of the program will help customers search for a new or used EV to lease, install an at-home EV charger, and adopt best practices for EV ownership.

“Interest in electric vehicles is at an all-time high. With Texas as the third-largest market for EVs and a global leader in energy, we will be positioned to help customers realize vehicle and energy savings all on one bill,” says Chris George, U.S. director of Octopus Electric Vehicles. “As fossil fuel continues to be impacted by inflation, it’s never made more sense to get an EV paired with smart charging to extract the lowest-priced energy from the grid.”

EV Concierge is paired with Intelligent Octopus, which lets customers access power when it is cheaper and greener while helping balance stability of power grid.

Octopus Electric Vehicles launched in 2018 in the United Kingdom, where parent company Octopus Energy Group is based. In the U.K., Octopus leases EVs, installs at-home chargers, provides EV tax breaks, and provides access to more than 250,000 public charging stations in Europe.

Customers of Octopus Electric Vehicles can lease 65 different EVs from 28 automotive brands.

“We’ve seen that consumers are looking for experts that can offer the full EV package to guide them through their journey,” says Fiona Howarth, CEO of Octopus Electric Vehicles. “With more EV models entering the market every month, and innovative tariffs like Intelligent Octopus making charging your car as easy as [charging] your phone, we only expect the transition to accelerate.”

The launch of EV Concierge comes just a year after Octopus Energy U.S. set up shop in Houston. Establishment of the Houston presence coincided with the company’s $5 million acquisition of Houston-based Evolve Energy.

Last month, Kraken Technologies, the software licensing arm of Octopus Energy Group, picked Houston for its U.S. headquarters.

Octopus Energy Group, valued at nearly $5 billion, entered the U.S. market in 2020. It supplies green energy to more than 3 million retail customers around the world.

Last year, London-based Octopus Energy established its U.S. headquarters in Houston. Image via octopus.energy

Energy software company picks Houston as U.S. HQ

home sweet houston

Kraken Technologies, the software licensing arm of Octopus Energy Group, has picked Houston for its U.S. headquarters and aims to eventually employ hundreds of people here.

Within the first year, Kraken will create at least 50 new jobs in Houston, the company says. Employees here will work on rolling out the Kraken offering across the U.S.

“The decision to make Houston the [U.S.] home of Kraken recognizes this city’s growing reputation as a tech center,” Richard Hyde, British consul general in Houston, says in an Octopus Energy news release.

Last year, London-based Octopus Energy established its U.S. headquarters in Houston.

The Kraken platform, which launched three years ago, helps customers manage the entire energy supply chain, such as understanding customers’ energy consumption in real time and optimizing alternative energy sources. The platform hopes to reach 100 million customer accounts by 2027.

Octopus Energy explains that Kraken, based on advanced data and machine learning, helps create a “decentralized, decarbonized energy system.”

“Energy is one of the few global sectors still undisrupted by tech – Kraken changes that. It is essentially a big robot that eliminates all the inefficiencies that energy companies have built up over the decades, automating repetitive tasks, allowing humans to do what they are best at, and unlocking smart products,” says Greg Jackson, founder and CEO of Octopus Energy.

Octopus Energy supplies green energy to more than 3 million retail customers around the world. It entered the U.S. market in 2020. The company is valued at nearly $5 billion.

Octopus Energy's valuation is now at $5 billion. Image via octopus.energy

Energy company with US HQ in Houston secures $300M in investment

money moves

Renewable energy retailer Octopus Energy Group, whose U.S. headquarters is in Houston, has landed a $300 million investment from the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board that will further propel the company’s global expansion.

The deal with the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPP Investments), one of the world’s largest pension funds, follows a recent $600 million funding round from Al Gore’s Generation Investment Management and boosts Octopus Energy Group’s estimated valuation to $5 billion.

CPP Investments now owns a 6 percent stake in Octopus Energy Group. Generation Investment Management controls a 13 percent stake.

The infusion of cash will enable Octopus to grow its Kraken technology platform and to activate 30 more wind turbines, among other activities. Octopus aims to have 100 million energy accounts on Kraken, the company’s proprietary smart grid technology platform for customer service, by 2027. Today, the Kraken platform has about 17 million accounts.

The CPP Investments deal caps a busy 2021 for London-based Octopus. Earlier this year, for instance, the company established its U.S. headquarters in Houston.

“This investment delivers a huge boost to our mission of expanding access to renewable energy and delivering exceptional customer service across all markets, ” Michael Lee, CEO of Octopus Energy U.S., says in a news release. “Octopus Energy has turned energy on its head — thrown away the call centers, confusing bills, and tired systems — to create a better customer experience for everyone that takes into consideration how consumers interact with their energy and smart home devices, while making the experience more enjoyable, visually appealing and understandable.”

Octopus’ renewable energy investment arm, Octopus Energy Generation, is one of Europe’s largest renewable energy investors and manages assets exceeding $4.5 billion.

