From making major deals to advancing future innovators, here are three Houston leaders to know this week. Courtesy photos

This week's movers and shakers in Houston innovation are dealmakers and leaders — from securing huge partnerships to influencing the next generation of inventors. These are the three innovators to know in Houston this week.

Rakesh Agrawal, CEO of SnapStream

Courtesy of SnapStream

A Houston tech innovator just made a deal with Verizon. Verizon Digital Media Services announced that SnapStream is the "official transition partner" for a product under Volicon Observer, a company that was acquired by Verizon in 2016. SnapStream's CEO Rakesh Agrawal says in a release that the two entities have similar products, features, and even customers, but have always had a respectful relationship.

"SnapStream is known, among other things, for the great support we provide, and we look forward to providing the same high-quality support to Volicon customers," Agrawal says in the release. "We hope to eventually earn the business of current Volicon customers by converting them into SnapStream customers." Read the full story here.

Enrico Ladendorf, founder and managing partner of Pason Power

Courtesy of Pason Power

Another Houston dealmaker is Enrico Ladendorf, founder and managing partner of Pason Power. In layman's terms, Pason Power offers an array of technologies — including AI, IoT, real-time automation — that support energy storage systems throughout a project's lifecycle. Energy storage systems is a wide umbrella that includes everything from the massive systems used to store renewable energy and biofuels, to household batteries, which store electricity.

"We have intelligent energy management system, which is an intelligent brain that sits inside an energy storage system," says Ladendorf. "We have this intelligent, fully-autonomous system that knows the physical operation of (energy storage and drill rigs), and it makes it brain-dead simple." Read the full story here.

Pam Rosen, general manager of the Shell Eco-marathon

Courtesy of Shell

Houstonian Pam Rosen lead Shell's Eco-marathon, which took place from April 3 to 6. Two student teams represented Houston in the competition — one from Rice University and James E. Taylor High School.

"We really needed to get more young people interested in technology careers," says Pam Rosen, general manager of the Shell Eco-marathon. "It [doesn't] even need to be with Shell. It's more about the method, science, and helping [students[ gravitate toward those opportunities."Read the full story here.

Two Houston student teams are competing in Shell's international competition. Courtesy of Shell

2 Houston student teams to compete in Shell’s international eco-friendly driving challenge

Off to the races

What started as a bet in the '30s has evolved into the Shell's Eco-marathon. The competition challenges high school and college students to engineer the fuel-efficient vehicles. And at this year's Shell Eco-marathon Americas, two teams will be representing Houston.

Students from Rice University and James E. Taylor High School are competing in the Shell Eco-marathon Americas, which begins April 3 and wraps up April 6. This year's competition is being held at Sonoma Raceway in Sonoma, California, and will include more than 90 teams from high schools and colleges throughout North and South America.

That's a far cry from the competition's origins. Shell's first fuel efficiency competition took place in 1939, when two Illinois scientists struck a friendly bet over who could engineer a vehicle that ran the furthest on a gallon of gas. The company held an employee competition that year and, save for around a decade and a half in the '70s and '80s, the competition has been held in some capacity every year.

"We really needed to get more young people interested in technology careers," says Pam Rosen, general manager of the Shell Eco-marathon. "It [doesn't] even need to be with Shell. It's more about the method, science, and helping [students[ gravitate toward those opportunities."

The Shell Eco-marathon has adapted with the decades. Students design vehicles that run on gas, diesel, and biofuels, as well as batteries and electricity. Vehicles fueled by GTL (gas-to-liquid) and hydrogen have also competed in the Eco-marathon, Rosen says.

"It kind of ebbs and flows toward what we see the automotive manufacturers trending toward," Rosen says.

The teams from Rice University is a returning presence to the Eco-marathon, while the team from James E. Taylor High School is competing in the Eco-marathon for its first time. Both teams engineered battery-powered electric urban concept vehicles, Rosen says, and describes "urban concept vehicles" as being similar to Smart cars.

The team that takes the top prize in the Americas' urban concept vehicle competition will compete in the Eco-marathon's regional qualifiers in London. As for the lucky winner? They'll head to Italy, where they'll get to drive their vehicle on the racetrack used in the San Marino Grand Prix in Marino, Italy, Rosen says.

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.