Madison Long joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Clutch's recent national launch and the role Houston played in the company's success. Photo courtesy of Clutch

When Madison Long started her company with her co-founder and friend, Simone May, she knew she wanted to do one thing: Provide a platform for young people to have reliable access to payment for their skills and side hustles. Through starting a business, making a name change, launching a beta, going through a pivot, completing an accelerator, and more — that mission hasn't changed. And now, young people across the country can opt into the platform.

Houston-based creator economy platform Clutch celebrated its nationwide launch earlier this month. The platform connects brands to its network of creators for reliable and authentic work — everything from social media management, video creation, video editing, content creation, graphic design projects, and more.

When the company first launched its beta in Houston, the platform (then called Campus Concierge) rolled out at three Houston-area universities: Texas Southern University, Rice University, and Prairie View A&M. The marketplace connected any students with a side hustle to anyone on campus who needed their services.

Long shares on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast that since that initial pilot, they learned they could be doing more for users.

"We recognized a bigger gap in the market," Long says. "Instead of just working with college-age students and finding them side hustles with one another, we pivoted last January to be able to help these young people get part-time, freelance, or remote work in the creator economy for businesses and emerging brands that are looking for these young minds to help with their digital marketing presence."

Once focusing on the gig economy, Clutch changed its focus to the creator economy. The founders launched a new beta after closing $1.2 million in seed funding last year.

"Even though we did have to pivot, we're excited to be at the place now where we do deeply understand how to service both sides of our marketplace — the next-gen creatives and the emerging brands — so that they can really empower each other to meet their goals," Long says on the show.

Clutch, which went through the DivInc Houston accelerator, credits a part of the company's ability to survive the challenges from making pivots on being founded in Houston.

"We attribute a lot of Clutch's success — especially early on — to being located in Houston," Long says, explaining that she moved to Houston from California in 2021 to focus on the company. "It was physically being in the tech ecosystem that was blossoming in the Houston network that allowed us to feel safe making the pivots we were making and get a lot of guidance from mentors we were meeting."

She shares more about what's next for Clutch on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

A Rice research team is tapping into materials science to better understand Alzheimer’s disease, a UH professor is developing a treatment for hereditary vision loss, and a BCM researcher is looking at stress and brain cancer. Photo by Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University

These 3 Houston research projects are coming up with life-saving innovations

research roundup

Research, perhaps now more than ever, is crucial to expanding and growing innovation in Houston — and it's happening across the city right under our noses.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of research news, three Houston institutions are working on life-saving health care research thanks to new technologies.

Rice University scientists' groundbreaking alzheimer's study

Angel Martí (right) and his co-authors (from left) Utana Umezaki and Zhi Mei Sonia He have published their latest findings on Alzheimer’s disease. Photo by Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alzheimer’s disease will affect nearly 14 million people in the U.S. by 2060. A group of scientists from Rice University are looking into a peptide associated with the disease, and their study was published in Chemical Science.

Angel Martí — a professor of chemistry, bioengineering, and materials science and nanoengineering and faculty director of the Rice Emerging Scholars Program — and his team have developed a new approach using time-resolved spectroscopy and computational chemistry, according to a news release from Rice. The scientists "found experimental evidence of an alternative binding site on amyloid-beta aggregates, opening the door to the development of new therapies for Alzheimer’s and other diseases associated with amyloid deposits."

Amyloid plaque deposits in the brain are a main feature of Alzheimer’s, per Rice.

“Amyloid-beta is a peptide that aggregates in the brains of people that suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, forming these supramolecular nanoscale fibers, or fibrils” says Martí in the release. “Once they grow sufficiently, these fibrils precipitate and form what we call amyloid plaques.

“Understanding how molecules in general bind to amyloid-beta is particularly important not only for developing drugs that will bind with better affinity to its aggregates, but also for figuring out who the other players are that contribute to cerebral tissue toxicity,” he adds.

