This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Don Frieden of P97, Haleh Ardebili of the University of Houston, and Babur Ozden of Aquanta Vision. Photos courtesy

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


Don Frieden, president and CEO of P97

Don Frieden, president and CEO of P97, shares how he plans to streamline day-to-day transactions on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of P97

Before Don Frieden started his company, gas stations hadn't innovated their payment technology since 1997. He knew that needed to change.

P97, founded in 2012, exists to use innovative technologies to simplify and energize daily journeys, Frieden explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"We think about daily journeys from the time we leave home in the morning and when we get back at the end of the day — whether it's tolling, parking, buying fuel, fast food restaurants, it's all a part of your daily journeys, and our goal is to make things a little bit simpler each day," Frieden says on the show. Read more.

Haleh Ardebili, professor of Mechanical Engineering at University of Houston

Haleh Ardebili is the the Bill D. Cook Professor of Mechanical Engineering at UH. Photo courtesy

A new prototype out of the University of Houston feels more like science fiction than reality.

"As a big science fiction fan, I could envision a ‘science-fiction-esque future’ where our clothes are smart, interactive and powered,” according to a statement Haleh Ardebili, who last month published a paper on a new stretchable fabric-based lithium-ion battery in the Extreme Mechanics Letters.

“It seemed a natural next step to create and integrate stretchable batteries with stretchable devices and clothing," she said. "Imagine folding or bending or stretching your laptop or phone in your pocket. Or using interactive sensors embedded in our clothes that monitor our health.”

The battery uses conductive silver fabric as a platform and current collector, which stretches (or mechanically deforms) while allowing movement for electrons and ions. Traditional lithium batteries are quite rigid and use a liquid electrolyte, which are flammable and have potential risks of exploding. Read more.

Babur Ozden, founder of Aquanta Vision

Babur Ozden is the founder of Aquanta Vision. Photo via LinkedIn

Aquanta Vision Technologies, a Houston-based climate-tech startup, was selected to participate in the scale-up phase of Chevron Studio, a Houston program that matches entrepreneurs with technologies to turn them into businesses. Aquanta's computer vision software completely automates the identification of methane in optical gas imaging, or OGI. The technology originated from Colorado State University and CSU STRATA Technology Transfer.

Babur Ozden, a tech startup entrepreneur, along with Marcus Martinez, the lead inventor and Dan Zimmerle, co-inventor and director of METEC at CSU Energy Institute, came up with the technology to identify the presence and motion of methane in live video streams. Currently, this process of identifying methane requires a human camera operator to interpret the images. This can often be unreliable in the collection of emissions data.

Aquanta’s technology requires no human intervention and is universally compatible with all OGI cameras. Currently, only about 10 percent of the 20.5 million surveys done worldwide use this type of technology as it is extremely expensive to produce. Ozden said he hopes Aquanta will change that model.

“What we are doing — we are democratizing this feature, this capability, independent of the camera make and model,” Ozden says. Read more.

Don Frieden, president and CEO of P97, shares how he plans to streamline day-to-day transactions on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of P97

Houston fintech startup taps into new tech to modernize 'daily journeys'

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 197

Before Don Frieden started his company, gas stations hadn't innovated their payment technology since 1997. He knew that needed to change.

P97, founded in 2012, exists to use innovative technologies to simplify and energize daily journeys, Frieden explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"We think about daily journeys from the time we leave home in the morning and when we get back at the end of the day — whether it's tolling, parking, buying fuel, fast food restaurants, it's all a part of your daily journeys, and our goal is to make things a little bit simpler each day," Frieden says on the show.

The fast-growing company — which has nearly 200 employees, most of whom work from Houston — has raised over $100 million in venture funding, according to Crunchbase, most recently closing a $40 million series C round earlier this year. This funding has supported P97 as its expanded its technology, even expanding outside of gas station payments and into other sectors, like consumer packaged goods, mobile app development, and alternative fuel sources.

Part of what P97 is focused on too is adapting new technologies, including biometrics, and applying them to the payments world. Voice-enabled payments is something in particular that Frieden is working on.

