4 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Kevin Coker of Proxima CRO, Gaurab Chakrabarti of Solugen, and Phil Sitter and Chris Chomenko of RepeatMD. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to four local innovators across industries — from marketing tech to synthetic biology — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Kevin Coker, CEO and co-founder of Proxima CRO, and Gaurab Chakrabarti, CEO and co-founder of Solugen

First Bight VC named two Houstonians to its board. Photos courtesy

First Bight Ventures, a new VC firm focused exclusively on early-stage synthetic biology startups founded by Veronica Wu in January, has named two new board members: Gaurab Chakrabarti, co-founder and CEO of Solugen, and Kevin Cocker, co-founder and CEO of Proxima CRO.

"We are excited to announce the addition of Dr. Gaurab Chakrabarti and Kevin Cocker," Wu says in a press release. "These two advisors are experts in their respective fields of medicine and biotechnology. They are proven leaders of Houston-based companies, which is key to our overall growth strategy, as we seek to establish Houston as a geographic center for innovation in Synthetic Biology." Click here to read more.

RepeatMD's CEO Phil Sitter and Vice President of Sales Chris Chomenko

RepeatMD's CEO Phil Sitter and Vice President of Sales Chris Chomenko join the Houston Innovators Podcast to explain how they are revolutionizing the aesthetics industry. Photos courtesy

Houston restaurateur pivoted his restaurant marketing business amid the pandemic — to a growing industry: aesthetics. Phil Sitter took the idea and tech he created with VIPInsiders to launch RepeatMD, a customizable marketing and fintech platform focused on the aesthetics industry, which includes plastic surgeons, dermatologists, etc.

Sitter, who serves as the company's CEO, says once he dived into learning about the industry, he found out these types of business are seeing incredible growth following the pandemic.

"They call it the 'Zoom boom' — everyone saw themselves on Zoom daily and decided to invest in themselves and their facial treatments." says Chris Chomenko, vice president of sales for the company, on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"And they had the time," Sitter adds. "When you think about aesthetic procedures — whether its invasive or non-invasive, it takes time for recovery." Click here to read more.

First Bight Ventures has added two Houstonians to its advisory board. Image via Getty Images

Houston-based synthetic biology investment fund taps 2 prominent advisers for board

on boarding

Earlier this year, a new synthetic biology-focused venture capital fund launched in Houston, and now its added to its esteemed set of advisers.

Veronica Wu, former Apple and Tesla exec, founded First Bight Ventures, a new VC firm focused exclusively on early-stage synthetic biology startups, in January and named her initial board members. This month, she's added to those ranks with two Houstonians joining the advisory board — Gaurab Chakrabarti, co-founder and CEO of Solugen, and Kevin Coker, co-founder and CEO of Proxima CRO.

"We are excited to announce the addition of Dr. Gaurab Chakrabarti and Kevin Coker," Wu says in a press release. "These two advisors are experts in their respective fields of medicine and biotechnology. They are proven leaders of Houston-based companies, which is key to our overall growth strategy, as we seek to establish Houston as a geographic center for innovation in Synthetic Biology."

Gaurab co-founded Solugen, a Houston unicorn that creates enzymes that can turn sugar into chemicals, in 2016. He studied computational neuroscience at Brown University and received his master's and PhD in cancer biology and enzymology at the University of Texas.

Representing the health care side of synthetic biology, Kevin Coker runs Houston-based Proxima CRO, a regulatory and clinical partner for the emerging biotech and medical device industry. He is also the founder and partner of the M1 MedTech accelerator and the Host of the Inventing Tomorrow podcast.

"I couldn't be more excited to work with Veronica and First Bight Ventures," Coker says in the release. "The time is now for companies developing Synthetic Biology products and platforms. Much of this technology has reached commercial level maturity and we are beginning to see exciting things happen, particularly in Houston."

