3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes James Hury of TRISH, Serafina Lalany of HX, and Andrew Ramirez of Village Insights. Courtesy photos

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

James Hury, deputy director and chief innovation officer of TRISH

James Hury joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the role of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health. Photo courtesy of TRISH

Only about 500 humans have made it to space, and that number is getting bigger thanks to commercial space travel.

"If you look at all the people who have gone into space, they've mostly been employees of nations — astronauts from different governments," says James Hury of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We're going to start to get people from all different ages and backgrounds."

Hury is the deputy director and chief innovation officer for Houston-based TRISH, and he's focused on identifying space tech and research ahead of the market that has the potential to impact human health in space. From devices that allow astronauts to perform remote health care on themselves to addressing behavioral health challenges, TRISH is supporting the future of space health. Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Serafina Lalany, executive director of Houston Exponential

Serafina Lalany, vice president of operations at Houston Exponential

HX has its new permanent leader. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Houston's nonprofit focused on accelerating the growth of the local innovation ecosystem has named its new leader.

Serafina Lalany has been named Houston Exponential's executive director. She has been serving in the position as interim since July when Harvin Moore stepped down. Prior to that, she served as vice president of operations and chief of staff at HX.

"I'm proud to be leading an organization that is focused on elevating Houston's startup strengths on a global scale while helping to make the world of entrepreneurship more accessible, less opaque, and easier to navigate for founders," Lalany says in a news release. "My team and I will be building upon the great deal of momentum that has already been established in this effort, and I look forward to collaborating closely with members of our community and convening board in this next chapter of HX." Click here to read more.

Andrew Ramirez, CEO of Village Insights

Andrew Ramirez originally worked on a similar project 10 years ago. Photo via LinkedIn

Innovation thrives on collisions, but how do innovators connect without face-to-face connection? Andrew Ramirez and Mike Francis set out to design a virtual village to promote collisions and innovation, and their platform is arriving at an apt time.

"The world has changed," Ramirez says. "I feel like people are trying to find the right balance of the physical but also the productivity gain from being able to do things digitally."

Ramirez leads Village Insights as CEO and the new platform is expected to formally launch it's Open World platform next month. Click here to read more.

HX has its new permanent leader. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Houston Exponential appoints new executive director and restructures its board

big news

Houston's nonprofit focused on accelerating the growth of the local innovation ecosystem has named its new leader.

Serafina Lalany has been named Houston Exponential's executive director. She has been serving in the position as interim since July when Harvin Moore stepped down. Prior to that, she served as vice president of operations and chief of staff at HX.

"I'm proud to be leading an organization that is focused on elevating Houston's startup strengths on a global scale while helping to make the world of entrepreneurship more accessible, less opaque, and easier to navigate for founders," Lalany says in a news release. "My team and I will be building upon the great deal of momentum that has already been established in this effort, and I look forward to collaborating closely with members of our community and convening board in this next chapter of HX."

According to the release, the organization is also "sharpening its focus and governing structure." HX's current board of directors will transition into a "convening board." In this new structure, Houston innovation leaders will come together to support one another and share advice and opportunities, as well as launch working groups to address emerging tech ecosystem challenges. An executive committee made up of five to seven members will oversee HX's operations and staff. These changes will be in effect on October 1.

"Houston's innovation ecosystem has been on an incredible run over the last four years as evidenced by the tripling of venture capital funding for local startups and the sharp increase in the number of startup development organizations supporting our emerging companies and founders," says HX Chair Barbara Burger, who is the vice president innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures. "Houston Exponential has been a key catalyst for building momentum, and it's important for the organization to adapt to best meet the needs of the maturing ecosystem."

Moving forward, HX will have a strengthened focus on key efforts, like convening a startup development organization roundtable, the VC Immersions program, monthly networking events, and the annual Houston Tech Rodeo.

Additionally, as the organization's new leader, Lalany will spearhead HX's goal for Houston-based startups raising $10 billion in venture capital annually by 2030, per the release.