"One of the things we’re most excited about is voice enable payments through our partnership with Amazon's Alexa," he explains. "The landscape of payments at gas stations underwent this next revolution, and we're using cutting-edge speech recognition and artificial intelligence to allow drivers to pay for fuel just using their voice.

"It makes the process faster and more efficient, and is completely hands-free," he continues, explaining that biometrics are also safer compared to card transactions. "From this time I say, 'Alexa, buy gas,' six seconds later, the gas would be turned on and any loyalty rewards I have would be applied, all from the comfort of my car."

Frieden shares more about the future of P97, payments, and the energy industry as it intersects with P97 — including the future of alternative fuels — on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


P97 Networks, a Houston-based mobile payments company, has fresh funds to scale its operations. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based mobile commerce startup secures $40M to scale its SaaS business

money moves

A Houston company that has created a mobile commerce platform for the convenience retail, fuels marketing, and automotive industries has fresh funding to support its growth.

P97 Networks has raised $40 million of venture debt financing from an affiliate of Peak Rock Capital, a leading middle-market private investment firm, according to a news release from the company.

“We will use this new capital to fund P97’s high growth initiatives, which include accelerating user adoption across our Consumer Engagement platform, Energy Transition programs for our clients, and our Mobility Services platform,” said Donald Frieden, president and CEO of P97, in the release.

Frieden says that over the past 18 months, the company has doubled the number of sites on its platform, which includes five largest energy brands in the world, and over 60,000 convenience retail sites in North America.

“With this new capital, we will continue to grow our install base and strategic partnerships," Frieden continues. "We look forward to working with Peak Rock to bring our company to its next stage of growth and further establish our position as the leading provider of mobile commerce technology in the convenience & fuel retailing industry.”

P97's last raise was a series B round in 2019 that saw contribution from Accenture. The startup's series A closed in 2014 and was led by Emerald Technology Ventures.

The company's platform operates as a payments platform as well as a digital marketing solution that prioritizes payment security and customer customization.

“P97 has become the industry standard in the convenience retail and fuel marketing industry, and we are very pleased to help the company reach its next level of scale and growth,” says Nick Basso, managing director at Peak Rock Capital. “We are excited by the compelling opportunities ahead for P97 as the market for mobile payment solutions continues to expand and gain broad adoption by consumers.”

Last year, P97 announced a partnership with Chevron that meant implementing the digital platform into more than 7,800 Chevron and Texaco retail stations across the country.

“Chevron is dedicated to providing products and services for people on the go and continuing to address their needs in the retail of the future,” says Harry Hazen, Chevron senior manager of Americas Marketing, in a 2021 press release. “Our collaboration with P97 strengthens that commitment – delivering a premium consumer experience at Chevron and Texaco locations by enabling our offerings with consistency, speed, consumer value, and security.”

Houston-based P97 has a mobile payment technology in over 20,000 retail fuel locations. Getty Images

Accenture invests in and partners with Houston-based company

Joining forces

Accenture — through its investment arm, Accenture Ventures — has entered into an alliance with a Houston-based company following an investment.

P97 Networks Inc., a leading cloud-based, mobile commerce company that provides in-vehicle payments and digital marketing solutions for fuel retail and vehicle-manufacturing industries, received an undisclosed amount from Accenture Ventures.

"Accenture's end-to-end digital services make the company an ideal partner for P97," says Donald Frieden, founder and CEO of P97, in a release. "We have a long history of firsts in our markets and look forward to many more working with Accenture — including connected car services, voice-enabled payments, fuel retail innovations and blockchain technology — as we pursue our goal of serving more than half of the U.S. fuel market by 2020."

The alliance establishes Accenture as "a preferred implementation partner," according to the release. Accenture will be able to use P97's PetroZone® platform — that allows users to make digital payments at the pumps, for instance —for solutions for its clients.

"We are tremendously excited about advancing our relationship with P97," says Andrew Smart, a senior managing director at Accenture who leads its energy industry group, in the release. "Working together, we will help our clients take advantage of more connected customer experiences."

P97 was founded in 2012 in Houston. Its patented technology uses Microsoft Azure Cloud Services and has been utilized at over 20,000 retail fuels locations in the United States.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

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.