Kahuna Workforce Solutions, which provides HR software solutions, announced it has closed a $21 million series B. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston company with a software platform to enhance skills management operations has raised its series B.

Kahuna Workforce Solutions announced it has closed a $21 million series B funding round led by Baltimore-based Resolve Growth Partners. Kahuna's platform provides its users — which come the from health care, energy, field service, and manufacturing industries — with effective assessment, training and development, and staffing and deployment initiatives.

“We are thrilled to work with Resolve as Kahuna begins the next growth phase. Their expertise in enterprise software, and commitment to innovation and continuous improvement fully aligns with our mission, vision, and goals for Kahuna,” Jai Shah, CEO of Kahuna Workforce Solutions, says in a news release. “This funding fuels our ability to provide mission-critical skills management solutions and support as we revolutionize how organizations manage and optimize workforce skills and capabilities.”

The software-as-a-service company will use the fresh funding to continue product development and hire across sales and marketing, product development, customer success, and engineering. The company also will grow to support global customers.

“Kahuna stands out as a category leader. They offer best-in-class skills management software and create true partnerships with customers to achieve transformative business value and operational outcomes,” Jit Sinha, co-founder and partner at Resolve Growth Partners, adds.

“Kahuna’s extensive understanding of market needs positions them uniquely in this space. Our investment is a testament to the confidence we have in Kahuna to continue leading and offering unparalleled solutions to meet the evolving needs of customers globally,” Sinha continues.

Shah, who's based in San Diego, founded the company in 2018. The company lists several of its customers on its website, including bp, GE Renewable Energy, Memorial Hermann, and more.

Currently, methane leak detection requires human evaluation. With this innovative new company's tech, this process can be automated. Photo via Getty Images

Houston startup advances in Chevron's unique business accelerator

scaling up

A Houston startup that is developing a technology to detect methane leaks has moved on to phase two in Chevron's unique business accelerator.

Aquanta Vision Technologies, a Houston-based climate-tech startup, was selected to participate in the scale-up phase of Chevron Studio, a Houston program that matches entrepreneurs with technologies to turn them into businesses. Aquanta's computer vision software completely automates the identification of methane in optical gas imaging, or OGI. The technology originated from Colorado State University and CSU STRATA Technology Transfer.

Babur Ozden, a tech startup entrepreneur, along with Marcus Martinez, the lead inventor and Dan Zimmerle, co-inventor and director of METEC at CSU Energy Institute, came up with the technology to identify the presence and motion of methane in live video streams. Currently, this process of identifying methane requires a human camera operator to interpret the images. This can often be unreliable in the collection of emissions data.

Babur Ozden is the founder of Aquanta Vision. Photo via LinkedIn

Aquanta’s technology requires no human intervention and is universally compatible with all OGI cameras. Currently, only about 10 percent of the 20.5 million surveys done worldwide use this type of technology as it is extremely expensive to produce. Ozden said he hopes Aquanta will change that model.

“What we are doing — we are democratizing this feature, this capability, independent of the camera make and model,” Ozden tells EnergyCapital.

Aquanta’s software will be downloadable from App stores to the technician’s computers or phones.

“Our goal is to eliminate the absolute reliance of human interpretation and to give operators a chance to make detections faster and more accurately,” Ozden says.

“Our ultimate ambition is to reduce our footprint.” he continues. “Companies like Chevron and other leading players in the oil and gas industry are becoming much more committed (to reducing emissions)."

Aquanta will now test its software under various scenarios and develop an early commercial version of the product. In the next and final phase of the program, the company will begin marketing the technology for commercial use.

The goal of Chevron Studio is to take innovative new technologies out of the labs at universities and to scale them up to commercial ventures. The company takes the intellectual property developed at these labs and provides a platform to match entrepreneurs with the technology. The program provides funding to take the technologies from the very beginning to pilot and field trials. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL, manages Chevron Studio and works closely with the entrepreneurs to guide them through the program.

Gautam Phanse, the strategic relations manager for Chevron Technology Ventures says he was impressed with Ozden’s background as an entrepreneur and in the technology he brought to the table.

“We are looking at experienced entrepreneurs. People who can take an idea and stand on their own and develop it into a business,” he tells EnergyCapital.

Earlier this year, Phanse spoke to InnovationMap about Chevron Studio and its mission to match entrepreneurs with promising technologies coming out of universities and labs. He said the current focus areas for Chevron Studio are: carbon utilization, hydrogen and renewable energy, energy storage systems and solutions for circular economy.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

A Houston fintech startup is aiming to modernize banking and investing — and has received fresh funding to do it. Photo via Getty Images

Houston fintech startup raises $8M seed round led by local VC

fresh funds

A Houston startup has raised millions for its fintech platform — and the company didn't have to go very far to find its lead investor.

Brassica Technologies Inc. closed its seed round at $8 million with Houston-based Mercury Fund leading the round. Valor Equity Partners, Long Journey Ventures, NGC Fund, Neowiz, Broadhaven Ventures, Armyn Capital, VC3DAO, Alpha Asset Management (Korea), and other global FinTech investors participated in the round as well.

The startup's platform has "institutional-grade solutions for the new era of private investing and alternative assets," per the release. Serving the alternative assets industry, Brassica's tools can easily integrate with any operating system to provide proprietary technology and unique regulatory licenses. The technology aims to modernize key banking and investing infrastructure to help enterprises safely grow their business and protect their customer assets.

