Venus Aerospace announced that it's successfully ran the first long-duration engine test of their Rotating Detonation Rocket Engine in partnership with DARPA. Screenshot via Venus Aerospace

A Houston tech company working on an engine to enable hypersonic flights has reported its latest milestone.

Venus Aerospace announced that it's successfully ran the first long-duration engine test of their Rotating Detonation Rocket Engine in partnership with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

The RDRE engine Venus is working on is uniquely designed and a first in the field. It has an additional 15 percent efficiency over traditional rocket engines.

"As we continue to push towards our ultimate mission of high-speed global flight, this is an important technical milestone for having a flight-ready engine," Andrew Duggleby, CTO and co-founder of Venus Aerospace, says in the news release. "I'm incredibly proud of our team as they continue to push forward on this world-changing technology."

The test results are a big win, as the RDRE had previously only been tested in a short-duration capacity. DARPA is just one of several U.S. Government agencies that has contracts with Venus.

"The successful test is a testament to our team's dedication and expertise. We're building something special here at Venus, in large part because we have the right people and the right partners," Sassie Duggleby, CEO and co-founder of Venus Aerospace, adds. "I can't say enough about our collaboration with DARPA and the role they played in helping us make this leap forward."

Last summer, Venus added a new investor to its cap table. Andrew Duggleby founded Venus Aerospace with his wife and CEO Sassie in 2020, before relocating to the Houston Spaceport in 2021. Last year, Venus raised a $20 million series A round. Sassie joined the Houston Innovators Podcast a year ago to explain her company's mission of "home for dinner."

DARPA Partnership Long-Duration Testwww.youtube.com

The ultimate who's who of 2023 — these are our favorite Houston Innovators Podcast guests of last year. Photos courtesy

Editor's Picks: 7 favorite Houston Innovator Podcast episodes of 2023

year in review

Editor's note: In 2023, I recorded 50 episodes of the Houston Innovators Podcast — a weekly discussion with a Houston innovator, startup founder, investor, and more. I've rounded up seven podcast episodes that stood out for me looking back at the year of recordings. Scroll through to see whom I selected and stream their individual episodes, and tune into the last episode of the year where I explain why I enjoyed each conversation.



Episode 174 - Rolling out nationwide - Mike Francis and Carrie Horazeck of NanoTech

NanoTech's Chief Commercial Officer Carrie Horazeck and Co-Founder and CEO Mike Francis join the Houston Innovators Podcast to celebrate the nationwide launch of their roof coating product. Photo via LinkedIn

A Houston startup is celebrating its nationwide launch of its flagship product that coats roofs to reduce energy waste.

NanoTech's Nano Shield Cool Roof Coat is a unique product that can be added onto roofs to reduce energy waste on buildings. Co-founder and CEO Mike Francis and Chief Commercial Officer Carrie Horazeck joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to share more details about the product.

"It's just a coating that can go on top of existing structure — any type of commercial roof," Horazeck says on the show. "We have a pretty good amount of data from 2022 showcasing that we can reduce HVAC consumption within the building by about 30 to 40 percent.

"Our clients really see a immediate benefit in their energy bill, and, of course, if you reduce the HVAC consumption, that automatically translates to a decrease in your scope one emissions," she continues. Continue reading.


Episode 181 - Gearing up for high-speed global travel - Sassie Duggleby of Venus Aerospace

Sarah "Sassie" Duggleby of Venus Aerospace joins the Houston Innovators Podcast this week. Photo courtesy of Venus

Sarah "Sassie" Duggleby is on a mission to get people home in time for dinner — whether they are traveling around the world or working for her business. That's why she founded Venus Aerospace, which is developing hypersonic space planes. It's also why she relocated the company from the West Coast to Houston.

"We knew we had to find a location where we could test our engine and still be home for dinner," Duggleby says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our company vision is 'home for dinner.' We want to fly you across the globe and have you home for dinner. And, if you work for us, we want you home for dinner."

Venus's technology enables this revolutionary travel through its supersonic combustion engine — more akin to a rocket's engine than an airplane's — that allows for travel at a higher elevation, she explains on the show. Jet engines rely on air outside of the aircraft to combust, and rocket engines work with a system that supplies air internally. And, as Duggleby explains, the engine can go further with the same amount of fuel, so it's a more sustainable way of traveling too. Continue reading.


