This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Moji Karimi of Cemvita Factory, Shanna Jin of Rice University, and Trent Crow of Real Simple Energy. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — data science, consumer tech, and medical device innovation — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita Factory

Moji Karimi joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how his technology is offering energy execs an innovative way to meat their climate change pledge goals. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

A lot of startups are working on technology that makes existing practices more efficient, cheaper, or faster — or all of the above. But Cemvita Factory, founded by siblings Moji and Tara Karimi, is doing something that's never been done before: biomimicking photosynthesis to convert carbon emissions into useful chemicals.

"There weren't biotech companies working with oil and gas companies for this use case that we have now," Moji Karimi says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We're defining this new category for application of synthetic biology in heavy industries for decarbonization."

With this uncharted territory comes unique challenges and opportunities. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Shanna Jin, communications and marketing specialist of the Data to Knowledge Lab at Rice University

Startups and small businesses are accumulating data daily — here's how to use that to your advantage, according to this Houston expert. Photo via rice.edu

Ironically, the power of data management is almost incalculable. With the right practices and processes in place, businesses can make better decisions and grow more strategically. But, it's not something a lot of startups or small businesses look at regularly. That's where the Rice University Data To Knowledge group comes into play.

"Being able to interpret data and making data-driven decisions becomes the key to the success of a business," writes Shanna Jin in a guest column for InnovationMap. "It is not just a privilege for big companies anymore. Small businesses need it more than ever to make sustainable growth in the digital era." Click here to read more.

Trent Crow, founder and president of Real Simple Energy

Trent Crow, founder and president, and the Real Simple Energy team have moved over to Arcardia with the acquisition. Photo courtesy of Real Simple Energy

Earlier this month, a Houston startup exited to a larger tech company. Trent Crow, co-founder and CEO of Real Simply Energy, says all eight of the company's employees have moved over to Arcadia and more workers will be hired soon. The company has maintained a mix of office and remote workers. Arcadia will look for Houston office space later this year, Crow says.

"Expansion plans include doing more of what we're doing now and offering more features for customers," says Crow, who now is Arcadia's general manager of energy services in Texas. Click here to read more.

Startups and small businesses are accumulating data daily — here's how to use that to your advantage. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: How to use the power of data and analytics to inform ​small businesses​

Guest column

Starting a business in a digital era brings entrepreneurs unprecedented advantages with technology and tools designed to optimize a business' operation. Whether it is a B2C or B2B, business owners can gather almost any data and metrics to improve their performance.

Being able to interpret data and making data-driven decisions becomes the key to the success of a business. It is not just a privilege for big companies anymore. Small businesses need it more than ever to make sustainable growth in the digital era.

The challenge? There are countless analytic tools and resources available that can generate data, but you need people who can extract insights from the massive amount of data.

Hire a data science team vs. outsourcing

Many companies go to campus recruitment and scout bright data science talent who also identify with their business value. Hiring people with data science and analytic skills is optimal, but for startups that are not ready to hire an in-house team or have a short-term question, outsourcing is a better option.

Data science consulting

Many online resources can help you extract data, but you are probably wondering: where do I begin? Which tool should I use? Which exact metric should I track?

The Rice University's Data Science Consulting Clinic provides free, open to the public assistance to help clients with all of those questions. It can be for various business sectors, such as research and product development, cost predictions, analytic tools, acquisition decisions, and talent management.

Here are some of the data science aspects we specialize in:

Research & Development - Obtain data to inform a decision on what products to develop.
Data analysis of who your customers are, what they are interested in, and what product to develop is crucial for B2C and B2B. A recent example of how Rice's Data Science Consulting Clinic is making a difference is a client needed assistance with market research to help inform a startup on what kind of product they should create next. The client was able to use the data resources suggested by the student and faculty consultants to gauge consumer sentiment and examples of successful products. With the data collected, the client was able to identify the features that drive customers to purchase similar products.

Cost Predictions - A case study for an energy company
Businesses need to make crucial decisions to achieve business intelligence. CEOs and managers need to base their decisions on predictions and analysis. Another client from the Data Science Consulting Clinic was interested in predicting cost and analysis of the factors contributing to the most expense for the coming year. The client's main problem was to transform the data into a statistical model that could predict the cost. With the prediction model suggested by the student consultants, the client was able to reduce the cost by controlling factors that were likely to cause higher costs.

