This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Mitra Miller of Houston Angel Network, Richard Baraniuk of OpenStax, and Carlos Estrada of BioWell. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to three Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with an angel investment evangelist, an academic-turned-startup-founder celebrating a big win, and a leader of a brand new accelerator.

Mitra Miller, vice president and board member of the Houston Angel Network

Mitra Miller, vice president and board member of the Houston Angel Network, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share her passion for growing angel investors in Houston. Photo via LinkedIn

One of the biggest components of a well-functioning startup ecosystem is inarguably access to capital, and Mitra Miller is dedicated to enhancing education around investment and growing Houston's investor base.

As vice president and board member of the Houston Angel Network, the oldest angel network in Texas and one of the most active angel networks in the country, Miller strives to provide guidance to new and emerging angel investors as well as founders seeking to raise money from them.

"Most founders have no idea or understanding of how investors think — we are not an ATM," Miller says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We are really partners you are getting married to for the next 5, 8, 10 years — sometimes longer. We need to bring your allies in every sense of the word." Continue reading.

Richard Baraniuk, Rice University professor and founder of OpenStax

At an event at the Ion, OpenStax and Rice University announced a $90 million NSF-backed initiative. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice

An educational technology company based out of Rice University has received $90 million to create and lead a research and development hub for inclusive learning and education research. It's the largest research award in the history of the university.

OpenStax received the grant funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation for a five-year project create the R&D hub called SafeInsights. Richard Baraniuk, who founded OpenStax and is a Rice professor, will lead SafeInsights. He says he hopes the initiative will allow progress to be made for students learning in various contexts.

“Learning is complex," Baraniuk says in the release. "Research can tackle this complexity and help get the right tools into the hands of educators and students, but to do so, we need reliable information on how students learn. Just as progress in health care research sparked stunning advances in personalized medicine, we need similar precision in education to support all students, particularly those from underrepresented and low-income backgrounds.” Continue reading.

Carlos Estrada, head of venture acceleration at BioWell

Calling all biotechnology startups. Photo via LinkedIn

A Houston organization — freshly funded by a $700,000 U.S. Economic Development Administration’s “Build to Scale” grant — is seeking its first accelerator cohort of industrial biology startups.

Founded by Houston-based First Bight Ventures, the BioWell has launched a virtual accelerator program that will provide programming, networking, mentorship, and financial resources to its inaugural cohort of 10 bioindustrial startups. The selected companies will also have access to specialized pilot bioproduction infrastructure throughout the nine-month program.

“BioWell equips startups with more than just capital. We provide a foundation for breakthrough innovations by combining access to cutting-edge bioproduction facilities with expertise that nurtures scalability. This comprehensive support is crucial for transforming pioneering ideas into market-ready solutions that can address pressing global challenges,” Carlos Estrada, head of venture acceleration at BioWell, says in a news release. Continue reading.

At an event at the Ion, OpenStax and Rice University announced a $90 million NSF-backed initiative. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice

Rice University's edtech company receives $90M to lead NSF research hub

major collaboration

An educational technology company based out of Rice University has received $90 million to create and lead a research and development hub for inclusive learning and education research. It's the largest research award in the history of the university.

OpenStax received the grant funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation for a five-year project create the R&D hub called SafeInsights, which "will enable extensive, long-term research on the predictors of effective learning while protecting student privacy," reads a news release from Rice. It's the NSF's largest single investment commitment to national sale education R&D infrastructure.

“We are thrilled to announce an investment of $90 million in SafeInsights, marking a significant step forward in our commitment to advancing scientific research in STEM education,” NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan says in the release. “There is an urgent need for research-informed strategies capable of transforming educational systems, empowering our nation’s workforce and propelling discoveries in the science of learning.

"By investing in cutting-edge infrastructure and fostering collaboration among researchers and educators, we are paving the way for transformative discoveries and equitable opportunities for learners across the nation.”

