3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Steffie Tomson of Getaway Sticks ad Ed Pettitt and Paresh Patel of InnoGrid. Courtesy photos

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

Steffie Tomson, founder of Getaway Sticks

Steffie Tomson founded a company to prioritize comfort — without sacrificing style — for women on the go. Photo via getawaysticks.com

Houstonian Steffie Tomson, a neuroscientist by trade and the founder and CEO of footwear startup Getaway Sticks, had an idea for a different kind of shoe — one that was redesigned to prioritize women’s comfort.

“I thought, ‘why can’t we start with a sneaker material and then build a heel around it?’” she tells InnovationMap. “I started just slicing everyone else’s shoes and now I’m more convinced than ever that our shoe is different.”

Tomson was inspired to design the inaugural shoe for Getaway Sticks after her own struggle with heels, walking in the bustling Texas Medical Center from building to building for meetings. As a mom of two and a problem solver, she knew there had to be a better mousetrap. Click here to read more.

Ed Pettitt and Paresh Patel join the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss InnoGrid's potential impact on equitable power. Photos courtesy of InnoGrid

With an unstable energy grid, two Houstonians know at least one solution in the evolving energy industry: Microgrids.

Ed Pettitt and Paresh Patel co-founded InnoGrid, a social enterprise working to establish community microgrids in lower income areas — neighborhoods that are most at risk of devastating power outages.

"We want to convert the commercial microgrid model for low and moderate income and undresourced residential communities," Patel explains on the latest episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Click here to read more and stream the episode.


Ed Pettitt and Paresh Patel join the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss InnoGrid's potential impact on equitable power. Photos courtesy of InnoGrid

Houston founders aim to provide equity through energy resiliency

Houston innovators podcast episode 143

As temperatures climb and devastating natural disasters continue to test the power grid, two Houston innovators have a solution: Smart microgrids.

"Microgrids have been around for a very long time," Paresh Patel, co-founder of InnoGrid, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We're primed here in Houston and in Texas to really see microgrids go mainstream. ... People want to see that they have control and are in charge of their own power."

Patel co-founded InnoGrid with Ed Pettitt and a few other collaborators following the 2020 Houston Climathon. The social enterprise is working to establish community microgrids in lower income areas — neighborhoods that are most at risk of devastating power outages.

"We want to convert the commercial microgrid model for low and moderate income and undresourced residential communities," Patel explains.

And there's never been a better time to shine a spotlight on microgrids as a solution to unreliable power systems, Pettitt says.

"We're dealing with massive inflation — costs are going up especially in food and energy," he explains on the show. "Even prior to this time of inflation, electricity prices in the US were expected to increase across the board. Hundreds of thousands of people right now today are being pushed below the poverty line because of increased energy costs. We need to be more creative in how we upgrade our infrastructure."

And the current grid system is well overdue for an upgrade. The microgrid system fits right in with the shared economy we live in today, Patel says, and it allows for more generation of energy that is decentralized, digitalized, decarbonized, and democratized — the four Ds as he says.

"When you consider our current grid system, it is a vestige of the industrial revolution — it's 140 years old. That business model is ripe for innovation," Patel says.

"We need to accelerate deployment of microgrid models," he continues. "I don't think we can afford to update our current grid system — it'll cost $2 trillion."

Most importantly, these microgrids need to be implemented in an equitable way, the founders say, and InnoGrid has its eyes on one Houston area in particular. The Innovation Corridor, which spans from the Texas Medical Center to Downtown Houston, would be the ideal region to deploy the technology.

"If you look at the innovation corridor, it forms the spine of the city. You have so many important municipal buildings, first-responding organizations, and a large amount of affordable housing in the area. There's critical resources here that we want to make sure the lights stay on in power disasters," Pettit says. "One of the things we believe at InnoGrid is that where you live shouldn't determine whether or not you survive a national weather event. We want to make sure we provide energy stability in the communities that need it most."

To make this dream into a reality, InnoGrid needs the right partnerships and support in the area — and the founders have made progress. InnoGrid recently participated in the Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator and has a relationship with Greentown Houston across the street.

Eventually, as Pettit says, InnoGrid wants to help lead Houston to becoming a hub for microgrid innovation.

"We're looking at other cities — like Chicago and Boston — and how they've deployed their microgrids and making sure we're bringing those best practices in Houston," Pettit says. "Eventually we want to be the leader in developing these microgrid best practices as the energy capital of the world."

Patel and Pettitt share more about InnoGrid and microgrid technology on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


One of the winning teams at Climathon has an idea for a microgrid system in Houston's emerging innovation corridor. Photo via houston.org

Houston Climathon winning microgrid solution is more important now than ever

thinking small

More than 6,000 participants in 145 cities around the world gathered virtually for last year's Climathon, a global event put on by Impact Hub Houston to unite innovators and collaborate on climate solutions. When Winter Storm Uri left the Texas energy grid in a state of crisis, one Climathon Houston team's proposal for energy reliability became all the more important.

