This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Moji Karimi of Cemvita Factory, Shanna Jin of Rice University, and Trent Crow of Real Simple Energy. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — data science, consumer tech, and medical device innovation — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita Factory

Moji Karimi joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how his technology is offering energy execs an innovative way to meat their climate change pledge goals. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

A lot of startups are working on technology that makes existing practices more efficient, cheaper, or faster — or all of the above. But Cemvita Factory, founded by siblings Moji and Tara Karimi, is doing something that's never been done before: biomimicking photosynthesis to convert carbon emissions into useful chemicals.

"There weren't biotech companies working with oil and gas companies for this use case that we have now," Moji Karimi says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We're defining this new category for application of synthetic biology in heavy industries for decarbonization."

With this uncharted territory comes unique challenges and opportunities. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Shanna Jin, communications and marketing specialist of the Data to Knowledge Lab at Rice University

Startups and small businesses are accumulating data daily — here's how to use that to your advantage, according to this Houston expert. Photo via rice.edu

Ironically, the power of data management is almost incalculable. With the right practices and processes in place, businesses can make better decisions and grow more strategically. But, it's not something a lot of startups or small businesses look at regularly. That's where the Rice University Data To Knowledge group comes into play.

"Being able to interpret data and making data-driven decisions becomes the key to the success of a business," writes Shanna Jin in a guest column for InnovationMap. "It is not just a privilege for big companies anymore. Small businesses need it more than ever to make sustainable growth in the digital era." Click here to read more.

Trent Crow, founder and president of Real Simple Energy

Trent Crow, founder and president, and the Real Simple Energy team have moved over to Arcardia with the acquisition. Photo courtesy of Real Simple Energy

Earlier this month, a Houston startup exited to a larger tech company. Trent Crow, co-founder and CEO of Real Simply Energy, says all eight of the company's employees have moved over to Arcadia and more workers will be hired soon. The company has maintained a mix of office and remote workers. Arcadia will look for Houston office space later this year, Crow says.

"Expansion plans include doing more of what we're doing now and offering more features for customers," says Crow, who now is Arcadia's general manager of energy services in Texas. Click here to read more.

Trent Crow, founder and president (left), and Paul Paras, founder and vice president, and the rest of the Real Simple Energy team have moved over to Arcardia with the acquisition. Photo courtesy of Real Simple Energy

Houston energy startup acquired by growing tech company

making moves

February's massive winter weather disaster underscored the fragile availability and volatile cost of electricity in the Houston area and throughout Texas. Just a month after the calamity, a Washington, D.C.-based company has scooped up Houston-based Real Simple Energy to help put power back in the hands of electricity consumers in Texas.

Arcadia, a tech company that connects U.S. homeowners and renters to renewable energy, said March 17 that it had purchased Real Simple Energy. Terms of the deal for the three-year-old startup weren't disclosed.

Real Simple Energy's automated platform matches power usage with the lowest rates in the Texas marketplace to reduce electric bills. The company manages all facets of a customer's monthly power bills.

Trent Crow, co-founder and CEO of Real Simply Energy, says all eight of the company's employees have moved over to Arcadia and more workers will be hired soon. The company has maintained a mix of office and remote workers. Arcadia will look for Houston office space later this year, Crow says.

"Expansion plans include doing more of what we're doing now and offering more features for customers," says Crow, who now is Arcadia's general manager of energy services in Texas.

Aside from Crow, co-founders of Real Simple Energy are Paul Paras and Matt Herpich.

Real Simple Energy says its customers save an average of 36 percent, or $548 a year, on electricity. That figure is based on the power bill for a 2,300-square-foot home. The startup says its fixed-rate and fixed-bill plans aren't subject to the types of spikes in power prices that many Texans experienced during February's winter weather disaster.

"Recent events in the Texas market prove that customers shouldn't be exposed to wholesale or variable rates, and want an energy advocate to protect them," Kiran Bhatraju, founder and CEO of Arcadia, says in a release. "Both Arcadia and Real Simple Energy recognize the challenges Texas homeowners and renters have historically faced in the energy-buying process, and we remain committed to removing these confusing barriers. We'll always be on the customer's side, focusing on the best rate and protecting our customers from bad actors."

