Kerri Smith of the Rice Alliance joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Rice's Clean Energy Accelerator. Photo courtesy of Rice

Kerri Smith knows accelerators. Through her over 18 years at Rice Alliance, she's been responsible for overseeing several and was on the founding leadership team of Houston's first energy tech startup accelerator, SURGE. After years of focusing you accelerating Rice University's student-focused program, Owl Spark, she's transitioned back into the energy tech space.

"I've worked with many types of founders. There's not one unique characteristic that everyone has," Smith says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our goal is to help move them along and help them move the needle. At the end of the day, we want them to have a good experience and to meet their goals and objectives."

The Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator launched last summer with its inaugural cohort of 12 cleantech startups, which represented energy sectors from solar and wind innovations to hydrogen, geothermal, and more. Smith says the startups represented a wide range of stages and were from all over — only two companies were from Houston originally. The out-of-town companies were able to make critical partnerships in town and set up a presence and a home here.

"We were able to build a family-like culture among our group, and that was something that was wildly appreciative," Smith, who serves as executive director of the program, says.

Applications for Class 2 of CEA are open until May 31. While the program will offer the same access to mentorship and opportunities, the program will change slightly. CEA will focus on seed and series A-stage companies and will be a hybrid program. Throughout the 10 weeks, which begins in the fall instead of the summer this year, founders will visit Houston three times at the beginning, middle, and the end of the accelerator. Each startup will receive a grant to cover the expenses of the equity-free program.

CEA is just one part of a greater ecosystem of innovation under the umbrella of Rice University, which includes the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, The Ion Houston, Owl Spark, and more. All these entities also play into the greater Houston area's innovation ecosystem.

"Rice Alliance has a strong history of demonstrating collaboration with a number of organizations," Smith says. "I think one of the primary benefits that we have in these collaborative opportunities is to ensure that we are collectively building a capable and diverse pipeline of talent to solve for these problems and provide them with access to experiencing all of the benefits of our ecosystem."

With CEA specifically, some of these collaborations include working with Greentown Houston, which is just next door to the program's home at The Ion, and the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Initiative.

"We're a cog in the wheel. We do really well with that. We play well with others – in ways that the founder has a good experience and can benefit," Smith says.

Smith shares more about what she's looking for in the second cohort of CEA on the podcast episode, as well as what she sees as Houston's role in the energy transition. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Here are the most promising energy tech startups in the market today. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Houston investors, mentors name 9 most promising energy startups at Rice Alliance event

best of the rest

This week, 39 energy startup companies from all over the world pitched in Houston — and nine were recognized as being the most promising of the batch.

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship returned its Offshore Technology Conference pitch event to its in-person capacity and host the annual event at the Ion Houston for the first time. The event featured three-minute pitches from the companies, and a select group of corporate and venture investors decided on the top nine to honor.

"We asked investors and corporates to look at the companies here today and help us determine the companies most promising — based on those that have an innovative technology that is solving a large problem, has customers willing to pay for it, and has the right team to build and grow their company," Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance says to the crowd at the event on May 3.

Here's which energy tech companies stood out to investors.

EarthEn

EarthEn, a Chandler, Arizona-based company, is a grid-scale energy storage solution. The technology can provide short-term — 6 to 8 hours — and long-term — over 100 hours — storage. The EarthEn pods provide a cheaper alternative and are built using 3D printing.

Echogen Power Systems

Based in Akron, Ohio, Echogen Power Systems has created a technology that captures heat that would otherwise be lost and converts it to a useable power source. The solution allows for any customer that operates at significant levels of heat to have a cost-effective energy option.

FuelX Innovation

Based in Aiken, South Carolina, FuelX Innovation is manufacturing solid-state hydrogen products and power systems, impacting mobile hydrogen fuel cell-powered applications. The company is focused on producing the lowest cost Alane, or aluminum hydride, for the fuel cell.

