Houston House at SXSW 2024 featured conversations about startup scaling, tips from CEOs, and more. Photo via Allie Danziger/LinkedIn

Houston innovators talked big topics at SXSW 2024 — from the startup scaling and converging industries to the future of work.

Houston House, which was put on by the Greater Houston Partnership on March 11, hosted four panels full of experts from Houston. If you missed the day-long activation, here are some highlights from the experts who each commented on the future of the Bayou City when it comes to startups, technology, innovation, and the next generation's workforce.

"When we think about Houston, we think about access to at-scale infrastructure, amenities, and workforce and talent pools."

— Remington Tonar, co-founder and chief growth officer at Cart.com, says about why the company chose to return its headquarters back to Houston last year. One of these amenities, Tonar explained, is Houston's global airports.

"If New York and Austin had a baby, it would be Houston, because you have friendly people with a big-city culture."

— Mitra Miller, vice president and board member of Houston Angel Network, says, adding that Houston has a cost efficiency to it, which should be at the forefront of founders' minds when considering where to locate.

"We are not only attracting global talents, we are also attracting global wealth and foreign investments because we are the rising city of the future. We are the global launch pad where you can scale internationally very quickly."

— Sunny Zhang, founder of TrueLeap, says adding how there's a redistribution of global workforce happening when you consider ongoing global affairs.

"We overwhelmingly as a company, and my co-founder would agree, knew we had to go the Houston path. And we started funneling a lot more resources here."

— Carolyn Rodz, co-founder and CEO of Hello Alice, says, explaining that the pandemic helped equalize the talent across the country, and this has been to the benefit of cities like Houston.

"Houston is here with arms open, welcoming people and actively recruiting."

— Sean Kelly, co-founder and CEO of Amperon, says, emphasizing how Texas has made moves to being business friendly. Amperon was founded in New York, before moving to Houston a couple years ago.

"There is a revolution starting to happen in Houston right now."

— Trevor Best, co-founder and CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics, says, first commenting on the momentum from Rice University, where his company's technology originates from. But, as he adds, when you compare the ecosystem when the startup was founded in 2019 to where it's at now, "there is so much more happening."

"Houston has a critical mass in terms of aerospace."

— Stephanie Munez Murphy of Aegus Aerospace says, saying specifically that NASA's Johnson Space Center holds some responsibility for that. "JSC is the home of opening up space commercialization."

"There's diversity in industries people are coming from, but also in terms of experience and expertise that (Houstonians) have."

— Robyn Cardwell of Omniscience says, adding that Houston's diversity goes further than just where people originate from. "Houston has all these pieces put together ... for growing and scaling organizations," she adds.

"I've worked with thousands of students in Houston who are actively looking to better themselves and grow their career post college or post high school and go into the workforce."

— Allie Danziger of Ascent Funding says, adding that Gen Z, which is already entering the workforce, is entrepreneurial and ready to change the world. "Seeing the energy of Houstonians is just thrilling," she adds.

"We're working together in the Houston community. ... There are so many opportunities to collaborate but we need conveners." 

— Stacy Putman of INEOS says, adding that within industry there has been a lack of discussion and collaboration because of competition. But, as she's observing, that's changing thanks to conveners at colleges or at the Greater Houston Partnership.

"The opportunity for Houston is that everybody has to step up to be in some way, shape, or form helping us with this."

— Raj Salhotra of Momentum Education says about supporting the future workforce of Houston, including low-income household students.

Cart.com's Houston-based execs will stay based in the Bayou City. Photo via cart.com

Growing Houston startup moves HQ to Austin

relocating

Houston has lost the headquarters of Cart.com, an e-commerce startup that launched last year and already is poised to go public, to Austin.

The company announced December 9 that it relocated its headquarters to downtown Austin, where it already employs 150 people and plans to hire at least another 150 people within the next 12 months. Cart.com supplies an array of software and services for more than 2,000 online merchants.

Moving the headquarters out of Houston represents something of a change in mindset. During an October interview with InnovationMap’s Houston Innovators Podcast, chief of staff at Cart.com, Remington Tonar, affirmed the startup’s dedication to Houston.

“While many of our founding execs will remain in Houston,” Tonar wrote December 9 on LinkedIn, “our Austin office has become a magnet for top talent and is already home to hundreds of Cart.com employees.”

Aside from Houston and Austin, Cart.com has offices in Dallas, Beaumont, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. It plans to open locations next month in the Netherlands and Poland.

Over the past 12 months, Cart.com has raised $143 million in venture capital, purchased nine companies, opened nine fulfillment centers, and built a workforce of close to 400 people. The company plans to grow its total headcount to about 1,000 by the first quarter of 2022.

