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

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.

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

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

sustainability moves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cemvita Factory has made a deal with Houston-based Oxy subsidiary. Courtesy of Cemvita Factory

Oxy backs Houston startup's carbon dioxide-transforming technology

Cha-ching

A Houston startup's carbon dioxide conversion technology has impressed Occidental Petroleum's low carbon subsidiary.

Oxy Low Carbon Ventures LLC has invested an undisclosed amount of funds into Cemvita Factory, the companies announced on August 15.

"One of OLCV's strategic priorities is to develop and commercialize CO2 utilization technologies that complement Occidental's core businesses and product lines, with the goal of helping Occidental find value in new markets and attain its aspiration of becoming carbon neutral," says Richard Jackson, OLCV president, in a news release. "Cemvita Factory's CO2 utilization platform has the potential to harness the power of nature and create new, sustainable pathways for the bio-manufacturing of our products."

Cemvita was founded by two siblings — Moji Karimi, who has a background in the oil and gas industry, and his sister, Tara, who has a background in biotech. Cemvita's biotechnology can replicate photosynthesis — absorbing CO2 and transforming it into glucose or other substances.

While the amount invested in Cemvita isn't disclosed, Moji previously told InnovationMap that he could run a custom pilot program for an energy company for less than $100,000.

"With the investment received from Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, we plan to demonstrate that our technology can economically scale from test tube to the field," Moji, who is the company's CEO, says in the release.

According to the release, Cemvita has a network of clients it is working with to reduce the industry's carbon footprint.

"We have an ambitious goal to take one gigaton of CO2 out of the carbon cycle in the next decade and are very excited about being a part of Occidental's journey to become a carbon-neutral company," says Tara, co-founder and chief scientist, in the release.

From Rex Tillerson's thoughts on leadership and politics to Houston's role in the low-carbon energy movement, check out these powerful quotes from the 2020 KPMG Global Energy Conference. Getty Images

Overheard: Oil and gas experts weigh in on the future of low-carbon energy and Houston's role in the movement

Eavesdropping in Houston

As the energy capital of the world, Houston can't get complacent. The oil and gas industry is changing — carbon is out and finding clean energy alternatives is in.

At the 2020 KPMG Global Energy Conference on June 5 and 6, hundreds of energy professionals listened to the O&G elite — even including former Secretary of State and former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson — give their two cents about the revolution. Day two of the conference featured the Houston Low Carbon Energy Climate Summit by the Center for Houston's Future.

In case you missed it, here are a few powerful quotes from both days of the program — from Houston's role in the low-carbon energy movement to Tillerson's leadership expertise.

"Texas is one of those places where you can just get stuff done.”

— Cindy Yeilding, senior vice president at BP, says Texans are willing to collaborate on this. In the "Visions of our Energy Future" panel during the Low Carbon Energy Summit on Thursday, June 6, she predicted Houston will be a net zero carbon city by 2040 or 2035.

“One of the things we need to focus on is being able to attract and retain talent.”

— Mary Anne Brelinsky, CEO of EDF Trading, stressing the importance of talent in the effort to keep Houston the energy capital of the world. Brelinsky advocated for corporations and its execs getting involved with local universities. "We're competing against Silicon Valley," she says in the panel.

"You’ve got the source, and you’ve got the sinks. … Houston is going to be one of our focal points.”

— Charlene Olivia Russell, vice president of Low Carbon Strategies at Oxy, on how Houston is set up for success when it comes to staying as a power player in the global low carbon energy platform, but, during the panel, she emphasizes collaboration needs to continue happening.

“When Shell agreed to sponsor this summit, it was pitched as a climate change summit. It was changed to a low-carbon summit because some people in this room are uncomfortable with the phrase 'climate change.'"

— Jason Klein, vice president of U.S. Energy Transition Strategy at Shell, says at the "Energy Transformations" panel during the Low Carbon Energy Summit on Thursday, June 6.

"If we want to be the leader and the energy capital of the world, we need to attract talent, capital investment, and innovation, and if the people are going to do those things think that we don’t even like to talk about those things, then they aren’t going to come here — they’re going to go to San Francisco.”

— Klein continues. The audience responded with a round of applause.

“I think it is important as Americans to remember that our greatest strength and the most important element to our national security has been that we are a nation that has many allies and friends. Our adversaries — Russia, China, North Korea, Iran — have no allies or friends.”

— Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who served as CEO of ExxonMobil from 2006 to 2016. Tillerson discussed a wide range of topics on Wednesday, June 5, at the 2020 KPMG Global Energy Conference in his fireside chat with Regina Mayor, global sector head and U.S. national sector leader of energy and natural resources at KPMG US. Click here to watch the full interview.

“We’re all a work in progress. You’re never done. I’m not done — I’m still a work in progress. If you have that view and you have that set of values that are never going to change … [then] I can keep developing as a human being.”