Last year, the City of Houston unveiled its first Climate Action Plan to address the city's challenges and strive to lead the energy transition. It was the perfect roadmap for Climathon Houston, a hackathon where eleven teams gathered to develop and pitch a concept to align with the city's new plan.

Of the three winning teams, one idea was prescient in its approach to energy. Six energy-focused Texans drew up plans for InnoGrid, a cost-effective strategy to build the first microgrid in Houston. What started as a pitch has become a developed proposal gaining collaborator and city interest in the wake of Uri.

Bryan Gottfried, Edward D. Pettitt II, Andi Littlejohn, Paresh Patel, Ben Jawdat, and Gavin Dillingham created InnoGrid to to help achieve the CAP's energy transition and net-zero emissions goals. With climate events increasing rapidly, the team of innovators saw an opportunity to create a sustainable solution — the first Houston microgrid.

In just an hour and a half of brainstorming, the team sought to create a similar model to Austin's Whisper Valley microgrid — a project that's currently in development. While Whisper Valley is a master plan community, the team wanted to create a microgrid to support a larger picture: the city of Houston.

"I had been following transactive energy models [such as] peer-to-peer electricity trading like Brooklyn Microgrid/LO3 Energy and Power Ledger since their inception. This inspired my vision for a novel microgrid that would demonstrate such technologies in the energy capital of the world that is otherwise primarily focused on oil and gas, and natural resources," explains Patel, founder and CEO of e^2: Equitable Energy.

When Pettitt joined the group, he proposed the growing Houston Innovation Corridor as the home to InnoGrid. The four-mile stretch between the Texas Medical Center and Downtown is already home to green technology, making it an ideal fit.

"You're going into an area that was already being redeveloped and had this innovation kind of mentality already," explains Gottfried, a geoscientist and current MBA student at University of Houston Bauer College of Business.

After winning Climathon Houston, the team continued to meet weekly in hopes of making InnoGrid a reality.

The case for a microgrid

The InnoGrid team started with the goal of making energy reliable and resilient in the face of climate change. While previous storms like Hurricane Ike have left millions of Texans without power, Winter Storm Uri was one of the most destructive tragedies to face Texas. The unexpected February storm left 4.5 million Texans without electricity and resulted in at least 111 deaths.

As InnoGrid's team members struggled with burst pipes and loss of power, the team juggled the task of submitting a grant application to the Department of Energy during a catastrophic winter storm. The timing was not lost on them.

"It underscored the need for us to do something like this," shares Gottfried.

To understand how impactful a Houston microgrid can be, you first must understand how a microgrid works. A microgrid is a local energy grid made of a network of generators combined with energy storage. The microgrid has control capability, meaning it can disconnect from a macro grid and run autonomously.

Ultimately, microgrids can provide reliability and drive down carbon emissions. Using smart meters, the grids can even provide real-time energy data to show the inflow and outflow of electricity. In the instance a microgrid does go down, it only affects the community — not the entire state. Likewise, during a power outage to the main grid, a microgrid can break away and run on its own.

Microgrids have been deployed by other cities to mitigate the physical and economic risks caused by power outages, but the use of a project like InnoGrid feels especially timely given recent events and the limitations of the Texas Interconnect.

The Texas grid is isolated by choice, separated from the eastern and western interconnects. Texas' isolated energy grid resulted in a massive failure, proving deregulation can certainly backfire. Updating the electric grid has an expensive price tag, but microgrids show a promising and cost-effective model for the future.

"I thought if microgrids and mini-grids are enabling millions in off-grid frontier markets at the base of the pyramid [like Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, etc.] to essentially leapfrog legacy energy infrastructure, why should we not upgrade our aging power system with the latest tech that is digitalized, decarbonized, decentralized/distributed, and democratized at the top of the pyramid," asks Patel.

Many hospitals, universities, and large technology firms have already established their own microgrids to protect equipment and provide safety. Still, smaller businesses and homes in the community can suffer during outages.

InnoGrid's proposal seeks to use existing and proven renewable energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal energy. The storage technologies used would include battery, kinetic, compressed air, and geomechanical pumped storage.

"From the perspective of an early-stage hardware startup, one of the most important things is finding a way to validate and test your technology," explains Jawdat, founder and CEO of Revterra and adviser to the InnoGrid team. He explains that the microgrid "can also be a testbed for new technologies, specifically, new energy storage technologies," through potential partnerships with companies like Greentown Labs, which is opening its Houston location soon.

Battling inequity 

While the outlook for a community microgrid is enticing, there are also challenges to address. One key challenge is inequity, which is a key focus of Pettitt who was drawn to the team's goal of providing stability for companies and residences in Houston.

