Hertha Metals, based in Conroe, won first place at the 2024 Summer Energy Program for Innovation Clusters (EPIC) Startup Pitch Competition. Photo via Getty Images

Four startups from across the country won over $160,000 in cash prizes from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Technology Transitions earlier this month, and a Houston-area company claimed the top prize.

Hertha Metals, based in Conroe, won first place at the 2024 Summer Energy Program for Innovation Clusters (EPIC) Startup Pitch Competition. The program honors and supports clean energy innovators nominated by clean technology business incubators.

“The EPIC Pitch Competition is a unique opportunity for start ups to highlight their technology, get on the main stage, and receive direct funding,” DOE Chief Commercialization Officer and Director of OTT Vanessa Chan says in a news release. “The startup pitch winners have honed their entrepreneurial skills and demonstrated a critical understanding of their technological impacts, targeted markets, and scalable strategies.”

Focused on environmentally responsible steel, Hertha Metals won the $100,000 prize. The company's steelmaking process reduces emissions by 95 percent, per the news release, while remaining financially accessible. Hertha Metals was nominated by Greentown Labs, which won $25,000 for its nomination.

The program's other 2024 winners included:

Hertha Metals was founded by Laureen Meroueh, a mechanical engineer and materials scientist, in 2022. A Greentown Houston member, the company is also currently in the inaugural cohort of the Breakthrough Energy Innovator Fellows.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Spun out of Baylor College of Medicine, Phiogen was selected out of 670 companies to pitch at SXSW earlier this month. Photo via Getty Images

Houston startup recognized for inclusivity on journey to commercialize next-gen therapeutics

future of medicine

A new Houston biotech company won a special award at the 16th Annual SXSW Pitch Award Ceremony earlier this month.

Phiogen, one of 45 companies that competed in nine categories, was the winner for best inclusivity, much to the surprise of the company’s CEO, Amanda Burkhardt.

Burkhardt tells InnovationMap that while she wanted to represent the heavily female patient population that Phiogen seeks to treat, really she just hires the most skilled scientists.

“The best talent was the folks that we have and it ends up being we have three green card holders on our team. As far as ethnicities, we have on our team we have Indian, African-American, Korean, Chinese Pakistani, Moroccan and Hispanic people and that just kind of just makes up the people who helped us on a day-to-day basis,” she explains.

Phiogen was selected out of 670 companies to be in the health and nutrition category at SXSW.

“We did really well, but there was another company that also did really well. And so we were not selected for the pitch competition, which we were a little bummed about because I killed the pitch,” Burkhardt recalls.

But Phiogen is worthy of note, pitch competition or not. The new company spun off from research at Dr. Anthony Maresso’s TAILOR Labs, a personalized phage therapy center at Baylor College of Medicine, last June.

“Our whole goal is to create the next generation of anti-infectives,” says Burkhardt.

That means that the company is making alternatives to antibiotics, but as Burkhardt says, “We’re hoping to be better than antibiotics.”

How does it work? Bacteriophages are viruses that infect bacteria.

“You can imagine them as the predators in the bacteria world, but they don't infect humans. They don't affect animals. They only infect bacteria,” Burkhardt explains.

Phiogen utilizes carefully honed bacteriophages to attack bacteria that include the baddies behind urinary tract infection (UTI), bacteremia (bacteria in the blood), and skin wounds.

The team’s primary focus is on treatment-resistant UTI. One example was a male patient who received Phiogen’s treatment thanks to an emergency-use authorization from the FDA. The gentleman had been suffering from an infection for 20 years. He was treated with Phiogen’s bacteriophage therapy for two weeks and completely cleared his infection with no recurrence.

Amanda Burkhardt is the CEO of Phiogen. Photo via LinkedIn

But Phiogen has its sights set well beyond the first maladies it’s treated. An oft-quoted 2016 report projected that by 2050, 10 million people a year will be dying from drug-resistant infections.