Crow says the struggle to bring down energy costs at his home prompted him to start the company. He spent several years as a wholesale power trader at JPMorgan Chase.

"The deregulated energy industry, especially in Texas, has underserved customers and, as a result, most customers overpay for electricity and receive poor customer service. Using technology, we are helping customers realize the promise of deregulation and always get the best fixed rates available," Crow says in a release.

This deal represents the first acquisition for Arcadia, founded in 2014. In partnership with 125 utilities in 50 states, Arcadia oversees 4.5 terawatt hours (4.5 trillion kilowatt hours) of residential demand for energy. It's the biggest manager of residential solar in the U.S.

Arcadia has raised $70.5 million in funding, according to Crunchbase.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Early-stage accelerator returns to Houston, announces finalists

prepare for take-off

CodeLaunch, a traveling seed-stage accelerator, is returning to Houston for its latest cohort.

The startup competition sponsored by software development company Improving will have its ultimate showdown on February 28. The final competition pairs six startups with six startup consulting companies.

Jason W. Taylor, CodeLaunch president and founder, says CodeLaunch isn’t your typical startup showcase, as it incorporates music acts, comedy, and crowd networking. Mirroring the set-up of a TV show, the six finalists all present their working products in front of an audience amid these performances.

“I would describe CodeLaunch as the next generation of venture-tainment in North America and the greatest startup show on earth,” Taylor explains.

The 2024 Houston CodeLaunch participant startups — and their mentor partners — are as follows:

Prior to pitch day, all six teams will receive hands-on instruction from CodeLaunch mentors on how to construct their pitches and free professional software development from their partners. Taylor says the strong relationships between CodeLaunch and these developers played a major role in setting the competition in Houston.

“We love Houston and we’re back for a third year in a row because the Houston startup ecosystem works together better than other major startup ecosystems I’ve seen,” Taylor says. “We have some great software development partners in Houston that are building code for those startups.”

Last year, Houston-based startup Energy360, with the mentorship and help of Honeycomb Software, took home the Championship belt and a $100,000 investment offer from Cyrannus VC fund for their energy management system Matt Bonasera, Energy360’s enterprise architect, says he is grateful for the entrepreneurial community CodeLaunch provides, in particular the team’s mentor Oleg Lysiak, Honeycomb VP of Partnerships and Business Development.

“I happened along this great community of people who are really passionate about supporting each other,” Bonasera says.

Lysiak agrees that CodeLaunch is an ideal opportunity for young entrepreneurs looking to hone their skills and expand their product capabilities. Lysiak says he is looking forward to defending Honeycomb’s title as top consultant development team.

“My whole philosophy is to connect people and have different collisions and collaborations,” Lysiak says.

Houston startup completes testing, prepares biosimilar insulin drug for clinical trials

next steps

A Houston biotech startup is one step closer to releasing its marquee drug for the global insulin market, which is projected to break the $90 billion threshold by 2029.

rBIO says it recently completed testing of the properties of R-biolin, an insulin drug that’s biologically identical to Novo Nordisk’s Novolin drug. The patent for Novolin about two decades ago. In March 2023, the Dutch drugmaker announced it was slashing the list price of Novolin by 65 percent to $48.20 per vial and $91.09 per FlexPen.

Executives at rBIO are now pursuing a partnership with a contract research organization to manage clinical trials of R-biolin. If those trials go well, R-biolin will seek approval to supply its insulin therapy to diabetes patients around the world.

Washington University in St. Louis is rBIO’s academic partner for the R-biolin project.

The rBIO platform produces insulin at greater yields that traditional manufacturing techniques do. The company is striving to drive down the cost of insulin by 30 percent.

About 38 million Americans have diabetes, with the vast majority being treated for type 2 diabetes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many people with diabetes must take insulin to control their blood sugar levels.

Research company iHealthcareAnalyst predicts the global market for insulin will surpass the $90 billion mark in 2029.

“There has been a lot of talk in the media about reducing the cost of insulin for diabetic patients, but what is often overlooked is that the domestic demand for insulin will soon outpace the supply, leading to a new host of issues,” Cameron Owen, co-founder and CEO of rBIO, says in a news release.