— Tillerson says of leadership lessons learned. He's an avid proponent of the Boy Scouts of America organization, and cited many valuable lessons he's learned about himself and about leading people from his involvement in the nonprofit.

A oil and gas CEO, a serial entrepreneur, and a retail energy exec walk into the state capital. Getty Images

3 powerhouse Houstonians named to the state's economic development board

Three's company

The Bayou City now wields some high-profile power in the state's economic development efforts.

The Texas Senate recently endorsed Gov. Greg Abbott's appointment of three business leaders with strong ties to Houston to the board of the Texas Economic Development Corp. — including the organization's new chair and vice chair.

Robert Allen, president and CEO of Texas' nonprofit economic development arm, says the Bayou City should feel well-represented on the board with former Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane as the new chair, Houston energy executive Vicki Hollub as the new vice chair, and Houston energy executive Scott Prochazka as a new member. That means Houston-connected business leaders hold three of the board's eight seats.

Allen calls McLane "the perfect Texas ambassador."

McLane, who lives in Temple, sold the Astros to Houston businessman Jim Crane in 2011 for $680 million. Forbes estimates McLane's net worth at $2.4 billion.

Today, McLane controls a Temple-based holding company with business interests such as food distribution, car dealerships and sports marketing. In 1991, he sold grocery distributor McLane Co. to Walmart, which later sold it to Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway.

"I can think of no one better to lead our efforts to market the state of Texas as the best state for business than Drayton McLane. He has achieved tremendous success in several areas of business, all while calling Texas home," Allen tells InnovationMap.

McLane also chairs the board of Texas Central Partners, the Dallas company developing high-speed rail service between Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth. In addition, he serves on the boards of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation, Baylor Scott & White Healthcare, and the Cooper Institute.

"I am privileged to be able to give service to our great state of Texas and honored by Gov. Abbott's appointment as chair of the Texas Economic Development Corporation," McLane says in a statement provided to InnovationMap.

"The goal of the corporation is to help market Texas as a place for businesses to grow and prosper," he adds. "Texas is a great state, and we have much to offer businesses in many sectors. I care deeply for Texas and improving the economy that will carry us into the future."

Hollub, president and CEO of Houston-based oil and gas company Occidental Petroleum, is the new vice chair of the Texas Economic Development Corp. She's spent 35 years at Occidental, which just hammered out a $57 billion deal to take over Anadarko Petroleum, an oil and gas company based in The Woodlands.

In addition to the board of the Texas Economic Development Corp., Hollub sits on the boards of Lockheed Martin and the American Petroleum Institute, and she is U.S. chair of the U.S.-Colombia Business Council.

"As the first female to head a major oil and gas company in the world, Vicki defines what it means to be a Texan — hardworking, determined, and incredibly smart," Allen says.

Prochazka, president and CEO of CenterPoint Energy, a Houston-based provider of electric and natural gas service, joins McLane and Hollub on the board of the Texas Economic Development Corp. Aside from his duties at CenterPoint, Prochazka is incoming chairman of the American Gas Association, chairman of Central Houston Inc., and a board member of the Greater Houston Partnership.

Given his roles with Central Houston Inc. and the Greater Houston Partnership, Prochazka knows Houston "intimately well," Allen says.

The Texas Economic Development Corp. is an independently funded and operated nonprofit that promotes economic development, business recruitment, and job creation in Texas. For instance, the nonprofit helped pave the way for a $15 billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facility in Corpus Christi that recently made its first cargo shipment. Houston-based Cheniere Energy owns the facility.

With Abbott's appointment of eight members, the makeup of the economic development organization's eight-member board is entirely new. The governor appointed them in April, but the state Senate had to give its final approval, which came earlier this month.

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Exclusive: Houston Exponential makes strategic marketing hire

innovator to know

Houston Exponential has made another new hire. Clemmie Pierce Martin has joined Houston Exponential as director of marketing and strategy. The nonprofit helps spur the growth of Houston’s innovation ecosystem.

She most recently was director of strategic partnerships and products at Houston-based startup Goodfair, which operates an online thrift store. Before that, she was head of client success at Austin-based startup Mesa Cloud, which offers a platform for tracking student progress.

Martin, who grew up in Houston and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin and Houston’s The Kinkaid School, says her new employer “sees the potential in Houston and our startup ecosystem that I’ve always felt was underserved and underrepresented nationally. I couldn’t be more excited to join a team that is working tirelessly to make sure that for founders and startups anywhere in the world, Houston is not just a choice but rather the clear choice of venue.”

Martin is a great-niece of the late President George H.W. and the late first lady Barbara Bush.

Serafina Lalany, the new executive director of Houston Exponential (HX), says Martin’s experience with startups “is an invaluable asset to the organization.”

“Her insights and experiences … couldn’t be more fitting for HX’s mission to lower the barrier of entry for early stage startups in the city,” Lalany says in a news release.