“A lot of scientists call it the silent pandemic because it's happening now, we're living in it, but there's just not as much being said about it because it normally happens to people who are already in the hospital for something else, or it's a comorbidity, but that's not always the case, especially when we're talking about urinary tract infections,” says Burkhardt.

Bacteriophages are important because they can be quickly trained to fight against resistant strains, whereas it takes years and millions of dollars to develop new antibiotics. There are 13 clinical trials that are currently taking place for bacteriophage therapy. Burkhardt estimates that the treatment method will likely gain FDA approval in the next five years.

“The FDA actually has been super flexible on progressing forward. Because they are naturally occurring, there's not really a safety risk with these products,” she says.

And Burkhardt, whose background is in life-science commercialization, says there’s no better place to build Phiogen than in Houston.

“You have Boston, you have the Bay [Area], and you have the Gulf Coast,” she says. “And Houston is cheaper, the people are friendlier, and it’s not a bad place to be in the winter.”

She also mentions the impressive shadow that Helix Park will cast over the ecosystem. Phiogen will move later this year to the new campus — one of the labs selected to join Baylor College of Medicine.

And as for that prize, chances are, it won’t be Phiogen’s last.

PHIOGEN, based at Texas Medical Center Innovation, is headed to Austin next month. Photo courtesy of TMC

Houston biotech startup selected to pitch at SXSW

austin bound

Houston biotech startup PHIOGEN is among 45 finalists that will present at this year’s SXSW Pitch showcase in Austin.

PHIOGEN is one of five food, nutrition, and health startups that will participate in the pitch competition, set for March 9 and 10. A panel of judges will listen to the pitches and then pick the winners. Since 2009, SXSW Pitch finalists have raised more than $23.2 billion in funding.

PHIOGEN has developed the world’s first biogenetics technology platform to harness the power of bacteriophages in the fight against serious drug-resistant infections. Bacteriophages — viruses that are found in bacterial cells — “are ubiquitous in the environment and are recognized as the most abundant biological agent on earth,” according to an article published in 2022 by StatPearls.

Founded in 2023, PHIOGEN is a spinoff of the Baylor College of Medicine’s TAILOR Labs. The startup, based at the Texas Medical Center’s Innovation Hub, has attracted more than $5 million in funding.

“Nothing about our treatments is fabricated; it boils down to creating natural environments that mimic real-life infections, driving biological changes to create ‘super phages’ against the superbugs,” Amanda Burkardt, CEO of PHIOGEN, said in 2023. “As a result, we receive high-performing phage fighters that are trained and ready to deliver safe and effective treatments for clinical applications.”

Professional services firm KPMG is the main sponsor of SXSW Pitch.

Six of this year’s SXSW Pitch judges are from Houston:

  • Heath Butler of Mercury Fund
  • Jesse Martinez of LSA Global
  • Trevor Purvis of the Houston Astros
  • Anu Puvvada of KPMG
  • Irene Tang of StartOut
  • Nate Thompson of HTX Sports Tech

“2024 is an exciting year for startups, and we are looking forward to showcasing these inspiring companies that are making waves in their respective industries and the world as a whole, as well as help connect them with the resources needed to continue advancing,” says Chris Valentine, producer of SXSW Pitch.

After growing in Chicago and raising funding, Partum Health selected Houston to expand its femtech platform. Photo via Getty Image

Growing femtech company chooses Houston for first out-of-state expansion

moving in

A startup dedicated to comprehensive pregnancy, birth and postpartum care has expanded from its Chicago birthplace to Houston.

Last summer, Partum Health raised $3.1 million in seed funding, which makes it possible for the company to begin a nationwide expansion. That begins in Space City.

“We looked at states where there is work to do on outcomes for maternal health. Texas rose to the top and Houston, in many ways is fairly close to Chicago, our home city. The really thriving healthcare ecosystem attracted us as well,” CEO and Co-Founder Meghan Doyle tells InnovationMap.