“With more and more Silicon Valley tech companies relocating to Texas, and Elon Musk moving Tesla’s HQ to Austin, the ‘Silicon Hills’ area is increasingly seen as the country’s most exciting and fertile space for high-tech innovation,” Cart.com says in a news release.

The move coincides with Cart.com being named Startup of the Year by Capital Factory, an Austin-based startup accelerator that has offices in Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. Capital Factory is an investor in Cart.com.

By relocating to Austin, Cart.com says it can benefit from being in the same business ecosystem as Austin-based companies like Whole Foods, YETI, Kendra Scott, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Bumble, and Tecovas.

“We’ll forever call Houston our home, but I’m beyond excited to be opening Cart.com’s corporate headquarters in Austin — not only the country’s top tech town, but also the home to so many of the iconic brands we love,” said Omair Tariq, co-founder and CEO of Cart.com. “Today, the world’s best and brightest engineers, coders, creatives, and tech leaders are flocking to Texas — and Cart.com is part of the reason why. There’s no better place than Austin for a brand-obsessed company like Cart.com to plant its flag as we reimagine e-commerce and drive growth for today’s top merchants.”

For Cart.com, which was founded in September 2020, this has been a whirlwind year. For example:

  • In November, the company hired Frank Parker as chief financial officer. Parker will lead Cart.com’s effort to launch an IPO in the next two years. He had been executive vice president of finance at New Jersey-based Managed Health Care Associates, a provider of health care services and technology.
  • In September, the company tapped sales veteran Randy Ray as chief revenue officer. He was senior vice president of High Jump, a provider of supply chain management software.
  • In August, Cart.com raised $98 million in a Series B round.
  • In May, the company brought aboard Michael Svatek as the company’s first chief product officer. He previously was chief product and strategy officer at Austin-based Bazaarvoice, a provider of social data about shopping behavior.
  • In April, it wrapped up a Series A round of $25 million, preceded by a seed round of $20 million.

Before co-founding Cart.com, Tariq spent about 10 years as an executive — including chief financial officer — at Houston-based Blinds.com, a retailer of window coverings. The Home Depot acquired Blinds.com in 2014. Tariq has been a mentor at Capital Factory since 2019 and an adviser at the Station Houston tech hub since 2018.

“We started Cart.com to put e-commerce brands in charge of their operations,” Tariq said in November, “and to give founders control over every aspect of their business.”
Here's the latest news from Cart.com. Photo via cart.com

Houston e-commerce startup makes C-suite appointment and acquisition

growth mode

In the past week, Houston-based Cart.com has made some big moves on its tech startup journey — including another strategic acquisition and new hire.

The end-to-end e-commerce-as-a-service provider, which recently raised a $98 million series B round of funding, announced Tony Puccetti as the company's new chief delivery officer following the acquisition of 180Commerce, a leading online sales partner.

Puccetti, who joins Cart.com from digital consultancy Blue Acorn, will manage all client deliverables for the company. Puccetti also previously served as general manager and senior vice president over e-commerce, strategym sales, and more at Onestop Internet.

"I've spent my career championing fast-growing brands in the retail space, so I recognized instantly that Cart.com's ability to deliver seamless end-to-end e-commerce support and services was a true gamechanger," Puccetti says in a news release. "I'm thrilled to be joining the team, and I'm looking forward to helping deliver the services and technologies that brands need to grow their business and realize their full potential in today's omnichannel world.

Cart.com hired Tony Puccetti as the company's new chief delivery officer. Photo via LinkedIn

Omair Tariq, Cart.com CEO, says Puccetti has the talent and experience the company's clients need.

"Cart.com has built a reputation for making big, bold promises — then delivering on them, and exceeding our customers' expectations as they scale their e-commerce brands," continues Tariq in the release. "We're delighted to be welcoming Tony to the Cart.com family, and we're looking forward to working with him to transform the tech-enabled commerce space for merchants of all sizes."

The news of Puccetti's appointment follows news of California-based 180Commerce's acquisition by Cart.com. The company was founded in 2016 following DSW's acquisition of Shoe Metro, the largest Amazon footwear reseller. According to the news release, leaders from Shoe Metro formed 180Commerce "to bring their expertise directly to brands through a tech-enabled agency service model." The company provides its clients with data-driven and tech-enabled retail strategies, tools, and resources.

"The 180Commerce value proposition has always focused on helping consumer brands grow long-term revenue and profitability by optimizing and streamlining their marketplace strategies. By joining with Cart.com, we're bringing that vision to a far wider audience while continuing to expand our offering to the brands we serve with the powerhouse of offerings Cart.com provides," says Jason Stuempfig, founder of 180Commerce. "We share Cart.com's vision for a no-hassle, fully integrated e-commerce ecosystem, and I'm delighted to be starting this new chapter in the 180Commerce story."