Lillianah Technologies

Lillianah Technologies, based in the Houston area in Spring, uses algae to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The company sells carbon offsets to corporations.

oPRO.ai

oPRO.ai — which is based in Los Altos, California — is providing its customers with deep learning optimization software for process and responsible operations for oil and gas, petrochemical, chemicals, and metal industries.

Proteum Energy

Phoenix, Arizona-based Proteum Energy provides its customers low-cost, clean hydrogen by reforming renewable ethanol into renewable hydrogen.

Sync Power Solutions

Embracing a clean sheet approach, Sync Power Solutions, based in Abilene, Texas, created a solution involving a redesign of electric motors and generators to increase energy efficiency, save on costs, and more.

Utility Global

Houston-based Utility Global is using high temperature electrolysis without the use of electricity to produce hydrogen from waste gases.

ZL Innovations

Based in Portland, Oregon, ZL Innovations is focused on eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from failed industrial valves. The company's solution is a magnetic actuation assembly that can be better sealed to prevent emissions.

Rice University and the University of Houston have opened applications for its inaugural cohort for a new small business accelerators. Photo by Hero Images

2 Houston universities team up to premiere small business accelerators

apply now

After years of supporting university-affiliated tech startups, two Houston colleges are launching a new program to support small businesses.

University of Houston and Rice University have announced two new programs — RED Launch and BlueLaunch, respectively — to run alongside its tech startup programs. While RED Labs and OwlSpark are geared toward technology startups, RED Launch and BlueLaunch focus on small businesses. The programs are open to University of Houston and Rice University affiliates who are interested in starting or growing a small business.

"Since inception, RED Labs programming focused mostly on tech entrepreneurship," says Kelly McCormick, managing director of RED Labs. "A few years ago, we began to build out course offerings at the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship for students interested in small businesses.

"Through those courses, I saw incredible engagement and enthusiasm from students interested in starting a small business, but recognized the need for intensive support beyond classes," she continues.

McCormick says that last summer, UH piloted the first iteration of RED Launch with a small group of UH students, and now UH has brought in Rice to the initiative as well.

"This year, we formalized and will expand the program, and we’re teaming up with the Rice Alliance at Rice University to make the program even stronger," she says.

The two organizations have been working together each summer on accelerating student-run startups for about a decade now, and these new programs are just the next step for the collaborators.

Applications for the program are due April 1. UH Cougars can apply by clicking here, and Rice Owls can submit their application here. For 12 weeks this summer, selected participants will receive comprehensive training and mentorship, access to resources, and at the conclusion of the program, the opportunity to showcase their businesses to the greater Houston community. The small business accelerators will tackle business necessities in the following areas: accounting, finance, legal, marketing, and sales.

Houston's medical innovation community congregated to discuss breakthrough innovations in health care. Photo via Getty Images

Houston organizations announce 10 most promising life science startups

future of health care

What startups are creating the future of health care? A Houston conference this week gathered to discuss.

The 10th annual Texas Life Science Forum hosted by BioHouston and the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship engaged thought leadership within the life science community with panels, discussions, and more. Additionally, 49 companies pitched their solutions across medical device, therapeutics, pharmaceuticals, and more to the crowd.

Austin-based Dynamic Light won the Michael E. DeBakey Memorial Life Science Award, established by BioHouston in honor of the groundbreaking Houston cardiovascular surgeon. The software company integrates with microscope or robotic systems to provide better visuals to surgeons and health care providers and reduce medical errors, radiation and costs. The award was presented by Ann Tanabe, CEO of BioHouston.

The event also named the 10 most promising life science companies selected by investors and presented by the Greater Houston Partnership. This year's selection included the following companies, in alphabetical order.

Ares Immunotherapy

Photo via Getty Images

Based in Cartersville, Georgia, Ares Immunotherapy uses a unique subset of T-cells for the treatment of solid tumors. According to the company, it is is preparing for a first in man trial in mesothelioma in 2023.