As a mom of a seven-year-old and a nine-year-old herself, Doyle says that she experienced the gap firsthand in what’s available to women beyond what her obstetrician or midwife does.

“You had to work really hard to cobble together the care you needed. It was a matter of putting together my personal experiences of realizing it’s not just me, it’s systematic,” says Doyle. “I couldn’t get that problem out of my head.”

Neither could her co-founder and head of operations, Matt Rogers, a father of twins whose family had to navigate the NICU and life-threatening complications. They started working together on the business in earnest during the COVID shutdown and debuted Partum Health at the beginning of 2021.

Partum has begun partnering with obstetricians and midwives to help select complementary care that includes lactation support, pelvic floor physical therapy, mental health services, nutrition counseling and doula care. What’s unique about the plan is that, from aiding in behavioral health problems to addressing nutritional issues, the user’s team is distributed around the Houston area and are fully virtual. Physical therapy and other services that must be done in-person may take place either in-home or at third-party locations.

“We’re still in the process of credentialing with insurance companies,” says Doyle.

In Illinois, Partum is already working with BlueCross BlueShield, United Healthcare, Aetna and Cigna for clinical care, so Doyle says she is confident that those companies will soon follow suit in Texas.

While hiring a team in Houston that includes a client care lead, Doyle says that Partum is simultaneously providing services and getting to know the market better. They’re also building more bundled models of care to better assist users in their new landscape.

Doyle and Partum Healthcare participated in the Ignite Healthcare Network’s 2023 program, which concluded last week with a pitch competition. Ignite helps female healthcare founders to connect with mentors and other industry experts that will help them navigate the health tech ecosystem. Doyle was one of nine finalists, but did not place in the top three. But she says the program has helped prepare her for success nonetheless.

“In our world, you’re always pitching,” she admits.

The next steps for Partum include a 2024 rife with expansion. Because building relationships with insurance happens on a state-by-state basis, the company will be able to help women around Texas soon after the company is comfortably established in Houston. The Dallas-Fort Worth area will likely be first, followed by Austin and San Antonio.

“We know there’s a huge gap in access to care that may mean evolving a little bit and reaching out across the state,” Doyle says.

Last month, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission reported that 90 percent of the state’s pregnancy-related deaths are preventable. With access to care like what Partum provides, those complications could become a thing of the past.

Ayse McCracken, founder of Ignite Healthcare Network, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how she's growing her impact on female health tech founders. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston health tech leader to expand accelerator to continue connecting female founders

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 203

With a decades-long career in health care, Ayse McCracken's most recent professional chapter has been laser focused on finding, supporting, and accelerating female-founded startups in health tech with her nonprofit, Ignite Healthcare Network.

Originally founded in 2017 as a pitch competition, Ignite has evolved to become an active and integral program for female health tech entrepreneurs. Ninety-one founders have graduated from Ignite and gone on to raise over $550 million in funding for their ventures. Currently, Ignite has 19 women in its 2023 cohort, which concludes November 9 with the annual Fire Pitch competition.

"Having an impact in the health care industry and finding solutions is important to me," McCracken says of her passion for Ignite on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The second aspect of that is there are so many women in health care, and yet you don't see them in leadership roles."

With Ignite, McCracken is actively seeking out these potential female leaders, and giving them the support — through mentorship, programming, and networking opportunities — they need to grow their business.

Each year, McCracken explains, she's pushing the envelope with what she can accomplish with Ignite. This year, she hosted a new event in Dallas to reach female founders there, and coming soon, Ignite will launch a platform that will extend its relationship with its founders and keep them looped in with potential customers, mentors, investors, and more.

"We're in the process of building our own platform that continues to connect our ecosystem so that we're not just an episode in the journey of an entrepreneur, but that we have the ability to help them along their path," McCracken says. "That path is a rollercoaster for a variety of reasons — whether it's gender or market related — and if we help to provide a community that can provide support for companies that have promise, our goal is to, over time, triple the money that female entrepreneurs are getting."