Lalany became executive director of HX in September. She had been the organization’s vice president of operations and chief of staff. Lalany succeeds Harvin Moore, who resigned this summer as president and CEO of the four-year-old nonprofit.

Earlier this month, HX named Ivery Boston III as director of inclusive innovation. He previously worked for the Miami Downtown Development Authority.

Aside from the new hires, the organization recently restructured its board of directors. The board transitioned to a more informal “convening” board, and an executive committee now oversees HX’s operations.

University of Houston: Navigating between researcher and professor

houston voices

What is the difference between a professor teaching and conducting research? When does a professor need an Institutional Review Board to provide oversight on their project? The NSF has had this come up often enough, presumably, that they wrote a vignette on their website.

Let's take a quiz

The NSF presented the following scenario: “Professor Speakwell teaches undergraduate courses in linguistics in which he demonstrates variability in both the syntax and vocabulary of spoken expression across individuals and cultures. Professor Speakwell involves his students in active learning in the classroom. He brings recordings of spoken English to class and calls on students to say whether they find the example grammatical and to explain or guess what the utterance means.”

Pretty straightforward, right? A professor is a teacher. But most professors move from role-to-role like a chameleon: researcher, artist, CEO, etc. depending on their discipline.

Here's the question

“Professor Researchit, a colleague of Speakwell’s, uses these same techniques with undergraduate student volunteers to do research on variables that predict understanding of utterances. Dr. Researchit develops a protocol, and obtains IRB approval and students’ signed informed consent. Professor Researchit tells Speakwell that he had better get IRB approval and student informed consent since he is doing the same thing.”

Is Professor Researchit Correct?

Danielle Griffin, Ed.D., associate director of the Research Integrity and Oversight Office in the Division of Research at University of Houston was asked to weigh in on this vignette. She answered by saying, “No, Speakwell is not doing the same thing. Speakwell is teaching, not doing research.”

“The keywords in the first paragraph are ‘involves his students in active learning in the classroom.’ Active learning and research are two different things. They are doing hands-on learning about how to conduct research,” she went on to say. “Professor Researchit is actually doing research because the students are participants and the subjects of the data collection.”

Decision tree

When does a professor need an IRB? The government’s Health and Human Services website boasts an Office for Human Research Protections. You can find a “decision tree” there. It helps professors to determine whether an IRB is required for their research. Every institution has something similar; for instance the University of Rhode Island offers a similar tool to figure out the IRB process in a flow chart. The overarching rule is that if you are using human subjects in a clinical trial — you do need IRB oversight.

According to the University of Iowa, “publicly available data do not require IRB review. Examples: census data, labor statistics.” But they also provide a dense, comprehensive list of what else can be conducted without an IRB in place.

The Big Idea

When in doubt of whether you need an IRB or not, reach out to your institution’s IRB facilitators or the office that handles oversight, ethics and integrity. The Research Integrity and Oversight (RIO) Office at the University of Houston, for instance, “supports and educates the research community in all areas of compliance with federal regulations concerning human subjects, animal subjects, conflicts of interest, grant congruency and responsible conduct of research.” It’s better to be safe than sorry, but if the lesson you’re teaching benefits the student, it is probably not a research project.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Cory Thaxton, the author of this piece, is the communications coordinator for The Division of Research.

Houston data analytics firm acquired by Austin agency

m&a moves

Statistical Vision, a Houston-based data and analytics firm, has been scooped up by Austin-based marketing and communications agency Hahn Public for an undisclosed amount.

The deal expands Hahn Public to a 48-person agency with combined annual revenue exceeding $10 million. Statistical Vision has been rebranded as Hahn Stats.

“Our clients come to us drowning in data — sales transactions, marketing information, commodity prices, import and export data, demographics, weather forecasts, etcetera,” Michael Griebe, co-founder and chief statistical officer of what now is Hahn Stats, says in a news release. “We build predictive analytic models to answer specific questions and to point our clients towards revenue growth.”

Griebe and Dirk Van Slyke founded Statistical Vision in 2014. The company's local office is at The Cannon West Houston. Hahn Stats LLC also has an office in Denver.

The data and analytics prowess developed by Statistical Vision will benefit Hahn Public clients like Houston-based ZTERS, Whataburger, the Texas Department of Agriculture, Beef-Loving Texans, H-E-B’s Central Market, Vital Farms, the Propane Education & Research Council, OneGas, GPA Midstream, the East Texas Electric Cooperative, and the Northeast Texas Regional Mobility Authority.

Jeff Hahn, principal of Hahn Public, says the acquisition of Statistical Vision and its data and analytics capabilities will help Hahn Public’s array of food and energy clients, who “continue to face a rapidly changing and uncertain landscape.”

Other businesses under the Hahn umbrella are Apron Food & Beverage Communications, Predictive Media Network, and White Lion Interactive.