The National Science Foundation and the family of the late Professor Donald DuPré, a Houston-born Rice alumnus and former professor of chemistry at the University of Louisville, supported the research, which is explained more thoroughly on Rice's website.

University of Houston professor granted $1.6M for gene therapy treatment for rare eye disease

Muna Naash, a professor at UH, is hoping her research can result in treatment for a rare genetic disease that causes vision loss. Photo via UH.edu

A University of Houston researcher is working on a way to restore sight to those suffering from a rare genetic eye disease.

Muna Naash, the John S. Dunn Endowed Professor of biomedical engineering at UH, is expanding a method of gene therapy to potentially treat vision loss in patients with Usher Syndrome Type 2A, or USH2A, a rare genetic disease.

Naash has received a $1.6 million grant from the National Eye Institute to support her work. Mutations of the USH2A gene can include hearing loss from birth and progressive loss of vision, according to a news release from UH. Naash's work is looking at applying gene therapy — the introduction of a normal gene into cells to correct genetic disorders — to treat this genetic disease. There is not currently another treatment for USH2A.

“Our goal is to advance our current intravitreal gene therapy platform consisting of DNA nanoparticles/hyaluronic acid nanospheres to deliver large genes in order to develop safe and effective therapies for visual loss in Usher Syndrome Type 2A,” says Naash. “Developing an effective treatment for USH2A has been challenging due to its large coding sequence (15.8 kb) that has precluded its delivery using standard approaches and the presence of multiple isoforms with functions that are not fully understood."

BCM researcher on the impact of stress

This Baylor researcher is looking at the relationship between stress and brain cancer thanks to a new grant. Photo via Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

Stress can impact the human body in a number of ways — from high blood pressure to hair loss — but one Houston scientist is looking into what happens to bodies in the long term, from age-related neurodegeneration to cancer.

Dr. Steven Boeynaems is assistant professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor College of Medicine. His lab is located at the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital, and he also is a part of the Therapeutic Innovation Center, the Center for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases, and the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor.

Recently, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, or CPRIT, awarded Boeynaems a grant to continue his work studying how cells and organisms respond to stress.

“Any cell, in nature or in our bodies, during its existence, will have to deal with some conditions that deviate from its ideal environment,” Boeynaems says in a BCM press release. “The key issue that all cells face in such conditions is that they can no longer properly fold their proteins, and that leads to the abnormal clumping of proteins into aggregates. We have seen such aggregates occur in many species and under a variety of stress-related conditions, whether it is in a plant dealing with drought or in a human patient with aging-related Alzheimer’s disease."

Now, thanks to the CPRIT funding, he says his lab will now also venture into studying the role of cellular stress in brain cancer.

“A tumor is a very stressful environment for cells, and cancer cells need to continuously adapt to this stress to survive and/or metastasize,” he says in the release.

“Moreover, the same principles of toxic protein aggregation and protection through protein droplets seem to be at play here as well,” he continues. “We have studied protein droplets not only in humans but also in stress-tolerant organisms such as plants and bacteria for years now. We propose to build and leverage on that knowledge to come up with innovative new treatments for cancer patients.”

Here's what Houston-based online programs are ranked as best in the country. Photo by Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

Houston university's online MBA program rises in the ranks of newly released report

A for improvement

Rice University's online MBA program has something to brag about. According to a new report, the program has risen through the ranks of other online MBA curriculums.

MBA@Rice, the online program at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice, has ranked higher in four categories in the latest edition of U.S. News & World Report’s Best Online Programs. The report evaluated schools based on data specifically related to their distance education MBA programs, and U.S. News has a separate ranking for non-MBA graduate business degrees in areas such as finance, marketing and management. The MBA list focused on engagement, peer assessment, faculty credentials and training, student excellence, and services and technologies.

“We use the same professors to deliver the same rigorous, high-touch MBA in our online MBA as we do in all our campus-based programs,” said Rice Business Dean Peter Rodriguez. “The strong national rankings recognize our success in reaching highly talented working professionals who don’t live near enough to our campus or for whom an online program is the best option.”

