This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Phillip Yates of Equiliberty, Chris Quintanilla, of Mexcor International, and David Hudson of Circulus. 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 diversity and inclusion tech to sustainable plastics — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Phillip Yates, founder of Equiliberty

Phillip Yates joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss two initiatives he's launching to support diverse founders in Houston. Photo courtesy of Equiliberty

Houston is currently celebrating its first Black Entrepreneurship Week, thanks to local entrepreneur and lawyer, Phillip Yates, who founded Equiliberty — a tech company focused on connecting and supporting entrepreneurs of color.

BEW has put on several opportunities — from the Black Market, which will allow people to shop local Black merchants, to a special Giving Tuesday event to support Black-focused nonprofits in Houston. Specifically, Yates wants to target a multi-generational crowd — that's what's goring to drive lasting changes.

"When you have a wealth initiative, you can't just talk to the parents or the youth — you're still going to have a missing link there," Yates says on last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, explaining the week's wealth challenge that will reinforce this idea. Click here to read more.

Chris Quintanilla, chief sales officer at Mexcor International

This Houston company created its own in-house tech infrastructure — led by Chris Quintanilla — to stay competitive within the alcohol distribution industry. Photo courtesy of Mexcor International

When Chris Quintanilla wasn't happy with his company's software, he built it himself. Mexcor International is a Houston-based importer and distributor of wine, spirits, and other types of alcohol. On his own, Quintanilla has developed 46 dashboards that supply details about things such as wine and beer inventory, contacts for account managers, product catalogs, and key performance indicators (KPIs) for the sales team.

Quintanilla says in-house creation of this system aligns with Mexcor International's culture of "wearing multiple hats" to move the business forward, demanding in-house innovation on the tech front.

"If you want to see something happen, you have to grab the bull by the horns and do it yourself," he says. "We are a medium-sized company. We just hired a true IT person in the last two or three years. We don't have million-dollar budgets for big IT departments. We kind of figure it out as we go." Click here to read more.

David Hudson, founder and CEO of Circulus

Houston-based Circulus, which just received a $100 million credit facility, focuses on innovative plastics recycling. Photo via circulus.com

Circulus Holdings secured a $100 million credit facility from Riverstone Credit Partners, which has an office in Houston. This "green" loan is aimed at supporting environmental sustainability.

David Hudson, founder and CEO of Circulus, says in a news release that the credit facility "enables Circulus to rapidly develop a broad network of facilities and further the company's commitment to sustainable manufacturing. We look forward to supporting green-based jobs and preserving our environment for future generations."

Circulus, a portfolio company of Houston-based private equity firm Ara Partners, recently opened its first plastics recycling facility. The 110,000-square-foot plant is in Riverbank, California, near Modesto. It employs 45 people. So far, other Circulus plants, each of which will be larger than the California facility, are planned for Alabama, Oklahoma, the Midwest, and the Northeast. Click here to read more.

Phillip Yates joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss two initiatives he's launching to support diverse founders in Houston. Photo courtesy of Equiliberty

Houston entrepreneur launches diversity-focused fund, programming to address inequality in tech

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 111

Phillip Yates is juggling a lot. The Houston lawyer started Equiliberty, a technology company that's part financial resource and part social network, to help diverse communities create lasting wealth. Now, he's also launching Diversity Fund Houston — a $3 million initiative to support diverse tech founders — ahead of the inaugural Black Entrepreneurship Week, which Yates is hosting in Houston starting Saturday, November 27.

While it is a handful, all three initiatives align with Yates's goal to move the needle on improving equity when it comes to access to capital, finding a community, and creating institutional change. Just like most Black professional, he's faced his share of challenges — but he's persevered thanks to his mentors, family, and supportive network.

"Everytime I failed, there was somebody there that made sure I stayed on track," Yates shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Now Yates, across his efforts, wants to help create this same type of support for others. Equaliberty connects users to a hyper-local network and mentor, as well as relationships to financial institutions and key resources.

"We're doing two things — we're creating a new asset class for banks and financial institutions, but then also we're building a group of wealth creators in the community who will take ownership in the geographical region they live in, which isn't happening," Yates says. "We throw the word 'gentrification' around, but we never attack it at the root problem, and a lot of times it's ownership."

Ultimately, Yates says he wants to help to move the needle on eliminating poverty in the United States — it's not going to happen overnight or with him alone. One huge step toward this goal is raising awareness of the issues, and that's what he hopes to do with Black Entrepreneurship Week.

BEW will feature several opportunities — from the Black Market, which will allow people to shop local Black merchants, to a special Giving Tuesday event to support Black-focused nonprofits in Houston. Specifically, Yates wants to target a multi-generational crowd — that's what's goring to drive lasting changes.

"When you have a wealth initiative, you can't just talk to the parents or the youth — you're still going to have a missing link there," Yates says on the show, explaining the week's wealth challenge that will reinforce this idea.

Access to wealth is a key focus for Yates, who announced the launch of Diversity Fund Houston this week co-founded by emerging fund managers Tiffany Williams, Kiley Summers, and Yates and in partnership with Bank of America, Houston Area Urban League, Hello Alice, Impact Hub Houston, Equiliberty, DivInc., and Prairie View A&M University.

The fund will target early-stage companies founded by diverse entrepreneurs — tapping into an underserved community, not just because it's the right thing to do but because there are real opportunities. And now is the time to make these changes, Yates says.

