This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Kelsey Hultberg of Sunnova, Brad Burke of Rice Alliance, and Yaxin Wang of the Texas Heart Institute. Photos courtesy

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 care to energy tech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Kelsey Hultberg, executive vice president of corporate communications and sustainability of Sunnova Energy International

Kelsey Hultberg, executive vice president of corporate communications and sustainability at Sunnova Energy, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Sunnova

Several years ago, Kelsey Hultberg decided to make a pivot. Looking for a role with career growth opportunities, the communications professional thought she'd find something at an oil and gas company, but then she met John Berger, founder and CEO of Sunnova, who was looking for someone to stand up their communications team amidst the solar energy company's growth.

"He hooked me," Hultberg shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "He said, 'I've got big plans for this company. I see where this energy industry is going, I see that we're prime for a transition, and I want to take this company public.' And I started a few weeks later."

Hultberg has been telling the story for Sunnova — which equips customers with solar and storage technology, providing them with energy independence — ever since, through scaling, new technologies, and its IPO in 2019. Read more.

Houston Innovation Awards names longtime Rice leader as 2023 Trailblazer

Brad Burke has been named the 2023 Trailblazer Award recipient. Photo via alliance.rice.edu

In less than a month, all of Houston's innovation community's movers and shakers will gather to celebrate the Houston Innovation Awards, and the night's first honoree has officially been named.

Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, was selected to receive the 2023 Trailblazer Award. The award was established to recognize an individual who has already left a profound impact on Houston's business and innovation ecosystem and is dedicated to continuing to support Houston and its entrepreneurs.

The award, which is selected from a group of internal and external nominations, was decided by a vote of the 2023 awards judges, who represent Houston's business, investment, and entrepreneurial community across industries. Read more.

Yaxin Wang leads the IDEA Lab at the Texas Heart Institute. Photo via texasheart.org

Meet Yaxin Wang, PhD. The research engineer leads the IDEA Lab at the Texas Heart Institute. IDEA stands for Innovative Device & Engineering Applications, an apt description of what Wang and her colleagues do. She’s currently focused intensely on projects that could radically change transplantation for patients in need of an artificial heart or new, healthy lungs.

Specifically, Wang is helping to develop a pediatric left ventricular assist device (NeoVAD) to mechanically pump that part of the heart in infants and small children born with heart defects.

“There aren’t a lot of options for very small kids,” explains Wang. “That’s why we’re working on an implantable LVAD for very young kids.” Read more.

Kelsey Hultberg, executive vice president of corporate communications and sustainability at Sunnova Energy, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Sunnova

Houston corporate communications expert on importance of messaging when scaling a tech company

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 207

Several years ago, Kelsey Hultberg decided to make a pivot. Looking for a role with career growth opportunities, the communications professional thought she'd find something at an oil and gas company, but then she met John Berger, founder and CEO of Sunnova, who was looking for someone to stand up their communications team amidst the solar energy company's growth.

"He hooked me," Hultberg shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "He said, 'I've got big plans for this company. I see where this energy industry is going, I see that we're prime for a transition, and I want to take this company public.' And I started a few weeks later."

Hultberg has been telling the story for Sunnova — which equips customers with solar and storage technology, providing them with energy independence — ever since, through scaling, new technologies, and its IPO in 2019.



Each phase of the company represented different challenges for Hultberg and her communications team. As she explains on the podcast, consistently conveying a strong message is key in any industry, but especially energy.

"Communication is critical," Hultberg says, "having a strategy and really being able to articulate who you are, what you stand for, what is your mission, what is your vision — and really beyond that, what is your strategy for how you move forward. ... You can never say the same thing to the same people too many times, especially when you're a company that some people have never heard of before."

And while there's a unique challenge to communications for energy transition companies, Hultberg says she views it as a huge opportunity as long as you have the right structure in place.

"Of course communications and being as strategic as possible with the story that you're telling and the narrative that you're weaving for your different audiences, but then you layer on an industry that's rapidly changing and is tumultuous at times," she says. "Being able to come back to the core mission and values is really incredible."

Hultberg says that when she originally joined the team in 2017, she thought a solar energy company in Houston was an interesting choice — and it was. Texas was not one of Sunnova's biggest markets at the time, Hultberg explains, but things are different now.

"Over the last couple of years, especially after Winter Storm Uri, where you saw a lot of people go without power. ... We had a lot of customers say, 'That can't happen again,'" she says. "You're seeing the adoption and uptick in solar in storage because they are looking for grid reliability and affordability and they aren't getting it from their utility providers."

