The Ion named three corporate partners ahead of its annual innovation-focused festival. Photo courtesy of the Ion

Houston’s Ion innovation hub has recruited three heavyweight corporate partners, the hub announced earlier this week.

The new partners are:

  • Houston-based energy company Occidental (known as Oxy).
  • United Airlines Ventures, the sustainability-focused VC arm of Chicago-based United Airlines. United operates a major hub in Houston.
  • Australia-based Woodside Energy, which maintains an office in Houston.

Oxy, United Airlines Ventures, and Woodside will share their expertise in support of Ion’s mission to transform Houston into a global innovation ecosystem, according to an Ion news release. In addition, they will participate in Ion programming and network with Ion affiliates. Executives from all three of the new partners will serve on the Ion Leadership Advisory Roundtable.

“Welcoming our newest partners into Ion’s ecosystem is a further testament to our momentum in the aerospace and energy transition,” says Jan Odegard, who became executive director of the Ion in 2021 after a year of holding the interim position. “Each organization brings their own culture of innovation that aligns with what we are doing at the Ion.”

Michael Leskinen, president of United Airlines Ventures, says the VC firm believes “the Ion will be the epicenter for Houston’s rapidly growing innovation community — a one-stop shop to share ideas, foster startups, and to develop relationships with Houston’s brightest companies and academia.”

Oxy, United Airlines Ventures, and Woodside join Ion corporate partners such as:

  • Aramco Americas
  • Baker Botts
  • BP
  • Chevron
  • ExxonMobil
  • Global Custom Commerce
  • Intel
  • Microsoft
  • Transocean

The Ion announced the new corporate partners in advance of the second annual Ion Activation Festival, set for May 17-19. The Ion and Rice Management Co. host the festival, which shines a spotlight on entrepreneurship and innovation in Houston.

Activities will take place primarily at the Ion’s 16-acre campus. To register for the festival, visit the Ion’s website.

The inaugural festival, held in 2022, drew more than 2,500 attendees.

Oxy's Permian Basin carbon capture project has a news partner and the Astros are thinking about their climate goals. Rendering via 1pointfive.com

Houston energy giant makes moves on emissions with Astros deal, new tech in the Permian Basin

oxy updates

Houston-based energy company Occidental is capturing a ton of attention with its carbon capture initiative.

Occidental’s carbon capture subsidiary, 1PointFive, recently said it’s developing a carbon capture and sequestration hub on a 55,000-acre site along the Gulf Coast in Southeast Texas. The hub will be able to hold about 1.2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.

The Bluebonnet Hub, expected to be operating in 2026, will be located in Chambers, Liberty, and Jefferson counties near coastal refineries, chemical plants, and manufacturing facilities. Chambers County is the Houston metro area.

“This hub is located between two of the largest industrial corridors in Texas so captured CO2 can be efficiently transported and safely sequestered,” says Jeff Alvarez, president of sequestration at 1PointFive. “Rather than starting from scratch with individual capture and sequestration projects, companies can plug into this hub for access to shared carbon infrastructure.”

Home run on emissions

Another development at 1PointFive involves the Houston Astros baseball team.

The Astros recently agreed to buy CO2 removal credits from 1PointFive’s carbon capture plant being built in Ector County, whose county seat is Odessa. Under this deal, CO2 captured by the company’s equipment will be sequestered in underground saline reservoirs that aren’t affiliated with oil and gas production.

Over the next three years, the Astros will use the removal credits to help the team achieve a carbon-neutral footprint at Minute Maid Park.

“We remain committed to continuous improvement of our stadium for our fans, and purchasing carbon removal credits is an important investment for us,” Marcel Braithwaite, senior vice president of business operations for the Astros, says in a news release.

Progress in the Permian Basin

Furthermore, 1PointFive is making progress on its carbon capture plant being developed in West Texas’ Permian Basin. The company recently tapped Orlando, Florida-based Siemens Energy to supply two compressors for the plant, which is set to capture more than 500,000 metric tons of CO2 per year.

Vicki Hollub, president and CEO of Occidental, says in a news release that the Permian Basin plant will help meet the Paris Agreement’s Paris climate change goals and reduce global emissions.

The Permian Basin facility, with an estimated price tag of $800 million to $1 billion, is on track to open by late 2024.

Are you interested in finding the best Houston tech and innovation conversations at CERAWeek this year? Look no further than this guide. Photo by Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

7+ can't-miss innovation events at CERAWeek featuring Houston speakers

where to be

If you're headed out to CERAWeek by S&P Global next week in downtown Houston, you'll want to make the most of it. Scout out Houston tech innovators at this annual energy-focused conference with this list of must-attend panels, presentations, and networking opportunities.

