Cindy Taff of Sage Geosystems explains why she's so optimistic about geothermal and her company's technology. Photo courtesy of Sage

Geothermal energy is an integral part of decarbonizing the energy industry, and Sage Geosystems CEO Cindy Taff believes her company's tech has what it takes to lead the way.

Founded in Houston in 2020, Sage Geosystems is focused on two business lines — energy storage and geothermal. In addition to developing these technologies, Taff says Sage has "cracked the code" on both reducing costs and maximizing electricity output. Sage has customers ranging from Nabors, the world’s largest land-based drilling company, and Virya LLC, an investor in climate ventures with high impact of eliminating global greenhouse gas emissions or sequestering CO2

In a Q&A that originally ran on EnergyCapital, she explains why she's so optimistic about geothermal and her company's technology.

EnergyCapital: Why do you believe geothermal has a major role to play in the energy transition?

CindyTaff: Geothermal energy is not just a contender in the energy transition; it is a cornerstone. The question isn’t if we can drive down the costs to be competitive with wind, solar, and natural gas—it’s when. As renewable credits for solar and wind begin to expire, these industries will face the reality of their “real costs.”

As a 24/7 renewable energy source, it provides a constant and reliable power supply, unlike the intermittent nature of solar and wind. Moreover, the rising costs of lithium-ion batteries, driven by the increasing scarcity of lithium and cobalt, further underscore geothermal’s economic viability.

My extensive experience in both geothermal and the O&G sector is a testament to the synergistic relationship between these industries. The skills honed in O&G are not only transferable—they are essential to advancing geothermal technologies. In summary, the O&G industry can make a huge impact to geothermal by systematically driving down costs while scaling up, which is exactly what we did for unconventional shales.

EC: When it comes to finding partners or investors, what are you looking for? What should potential partners/investors know about Sage?

CT: Our technology is ready to scale today, not five to 10 years into the future. We will deliver our first energy storage power plant in 2024 and our first enhanced geothermal power plant in 2025. We are looking for synergies with investors, such as companies with power market or O&G expertise.

In addition, we seek to partner with others who have local content and relationships in places around the world to enable us to quickly and broadly scale our technologies. Sage's technologies are extremely flexible, in that we can deliver energy storage or enhanced geothermal to the utility grid or behind-the-meter to targeted commercial customers, including a dedicated microgrid (i.e., for the U.S. Air Force). Our technologies can provide electricity to remote locations such as mining operations or to large population centers such as Houston, and everything in between.

EC: What's the biggest challenge Sage is facing as an energy transition startup and how do you plan to tackle it?

CT: A common misunderstanding about Sage is that we only do energy storage or that we only do geothermal. However, we do both and the technologies build on one another. Essentially, our energy storage technologies will allow us to "walk" before we "run" with geothermal. On a related point, at this point in the energy transition, time to commercialization and affordability of new clean technology are the leading factors in terms of climate impact. As the first geothermal company to deliver a cost-effective commercial enhanced geothermal system, we are poised to truly make a meaningful difference.

EC: As a woman in a male-dominated industry tackling a global problem, what's been your biggest lesson learned? What's your advice to fellow energy tech female founders?

CT: In my journey as a woman in the energy tech industry, I’ve been fortunate to focus on the work and the global challenges we’re addressing, rather than on any gender-based obstacles. My biggest lesson learned is that innovation and leadership know no gender. Success is driven by perseverance, vision, and collaboration.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Houston-based Nauticus Robotics founder, Nicolaus Radford, shares the latest from his company and why we're primed for a hardtech movement. Image via LinkedIn

Houston innovator shares difficult journey to IPO, the challenges of hardtech innovation, and more

Q&A

It's been a busy past year or so for Nicolaus Radford, founder and CEO of Nauticus Robotics. He's taken his company public at a difficult time for the market, launched new partnerships with the United States Marine Corps, and even welcomed a new family member.

Originally founded in 2014 as Houston Mechatronics, Nauticus Robotics has designed a fleet of underwater robots and a software platform for autonomous operations. Radford caught up with InnovationMap about these recent milestones for him and the company in an interview.

InnovationMap: Tell me about life after IPO. What’s been surprising for you leading your company through the transition and now on the other side of IPO?

Nicolaus Radford: I'll tell you what, it’s the hardest thing I ever did in my professional career by a factor of 10. Everybody finds their red line once or twice in their career. You know, when you're working 100 hours a week, you're going to bed at 2 am, you're waking up at 6:30 am, you're sleeping three hours a night, right? Everybody's found that moment once in a while and you're like, “okay, I've touched my red line and I would never want to do that again.” This was I knew where my red line was, and I went so far beyond it, I couldn't even see where I thought my red line was. It was a very exceptionally challenging period of time. It took a long to complete the transaction, and the market was just changing under our feet. Rules were and regulations were changing — were we grandfathered in or were we not?

I'm part of some business organizations and, and some of those confidential relationships have turned into friendships. And a couple of them call me and they're like, “we're really worried. We think this is going to be we don't know if you're going to get it done. And we just want you to be aware that you're not you may not get it done.” It is a little scary because once you engage in it, you're running quite a tab with bankers and law firms and all sorts of things. And if you don't complete the deal, it just might kill the company. But we did it. We were one of a few people last year to actually get a deal over the line. I'm very proud of that. I think it speaks to the quality of the deal that we had. The macro economic environment was exceptionally difficult. It remains to be very difficult today. But we had strong backing from our strategic investors and our partners that were already on the cap table. They put a tremendous amount of money into the deal.

You know, I look back on it and it's, you know, ringing the Nasdaq bell when we listed, and giving that speech at the podium — it was a surreal moment. I remember when I was standing there looking at the Nauticus logo on the seven-story Nasdaq tower, having as many people in the company as we could bring, and just sharing that moment with all of them, especially my wife, who, I will be very clear about this, I could not have gotten through this moment without her. She is the rock that keeps our family together and my head straight. A little known fact — we had a newborn during this time as well, so that was also very difficult. And and she just handled so much that there's just not another person like her.