Acquisition Decision Making for Business Professionals
Clients from the Rice MBA program were interested in investigating the causes and effects of private equity (PE) acquisition. Specifically, the clients wanted to analyze the difference in practice habits before and after acquisitions. As a result of the consultation, the clients were able to determine what factors influenced the PE's decision to acquire new equity.

Longer term projects

It would be helpful to have a dedicated data science team who can work over a semester or year long to find the solution.

Higher education has placed a prominent focus on data science programs, especially capstone projects that provide students with real-world experience. As a business owner, you might not even think about working with an esteemed university to help you with data challenges.

The Center for Transforming Data to Knowledge, informally known as the D2K Lab at Rice University, is founded based on the mission to seek real-world data challenges for passionate data science students. Student teams have worked on over 50 sponsored data science projects with partners from a wide variety of businesses, organizations, and community partners.

Advance data science and security

The perk of working with Rice University is that it provides the most advanced data science research tools and an interdisciplinary pool of student and faculty talent who are passionate about data science. Working with Rice University also guarantees a strong data security system and a comprehensive confidentiality agreement.

  • A cloud-based financial company sponsored a series of capstone projects on applying deep learning to reduce documentation errors and increase efficiency for businesses.
  • A fintech company sponsored multiple capstone projects on building statistical models to predict costs.
  • In the tech-med industry, the D2K Lab has partnered with the Medical Informational Corps, and researchers from Texas Children's Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine to build algorithms to predict cardiac events.

The future of data-driven decision making

The digital era has become the norm for all businesses (large or small), and there's no way to avoid the power of transforming data into actionable insights. So start gathering data even before you build out a business and incorporate the culture of data-driven decision making into every sector of your business.

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Shanna Jin is the communications and marketing specialist of the Data to Knowledge Lab at Rice University.

The Rice D2K Lab wants to help startups and small businesses solve business concerns with data science. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University's data-focused lab presents unique opportunity for startups and small businesses

data to knowlege

A data-focused lab at Rice University is training the next generation of data scientists. However, the students at the Rice D2K Lab are doing more than just learning about the significance of data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence — they're working as data scientists now.

Businesses — large and small — can come into the lab and have Rice students and faculty work on data projects in both short-term and long-term capacity. One semester, a group of students worked with 311 call data for the city of Houston so that officials can figure out what parts of town were in the most need of support, says Jennifer Sanders, program administrator at the Rice D2K lab.

"They were able to show on a Houston map the areas where most of these 311 calls were coming from," Sanders tells InnovationMap. "That allowed the city to focus on those areas."

Lately, the lab has been focused on a several COVID-19 Houston Response Projects, which addressed issues ranging from homelessness in the time of a pandemic, ventilator distribution, and more. One team even made a recommendation to the city after a data project determined that adding five ambulances to southwest neighborhoods served by the Houston Fire Department Emergency Medical Services program would optimize response times.

The lab has two avenues to help businesses: a semester-long capstone course and a clinic for one-time sessions. This upcoming semester, the capstone course has 60 students signed up to work on 10 to 12 projects from corporate sponsors. These lab members — which support the program monetarily — are selected based on their fit within the program.

The D2K Consulting Clinic also offers free one-hour sessions on campus. At the clinic, students look at the data and assess the possibilities and advise on how to use that data for business gain or growth.

"The consulting clinic can be a starting point if a business is not sure what to do with their data," says Shanna Jin, communications and marketing specialist at the D2K Lab.

The clinic also presents a special opportunity for small businesses and startups, a niche Sanders says they haven't tapped into enough yet. She says most of the companies they've worked with are larger organizations, usually in the energy industry.

"We really want to broaden the scope to smaller startups, tech companies, and nonprofits," Sanders says. "We really don't have to limit ourselves. I would really love to expand our reach."

Membership dues for companies, which provides a more structured, long-term access to data consulting, range from $25,000 to $75,000 a year. However, Sanders says the lab is willing to work with startups on a cost that's more accessible.

Ultimately, the goal of the program is to connect the dots for businesses that have data and don't know how to use it.

"To realize the potential of big data, we need people — people who can transform data to knowledge," says the lab's founder, Genevera Allen, in a promotional video. "That's what we're doing with the Rice D2K Lab."

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$100M Houston VC fund launches to back technical founders

show me the money

A new venture capital fund has launched with an initial $100 million mission of supporting founders with innovative critical infrastructure solutions.