"Serafina has been a steadfast leader of the HX team, and we believe she is the right person to take the organization through this next chapter in its evolution," Burger says. "I'm excited to see what's next for HX under her guidance."

The World Petroleum Conference, hosted later this year in Houston, has announced an innovation focus for the first time. Photo via Getty Images

Upcoming energy conference adds innovation focus for Houston-based event

innovating energy

The World Petroleum Congress, which plans to return to in-person status in December, is adding a new wrinkle — a pitch competition — to this year's event.

On August 4, the World Petroleum Congress announced the launch this year of the Innovation Zone, which will enable energy pioneers to showcase their offerings. The 2021 World Petroleum Congress — hosted in Houston this time around — is set for December 5-9 at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Houston-based energy giant ConocoPhillips is sponsoring the Innovation Zone.

"For more than a century, innovation has enabled our industry to keep pace with the growing demand for safe and reliable energy," Bill Bullock, executive vice president and chief financial officer of ConocoPhillips, says in a news release. He adds that the Innovation Zone will highlight "innovations that can propel our industry's purposeful journey through the energy transition and into the future."

In all, 32 startups and individuals will pitch their products or practices on the World Petroleum Congress stage. One winner will be honored with the inaugural Energy Innovator Award.

The Innovation Zone is open to energy companies, private entities, and individuals working as independent contractors. Proposals will be evaluated on seven criteria:

  • Innovation
  • Creativity
  • Potential or actual technical or business success
  • Environmental impact
  • Stakeholder impact
  • Scalability
  • Broad-based uses

Applications for the Innovation Zone are due Aug. 20. To obtain an application, visit the World Petroleum Congress website. Representatives of ConocoPhillips and the World Petroleum Congress will sift through the applications and pick 32 finalists, who will be notified in early September.

"Startups, with their innovative business models, will play a decisive role in shaping a sustainable energy future, and for participating companies, this is a good opportunity to present and forge new links with key stakeholders and investors," says Serafina Lalany, interim executive director of entrepreneurship and innovation nonprofit Houston Exponential.

Aside from ConocoPhillips, sponsors of this year's World Petroleum Congress include Chevron, Halliburton, Accenture, Hess, ExxonMobil, BP, Qatar Petroleum, Baker Hughes, and Saudi Aramco.

The 23rd World Petroleum Congress was supposed to happen last year in Houston but was shifted to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 10,000 people are expected to attend this year's event. It's been estimated that the World Petroleum Congress will pump $60 million to $80 million into the Houston economy.

Staged by the World Petroleum Council, the event hasn't been held in North America since 1987, when Houston hosted it. It's known as the "Olympics" of the oil and gas sector.

The 24th World Petroleum Congress will be held in 2023 in Calgary, Canada. The event traditionally takes place every three years.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Robert Kester of Honeywell Rebellion, Serafina Lalany of Houston Exponential, and Shaun Noorian of Empower Pharmacy. 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 oil and gas tech to pharmaceuticals — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Robert Kester, president and general manager at Honeywell Rebellion

Robert Kester, founder of Rebellion Photonics and president and general manager at Honeywell

Robert Kester joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his entrepreneurial journey. Photo courtesy of Honeywell

Robert Kester co-founded Rebellion Photonics in 2010. After several years of developing the device that could be used to automate the process and improve safety on oil and gas sites, Kester and his team saw a rising need for the tech — which also meant a need for Rebellion to scale quickly. In 2019, Rebellion exited in an acquisition by Honeywell.

"For us it just made sense that we could team up with Honeywell and figure out how we could scale this thing globally and quickly, so that we could help be a solution for climate change," Kester continues.

Now, as president and general manager at Honeywell Rebellion, Kester still works on his technology under the umbrella of the Honeywell brand. He joined the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to discuss the transition and what he's focused on now. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Serafina Lalany, interim president of Houston Exponential

Serafina Lalany, vice president of operations at Houston Exponential

Last week, Serafina Lalany is acting as interim identifies the organization's new leader. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Serafina Lalany, vice president of operations at Houston Exponential, will act as interim executive director for the organization after Harvin Moore, who has served as president of HX since June 2019, announced his resignation last week. HX's Chair Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures, says Moore is resigning to devote more time to working with growth-stage companies as a mentor, adviser, and investor.