Episode 182 - Stopping neurodegenerative diseases in their tracks - Howard Berman of Coya Therapeutics

For Howard Berman, CEO and co-founder of Coya Therapeutics, commercializing his company is personal. Photo courtesy of Coya

When Howard Berman sought out renowned Houston Methodist researcher and neurologist Dr. Stanley Appel, he was looking for treatment for his father, who was suffering from dementia. He wasn't looking for a job, but Dr. Appel had other ideas and asked Berman to meet with him.

"I was interested in what I could do for my dad," Berman says on the Houston Innovators Podcast, explaining how he took the meeting with Dr. Appel, who then presented him with some of his research. "By slide five my jaw had hit the ground.

"He had shown that he could stop the progression in one of his early trials of ALS," Berman says.

Not too long after that meeting, Berman, who founded digital health platform imaware, joined Dr. Appel to lead commercialization of Coya Therapeutics, a biotech startup that raised over $20 million in venture funding before going public a few months ago. Continue reading.


Episode 187 - Bridging the gap to innovation - Ramanan Krishnamoorti of University of Houston

Ramanan Krishnamoorti, vice president of energy and innovation at the University of Houston, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to talk about the university's dedication to helping the city become an innovative force. Photo via UH.edu

Ramanan Krishnamoorti has had a varied career in academia, from an engineering professor to nanotech research. While he never made the transition from researcher to entrepreneur, he managed to snag a CEO title at the university about a decade ago: Chief energy officer.

Since then his role has expanded to include advancing UH's innovation of all kinds — from health tech to the arts — as vice president of energy and innovation at UH. In his role, he oversees the UH Technology Bridge, a lab and coworking space for tenants just a short drive away from UH's main campus, as well as future plans, like a new central campus hub for innovation that's in its early stages of development.

"What we really need at the university today is to bring innovation — which tech transfer is a piece of — and connect that to real-world challenges to deliver what the world needs, which is talented folks delivering new innovative, entrepreneurial, or intrapreneurial programs," Krishnamoorti says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Continue reading.

Episode 193 - Innovating in the East End - Erik Ibarra of Magnolia Fund and ORDRS

Erik Ibarra's latest venture is to give agency to residents in the neighborhood he grew up in. Photo courtesy

Innovation isn't always tinkering with tech or programming software, although serial entrepreneur Erik Ibarra knows that world well. Sometimes it's about rethinking how a community improves and develops without doing the residents a disservice.

That's why Ibarra started Magnolia Fund, a mission-driven investment fund dedicated to enriching the East End community and preserving the neighborhood's culture and history. Ibarra, who has lived in the area the majority of his life, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast, that he's looking to turn residents into investors.

"Our investors from the neighborhood, today they walk around and look at their house and say, 'I own that,' and that's great," Ibarra says. "In the future, our investors should be able to say that, and then point to a building and say, 'I own a portion of that building too. And I helped that small business over there.'" Continue reading.


Episode 198 - The undeniable impact of AI - Anshumali Shrivastava of ThirdAI CorpEpisode 198 - The undeniable impact of AI - Anshumali Shrivastava of ThirdAI Corp

Anshumali Shrivastava joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share the revolutionary work ThirdAI is doing for artificial intelligence. Photo via rice.edu

Anshumali Shrivastava's career has evolved alongside the rise of artificial intelligence. Now, he believes his company represents the future of the industry's widespread implementation.

Shrivastava, who's also a professor at Rice University, founded ThirdAI, pronounced "third eye," in 2021 to democratize artificial intelligence through software innovations. As Shrivastava explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast, AI processes have historically been run on larger, less accessible computing hardware. ThirdAI's tools are able to run on a regular central processing unit, or CPU, rather than the more powerful graphics processing unit, or GPU.

"We focus on the problems that people are facing in the current AI ecosystem," Shrivastava says on the podcast. "Right now, if you are to build some of the large-language models and (linear programming) models, you need a lot of computing power, dedicated engineers to move it, and, even if you are using fully managed services, it's costly and there are a lot of privacy implications because you have to move data around." Continue reading.


