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

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.

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Houston innovator joins VC world to increase her social impact

Q&A

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Serafina Lalany of Houston Exponential sits down to discuss he ambitious investment-focused plans for Houston innovation. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Houston Exponential leader looks to increase local startup investment through 2022

Q&A

Serafina Lalany is known to crunch the numbers. In her role as executive director of Houston Exponential, which she's held since September, she keeps a close eye on venture capital activity in Houston.

"Following VC data is the closest proxy to other data that is often hard to collect. It actually gives us a sense of the growth over time of the ecosystem," Lalany tells InnovationMap. "Also, it gives us the signal as to like what our strengths are and the areas that we need to continue to build out infrastructure."

This year, Lalany and her team at HX aren't just watching the numbers — they hope to make an impact on the VC activity in Houston with more of their VC immersion days. For those, HX and its partner Republic, a startup investing platform, find local startups and connect them with visiting venture capital firms in hopes to generate investment.

Lalany discusses more of her plans for HX for 2022 and shares how the organization is evolving to be what Houston's innovation ecosystem needs in an interview.

InnovationMap: You’re starting your first full year as executive director of HX — what are you most excited about for 2022?

Serafina Lalany: In my eyes, I think 2022 presents a really interesting opportunity. Just looking back the last year, we had a lot of successes as a collective community. For the first time we saw the rise of more than one unicorn. Outside of High Radius, we've seen Cart.com launch and expand and become a behemoth. We've seen Axiom Space make some cool, critical hires and attract talent from New York City and other high growth companies. We've seen the expansion of companies like Capsule, ClassPass, and GoPuff to the Houston region. We're starting to see some really positive signals here, but also what we're excited about at HX is that over the last two years, entrepreneurship as itself has become a lot more accessible.

We've seen the demographics of entrepreneurs rapidly change. The average founder is a lot younger now, and there are many reasons as to why that's happening. In the knowledge economy, there's a lot more resources available to you as the world switched to completely digital. Suddenly, we found a lot more time on our hands, and the proliferation of things like no code tools helped to launch companies. We've seen probably the highest concentration of early stage companies in Houston to date.

There's something interesting happening on the ground, and that plus the global attention Houston starting to get as a climatetech leader, as a health tech leader, aerospace commercialization — people are starting to recognize what a force Houston is to reckon with. Looking into 2022, I think we'll be elevating Houston on a more global scale.

IM: How has HX evolved since its inception and where is the organization at today?

SL: The interesting thing of being an organization of ex-startup operators is that we operate as a startup ourselves. Along the journey of supporting and building infrastructure for a startup community, we have also been seeking our own product market fit. I think we're at the place now where we have a profound realization of what that is and who we serve. We have crystal clear vision around that.

We exist to position Houston as one of the best places to launch and scale a company. We serve entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs in Houston. We do that in many ways. Of course, most of the community recognizes HX through efforts like the Houston Tech Rodeo, but we're also working on opportunities and initiatives to help lower the barrier of entry for entrepreneurs in Houston. So things like VC immersions, which which allow access to capital in ways that weren't previously accessible. And definitely ramping up our efforts around reporting marketing and media, helping to shine a brighter light on our city. There's more to come as we get into this new year.

IM: Tech rodeo is coming back in a couple of months. What’s should people know about this year’s experience?

SL: A lot has changed this year. We listened to feedback from the attendees last year, which was our highest attended event to date. About 8,600 people came out last year, which blew our expectations out of the water. Having it as a hybrid made lot more accessible to people even outside of the region. This year we learned that from previous years having 130 to 170 events across the week is awesome, but it also forces people to make hard decisions sometimes. So, we're centralizing all of our events downtown on Main Street. We've actually partnered with METRO, and there will be 20 official saloons for Houston Tech Rodeo all along the light rail. Monday through Sunday (Feb. 28 through March 6), We're activating all of downtown and it'll look and feel a lot like SXSW. People will be walking from venue to venue,and we have a few thematic focus areas — health tech, aerospace, climatetech, but also emerging sectors like CPG, which I think we need to give more credit to in Houston.

IM: Last year, you introduced a partnership with Republic. What instigated this collaboration and what's been the impact so far?

