Venture Houston brought together key innovators and investors focused on Houston — here's what they said. Photo via Getty Images

Last week, over 2,500 people registered to Venture Houston to talk about startups and venture capital in Houston for two full days.

The two-day conference, which was put on by HXVF, the Houston Angel Network, the Rice Alliance, and Houston Exponential, took place February 4th and 5th and brought together startups, investors, corporations, and anyone who cares to advance the Houston tech ecosystem.

Click here to see what companies won big in the event's startup pitch competition.

Throughout the various panels and keynote addresses, Houston innovation leaders sounded off on what the future of Houston looks like in terms of venture activity. Missed the discussion or just want a refresher on on the highlights? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual conference.

“The way I look at it, Houston has an opportunity to really emerge as one of the leading startup cities in the country.”

SteveCase, chairman and CEO of Revolution Ventures and co-founder of AOL.

He makes a reference to the iconic line "Houston, we have a problem" — which now is defined by a time of opportunity. Case adds that his VC fund, Revolution, which has invested in Houston-based GoodFair, is looking for new investments in Houston.

“We were behind. We were slow to start, but in typical Houston fashion, now we are escalating with real momentum."

Amy Chronis, Houston managing partner of Deloitte and 2021 Greater Houston Partnership board chair.

Chronis notes on the fact that VC activity in Houston is up 250 percent since 2016, and in that time the city has focused on diversifying its business. Now, the city touts its active corporate community, global diversity, and more.

"In Houston, companies and talent are looking at ways to change the world," she adds.

“I see there being a significant amount of seed capital taking off.”

StephanieCampbell, managing director of the Houston Angel Network and The Artemis Fund.

Campbell calls out new funds to Houston, like Golden Section Ventures and her own fund, Artemis. She adds that with over $700 million invested in Houston deals last year, the city is in a good place, and she is anticipating more angel activity.

"While this is really exciting progress, there's still a lot of work to be done in terms of seed and early-stage funding," she continues.

“I see there being billion-dollar venture funds here in Houston on the life science front over the next decade.”

John "JR" Reale, managing director of Integr8d Capital.

Reale, who's also the executive in residence at TMC Innovation, says he's seen the growth and potential of the life science industry in Houston.

"You can see the intentionality of the infrastructure that's being built that's going to attract diverse founders and all talent," he says.

“What I really see is the trajectory for Houston has been changing over the last couple years.”

BradBurke, managing director for the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship.

Burke points to three things that have really moved the needle on Houston's progress as an innovative city. The first was the Texas Medical Center establishing its Innovation Institute a few years back, and the next is how Houston's top energy companies are making big moves to support the energy transition. Finally, he says, The Ion, which is set to open this year, is the third reflection point for progress.

“The Houston startup scene is a very special place. It’s a community I actively choose to be a part of, and it activates me every day.”

Rakesh Agrawal, CEO and founder of SnapStream.

“We’ve got a really incredible story to tell.”

SusanDavenport, senior vice president of economic development for the GHP.

Davenport adds that this is exactly what the GHP is doing — making Houston's story known. And she says they have talked to global business leaders and they describe the city as a modern, cosmopolitan, truly global city.

From M&A action to the development of Houston's innovation corridor, these are five Houston innovators to keep an eye on in 2020. Courtesy photos

5 Houston innovators to know in 2020

Who's who

For so many Houston innovators, 2020 will be a year of growth, execution, proof of concept, piloting, pivoting, fundraising, and more.

It's hard to narrow down the list of movers and shakers in Houston innovation, but a few have stood out for making waves in the new year. From M&A action to the development of Houston's innovation corridor, these are five Houston innovators to keep an eye on in 2020.

Rakesh Agrawal, founder and CEO of SnapStream

Photo courtesy of SnapStream

This past year has been good to SnapStream, but it's only the beginning of the company's next growth phase. The software company's technology allows its clients to easily record, search, and share video and broadcast content and has attracted clients from the likes of Saturday Night Live and Last Week Tonight.