But McCracken says she wants Ignite to do more than just find investors for her network of founders.

"Success to me isn't just getting people an early stage investment," she explains. "Success to me is getting companies that actually commercialize, get their products in the market, and that they are actually making an impact on health wellbeing, patients, and so forth."

McCracken shares more about the future of Ignite on the podcast. Listen to the interview here — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Venture Houston is back next month. Here's what you need to know about this year's changes. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston VC conference returns to prioritize decarbonization, curated connections

can't miss event

In two weeks, hundreds of investors, corporate partners, and startups will convene to tackle topics of decarbonization, innovation, and investment. The annual event is also prioritizing something this year — connections.

In its third year, Venture Houston — taking place on Rice University's campus on September 7 — has a theme of "decarbonization in a digital world," but that's not the only thing different this year. The one-day conference has added on a unique event on September 6 to help engage around 50 investors with over 100 Houston startups.

The new activation is called Capital Connect, and HX Venture Fund will matchmake investors and startups for one-on-one meetings meant to spur collisions and collaboration.

"It's not a pitch competition — it doesn't have the stress of that," Sandy Guitar, general partner of HX Venture Fund, tells InnovationMap. "It's really just a way of connecting with a longer term horizon. We didn't want to limit it just to those who are currently raising, but actually include people who maybe just raised six months ago or are not going to raise for 12 more months, but might still want to be in the room."

The official day of the conference will also feature networking opportunities, including a breakfast hosted by DivInc, as well as networking breaks throughout the day.

"Based on feedback we received last year, networking was one of the things that was most celebrated about Venture Houston 2022," Guitar says. "All that space and time — the opportunity to allow people just to connect with one another. So, we're making sure that's a key part of this year as well."

Last year's keynote panel featured Gwyneth Paltrow, who shared her own founder's journey on the Venture Houston stage. This year's keynote address will be with Carmichael Roberts, investment committee co-lead of Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which was founded by Bill Gates to support climate change innovation.

While the topic of decarbonization might sound narrow, Guitar emphasizes that this event will not just be for the energy industry. Business everywhere — but especially in Houston — has an increased calling to decarbonization.

"I do think it's important to see the decarbonization not as a hard tech event, but as everything that touches carbon, which is basically everything in our planet in just the coal previously," she says. "Everything we make and use touches the climate."

Guitar adds that HXVF expects a crowd of around 1,000 people to attend the event this year, which would make it one of the largest VC-focused events ever to be held in the region. InnovationMap and EnergyCapital are media partners for the event.

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Education equity-focused nonprofit taps into robotics, AI to better serve Houston children

the future is bright

Generally, when children are under the age of five, educators believe that they are best suited for and interested in learning, because those are the years in which there is the strongest opportunity to build a broad and solid foundation for lifelong literacy and well-being.

That sentiment is deeply held by Collaborative for Children, the Houston-based nonprofit organization with the mission to meaningfully improve the quality of early childhood education and provide access to cutting-edge technology through its Centers of Excellence to all children, especially those in low-income and marginalized communities.

“The reason the organization was started about 40 years ago is that a group of philanthropists in the greater Houston area suggested that this was so important because 90 percent of the brain develops or grows in the time frame between ages zero to five years of age,” Melanie Johnson, president and CEO of Collaborative for Children, tells InnovationMap.

“And if we were losing children and not preparing them by third grade to be literate, and then subsequently losing them after that for high dropout rates and achievement gaps between poor and affluent children, that this would be the perfect place to start," she continues. "And so, they put the collaborative, the emphasis, and finances collaborative of every, most every early education effort around this region.”

Collaborative for Children’s work in the community is centered around making sure that there is educational equity for all children, regardless of financial status, and providing access to technologies in meaningful ways.

“Ultimately, we want to bridge the digital divide early on so that when children start off their academic journey, they're starting off equipped with the skills to be successful there on,” says Johnson.

