Get to know the startups in the running for the Houston Innovation Awards People's Choice award. Photos courtesy

There's one category at the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards that's yet to be decided — and that's because the decision is up to you.

The People's Choice: Startup of the Year category will honor the fan favorite of this year's awards. Seven companies will be showcasing their unique technologies at the event, and attendees get to decide their fate.

Click here to secure your tickets to the November 8 event where you get to help choose the winner of this exciting category.

Here are the seven companies, selected by this year's judges, who are up for the honor.

Blue People, helping bring ideas to life through software development expertise.

Enrique Carro, CEO of Blue People. Photo courtesy of Blue People

What's the company culture like at your company? How big of a priority is maintaining it as the company grows?

At our company, culture isn't just a buzzword; it's the heart of who we are. We have this fun concept called the "Blue Tags" where everyone picks a cool, sometimes hilarious, nickname—it's our way of saying, "Hey, we love your uniqueness!" And guess what? Fridays are special because we gather employees for a celebratory meeting where tequila shots are allowed that we call Viernes De Shots (Friday's Shots). However, it's not just about the shots; it's about building connections and recognizing our achievements as a team. Furthermore, our "Blue Principles", or what other companies call core values, guide us every day, woven into everything we do. As we grow, keeping this inclusive vibe alive is at the top of our to-do list! Cheers to a unique and awesome workplace!

How would you describe your leadership style in three words?

Adaptive, inspirational, and empowering

How has your company given back to the community in the past year or so?

In the past year, our company has been deeply committed to giving back to the community through various initiatives. We actively engaged in the Tejano Tech Summit and fostered dialogue with Tech & Tequila talks. Moreover, we dedicated our time as judges in the Young Inventors competition, encouraging and supporting young talent. Our CTO played a pivotal role by mentoring students in software engineering projects, emphasizing cloud technology, modern stack, and agile methodologies. We also proudly emerged as winners in the 50 cent G-Unity Business Lab Pitch competition and actively participated in programs like gener8tor gBeta accelerator and Codelaunch. Additionally, we extended our outreach to the academic realm, coaching and mentoring participants in events such as the Sam Houston State University Innovation Pitch Competition, where we achieved 1st place, and collaborating with Latin Venture Studio as partners. As a testament to our commitment to community engagement, we are part of the DevOpsDays Houston organization committee, contributing to a series of technical conferences. Furthermore, we play a role in The Houston Tech Rodeo, showcasing the best of the Houston startup community through conferences and friendly competitions, reinforcing our dedication to the growth and development of the community we are part of.

DrySee, innovative waterproof dressing with liquid intrusion technology.

Robert Bradley Greer is the CEO of DrySee. Photo via LinkedIn

What's the company culture like at your company? How big of a priority is maintaining it as the company grows?

DrySee has an adaptive environment with open communication and transparency. Our leadership is available to receive and provide regular feedback, and values the spirit of entrepreneurship. DrySee feels that the imaginative and engaged atmosphere is important to our growth and success.

How would you describe your leadership style in three words?

Inclusive, team-oriented, and consensus-driven.

How has your company given back to the community in the past year or so?

We donated thousands of DrySee bandages to the medical efforts in Ukraine.

Eden Grow Systems, next generation farming technologies.

Leo Barton Womack Jr is the CEO of Eden Grow Systems. Photo courtesy of Eden Grow

What's the company culture like at your company? How big of a priority is maintaining it as the company grows?

We are on a mission to bring food sovereignty to the people. Our vision is that our world is A Garden OF Eden, and we are here to serve it.

How would you describe your leadership style in three words?

Service, example, and commitment.

How has your company given back to the community in the past year or so?

We are deploying our systems into food desserts, schools, Ukraine, and around the world helping underserved communities begin their journey to food independence.

Feelit Technologies, nanotechnology for preventive maintenance to eliminate leaks, fires and explosions, increase safety and reduce downtime.

Shoshi Kaganovsky, president of North America at Feelit Technologies. Photo courtesy of Feelit

What's the company culture like at your company? How big of a priority is maintaining it as the company grows?

Culture is people-oriented. We are focusing on building a team that lasts. Diversity is key. Giving chances and creating opportunities is what will advance our world further. We believe that the human asset is the most important asset we have. It's a huge priority for us to maintain this is make sure that as we grow, our culture leads the way for us, with respect, dedication and innovation.

How would you describe your leadership style in three words?

Lead by example.

How has your company given back to the community in the past year or so?

School supplies, mentorship programs for children, sponsorship and hiring people from war zones/conflicted territories.

Fervo Energy, leveraging proven oil and gas drilling technology to deliver 24/7 carbon-free geothermal energy.

Tim Latimer, CEO and co-founder of Fervo Energy. Photo via LinkedIn

What's the company culture like at your company? How big of a priority is maintaining it as the company grows?