I was excited but cautious at the same time. I mean, the life of a CEO of a public company at large, it's all about the process following a process, the regulations, the administration of the public company, the filings, the reportings — it can feel daunting. I have to rise to the occasion to tackle that in this the next stage of the company.

IM: You’re working with the military on a project that adapts Nauticus’s tech for Marine Corps use. What’s it been like working with the military on this project?

NR: We've probably worked with military interests for the last six years, but all of the things that we have been doing have been extremely confidential and hush. Now we've been able to work with customers that have a stronger public facing persona, and the Defense Innovation Unit is one of those. Their charter is it's quite literally looking for commercial technology and adapting that towards military applications, and so it's been nice to be able to show the utility and the application of of a lot of our technology and what we've been working on for so long as it's applied on a broader scale to the big services, whether it's the Navy or the Marine Corps. Both of the programs we’re working on are all about mine countermeasures, and mines are really, really difficult, especially underwater mines. We've been we've been applying all of Nauticus’s broad technology portfolio to being able to search autonomously and being able to identify and neutralize threats in the water. I love that mission because anytime we can remove our service men and women from these situations, that's just the right thing to do. There are those three universal truths — all babies are cute, all puppies are huggable, and all Canadians are nice. But there's a fourth one — nobody wants to defuse an underwater bomb. And so I'm really happy to be working on robotics technologies where that's the case.

IM: The Ion recently announced Nauticus as a new tenant. What’s the strategy behind creating a footprint there?

NR: We've signed the definitive documents with the Ion about our presence there. We’ve been designing it for a while, and now we're starting to build it out. They're giving us temporary space, so we're going to be immediately there. Nauticus was really born from this connection to spaceflight. We started up Nauticus around NASA, and there's an incredible amount of talent here. And people tend to change jobs sometimes, so we were attracting a lot of talent from NASA. Now that NASA has solidified their mission and what they're doing and gained a little traction, we wanted to have more draw from the universities being up in town. Clear Lake, even though we have water access and it's much closer to Galveston where we test a lot, we wanted to be up in town. So, we're creating a bit of an innovation center. There's a lot more collisions downtown with customers and talent, it just made sense that we had to be there. And because we support the city of Houston so much and what they're doing for the startup community and early stage companies like ourselves that, we want to support that.

IM: How would you describe the state of the hardtech sector?

NR: We still need improvement by far. Hardtech companies are still viewed as a bad investment. We're always going out to investor events, and I remember this one investor came up to me and asked me to tell him a little bit about my company. The second he got into the essence of what we do and sussed out that obviously we are not just a software company, he just goes full stop. “Hey, listen, you know, our investment thesis is we only invest in software companies.” I had just kind of had it and I sort of shot back at him and I just said, “that's a rather that's a rather dumb value proposition and pretty shortsighted.” And we parted ways. It just irritates me that that's this is most of everybody's comeback. Like, they're a special class because they only invest in software companies.

I'm sure you've heard of ChatGPT and how that's going to alter the world forever. Now is probably a really shitty time to be a software developer, and I think it's going to place an extra emphasis and value on hard tech companies because I haven't seen ChatGPT run a run a milling machine yet break a piece of metal on a machine or assemble a circuit board. I love that now the position of companies like ours that are in the robotics space where you take this multidisciplinary blend of hardware, software, and electronics toward an application, because I think that is going to start becoming a premium value.

Software companies tend to attract more equity investment because people have this idea that the scaling costs and the startup costs are lower. Anyone with a keyboard can get online, create a website, and have an e-commerce business. Turns out, that because that’s true, there’s a million out there. What I love about a hardtech company that if you get it right, the cost of trying to compete with that company that figured it out is so high that the negative now begins the benefit. A fast follower is almost impossible.

The VC community sprung up in a post World War II world to help fund the commercialization of the computer and silicon — that's kind of what it originated from. I mean, there was not an investment vehicle that companies that were developing technology in this space could go to and get a loan, couldn't go to the bank. The venture capital world developed to help spawn hard tech investments. And, I hate to break it to you, but one of the most valuable companies in the world was a hard tech company: Tesla. This is a physical world. And I believe the last 50 years were absolutely characterized by the ubiquitous manipulation of the virtual world, but the next 50 years are going to be characterized by the ubiquitous manipulation of the physical world. And that's where we're at.

IM: What’s next for Nauticus?

NR: What’s next is tough to talk about, because I can only talk about what’s already been published. I see Nauticus being the preeminent ocean robotics company. I want Nauticus to be an empire. It starts small but it grows — and it grows in many different ways, and we’re exploring all of those different ways to grow. We’re leading a technology renaissance in the marine space — and that happens only a few times in an industry.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Arianne Dowdell spoke with InnovationMap about Houston Methodist's DEI initiatives — and how they will help develop the hospital of the future. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

Q&A: Houston innovator on DEI initiatives, importance in health care

innovative interview

Prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion within health care innovation goes hand in hand, according to Arianne Dowdell, vice president and chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Houston Methodist.

"I think we're in a very interesting time when we think about how health care looks. It's changing drastically and so people have a lot more options for where they choose to get their health care and who their providers are," she tells InnovationMap. "So I think that the thought of the patient comes first is really going to be the key of understanding how do we tackle health equity."

Houston Methodist, under Dowdell's leadership, is putting the patients at the forefront of the hospital system's priorities through its DEI initiatives — whether that's employee programs or training the future leaders of the health care industry through its DEI Summer Scholarship Program.

In an interview with InnovationMap, Dowdell shares more about these ongoing initiatives and her role, as well as the importance of DEI in innovative health care.

InnovationMap: Tell me a bit about your role leading DEI at Houston Methodist. What are you tasked with and why is it important to the organization?

Arianne Dowdell: In my role, I'm responsible for really leading the vision for unparalleled safety, quality and service, and innovation through the lens of DEI. And what that really means is thinking about how we execute our diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies. When we think about our employees, our patients as well as our community. So, my role is rather broad in scope. I oversee DEI for all of the Houston Methodist hospitals in the area and we year by year target and have certain goals of what we want to accomplish under each of those layers. When we think about our patients and our employees in the community.