Episode 212 - The 'frivolous' lawsuit over DEI funding - Carolyn Rodz and Elizabeth Gore of Hello Alice

Hello Alice Co-Founders Carolyn Rodz and Elizabeth Gore join the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the lawsuit they're facing. Photo courtesy Cayce Clifford/Hello Alice

For years, Hello Alice has been helping small businesses across the country get equitable access to funding and support. Now, the Houston tech company is facing its own obstacle: An affirmative action lawsuit.

"I don't think in a million years that we ever expected anything like this," Elizabeth Gore, co-founder and president of Hello Alice, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There's surprise, then there's fear, and then there's anger. But now on the other side of it, we're emboldened, confident, and more passionate than ever."

America First Legal's lawsuit against Hello Alice and its partner, Progressive Insurance, alleges that their program to award10 $25,000 grants to Black-owned small businesses constitutes racial discrimination. AFL was founded by former Trump Administration adviser Stephen Miller and features a handful of other former White House officials on its board. Continue reading.

This Houston company is one step closer to enabling high-speed global travel. Photo courtesy of Venus Aerospace

Houston startup with hypersonic engine tech adds new investor

it's rocket science

A Houston-based company that's developing an engine that'll enable one-hour global transportation has announced its latest investor.

Venus Aerospace released the news that Silicon Valley venture capital firm, Airbus Ventures, has joined its team of investors. The supersonic combustion engine technology — more akin to a rocket's engine than an airplane's — is revolutionary because allows for travel at a higher elevation. Jet engines rely on air outside of the aircraft to combust, and rocket engines work with a system that supplies air internally.

“Venus has developed the world’s first liquid-propellant rotating detonation rocket engine (RDRE) with a double-digit percentage increase in efficiency over standard regular engines, making the hypersonic economy possible,” says Sassie Duggleby, CEO and co-founder of Venus, in a news release. “We’re delighted to bring Airbus Ventures into the Venus family and look forward to growing our collaboration as we harness the future of hypersonic flight.”

Duggleby founded Venus Aerospace with her husband and CTO Andrew in 2020, before relocating to the Houston Spaceport in 2021. Last year, Venus raised a $20 million series A round. That round, led by Prime Movers Lab, is being used to fund tech development and initial flight testing for building its Mach 9 hypersonic drone and Mach 9 spacecraft. Venus did not disclose how much their newest investor has contributed.

“In the world of RDREs, their pioneering approach — designing, building, and demonstrating the first liquid, storable-propellant fueled rotating detonation rocket engine — unlocks advanced aircraft capabilities and opens new vistas on our whole planetary system,” says Airbus Ventures Managing Partner Thomas d’Halluin in the release. “Venus’ compact, low mass, high efficiency engine capability will have an immediate impact on lunar and martian landers, space mobility and logistics, and deep space mission proposals.

"Here on Earth today, we will see unprecedented performance gains for drones of all kinds, and more practical and faster-than-anticipated opportunities for ultra-high-speed passenger and cargo rocket plane flights,” he continues.

Venus, which as has contracts with NASA and US Defense Agencies, has plans to test its technology this summer at its headquarters in the Houston Spaceport.

“With the strong support of Airbus Ventures now joining our investor syndicate, our next round will let Venus take the final step from lab to prototype as we fly our drone to Mach 3 under RDRE power," says Andrew Duggleby, in the release. “This will include long-duration engine runs this summer at Spaceport Houston, as well as the design, build, and flight of our drone with the broader Venus team and our incredible partners.”

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Ody De La Paz of Sensytec, Sassie Duggleby of Venus Aerospace, and David Eagleman. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from aerospace to nueroscience — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Ody De La Paz, CEO and co-founder of Sensytec

Ody De La Paz, CEO and founder of Sensytec, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the future of his company as it gears up for growth. Photo courtesy of Sensytec

The importance of creating longer lasting infrastructure is top of mind for the country, and Ody De La Paz, co-founder and CEO of Sensytec, is prepared to help. Through participation in AFWERX — the innovation arm of the Air Force, construction tech company Sensytec was tapped by the military to use the technology across operations.

"The plan is to integrate our system and analytics from sensors into a multi-platform system that the Air Force is trying to roll out in all of the military bases," De La Paz says on last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We're trying to be that center hub for concrete and soil monitoring for them."