CERAWeek, taking place in the George R. Brown Convention Center and the Hilton Americas Hotel, is focused is on the entire energy industry, and has several themes this year — including shifting geopolitics, supply chain and infrastructure constraints, tech and innovation, future of work, and more.

Most of the innovation-themed events are organized under the Agora track. While CERAWeek is a global affair, you're sure to spot Houston-based executives, companies, and startups. Here are all the events you can't miss if learning more about Houston energy innovation is your goal.

Monday: Scaling Startups: New and efficient financial models

New startups in the energy ecosystem are providing solutions to the grand climate and climate sustainability challenges. But exciting startups need to move beyond the drawing board to eventual commercial success through necessary funding. What financial models are most successful in bringing these startups to scale?

The panel is from 12:30 to 1:10 pm on Monday, March 6. More info.

Tuesday: Chevron | Global Innovation Hubs: Where to grow your startup

The world needs a robust energy innovation ecosystem to realize decarbonization commitments. Learn about how the ecosystem’s parts are interdependent and must work together for the system to thrive and for the world to advance an energy system that’s affordable, reliable and ever cleaner.

The talk is from 2 to 2:30 pm on Tuesday, March 7. More info.

Tuesday: Gulf Coast Hydrogen Hub

With an existing ecosystem of infrastructure, producers, and consumers, the Gulf Coast has ambitions to become a global hydrogen hub. What technologies will be used? How will companies trade low-carbon hydrogen across their shared infrastructure? Join this panel to discuss how the “Energy Capital of the World” plans to lead the low carbon future.

The panel is from 5:30 to 6 pm on Tuesday, March 7. More info.

Wednesday: The Role of Private Capital in Funding the Energy Transition

While public market funds run by institutional investors have been shifting allocations toward cleantech companies, they are often hamstrung by a limited universe of pure-play cleantech equities and index-tracking methodologies that limit their ability to take longer-duration bets. The real action for energy transition investors to date has been in private equity, where funds can take duration risk and have overcome liquidity limitations by successfully raising historically large funds. The pace of private equity dealmaking, which slowed in early 2022, has accelerated sharply again for cleantech since the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act in the United States. How much of the pent-up private equity capital remains to be run through, and how will the even larger universe of public market investors gain access to these growing markets?

The event is from 7:15 to 8:20 am on Wednesday, March 8. More info.

Wednesday: Adaptation and Climate Resilience

We are witnessing a global rise in extreme weather events such as flooding, drought and heat waves. Climate change is having a variety of effects in different regions. Growing attention and investment is being directed to adaptation. What are different countries and regions doing to adapt to climate change? How will technology, policy and smart design combine to make the world more climate resilient?

The event is from 10 to 10:30 am on Wednesday, March 8. More info.

Wednesday: HETI Energy Ventures Pitch Competition

Over 15 startups and entrepreneurs will present to an audience of 1000+ investors, accelerators, and innovators for a chance to win one of many awards sponsored by Houston's energy transition community.

The event is from 10 am to 3 pm on Wednesday, March 8. More info.

Wednesday: Cities Leading the Energy Transition - World Energy Cities Partnership Mayors

Cities are at the forefront for tackling the climate and energy challenges impacting us all. Hear from the cities of Houston, Esbjerg, Perth and Calgary as they describe their visions toward a more sustainable energy plan for their communities.

The panel is from 12:30 to 1:10 pm on Wednesday, March 8. More info.

Thursday: Energy Transition Hubs: How cities are leading the charge

Increasingly, governments are transforming their communities by accelerating energy transition policies and infrastructure. Listen to how these cities are creating the blueprints for a more sustainable habitat for their citizens.

The panel is from 8:30 to 9:10 am on Thursday, March 9. More info.

BONUS: Network at these company houses

CERAWeek's Agora Partner houses exist showcase what companies are most excited about. Find your way to these three houses in between sessions to learn more about each business's tech and innovation.

  • Chevron: Back in its largest space yet, the Chevron house will highlight Chevron Technology Ventures portfolio companies, Chevron New Energies partnerships and tech experts, along with VR experiences and tech exhibits.
  • Oxy: Oxy, an international energy company based in Houston, is featuring its application of new tech, including Direct Air Capture with geologic sequestration and other CO2 utilization technologies.
  • ExxonMobil: ExxonMobil, which recently relocated its HQ to Houston, is talking about a lower-emission energy future — something that requires multiple solutions that can be implemented at scale to address some of the highest-emitting sectors of the economy.