In 2019, the company was named the transition partner for Volicon Observer, a company Verizon brought under its umbrella and then changed its mind about, Rakesh Agrawal, CEO of SnapStream, explains on an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Volicon's specialty is in monitoring and compliance, and with that move, SnapStream brought on around 150 new clients. To maintain those clients and grow its services, SnapStream has rolled out a whole new department. The launch of SnapStream Monitoring and Compliance is the next step for SnapStream's takeover of Volicon, according to a news release.

The M&A activity sparked a move to hire and expand the SnapStream team as the division grows throughout 2020.

Allison Thacker, president of the Rice Management Company

Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Houston has its eyes on The Ion, a 270,000-square-foot building innovation center being developed in the former Sears building in Midtown. Behind the project is the Rice Management Company, which is led by Allison Thacker, president of the organization.

The Ion broke ground in May, and also named its operations leader, Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston earlier this year. While the project isn't expected to deliver until 2021, next year will likely entail determining a few key things about The Ion and the surrounding innovation corridor Rice Management and the city will be developing.

The Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement, a newly formed organization, has recently expressed its concerns with the development of the property in the historic Third Ward. The community organization wants Rice Management and all parties involved with the innovation corridor to agree to a Community Benefits Agreement, which would protect local residents and provide positive initiatives for growth. The CBA is expected to be arranged in 2020 as the project moves forward.

Andrew Bruce, founder and CEO of Data Gumbo

Photo courtesy of Data Gumbo

Another Houston company that plans to grow throughout 2020 is Data Gumbo. The blockchain-as-a-service company has raised some significant funds — a $6 million series A round closed in May — and will be putting that money to work by expanding the company's footprint and services.

Earlier this year, the company announced its entrance into the construction industry — Andrew Bruce, CEO of Data Gumbo, says in a recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast that the funds will also take Data Gumbo to new global markets, including the Middle East.

"The whole thing for us is building this blockchain network of interconnected companies," Bruce says. "The more companies that are a part of that network, the more value that network has."

Payal Patel, director of corporate partnerships at Plug and Play Tech Center in Houston

Courtesy of Payal Patel

San Francisco-based Plug and Play Tech Center quickly established its new energy-focused Houston location — from announcing its entrance into the market in June to hiring its director of corporate partnerships, Payal Patel, in September. The first cohort of portfolio companies were named in October, and several new Houston partner corporations have been announced as well.

Next year, the local team is expected to grow and is currently hiring for a few positions, as well as announce its office space in town. Patel, specifically, will spearhead the initiatives to grow the organizations already impressive list of corporate partners.

"[Plug and Play ha] great Fortune 500 corporate partners, they work and know the best tech startups all over the world, and they have a strong investment capability," Patel previously told InnovationMap. "I'm excited that those resources and capabilities are coming to Houston."

Travis Parigi, CEO of LiquidFrameworks

Courtesy of LiquidFrameworks

Travis Parigi has always been the one to write the code for his company's software technology, but now, he's in acquisition mode thanks to new support from private equity. Last January, LiquidFrameworks entered into a partnership with private equity firm, Luminate Capital. The new financial partner has opened doors for Parigi, CEO of LiquidFrameworks, and the company as a whole — including putting merger and acquisition activity on the table.

The company has grown its team and even moved to a bigger space in Greenway Plaza. LiquidFrameworks, which has created a suite of software solutions for upstream and downstream oil and gas companies called FieldFX, is also working on key updates and new features for its software.

This week's innovators to know in Houston all have new and exciting things to announce. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Who are Houston's innovators to know? Well this week, here's who made headlines, from a well-known Houston software entrepreneur and investor rolling out a new line of business for his company to a new podcast network with Houston roots.

Gabriella Rowe, executive director of operations at The Ion

ION Accelerator ribbon cutting event, with Mayor Sylvester Turner and business partners.

Photo by Carter Smith/Station Houston

The entrepreneurial hub dubbed the Ion that's expected to premiere in Houston's innovation district in 2021 has a new operating organization and the Rice Management Company has tapped Station Houston CEO Gabriella Rowe to run it.

"To ensure that The Ion is a catalyst for the continued growth of the innovation ecosystem, we've been collaborating with Gaby and her team as well as civic leaders, Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County commissioners and Midtown Houston," says Allison Thacker, president and chief investment officer of the RMC, in a news release. "We know that under Gaby's leadership The Ion will become an innovation hub for not only all Houstonians, but for anybody looking to thrive and collaborate in an entrepreneur-first, tech-forward environment." Read more.