The acquisition means a merging of clients, services, and staff between the two companies. 180Commerce's full team will be onboarded to Cart.com under Stuempfig's leadership.

"We're thrilled to welcome the 180Commerce team into the Cart.com family as we continue to expand our offering of commerce everywhere," Tariq says in the release. "Jason turned 180Commerce into a success story by being relentlessly focused on delivering results for brands, while creating a powerful company culture in which everyone is valued. That's exactly the combination we look for at Cart.com — especially when it's paired with a commitment to using data and technology to streamline and optimize e-commerce and marketplace functions for fast-growing brands in every corner of the world."

This acquisition is the latest in a series for Cart.com. Previously, the company has acquired AmeriCommerce, Spacecraft Brands, DuMont Project, and Sauceda Industries.

"Acquisitions are central to Cart.com's growth strategy, and with the addition of 180Commerce we're underscoring our commitment to expanding into new areas and building out best-in-class capabilities across the full spectrum of e-commerce sales channels such as marketplaces," says Saheb Sabharwal, chief strategy officer at Cart.com, who leads all M&A activity, in the release. "We're looking forward to working with Jason and the 180Commerce team to drive new value for Cart.com's thousands of loyal users. We have a great process in place to integrate new companies into the Cart.com ecosystem, and we're actively seeking additional M&A opportunities as we augment our solutions for brands."

Remington Tonar, chief commercial officer and co-founder at Cart.com, also recently told InnovationMap of the company's plans on a recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Heading into the holidays, where potential new clients will be focusing on delivering on orders and sales, Tonar says Cart.com is expecting a busy 2022 in terms of growth. In a lot of ways, the COVID-19 pandemic played a major role in the development of e-commerce and, by extension, Cart.com.

"The pandemic has played a role in overall accelerating the growth of e-commerce as a category and an industry. That growth was going to happen anyways, but it made it more ubiquitous faster," Tonar says. "It's just commerce now. This is just how people purchase and consume things."

Stream the full podcast below.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Remington Tonar of Cart.com, Joey Sanchez of The Ion, and P.J. Popovic of Rhythm. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from e-commerce to energy — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Remington Tonar, chief commercial officer of Cart.com

With $150M in VC raise, this Houston company is re-envisioning the future of e-commerce operationsRemington Tonar of Cart.com joins the Houston Innovators Podcast this week. Photo via Cart.com

In a world where Amazon dominated the e-commerce world, Cart.com is offering merchants but an alternative and a supplemental tool.

As Remington Tonar, chief commercial officer of Cart.com, explains on the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Cart.com connects the dots for e-commerce companies, and, in fact, works alongside Amazon, too. While Cart.com clients can use the suite of software services to create their own shop, ship out of Cart.com's distribution centers, etc., they can also list their products on Amazon too.

"I like to view Amazon as co-op-etition. We can coexist with Amazon," Tonar says on the show. "We're not antithetical to Amazon. We're not mutually exclusive. We can work with folks who are selling on Amazon to build their direct-to-consumer business, and we are doing that today." Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Joey Sanchez, senior director of ecosystems at The Ion

Joey Sanchez is now the senior director of ecosystems at The Ion. Photo via HX.com

Joey Sanchez, who's worked in corporate partnerships for Houston Exponential for a few years, has hopped over and into a new role at The Ion.

In his new role, he will work with the Houston early-stage investing and startup community, including founders, early-stage startups, scaled startups, early-stage angel investors, venture capital investors, and corporate partners, to grow the Ion's presence in Houston.

"Houston and Texas are seeing unprecedented growth in tech and innovation. I am excited for the opportunity to continue building and supporting the Houston innovation ecosystem," says Sanchez the release. "An ecosystem needs harmony among all aspects involved, and I have always enjoyed connecting people. The overarching goal remains to build a vibrant ecosystem that supports a high frequency of connections between critical stakeholders to realize outsized success." Click here to read more.

​P.J. Popovic, CEO of Houston-based Rhythm

P.J. Popovic, CEO of Houston-based Rhythm, explains Renewable Energy Certificates work and their impact on Texas. Photo courtesy of Rhythm

What are RECs and what difference do they make? P.J. Popovic, CEO of Houston-based Rhythm, shares his expertise on Renewable Energy Certificates in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"Through PPAs, various risks, credit needs, and long-term commitments create challenges for many organizations to meet their sustainability goals. So, while RECs do not provide as material of a market signal as PPAs, with the recent changes in market prices, RECs can now be considered a meaningful, profitable market signal for renewable projects." Click here to read the article.