IM: In what ways do DEI and innovation intersect?

AD: You know, the wonderful thing about innovation is that there is such a huge overlap with DEI. When we think about our patient care, we just start there and think about what we're doing with our new hospital that's opening.

For example, we talk about making it the hospital in the future. Part of that innovation piece means that we're meeting our patients where they are with the needs that they have. So, a lot of times we talk about equity versus equality and what people need and what we have to remember when we think about equity, especially with our patients and the fact that we serve such a diverse community, is making sure that those innovations that we're coming up with as we're thinking about the patients varies right in different aspects to make sure that every patient that comes in the door is receiving the very best care that they have. It's a great opportunity being at a hospital that's so innovative to make sure that we're considering our innovative technologies to meet the different patients that we have that are coming through our doors every day.

It doesn't matter if you're down here in the medical center or out in Baytown. The innovation and what we're thinking about and the technologies and the way that we communicate with our patients, all that is part of innovation, which helps our DEI initiatives become more successful in everything that we're doing.

IM: What are some of the initiatives you’ve gotten to spearhead so far in your tenure?

AD: Our department's been around for about two and a half years. And so there's a couple of things that we're really excited about that are ongoing, but we've seen a lot of traction and measurable results. One is the employee resource groups we currently have — I think we're at nine, maybe 10 at this point for our groups — and we have close to 2,000 employees that are part of the groups working to make sure that they are empowered in the workplace and have support, but we also provide professional development opportunities for them.

Another thing that we've started are solidified DEI training programs and actually going and working with departments, both those that are clinical and non clinical within the hospital on DEI related issues. That's been a big success for us as well. And we're really evolving those trainings to become more of educational opportunities as we really start to have a heavy focus on health equity moving into 2023.

We also have a comprehensive training communications program, so we communicate out all of our efforts at all of our hospitals. And so engaging our CEOs at each of those hospitals and making sure that we allow all of our employees to have a way of learning about the work that we're doing in various mediums has been something we've worked really hard to achieve. And we also have different DEI groups and committees at each of our hospitals. That's been a way for us to connect and have leaders at all of our hospitals that are supporting our overall system wide initiatives.

It's been really fun the past two years to have different layers of the work that we're doing, including our 25 million DEI Grant to different nonprofit organizations in the community to make sure that we're looking at all these different layers. As I had mentioned before, that touch on everything that we do. And we're also going to be hyper focused moving into next year of making sure that we diversify our cancer center as well. And so now that we've kind of laid that first layer foundation, it's really nice to see how the team is evolving and the work that we're doing and also using data to show the results of the work that we're doing. So, with two years under our belt, it's nice to have some of that information now.

IM: How is Houston Methodist supporting future leaders in health care?

AD: One of the things I really wanted to make sure that we started once COVID slowed down a little bit, was to give underrepresented students an opportunity to pursue careers in health care that are non clinical. A lot of people in college, they don't know about all the different aspects of what runs a hospital, right? And so I thought it was a great opportunity for us to launch this program that we started last summer.

We started with six students that received scholarship funding and they all fall below the federal poverty line is how we established what the criteria was along with grades, etc. but a really great opportunity for students to come here for ten weeks on a paid scholarship in various departments throughout the hospital to learn what those inner workings are, to then pursue careers, possibly in things like DTI, human resources, spiritual care, managed care. So it was really fun to watch the first cohort of students go through last year.

These are our future leaders and teaching them all about the aspects of what, like I said, runs a hospital. But when we think about care of our patients, how everyone is such an integral part to it. And so for going into this summer coming up, we've actually more than doubled the number of opportunities that will be available. So, we now have 17 spaces that are available for students and we're branching out to all of our community hospitals and we've reached out to more schools around the nation. And so I'm excited to bring in this next cohort of leaders to really begin to think differently about how we look at care overall and manage hospitals from a diverse aspect. It's been a great program and our leadership here at the hospital is also very engaged, which I love.

IM: What’s on your radar for 2023?

AD: So, 2023 is really going to be a focus on health equity. Establishing we've got various dashboards that we're establishing to track and monitor what we're doing, but also working with all 29,000 plus of our employees to help them understand what role they play in achieving health equity so we can focus on the role that our clinicians play. But it's equally as important for the people that work at registration to understand the importance of the questions that we ask to make sure we're meeting the needs of our patients when they call and set up appointments.

We will be really hyper focused on that. We'll also be leveraging even more of the work that our employee resource groups do. And so I'm very excited about that as well as they become more involved in the community. When you talked about prevention and education, a lot of the members of our ERGs are now out in the community and doing a lot of really great work. And so those are just two of the programs that I'm really excited about for 2023 that will be hyper focused on.

IM: Why is equity in health care so important and what does the industry need to do to accomplish it?

AD: I think we're in a very interesting time when we think about how health care looks. It's changing drastically and so people have a lot more options for where they choose to get their health care and who their providers are. And so I think that the thought of the patient comes first is really going to be the key of understanding how do we tackle health equity. Because when we look at all the different requirements from systems throughout the country, and then we look at results from what patients say, we have to spend the time to marry those two together.

At the end of the day, that still is our patient comes first — so how are we educating our future clinicians? Are we working with our med schools to make sure we're tackling that because we really have to look to the future generations? How are we reporting out our efforts and our outcomes is going to be important to. Keeping that patient centered focus is going to be key to achieving health equity. And also a lot of times we don't want to acknowledge what our shortcomings are. Know people always want to say this is where we excel, but really taking the time to acknowledge what can we do better, and doing those deep dives, It doesn't matter if you're a large health system or if you're one of the newer branches that's coming out. You have to take the time to really look at what those results are, to make sure you're measuring them to achieve those new goals. So I think that that's actually going to be the key to moving forward and making sure you keep politics out of it to the extent possible and really just stay patient. Focus is what's going to be necessary because people have choices for where they want to go for their health care. And I think we all have to be mindful of that.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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In an interview with InnovationMap, Carolyn Rodz, CEO and founder of Hello Alice, explains how the partnership came about and how the program will significantly move the needle on equitable access to capital for small business owners. Photo courtesy of Hello Alice

How this Houston innovator is providing small businesses unprecedented access to capital

Q&A

Last month, Hello Alice — now with 1 million members in its community — announced a new program with MasterCard that provides small business owners a simpler way to unlock access to capital.

The Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard offers users expert business advice, business insights, cash back, and a rewards program that gives entrepreneurs points for completing business-advancing activities on the Hello Alice platform.

"As a small business owner myself, I've created a card that I wish I would have had," Carolyn Rodz, CEO and founder of Hello Alice, tells InnovationMap. "We really looked at where are the gaps for these business owners and the things they don't already have or are unable to access."

In an interview with InnovationMap, Rodz explains how the partnership came about and how the program will significantly move the needle on equitable access to capital for small business owners.

InnovationMap: How did this partnership come about to provide this this unique credit card for small business owners?

CarolynRodz: We have been looking at ways to support business owners along their capital journeys for a long time. Since we started Hello Alice access to capital has been the number one barrier for small business owners, and that's only magnified when we look at business owners of color and our new majority business owners that we focus on. And so it made natural sense as we went down a path of conversations with MasterCard initially around how do we create something, particularly in a world where accessing capital, which would be daunting for business owners.

There's a lot of talk around venture capital and getting loans and what that growth journey looks like. But the reality is most business owners understand a credit card — they understand how it works. So, that was a great starting point for us. Then we looked at what are some of the issues with cards — all business cards particularly or commodities. They're typically an afterthought from a lot of the financial institutions that offer them. We're seeing a lot of these emerging fintech companies that are rolling out cards, but even for them, the small business audience is typically an afterthought. They're really focused on tech companies and very rapid growth businesses.

It felt like mainstream small businesses were really getting lost in this conversation, so that was where we really wanted to tackle. How do we solve some of these problems — how do we create benefits that are actually meaningful to small business owners? Things like one-on-one coaching and helping them get access to workshops that will help them along their growth journey. Things that they can redeem points for experiences and opportunities that that may not otherwise be accessible through a lot of these business owners.

The other piece that we wanted to support is the large group of businesses that don't qualify for a traditional credit card. And so we, in tandem with our unsecured credit card, also launched a secured card. And the idea for that was that we could actually roll out a credit quality tool. So, in conjunction with all the education and wraparound services that we're offering, there's a six- to nine-month process that a business owner — if they have poor credit history — can go through to build up that credit with a secured credit card and then seamlessly transition into an unsecured card. It's an opportunity to take that first step toward building and growing their business and accessing the capital that they need to grow.

IM: How does this initiative target the inequality in access to capital for small business owners?

CR: Well, nine out of 10 of business owners are relying on their personal credit card when they're applying for financing. When we look at entrepreneurs of color, the rate of low credit score for them is two to three times higher for Black and LatinX entrepreneurs specifically. So for us, this is the importance of building in conjunction with our creating equitable access to credit program that is much broader, frankly, than the card itself, but offering the wraparound services around it, making sure that we are providing the secured to unsecured seamless transition plan.

We're also working with the First National Bank of Omaha, and the reason we selected them at the bank, they're the largest privately held bank in the country. This also gave us the flexibility to really look at alternative underwriting models and the the opportunity to learn through all of the insights that we're gaining around these small business owners. We're trying to figure out how do we start to look at some of these alternative data points and identify not just the financial history of a business owner.

There are a lot of circumstances that lead to poor credit scores, whether it was for a health circumstance that they endured or veteran business owners who may have no credit history because they've been overseas for a long period of time. We're looking at what are some of the data points that are indicating that a business owner is more likely to succeed and more likely to repay the credit that they've taken on. We know already through a lot of research and data points that having a business plan automatically makes you more likely to repay your your debt. Or the fact that you are getting positive feedback from mentors is a strong indicator that you're going to be more likely to pay off some of those debts. And so we're really looking at what are some of these things that may be overlooked but are frankly more indicative of who the business owner is and the potential for their for their business and their opportunities to be able to repay credit that they take off.

IM: What type of small business owners do you feel like this is a really good solution for? What all can they expect from the program?

CR: As a small business owner myself, I've created a card that I wish I would have had. When I started this company, I really looked at what was available to the market. This credit card, like many cards, offers benefits that are pretty standard in the market right now. Things like cash back, extra points, and kickers for certain spends that are relevant to small business owners. But again, we really looked at where are the gaps for these business owners and the things they don't already have or are unable to access.

What we discovered was there are lots of accelerators, programs, and workshops and things — but they're expensive. So, there's an opportunity here. We work with our network of partners that we have for Hello Alice that are traditionally paid or have a cost to roll them out and offer business owners points and earnings that can be spent toward that.

Mentorship, as you know, is a huge, huge barrier, particularly when we look at our new majority entrepreneurs, so all of our cardholders get access to one-on-one coaching for this card. And we've really focused on areas that are primary interest to them, things like business strategy, operations, and financing for their businesses.

And then the other important piece of this is leveraging our partner network. We have so many partners that we work with at Hello Alice, companies that are offering products and tools and services to small business owners. With this card, we're opening up additional discounts beyond what we've already negotiated standards for all of our community, whether it's an extra discount on things like QuickBooks, Salesforce, or different tools that they might be using. We have over 70 affiliate partners that we've already brought into the program working with more every week right now, which is really exciting.

We're also trying to find new opportunities — where can we bring the most benefit these business owners in a way that grows with their company and that, as they're spending and creating traction with their company, our team is working behind the scenes to unlock more and more opportunities every stage of that journey.

IM: Do you feel like this program is a response to the growing challenges small businesses have been facing over the past few years?

CR: I mean, our business certainly had a hell of a couple of years, and 89 percent of small business owners in our community, which is now over a million business owners strong, claim the access to capital is limiting their growth potential. Where we focus a majority of our energy as a company is unlocking those barriers.