Rice's virtual MBA program ranked No. 12 (tied) in the 2023 list, which was up several spots from its 2022 ranking, which was No. 20. Additionally, Rice stood out in these other three categories:

  • Best Online MBA Programs for Veterans: tied for No. 10 (No. 14 last year).
  • Best Online Business Analytics MBA Programs: tied for No. 10 (tied for No. 12 last year).
  • Best Online General Management MBA Programs: tied for No. 7 (tied for No. 11 last year).

Rice recently announced a hybrid MBA program that combines online instruction with in-person engagement. The first cohort is slated to start this summer.

The MBA@Rice program is the top-ranked Texas-based program on the virtual MBA list. Several other programs from the Lone Star State make the list of 366 schools, including:

  • University of Texas at Dallas at No. 17
  • Texas Tech University at No. 33
  • Baylor University, University of North Texas, and West Texas A&M University tied for No, 65

U.S News & World Report ranked other online programs. Here's how Houston schools placed on the other lists:

  • The University of Houston tied for No. 10 in Best Online Master's in Education Programs and tied for No. 75 in Best Online Master's in Business Programs
  • Rice University, in addition to its MBA ranking, tied for No. 27 on the Online Master’s in Computer Information Technology Programs ranking after being tied for No. 49 last year
  • University of Houston-Downtown ranked No. 26 in Best Online Master's in Criminal Justice Programs and tied for No. 55 in Best Online Bachelor's Programs

The full list of best online higher education programs ranked by U.S. News & World Report is available online.

A new MBA program at Rice University will allow for students to get the the convenience of online instruction with monthly on-campus engagement. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University rolls out hybrid MBA track

back to school

Rice University is making it easier to get an MBA. The Houston university has launched a new hybrid program.

Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business will launch a new Hybrid MBA program this summer. According to Rice, it's the first of its kind in Texas. The program "preserves the benefits of the in-person educational experience while leveraging the flexibility offered by online learning through live Zoom sessions and asynchronous course content," the university explains in a news release.

"After researching demand for MBA programs, we found that prospective students want an in-person experience but not one that meets every week," says Peter Rodriguez, dean of Rice Business, in the release. "Our Hybrid MBA makes it easier for working professionals in Houston and regionally to earn a Rice MBA with the on-campus experience they want.”

The new track is 22 months and has a 54-credit requirement that will feature the same faculty within the existing program. In-person class will be once a month, and online education will be conducted in the weeks between. According to Rice, tuition — listed online as $67,500 — includes the cost of a hotel stay close to Rice during on-campus weekends and immersion weeks. This provides students an opportunity to connect with classmates and avoid a commute.

The first class of the Hybrid MBA Program begins in July with a one-week immersion on campus. There will be one immersion week at the end of the first year, and the program concludes with a one-week Global Field Experience in May 2025 before students return to campus for graduation, according to Rice.

Having diversity of thought among the leadership team is usually regarded as a positive, Houston researchers found that conflict can cause more harm than good. Photo via Getty Images

Houston research: Navigating diversity of thought among company leadership

houston voices

For the past 40 years, management researchers have assumed that diversity of opinion about company strategy, even when it causes conflict among senior managers, leads to higher-quality strategic decisions and improved firm performance.

It turns out there isn’t evidence to support that belief.

Rice Business Professor Daan Van Knippenberg has spent his career studying topics related to team performance, decision making, diversity and conflict. When a research team led by Codou Samba, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, approached him with an offer to test longstanding assumptions about conflict related to company strategy in senior management teams, he jumped at the opportunity.

In his experience, the business case for diversity is strong, but it comes with caveats. “Diversity of perspectives can lead to better solutions to complex problems, but only when team members are open-minded enough to listen carefully to each other and really integrate another point of view into their decision-making process,” he says. This does not seem to apply to differences in opinion about what company strategy should be.