Fervo's culture revolves around four core values: build things that last; innovate through collaboration; do what we say we're going to do; stop and smell the roses. Taken together, these values create a highly creative, collaborative, and optimistic culture in which employees are encouraged to be open-minded, honest, and supportive. Maintaining this culture as Fervo's scales is one of the executive team's highest priorities.

How would you describe your leadership style in three words?

Visionary, determined, and collaborative.

How has your company given back to the community in the past year or so?

Fervo has joined the Real Energy Alliance of Houston and the Greater Houston Partnership to contribute to the broader Houston business and environmental community. Fervo also sponsored a class at Rice University to provide undergrads with clean energy mentorship and experiential learning opportunities. Fervo also recruited summer interns from the University of Houston Bauer College of Business.

Rhythm Energy, 100 percent renewable electricity service for residential customers in Texas.

P.J. Popovic, CEO of Houston-based Rhythm Energy. Photo courtesy of Rhythm

What's the company culture like at your company? How big of a priority is maintaining it as the company grows?

At Rhythm Energy, our company culture is defined by several key aspects: Passionate: Our team is genuinely passionate about renewable energy and our mission to make a positive impact on the planet. Collaborative: Collaboration is at the heart of our culture. We encourage cross-functional teamwork and open communication. Encouraging: We foster an environment that encourages innovation and supports employees in pursuing their ideas and initiatives. Flexibility: Our employees appreciate the flexibility we offer, allowing them to balance work and life effectively. Impact: Everyone at Rhythm Energy understands the meaningful impact our work has on the environment and society. Maintaining this culture is a top priority for us as we grow. We take proactive steps, such as quarterly surveys and team discussions, to gather feedback and implement positive changes. Our commitment to preserving this culture remains unwavering.

How would you describe your leadership style in three words?

Visionary, resilient, and approachable.

How has your company given back to the community in the past year or so?

Rhythm gives back to the community in a variety of ways. First, we have a very sustainable approach to our work environment, which promotes a remote first work culture, recycles, composts, and uses sustainable office supplies. Second, we actively participate in community service projects, whether volunteering at the Houston Food Bank, doing park clean up at Buffalo Bayou Park or planting trees at Memorial Park. Last, but not least, we partner with many local organizations, such as elementary school PTOs, youth sports clubs and performing arts education programs like Theatre Under the Stars, and really focus on giving back and educating the youth in the community, as they are the future and most impacted by our sustainable decisions today.

The Postage, a comprehensive life planning and succession software platform for families and small businesses.

Emily Cisek, CEO and co-founder of The Postage. Photo courtesy of The Postage

What's the company culture like at your company? How big of a priority is maintaining it as the company grows?

At The Postage, our company culture is all about understanding, supporting, and empowering each other. We're like a team of sailors, believing that when we lift one boat, we lift all. We value empathy, making sure we put ourselves in our customers' shoes, understanding their needs, and building solutions that truly matter. Everyone is encouraged to go that extra mile, take initiative, and embrace challenges as opportunities to learn and grow. We believe in transparency, keeping communication open, honest, and straightforward. As we grow, keeping this culture alive and thriving is a big deal for us. It's what makes us who we are, and we'll keep nurturing it because it's key to our success and how we want to make a positive mark in the world.

How would you describe your leadership style in three words?

Empathetic, transparent, and empowering.

How has your company given back to the community in the past year or so?

At The Postage, we're all about giving back and spreading kindness in the community. For the past three years, we've been honored to partner with the Smilin Rylen Foundation, a cause that truly hits home for us. Rylen's spirit is a big inspiration for us. He's a driving force behind our dedication to making a positive impact every day. So, to celebrate his life we encourage acts of kindness within our team and community. Small gestures, like helping out or sharing a kind word, mean a lot to us and embody the positivity Rylen always shared. Our commitment doesn't stop there. We proudly support the Smilin Rylen Foundation, not only financially but by getting involved in their events. We believe in spreading kindness and compassion, just as they do. At The Postage, we're all about making a positive mark, and Houston is our hub to make that happen. We're committed to uplifting our diverse and vibrant community, embracing the opportunity to lead the way. Even though we're a young company, our goal of creating a positive impact on people's lives remains strong, and we're thrilled about the future and the potential to keep making a meaningful difference, right here in Houston and beyond.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Remington Tonar of Cart.com, Joey Sanchez of The Ion, and P.J. Popovic of Rhythm. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

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

Remington Tonar, chief commercial officer of Cart.com

With $150M in VC raise, this Houston company is re-envisioning the future of e-commerce operationsRemington Tonar of Cart.com joins the Houston Innovators Podcast this week. Photo via Cart.com

In a world where Amazon dominated the e-commerce world, Cart.com is offering merchants but an alternative and a supplemental tool.

As Remington Tonar, chief commercial officer of Cart.com, explains on the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Cart.com connects the dots for e-commerce companies, and, in fact, works alongside Amazon, too. While Cart.com clients can use the suite of software services to create their own shop, ship out of Cart.com's distribution centers, etc., they can also list their products on Amazon too.