Remington Tonar of Cart.com joins the Houston Innovators Podcast this week. Photo via Cart.com

With $150M in VC raised, this Houston company is re-envisioning the future of e-commerce operations

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 106

If you're operating a business that sells a product online, you have several options for software to support your efforts and needs as a merchant. However, as one group of Houston entrepreneurs realized, there wasn't a streamlined, one-stop-shop for e-commerce software. That is until Cart.com launched just over a year ago.

And it's been a busy year. The startup is led by CEO Omair Tariq, Chief Commercial Officer Remington Tonar, who previously served in a few leadership roles at The Cannon, and a several other co-founders and C-level execs. Following strategic growth and several acquisitions, the Houston e-commerce software provider now employs over 300 people and has raised around $150 million in venture capital. The suite of software services includes everything a company needs — from managing a storefront to collecting important data and metrics.

"Our platform is really geared toward ambitious companies that have their foot in the door, have sales, and have product-market fit, and now need to level up," says Tonar on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "E-commerce as an industry is highly fragmented — you have so many players, but they don't play well together. Through our end-to-end offering, we are bringing all these things together."

Described as a competitor to Amazon, Cart.com connects the dots for e-commerce companies, and, in fact, works alongside Amazon, too. While Cart.com clients can use the suite of software services to create their own shop, ship out of Cart.com's distribution centers, etc., they can also list their products on Amazon too.

"I like to view Amazon as co-op-etition. We can coexist with Amazon," Tonar says. "We're not antithetical to Amazon. We're not mutually exclusive. We can work with folks who are selling on Amazon to build their direct-to-consumer business, and we are doing that today."

And business are indeed looking for that help, Tonar says on the show. He describes the marketplace as a bit of a monopoly between Amazon, Walmart, and some other players that are essentially squeezing out small or even mid-market companies that can't compete with these larger companies. Walmart and Amazon have the scale necessary to control the end-to-end marketplace, and very few companies have that, Tonar explains.

"Now Cart.com has done the hard work and spent the money to go out and aggregate all of these capabilities. The difference is, we aren't hoarding them. We're offering them as services," he says.

Heading into the holidays, where potential new clients will be focusing on delivering on orders and sales, Cart.com is expecting a busy 2022 in terms of growth. In a lot of ways, the COVID-19 pandemic played a major role in the development of e-commerce and, by extension, Cart.com.

"The pandemic has played a role in overall accelerating the growth of ecommerce as a category and an industry. That growth was going to happen anyways, but it made it more ubiquitous faster," Tonar says. "It's just commerce now. This is just how people purchase and consume things."

Tonar discusses what else you can expect to see from Cart.com in terms of growth, more fundraising, and more. He also shares how he's observed the Houston innovation ecosystem grow over his years in the business. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


The Cannon Tower in downtown Houston now houses a new innovation hub that is geared at promoting resiliency. Image courtesy of The Cannon

New innovation hub focused on resilience rises in downtown Houston

new to hou

It's hurricane season in Houston, and, after months of reacting to a pandemic, resiliency and storm preparedness on the top of the businesses and local government's minds.

Insurance Information Institute and ResilientH20 Partners have teamed up with The Cannon to create the Gulf Coast & Southwest Resilience Innovation Hub, which is now open in downtown Houston's Cannon Tower (1801 Main Street, Suite 1300).

"The Cannon Tower will provide a seamless onboarding for the Resilience Innovation Hub's activities. Houston is already home to networks which focus on issues like sustainability, green infrastructure, and smart cities," says Remington Tonar, chief revenue officer of The Cannon Accelerator and Fund in a news release.

The hub will act as a space for private and public sector entities — from academic partners and tech companies to investors and government agencies — to work together on pre-disaster mitigation innovations.

"As households and businesses learn from past natural disasters, especially those which struck the U.S.'s Gulf Coast, the Resilience Innovation Hub can accelerate the deployment of products, services, and projects aimed at reducing disaster-caused losses in consultation with insurance carriers and brokers," says Michel Léonard, vice president and senior economist for the Insurance Information Institute.

The Cannon Tower also serves as the headquarters for ResilientH20 Partners, and the space will eventually house in-person events for resilience-focused programming and events. On July 16 at 8:30 a.m., the hub will host its inaugural "Lightning Round" session for technology companies and investors.

"There has been a widespread interest in, and demand for, best-in-class actionable, alternative disaster mitigation solutions since 2017's Hurricane Harvey and subsequent storms caused extensive insured losses to autos, homes, businesses, and governmental properties," says Richard Seline, managing partner of ResilientH2O Partners, in a news release.

According to the release, nine of the 10 most expensive hurricanes in the United States have occurred in the past 16 years.

"Society saves six dollars for every dollar spent through mitigation grants funded through federal agencies and even more progress can be made on this front through further investment in pre-disaster risk mitigation," Seline continues.

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Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

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.