Most recently, the institution has focused on utilizing social-emotional learning robots and coding tech toys like the Pepper — the world’s first social humanoid robot able to recognize faces and basic human emotions — and NAO, which resembles human being and stimulates, robots to enhance learning in the classrooms of its Centers of Excellence.

“Technology enhances the learning experience in the Centers of Excellence in ways that a teacher might not be able to,” says Johnson. “Artificial intelligence is used in gamification to allow a child to play and learn while playing.”

For Collaborative for Children, gamification involves transforming typical academic components into gaming themes.

“While playing, the AI gauges the level of skills that they’ve been able to enter into that system and respond with even more challenging tasks or tasks that are still lateral so that they can continue to repeat that skill,” says Johnson.

The socio-emotional learning robots are indeed fascinating, but how does the nonprofit reach these children, and their parents, who might be skeptical of technology?

Ultimately, through the teachers. They draw them in via the technology. If teachers are excited, they act as a conductor of that energy to their students, making their innovative lessons well, electric.

That resonates with most all children, but especially with those diagnosed with autism.

“Robotics like NAO are great for children on the autism spectrum because they are emotionally sensitive and emotionally intelligent,” says Johnson. “They are low sensory, so as NAO runs around the classroom, it can literally have individual and unique conversations with each child based on facial recognition. But most importantly for me, is that this particular robot is able to evaluate children without statistical bias that a teacher might have.

“A teacher might think that because a child confuses the letter D and B, which are basically shaped the same in opposite directions, that they're not learning," she continues. "And the robot will have no prior knowledge in terms of, is this child the better child, or have they been learning throughout the year? The answers are accurate or inaccurate. So, they remove statistical bias when assessing children in the classroom.”

The misconception about teaching technologies is that it’s about screen time. According to Johnson, it’s not. It’s more about interacting with technology.

“We’ve added, you know, all kinds of modern-day technology so that this world that we're preparing these children for 80 percent of the jobs we don't even know will exist when they are adults,” says Johnson. “So, we're just trying to make sure that there is no divide in terms of 21st century skills and 21st century preparation.”

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Collaborative for Children has so many facets to assist children with their early development, but there are inherent challenges when attempting to reach their target audience in low-income and marginalized communities that the organization counters with programs like the Collab Lab, which is a mobile classroom that brings critical, future-focused early childhood education directly to the community at no cost.

Designed to be convenient for families, Collab Lab connects parents and their youngest children with experts, educators, resources, and proven programs whose goal is to make sure that kids have the skills essential to learning from the moment they walk into kindergarten for the first time.

“There are a myriad of challenges in these communities that we serve, specifically with technology,” says Johnson. “When children enter first grade, and especially second grade, they're given notepads, basically, digital notepads, because it's no good in pre-K oftentimes, but it is very helpful for children who will never have access or have limited access to iPads and things of that nature.

“So while we don't want them to be babysat by screen time and have social media impacting their self-image and self-worth, we definitely want them to have appropriate doses and appropriate uses of technology in the early education, so that those barriers that their parents face with limited means, that these children can go to first grade and into the robotics class and be able to be evaluated and assessed on the digital notepads that are required nowadays,” she continues.

While technology is very important, Collaborative for Children also focuses on the critical social and emotional skills children need as they develop and the all too important relationship between children and their parents and teachers.

“Theory leads our work,” says Johnson. “It's all focused on fine motor skills, gross motor skills, social emotional, can a child build rapport with their teacher and with the students around them. Those things are paramount and will never change.

“What we use technology to do is enhance and remove biases from teacher-pupil interaction, but also to bridge any kind of divide in terms of 21st century skills. And in addition to that, we engage the families. So families who might not know about hydro-fueled cars in those communities that we serve will be able to be exposed to those concepts, as well through our group connections or parent partnerships.”

Ultimately, the last thing Collaborative for Children wants is to send children from early learning and childcare environments into the K-12 system unprepared to be successful for the real world.