SL: Inspiration for partnering with the Republic actually came out of our internal discussions around the time of the transition where we assess that VC immersions program is one of the most vital programs for our ecosystem because it helps lower the barrier to entry for startups seeking capital, especially for their first round of institutional capital. We have seen lots of positive signals over the last like 18 months of having done this gram. We have seen about 1,500 applications come through, 150 or more meetings were facilitated, and $35 million of capital was deployed to those companies. Our number one challenge is scaling — it was really just time and resources. As you can imagine, looking through those applications and the communication with the companies, it takes a considerable amount of time.

So, what we really needed to help us scale was additional venture analysts to look through those applications. Almost serendipitously as we were discussing the program with one of our friends, Abe Chu of previously NextSeed now Republic, we found that there's actually a lot of synergy here. They certainly have the capacity to look through applications — they've got a whole venture team — and we have the reach in the community. We work across the entire region. It ended up being a really cool collaboration. Now with their help, we can actually serve more entrepreneurs and more investors.

With this new model, where we're bringing in five to 15 investors to the city each quarter. Instead of those investors meeting with one founder, as they often do when they're in town, they're meeting with five to 15 founders. It's reducing friction for outside investors — that trip to Houston is very impactful, very busy, but very impactful. For the startups, it's really a great way to get the face time with investors that they can potentially be working with.

IM: HX has made some recent hiring moves — what were your goals in those strategic hires and are still growing your team?

SL: We made two critical hires in the last 30 or so days. One is our new director of inclusive innovation — that's Ivery Boston III. He actually was in the Miami ecosystem on Mayor Suarez's task force, so he's seen it all. We're really grateful to have that institutional knowledge here in Houston, but, more importantly, I think Ivery brings a really interesting perspective to the team and helps to fill a gap in our ecosystem today. I think we all realize and value the diversity in Houston, and how that is a core strength of our community. But we also have to be mindful about creating on ramps for underrepresented communities as well as we build and accelerate our tech economy in Houston.

Part of his responsibilities will be working directly within these communities and alongside these communities to help ensure that all HX activities are of course are built with an inclusive mindset, and they're taking considerations from the community in mind as well as we develop them out. This is all for the goal of helping to create the most equitable startup community we've seen in the country. To our benefit of being a last mover, an advantage, of which there are few, is that we actually get to do things hopefully in a much better way than we've seen on the coasts.

As far as future hires, I think this is pretty much the core team we're looking at for the next 12 months.

IM: I know something super important to you has been tracking venture capital activity in Houston. Why has that been a metric your you've been closely watching throughout your time at HX and what does the data show?

SL: Following VC data is the closest proxy to other data that is often hard to collect. It actually gives us a sense of the growth over time of the ecosystem. It gives us insights into the rate of capital that is deployed and how that's growing over time and where it's getting deployed. Also gives us the signal as to like what our strengths are and the areas that we need to continue to build out infrastructure. Over the last few years we've noticed that there has been more attention around hard tech and in biotech. As ecosystem developers, we must ask ourselves, "do we have the entire life cycle of resources and infrastructure to support companies within those sectors along their journey to scale?" If the answer is no, then we run the risk of potentially losing that talent or losing those companies to other places where there are supportive resources. So, it helps inform a lot of what we do. But it's also one of the few indicators of ecosystem growth in a way that is typically really hard to collect.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Stephanie Hertzog, CEO of Houston-based Sodexo, shares how she's embracing diversity and innovation within the energy industry. Photo courtesy of Sodexo

Houston CEO talks augmented reality, diversity, how it will all play a role in the energy transition

Q&A

When Stephanie Hertzog first started her role as CEO of Houston-based Sodexo Energy & Resources North America in the fall of 2019, she was on the road every week visiting some of the facility management company's 100 million customers.

"I actually had a conversation with my assistant in early March, and said, 'Okay, our goal is that by April, I not be on the road every week. Let's try to get this to at least every other week,'" she recalls. Shortly after, the world changed, and by March 10 she halted all travel and was forced to lead her company to innovate in more ways than one.

"When we think about innovation, we often think about technology, but we've had to innovate so much in the last 12 months, in how we do everything," she says. "We've really asked a lot of our teams over the last year in regard to having to rethink how they do things and be innovative and adapt."

To Hertzog, it's this adaptation and innovation she's seen in the last year that will allow her industry to support an energy transition and, as she says, "preserve" beyond the pandemic and inevitable future downturns.

InnovationMap talked with Hertzog about the importance of adaptation in the energy industry, new technologies that Sodexo has implemented in that effort, and how a diverse workforce plays a role in all of it.