"I like to view Amazon as co-op-etition. We can coexist with Amazon," Tonar says on the show. "We're not antithetical to Amazon. We're not mutually exclusive. We can work with folks who are selling on Amazon to build their direct-to-consumer business, and we are doing that today." Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Joey Sanchez, senior director of ecosystems at The Ion

Joey Sanchez is now the senior director of ecosystems at The Ion. Photo via HX.com

Joey Sanchez, who's worked in corporate partnerships for Houston Exponential for a few years, has hopped over and into a new role at The Ion.

In his new role, he will work with the Houston early-stage investing and startup community, including founders, early-stage startups, scaled startups, early-stage angel investors, venture capital investors, and corporate partners, to grow the Ion's presence in Houston.

"Houston and Texas are seeing unprecedented growth in tech and innovation. I am excited for the opportunity to continue building and supporting the Houston innovation ecosystem," says Sanchez the release. "An ecosystem needs harmony among all aspects involved, and I have always enjoyed connecting people. The overarching goal remains to build a vibrant ecosystem that supports a high frequency of connections between critical stakeholders to realize outsized success." Click here to read more.

​P.J. Popovic, CEO of Houston-based Rhythm

P.J. Popovic, CEO of Houston-based Rhythm, explains Renewable Energy Certificates work and their impact on Texas. Photo courtesy of Rhythm

What are RECs and what difference do they make? P.J. Popovic, CEO of Houston-based Rhythm, shares his expertise on Renewable Energy Certificates in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"Through PPAs, various risks, credit needs, and long-term commitments create challenges for many organizations to meet their sustainability goals. So, while RECs do not provide as material of a market signal as PPAs, with the recent changes in market prices, RECs can now be considered a meaningful, profitable market signal for renewable projects." Click here to read the article.

P.J. Popovic, CEO of Houston-based Rhythm, explains Renewable Energy Certificates work and their impact on Texas. Photo courtesy of Rhythm

Houston expert: Why higher REC prices are good for the future of renewables

guest column

We all know what renewable energy is — wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, hydropower — but how do you purchase it? It's invisible. Not to mention when energy from any source enters the electricity grid, there's no way to track all those electrons.

Renewable Energy Certificates have made it possible

Renewable Energy Certificates, or RECs, allow us to track your clean energy. Each individual REC represents one megawatt-hour of clean energy generated. And while a REC isn't technically electricity, it represents the clean energy going into the electricity grid—meaning homes and businesses claim their commitment to renewable energy if their electricity is supported by RECs.

It's also important to understand what a renewable energy certificate is not: an offset. An offset represents a metric ton of emissions avoided and a REC represents 1 MWh of clean energy generated. While each have similar goals, they are not quite the same thing.

Not all RECs are created equally

The market for RECs is fluid. Due to the growth of the renewable energy market, RECs have been oversupplied for years. This has created low prices and little-to-no financial advantage for the facilities that generate clean electricity (e.g., wind facilities, solar farms, hydro plants).

In Texas, the retail electricity market is inundated with renewable electricity claims said to be supported by RECs. The energy plan you sign up for might come from solar, wind, biomass, or even trash incineration, but the renewable energy facilities likely are coming from outside Texas, located in places like California, Canada, or elsewhere. While there's no wrong way to switch to renewable energy, supporting renewable energy sources inside Texas helps Texans move closer to being a more sustainable state.

Choosing Texas renewable energy plans and your actions do have a true, real-world impact more than ever before

Some critics have argued that REC-supported renewable energy plans don't meet the highest standard of sustainability arguing RECs are not foundational to the existence of renewable energy assets. In other words, they argue that RECs don't provide a material revenue source for renewable projects because they don't incentivize new developments of renewable facilities to be built.

When RECs were trading for less than a dollar, this was a valid argument. But that was then, and this is now.

In the last year alone, voluntary renewable energy certificate prices have skyrocketed and are now between $7 and $10 per MWh. This means RECs can now contribute up to 30 percent of a renewable facility's revenue. Naturally, this encourages more and more clean-energy facilities and clean-energy jobs to be created. A win-win.

What about Power Purchase Agreements?

A Power Purchase Agreement, or PPA, is a tad different than a REC. In a PPA, the developer of a renewable project (solar arrays at a solar farm, or turbines at a wind farm) can sell the actual energy it produces over a 10-to-20-year contract.

While the sale of this renewable energy still contributes to a larger portion of project revenues, the revenue mix has clearly shifted, and RECs cannot be considered an immaterial incentive anymore. Sure, PPAs are a stronger market signal for renewable project development, but only a couple of hundred organizations globally utilize PPAs. This makes them very challenging for businesses to access.

Through PPAs, various risks, credit needs, and long-term commitments create challenges for many organizations to meet their sustainability goals. So, while RECs do not provide as material of a market signal as PPAs, with the recent changes in market prices, RECs can now be considered a meaningful, profitable market signal for renewable projects.

Making the future of renewable energy in Texas even brighter.

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P.J. Popovic is the CEO of Houston-based Rhythm.

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.