"In a rapidly growing and evolving landscape like this one, we must ensure resources are leveraged for greatest impact," Burger says. "The HX executive committee believes now is an appropriate time re-strategize with the HX organization to ensure it is aligned with the current needs of the innovation ecosystem. While changes may be called for to place resources where they can do the most good, there remains a need for a broad ecosystem champion and HX will continue to serve in that role." Click here to read more.

Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy

Houston founder talks growth and innovation in the pharmaceuticals industry Shaun Noorian, founder and CEO of Empower Pharmacy, joined InnovationMap for a Q&A on his rapidly growing compounding pharmacy business. Photo courtesy of Empower Pharmacy

Shaun Noorian founded Empower Pharmacy so he could create a business that was service focused, and now the company has grown and expanded — and is now working on building two new 85,000-square-foot facilities in Houston. Noorian, in a Q&A with InnovationMap, explained that Houston has been integral to his success.

"I think being in Houston is one of the reasons why we've grown to become the largest compounding pharmacy in the nation," Noorian tells InnovationMap. "I'm sure we're all aware that having the largest medical center in the world in your own backyard is a great way to have more prescribers than pretty much any other city in the country. That definitely helped us and continues to help us grow.

"Additionally, being the third largest city by population means we have a large workforce to pull a diverse workforce for whatever this company needs," he continues. "Having a diverse workforce has been integral in our growth." Click here to read more.

Harvin Moore has resigned from his position as president of Houston Exponential. Serafina Lalany is acting as interim executive director. Photos courtesy of HX

Houston Exponential leader resigns, interim named

leadership change

Houston Exponential has announced a leadership change, according to a statement from the organization.

Harvin Moore, who has served as president of HX since June 2019, has announced his resignation to the chair of the organization, Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures. In the statement, Burger says Moore is resigning to devote more time to working with growth-stage companies as a mentor, adviser, and investor.

Serafina Lalany, vice president of operations at HX, will act as interim executive director.

"In a rapidly growing and evolving landscape like this one, we must ensure resources are leveraged for greatest impact," Burger says. "The HX executive committee believes now is an appropriate time re-strategize with the HX organization to ensure it is aligned with the current needs of the innovation ecosystem. While changes may be called for to place resources where they can do the most good, there remains a need for a broad ecosystem champion and HX will continue to serve in that role."

Moore — who followed Russ Capper, the inaugural executive director of HX — has a 20-year career in tech and startups in Houston. He is a principal at an early-stage investment firm, Frontera Technology Ventures, and before that served as COO for Space Services Holdings Inc. According to his LinkedIn profile, he's also the director of Industrial Tech Acquisitions Inc., a blank check company, or SPAC.

"Under Harvin's leadership over the last two years, HX has maintained its successful trajectory and achieved important milestones," Burger continues in the statement. "I wish him well in his future endeavors."

According to the statement, all other Houston Exponential staff will remain in place during this review period to support ongoing activities.

Here's who's making the call for the inaugural InnovationMap Awards. Photos courtesy

InnovationMap names judges for inaugural awards program

in the hot seat

It's been two weeks since InnovationMap announced its inaugural awards program presented by Techwave — and the ecosystem is already buzzing with excitement to find out the top innovative companies in town.

The InnovationMap Awards will honor Houston's innovators and their breakthrough technologies across industries. The program and hybrid event — which will take place September 8 — will shine a spotlight on the movers and shakers within Houston's burgeoning innovation community. Nominations are open for the awards now — and the deadline to submit your nomination is July 23.

Click here to nominate a deserving company.