“Octopus has pioneered the technology that allows citizens to benefit from cheaper energy as it gets greener,” says Greg Jackson, founder and CEO of Octopus Energy Group.

Octopus serves more than 3 million customers in the United Kingdom, and also supplies energy in the U.S., Germany, Spain, Italy, New Zealand, and Japan. Octopus is on track to supply enough wind and solar energy to power 2 million more homes by 2025.

No one should be overpaying for energy, especially as a result of sneaky price hikes that they didn't know about. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: Texas energy customers deserve transparency

guest column

As Texas continues to grapple with fallout from Winter Storm Uri and state regulators determine the next steps forward to strengthen the electricity grid, protecting consumers and providing transparency regarding their energy bills must be the top priority.

When you think about it, asking for transparency from energy suppliers in the state is a simple and direct request. Free markets thrive only when customers have full transparency and information. There are large discrepancies, however, between notification requirements when it comes to variable rate products—where energy prices change monthly based on the market, versus fixed-rate energy products—where prices are locked in for a defined amount of time. Often, consumers are presented with variable rates that can be twice as much as the original fixed rates, and more transparency is needed to fix this.

Due to new regulations enacted recently as a result of HB16, suppliers are required to notify residential consumers of any change to their fixed rate plans. The legislation falls short, however, in protecting the larger segment of energy consumers, those who are already on a variable rate plan either because their plan expired in the past or they actively chose variable short-term rates, by not requiring notification of rate change for these variable rates. As a steadfast, customer-focused energy provider, we are encouraging the Public Utilities Commission of Texas to adopt legislation that would require that any customer on a variable rate be notified ahead of time of a change so they can make more informed decisions — a pricing notification that 82 percent of consumers are in favor of.

Why are notifications important? 

Unfortunately, many energy suppliers thrive by remaining opaque and confusing to the very customers who have invested their trust, and hard earned dollars, in them. In fact, many suppliers have crafted entire business models around the idea that customers will forget that they are on variable rate products and take gross advantage by not notifying customers when the rate changes. This is not a good business practice.

In this type of system, energy providers hike up rates and count on their customers to not notice — it is how they make the most money and secure their bottom line, all at the expense of the customer. As a result, energy consumers are potentially overpaying significant amounts for their energy. We have found some customers were paying almost twice our standard rate before they switched to us.

Second, it is incredibly low cost for energy suppliers to provide this basic notification while also extremely high value to customers. It is consumer protection at its core: providing the consumer with necessary information so that they can make informed decisions about their energy.

Transparency by consumer services is the norm

Rather than keeping business as usual, new legislation should be introduced to mandate email or text message notifications well in advance of any rate change on a variable energy product. If a customer is on a monthly variable rate, for example, this means suppliers would be required to send a notification every month before a rate changes, providing consumers with the opportunity to change energy providers or products as they see fit. These notifications on price hikes and slashes are already in demand: The majority of customers (83 percent) have noted that it is important that their energy provider is transparent with rate changes. We are simply advocating that customers want and should be informed. Life is busy. Customers should have all the important information, such as their energy rates, at their fingertips.

Other consumer services that we use every day, including streaming platforms such as Netflix, Hulu and Disney+, regularly provide this information to their customers. When prices increase on these platforms, customers are notified ahead of time via email and can choose whether to continue service at the new rate or cancel. This simple act of consumer transparency, no matter how long a customer has been a subscriber, is simple, effective and shows trustworthiness from the companies. Most importantly, consumers are always informed and are provided the information needed to make a decision that best fits their lifestyle. Despite the energy industry's long history of opaqueness, the same should be the case for energy suppliers and their customers.

New age of innovation and consumer choice

In addition to acting in the best interest of consumers, legislation requiring energy suppliers to provide timely rate updates to customers on variable energy products would also encourage healthy market competition and spur more innovation within the energy industry. Suppliers would be pushed to think more creatively about the types of products they offer their customers, creating even more options for consumers to choose and benefit from.

No one should be overpaying for energy, especially as a result of sneaky price hikes that they didn't know about. While HB16 tries to address this, it doesn't go far enough. Transparency in energy pricing is necessary and simply the right thing to do.

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Michael Lee is the CEO of Octopus Energy. He is based in Houston.

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Texas nonprofit grants $68.5M to Houston organizations for recruitment, research

Three prominent institutions in Houston will be able to snag a trio of high-profile cancer researchers thanks to $12 million in new funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

The biggest recruitment award — $6 million — went to the University of Texas MD Anderson Center to lure researcher Xiling Shen away from the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation in Los Angeles.

Shen is chief scientific officer at the nonprofit Terasaki Institute. His lab there studies precision medicine, including treatments for cancer, from a “systems biology perspective.”

He also is co-founder and former CEO of Xilis, a Durham, North Carolina-based oncology therapy startup that raised $70 million in series A funding in 2021. Before joining the institute in 2021, the Stanford University graduate was an associate professor at Duke University in Durham.

Shen and Xilis aren’t strangers to MD Anderson.