SafeInsights is funded through NSF’s Mid-scale Research Infrastructure-2 (Mid-scale RI-2) program and will act as a central hub for 80 partners and collaborating institutions.

“SafeInsights represents a pivotal moment for Rice University and a testament to our nation’s commitment to educational research,” Rice President Reginald DesRoches adds. “It will accelerate student learning through studies that result in more innovative, evidence-based tools and practices.”

Richard Baraniuk, who founded OpenStax and is a Rice professor, will lead SafeInsights. He says he hopes the initiative will allow progress to be made for students learning in various contexts.

“Learning is complex," Baraniuk says in the release. "Research can tackle this complexity and help get the right tools into the hands of educators and students, but to do so, we need reliable information on how students learn. Just as progress in health care research sparked stunning advances in personalized medicine, we need similar precision in education to support all students, particularly those from underrepresented and low-income backgrounds.”

OpenStax awarded $90M to lead NSF research hub for transformational learning and education researchwww.youtube.com

OpenStax, founded out of Rice University, has continued its growth, adding new partners and textbooks. Photo via openstax.org

Growing Houston tech nonprofit expands access to textbooks for college students

openstax updates

If everyone that attended a college or university were polled, they’d all likely agree that one of the worst parts of the experience was the rising costs of textbooks.

In an effort to combat the hefty price tag of assigned texts, OpenStax, a nonprofit education startup out of Rice University, which is on a mission to increase educational access for all, seeks to democratize high-quality education by offering free, peer-reviewed, openly licensed textbooks for students and knowledge seekers across the globe.

This month, OpenStax will add to its 57 open education resources, or OER, titles with a full version of John McMurry's popular pre-med textbook, Organic Chemistry, under an open license to honor his late son, Peter, who passed away in 2019 after losing his battle with cystic fibrosis.

“The author, John McMurry, granted us the ability to publish the 10th edition openly,” Anthony Palmiotto, director of higher education at OpenStax, tells InnovationMap. “So, the most widely used organic chemistry textbook went from being one of the most expensive undergraduate texts on the market (almost $100), to a free and open text, making this a watershed moment for OER.”

This school year, OpenStax is adding 16 academic institutions onto its platform, including Georgia State University, Southwest Texas Junior College, Texas A&M University-Commerce, University of San Diego, and more. It's the largest batch of new schools OpenStax has onboarded in a year, Palmiotto says in a news release.

Founded to increase access

Richard Baraniuk, a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice University, founded OpenStax. Photo via rice.edu

OpenStax founder and director Richard Baraniuk, a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice University, started the OER publisher in 1999 to remove financial barriers and make educational resources more widely available. Much like increasing access to McMurry’s Organic Chemistry, the goal is to continue to support both learners and educators by providing easily accessible and well-developed materials.

“Our mission is to support all learners in their educational pursuits by providing access to high-quality education,” Palmiotto says. “Richard Baraniuk founded it initially as a way for faculty and others to get their material and their knowledge in the form of textbooks and other learning materials to students.

“And then born out of that, we started this robust textbook development and course material development program where we put out the highest-quality materials we can in a way that fits the way courses are taught. Meaning convenience and scope and sequence and other needs that instructors must use textbooks. So really the access was really the start of it, increasing that and lowering barriers to education, and then a lot flowed from that.”

OpenStax’s library of OER titles, which are published under a Creative Commons Attribution license, are free and easily accessible on the go and usable on any device in multiple formats, including digital and PDF.

Funded by philanthropic supporters, OpenStax normally works to openly access five or six books per year, working mostly on introductory courses. Most recently, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board funded the publisher to do a series of nursing books, eight in total.

“Before the nursing books, we were doing business books,” Palmiotto says. “Murry’s book builds out our science offerings, so we're thinking about the different areas that students take that can be barriers for them to move up in education and succeed. From there, we’ll continue to think about how a free textbook can help students through that process.”

Tapping into tech

Currently, OpenStax has over 7.5 million users in the formal education space, primarily in higher education introductory courses, as well as grades K–12. Photo via openstax.org

In addition to nursing, OpenStax is working towards releasing books in data science and computer science, including programming, workplace software and, eventually, artificial intelligence.