Pettitt, who is seeking a Ph.D. in urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, has a background in public health and frequently works with the Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement. "I'm really looking at the intersection of the built environment and how to make cities healthier for its residents," he shares.

"A lot of companies are trying to prevent this climate crisis where we have climate refugees that can't live in certain areas because of ecological damage. But in the process, we don't want to create economic refugees from the gentrification of bringing all of these companies and higher-wage jobs into an area without providing folks the ability to benefit from those jobs and the positive externalities of that development," explains Pettitt.

The InnoGrid would plan to provide positive externalities in the form of energy subsidies and potentially even job training for people who want to work on the grid.

Power to the consumer

Much like the gamification in feel-good fitness trackers and e-learning tools, reward systems can inspire friendly competition and community engagement. InnoGrid's proposal seeks to challenge other major cities to build their own grids and compete with a gamified system.

The Innovation Corridor is currently undergoing major redevelopment, the first 16 acres of which are being developed by Rice Management Company and will be anchored by The Ion, which is opening soon. The timing of this redevelopment would allow a prospective project like InnoGrid to build in visual and interactive aspects that depict energy usage and carbon offsetting.

The microgrid's statistics would also engage Houstonians by sharing up-to-date data through dashboards, apps, and even billboards to track Houston's carbon footprint. Pettitt paints a picture of interactive sidewalk structures, leaderboards, and digital billboards in the public realm to showcase how energy is used day-to-day. The team hopes to build positive feedback cycles that encourage tenants and building owners to be more energy-efficient.

"If we're having an Innovation Corridor, an innovation district, I think the built environment should be innovative too," explains Pettitt.

The future of InnoGrid

Every innovation has to start somewhere. While InnoGrid is in its early stages, the team is working to establish partners and collaborators to make the project a reality.

Inspired by projects like the Brooklyn Microgrid, InnoGrid is in the process of pursuing partnerships with utilities and energy retailers to form a dynamic energy marketplace that pools local distributed energy resources. The team hopes to collaborate with microgrid experts from around the nation like Schneider Electric and SunPower. Other potential collaborators include The Ion, CenterPoint, Greentown Labs, and Rice Management Company.

Can Houston remain the energy capital of the world as it transitions to a net-zero energy future? The InnoGrid team wants to make that happen. The argument for a microgrid in Houston feels even more fitting when you look at the landscape.

"If we are going to create an innovative microgrid that also functions as a testbed for innovators and startups, [we] have proximity to some of the biggest utilities and power generation players right in that sector," explains Patel, who is also an inaugural member of Greentown Labs Houston.

"The microgrid itself is not novel. I think what makes it compelling is to situate that right here in the heart of the energy capital as we, again, reincarnate as the energy transition capital world," Patel continues.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Deadline extended: InnovationMap, HX open nominations for new combined awards gala

calling all innovators

Update: The deadline for nominations have been extended to midnight on Sunday, October 2.

InnovationMap is back to honor local startups and innovators — and this time, we've upped the ante.

Houston Exponential and InnovationMap have teamed up to combine their annual awards and event efforts to premiere a brand new program. The Houston Innovation Awards Gala on Wednesday, November 9, at The Ion will be a comprehensive event honoring Houston founders, innovators, investors, and more. InnovationMap and HX, which was acquired earlier this year, are in the same network of ownership.

Nominations are open online until midnight October 2, and nominees will have until October 11 to complete an additional application that will be emailed to nominees directly. A group of industry experts and Houston innovation leaders will review those submissions and determine finalists and winners across 11 categories. The categories for this year's awards are:

  • BIPOC-Owned Business honoring an innovative company founded or co-founded by BIPOC representation
  • Female-Owned Business honoring an innovative company founded or co-founded by a woman
  • Hardtech Business honoring an innovative company developing and commercializing a physical technology across life science, energy, space, and beyond
  • B2B Software Business honoring an innovative company developing and programming a digital solution to impact the business sector
  • Green Impact Business honoring an innovative company providing a solution within renewables, climatetech, clean energy, alternative materials, and beyond
  • Smart City Business honoring an innovative company providing a tech solution within transportation, infrastructure, data, and beyond
  • New to Hou honoring an innovative company, accelerator, or investor that has relocated its primary operations to Houston within the past three years
  • DEI Champion honoring an individual who is leading impactful diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and progress within Houston and their organization
  • Investor of the Year honoring an individual who is leading venture capital or angel investing
  • Mentor of the Year honoring an individual who dedicates their time and expertise to guide and support to budding entrepreneurs
  • People's Choice: Startup of the Year selected via an interactive voting portal during of the event
Nominees can be submitted to multiple categories.