In 2023, MD Anderson said it planned to use Xilis’ propriety MicroOrganoSphere (MOS) technology for development of novel cancer therapies.

“Our research suggests the MOS platform has the potential to offer new capabilities and to improve the efficiency of developing innovative drugs and cell therapies over current … models, which we hope will bring medicines to patients more quickly,” Shen said in an MD Anderson news release.

Here are the two other Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awards that will bring noted cancer researchers to Houston:

  • $4 million to attract David Sarlah to Rice University from the University of Illinois, where he is an associate professor of chemistry. Sarlah’s work includes applying the principles of chemistry to creation of new cancer therapies.
  • $2 million to lure Vishnu Dileep to the Baylor College of Medicine from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is a postdoctoral fellow. His work includes the study of cancer genomes.

CPRIT also handed out more than $56.5 million in grants and awards to seven institutions in the Houston area. Here’s the rundown:

  • MD Anderson Cancer Center — Nearly $25.6 million
  • Baylor College of Medicine — Nearly $11.5 million
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — More than $6 million
  • Rice University — $4 million
  • University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston — More than $3.5 million
  • Methodist Hospital Research Institute — More than $3.3 million
  • University of Houston — $1.4 million

Dr. Pavan Reddy, a CPRIT scholar who is a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and director of its Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Care Center, says the CPRIT funding “will help our investigators take chances and explore bold ideas to make innovative discoveries.”

The Houston-area funding was part of nearly $99 million in grants and awards that CPRIT recently approved.

Houston space company's lunar lander touches down on the moon in historic mission

touchdown

A private lander on Thursday made the first U.S. touchdown on the moon in more than 50 years, but managed just a weak signal back until flight controllers scrambled to gain better contact.

Despite the spotty communication, Intuitive Machines, the company that built and managed the craft, confirmed that it had landed upright. But it did not provide additional details, including whether the lander had reached its intended destination near the moon’s south pole. The company ended its live webcast soon after identifying a lone, weak signal from the lander.

“What we can confirm, without a doubt, is our equipment is on the surface of the moon,” mission director Tim Crain reported as tension built in the company’s Houston control center.

Added Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus: “I know this was a nail-biter, but we are on the surface and we are transmitting. Welcome to the moon.”

Data was finally starting to stream in, according to a company announcement two hours after touchdown.

The landing put the U.S. back on the surface for the first time since NASA’s famed Apollo moonwalkers.

Intuitive Machines also became the first private business to pull off a lunar landing, a feat achieved by only five countries. Another U.S. company, Astrobotic Technology, gave it a shot last month, but never made it to the moon, and the lander crashed back to Earth. Both companies are part of a NASA-supported program to kick-start the lunar economy.

Astrobotic was among the first to relay congratulations. “An incredible achievement. We can’t wait to join you on the lunar surface in the near future,” the company said via X, formerly Twitter.

Intuitive Machines “aced the landing of a lifetime,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted.

The final few hours before touchdown were loaded with extra stress when the lander's laser navigation system failed. The company's flight control team had to press an experimental NASA laser system into action, with the lander taking an extra lap around the moon to allow time for the last-minute switch.

With this change finally in place, Odysseus descended from a moon-skimming orbit and guided itself toward the surface, aiming for a relatively flat spot among all the cliffs and craters near the south pole.

As the designated touchdown time came and went, controllers at the company's command center anxiously awaited a signal from the spacecraft some 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) away. After close to 15 minutes, the company announced it had received a weak signal from the lander.

Launched last week, the six-footed carbon fiber and titanium lander — towering 14 feet (4.3 meters) — carried six experiments for NASA. The space agency gave the company $118 million to build and fly the lander, part of its effort to commercialize lunar deliveries ahead of the planned return of astronauts in a few years.

Intuitive Machines' entry is the latest in a series of landing attempts by countries and private outfits looking to explore the moon and, if possible, capitalize on it. Japan scored a lunar landing last month, joining earlier triumphs by Russia, U.S., China and India.

The U.S. bowed out of the lunar landscape in 1972 after NASA's Apollo program put 12 astronauts on the surface. Astrobotic of Pittsburgh gave it a shot last month, but was derailed by a fuel leak that resulted in the lander plunging back through Earth's atmosphere and burning up.

Intuitive Machines’ target was 186 miles (300 kilometers) shy of the south pole, around 80 degrees latitude and closer to the pole than any other spacecraft has come. The site is relatively flat, but surrounded by boulders, hills, cliffs and craters that could hold frozen water, a big part of the allure. The lander was programmed to pick, in real time, the safest spot near the so-called Malapert A crater.

The solar-powered lander was intended to operate for a week, until the long lunar night.

Besides NASA’s tech and navigation experiments, Intuitive Machines sold space on the lander to Columbia Sportswear to fly its newest insulating jacket fabric; sculptor Jeff Koons for 125 mini moon figurines; and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for a set of cameras to capture pictures of the descending lander.