“We’re dedicated to addressing the growing demand for accessible insulin therapies, and … we’re thrilled to announce the viability of our highly scalable manufacturing process.”

Professionals from the University of California San Diego and Johns Hopkins University established rBIO in 2020. The startup moved its headquarters from San Diego to Houston in 2022.

CEO Cameron Owen and Chief Scientific Officer Deenadayalan Bakthavatsalam work on insulin purification in the Houston lab. Photo courtesy

How AI is changing product management and what you need to know

guest column

For the past 14 months, everyone has been talking about ways artificial intelligence is changing the world, and product management is not an exception. The challenge, as with every new technology, is not only adopting it but understanding what old habits, workflows, and processes are affected by it.

Product managers — as well as startup founders leading a product function — more than any other role, face a challenge of bringing new life-changing products to market that may or may not be received well by their users. A product manager’s goal is complex — bring value, stay ahead of the competition, be innovative. Yet, the "behind the scenes" grind requires endless decision making and trade offs to inspire stakeholders to move forward and deliver.

As we dive into 2024, it is obvious that AI tools do not only transform the way we work but also help product managers create products that exceed customer expectation and drive businesses forward.

Market research and trends analysis

As product managers, we process enormous amounts of market data — from reviewing global and industry trend analysis, to social media posts, predictions, competition, and company goals. AI, however, can now replace hours, if not days, of analyzing massive amounts of data in an instant, revealing market trends, anticipating needs, and foreseeing what's coming next. As a result, it is easier to make effective product decisions and identify new market opportunities.

Competitive analysis

Constantly following competitors, reviewing their new releases, product updates, or monitoring reviews to identify competitor strengths and weaknesses is an overwhelming and time consuming task. With AI, you can quickly analyze competitors’ products, pricing, promotions, and feedback. You can easily compare multiple attributes, including metrics, and identify gaps and areas for improvement — all the insights that are otherwise much harder to reveal quickly and efficiently.

Customer and product discovery

Of course, the most intuitive use case that comes to mind is the adoption of AI in product and customer discovery. For example:

  • Use AI for customer segmentation and persona creation to help visualize personas, prioritize user motivations and expectations, and uncover hidden behavior and needs. You can then create and simplify customer questionnaires for interviews and user groups and target customers more accurately.
  • Analyze quantitative and qualitative data from surveys, support tickets, reviews, and in-person interviews to identify pain points and unmet user needs and help prioritize features for future updates and releases.

Roadmap and sprint management

AI provides value in simplifying roadmap planning and sprint management. Resource optimization is often a gruesome task and AI can help with feature prioritization and resource allocation. It helps teams focus on critical work and increase their productivity. You can even analyze and manage dependencies and improve results across multiple sprints months in advance.

Prototyping and mockup generation

There is no product manager’s routine without multiple mockups, wireframes, and prototypes that explain concepts and collect feedback among stakeholders. AI has become a critical tool in simplifying this process and bringing ideas to life from concept to visualization.

Today, you can use textual or voice descriptions to instantly create multiple visuals with slight variations, run A/B tests and gather valuable feedback at the earliest stage of a product life cycle.

Job search and job interviews

Consider it as a bonus but one of the less obvious but crucial advantages of AI is using it in job search. With the vulnerable and unstable job market, especially for product roles, AI is a valuable assistant. From getting the latest news and updates on a company you want to join, to summarizing insights on the executive team, or company goals, compiling lists of interview questions, and running mock interviews, AI has become a non-judgmental assistant in a distressing and often discouraging job search process.

Use AI to draft cold emails to recruiters and hiring managers, compare your skills to open positions’ requirements, identify gaps, and outline ideas for test assignments.

We already know that AI is not a hype; it is here to stay. However, remember that customers do not consume AI, they consume your product for its value. Customers care whether your product gets their need, solves their problem, and makes their lives easier. The goal of a product manager is to create magic combining human brain capabilities and latest technology. And the best result is with a human at the core of any product.

------

Natasha Gorodetsky is the founder and CEO of Product Pursuits, a Houston company that helps early stage and venture-backed startups build products and create impact.