But who will decide this year's finalists and winners for the event? A cohort of eight of the best innovation leaders in the Bayou City. Introducing: The 2021 InnovationMap Awards judges:

Juliana Garaizar, head of Greentown Houston and vice president of Greentown Labs

Courtesy photo

A longtime angel investor and Houston innovation leader, Juliana Garaizar is no stranger to the local ecosystem. Prior to her current role leading Greentown Labs in Houston, she served as director of the Texas Medical Center's Venture Fund and managing director at the Houston Angel Network. She's also involved with Houston-based Business Angel Minority Association, or baMa, and has worked with Portfolia for over five years.

Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge

Photo courtesy of MassChallenge

​A leader in Houston innovation for several years now, Jon Nordby oversees Boston-based MassChallenge's entire Texas operation. MassChallenge's global accelerator program supports an annual cohort of startups across industries. Prior to his current role, he served as director of strategy at Houston Exponential and vice president of talent and innovation at the Greater Houston Partnership.

Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston

Photo courtesy of Impact Hub Houston

Grace Rodriguez has dedicated herself to helping do-gooders do greater, as her LinkedIn page proudly boasts, and for the past three years, she's been doing that by leading Impact Hub Houston, a locally rooted, globally connected 501c3 nonprofit that champions inclusive, impact-driven innovation. She also co-founded Station Houston in 2016.

Emily Reiser, senior manager of innovation community engagement at the Texas Medical Center

Photo courtesy of TMC Innovation

Emily Reiser is like a switchboard operator for TMC Innovation, where she's worked with health tech startups since 2019. She supports clinicians, innovators, corporate partners, and business advisers who are dedicated to advancing healthcare innovation all while providing a common ground for collaboration, connection, and innovation.

Serafina Lalany, vice president of operations at Houston Exponential

Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Serafina Lalany leads operations at Houston Exponential, the city's nonprofit focused on accelerating the development of Houston's innovation economy. She's also a board member of Diversity Fund Houston — a micro venture fund created to invest in minority tech founders during the "friends and family round."

Alex Gras, managing director at The Cannon

Photo via LinkedIn

After spending eight years in oil and gas, Alex Gras took his management skills to The Cannon Houston — a network of entrepreneurial hubs across Houston. The Cannon is the InnovationMap Awards venue for the September 8 event.

Rajasekhar Gummadapu, CEO of Techwave

Photo courtesy

Raj Gummadapu is the co-founder of Techwave, the award program's presenting sponsor. An accountant by trade, he has about 17 years of experience with combination of working with "big 5" consulting companies and various midsize to Fortune 100 companies across different industries on various strategic initiatives and global process and systems transformations.

Natalie Harms, editor of InnovationMap

Photo courtesy

Natalie Harms has been at the helm of InnovationMap — Houston's voice for Innovation — since its inception in October 2018. She oversees all editorial operations of the site and hosts its weekly podcast, the Houston Innovators Podcast.

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University of Houston engineer's research hopes to help detect cancer cells faster and easier

future of health

Early stage cancer is hard to detect, mostly because traditional diagnostic imaging cannot detect tumors smaller than a certain size. One Houston innovator is looking to change that.

Wei-Chuan Shih, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, recently published his findings in IEEE Sensors journal. According to a news release from UH, the cells around cancer tumors are small — ~30-150nm in diameter — and complex, and the precise detection of these exosome-carried biomarkers with molecular specificity has been elusive, until now.

"This work demonstrates, for the first time, that the strong synergy of arrayed radiative coupling and substrate undercut can enable high-performance biosensing in the visible light spectrum where high-quality, low-cost silicon detectors are readily available for point-of-care application," says Shih in the release. "The result is a remarkable sensitivity improvement, with a refractive index sensitivity increase from 207 nm/RIU to 578 nm/RIU."

Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

What Shih has done is essentially restored the electric field around nanodisks, providing accessibility to an otherwise buried enhanced electric field. Nanodisks are antibody-functionalized artificial nanostructures which help capture exosomes with molecular specificity.

"We report radiatively coupled arrayed gold nanodisks on invisible substrate (AGNIS) as a label-free (no need for fluorescent labels), cost-effective, and high-performance platform for molecularly specific exosome biosensing. The AGNIS substrate has been fabricated by wafer-scale nanosphere lithography without the need for costly lithography," says Shih in the release.