Fathom Fund, which is looking to build out a portfolio of advanced computing, material science, climate resilience, and aerospace startups, announced they've launched with an initial close of over $100 million. The fund is founded by longtime investors Managing Partners Paul Sheng and Eric Bielke.

"We believe recent technological advances have accelerated the pace of scientific discovery, increasing the pool of technology companies that can produce venture-scale returns," Sheng says in a news release.

According to the fund, it hopes to bridge the gap for early stage capital for physical innovations and "moonshot" projects.

“What’s lacking in venture is rigorous technical diligence at the early stages and a playbook to scale these innovations at the pace necessary to lead industries," Bielke adds. "With this launch, we are looking forward to supporting founders with some of the most disruptive and novel ideas.”

The founder duo will bring each of the career expertise to their future portfolio companies. Sheng spent decades at McKinsey & Co and was the firm's head of the Global Energy & Materials practice. Bielke is a former director at Temasek’s Emerging Technologies Fund.

Houston is the 4th best U.S. city for Black professionals, report finds

Black History Month

In acknowledgement of Black History Month 2024, a new report compiled by Black employees at online rental marketplace Apartment List has ranked Houston the No. 4 best U.S. city for Black professionals.

Apartment List reviewed 76 cities across four major categories to determine the rankings: community and representation; economic opportunity; housing opportunity; and business environment.

Houston earned a score of 63.01 out of a total 100 points, making it the second-highest-ranked city in Texas for Black professionals, behind San Antonio (No. 3).

The city earned top-10 rankings in three out of the four main categories:

  • No. 3 – Business environment
  • No. 4 – Community and representation
  • No. 10 – Economic opportunity
  • No. 21 – Housing opportunity

Houston is commended for its strong Black business environment and economy, but there is some room for improvement when it comes to housing. Similarly to Apartment List's 2022 report – which also placed Houston at No. 4 – a little less than half (44 percent) of all Black Houston households are spending over 30 percent of their income on housing, which has increased two percent since 2019.

Houston has a larger Black population than San Antonio, at 19 percent, but its Black population share is overall lower than other cities in the top 10.

"Furthermore, the community is well-represented in some critical occupations: 20 percent of teachers are Black, as are 21 percent of doctors," the report said. "Houston is also home to the HBCU Texas Southern University, helping a job market when the median Black income is several thousand dollars above average."

Houston also has the highest rate of Black-owned businesses in the entire state, at 18 percent.

"From the Mitochondria Gallery to Ten Skyncare and Wisdom’s Vegan Bakery, Houston has it all!" the report said.

Here's how Houston stacked up in other metrics:

  • Black homeownership: 42 percent
  • Black lawyers: 14 percent
  • Black managers: 14 percent

Elsewhere in Texas
Texas cities dominated the overall top 10. San Antonio ranked just above Houston, with Dallas (No. 6) and Austin (No. 7) not too far behind.

San Antonio came in less than 2.5 points ahead of Houston with a total score of 65.44 points. The report praised San Antonio's scores across its economic opportunity (No. 2), housing opportunity (No. 7), and community and representation (No. 10). The city ranked No. 20 for its Black business environment.

But like Houston, San Antonio also fell behind in its Black homeownership rates, according to the study.

"While the Black homeownership rate is higher than average at 44 percent, the homeownership gap (Black homeownership rate - non-Black homeownership rate) quite low at -19 percent," the report's author wrote. "Perhaps this could be explained by San Antonio’s overall homeownership rate, which is also lower than the state’s average. Additionally, the lower homeownership gap could explain the cost burden rate also being lower than average at 41 percent."

The top 10 cities for Black professionals are:

  • No. 1 – Washington, D.C.
  • No. 2 – Atlanta, Georgia
  • No. 3 – San Antonio, Texas
  • No. 4 – Houston, Texas
  • No. 5 – Palm Bay, Florida
  • No. 6 – Dallas, Texas
  • No. 7 – Austin, Texas
  • No. 8 – Colorado Springs, Colorado
  • No. 9 – Lakeland, Florida
  • No. 10 – Charlotte, North Carolina
The full report and its methodology can be found on apartmentlist.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston expert: Can Houston replicate and surpass the success of Silicon Valley?

guest column

Anyone who knows me knows, as a Houston Startup Founder, I often muse about the still developing potential for startups in Houston, especially considering the amount of industry here, subject matter expertise, capital, and size.

For example, Houston is No. 2 in the country for Fortune 500 Companies — with 26 Bayou City companies on the list — behind only NYC, which has 47 ranked corporations, according to Fortune.