As we dig into that, what we're seeing is access to capital — whether that's early days as a credit card or a grant funding, or later stage with loans or even venture capital — is that we need to address this by helping to unlock that journey for business owners, but also making sure that we're supporting them with the opportunities that are relevant to their own stage of growth.

The other piece is revenue generation. We always want to focus on the core and sustainable business health of a company and making sure that they're bringing in revenue and that they've created a business model that actually works and is scalable. We're working a lot on providing them not just money into their business or outside capital, but how do we actually help them generate revenue and clear capital in all the stages unless they have that capital? How do we actually help them deploy that capital in meaningful ways will help them grow their business?

All of the wraparound services that come with the core of what Hello Alice offers — and certainly with this credit card we're getting a deeper layer of insight, because we know more about the businesses, we know how they're spending, what they're doing. We're really learning about how do we additionally support this cohort of business owners with the right wraparound services, making sure that they're getting the right thing at the right time.

What's interesting is that and the reason we really started with the credit card is that 50 percent of small business owners have a personal credit score of 680 or better, and that's strong enough to apply for most business credit cards. However, that score locks them out of getting a business loan, which typically requires a score of 720 or better to qualify. So we're able to tap into a cohort and help them grow this pool of capital in the earliest stages. But really making sure that we're giving them the growth tools that ultimately free them up to go get that loan, to go walk into a main street bank and have that power of choice along their capital journey.

In general, we focus a lot on access to capital. We deployed over $37 million in small business grants to date, and we're continuing to grow that pool. We're actually working right now on an equitable access to capital fund, which will allow us to utilize those grants to actually pay the security deposit for select business owners who may not qualify for additional credit.

Ultimately, this is a really tangible way to work with financial institutions, MasterCard, and our broader partner ecosystem. We haven't seen the statistics move in decades. How do we actually open up more capital to business owners that otherwise wouldn't qualify for it? And this is our our first of many steps toward towards putting a really tangible stake in the ground.

IM: What about the challenges of the pandemic — how do you see COVID-19 and its shutdown affect small businesses?

CR: For us, like many businesses, I think the pandemic was it shook everything up. I think we had a plan and a path forward that always entailed unlocking access to capital and unlocking opportunity — that has never changed for us. But it accelerated a lot of things. We had planned to deploy grant funding in 2020 independent of the pandemic. When COVID hit and we saw these businesses struggling, we quickly pivoted. We accelerated that plan significantly. We started deploying grants within weeks of shelter in place — even before PPP had been announced and before businesses were accessing any government support. We were among the first to offer emergency grants and put us in a really strong position to grow that program and again to accelerate the rollout of that, which is now turned into a much larger program.

That really was, I would say, the acceleration of our entire early stage access to capital continuum. And what we learned from that was how much capital these business owners actually need. The process gave us a lot of information that that has really helped roll out the broader continuum of capital for us. We launched our lending marketplace with over 92 small business lenders all focused on fair and equitable funding, which is available over all as well. And so these credit cards round out that early stage access to capital.

But when we look at our new majority cohort — and even many white male businesses — we have to get business owners of all types that are struggling with access to capital. Everybody's willing to give money to business owners that have traction, that are doing well with their business, that are on a growth path. But it's very hard to get the traction that big investors need, and that's always really struggle.

The pandemic accelerated a lot in this space. It made us realize that the opportunity here is actually much greater to support these businesses and also got a lot of attention from partners. We've been having these conversations for years, frankly, prior to the pandemic. And everybody recognized there was an issue, but I don't think they realized the impact of the issue until COVID hit, and small businesses were the ones that kept operating and made sure that we were getting the resources that we needed to continue to live in a time when everything was a little bit uncertain.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Tige Savage of Revolution Ventures and Sandy Guitar of HX Venture Fund explain how they're working together to fund Houston companies in a recent Q&A. Photos courtesy

This VC visiting Houston has eyes on investing locally in disruptive tech startups

Q&A

The HX Venture Fund is a fund of funds that makes investments as a limited partner in venture capital funds across the country — VC funds that want to add Houston companies to their portfolios. HXVF is is paving the way for those investments by setting up immersive days for venture capitals visiting Houston.

One of these HXVF Engage VC days is taking place this week on Wednesday, April 27. Houston entrepreneurs can hear from partners at Revolution — a Washington, D.C.-based firm with three investment funds and strategies — at a fireside chat kicking off the visit at 8:30 am at The Ion.

Tige Savage, co-founder and managing partner of Revolution Ventures, and Sandy Guitar, managing partner of HX Venture Fund, join InnovationMap for a Q&A about how the two organizations are working together to put funding in the hands of Houston tech entrepreneurs.

InnovationMap: Tige, tell me briefly about Revolution and its family of funds. What types of companies are you looking for?

Tige Savage: We started Revolution about 17 years ago. I co-founded it with Steve Case, the founder of AOL and later the chairman of AOL Time Warner. I ran the venture capital group for that media company — that's how he and I got to know each other. AOL was based in Washington DC, so when Steve and I partnered up to launch our firm, we based it in Washington. We knew that to do the investing of the importance and scale that we had in mind, that it was an idea that was bigger than just Washington DC. So, we hopped on airplanes, and we went to where we thought the most interesting best ideas were. And as we spent our time in the market, we realized that there were a lot of opportunities in a lot of places other than New York City and Silicon Valley — we obviously have nothing against New York City or Silicon Valley, and we make investments in those places. But we realized that there was a lot going on in the country. It really gave us an opportunity to start building ecosystems and investing across the country. We looked back and realized we were generating returns in places like Florida, Washington, DC, and Portland, Oregon, et cetera — and there were great opportunities and great entrepreneurs in those places. And the barriers to building companies in those kinds of places had gotten much smaller than they'd been historically — the internet enabled talent to be in more places we've seen that amplified in a major way through the pandemic.