The two join six other advisers on the board:

  • Dr. Ethel Rubin, an experienced life sciences executive with commercialization and investment experience across multiple therapeutic areas and modalities.
  • Lekan Akinyanmi, founder and CEO of Cambridge Growth Partners, a holding company with interests in mining, finance, oil/gas, and renewable energy.
  • Dr. Guochun Liao, founder of IDbyDNA, which focuses on utilizing next-generation sequencing and AI/ML for infectious disease management.
  • Mario Maia, leader of the corporate investment arm of Novozymes.
  • Peter Oleksiak, former CFO senior vice president for DTE Energy Co., a Fortune 500 diversified energy compan.
  • Davy Wang, senior director at Oracle Cloud.
Solugen is moving its HQ into Phoenix Tower. Photo courtesy of Parkway

Synthetic biology unicorn announces new Houston HQ

moving in

Houston-based Solugen has announced an HQ move. But don't worry. This unicorn chemicals company is just moving down the street.

Parkway Property Investments LLC announced today that Solugen is relocating its Houston corporate headquarters to Greenway Plaza. The biotech company, recently ranked as one of the most innovative businesses in the world, signed a multi-year lease in Phoenix Tower. The building is one of 11 Class A buildings on the 52-acre mixed-use campus.

The space's buildout is expected to be completed in the second quarter, according to a news release, with Solugen moving in after that.

The venture-backed biotech startup, which produces high-performance chemicals through the use of bio-based feedstock and metal catalyst technologies, signed a multi-year lease in Phoenix Tower. The property is one of eleven Class A buildings on the landmark, 52-acre mixed-use campus, which is strategically located between Downtown and Uptown. Buildout of the space is expected to be completed in the second quarter.

“Innovative companies like Solugen are choosing to outsource the design-build process for office interiors to Parkway," says Eric Siegrist, Parkway’s managing director of leasing, in the release. "With several floors of ‘Ready Right Away’ suites fully-deployed, we happily take on this process to reduce the time and energy expended by an incoming tenant, resulting in expedited occupancy.”

Solugen was represented by Nick Terry, managing partner of Rifle Real Estate. Parkway’s senior director of leasing, JP Hutcheson, negotiated on behalf of Parkway.

Founded in 2016, Solugen’s process converts corn syrup into industrial chemicals, cutting down on carbon emissions generated by traditional production of chemicals. Carbon dioxide from chemical production is one of the biggest contributors to industrial greenhouse gas emissions. In September, the company raised a $357 million series C funding round and claimed its unicorn status.

Solugen joins several tech companies already housed in Greenway Plaza, including FlightAware, ThoughtTrace, Detechtion Technologies, and Buildforce.

Phoenix Tower has 627,320 square feet of space across 34 floors. Photo courtesy of Parkway


This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Bill Snyder of Vivante Health, Kelly McCormick of UH, and Sean Hunt of Solugen. 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 health tech to synthetic biology — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Bill Snyder, CEO of Vivante Health

Houston startup exec, Bill Snyder, has fresh funding for growth. Photo via vivantehealth.com

Houston-based Vivante Health closed a $16 million series A funding round, and the fresh funding will support commercial scaling and growth of the company, which is based in Houston's JLABS @ TMC space.

"The Series A financing round represents another pivotal milestone in our mission to improve our member's digestive health and provide outcomes at scale for our enterprise partners," says Bill Snyder, Vivante Health CEO, in a news release. "We are thrilled to partner with premier investors in this latest round of funding that will enable us to continue our rapid growth trajectory and further establish ourselves as the leader in digestive health."

The company is reinventing the way chronic conditions are managed through its digital health program, GIThrive, which equips people with digestive issues with technology, advanced science, and on-demand support. Click here to read more.

Kelly McCormick, managing director of RED Labs

Kelly McCormick wanted to help support UH small business owners. Photo via UH.edu

For years, the University of Houston and Rice University have been working together to support tech startups. Now the pair has announced two new programs — RED Launch and BlueLaunch, respectively — to focus on small businesses. The programs are open to University of Houston and Rice University affiliates who are interested in starting or growing a small business.

"Since inception, RED Labs programming focused mostly on tech entrepreneurship," says Kelly McCormick, managing director of RED Labs. "A few years ago, we began to build out course offerings at the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship for students interested in small businesses.