When managers dig in their heels and refuse to consider and integrate other perspectives, that two-way door of communication slams shut and conflict ensues. “The popular idea that conflict is actually good for firms went against all my knowledge,” says Van Knippenberg. “It’s annoying that this idea has floated around in my field for so long when the evidence really points the other way.”

The team led by Samba, which also included C. Chet Miller, a professor at the University of Houston, conducted a quantitative summary and integration of 78 papers that provide data about strategic dissent — a term used to describe diverging opinions about strategic goals and objectives on senior management teams — and its influence on strategic decision making and firm performance.

Every paper that made a prediction about strategic dissent (only a few did not) posited that strategic dissent leads to better outcomes for firms.

In their paper, “The impact of strategic dissent on organizational outcomes: A meta-analytic integration,” the research team used a deep well of empirical data to demonstrate that the opposite is true. Turning common wisdom on its head, they found that strategic dissent among senior managers actually leads to lower-quality decisions and impaired firm performance.

The authors identify two major reasons for the negative impact of strategic dissent on firm outcomes.

First, strategic dissent causes relational breakdown among senior managers. “If managers walk away from a team meeting thinking they just had a conflict instead of a productive discussion, the outcome is rarely positive,” says Van Knippenberg. The two sides retreat into their respective corners, believing the other side to be wrong and closing their minds to further information.

Second, strategic dissent leads to less relevant information being exchanged among managers. Inevitably, this blockage impairs the decision-making process. If a marketing director and an operations director are at odds, for example, they are less likely to share the marketing- or operations-specific information that is needed to make an optimal team decision.

Teams can benefit from diversity of thought, but it is not always clear what conditions need to be in place for that to happen on senior management teams that disagree about the firm’s strategic direction. CEOs — the leaders of senior management teams — would do well to realize that it takes an effortful investment to foster open-minded discussions of diverging views on the organization’s strategy, to create an environment that encourages members to express dissenting perspectives while absorbing the perspectives of others, and to prevent vested interest and power dynamics from determining the outcomes of such discussions.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Daan Van Knippenberg, the Houston Endowed Professor of Management at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University, C. Chet Miller, the C.T. Bauer Professor of Organizational Studies at C. T. Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston, and Codou Samba, an assistant professor at Haslam College of Business at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

A new ranking looks at the Houston companies with the most patents granted in 2022. Photo via Getty Images

These are the Houston companies with the most patents granted last year

by the numbers

Two major players in Houston’s energy industry are also major players in the patent arena.

A new ranking from the analytics arm of patent law firm Harrity & Harrity puts Saudi Aramco, whose North American headquarters is in Houston, and Halliburton, whose global headquarters is in Houston, puts them in a tie for the number of U.S. patents with 963 patents received in 2022. Saudi Aramco and Halliburton now share the title of Houston’s patent king.

Saudi Aramco saw a 12 percent rise in patents granted in 2022 compared with 2021, according to Harrity & Harrity’s Patent 300 report, while Halliburton experienced a 5 percent jump. Each company tied for 44th place among the top 300 U.S. patient recipients in 2022.

According to the report, Samsung Electronics (8,513 patents) knocked IBM off its longtime pedestal as the No. 1 recipient of U.S. patents. IBM (4,743 patents) now holds the No. 2 position.

Many of Aramco’s U.S. patents come from its R&D centers in Houston, Boston, and Detroit. The Houston R&D hub opened in 2014 and underwent an expansion three years later.

Aramco, a Saudi Arabia-based supplier of oil and natural gas, also generates patents through academic partnerships, such as the one it established last year with Rice University’s Carbon Hub. Aramco has committed $10 million over five years to the carbon initiative.

“While patents are a leading indicator of innovation, the ultimate goal is to create value through the development of solutions that help to address a particular need,” Aramco says. “Such results are often only possible with significant upfront investments, and patents make it possible to recoup these costs and potentially generate additional revenue through commercialization.”

Last year, Aramco boasted that it ranked first in the oil and gas industry for U.S. patents (864) granted in 2021. Until 2011, Aramco had received only 100 U.S. patents over a 78-year span.