Additionally, the awards gala will honor an innovator who's made a lasting impact on the Houston innovation community. While you may nominate an individual for the Trailblazer Award via the online form, the judging committee will not require applications or nominations for this category and will be considering potential honorees from the ecosystem at large. If you are interested in sponsorship opportunities, please reach out to cbuckner@houstonexponential.org.

Last year, InnovationMap introduced its awards program and named 28 finalists and honored the nine winners on September 8. Click here to see more from last year's event.

Tickets for the November 9 event are available online. Early bird tickets will be $60 per person and startup founders will be able to attend for $25.

Click here to submit a nomination or see form below.


Major corporation opens hub for global decarbonization in Houston

seeing green

Management consulting giant McKinsey & Co. plans to spend $100 million over the next decade to pump up Houston’s decarbonization economy.

McKinsey says the initiative will, among other things, focus on:

  • Promoting innovations like carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) and green hydrogen
  • Revamping business models for carbon-heavy companies
  • Ramping up the community of local startups involved in energy transition
  • Developing talent to work on decarbonization

As part of this program, McKinsey has set up a decarbonization hub in its Houston office, at 609 Main St.

“Decarbonization will lead to a new chapter of economic development, while also addressing a critical problem of climate change,” McKinsey partner Nikhil Ati says.

Global decarbonization efforts over the next three decades will require a $100 trillion investment, according to Utility Dive. Houston, home to 40 percent of publicly traded oil and gas companies, stands to gain a substantial share of that opportunity.

McKinsey’s Houston office has worked for several years on Houston’s energy transition initiatives. For instance, the firm helped produce a study and a whitepaper on energy transition here. The whitepaper outlines Houston’s future as the “epicenter of a global clean hydrogen hub.”

“Texas is the nation’s largest renewable energy producer, home to half of the nation’s hydrogen pipelines, and its companies have unparalleled capabilities in building and operating complex projects,” McKinsey senior partner Filipe Barbosa says. “This is Houston’s moment in time on the global stage.”

McKinsey estimates a Houston-based global hub for clean hydrogen that’s in place by 2050 could generate 180,000 jobs and create an economic impact of $100 billion.

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 photonics to robotics — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship

Brad Burke joins this week's Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via alliance.rice.edu

Collaboration has made a world of a difference for growing Houston's innovation ecosystem, according to Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship.

"I think Houston has this culture of collaboration that I suspect that some other major cities don't have in the same way," Burke says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "And while we're a big city, the entrepreneurial ecosystem feels like a small network of a lot of people who work really well together."

Burke has played a major role in the collaboration of Houston for the past 20 years leading the Rice Alliance, which coordinates many event programs and accelerators — including the Rice Business Plan Competition, energy and life science forums, the Clean Energy Accelerator, Owl Spark, Blue Launch, and more. Click here to read more.

Trevor Best, CEO and co-founder of Syzygy Plasmonics

A new partnership for Houston-based Syzygy will generate 1.2 million tons of clean hydrogen each year in South Korea by 2030. Image via Syzygy

Houston-area energy tech startup Syzygy Plasmonics is part of a new partnership that will develop a fully electric chemical reactor for production of clean hydrogen in South Korea.

The reactor will be installed in the second half of 2023 at Lotte Fine Chemical’s facilities in Ulsan, South Korea. Lotte Fine Chemical, Lotte Chemical, and Sumitomo Corporation of Americas are Syzygy’s partners in this venture.

“Simply improving existing tech isn’t enough to reach the world’s decarbonization goals. Stopping climate change will require industries to reimagine what is possible,” Syzygy co-founder and CEO Trevor Best says in a news release. “Our technology expands the accepted paradigms of chemical engineering. We have demonstrated the ability to replace heat from combustion with renewable electricity in the manufacture of foundational chemicals like hydrogen.” Click here to read more.

Nicolaus Radford, CEO and founder of Nauticus Robotics

Houston-based Nauticus Robotics has hit the public market. Image via LinkedIn

Fresh off its September 13 debut as a publicly traded company, Webster-based Nauticus Robotics Inc. is aiming for $90 million in revenue next year as it dives deeper into the ocean economy.

The stock of Nauticus now trades on the NASDAQ market under the ticker symbol KITT. Nauticus went public following its SPAC (special purpose acquisition company) merger with New York City-based CleanTech Acquisition Corp., a “blank check” company that went public in July 2021 through a $150 million IPO. The SPAC deal was valued at $560 million when it was announced in December.

Nauticus continues to be led by CEO Nicolaus Radford and the current executive team.

“The closing of this business combination represents a pivotal milestone in our company’s history as we take public our pursuit of transforming the ocean robotics industry with autonomous systems,” says Radford, who founded what was known as Houston Mechatronics in 2014. “Not only is the ocean a tremendous economic engine, but it is also the epicenter for building a sustainable future.” Click here to read more.