“AI is a big deal to us,” says Palmiotto. “We're thinking about it a lot, and in the books themselves, we're incorporating as best we can how AI plays into Data Science, Computer Science and Python Programming those. We’re thinking about how AI could be used and will impact programming, for example. But the AI landscape is changing as we go, and that's another reason we don't just put out the books, we maintain them.

“So, we can continually update them. Once we publish, six months later, we can publish updates or additions to reflect what's happening in courses or in professions or in the workforce to reflect how AI is being used as new software is released and so on.”

As OpenStax continues to build on its OER title database, they are using multiple methods of outreach to reach as many people as possible. Currently, they have over 7.5 million users in the formal education space, primarily in higher education introductory courses, as well as grades K–12.

“Over 140 countries are using our material,” says Palmiotto. “We're not as easily able to track how many students have used our material in all those other countries. But that's not the point, we want to put it out there. We know it's being used. We want to help as much as possible. But it is being used in all those countries and in different ways. Some people are translating it. Some people are using it in English. Some people are breaking it up. It just depends on what they need.”

Evolving the industry

OpenStax repeatedly receives feedback from users worldwide that appreciate the openness and availability of their books. Photo via openstax.org

As much as OpenStax is a disrupter to conventional textbook publishers, they would rather work in partnership with publishers like Murry’s former house Cengage rather than outright replacing them.

“What we've tried to do with those publishers is actually partner with them and say, we know that textbook prices were too high,” says Palmiotto. “Some of them partnered with us, Cengage, Riley, some of the other publishers, like Macmillan, incorporate our textbooks into their platforms so that instructors and students have that flexibility even with those publishers.

“Not every publisher wants to do that. That's their choice. But what we've tried to do is say ‘let's make an ecosystem.’ That's what we call it and let them participate in this movement that open education has become.”

With their textbooks on an open forum, it might seem that OpenStax texts would be susceptible to hacking or other unauthorized changes. But, according to Palmiotto, there’s a safeguard to that.

“We keep the standard version,” he says. “That's why a lot of people keep using it because they know that the version that we provide will be the most up-to-date version. But it is openly licensed. So, if we see that a school wants to teach the course in a slightly different way or if they want to recombine two different books to make a different course, take biology and make human biology, or take philosophy and make ethics or something, they can do that.

“But we still retain the standardized version that we redistribute and make sure that that's the high-quality one that people can look to. So nobody is getting back to our version and changing it, but they do have the opportunity to change their own.”

After more than a decade in the space, OpenStax repeatedly receives feedback from users worldwide that appreciate the openness and availability of their books.

“We have some great stories of different learners from all over the world that are non-traditional students facing barriers,” says Palmiotto. “And having a free textbook and not having to choose between food and their book or courseware makes a huge difference in their lives. If they have this flexibility in what they have to purchase, most people appreciate that choice.”

Pradeep Sharma, M.D. Anderson Chair Professor and department chair at the University of Houston, was named to the National Academy of Engineering. Photo via uh.edu

5 Houston researches named to prestigious engineering organization

newly named members

A national organization has named its latest cohort of new members — which includes Elon Musk — and five Houston-area innovators have also made the cut.

The National Academy of Engineering elected 111 new members and 22 international members, bringing the total U.S. membership to 2,388 and the number of international members to 310. The appointment is among the highest professional distinctions in an engineer's career. Each member has been found to have made significant contributions to "engineering research, practice, or education, including, where appropriate, significant contributions to the engineering literature," according to a news release.