With its "investment infrastructure as a service" model, Brassica was co-founded in 2021 by two familiar faces in Houston's fintech scene. CEO Youngro Lee and CTO Bob Dunton were behind NextSeed, a crowdfunding platform that allowed businesses to raise investment funding online. The startup was acquired in 2020 by Republic, where Lee currently serves as executive vice president and head of Asia.

“The future of finance will depend on the ability of trustworthy institutions to provide secure and seamless transitions between traditional financial services and web3 innovations while complying with strict regulations and still providing great customer experience,” says Lee in the news release.

“Today’s infrastructure solutions for alternative assets are often cobbled together through multiple incompatible vendors in a complex regulatory environment, which often creates unreasonable risk, errors, and single points of failure for market participants," he continues. "We started Brassica to address this fundamental problem and provide solutions to enable innovators in both traditional and web3 industries to build properly within a constantly evolving global regulatory framework.”

Along with the seed round news, the company has announced that Brassica Trust Company, its wholly-owned subsidiary, has received a Trust Charter by the Wyoming State Banking Board.

“The revolution of the private markets is here, and it is clear that the traditional, legacy infrastructure currently in place is not designed for the present and future investment world,” says Blair Garrou, managing director at Mercury Fund, in the release. “Brassica’s API-forward, institutional grade solutions make investing in private and digital assets more trustworthy, compliant, and secure than ever before, further bridging the gap between the worlds of traditional and decentralized finance. Their highly qualified and experienced senior business, legal, and technology executive team makes Brassica well-positioned to usher in this new era of alternative investments. We are proud to support Brassica on their ongoing mission to democratize finance globally.”

The company plans to use the funding to grow its product, engineering, business development, and customer success teams, per the news release, as well as develop a trust operations team in Wyoming. Current leadership includes former execs from Republic, Cleary Gottlieb, Kirkland Ellis, Morgan Stanley, Custodia Bank, LedgerX, Prime Trust, JP Morgan Chase, and M1 Finance.

Youngro Lee has announced funding for his latest fintech endeavor. Photo courtesy

Houston-based Hewlett Packard Enterprise announced its plans to acquire a Silicon Valley startup. Photo courtesy og HPE

Houston tech company to acquire IT infrastructure startup

M&A moves

Hewlett Packard Enterprise has announced its plans to acquire a San Jose, California-based startup.

HPE, which relocated its headquarters to Houston from the Bay Area a couple years ago, has agreed to acquire OpsRamp, a software-as-a-service company with an IT operations management, or ITOM, platform that can monitor, automate, and manage IT infrastructure, cloud resources, and more.

According to a news release from HPE, the OpsRamp platform will be merged with the HPE GreenLake edge-to-cloud platform, which supports more than 65,000 customers, powers over two million connected devices, and manages more than one exabyte of data with customers worldwide.

The new integrated system "will reduce the operational complexity of multi-vendor and multi-cloud IT environments that are in the public cloud, colocations, and on-premises," per the statement.

“Customers today are managing several different cloud environments, with different IT operational models and tools, which dramatically increases the cost and complexity of digital operations management,” says HPE's CTO Fidelma Russo in the release. “The combination of OpsRamp and HPE will remove these barriers by providing customers with an integrated edge-to-cloud platform that can more effectively manage and transform multi-vendor and multi-cloud IT estates.

"This acquisition advances HPE hybrid cloud leadership and expands the reach of the HPE GreenLake platform into IT Operations Management,” she continues.

HPE's corporate venture arm, Pathfinder, invested in OpsRamp in 2020. The company raised $57.5 million prior to the acquisition. Other investors included Morgan Stanley Expansion Capital and Sapphire Ventures, per TechCrunch.

“The integration of OpsRamp’s hybrid digital operations management solution with the HPE GreenLake platform will provide an unmatched offering for organizations seeking to innovate and thrive in a complex, multi-cloud world. Partners and the channel will also play a pivotal role to advance their as-a-service offerings, as enterprises look for a unified approach to better manage their operations from the edge to the cloud,” says Varma Kunaparaju, CEO of OpsRamp, in the release.

“We look forward to leveraging the scale and reach of HPE’s global go-to-market engine to deliver our unique offering and are excited for this journey ahead as part of HPE.”

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Growing Houston-based drone software company snags government contract

ready for liftoff

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Houston-based SynMax has closed its first round of funding. Photo via Getty Images

Houston SaaS startup raises $6M seed

money moves

A Houston-based satellite data analytics company is celebrating an oversubscribed round of recent funding.

SynMax announced this week that it closed its seed round at $6 million with an oversubscription of $2 million. The startup is providing geospatial intelligence software as a service to customers within the energy and maritime industries. The technology combines earth observation imagery and key data sources for predictive analytics and artificial intelligence.

The company reports that all of the investment came from SynMax customers. The round was led by Houston-based Skylar Capital, an investment management firm focused on the natural gas market.

“I am very excited about SynMax and the problems they are solving," says Bill Perkins, founder and managing partner of Skylar Capital, in a news release. "Their dedicated and skilled team has taken a unique approach and made the products that SynMax create 'essential intelligence' in both the energy and maritime awareness domains.”

According to the release, the fresh funding will go toward expanding SynMax's team "to continue building its suite of energy products and advance development of its maritime domain awareness product."

Launched in May, the SynMax Energy product suite uses SynMax’s AI to provide the accurate and timely energy intelligence. SynMax Maritime is launching Theia — a maritime domain awareness platform — in early 2023.

Founded in 2021, SynMax is led by CTO Eric Anderson, who previously worked as an analyst at Skylar Capital, according to LinkedIn. Headquartered in Houston, SynMax is hiring employees from all over.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

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 a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.