On a panel for Houston Climate Week, three energy experts discussed the importance of Houston taking the right steps in the energy transition. Getty Images

Overheard: Experts call for Houston to become the 'energy transition capital of the world'

eavesdropping online

Before the inaugural Houston Climate Week was shutdown — ironically by a major climate event — event attendees heard from a panel of energy experts that spoke of certain challenges the city's economy faces as the energy transition continues.

One of the last events of the programmed week that took place ahead of cancelations due to the threat of Hurricane Laura, was a virtual panel entitled, ENERGY TRANSITION: Making Houston a Global Leader in Energy Innovation. The conversation centered around what Houston is currently doing — and what it still needs to focus on — when it comes to the need to prioritize sustainability in oil and gas and new green alternatives in the greater energy industry.

Here are some of the highlights from the discussion.

“Houston has a spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. We’ve all heard Houston be called the oil and gas capital of the world, but we’re the energy capital of the world — and we have the opportunity right now to become the energy transition capital of the world. We see that here — we want to be a part of that.”

— Kelsey Hultberg, vice president and chief of staff of Sunnova, a Houston-based residential solar energy company that went public last year.

“When you think about energy 2.0, it’s about what the energy industry look like in the future. In Houston, we are working hard to present ourselves not just as a current global energy leader, but the future energy leader of the world."

— Jose Beceiro, senior director of Energy 2.0 at the Greater Houston Partnership.

"The energy capital of the world has to be engaged and become the energy transition capital of the world."

— Juliana Garaizar, launch director of Greentown Labs - Houston.

“One of the thing we’re really focused on is energy resiliency and reliability. … After Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, really fundamentally as an organization as that there is a need for energy reliability.”

— Hultberg says, adding that around a third of the company's solar sales include a battery.

"The oil and gas industry knows it is going to have to hire a whole new workforce going forward that’s much more technical in terms of data analytics, cloud computing, and edge computing. One method you’re seeing these companies try is investing in new types of energy resources. … Another method you’re seeing is these companies forming closer alliances in the tech industry.”

— Beceiro says, adding that these tech companies — like Amazon and Google — have zoomed in on Houston and increased their local presence.

“I really believe that innovation happens at the intersection of things and for that you really need a convening space for that.”

Garaizar says, adding that she hopes Greentown Labs can help provide this convening space.

This week's innovators to know includes John Berger, Mary Beth Snodgrass, and Gene Austin. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Houston is still — but most accounts — emerging as a tech and innovation hub, which could seem to mean that the startups that make up the innovation ecosystem reside in early stages of business scale.

However, this week's sampling of Houston innovators to know demonstrate the scope in scale of Houston's companies — from a CEO to a newly public company and recently hired CEO of a rapidly scaling software company to a health tech leader fresh out of the gates.

John Berger, CEO of Sunnova

Photo courtesy of Sunnova

Taking a company public brings on a slew of changes. One that might be overlooked is the change for the leader of that company. John Berger —CEO of Sunnova, a Houston-based solar energy company that went public last summer — joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the changes and where his company is headed.

Transitioning from a private company CEO to a public company CEO has been eye opening, Berger says on the podcast, joking that he now has to watch what he says. But change is ultimately something Berger says he embraces.

"I really look at myself and how I can change myself," Berger says. "I'm a different CEO today than I was 12 months ago, and hopefully I'll be a different CEO in 12 months, because the company demands it." Read more and stream the episode here.

Mary Beth Snodgrass, co-founder of Healthiby

Mary Beth Snodgrass is convinced she can help people make life-enhancing changes that affect health and financial situations because, well, science.

The co-founder of Healthiby created the platform to use financial incentives to drive positive health and wellness decisions. The Houston company is in pilot mode but has plans to expand.

"What we're really focused on this year is, in addition to our incentives, digital content and coach guidance, is making sure that participants are engaging among themselves," Snodgrass tells InnovationMap. "Science shows there are benefits to surrounding yourself with other people who share similar health goals." Read more.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software

Photo courtesy of Quorum

A new CEO is tasked with exponential growth at a Houston-based software company. Gene Austin joined Houston-based Quorum Software last year at a time of rapid M&A activity.

The energy industry software solutions provider, which is a portfolio company of California-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo LLC since 2018, has big plans to continue the exponential growth with more acquisitions that diversify their portfolio of services and a Houston office expansion later this year. According to Austin, he expects this growth spurred by M&A activity to double Quorum's revenue of $200 million in the next 3 to 5 years.