Rakesh Agrawal, founder and CEO of SnapStream

Photo courtesy of SnapStream

Houston-based SnapStream has expanded its services, and CEO and Co-founder Rakesh Agrawal appears on the third episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his company's growth and the role he plays in the Houston innovation ecosystem.

"A lot of people go to this question of, 'What's wrong with the Houston ecosystem?' If there's anything that's a fundamental characteristic of Houston that we need to change that would really help the startup and innovation ecosystem is that often in Houston, the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing," Agrawal says on the podcast. Read more.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs, co-founder of Lemonada Media

Photo via Twitter

It's safe to say that Stephanie Wittels Wachs didn't have start and run a podcast network in her life's master plan. Nonetheless, the Houstonian can check that box after she launched Lemonada Media with her business partner, Jessica Cordova Kramer. The network is about creating provoking, uncensored content about life and humanity.

"This is everything I've done in my whole life," she tells InnovationMap. "It sort of combines my writing and my education background and my artistic background and some voiceover background and my activism. It's everything." Read more.

Houston-based SnapStream's CEO, Rakesh Agrawal, is the third guest on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Courtesy of SnapStream

Software entrepreneur, investor announces new service and shares why he's bullish on Houston innovation

Houston innovators podcast episode 3

With a couple decades in the Houston innovation ecosystem under his belt, Rakesh Agrawal considers himself an optimist about his city.

Agrawal founded his company SnapStream — a software company that allows its clients to easily record, search, and share video and broadcast content — in 2000 and has gone on to not only grow and expand the company, but also create a portfolio of software startups as an investor.

In the third episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Agrawal shares how he's seen the city's innovation ecosystem evolve to what it is today — admittedly, he has a very positive outlook on the city. However, if he had to identify something Houston needs to work on, its communication.

"A lot of people go to this question of, 'What's wrong with the Houston ecosystem?' If there's anything that's a fundamental characteristic of Houston that we need to change that would really help the startup and innovation ecosystem is that often in Houston, the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing," Agrawal says on the podcast.

Agrawal says that one of the indicators of the city's success in cultivating startups is his own portfolio. About a quarter of the companies he's invested in are based in Houston.

Recently, Agrawal pulled back some of his investing activity to focus on SnapStream. The company was named the transition partner for Volicon Observer, a company Verizon brought under its umbrella and then changed its mind about, Agrawal explains in the episode.

Volicon's specialty is in monitoring and compliance, and with that move, SnapStream brought on around 150 new clients. To maintain those clients and grow its services, SnapStream has rolled out a whole new department. The launch of SnapStream Monitoring and Compliance is the next step for SnapStream's takeover of Volicon, according to a news release.

"The SnapStream Monitoring and Compliance launch builds on our depth of experience and extends SnapStream into an exciting new market," says Agrawal in the release. "The amazing SnapStream team is what differentiates us — from our engineers, who build user experiences that save our users time, to our support team, who deliver on a high standard for responding to customers and resolving issues, to our customer success team, who deliver the best onboarding experience."

Agrawal discusses the transition, his investment activity, and more in the episode. Listen to the podcast below and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.


From making major deals to advancing future innovators, here are three Houston leaders to know this week. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

This week's movers and shakers in Houston innovation are dealmakers and leaders — from securing huge partnerships to influencing the next generation of inventors. These are the three innovators to know in Houston this week.

Rakesh Agrawal, CEO of SnapStream

Courtesy of SnapStream

A Houston tech innovator just made a deal with Verizon. Verizon Digital Media Services announced that SnapStream is the "official transition partner" for a product under Volicon Observer, a company that was acquired by Verizon in 2016. SnapStream's CEO Rakesh Agrawal says in a release that the two entities have similar products, features, and even customers, but have always had a respectful relationship.

"SnapStream is known, among other things, for the great support we provide, and we look forward to providing the same high-quality support to Volicon customers," Agrawal says in the release. "We hope to eventually earn the business of current Volicon customers by converting them into SnapStream customers." Read the full story here.

