3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Thomas Vassiliades of BiVACOR, Katie Mehnert of ALLY Energy, and Don Whaley of OhmConnect Texas. Courtesy photos

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


Thomas Vassiliades, CEO of BiVACOR

BiVACOR named Thomas Vassiliades as CEO effective immediately. Photo courtesy of BiVACOR

Thomas Vassiliades has been named CEO of BiVACOR, and he replaces the company's founder, Daniel Timms, in the position. BiVACOR is on track to head toward human clinical trials and commercialization, and Vassiliades is tasked with leading the way.

Vassiliades has over 30 years of experience within the medical device industry as well as cardiothoracic surgery. He was most recently the general manager of the surgery and heart failure business at Abiomed and held several leadership roles at Medtronic. Dr. Vassiliades received his MD from the University of North Carolina, and his MBA was achieved with distinction at Emory University.

“I am excited and honored to join the BiVACOR team, working closely with Daniel and the entire team as we look forward to bringing this life-changing technology to the market,” says Dr. Vassiliades in the release. “Throughout my career, I’ve been guided by the goal of bringing innovative cardiovascular therapies to the market to improve patient care and outcomes – providing solutions for those that don’t have one. BiVACOR is uniquely well-positioned to provide long-term therapy for patients with severe biventricular heart failure.” Click here to read more.

Katie Mehnert, CEO and founder of ALLY Energy

Katie Mehnert joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the future of energy amid a pandemic, climate change, the Great Resignation, and more. Photo via Katie Mehnert

Katie Mehnert started ALLY Energy — originally founded as Pink Petro — to move forward DEI initiatives, and she says she started with building an audience first and foremost, but now the technology part of the platform has fallen into place too. Last summer, ALLY Energy acquired Clean Energy Social, which meant doubling its community while also onboarding new technology. On the episode, Mehnert reveals that this new website and platform is now up and running.

"We launched the integrated product a few weeks back," Mehnert says. "The whole goal was to move away from technology that wasn't serving us."

Now, moving into the new year, Mehnert is building the team the company needs. She says she hopes to grow ALLY from two employees to 10 by the end of the year and is looking for personnel within customer support, product developers, and sales and service. While ALLY is revenue generating, she also hopes to fundraise to further support scaling. Click here to read more.

Don Whaley, president at OhmConnect Texas

Texas is about a month away from the anniversary of Winter Storm Uri — would the state fair better if it saw a repeat in 2022? Photo courtesy

The state of Texas is about a month away from the one year anniversary of Winter Storm Uri — but is the state better prepared this winter season? Don Whaley, president at OhmConnect Texas, looked at where the state is now versus then in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"Governor Abbott has gone on record guaranteeing that the lights will stay on this winter, and I am inclined to agree. With the reinforcement of our fuel systems being mandated by the Railroad Commission, 2023 to 2025 should receive the same guarantee," he writes. "Beyond that, as the demand for electricity in Texas continues to grow, we will need to rely on the initiatives under consideration by the PUCT to attract investment and innovation in new, dispatchable generation and flexible demand solutions to ensure long-term stability in the ERCOT market.

Whaley has worked for over 40 years in the natural gas, electricity, and renewables industries, with specific experience in deregulated markets across the U.S. and Canada. He founded Direct Energy Texas and served as its president during the early years of deregulation. Click here to read more.

Texas is about a month away from the anniversary of Winter Storm Uri — would the state fair better if it saw a repeat in 2022? Photo by Lynn in Midtown via CultureMap

Opinion: Houston energy expert weighs in on if the state's power grid is ready for winter

guest column

The Winter Storm Uri, which struck Texas in February of 2021, was an unprecedented event in both severity and duration. At its most extreme, temperatures were as much as 40 to 50 degrees below their historic averages. The storm resulted in the largest controlled blackout in U.S. history, forcing the shedding of more than 23 gigawatts of load, the loss of power to 4.5 million homes and businesses for periods of one to four days, and the tragic loss of hundreds of lives.

A crisis of this magnitude has resulted in an intense re-examination of the Texas power grid. Not surprisingly, it has also resulted in record levels of finger-pointing and an ongoing search to identify the parties responsible. Among the casualties were all three Public Utility Commissioners that regulate the industry and a virtual purge of ERCOT, the organization that operates and manages the grid.

The Texas 87th Legislature filed an inordinate number of bills to address the electric system's failings, and Governor Abbott’s office has been vocal and actively working to ensure that there will never again be a repeat of the events of February 2021. The principal focus of the now reconstituted and expanded Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT) has been defining and implementing changes to system rules and operations in order to extract a greater degree of reliability from existing assets and incentivize the construction of significantly more MW of dispatchable generation. Many of the changes implemented by the PUCT will provide the market with a greater cushion against shocks to the system, moving the market away from a crisis management mode and towards a more proactive footing. We can expect even more change once current policies are assessed and more aggressive proposals are analyzed to determine whether they offer more benefit than harm to the market.