"We are always thinking about how to best serve our customers," Austin says. "We've made millions of dollars of investments in our support organization and cloud team services that are foundational to reinvigorate innovation and help our customers see how the future can unfold for them." Read more.

John Berger, CEO of Houston-based Sunnova, is this week's Houston Innovators Podcast guest. Courtesy of Sunnova

Houston solar energy exec shines light on company growth and IPO

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 15

It was all about the timing for John Berger, founder and CEO of Sunnova, a Houston-based residential solar energy company.

When he founded his company in 2012 in Houston, solar energy wasn't the trendy sustainability option it is today, but Berger saw the potential for technology within the industry. So, with a lot of perseverance and the right team behind him, he scaled Sunnova through nationwide expansion, billions of money raised, and a debut on the stock market last July — something that also happened with great timing.

About 72 hours after Sunnova went public last July, the Federal Reserve System announced it was going to cut rates. Additionally, Sunnova's IPO occurred ahead of WeWork's failed IPO.

"We went public in a market that still isn't back open again, I think, for IPOs," Berger says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We had pretty good timing when we went out the door."

However great the timing was, Sunnova's success is built on the hard work and skills of the company's employees, Berger explains on the podcast, and now running a public company requires a dynamic leader.

"I really look at myself and how I can change myself," Berger says. "I'm a different CEO today than I was 12 months ago, and hopefully I'll be a different CEO in 12 months, because the company demands it."

In the episode, Berger lifts the curtain on Sunnova's IPO, explains where he sees the solar energy industry headed, how battery storage technology has evolved, and why he's not worried about who ends up in the White House. Listen to the full episode below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Early-stage accelerator returns to Houston, announces finalists

prepare for take-off

CodeLaunch, a traveling seed-stage accelerator, is returning to Houston for its latest cohort.

The startup competition sponsored by software development company Improving will have its ultimate showdown on February 28. The final competition pairs six startups with six startup consulting companies.

Jason W. Taylor, CodeLaunch president and founder, says CodeLaunch isn’t your typical startup showcase, as it incorporates music acts, comedy, and crowd networking. Mirroring the set-up of a TV show, the six finalists all present their working products in front of an audience amid these performances.

“I would describe CodeLaunch as the next generation of venture-tainment in North America and the greatest startup show on earth,” Taylor explains.

The 2024 Houston CodeLaunch participant startups — and their mentor partners — are as follows:

Prior to pitch day, all six teams will receive hands-on instruction from CodeLaunch mentors on how to construct their pitches and free professional software development from their partners. Taylor says the strong relationships between CodeLaunch and these developers played a major role in setting the competition in Houston.

“We love Houston and we’re back for a third year in a row because the Houston startup ecosystem works together better than other major startup ecosystems I’ve seen,” Taylor says. “We have some great software development partners in Houston that are building code for those startups.”

Last year, Houston-based startup Energy360, with the mentorship and help of Honeycomb Software, took home the Championship belt and a $100,000 investment offer from Cyrannus VC fund for their energy management system Matt Bonasera, Energy360’s enterprise architect, says he is grateful for the entrepreneurial community CodeLaunch provides, in particular the team’s mentor Oleg Lysiak, Honeycomb VP of Partnerships and Business Development.

“I happened along this great community of people who are really passionate about supporting each other,” Bonasera says.

Lysiak agrees that CodeLaunch is an ideal opportunity for young entrepreneurs looking to hone their skills and expand their product capabilities. Lysiak says he is looking forward to defending Honeycomb’s title as top consultant development team.

“My whole philosophy is to connect people and have different collisions and collaborations,” Lysiak says.

Houston startup completes testing, prepares biosimilar insulin drug for clinical trials

next steps

A Houston biotech startup is one step closer to releasing its marquee drug for the global insulin market, which is projected to break the $90 billion threshold by 2029.

rBIO says it recently completed testing of the properties of R-biolin, an insulin drug that’s biologically identical to Novo Nordisk’s Novolin drug. The patent for Novolin about two decades ago. In March 2023, the Dutch drugmaker announced it was slashing the list price of Novolin by 65 percent to $48.20 per vial and $91.09 per FlexPen.

Executives at rBIO are now pursuing a partnership with a contract research organization to manage clinical trials of R-biolin. If those trials go well, R-biolin will seek approval to supply its insulin therapy to diabetes patients around the world.

Washington University in St. Louis is rBIO’s academic partner for the R-biolin project.

The rBIO platform produces insulin at greater yields that traditional manufacturing techniques do. The company is striving to drive down the cost of insulin by 30 percent.