"Through those courses, I saw incredible engagement and enthusiasm from students interested in starting a small business, but recognized the need for intensive support beyond classes," she continues.

McCormick says that last summer, UH piloted the first iteration of RED Launch with a small group of UH students, and now UH has brought in Rice to the initiative as well. Click here to read more.

Sean Hunt, co-founder and CTO of Solugen

Solugen has been named among the most innovative companies in the world — and was deemed the No. 1 most innovative manufacturers. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston-based Solugen has ranked second on Fast Company’s 2022 list of the 50 most innovative companies in the world. It also sits at No. 1 on the magazine’s list of the world’s most innovative manufacturers.

Last year, Solugen announced it raised $357 million in a Series C round, catapulting it to “unicorn” status. The Series C round bumped up the startup to a valuation of $1.8 billion, pushing it well past the $1 billion mark required for a unicorn designation.

“This fundraising round allows us to continue expanding the footprint of our Bioforge technology to give industries the products they need to reduce emissions in their existing supply chains, without compromising on performance or economics,” Sean Hunt, co-founder and chief technology officer of Solugen, said in a news release about the $357 million round. Click here to read more.

Solugen has been named among the most innovative companies in the world — and was deemed the No. 1 most innovative manufacturers. Photo via Getty Images

Houston startup ranks as a top innovative company in the world

No. 1

A Houston biotech startup is now in rarified air.

Solugen ranks second on Fast Company’s 2022 list of the 50 most innovative companies in the world. It also sits at No. 1 on the magazine’s list of the world’s most innovative manufacturers.

Solugen’s process converts corn syrup into industrial chemicals, cutting down on carbon emissions generated by traditional production of chemicals. Carbon dioxide from chemical production is one of the biggest contributors to industrial greenhouse gas emissions.

“Right now, the $6 trillion chemicals industry relies on oil, natural gas, and coal to make ingredients used in everything from laundry detergent and running shoes to fertilizer. It’s a dirty process,” Fast Company reported last December.

According to Fast Company, Solugen’s process for producing a chemical uses nearly all of the feedstock put into it.

“The carbon-negative process and Solugen’s ability to sell flexible amounts of chemicals to companies looking to lower their own footprint have helped the company make inroads in a traditionally slow-moving industry,” the magazine says.

Fast Company notes that Solugen launched in 2016 with four chemicals and another 17 in development. The chemicals are being used in water treatment, in concrete production to reduce cement use, and in agriculture to deliver nutrients to crops, the magazine says.

Last year, Solugen announced it raised $357 million in a Series C round, catapulting it to “unicorn” status. The Series C round bumped up the startup to a valuation of $1.8 billion, pushing it well past the $1 billion mark required for a unicorn designation.

“This fundraising round allows us to continue expanding the footprint of our Bioforge technology to give industries the products they need to reduce emissions in their existing supply chains, without compromising on performance or economics,” Sean Hunt, co-founder and chief technology officer of Solugen, said in a news release about the $357 million round.

In total, Texas saw seven companies reach unicorn status in 2021. Image via Getty Images

These are the 2 Houston startups that joined the unicorn club in 2021

money moves

Houston welcomed a duo of unicorns in 2021, according to a new report. But these unicorns aren’t those mythical multicolored creatures. Rather, they’re startups valued at $1 billion or more.

As of December 2021, there were more than 900 unicorns around the world, according to market research company CB Insights. Former unicorns include Airbnb, Facebook, and Google.

Joining the unicorn club in 2021 were two startups based in the Houston area:

  • Solugen, currently valued at $1.8 billion, according to the company, which uses corn syrup to produce chemicals.
  • Axiom Space, valued at more than $1 billion as of February. The startup is developing the world’s first space station for commercial purposes.

Houston's other unicorn is fintech company, HighRadius, which reached the $1 billion valuation mark in January of 2020.

The Lone Star State added a few other companies to its unicorn herd. Austin had four companies claim the prestigious status — the most newly minted unicorns in Texas — and now has a total of six unicorns. Dallas added one new unicorn to its economy, making a total of three Dallas area-based unicorns, according to CB Insights.