"The Black American community is at a point where millennials are coming into their own," Yates says explaining how he's at the opportune point in his life. "I'm stable enough and still young enough where I can make these contributions — and the same thing with my co-founders. ... Time is of the essence for our community."

Yates shares more on what to expect at BEW and with the new fund on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Ryan Sitton of Pinnacle, Julia P. Clarke of Raba Kistner Inc., and Phillip Yates of Equiliberty. 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 data analysis to fintech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Ryan Sitton, CEO of Pinnacle

Ryan Sitton joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his career in data and reliability. Photo courtesy of Ryan Sitton

Data analysis for big industry came first — before the technology that can support this analysis even entered the scene. Ryan Sitton, CEO and founder of Pinnacle, a Houston company that offers its clients streamline data management, joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his passion is using data to drive better decision making to drive more sustainable and reliable operations.

"I was basically doing data analytics in the mid 2000s before it was sexy. I was pulling together data in chemical plants and refineries and trying to predict how these plants would behave with the data I had," Sitton says. "I realized early on how there was so much opportunity here — but we don't have the technologies or the methodology to do it."

But over the years, the technology has caught up and now Sitton is able to provide clients with even more data-driven solutions. Click here to read more.

Julia P. Clarke, senior geotechnical manager in Houston at Raba Kistner Inc.

Julia P. Clarke knows what it's like to be the only woman in a room. Photo courtesy of Raba Kistner

Women in STEM are in Houston, writes Julia P. Clarke, an engineer at a local firm in town, but there's work to be done to making them stay. Supporting women across the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields begins in the classroom, she writes in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"I grew up in Jamaica and then immigrated to the United States. It wasn't until I was recognized by my high school teacher, Mrs. Owens, for my natural ability to excel in subjects like science and math that I fell in love with the basis of engineering," she explains. "Without the mentorship and investment of teachers and professionals throughout my career, I would not be where I am today." Click here to read more.

Phillip Yates, founder of Equiliberty

This founder is bridging the wealth gap for Black Houstonians. Photo courtesy of Equiliberty

Phillip Yates, a Houston-area attorney, envisioned a company that could solve the societal problems that perpetuate poverty. He started Equiliberty, a technology company that's part financial resource and part social network, to help provide underrepresented individuals with educational resources to secure financial success and a space to use their talents to create community-driven wealth.

The platform provides business development services, educational resources, access to capital, and mentorship to help users find financial independence.

"When I created Equiliberty, I envisioned a world where everybody has access to mentors," said Yates in a press release. "I know firsthand the importance of having a supportive network and community dedicated to your success." Click here to read more.

Equiliberty is an app with a mission to create generational and community-driven wealth. Photo via Getty Images

New Houston fintech platform aims to close the wealth gap in Texas

Communities creating wealth

Systemic and institutional racism have been constants in the history of the United States. Despite protests in response to police violence against Black Americans and last summer's skyrocket sales of anti-racism books, awareness of racial history and inequalities are still lacking — especially when it comes to wealth.

Houstonian Phillip Yates is all too familiar with the uneven economic playing field historical injustices and racial inequality has sowed.

Prior to the end of slavery, the Homestead Act of 1862 gave U.S. citizens a huge commodity — land. Nearly 70 years later, banks and mortgage lenders further segregated neighborhoods by refusing loans to creditworthy Black Americans due to their race and neighborhood. And after centuries of economic disparity, the Society for Human Resource Management reports that Black men and women still make less than their white male colleagues.

Yates, a Houston-area attorney, envisioned a company that could solve the societal problems that perpetuate poverty. He started Equiliberty, a technology company that's part financial resource and part social network, to help provide underrepresented individuals with educational resources to secure financial success and a space to use their talents to create community-driven wealth.

The platform provides business development services, educational resources, access to capital, and mentorship to help users find financial independence.

Yates' time as a program coordinator with the Houston Area Urban League Entrepreneurship Center also helped inspire his vision. During his time at the center, he co-created the organization's Small Business Development University.

According to the company's website, Equiliberty's vision is to show "communities of creators and makers how to use their existing resources and talents to grow into thriving businesses, create jobs, develop strong local economies and contribute to global prosperity."

"When I created Equiliberty, I envisioned a world where everybody has access to mentors," said Yates in a press release. "I know firsthand the importance of having a supportive network and community dedicated to your success."

Users can have the opportunity to build connections and find mentors using Equiliberty's in-platform messaging and video chat options, and networking opportunities.

Historic marginalization isn't the only obstacle in the way of wealth equality. Awareness is just as crucial.

A 2019 study found that Americans severely underestimated racial economic equality and thought the 2016 Black-white wealth gap was 80 percent smaller than it was. Recently, the Brookings Institution found that the average white family in America had a net worth of $171,000 — almost 10 times as much as the average Black family's net worth of $17,150 in 2016.

In addition to its launch, the fintech startup kicked off a concurrent campaign, BlkTheGap. The initiative is a call-to-action for community leaders, business owners, government officials, financial institutions and others to close the historic wealth gap in capital markets and support Black communities.

In a press release shared with InnovationMap, Yates states that he's "witnessed far too many people make the sacrifice for a better life only to see their dreams deferred, or in some cases, die at the graveyard, due to lack of access to capital and other resources needed to own financial assets and grow wealth in our economy."

"Where [investment apps] Robinhood, Stash and Acorn have it made it easier for the everyday person to begin investing in stocks, Equiliberty will make it possible for communities to invest in themselves," he said.

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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.