About 38 million Americans have diabetes, with the vast majority being treated for type 2 diabetes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many people with diabetes must take insulin to control their blood sugar levels.

Research company iHealthcareAnalyst predicts the global market for insulin will surpass the $90 billion mark in 2029.

“There has been a lot of talk in the media about reducing the cost of insulin for diabetic patients, but what is often overlooked is that the domestic demand for insulin will soon outpace the supply, leading to a new host of issues,” Cameron Owen, co-founder and CEO of rBIO, says in a news release.

“We’re dedicated to addressing the growing demand for accessible insulin therapies, and … we’re thrilled to announce the viability of our highly scalable manufacturing process.”

Professionals from the University of California San Diego and Johns Hopkins University established rBIO in 2020. The startup moved its headquarters from San Diego to Houston in 2022.

CEO Cameron Owen and Chief Scientific Officer Deenadayalan Bakthavatsalam work on insulin purification in the Houston lab. Photo courtesy

How AI is changing product management and what you need to know

guest column

For the past 14 months, everyone has been talking about ways artificial intelligence is changing the world, and product management is not an exception. The challenge, as with every new technology, is not only adopting it but understanding what old habits, workflows, and processes are affected by it.

Product managers — as well as startup founders leading a product function — more than any other role, face a challenge of bringing new life-changing products to market that may or may not be received well by their users. A product manager’s goal is complex — bring value, stay ahead of the competition, be innovative. Yet, the "behind the scenes" grind requires endless decision making and trade offs to inspire stakeholders to move forward and deliver.

As we dive into 2024, it is obvious that AI tools do not only transform the way we work but also help product managers create products that exceed customer expectation and drive businesses forward.

Market research and trends analysis

As product managers, we process enormous amounts of market data — from reviewing global and industry trend analysis, to social media posts, predictions, competition, and company goals. AI, however, can now replace hours, if not days, of analyzing massive amounts of data in an instant, revealing market trends, anticipating needs, and foreseeing what's coming next. As a result, it is easier to make effective product decisions and identify new market opportunities.

Competitive analysis

Constantly following competitors, reviewing their new releases, product updates, or monitoring reviews to identify competitor strengths and weaknesses is an overwhelming and time consuming task. With AI, you can quickly analyze competitors’ products, pricing, promotions, and feedback. You can easily compare multiple attributes, including metrics, and identify gaps and areas for improvement — all the insights that are otherwise much harder to reveal quickly and efficiently.

Customer and product discovery

Of course, the most intuitive use case that comes to mind is the adoption of AI in product and customer discovery. For example:

  • Use AI for customer segmentation and persona creation to help visualize personas, prioritize user motivations and expectations, and uncover hidden behavior and needs. You can then create and simplify customer questionnaires for interviews and user groups and target customers more accurately.
  • Analyze quantitative and qualitative data from surveys, support tickets, reviews, and in-person interviews to identify pain points and unmet user needs and help prioritize features for future updates and releases.

Roadmap and sprint management

AI provides value in simplifying roadmap planning and sprint management. Resource optimization is often a gruesome task and AI can help with feature prioritization and resource allocation. It helps teams focus on critical work and increase their productivity. You can even analyze and manage dependencies and improve results across multiple sprints months in advance.

Prototyping and mockup generation

There is no product manager’s routine without multiple mockups, wireframes, and prototypes that explain concepts and collect feedback among stakeholders. AI has become a critical tool in simplifying this process and bringing ideas to life from concept to visualization.

Today, you can use textual or voice descriptions to instantly create multiple visuals with slight variations, run A/B tests and gather valuable feedback at the earliest stage of a product life cycle.

Job search and job interviews

Consider it as a bonus but one of the less obvious but crucial advantages of AI is using it in job search. With the vulnerable and unstable job market, especially for product roles, AI is a valuable assistant. From getting the latest news and updates on a company you want to join, to summarizing insights on the executive team, or company goals, compiling lists of interview questions, and running mock interviews, AI has become a non-judgmental assistant in a distressing and often discouraging job search process.

Use AI to draft cold emails to recruiters and hiring managers, compare your skills to open positions’ requirements, identify gaps, and outline ideas for test assignments.

We already know that AI is not a hype; it is here to stay. However, remember that customers do not consume AI, they consume your product for its value. Customers care whether your product gets their need, solves their problem, and makes their lives easier. The goal of a product manager is to create magic combining human brain capabilities and latest technology. And the best result is with a human at the core of any product.

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Natasha Gorodetsky is the founder and CEO of Product Pursuits, a Houston company that helps early stage and venture-backed startups build products and create impact.