Amid all the debate, discussion, and wringing of hands, only one report has come close to identifying the smoking gun at the center of the crisis: the need for weatherization. The notion that weatherizing of generating assets is the key to future reliability has been discussed ad nauseum, but the report issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on November 16, 2021, attributes an equal share of the blame to the natural gas producing, processing, and transportation sector and its inability to perform reliably under the harsh conditions of Uri.

In the areas affected worst by the storm, gas production in Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana fell by more than 50 percent at its lowest point when compared to average production in the prior month. The Railroad Commission, not the Public Utility Commission, regulates natural gas transmission, and it was slow off the mark given the focus on generation. The Railroad Commission has now begun to implement weatherization requirements, with new initiatives slated to be in full effect for the winter of 2023.

It is imprudent to use “never” as a time scale, but I would place the probability at “remote” that Texas will see a recurrence of the events of February 2021 in 2022. In the unlikely event we did, the impacts would likely pale in comparison to those experienced last February. This is due both to the heightened state of preparedness with which the industry will approach the coming winter and the impact of changes put into effect by the PUCT as of January 1, 2022.

Governor Abbott has gone on record guaranteeing that the lights will stay on this winter, and I am inclined to agree. With the reinforcement of our fuel systems being mandated by the Railroad Commission, 2023 to 2025 should receive the same guarantee. Beyond that, as the demand for electricity in Texas continues to grow, we will need to rely on the initiatives under consideration by the PUCT to attract investment and innovation in new, dispatchable generation and flexible demand solutions to ensure long-term stability in the ERCOT market.

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Don Whaley is president at OhmConnect Texas and has worked for over 40 years in the natural gas, electricity, and renewables industries, with specific experience in deregulated markets across the U.S. and Canada. He founded Direct Energy Texas and served as its president during the early years of deregulation.

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Houston startup rolls out B2B program for onboarding new hires

job training

After seeing success with her internship training and matchmaking platform, Allie Danziger, founder and CEO of Ampersand Professionals, has expanded the concept to include a new hire training service that allows employers to better optimize the onboarding process and have a well-trained new staff member from day one.

In just over a year, Ampersand has worked with over 7,000 professionals through its original concept of upskilling and matching young professionals to internship programs. A few months ago, Danziger and her team expanded to include career development training for students first entering the workforce with the City of Houston's Hire Houston Youth program. Danziger says it was developing out the platform for this program that proved there was a need for this type of training.

"While we have focused on matching professionals with businesses for paid internships, we recognized a further gap with employers that have their own recruiting/talent acquisition teams, or just their own preferred way of bringing on entry-level talent, and didn’t have a need for our matching platform," Danziger tells InnovationMap. "But, they recognized the benefit of our proven training platform that pre-vets and de-risks their hires, and still wanted access to the training for their own hires."

The new program has evolved from training interns to new hires, so parts of the program that focuses on interviewing or applying for a job have been removed. Instead, the 8.5 hours of training focuses on networking, best practices for working with a manager and team, performance reviews, common software training, and more.

Danziger says usually new hires need the most experienced mentor or manager, but they don't usually get that support — especially when it comes to businesses that don't have their own built-out mentorship or training program.

"Ampersand’s new training product fills that gap — it gives employers of any size any easy solution to provide basic job readiness training to employees, access to our team of dedicated coaches, and a detailed report at the end of their training summarizing how their new hire did in the training and any trends recognized and tips for managing this employee based on what the platform uncovered," she says. "Businesses can also sign up for additional coaching sessions and customize training materials, as an add-on if interested."

The program costs the employer $100 per new employee, and checkout online takes less than a minute. Through both this program and the original internship program, Ampersand is constantly evolving its training content.

"These professionals are going through the same training experience that we have proven out over the last year, and we are constantly adding to based on data we see in the user experience," Danziger says.

Danziger recently joined the Houston Innovators Podcast discuss some of the benchmarks she's met with Ampersand, as well as the importance of investing in Gen Z hires. Listen to that episode below.


Houston thought leaders look for extraterrestrial intelligence at Future Focus event

Out of This World

The latest Future Focus discussion held by alliantgroup was out of this world! The company teamed up with InnovationMap to host Dr. Seth Shostak from the SETI Institute at alliantgroup headquarters in the Galleria area. The conversation focused on how new technology is helping in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Dr. Robert Ambrose, alliantgroup strategic advisory board member, was the moderator for the night. He recently retired from NASA as the chief of software, robotics, and the simulation division, and clarified why it is crucial we have these conversations with Dr. Shostak about space and ask the question: Do aliens exist?

“We should be looking up. We should be thinking about what is coming and how we are going to be a part of it. It is an exciting time in space,” said Dr. Ambrose.

Dr. Shostak has been the senior astronomer and director at the SETI Institute in San Francisco for the past 20 years. He explained to the audience there is a difference between the search for aliens and the search for life in the universe.