Corveus Medical

Photo courtesy of TMC

Houston-based Corveus Medical, which was formerly known as Caridian Medical, is a part of TMC's Biodesign program. The company was founded by Ishan Kamat, COO, and Tyler Melton, CEO.

"We are developing a novel, catheter-based device that performs a targeted sympathetic nerve ablation to treat heart failure," according to the company. "Our solution leverages the body’s natural mechanisms to bring fluid levels back to normal, giving physicians an effective treatment option, reducing costs for hospitals, and improving quality of life for the patient."

Drusolv Therapeutics

Photo via Pexels

Drusolv Therapeutics, based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was founded out of Harvard University and been validated in a proof-of-concept clinical trial. The company's product, a novel reformulation of atorvastatin, is targeting age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, a serious eye disease. According to the company, it's a $4 billion a year, unmet need.

EMPIRI

Photo via jlabs.jnjinnovation.com

Houston-based EMPIRI is an early-stage biotechnology company currently focusing on precision oncology and utilizing automation for personal diagnosis. The company works out of JLABS @ TMC.

"Our proprietary 3D tissue culture method, E-slices, enables personalized drug response measurements from intact patient tissues," per the company. "E-slice has been clinically validated to accurately predict individual cancer patient responses to chemotherapies, targeted therapies, a immunotherapies."

Lapovations

Photo via Getty Images

Based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Lapovations is working on technologies that improve laparoscopy.

"Our flagship product AbGrab is a single-use device that uses suction to lift the abdominal wall prior to closed insertion entry," according to the company. "Manually lifting can be difficult and unreliable, especially with obese patients or for clinicians with small hands."

Maxwell Biosciences

Photo by Chokniti Khongchum from Pexels

Austin-based Maxwell Biosciences is creating anti-infectives that inactivate a broad spectrum of viruses. The company's product, CLAROMERS, has seen success in its preclinical animal studies, as well as lab-grown human tissues. Maxwell is fueled by over $30 million in non-dilutive and government funding (e.g. DARPA, NIH, NIAID).

NeuraStasis

Image via neurastasis.com

Doctors have to respond quickly when treating ischemic stroke patients, and Houston-based NeuraStasis is working on a way to give them more time. Each minute a patient is waiting, irreparable damage is being done. The company's noninvasive solution uses electrical neurostimulation to preserve brain functionality. NeuraStasis is based in JLABS @ TMC.

Vena Medical

Image via venamed.ca

Canada medical device company Vena Medical is working on the "world's smallest camera" that is able to record inside veins and arteries to help physicians treat stroke.

Vivifi Medical

Photo courtesy of TMC

Houston-based Vivifi Medical, a Texas Medical Center Innovation company, is working to improve the quality of life of patients with Male Infertility and benign prostatic hyperplasia — 12 million men in the United States alone — by ending recurrency via suture-less laparoscopic technology.

XN Health

Image via xn-health.com

XN Health, based in Houston, has developed a novel approach to phrenic nerve stimulation to treat progression of ventilator induced diaphragm disfunction to help wean patients off the ventilator faster. The technology should speed up patient liberation times, shortening ICU stay, improve healthcare outcomes, and reduce health care costs.

The Rice Business Plan Competition is back in person this year, and these are the 42 teams that will go head to head for investments and prizes. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University's student startup competition names 42 teams to compete for over $1 million in prizes

ready to pitch

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship and the Jones Graduate School of Business have announced the 42 student teams that will compete in the 2022 Rice Business Plan Competition, which returns to an in-person format on the Rice University campus in April.

Of the teams competing for more than $1 million in prizes and funding in this year's competition, six hail from Texas — two teams each from Rice University, University of Texas at Austin, and Texas A&M University. The student competitors represent 31 universities — including three from European universities. The 42 teams were narrowed down from over 400 applicants and divided into five categories: energy, cleantech and sustainability; life sciences and health care solutions; consumer products and services; hard tech; and digital enterprise.