Enrico Ladendorf, founder and managing partner of Pason Power

Courtesy of Pason Power

Another Houston dealmaker is Enrico Ladendorf, founder and managing partner of Pason Power. In layman's terms, Pason Power offers an array of technologies — including AI, IoT, real-time automation — that support energy storage systems throughout a project's lifecycle. Energy storage systems is a wide umbrella that includes everything from the massive systems used to store renewable energy and biofuels, to household batteries, which store electricity.

"We have intelligent energy management system, which is an intelligent brain that sits inside an energy storage system," says Ladendorf. "We have this intelligent, fully-autonomous system that knows the physical operation of (energy storage and drill rigs), and it makes it brain-dead simple." Read the full story here.

Pam Rosen, general manager of the Shell Eco-marathon

Courtesy of Shell

Houstonian Pam Rosen lead Shell's Eco-marathon, which took place from April 3 to 6. Two student teams represented Houston in the competition — one from Rice University and James E. Taylor High School.

"We really needed to get more young people interested in technology careers," says Pam Rosen, general manager of the Shell Eco-marathon. "It [doesn't] even need to be with Shell. It's more about the method, science, and helping [students[ gravitate toward those opportunities."Read the full story here.

Houston-based SnapStream, led by CEO Rakesh Agrawal, has been selected by Verizon to provide support. Courtesy of SnapStream

Verizon taps Houston tech company for product support

Done deal

A Houston software company that enables TV and broadcast monitoring just snagged a deal with Verizon. The partnership will call for 10 new Houston employees.

Verizon Digital Media Services announced that SnapStream is the "official transition partner" for a product under Volicon Observer, a company that was acquired by Verizon in 2016. SnapStream's CEO Rakesh Agrawal says in a release that the two entities have similar products, features, and even customers, but have always had a respectful relationship.

"SnapStream is known, among other things, for the great support we provide, and we look forward to providing the same high-quality support to Volicon customers," Agrawal says in the release. "We hope to eventually earn the business of current Volicon customers by converting them into SnapStream customers."

SnapStream's technology has been used by hundreds of organizations around the world, the release says, including CBS, MLB Networks, the Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, Samantha Bee, and the U.S. Senate. While SnapStream is a software solution, Volicon is appliance based, and Verizon announced the termination of the company's solutions in January — citing the need "to focus continued development on future solutions that better align with industry trends and market needs."

Now, Volicon customers will be redirected to SnapStream support into 2020 and can transition into SnapStream's model should they like.

"Verizon Digital Media Services is committed to providing high-quality products and services for our customers," says Peter Gallagher, COO of Verizon Digital Media Services, in the release. "The partnership with SnapStream will provide Volicon Observer customers with a dedicated support team at the highest level of commitment to ensure continued success in their business operations."

SnapStream's technology is a TV broadcast monitoring software used by CBS, MLB, The Daily Show, and more.Courtesy of SnapStream

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Rice names inaugural recipients of new grant program that's doling out $360,000

Four Houston research projects are splitting hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant funding from Rice University.

After announcing the One Small Step Grant program in September to support Rice-developed, lab-stage innovations, the university has named its inaugural recipients. After receiving nearly 30 applicants, four research projects were selected to share $360,000 in grant funding.

“Being able to fund near-commercial projects represents a leap forward in our mission of supporting the cutting-edge work of our faculty and students and helping bring those to market,” Adrian Trömel, assistant vice president for strategy and investments, says in a news release. “Feedback from industry and investors show that they’re excited on how the One Small Step grants help derisk these technologies, getting them ready to launch. Watch this space for the next generation of leading deeptech companies.”

The selected projects include:

  • PerisBio, developed by Samira Aglhara Fotovat and Samantha Fleury from Rice Professor Omid Veiseh's Lab, focuses on novel, hydrogel-encapsulated engineered "cell factories" for the minimally invasive treatment of endometriosis. The project received a $100,000 award.
  • Solidec, founded by Ryan Duchanois and Yang Xia from Rice Professor Haotian Wang's Lab, is a room temperature, solid-state direct air capture technology. The project received a $100,000 award.
  • HornetX, led by Rice Professor Aditya Mohite's Lab, aims to produce highly stable green hydrogen using a perovskite-based photoelectrochemical cell with leading efficiency. The project received a $80,000 award.
  • Coflux, developed by Jeremy Daum and Alec Ajnsztajn from the labs of Rice Professors Rafael Verduzco and Pulickel Ajayan, focuses on covalent organic framework-based photocatalysts for instream remediation of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) from water. The project received a $80,000 award.