“Many of the patents are for innovations Aramco uses itself for competitive advantage, although they can also be licensed to others, creating extra value for the company,” Jamil Bagawi, then the company’s chief engineer, wrote in 2021.

Halliburton also has ramped up its patenting efforts in recent years.

According to Houston law firm Yetter Coleman, those efforts kicked into high gear after Halliburton lost a fracking patent lawsuit to Tomball-based BJ Services, which is now out of business. In 2003, a Houston jury awarded $98 million in damages to BJ in the case, and Halliburton had to stop selling the system that allegedly infringed on BJ’s patent.

In the five years before the verdict, Halliburton averaged 142 patent awards a year, according to Yetter Coleman. The law firm reported in 2013 that Halliburton subsequently averaged 234 patents a year.

Today, of course, Halliburton has far exceeded those numbers. And it vigorously defends its growing patent portfolio. In September 2022, for instance, three subsidiaries of the oilfield services giant filed two lawsuits against Houston-based rival U.S. Well Services alleging infringement of 14 Halliburton patents.

IAM, a website that reports about the intellectual property industry, noted that when Halliburton sued U.S. Well Services, “IP professionals in the oil and gas industry may well have reached for the popcorn. Battles of this magnitude rarely break out in their slice of the patent world.”

Halliburton and Aramco may be the goliaths in Houston’s patent world, but they’re not the only local organizations to appear on the Patent 300 list for 2022. Other Houston-area companies that made the cut are:

  • Spring-based Hewlett Packard Enterprise, No. 84. The tech company received 511 U.S. patents in 2022, down 4 percent from the previous year.
  • Houston-based SLB (Schlumberger), No. 117. The oilfield services company received 372 U.S. patents in 2022, down 14 percent from the previous year.
  • Houston-based Baker Hughes, No. 123. The oilfield services company received 350 U.S. patents in 2022, down 11 percent from the previous year.
  • ExxonMobil, No. 156. The oil and gas company received 281 U.S. patents in 2022, down 8 percent from the previous year. It is in the process of moving its headquarters from Irving to Spring.
  • United Imaging Healthcare, No. 253. The Chinese healthcare equipment company, whose North American headquarters is in Houston, received 175 U.S. patents in 2022, up 31 percent from the previous year.
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Report: Houston's hot medical office market might be on track to cool

by the numbers

Houston’s medical office market is on a roll.

A report from commercial real estate services company JLL shows net absorption and transaction volume saw healthy gains in 2022:

  • The annual absorption total of 289,215 square feet was 50.5 percent higher than the five-year average.
  • Transaction volume notched a 31.7 percent year-over-year increase.

Meanwhile, net rents held steady at $26.92 per square foot, up 1.3 percent from the previous year. The fourth-quarter 2022 vacancy rate stood at 15.9 percent.

Despite those numbers, the report suggests a slowdown in medical office rentals may be underway.

“Tenants who may have previously considered building out or expanding their lease agreements are now in a holding pattern due to increased construction costs and higher interest rates,” the report says. “These factors are having a direct impact on financial decisions when it comes to lease renewals, making it more likely that tenants will remain in their existing location for the foreseeable future.”

Still, the report notes “a number of bright spots for the future of healthcare in Houston.” Aside from last year’s record-high jump in sales volume, the report indicates an aging population coupled with a growing preference for community-based treatment “will lift demand even higher in coming years.”

The report shows that in last year’s fourth quarter, 527,083 square of medical office space was under construction in the Houston area, including:

  • 152,871 square feet in the Clear Lake area.
  • 104,665 square feet in the South submarket.
  • 103,647 square feet in Sugar Land.
Last fall, JLL recognized Houston as a top city for life sciences. According to that report, the Bayou City lands at No. 13 in JLL’s 2022 ranking of the country’s top 15 metro areas for life sciences. JLL says Houston “is poised for further growth” in life sciences.

Houston financial services firm announces acquisition, plans to grow

M&A radar

A Houston-based financial services company has made a recent strategic acquisition that gives it a new banking status.