The newly elected class will be formally inducted during the NAE's annual meeting on Oct. 2. The five Houston-area appointees and what they are being recognized for are:

  • Richard G. Baraniuk, C. Sidney Burrus Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Rice University. For the development and broad dissemination of open educational resources and for foundational contributions to compressive sensing.
  • Donald Nathan Meehan, president, CMG Petroleum Consulting Ltd.. For technical and business innovation in the application of horizontal well technology for oil and gas production.
  • Pradeep Sharma, M.D. Anderson Chair Professor and department chair, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Houston. For establishing the field of flexoelectricity, leading to the creation of novel materials and devices and insights in biophysical phenomena.
  • Leon Thomsen, chief scientist, Delta Geophysics Inc. For contributions to seismic anisotropy concepts that produced major advances in subsurface analysis.
  • David West, corporate fellow, Corporate Research and Innovation, Saudi Basic Industries Corp. For solutions to problems with technological, commercial, and societal impacts while advancing chemical sciences by applying reaction engineering fundamentals.

In a news release from UH, Sharma says it's the highest honor he could achieve as an engineer. The NAE recognized Sharma's work within flexoelectricity, a relatively understudied, exotic phenomenon that has the potential to provide similar functionality as piezoelectrics.

“Nature has provided us very few piezoelectric materials even though their applications in energy harvesting and in making sensors is very important. What we did was use theory to design materials that perform like piezoelectric ones, so that they can create electricity,” says Sharma in the release.

Sharma has worked at UH since 2004, and previously conducted research at General Electric for three years.

“The recognition of Professor Sharma by the National Academy of Engineering highlights a career full of outstanding research that has contributed to the understanding of engineering and helped uncover solutions for some of the world’s most significant problems,” says Paula Myrick Short, UH senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, in the release.

Over at Rice, Baraniuk's engineering career includes computational signal processing, most recently as it relates to machine learning. He's best known for spearheading the creation of Connexions, one of the first open-source education initiatives, and its successor, OpenStax, which publishes high-quality, peer-reviewed textbooks that are free to download.

“It’s auspicious timing that the NAE citation mentioned open education, because the seventh of February was the 10th anniversary of OpenStax publishing its first free and open textbook,” he says in a release from Rice. “It’s neat to have this happen in the same week, and worth pointing out that if ever there was a team effort, it was Connexions and OpenStax.”

Baraniuk has been at Rice since 1992, has three degrees in electrical and computer engineering.

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Houston engineers develop breakthrough device to advance spinal cord treatment

future of health

A team of Rice University engineers has developed an implantable probe over a hundred times smaller than the width of a hair that aims to help develop better treatments for spinal cord disease and injury.

Detailed in a recent study published in Cell Reports, the probe or sensor, known as spinalNET, is used to explore how neurons in the spinal cord process sensation and control movement, according to a statement from Rice. The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health, Rice, the California-based Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and the philanthropic Mary K. Chapman Foundation based in Oklahoma.

The soft and flexible sensor was used to record neuronal activity in freely moving mice with high resolution for multiple days. Historically, tracking this level of activity has been difficult for researchers because the spinal cord and its neurons move so much during normal activity, according to the team.

“We developed a tiny sensor, spinalNET, that records the electrical activity of spinal neurons as the subject performs normal activity without any restraint,” Yu Wu, a research scientist at Rice and lead author of the study said in a statement. “Being able to extract such knowledge is a first but important step to develop cures for millions of people suffering from spinal cord diseases.”

The team says that before now the spinal cord has been considered a "black box." But the device has already helped the team uncover new findings about the body's rhythmic motor patterns, which drive walking, breathing and chewing.

Lan Luan (from left), Yu Wu, and Chong Xie are working on the breakthrough device. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

"Some (spinal neurons) are strongly correlated with leg movement, but surprisingly, a lot of neurons have no obvious correlation with movement,” Wu said in the statement. “This indicates that the spinal circuit controlling rhythmic movement is more complicated than we thought.”

The team said they hope to explore these findings further and aim to use the technology for additional medical purposes.

“In addition to scientific insight, we believe that as the technology evolves, it has great potential as a medical device for people with spinal cord neurological disorders and injury,” Lan Luan, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice and a corresponding author on the study, added in the statement.

Rice researchers have developed several implantable, minimally invasive devices to address health and mental health issues.

