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

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.

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

Houston expert: Why higher REC prices are good for the future of renewables

guest column

We all know what renewable energy is — wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, hydropower — but how do you purchase it? It's invisible. Not to mention when energy from any source enters the electricity grid, there's no way to track all those electrons.

Renewable Energy Certificates have made it possible

Renewable Energy Certificates, or RECs, allow us to track your clean energy. Each individual REC represents one megawatt-hour of clean energy generated. And while a REC isn't technically electricity, it represents the clean energy going into the electricity grid—meaning homes and businesses claim their commitment to renewable energy if their electricity is supported by RECs.

It's also important to understand what a renewable energy certificate is not: an offset. An offset represents a metric ton of emissions avoided and a REC represents 1 MWh of clean energy generated. While each have similar goals, they are not quite the same thing.

Not all RECs are created equally

The market for RECs is fluid. Due to the growth of the renewable energy market, RECs have been oversupplied for years. This has created low prices and little-to-no financial advantage for the facilities that generate clean electricity (e.g., wind facilities, solar farms, hydro plants).

In Texas, the retail electricity market is inundated with renewable electricity claims said to be supported by RECs. The energy plan you sign up for might come from solar, wind, biomass, or even trash incineration, but the renewable energy facilities likely are coming from outside Texas, located in places like California, Canada, or elsewhere. While there's no wrong way to switch to renewable energy, supporting renewable energy sources inside Texas helps Texans move closer to being a more sustainable state.

Choosing Texas renewable energy plans and your actions do have a true, real-world impact more than ever before

Some critics have argued that REC-supported renewable energy plans don't meet the highest standard of sustainability arguing RECs are not foundational to the existence of renewable energy assets. In other words, they argue that RECs don't provide a material revenue source for renewable projects because they don't incentivize new developments of renewable facilities to be built.

When RECs were trading for less than a dollar, this was a valid argument. But that was then, and this is now.

In the last year alone, voluntary renewable energy certificate prices have skyrocketed and are now between $7 and $10 per MWh. This means RECs can now contribute up to 30 percent of a renewable facility's revenue. Naturally, this encourages more and more clean-energy facilities and clean-energy jobs to be created. A win-win.

What about Power Purchase Agreements?

A Power Purchase Agreement, or PPA, is a tad different than a REC. In a PPA, the developer of a renewable project (solar arrays at a solar farm, or turbines at a wind farm) can sell the actual energy it produces over a 10-to-20-year contract.

While the sale of this renewable energy still contributes to a larger portion of project revenues, the revenue mix has clearly shifted, and RECs cannot be considered an immaterial incentive anymore. Sure, PPAs are a stronger market signal for renewable project development, but only a couple of hundred organizations globally utilize PPAs. This makes them very challenging for businesses to access.

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.

Making the future of renewable energy in Texas even brighter.

------

P.J. Popovic is the CEO of Houston-based Rhythm.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

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.

------

This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.