LevelField Financial, which is creating a platform that combines traditional banking and digital asset products and services, announced this week that it is acquiring Burling Bank, an FDIC-insured, Illinois state-chartered bank. According to the company, once it receives regulatory approval, "LevelField will be the first full-service bank to offer fully compliant traditional banking and digital asset services."

The financial terms of the deal's transaction, which is expected to close later this year, were not disclosed.

The combined company will be able to provide traditional banking services, as well as LevelField's digital asset management. Burling Bank's senior management team will join LevelField's leadership, per a press release. They will focus on serving the bank's existing clients and growing the banking business nationwide.

"We conducted a broad review of banks in the U.S. to find the ideal institution with both an existing business and a management team who are aligned with our vision; we exceeded our expectations with Burling Bank. With this acquisition, LevelField will become a traditional bank, albeit one serving customers interested in the digital asset class," says Gene A. Grant II, CEO of LevelField Financial, in the release.

"We are thrilled to have the Burling executives join our leadership team, and together we intend to deliver fantastic customer service and well-designed products to customers who have an interest in accessing the digital asset class through a traditional bank," he continues.

Founded in 2018 by former banking executives, LevelField's leadership believes "the future of money is digital and that banks will continue to be a trusted provider of financial services," according to the website. This acquisition comes ahead of the company's plans to expand nationally.

"LevelField's strategic approach presented a tremendous opportunity for the bank to expand beyond our local footprint and serve customers with shared interests across the nation," says Michael J. Busch, Burling Bank president and CEO. "Together, we will continue to provide superior service and demonstrate that we truly understand the expanding and unique needs of our customers. Additionally, through the carefully developed suite of products we can address our customers' interests in digital assets and introduce them to LevelField's safe, simple, and secure platform."

How this Houston innovator's tech is gearing up to impact EV charging, energy transition

houston innovators podcast episode 172

With more and more electric vehicles on the road, existing electrical grid infrastructure needs to be able to keep up. Houston-based Revterra has the technology to help.

"One of the challenges with electric vehicle adoption is we're going to need a lot of charging stations to quickly charge electric cars," Ben Jawdat, CEO and founder of Revterra, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "People are familiar with filling their gas tank in a few minutes, so an experience similar to that is what people are looking for."

To charge an EV in ten minutes is about 350 kilowatts of power, and, as Jawdat explains, if several of these charges are happening at the same time, it puts a tremendous strain on the electric grid. Building the infrastructure needed to support this type of charging would be a huge project, but Jawdat says he thought of a more turnkey solution.

Revterra created a kinetic energy storage system that enables rapid EV charging. The technology pulls from the grid, but at a slower, more manageable pace. Revterra's battery acts as an intermediary to store that energy until the consumer is ready to charge.

"It's an energy accumulator and a high-power energy discharger," Jawdat says, explaining that compared to an electrical chemical battery, which could be used to store energy for EVs, kinetic energy can be used more frequently and for faster charging.

Jawdat, who is a trained physicist with a PhD from the University of Houston and worked as a researcher at Rice University, says some of his challenges were receiving early funding and identifying customers willing to deploy his technology.

Last year, Revterra raised $6 million in a series A funding round. Norway’s Equinor Ventures led the round, with participation from Houston-based SCF Ventures. Previously, Revterra raised nearly $500,000 through a combination of angel investments and a National Science Foundation grant.

The funding has gone toward growing Revterra's team, including onboarding three new engineers with some jobs still open, Jawdat says. Additionally, Revterra is building out its new lab space and launching new pilot programs.

Ultimately, Revterra, an inaugural member of Greentown Houston, hopes to be a major player within the energy transition.

"We really want to be an enabling technology in the renewable energy transition," Jawdat says. "One part of that is facilitating the development of large-scale, high-power, fast-charging networks. But, beyond that, we see this technology as a potential solution in other areas related to the clean energy transition."

He shares more about what's next for Revterra on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.