Here are the other 2021 unicorns in Texas:

  • Austin-based Iodine Software, valued at more than $1 billion as of December. The company’s artificial intelligence offering aims to help healthcare organizations improve their operations.
  • Austin-based ZenBusiness, valued at $1.7 billion as of November. ZenBusiness provides an online platform designed to help entrepreneurs start, run, and grow their small businesses.
  • Cedar Park-based Firefly Aerospace, valued at more than $1 billion as of May. The startup makes rockets and commercial spacecraft.
  • Austin-based The Zebra, valued at more than $1 billion as of April. The Zebra runs an online marketplace that enables consumers to compare insurance quotes.
  • Irving-based Caris Life Sciences is valued at a whopping $7.83 billion as of May. Caris employs artificial intelligence to come up with targeted cancer treatments.

Startups, particularly those in the tech space, increasingly are drawn to Austin. In 2020, CompTIA, a trade group for the tech industry, placed Austin atop its Tech Town USA index. The organization cited Austin as a “favorable alternative” to the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City for startups and other companies.

Joshua Baer, founder and CEO of Austin-based Capital Factory, an accelerator for startups, told Texas Monthly in April that Austin’s status as a business magnet has risen recently.

“Suddenly, we’ve gone from us having to beat our chest and tell everybody else how great Austin and Texas are to everybody showing up here, telling us why it’s so great, and why they moved here,” Baer says.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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7+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events in July

where to be

Houstonians are transitioning into a new summer month, and the city's business community is mixing in networking and conference events with family vacations and time off. Here's a rundown of what all to throw on your calendar for July when it comes to innovation-related events.

This article will be updated as more business and tech events are announced.

July 10 — Have a Nice Day Market at the Ion

Stop by for a one-of-a-kind vendor market - #HaveANiceDayHTX - taking place at the Ion, Houston's newest urban district and collaborative space that is designed to provide the city a place where entrepreneurial, corporate, and academic communities can come together. Free to attend and free parking onsite.

Have a Nice Day is a creative collective with a goal of celebrating BIPOC makers, creators, and causes.

The event is Sunday, July 10, 4 to 8 pm, at The Ion. Click here to register.

July 12 — One Houston Together Webinar Series

In the first installment of the Partnership's One Houston Together webinar series, we will discuss supplier diversity an often underutilized resource for business. What is it and why is it important? How can supplier diversity have long-term impact on your business, help strengthen your supply chain, and make a positive community impact?

The event is Tuesday, July 12, noon to 1 pm, online. Click here to register.

July 14 — Investor Speaker Series: Both Sides of the Coin

In the next installment of Greentown Labs' Investor Speaker Series, sit down with two Greentown founders and their investors as they talk about their experiences working together before, during, and after an equity investment was made in the company. Attendees will get a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most important relationships in a startup’s journey and what best practices both founders and investors can follow to keep things moving smoothly.

The event is Thursday, July 14, 1 to 2:30 pm, online. Click here to register.

July 15 — SBA Funding Fair

Mark Winchester, the Deputy District Director for the Houston District Office of the U.S. Small Business Administration, will give a short intro of the programs the mentors will discuss. There will be three government guaranteed loan mentors and two to three mentors co-mentoring with remote SBIR experts.

The event is Friday, July 15, 10:30 am to 1 pm, at The Cannon - West Houston. Click here to register.

July 16 — Bots and Bytes: Family STEAM Day

Join the Ion for a hands-on learning experience to learn about tech and robotics and gain insight into the professional skills and concepts needed to excel in a robotics or tech career. This event will be tailored for 9-14-year-olds for a fun STEM experience.

The event is Saturday, July 16, 10 am to 1 pm, at The Ion. Click here to register.

July 19 — How to Start a Startup

You have an idea...now what? Before you start looking for funding, it's important to make sure that your idea is both viable and valuable -- if it doesn't have a sound model and a market willing to pay for it, investors won't be interested anyway.

The event is Tuesday, July 19, 5:30 to 7:30 pm, at The Ion. Click here to register.