This is the first in-person RBPC since 2019, and the university is ready to bring together the entrepreneurs and a community of over 250 judges, mentors, and investors to the competition.

“As we come out on the other side of a long and challenging two years, we're feeling a sense of renewal and energy as we look to the future and finding inspiration from the next generation of entrepreneurs who are building a better world,” says Catherine Santamaria, director of the RBPC, in a news release.

“This year's competition celebrates student founders with a strong sense of determination — founders who are ready to adapt, build and grow companies that can change the future,” she continues. “We hope their participation will provide guidance and inspiration for our community.”

According to a news release, this year's RBPC Qualifier Competition, which narrowed down Rice's student teams that will compete in the official competition, saw the largest number of applicants, judges, and participants in the competition’s history. The Rice Alliance awarded a total of $5,000 in cash prizes to the top three teams from the internal qualifier: EpiFresh, Green Room and Anvil Diagnostics. From those three, Rice teams EpiFresh and Green Room received invitations to compete in the 2022 RBPC..

The full list of student teams that will be competing April 7 to 9 this year include:

  • Acorn Genetics from Northwestern University
  • Advanced Optronics from Carnegie Mellon University
  • Aethero Space from University of Missouri
  • AImirr from University of Chicago
  • AiroSolve from UCLA
  • Algeon Materials from UC San Diego
  • Anise Health from Harvard University
  • Beyond Silicon from Arizona State University
  • Bold Move Beverages from University of Texas at Austin
  • Diamante from University of Verona
  • EarthEn from Arizona State University
  • Empower Sleep from University of Pennsylvania
  • EpiFresh from Rice University
  • EpiSLS from University of Michigan
  • Green Room from Rice University
  • Horizon Health Solutions from University of Arkansas
  • Hoth Intelligence from Thomas Jefferson University
  • INIA Biosciences from Boston University
  • Invictus BCI from MIT
  • Invitris from Technical University of Munich (TUM)
  • KLAW Industries from Binghamton University
  • LIDROTEC from RWTH Aachen
  • Locus Lock from University of Texas at Austin
  • LymphaSense from Johns Hopkins University
  • Mallard Bay Outdoors from Louisiana State University
  • Mantel from MIT
  • Olera from Texas A&M University
  • OpenCell AI from Weill Cornell Medicine
  • OraFay from UCLA
  • Pareto from Stanford University
  • Photonect Interconnect Solutions from University of Rochester
  • PLAKK from McGill University
  • PneuTech from Johns Hopkins University
  • Rola from UC San Diego
  • RotorX from Georgia Tech
  • SimulatED from Carnegie Mellon University
  • SuChef from University of Pennsylvania
  • Symetric Finance from Fairfield University
  • Teale from Texas A&M University
  • Team Real Talk from University at Buffalo
  • TransCrypts from Harvard University
  • Woobie from Brigham Young University
Last year's awards had 54 student teams competing virtually, with over $1.4 million in cash and prizes awarded. Throughout RBPC's history, competitors have gone onto raise more than $3.57 billion in capital and more than 259 RBPC alumni have successfully launched their ventures. Forty RBPC startups that have had successful exits through acquisitions or trading on a public market, per the news release.
Another Offshore Technology Conference, another Venture Day hosted by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship. Photo by Zukiman Mohamad/Pexels

Rice Alliance announces 4 most promising energy tech companies at OTC

rising stars

Fourteen companies pitched at the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship's Energy Venture Day at the 2021 Offshore Technology Conference, and virtual attendees voted on the companies they think are the most promising.

The companies, which hailed from three countries, again pitched virtually. Last year's venture day was also hosted virtually. The event's judging panel usually names 10 of the most promising companies at the event, however, just like last year, Rice Alliance put the power into the people viewing the pitches online.

Here are the four most promising energy tech companies that pitched at the annual OTC event.