In the spring, the university announced that the United States Department of Defense had awarded a four-year, $7.8 million grant to the Texas Heart Institute and a Rice team led by co-investigator Yaxin Wang to continue to break ground on a novel left ventricular assist device (LVAD) that could be an alternative to current devices that prevent heart transplantation.

That same month, the university shared news that Professor Jacob Robinson had published findings on minimally invasive bioelectronics for treating psychiatric conditions. The 9-millimeter device can deliver precise and programmable stimulation to the brain to help treat depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Houston clean hydrogen startup to pilot tech with O&G co.

stay gold

Gold H2, a Houston-based producer of clean hydrogen, is teaming up with a major U.S.-based oil and gas company as the first step in launching a 12-month series of pilot projects.

The tentative agreement with the unnamed oil and gas company kicks off the availability of the startup’s Black 2 Gold microbial technology. The technology underpins the startup’s biotech process for converting crude oil into proprietary Gold Hydrogen.

The cleantech startup plans to sign up several oil and gas companies for the pilot program. Gold H2 says it’s been in discussions with companies in North America, Latin America, India, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

The pilot program is aimed at demonstrating how Gold H2’s technology can transform old oil wells into hydrogen-generating assets. Gold H2, a spinout of Houston-based biotech company Cemvita, says the technology is capable of producing hydrogen that’s cheaper and cleaner than ever before.

“This business model will reshape the traditional oil and gas industry landscape by further accelerating the clean energy transition and creating new economic opportunities in areas that were previously dismissed as unviable,” Gold H2 says in a news release.

The start of the Black 2 Gold demonstrations follows the recent hiring of oil and gas industry veteran Prabhdeep Singh Sekhon as CEO.

“With the proliferation of AI, growth of data centers, and a national boom in industrial manufacturing underway, affordable … carbon-free energy is more paramount than ever,” says Rayyan Islam, co-founder and general partner at venture capital firm 8090 Industries, an investor in Gold H2. “We’re investing in Gold H2, as we know they’ll play a pivotal role in unleashing a new dawn for energy abundance in partnership with the oil industry.”

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes an e-commerce startup founder, an industrial biologist, and a cellular scientist.

Omair Tariq, co-founder and CEO of Cart.com

Omair Tariq of Cart.com joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share his confidence in Houston as the right place to scale his unicorn. Photo via Cart.com

Houston-based Cart.com, which operates a multichannel commerce platform, has secured $105 million in debt refinancing from investment manager BlackRock.

The debt refinancing follows a recent $25 million series C extension round, bringing Cart.com’s series C total to $85 million. The scaleup’s valuation now stands at $1.2 billion, making it one of the few $1 billion-plus “unicorns” in the Houston area.

Cart.com was co-founded by CEO Omair Tariq in October 2020. Read more.

Nádia Skorupa Parachin, vice president of industrial biotechnology at Cemvita

Nádia Skorupa Parachin joined Cemvita as vice president of industrial biotechnology. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Houston-based biotech company Cemvita recently tapped two executives to help commercialize its sustainable fuel made from carbon waste.

Nádia Skorupa Parachin came aboard as vice president of industrial biotechnology, and Phil Garcia was promoted to vice president of commercialization.

Parachin most recently oversaw several projects at Boston-based biotech company Ginkjo Bioworks. She previously co-founded Brazilian biotech startup Integra Bioprocessos. Read more.

Han Xiao, associate professor of chemistry at Rice University

The funds were awarded to Han Xiao, a chemist at Rice University.

A Rice University chemist has landed a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Health for his work that aims to reprogram the genetic code and explore the role certain cells play in causing diseases like cancer and neurological disorders.

The funds were awarded to Han Xiao, the Norman Hackerman-Welch Young Investigator, associate professor of chemistry, from the NIH's Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) program, which supports medically focused laboratories. Xiao will use the five-year grant to advance his work on noncanonical amino acids.

“This innovative approach could revolutionize how we understand and control cellular functions,” Xiao said in the statement. Read more.