“SETI stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, but it's not the same as the search for life, which it's often confused with,” explained Dr. Shostak. “You might find life on Mars, but it's not going to be very clever. But when you look for extraterrestrial intelligence, you are looking for the kind of aliens you might see on television or in the movies. Are they intelligent, can they communicate with us, and can they hold a conversation?”

Dr. Shostak believes we can infer aliens exist because of the number of planets and stars there are in the universe. But he also believes the search is heating up thanks to new technology and satellites currently being developed.

“Do I think we probably will find them in our lifetime? I honestly do," he said. "You could say that's just wishful thinking and perhaps it is, but it's more than that. It is the fact that the equipment is getting better very quickly."

He bets that by 2035 we will have found and communicated with extraterrestrial intelligence. Both Dr. Shostak and Dr. Ambrose agree, once we have found this life, our world will change for the better.

“We are going to learn all sorts of things about physics and the rules of the universe that we’ve never uncovered,” explained Dr. Ambrose. “Imagine everything we could have taught humans about the universe a couple hundred years ago. What if we can find someone who could teach us those lessons today? What an acceleration we would have.”

This was just the second Future Focus discussion alliantgroup has hosted, and CEO Dhaval Jadav said he hopes to continue to lead these innovative conversations around technology.

“We started this future focus series of roundtables to engage thought leaders and industry experts on topics related to the development of new technologies," Jadav said. "We are living in a most exciting and heady time, with the adoption of new technologies and platforms accelerating at an unprecedented rate.

"In order for us to stay abreast of all these exciting innovations — from web 3 to sportstech, blockchain, AI/quantum computing, the metaverse and our ever-expanding universe, including the search for extraterrestrial intelligence – we must continue to hold thought-provoking dialogues to further explore and chart our path to the future."

You can click here to learn more about alliantgroup’s previous event and what’s to come.

Courtesy photo

Houston hospital ranked best in state according to recent report

top health care

It’s a three-peat for Houston Methodist Hospital.

For the third in a row, Healthgrades has named Houston Methodist the best hospital in Texas and one of the 50 best hospitals in the country. It’s the only Texas hospital in the top 50. Houston Methodist, a 907-bed facility at the Texas Medical Center, earned the same recognition in 2020 and 2021.

Four other hospitals in the Houston area made Healthgrades’ list of the top 250 hospitals in the U.S.:

  • Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center
  • Houston Methodist Baytown Hospital
  • Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital
  • Memorial Hermann – Texas Medical Center

Four Houston hospitals also excelled in several of Healthgrades’ specialty categories:

  • Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center, No. 3 in the state for heart surgery.
  • Memorial Hermann – Texas Medical Center, No. 1 in the state for stroke care and No. 2 for coronary intervention.
  • Houston Methodist Hospital, No. 2 in the state for critical care and No. 2 for pulmonary care.
  • Texas Orthopedic Hospital, No. 1 in the state for joint replacement.

Healthgrades, an online platform for finding physicians, hospitals, and other health care providers, rates hospitals based on clinical outcomes such as rates for patient deaths and treatment complications. For this year’s list, Healthgrades evaluated clinical performance at nearly 4,500 hospitals.

“For almost 25 years, our mission has been to provide consumers with clear and accessible information to make more informed health care decisions,” Dr. Brad Bowman, chief medical officer and head of data science at Healthgrades, says in a news release.

The Healthgrades rankings “provide consumers with increased transparency regarding the care in their areas, and empowers them to make more confident care decisions for themselves and their families,” Bowman adds.

For Houston Methodist, kudos like those from Healthgrades are common. For instance, the hospital last year landed at No. 16 on U.S. News & World Report’s national honor roll for the best hospitals, up from No. 20 the previous year. It was the top-rated Texas hospital on the list.

“These national accolades are something to be proud of, but most important, our patients are benefiting from all of our hard work. Ultimately, they are the reason we need to be one of the best hospital systems in the country,” Dr. Marc Boom, president and CEO of Houston Methodist, said last year in a news release about the U.S. News award.

The Healthgrades honor is one of several pieces of good news for Houston Methodist this year.

The hospital recently unveiled plans for the 26-story Centennial Tower. Scheduled to open in 2027, the $1.4 billion tower will include a larger emergency department and hundreds of patient beds, among other features. The new tower will replace the Houston Main building and West Pavilion.

Shortly after that announcement, the Houston Methodist system said it had received an anonymous $50 million gift. It’s the second largest donation in the system’s 102-year history.

Joining Houston Methodist Hospital in Healthgrades’ national top 250 this year are:

  • Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – McKinney
  • Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Temple
  • Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in Edinburg
  • Hendrick Medical Center in Abilene
  • Medical City Arlington
  • Medical City McKinney
  • Methodist Hospital in San Antonio
  • St. David’s Medical Center in Austin
  • St. David’s South Austin Medical Center
  • William P. Clements Jr. University Hospital in Dallas