Considering layoffs, fund closings, and down rounds, things aren’t all that peachy in San Francisco for the first time in a long time, and despite being a Berkeley native, I’m rooting for Houston now that I’m a transplant.

Let’s start by looking at some stats.

While we’re not No. 1 in all areas, I believe we have the building blocks to be a major player in startups, and in tech (and not just energy and space tech). How? If the best predictor of future success is history, why not use the template of the GOAT of all startup cities: San Francisco and YCombinator. Sorry fellow founders – you’ve heard me talk about this repeatedly.

YCombinator is considered the GOAT of Startup Accelerators/Incubators based on:

  1. The Startup success rate: I’ve heard it’s as high as 75 percent (vs. the national average of 5 to 10 percent) Arc Search says 50 percent of YC Co’s fail within 12 years – not shabby.
  2. Their startup-to-unicorn ratio: 5 to 7 percent of YC startups become unicorns depending on the source — according to an Arc Search search (if you haven’t tried Arc Search do – super cool).
  3. Their network.

YC also parlayed that success into a "YC Startup School" offering:

  1. Free weekly lessons by YC partners — sometimes featuring unicorn alumni
  2. A document and video Library (YC SAFE, etc)
  3. Startup perks for students (AWS cloud credits, etc.)
  4. YC co-founder matching to help founders meet co-founders

Finally, there’s the over $80 billion in returns, according to Arc search, they’ve generated since their 2005 inception with a total of 4,000 companies in their portfolio at over $600 billion in value. So GOAT? Well just for perspective there were a jaw-dropping 18,000 startups in startup school the year I participated – so GOAT indeed.

So how do they do it? Based on anecdotal evidence, their winning formula is said to be the following well-oiled process:

  1. Bring over 282 startups (the number in last cohort) to San Francisco for 90 days to prototype, refine the product, and land on the go-to-market strategy. This includes a pre-seed YC SAFE investment of a phased $500,000 commitment for a fixed min 7 percent of equity, plus more equity at the next round’s valuation, according to YC.
  2. Over 50 percent of the latest cohort were idea stage and heavily AI focused.
  3. Traction day: inter-portfolio traction the company. YC has over 4,000 portfolio companies who can and do sign up for each other’s companies products because “they’re told to."
  4. Get beta testers and test from YC portfolio companies and YC network.
  5. If they see the traction scales to a massively scalable business, they lead the seed round and get this: schedule and attend the VC meetings with the founders.
  6. They create a "fear of missing out" mentality on Sand Hill Road as they casually mention who they’re meeting with next.
  7. They block competitors in the sector by getting the top VC’s to co-invest with then in the seed so competitors are locked out of the A list VC funding market, who then are up against the most well-funded and buzzed about players in the space.

If what I've seen is true, within a six-month period a startup idea is prototyped, tested, pivoted, launched, tractioned, seeded, and juiced for scale with people who can ‘make’ the company all in their corner, if not already on their board.

So how on earth can Houston best this?

  1. We have a massive amount of businesses — around 200,000 — and people — an estimated 7.3 million and growing.
  2. We have capital in search of an identity beyond oil.
  3. Our Fortune 500 companies that are hiring consultants for things that startups here that can do for free, quicker, and for a fraction of the extended cost.
  4. We have a growing base of tech talent for potential machine learning and artificial intelligence talent
  5. A sudden shot at the increasingly laid off big tech engineers.
  6. We have more accelerators and incubators.

What do we need to pull it off?

  1. An organized well-oiled YC-like process
  2. An inter-Houston traction process
  3. An "Adopt a Startup" program where local companies are willing to beta test and iterate with emerging startup products
  4. We have more accelerators but the cohorts are small — average five to 10 per cohort.
  5. Strategic pre-seed funding, possibly with corporate partners (who can make the company by being a client) and who de-risk the investment.
  6. Companies here to use Houston startup’s products first when they’re launched.
  7. A forum to match companies’ projects or labs groups etc., to startups who can solve them.
  8. A process in place to pull all these pieces together in an organized, structured sequence.

There is one thing missing in the list: there has to be an entity or a person who wants to make this happen. Someone who sees all the pieces, and has the desire, energy and clout to make it happen; and we all know this is the hardest part. And so for now, our hopes of besting YC may be up in the air as well.

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Jo Clark is the founder of Circle.ooo, a Houston-based tech startup that's streamlining events management.