July 20 — Perfecting Your Pitch

Join the Ion for their series with DeckLaunch and Fresh Tech Solutionz as they discuss the importance and value of your pitch deck when reaching your target audience.

The event is Wednesday, July 20, 5:30 to 6:30 pm, at The Ion. Click here to register.

July 21 — Transition On Tap: Investor Readiness with Vinson & Elkins LLP

Attorneys from Greentown Labs’ Gigawatt Partner Vinson & Elkins LLP, a leading fund- and company-side advisor for clean energy financing, will present an overview of legal considerations in cleantech investing, geared especially toward early-stage companies and investors. The presentation will cover the types of investors and deals in the cleantech space and also provide background on negotiating valuation, term sheets, and preparing for diligence.

The event is Thursday, July 21, 5 to 7 pm, at Greentown Houston. Click here to register.

July 28 — The Cannon Community 2nd Annual Town Hall Event

Partner of The Cannon, Baker Tilly, has played an integral part in the success of Cannon member companies. Join the Cannon community for The Cannon's 5-year anniversary celebration!

The event is Thursday, July 28, 4 to 7 pm, at The Cannon - West Houston. Click here to register.

Texas-based dating app sponsors 50 female athletes to honor 50 years of Title IX

teaming up

Bumble is causing a buzz once again, this time for collegiate women athletes. Founded by recent Texas Business Hall of Fame inductee Whitney Wolfe Herd, the Austin-based and female-first dating and social networking app this week announced a new sponsorship for 50 collegiate women athletes with NIL (name, image, and likeness) deals in honor of the 50th anniversary of Title IX.

Established in 1972, the federal law prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or other education program or activity that receives federal money. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, the number of women in collegiate athletics has increased significantly since Title IX, from 15 percent to 44 percent.

That said, equity continues to lag in many ways, specifically for BIPOC women who make up only 14 percent of college athletes. The findings also share that men have approximately 60,000 more collegiate sports opportunities than women, despite the fact that women make up a larger portion of the collegiate population.

With this in mind, Bumble’s new sponsorship seeks to support “a wealth of overlooked women athletes around the country,” according to the beehive’s official 50for50 program page.

“We're embarking on a yearlong sponsorship of 50 remarkable women, with equal pay amounts across all 50 NIL (name, image, and likeness) contracts,” says the website. “The inaugural class of athletes are a small representation of the talented women around the country who diligently — and often without recognition — put in the work on a daily basis.”

To celebrate the launch of the program, Bumble partnered with motion graphic artist Marlene “Motion Mami” Marmolejos to create a custom video and digital trading cards that each athlete will post on their personal social media announcing their sponsorship.

“These sponsorships are an exciting step in empowering and spotlighting a diverse range of some of the most remarkable collegiate women athletes from across the country. Athletes who work just as hard as their male counterparts, and should be seen and heard,” says Christina Hardy, Bumble’s director of talent and influencer, in a separate release. “In honor of the 50th anniversary of Title IX, we are so proud to stand alongside these women and are looking forward to celebrating their many achievements throughout the year.”

“Partnering with Bumble and announcing this campaign on the anniversary of Title IX is very special,” said Alexis Ellis, a track and field athlete. “I am grateful for the progress that has been made for women in sports, and am proud to be part of Bumble’s ’50for50’ to help continue moving the needle and striving for more. I look forward to standing alongside so many incredible athletes for this campaign throughout the year.”

“I am so grateful to team up with Bumble and stand alongside these incredible athletes on this monumental anniversary,” said Haleigh Bryant a gymnast. “Many women continue to be overlooked in the world of sports, and I am excited to be part of something that celebrates, and shines a light on, the hard work, tenacity, and accomplishments of so many great athletes.”

Last year, the NCAA announced an interim policy that all current and incoming student athletes could profit off their name, image, and likeness, according to the law of the state where the school is located, for the first time in collegiate history.

The 50for50 initiative adds to Bumble’s previous multi-year investments in sports. In 2019, Bumble also launched a multi-year partnership with global esports organization Gen.G to create Team Bumble, the all-women professional esports team.

To see the 50for50 athletes, visit the official landing page.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.