This process speeds up screening of the surface proteins of exosomes for diagnostics and biomarker discovery. Current exosome profiling — which relies primarily on DNA sequencing technology, fluorescent techniques such as flow cytometry, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) — is labor-intensive and costly. Shih's goal is to amplify the signal by developing the label-free technique, lowering the cost and making diagnosis easier and equitable.

"By decorating the gold nanodisks surface with different antibodies (e.g., CD9, CD63, and CD81), label-free exosome profiling has shown increased expression of all three surface proteins in cancer-derived exosomes," said Shih. "The sensitivity for detecting exosomes is within 112-600 (exosomes/μL), which would be sufficient in many clinical applications."

High-tech art exhibit pops up alongside Houston innovation hub

immersive art

A traveling art immersion experience has officially opened its doors in Houston. The tech-enabled show picked a particularly innovative spot, too.

The new "Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit Houston," opened Thursday, October 14, at Lighthouse Artspace Houston, a converted, 16,500-square-foot warehouse space (1314 Brittmore Rd.) directly next to The Cannon's West Houston innovation and entrepreneurial hub in The Founders District. The show has sold more than 3 million tickets sold nationwide, the show has outsold Taylor Swift.

Not to be confused with the current Van Gogh interactive offering, this stunning — and original — show animates some of the most iconic works for Van Gogh, who is considered one of humanity's most important and notable artists.

Equally a star player in the production is the music, some by Italian composer Luca Longobardi, along with a classic from Edith Piaf, and even a tune from Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke.

Masterpieces come alive via some 60,600 frames of video, totaling 90,000,000 pixels and more than 500,000 cubic feet of projections. But as anyone who's studied the master's works can attest, that detail is necessary to truly capture his creations.

Giant walls dance with images of workers in fields, which then wipe to floral settings, or memorable imagery from Van Gogh's instantly recognizable pieces such as Mangeurs de Pommes de Terre (The Potato Eaters, 1885), Les Tournesols (Sunflowers,1888), La Chambre à coucher (The Bedroom, 1889), and the unforgettable Nuit étoilée (Starry Night, 1889).

Even the floor — lined with circles to stand or sit on for social distancing — is a piece of art. Visitors can stroll (highly recommended), space permitting, or sit, awash in Van Gogh's dreamscape.

"It's really interesting you comment that this could be Van Gogh's dream," Vito Iaia, co-founder of Impact Museums and the event's co-producer, tells CultureMap. "This is what Massimiliano Siccardi, the protection artist who created the work you see on the walls, believes went through Van Gogh's head — right before he died."

Part art exhibit, part animated film, "Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit Houston" marries the work of three different artists: Van Gogh (of course), aforementioned projection artist Siccardi, and Rowan Doyle, the creative director who created the scenic elements surrounding the venue.

Those scenic elements include:

  • Sunflower pickup truck: A vintage Ford truck, parked outside the venue, gets a splash of sunflower yellow.
  • Van Gogh Chapel: Meant to be a love letter to Houston and specifically Rothko Chapel, this design is meant to be a contemplative space before entering the main gallery.
  • Van Gogh Timeline: As the name implies, this installation features pivotal moments of Van Gogh's career, with symbols harking to his short life.
  • Texas sunflower sign: Sunflowers dot the Texas state display, perfect for IG selfies.

A bar and gift shop also add to the experience.

At once stirring, playful, and poignant — even emotional — the experience is fitting for now, despite the artwork dating back to the late 1800s.

"People ask why Massimiliano chose Van Gogh right now," says Iaia. "And part of the answer is there's probably no better time to tell Van Gogh's story than right now. This is a reflection of what he went through as a troubled soul and the struggles people are going through today."

But it's not all dark. "The bright side is, this is a great way to remember his work. The reception has been amazing. It's giving him a new life."

Prepare for a serene, honest moment, but don't be surprised to be affected — especially with the final imagery. "People are driven to joys, or tears, or thought," says Iaia. I had someone come out and say, 'I just saw God.'"

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.