We started investing, and we raised capital from the outside world — and we did that in three efforts. One is something called the Rise of the Rest seed fund that is a very ecosystem focused investment vehicle. They make hundreds of investments out of their $150 million fund — small investments really to be involved in those communities. Imagine that's a very large top of funnel approach for our organization that allows us to project ourselves in a major way. David Hall is managing director of the fund and will be at this event tomorrow. He's been involved in revolution from the very early days. In fact, he was the very first person I hired.

Revolution Ventures is the fund I'm involved in. We are mostly series A investment effort with a much more concentrated portfolio. We're very focused on this same strategy of investing across the entire country. Then we have a growth fund called Revolution Growth that's sort of a later stage fund — call it series C plus, maybe series D, investor. They take larger stakes, but it's also a concentrated portfolio.

We have a few things that we think are unique about Revolution. One is what we call "place" — it's this geographic approach that we've taken from the start we're real believers that there's opportunity everywhere. We've spent a lot of time, money, capital, et cetera, working on those ecosystems and being in them. That's why places lake Houston are so exciting for us. Secondly, is policy. We're in Washington, it's in the DNA of what we do. It used to be very out of favor for tech companies to say they cared about policy, where we've always known that that's very important. If you go to some of the biggest tech companies today they'll tell you that the most important thing to them and the biggest risk they have is policy and regulatory.

We have a history of investing in billion dollar categories where technology is ripe to make the the business model, the consumer value proposition, the supply chain, the margin structure — something like that — better. That's why we called the firm Revolution, targeting places where technology can revolutionize existing categories, largely for the benefit of consumers.

IM: Sandy, what is it about Revolution that makes it a good fund for Houston companies?

SandyGuitar: We've met with and built relationships with over 400 venture funds, but have to date have only invested in 14. So ours is a super selective process and we are just honored to be limited partners of Revolution. The reasons that make Revolution such a fit are manyfold. One is we seek investment strategies that we think will find deals in Houston. Revolution's strategy of using both the Rise of the Rest at the seed level, but a concentrated portfolio at the series A level is exactly the kind of strategy that we think works. Their generalist approach, but with specific expertise within various technologies means that they can be nimble from a technology point of view, as they look for deal flow in Houston, and they can allow for a force rank that doesn't force them in one tech bucket. We think that's a great advantage to seasoned venture capitalists.

Second of all, we're looking for investment strategies that create high growth companies, which can be innovative to our investors, such as the HEB, Shell, Chevron, Insperity, Lyondellbasell, et cetera. Those investors at HX Venture Fund rely on us to introduce them to opportunities for co-investment at the company or fund level and for opportunities to be customers to the portfolio companies of our VCs. We believe Revolution is producing the kinds companies that are going to be and are of interest to our limited partners as they try to innovate from within. And then third of all, we're looking for really strong track records that show expertise in selecting, growing and exiting companies. We want Houston entrepreneurs to benefit from that kind of acumen. That takes a lot of track record and lot of time in VC to show proof points of all three of those parts of the company formation process, and Revolution has that in spades.

IM: Tige, do you have Houston startups already in your portfolio and how is HXVF helping you grow your presence in Houston?

TS: Across our funds, between the Rise of the Rest fund and Revolution Ventures, I think there are 19 Texas investments, one in Houston. We also have a company called Big Commerce, which is in the growth fund that's a Texas and Australia-based company. Goodfair is an investment of the Rise of the Rest fund. They made an early investment — love the strategy of really trying to make fashion more affordable and more environmentally conscious and more economically achievable.

We are equally fortunate to have HX involved. Not only are they a great investor, but they're also a great facilitator of intersections for firms like ours that are actively interested in deploying capital in interesting places. We're only a handful of folks, so it takes a lot of leverage. Our Rise of the Rest strategy is an institutional effort, but having partners in the market really matters. This is why we're so excited to be partnered with Sandy and the gang there, because we really view that strategy as a unique and interesting one.

IM: Sandy, tell me about these events you’ve been putting on for your portfolio funds at HXVF.

SG: This is our second event this year already, and we've done about half a dozen of these so far of what we call VC engage days. The idea of the VC engage day is to really connect all of our communities together. In the mornings, we like to make sure that the venture capitalist coming in has an opportunity to speak with our ecosystem and that anybody for free can come and listen to these very experienced and successful venture capitalists. From there, we curate one-on-one meetings between select entrepreneurs and venture capitalists that are part of the day. We also do one-on-ones with our limited partners and the venture capitalists. And then, at the end of the day, we have a private dinner to provide more bespoke conversations either with our limited partners or with the Founder's Circle — 20-plus serial entrepreneurs here in Houston that provide a voice to us at HXVF.

TS: What was just described — that's is not a typical thing. LPs don't do that. We're obviously excited about it. It's a thing unique to Houston. HXVF is doing a lot of work to make these things happen.

IM: Tige, as someone looking in from DC into the Houston market, what do you see happening in the Houston market? What are you most excited about getting to tap into on your visit?

TS: Houston is known for a number of industries and is smart to leverage its engineering talent and try to focus that on ways to amplify it in technology. We think that the opportunities around sort of innovative manufacturing or around logistics around climate are particularly interesting to our funds, because when we talk about revolutionizing large categories in ways that make things better for consumers, those are all major elements that can have that kind of impact.

Houston's an extremely multicultural place. The engineering talent is extremely robust. The ability for large corporations to invest in and take advantage of what's going on in tech is extremely exciting. Finding a way for catalytic activity to happen within within these large businesses is sometimes a challenge. What we're most interested in is seeing where that's happening.

The ecosystem is really blooming. This is sort of the bread and butter of what we do. Collaboration, capital, and network density are what we've always thought are the three key things that are differentiators for a market. And those things are all coming together.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Greentown Houston's Juliana Garaizar and Emily Reichert look back on the climatetech incubator's first year. Photos via greentownlabs.com

How Greentown Houston accelerated the local energy transition in its inaugural year

q&a

This Thursday, Greentown Houston officially celebrates the completion of its first year in town, as well as the impact its made in just the 365 days since its grand opening.

Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, officially cut the ribbon on the organization's first location outside of the Boston area last Earth Day. Reichert, along with Juliana Garaizar, head of the Houston incubator and vice president of innovation, joined InnovationMap for a Q&A looking back on this past year — including what surprised them most and where members are moving in from.

Greentown Houston's anniversary event is Thursday, April 21, from 1 to 7 pm, at Greentown Houston (4200 San Jacinto St.) or livestreaming online. Click here to learn more.

InnovationMap: Looking back on the first year of Greentown Houston, what was the thing that most surprised you about the process and the community you created here?

Juliana Garaizar: What really surprised me the most was the eagerness to be a part of Greentown. We were very surprised by the pandemic — it caught us in, in the middle of fundraising and we thought things were gonna slow down and actually it became sort of a of a blessing in disguise for the community here in Houston. The Boston community had to go virtual, and then when they did, we realized that we were much more connected to the Boston team, but also why can't we offer the same services to the Houston community since we didn't have a building yet anyway. That created a huge opportunity to convene a community even before our building. We had these early access members and when we finally opened our building, they all converted to in-person members because they had already felt what the community could bring. In Boston, they took a little longer to fill in the space at opening, but we came in at grand opening with our inaugural member list in Houston — all of them super eager to join us. That conversion happened so fast happened because of the virtual aspect of COVID.

Emily Reichert: For me, there were really three things that were surprising. Throughout the whole process of building the momentum towards Greentown Houston and from the very first meetings I had with the GHP and potential supporters of a future Greentown Labs, there was this warmth of welcome. I can't compare it to anything else. Houston just really embraced this opportunity, embraced Greentown labs, and embraced our team — as well as really embracing having a climate tech incubator located in what has traditionally been called the oil and gas capital of the world. I just wanna note that that is very meaningful and it just shows that when Houston gets behind something, Houstonians go all the way they are committed and they take action. And we just felt that from the very beginning,

Second, I think that the momentum of the energy transition itself surprised us, but also felt it felt to us like we were riding a wave that wasn't just about Greentown Houston. It was about all of these different businesses, business leaders civic leaders, and just general citizenry in Houston understanding that the future of energy is different than the past of energy. And that, that was something that was going to need to happen more quickly than folks had anticipated. And again, I feel like Houstonians are leaning into it and thinking about, "well, if we've been the energy capital of the world, can we now be the energy transition capital of the world and how do we do that?" The speed with which this transition is happening is just incredible. And, increasingly in the circles that I move in outside of Houston, people know about it. It's changing the outside perspective as well. That's been really exciting to see.

Finally, the amount of talent that exists in the energy industry and in general in Houston and in the local universities that can be deployed and is interested in being deployed in climate tech and addressing climate change and the energy transition — it's really remarkable. Whenever we have a job posting out there for Greentown Houston, we are getting a lot of applicants. And now when we're going to universities to engage with students around — whether they're interested in building a startup that could address a challenge in the energy transition — it's just overwhelming the interest, the excitement, and the level of talent that I think is going to be available to apply to this energy transition that Houston can absolutely lead.

IM: Greentown Houston has not only attracted Houston-based companies, but also companies outside of Houston that want to be able to take advantage of Greentown Labs and the support there. You have both virtual and in-person membership options. Tell me a little bit about how that came to be.

JG: This was something also that the pandemic exacerbatedAgain, if you compare Boston to Houston — Boston is much more difficult to find prototyping lab space and wet labs. I would say that the cost of space is much higher there than in Houston. You there's plenty of space available for coworking, for prototyping, but the connection services to the whole ecosystem, to investors, to corporate partners, to universities to mentors — all that is key for our startups. And that means that space takes a second place. That's what we've seen. Member companies from Austin join Greentown Houston because they are connecting to a community that is more like hard tech driven and less software driven than in Austin. They wanna connect to the customers and the pilots, right? Even some of our Boston companies have moved or at least established a presence in Houston. There's also the diversity aspect that Houston is the most diverse city in the U,S. There are plenty of companies from Latin America coming over and choosing Houston as a landing pad and choosing Greentown as the place to start settling. We help them with funding. We help them with hiring local people.

IM: As you mentioned, Greentown Houston's membership grew really fast — how did you grow your team to support that?

JG: Our Houston team has quadrupled since last year and, and that's a lot — we were three and now we are 12, but we also had the whole Boston team behind us. The way we did it was through this matrix model where our team members report to someone in Boston. And although it creates an extra layer of complexity I think it was perfect for such a rapid growth because we were able to download the DNA of Greentown Boston to Houston at a much faster pace. We thought it was very important for us to distill that DNA but without forgetting about also having local people in Houston. It was the best of both worlds.

ER: We really needed to have the Houston local knowledge embedded, just like we needed to have the way that things have been done in Boston embedded. But I think as we look forward from now, you're going to increasingly see that we have embedded a lot of the practices and ways of doing things that we've done in Boston, but we're doing them with a Houston flavor, and we are doing them in a way that meets the local needs. And I think that you will see as we grow and continue to evolve, that we're gonna take our learnings from being in Houston and continue to evolve what we doin Houston. Our mission is to create an inclusive community and to convene connect, and inspire entrepreneurs and ecosystems to address climate solutions — and that's going to be the same in both locations. But how we do those specific pieces, I think will be a bit different. Now, Houston is a young ecosystem in terms of climate tech, so that convening piece is a little bit different from how we have done it in Boston.

IM: What's next for Greentown Houston — and what's next for the energy transition in Houston?

JG: For Greentown Houston we've figured out that our members need different things, and we wanna make sure that we listen and we adapt to them. It seems that a wet lab might be a need that we need to incorporate. So we're trying to figure out how, how to do that. We're growing at a much faster pace than Greentown Boston did, of course, because of the timing of the energy transition. That means that we need to think about, about expansion. We've become the convener place for climate tech.

In general in Houston for the energy transition, there's gonna be three pillars that I think are very important and that Greentown has to be apart of. One of them is the workforce development and the transition of the workforce. We're working with key partners like the Greater Houston Partnership and the Houston Energy Transition Initiative, and we're putting together a program with universities to make sure that we also extract the, the entrepreneurs of tomorrow to Greentown and to the energy transition capital.