With the passing of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, $65 billion is being deployed to build or improve infrastructure — among other tech and transportation improvements — and a lot of that funding is coming to the Lone Star State. De La Paz discusses more on the podcast. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Sarah "Sassie" Duggleby, co-founder and CEO of Venus Aerospace

Houston-based Venus Aerospace has raised $20 million — and is one step closer to providing one-hour global travel. Photo courtesy of Venus Aerospace

A Houston aerospace startup has raised millions to continue its work on a zero-carbon emission spaceplane that will enable one-hour global travel. Venus Aerospace closed its $20 million series A funding round led by Wyoming-based Prime Movers Lab.

"We are excited to continue our partnership with Prime Movers Lab and our other great investors. In the past year, with our initial funding, we have scaled from 3 people to 40. These are the world's best rocket scientists, engineers, and operators," says Sassie Duggleby in the release. "With this funding, we will continue to push forward toward our next technical milestones, hire great people, and scale our organization. We are excited to continue engineering the future of high-speed aviation." Click here to read more.

David Eagleman, author and neuroscientist 

David Eagleman returns to Houston this month. David Eagleman/Facebook

Not many researchers have ever compared brain function to drug dealers, but then, not many researchers are David Eagleman. Much like charismatic astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, Eagleman brings hefty and brainy topics to a conversational and digestible level.

The globally renowned neuroscientist, TV host, and best-selling author will visit Houston to discuss his latest book, Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain. The event is produced by The Progressive Forum and will take place at Congregation Emanu El (1500 Sunset Blvd.) at 7:30 pm Thursday, April 28. Click here to continue reading.

Houston-based Venus Aerospace has raised $20 million — and is one step closer to providing one-hour global travel. Photo courtesy of Venus Aerospace

Houston aerospace startup secures $20M series A investment round

money moves

A year after raising $3 million in seed funding, a Space City startup has closed its high-flying series A round to the tune of $20 million.

Venus Aerospace, which is working on a zero-carbon emission spaceplane that will enable one-hour global travel, closed its series A funding round led by Wyoming-based Prime Movers Lab. The firm has a few dozen breakthrough scientific companies in its portfolio, including another Houston-based, space-focused startup, Axiom Space. The round also saw participation from previous investors: Draper Associates, Boost, Saturn 5, Seraph Group, Cantos, The Helm & Tamarack Global.

Venus Aerospace was founded by Sarah "Sassie" and Andrew Duggleby, who serve as the company's CEO and CTO, respectively, in 2020 in California. The Texas A&M University alumni later moved the business into its current facilities in the Houston Spaceport.

"The U.S. is in the middle of a global race for hypersonic technology, and the breakthroughs being developed by Sassie, Andrew, and their team have numerous civilian and defense applications," says Prime Movers Lab General Partner Brandon Simmons in a news release. "Venus hit critical engine tests, vehicle design, and growth milestones that make me tremendously excited about the future of American hypersonic flight."

According to the release, the company will use the fresh funding on enhancing its three main technologies: a next-generation rocket engine, aircraft shape, and leading-edge cooling system, which allows for the Venus spaceplane to take off from existing spaceports.

"These recent advances in technology finally enable a spaceplane, a vehicle long imagined, but only now possible," says Andrew Duggleby in the release. "We will use this round of funding to get into flight testing and engine testing at Spaceport Houston. Bringing this technology forward into systems, drones and ultimately spaceplanes, it will take both new space veterans and bright new minds to solve. We've gone from impossible to hard, and this investment will allow us to knock down the next few steps."

The past year has represented significant growth for Venus, with developing contracts with the government and building out the company's team — and the company still has eight positions listed on its website. After building out and testing its technology, Venus also started a ground test campaign at Spaceport Houston.

"We are excited to continue our partnership with Prime Movers Lab and our other great investors. In the past year, with our initial funding, we have scaled from 3 people to 40. These are the world's best rocket scientists, engineers, and operators," says Sassie Duggleby in the release. "With this funding, we will continue to push forward toward our next technical milestones, hire great people, and scale our organization. We are excited to continue engineering the future of high-speed aviation."

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

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.