InnovationMap: Why is it important for the energy industry to continue to adapt and be innovative?

StephanieHertzog: Oftentimes, the energy industry gets viewed a bit as being old school. We, as an industry, have really embraced technology for decades now. And I really think that it's what's allowed us to continue to survive during all of the down cycles.

In today's age, where we have renewables growing their percentage of the market, and there's a lot of enhanced enthusiasm around carbon reduction efforts. And technology will be at the forefront of that energy transition. Technology is going to be a big part of how we continue to provide affordable energy for the foreseeable future.

IM: You're originally from the Houston area. How has it changed and what makes you excited for Houston's future?

SH: I'm most excited about Houston and most proud of Houston in that we've always been a very diverse and international city. I think a lot of that has been driven over the years by energy business, bringing in people from all over, but we also have a high immigrant population. And I think that diversity has really led us to be entrepreneurial. Thinking about innovation and technology, having that diversity of thought and opinion has helped us to continue to be a leader in that space over time. We've always been a large city ever since I was young, but we're continuing to grow. And we're seeing more and more people transplanting here from other parts of the country. And I think that's exciting to see us getting more diversity in our economy as well.

IM: Why is it important — from a business perspective — to have a diverse workforce?

SH: There's a lot of research on this topic. It's very clear that businesses that have more diverse leadership teams outperform those that don't, and so having diversity in the room leads people to ask different questions, to have more discussion and to have more questioning of the status quo.

IM: What has been the most impactful adaptation in your industry in recent years?

SH: It's really been embracing software technology. The mobile aspects of being able to get data on your phone has really allowed us to put in a lot of systems that have allowed us to, for example, better track tasks and make sure that things get done to optimize janitorial cleaning schedule. There's a lot of stuff that we used to do on paper at a site that we now do electronically, which allows us to compare site versus site and see not just how well can that site do, but how well is that site doing versus other sites. It's all about doing what we do really well and as efficiently as possible.

We have a recent innovation that we've been working on: augmented reality glasses that allow someone on an offshore platform, for example, to wear the glasses and someone back in Houston in an office tower to see what that person is seeing almost through their own eyes. That is an example being able to get things done faster. I don't have to physically travel someone to the platform, I can just be able to get them in real time. And so there are a lot of things like that. It opens up all new worlds.

IM: Why is augmented reality an especially useful tool in the energy industry? 

SH: We already discussed from an efficiency standpoint of being able to get the expertise on site without physically having to get out there. But another aspect of that is the safety element. We always try to keep as few people on site as possible, just because these environments inherently have some amount of safety precautions that we have to take. Some of the things are as simple as to be able to actually get out to an offshore platform, you have to have been helicopter trained. But also, Heaven forbid, something should happen on that platform you want the least amount of people out there as possible.

IM: Did the pandemic play any role in terms of expediting the adaptation of these technologies?

SH: Yes. We were looking for better ways to do anything remotely that we could. That was everything from these glasses to just straight up video conferencing. We normally do a safety walk in-person, but how can you do a safety walk remotely? So I think any opportunity, we had to try to enhance the experience of being there, but not being there — everything got escalated.

IM: In light of Women's History month, why is it important for the energy industry to focus on inclusion of women as it moves forward?

SH: I think the business case is the same as we discussed earlier: better outcomes, more success if we have diversity at all levels in the energy space. And it's really important in energy, because we've been bad at this. Particularly around the gender dynamic, if we look at the highest levels in the energy space, there's just not historically been a lot of representation of women there. We're starting to make some inroads, but we still have a long way to go. Part of it's been a pipeline issue. A lot of the leaders of energy businesses are engineers. Women are now coming out of undergraduate around 40 percent of chemical engineers, so we're getting we're getting close to having parity there – but overall engineering is still only 20 percent female. And from that first manager position and on up, there are big gaps where we lose women along the way.

We're not keeping up with the pace that we've been putting women into the business for a long time. Companies have got to make some real effort here. Certainly the year that the United States had around some of the racial divide, I think that's an important topic for us to be talking about. And we need to all be focusing on getting more of not only diversity, but inclusion as well. It's not just about hiring a diverse group, it's about making those people feel included when they get here and having them want to stay and be a part of our industry. From a Houston perspective, we continue to be a big part of the economy here. And so if we're not getting it right, then Houston's going to struggle.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.