“At Collaborative for Children,” adds Johnson. “We are continuously pushing the envelope at our Centers for Excellence so that the children that we serve will always be on the cutting edge.

The last thing Collaborative for Children wants is to send children from early learning and childcare environments into the K-12 system unprepared to be successful for the real world. Photo courtesy of Collaborative for Children

Houston med school develops revolutionary mRNA vaccine for elephants

zoology biology

An innovative team from Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital has worked with the Houston Zoo to develop a first-of-its-kind treatment for elephants, which has been administered to its first patient.

Tess, the beloved, 40-year-old matriarch of the Houston Zoo’s elephant herd, is recovering well after receiving the first-ever mRNA vaccine against elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) 1A on Tuesday, June 18. The veterinary staff at the Houston Zoo will monitor Tess in the coming weeks to check her reaction and the efficacy of the vaccine.

EEHV 1A is a deadly infection for Asian Elephants. While generally benign in African Elephants, Asian Elephants can develop fatal hemorrhages. The fatality rate is a whopping 80 percent, making it one of the most serous threats to elephant populations outside of humans.

Anti-viral drugs have some effect on the disease, but two-thirds show no improvement. This has led to a search for a vaccine. For 15 years, the Houston Zoo and Dr. Paul Ling at Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Virology and Microbiology have partnered to develop the drug. They have been helped by worldwide research from zoos and animal specialists, as well as graduate student Jessica Watts and Dr. Jeroen Pollet at Houston's Texas Children’s Hospital. The research has been funded by private donations, research partnerships, and grants.

Before being inoculated, the mRNA vaccine was exhaustively tested, with the dosage being extrapolated from data involving horses.

Houston Zoo veterinarians will periodically test Tess to see if she is developing the appropriate antibodies. If she is and there are no adverse reactions, the next step will be to administer the vaccine to the rest of the Houston herd. Many of these are Tess’s own children (Tucker, Tupelo, Tilly, and Teddy) and grandchildren (Winnie).

Should the vaccine prove effective, the doses will be made available worldwide to zoos and private elephant sanctuaries. It is likely to have a significant benefit on protecting and preserving the Asian Elephant population. As of January, there are fewer than 50,000 of the animas left in the wild. They are currently listed as endangered, and breeding programs and research done through the Houston Zoo are essential to keeping the animals from going extinct.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

New study says Houston is best city to grow business

Report

The Bayou City has again received recognition as a top hub for business.

According to a new study by business revenue experts The RevOps Team, Houston is one of the cities in the US with 10 or more companies listed in the S&P 500, and has been named as the number one city with the fastest growing businesses in the U.S. Houston scored the highest Average Business Growth (ABG) at 26.7 percent. The business experts divided the data from the S&P 500 Index to see what businesses had the highest share-price growth in the last year.

Out of the 28 states and the cities with 10 or more businesses listed in the S&P 500, Houston was No. 1t for growing businesses with Atlanta, in second place with 15 companies listed and reaching an ABG of 24.2 percent. Two cities in Texas ranked in the top five with Dallas taking third place at 14.9 percent.

Texas ranked fifth place overall in the top five states for business growth with high-performing businesses like Vistra. Vistra was the company with the highest growth in Texas at 277.68 percent, followed by NRG Energy (NRG) with 170.43 percent and Caterpillar Inc. (CAT) at 69.13 percent.

“You need to be ready to both leverage opportunity and adapt to challenges,” Kerri Linsenbigler of RevOps Team said in a news release. “Growing a business wherever you are in the U.S. is not for the faint-hearted, and business owners in Texas will be proud that they have ranked highly in the top five.”

Earlier this month, over a dozen Houston-based companies madeU.S. News and World Report's collection of the "Best Companies to Work For" in 2024-2025.

In December, the city was ranked among the 25 best metropolitan areas to start a small business in a report by personal finance website The Credit Review placed Houston in the No. 22 spot.