The second aspect os access to capital there's a lot of capital of available in Houston and a lot of capital in general being poured into climate tech, but we need to make sure it comes earlier. We are very early on, and there's still a gap there for early stage investing. I think one of the key elements to be able to unlock that capital early is to make sure that our companies have pilots and demonstration at corporations.

I think the third part for the energy transition in Houston is unlocking the potential capabilities we already have, like in hydrogen by trying to become a hydrogen hub. And that will only happen if we all work together. So I think Greentown also has to play a role there of convening.

ER: Continuing to support entrepreneurs in Houston to really bring talent in, to not only help our entrepreneurs build their companies, but in general into the energy transition and climate that's something that will be leaning into the deployments of the technology at scale. That's something that Houston can uniquely do.

IM: What can people expect from both the livestream and the in-person event on Thursday?

ER: We're gonna have some great voices on that from across industry, and we are going to be showcasing our startups, both through pitches and then through a startup showcase where folks will be able to see and touch or at least talk to our entrepreneurs and learn about their companies and the opportunities to support them. I believe there will be a few other surprises, which I won't reveal.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Houston immuno-oncology company reaches next FDA milestone, heads to phase 2 trial

green light

A Houston immuno-oncology company has recently made major headway with the FDA, including both a fast track and an orphan drug designation. It will soon start a phase 2 trial of its promising cancer fighting innovation.

Diakonos Oncology was born in 2016, the brainchild of Baylor researchers already hard at work in the realm of dendritic cell vaccines. Drs. Will Decker, Matt Halpert, and Vanaja Konduri partnered with Dan Faust, a Houston businessman and pharmacist, to bring their treatment to the public, says COO Jay Hartenbach.

The name Diakonos means “deacon or servant in Greek,” he explains. “A lot of companies end up focusing on treating a specific disease or cancer and what you end up having is a significant amount of potential but with a lot of tradeoffs and downsides. And so our goal is we need to eliminate the cancer but we can't harm or dramatically malign the patient in doing so.”

How do they do that? Because the therapy catalyzes a natural immune response, it’s the patient’s own body that’s fighting the cancer. Hartenbach credits Decker with the idea of educating dendritic cells to attack cancer, in this case, glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), one of the most aggressive cancers with which doctors and patients are forced to tangle.

“Our bodies are already very good at responding very quickly and aggressively to what it perceives as virally infected cells. And so what Dr. Decker did was basically trick the immune system by infecting these dendritic cells with the cancer specific protein and mRNA,” details Hartenbach.

Jay Hartenbach is the COO of Diakonos Oncology. Photo courtesy of Diakonos Oncology

But GBM isn’t the only cancer on which Diakonos Oncology has its sights set. Other notably stubborn-to-treat cancers that they’re working on include pancreatic cancer and angiosarcoma. The scientists are focused on meeting unmet medical needs, but also realize that treating such cancers would allow for the fastest determination of whether or not the treatment was effective.

The fast track designation, originally received last fall, means that the drug approval time for DOC1021, Diakonos’ glioblastoma vaccine, will be only six months. But Hartenbach highlights an additional boon, the fact that the special designation also allows for more frequent communications with the FDA.

“That’s very helpful for us, right as we're contemplating how to design the upcoming trials. From a business standpoint, it also is incredibly helpful because it provides a third party validation of what we're doing and the results that we're seeing,” he says.

What they’re seeing includes the survival of 13 out of 16 patients from the initial October 2021 enrollment. The three patients who passed away received the lowest dose of DOC1021. Hartenbach says that the remaining patients are thriving, with no serious adverse effects. With a median survival rate of 15 to 21 months, it’s hard to understate the significance of these patients’ success.

Diakonos Oncology is headquartered in Houston, with a staff of 10 in Space City and an additional eight distributed employees. Hartenbach says that the company’s hometown has been instrumental in its success. He mentions that the robust innovation of the Texas Medical Center meant that as the company has grown, there has never been a motivation to leave Houston.

“You're having a lot of both investment and companies actually moving to Houston,” Hartenbach says. “So we’ve been fortunate to have started there. There are bigger traditional biotech hubs, San Diego, Boston, and San Francisco, but Houston really is now putting itself on the map and it's getting a lot of attention.”

One of the companies responsible for that improved reputation? Diakonos Oncology and its promising approach to aggressive cancers.

Houston professor earns competitive NSF award, nearly $700,000 grant

science supported

An assistant professor at Rice University has won one of the highly competitive National Science Foundation's CAREER Awards.

The award grants $670,406 over five years to Amanda Marciel, the William Marsh Rice Trustee Chair of chemical and biomolecular engineering, to continue her research in designing branch elastomers that return to their original shape after being stretched, according to a statement from Rice. The research has applications in stretchable electronics and biomimetic tissues.

“My goal is to create a new paradigm for designing elastomers,” Marciel said in a statement. “The research has four aims: to determine the role of comb polymer topology in forming elastomers, understanding the effects of that topology on elastomer mechanics, characterizing its effects on elastomer structure and increasing the intellectual diversity in soft matter research.”

Marciel, who joined the faculty at Rice in 2019, is one of about 500 researchers to receive the NSF's CAREER Award each year. The award recognizes early-career faculty members who “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the NSF.

In addition to supporting Marciel's research, the funds will also go toward creating opportunities in soft matter research for undergraduates and underrepresented scientists. It will establish a new annual symposium called the Texas Soft Matter Meeting, where community college teachers can participate in a soft matter laboratory module and students in the Research Experiences for Undergrads program at Rice will present their summer research.

Recently, Rice also launched the new Rice Synthetic Biology Institute, which aims to strengthen the synthetic biology community across disciplines at the university. It is part of an $82 million investment the university put toward synthetic biology, neuroengineering and physical biology in 2018.

A fellow team or Rice researcher is also working on wearable haptic accessories. A member of the team was recently named to the 2024 cohort of Rice Innovation Fellows. Click here to learn more.