The Office of Innovation created an investment advisory committee — made up of entrepreneurs, investors and corporate executives across industries — to select these recipients. The grant program was funded by the Office of Innovation, with support from Breakthrough Energy Fellows for climate and energy projects

“The inaugural winners of the One Small Step Grant represent the innovative spirit and dedication to excellence that defines our students and faculty," Rice Chief Innovation Officer Paul Cherukuri says. "We are proud to support these groundbreaking projects on their journey from lab to market."

Innovative Texas hardtech startup secures award to test in space

ready for liftoff

A Houston-area startup and Greentown Houston member has secured a prestigious space prize.

College Station’s FluxWorks, which develops and commercializes non-contact magnetic gearboxes for use in extreme environments, was one of two startups to receive the Technology in Space Prize, which is funded by Boeing and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS, manager of the International Space Station National Laboratory. Los Angeles-based Symphony Bio also received the honor.

Through the MassChallenge startup accelerator program, the two companies now get to utilize the research environment available through the ISS National Lab. CASIS and Boeing awarded Symphony Bio and FluxWorks more than $630,000 in total through the contest. Approximately $20 million has been awarded for more than 30 projects, which have already launched to the space station, since the event’s beginning.

"Boeing is excited to partner with CASIS to support the advancement of cutting-edge research using the unique environment of the orbiting laboratory,” says Scott Copeland, director for ISS research integration at Boeing, in a news release. “Enabling research that can help millions diagnosed with cancer and advancing mechanical innovations of non-contact magnetic gear technology will benefit human life in both the harsh environment of space and terrestrial environments.

"There are many smart people out there with great ideas who can leverage the space station to advance innovation, and these two companies serve as an inspiration to them all,” he continues.

FluxWorks, which won the 2023 Rice Business Plan Competition, will use the space station to test performance of a new gear. The magnetic gear will be tested to assess its startup behavior, dynamic operation, vibrational characteristics, and seal and bearing behavior in microgravity. Gearbox's goal is to reduce the mass of motors required in a variety of applications, but the lubricant needed to make them work is not designed for use in extreme environments, like space. Magnetic gears do not require lubricant, which makes them an alternative.

Symphony Bio will use the orbiting laboratory to develop a new cancer treatment that hopes to harness the immune system to fight tumors.

Houston innovator calls for collaboration from energy tech community

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 226

Scott Gale will be the first to admit that hosting a week of curated events targeted to a group of individuals within the tech and energy space isn't a novel idea — Climate Week NYC has been taking over Manhattan for over a decade. But Gale believes Houston deserves to have its own time to shine.

Earlier this month, Halliburton Labs, Rice Alliance, and Greentown Houston announced the inaugural Houston Energy and Climate Startup Week 2024 to take place in September, but Gale, executive director of Halliburton Labs, says he hopes this is just the beginning of Houston organizations coming together to collaborate on the initiative.

"I think we have a really awesome initial coalition. Whether your the fifth company or organization to raise its hand to do something that week or the 50th — it really doesn't matter," Gale says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It really is an open invitation — and I want to make that super clear."



Gale says that he's looked at some of the successful week-long events — like SXSW and others — and the key factors are calendar coordination and cross promotion. Now that Houston has the week set — September 9 to 13, 2024 — it's time for everyone to fill that week with a density of events anywhere around Houston to showcase the city's innovative energy community.

Those interested can learn more or submit their event information online.

The initiative falls in line with how Gale has led Halliburton Labs from its early days in 2020 to now with a focus on community. While the corporate world always needs eyes on its return on investment, supporting the innovation ecosystem has been a bit of a leap of faith – and it always will be.

"There's always this idea of having a line of sight to the outcomes (of your investment). And when you're interfacing with or investing in the startup community, you don't have the benefit of line of sight. A lot of the things that are being solved for are just too early stage. And that can be really hard for corporates to wrap their heads around," Gale says.

"One of the things that we got to was this idea that you can invest in the startup community, and you don't know where the returns will come from, but you know they will come," he continues.