American Hydrogen

Image via amhydrogen.com

Based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, American Hydrogen offers a fully integrated, end-to-end implementation solutions for hydrogen generation, storage, and distribution facilities.

"With roots in traditional energy, the American Hydrogen management team consists of senior oil and gas professionals who have spend decades developing infrastructure in prominent energy hubs across the United States. Through this field experience our team can furnish reliable and proven execution for an emerging clean technology market," per the company's website.

Alabastron Technologies

Image via alabastron.net

Houston-based Alabastron Technologies has developed a sensor that can detect organic and inorganic deposition in pipelines before any actual deposits form.

"Our service is a real-time closed-loop sensing, measurement and control strategy that remotely monitors oil production and the tendency of flow-restricting-substances or depositions prior to actual deposition," reads the company's website.

Applied Bioplastics

Photo via Getty Images

Applied Bioplastics, based in Austin, is commercializing an alternative to plastic by combining it plant fiber — operating with a carbon footprint 30 percent smaller than traditional plastic.

"Our products reduce petroleum dependency, pollution, and habitat destruction. Through our supply chains, we support eco-friendly agriculture in developing countries," according to the website.

DataSeer

Photo via dataseer.digital

Houston-based DataSeer is a cloud-based software application uses artificial intelligence to automatically detect, label and extract information from engineering data. The technology improves its customer's quality control and quality assurance of data extraction at scale.

"DataSeer was built in close collaboration with users at some of the largest engineering firms in the world, who we are proud to call our customers," the website reads.

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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.

Houston college system plans to open $30M resiliency-focused center

to the rescue

Houston’s initiative to protect the city from catastrophes is getting a big boost from Houston Community College.

The college is developing the Resilience Center of Excellence to aid the city’s resilience campaign. At the heart of this project is the 65,000-square-foot, $30 million Resiliency Operations Center, which will be built on a five-acre site HCC’s Northeast campus. The complex is scheduled to open in 2024.

HCC estimates the operations center will train about 3,000 to 4,000 local first responders, including police officers and firefighters, during the first three years of operation. They’ll be instructed to prepare for, manage, and respond to weather, health and manmade hazards such as hurricanes, floods, fires, chemical spills, and winter freezes.

According to The Texas Tribune, the operations center will include flood-simulation features like a 39-foot-wide swift water rescue channel, a 15-foot-deep dive area, and a 100-foot-long “rocky gorge” of boulders.

The college says the first-in-the-nation Resilience Center of Excellence will enable residents, employers, civic organizations, neighborhoods, and small businesses to obtain education and certification aimed at improving resilience efforts.

“Our objective is to protect the well-being of our citizens and our communities and increase economic stability,” Cesar Maldonado, chancellor of HCC, said when the project was announced.

Among the programs under the Resiliency Center of Excellence umbrella will be non-credit courses focusing on public safety and rescue, disaster management, medical triage, and debris removal.

Meanwhile, the basic Resilience 101 program will be available to businesses and community organizations, and the emergency response program is geared toward individuals, families, and neighborhoods.

HCC’s initiative meshes with the City of Houston’s Resilient Houston, a strategy launched in 2020 that’s designed to protect Houston against disasters. As part of this strategy, the city has hired a chief resilience and sustainability officer, Priya Zachariah.

“Every action we take and investment we make should continue to improve our collective ability to withstand the unexpected shocks and disruptions when they arrive — from hurricanes to global pandemics, to extreme heat or extreme cold,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said last year. “The time is now to stop doing things the way we’ve always done them because the threats are too unpredictable.”

In an InnovationMap guest column published in February 2021, Richard Seline, co-founder of the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub, wrote that the focus of resilience initiatives should be pre-disaster risk mitigation.

“There is still work to be done from a legislative and governmental perspective, but more and more innovators — especially in Houston — are proving to be essential in creating a better future for the next historic disaster we will face,” Seline wrote.