Vicki Hollub has been appointed chairwoman of the Texas Economic Development Corp. Photo via Oxy

Houston energy exec named to statewide position

mover and shaker

Vicki Hollub, president and CEO of Houston-based oil and gas company Occidental Petroleum, has been appointed chairwoman of the Texas Economic Development Corp.

Hollub, who lives in Galveston, had been vice chairwoman of TxEDC, a privately funded nonprofit that collaborates with the state-funded Governor’s Office of Economic Development and Tourism to promote Texas as a business location. She succeeds Temple businessman Drayton McLane Jr., former owner of the Houston Astros, as chair of the Austin-based organization.

Hollub became the first woman to lead a major American oil and gas company when she was tapped as Occidental’s president and CEO in 2016. She has worked at Occidental for 35 years.

In a 2020 interview, Hollub outlined Occidental’s future as a “carbon management company.”

“Ultimately, I don’t know how many years from now, Occidental becomes a carbon management company, and our oil and gas would be a support business unit for the management of that carbon. We would be not only using [CO2] in oil reservoirs [but] capturing it for sequestration as well,” Hollub said.

Aside from elevating Hollub to the role of chairwoman, Gov. Greg Abbott has named Houston’s Mauricio Gutierrez to the TxEDC board of directors. Gutierrez is president and CEO of Houston-based NRG Energy.

Abbott’s office also made two other recent business-related announcements involving the Houston area:

  • Workforce development grants from the Texas Talent Connection program were awarded to Alvin Community College, the Bay Area Houston Advanced Technology Consortium, Capital IDEA of Houston, Lone Star College, the University of Houston – Downtown, and Volunteers of America.
  • Grants for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) summer youth camps were awarded to Lone Star College – Tomball, the University of Houston – Clear Lake, Brazosport College, the San Jacinto Community College District, and Houston Community College.
The United and Occidental investment arms are planning to form a joint venture to commercialize the technology. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Houston biotech startup scores $5M to fuel sustainable aviation innovation

seeing green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oxy is working on a direct air carbon capture facility in the Permian Basin — and is committing to up to a $1 billion price tag for the project. Rendering via 1pointfive.com

Houston oil and gas company reveals details on $1B carbon capture facility

seeing green

Ramping up its investment in clean energy, Houston-based Occidental Petroleum plans to spend up to $1 billion on a facility in the Permian Basin that will pull carbon dioxide from the air.

During a March 23 investor update, executives at Occidental laid out their strategy for developing direct air carbon capture plants and carbon sequestration hubs.

Executives said Occidental’s first direct air capture facility is set to be built in the Permian Basin, a massive oil-producing region in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico. The industrial-scale facility, with an estimated price tag of $800 million to $1 billion, is on track to open in late 2024. Construction is supposed to start later this year.

Occidental expects as many as 135 of its direct air carbon capture plants to be operating by 2035.

According to the International Energy Agency, direct air capture (DAC) technologies extract carbon dioxide, or CO2, directly from the atmosphere. The CO2 can be permanently stored in deep geological formations, or it can be used in food processing or can be combined with hydrogen to produce synthetic fuels.

As of November, 19 DAC facilities were operating around the world, according to the energy agency. Occidental envisions the Permian Basin plant pulling 1 million metric tons of CO2 from the air each year — an amount that would far exceed the combined capacity of the 19 facilities that already are online.

Aside from DAC facilities, Occidental plans to put three carbon sequestration hubs online by 2025. These hubs take carbon dioxide from the air and several other sources, such as factories and power plants, and then transport and store it using shared infrastructure, the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative explains.

Beyond the three locations already accounted for, several more Occidental sequestration hubs are in the works. Some of those sites will be in the Gulf Coast region.

During the investor presentation, Occidental President and CEO Vicki Hollub reiterated that she believes the company’s 1PointFive carbon capture initiative will ultimately create more value than its petrochemical business. The petrochemical unit generated $5.2 billion in revenue last year.

Hollub called carbon capture “a sure opportunity” for Occidental.

“There’s just not going to be enough other alternatives for CO2 offsets for corporate America and … corporations around the world,” Hollub said.

Occidental already is gaining value from DAC. For instance, aircraft manufacturer Airbus recently said it would buy 400,000 metric tons of carbon removal credits from Occidental’s first DAC facility over a four-year span.

Occidental is among numerous companies — including Houston energy heavyweights BP, ExxonMobil, and Shell — seeking to capitalize on the carbon capture and sequestration market. Fortune Business Insights forecasts the value of the global market will grow from $2 billion in 2021 to $7 billion by 2028.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.