Houston House at SXSW 2024 featured conversations about startup scaling, tips from CEOs, and more. Photo via Allie Danziger/LinkedIn

Houston innovators talked big topics at SXSW 2024 — from the startup scaling and converging industries to the future of work.

Houston House, which was put on by the Greater Houston Partnership on March 11, hosted four panels full of experts from Houston. If you missed the day-long activation, here are some highlights from the experts who each commented on the future of the Bayou City when it comes to startups, technology, innovation, and the next generation's workforce.

"When we think about Houston, we think about access to at-scale infrastructure, amenities, and workforce and talent pools."

— Remington Tonar, co-founder and chief growth officer at Cart.com, says about why the company chose to return its headquarters back to Houston last year. One of these amenities, Tonar explained, is Houston's global airports.

"If New York and Austin had a baby, it would be Houston, because you have friendly people with a big-city culture."

— Mitra Miller, vice president and board member of Houston Angel Network, says, adding that Houston has a cost efficiency to it, which should be at the forefront of founders' minds when considering where to locate.

"We are not only attracting global talents, we are also attracting global wealth and foreign investments because we are the rising city of the future. We are the global launch pad where you can scale internationally very quickly."

— Sunny Zhang, founder of TrueLeap, says adding how there's a redistribution of global workforce happening when you consider ongoing global affairs.

"We overwhelmingly as a company, and my co-founder would agree, knew we had to go the Houston path. And we started funneling a lot more resources here."

— Carolyn Rodz, co-founder and CEO of Hello Alice, says, explaining that the pandemic helped equalize the talent across the country, and this has been to the benefit of cities like Houston.

"Houston is here with arms open, welcoming people and actively recruiting."

— Sean Kelly, co-founder and CEO of Amperon, says, emphasizing how Texas has made moves to being business friendly. Amperon was founded in New York, before moving to Houston a couple years ago.

"There is a revolution starting to happen in Houston right now."

— Trevor Best, co-founder and CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics, says, first commenting on the momentum from Rice University, where his company's technology originates from. But, as he adds, when you compare the ecosystem when the startup was founded in 2019 to where it's at now, "there is so much more happening."

"Houston has a critical mass in terms of aerospace."

— Stephanie Munez Murphy of Aegus Aerospace says, saying specifically that NASA's Johnson Space Center holds some responsibility for that. "JSC is the home of opening up space commercialization."

"There's diversity in industries people are coming from, but also in terms of experience and expertise that (Houstonians) have."

— Robyn Cardwell of Omniscience says, adding that Houston's diversity goes further than just where people originate from. "Houston has all these pieces put together ... for growing and scaling organizations," she adds.

"I've worked with thousands of students in Houston who are actively looking to better themselves and grow their career post college or post high school and go into the workforce."

— Allie Danziger of Ascent Funding says, adding that Gen Z, which is already entering the workforce, is entrepreneurial and ready to change the world. "Seeing the energy of Houstonians is just thrilling," she adds.

"We're working together in the Houston community. ... There are so many opportunities to collaborate but we need conveners." 

— Stacy Putman of INEOS says, adding that within industry there has been a lack of discussion and collaboration because of competition. But, as she's observing, that's changing thanks to conveners at colleges or at the Greater Houston Partnership.

"The opportunity for Houston is that everybody has to step up to be in some way, shape, or form helping us with this."

— Raj Salhotra of Momentum Education says about supporting the future workforce of Houston, including low-income household students.

The edtech company offers a comprehensive approach to shrinking the digital divide with a suite of technology including software, hardware, and more. Photo courtesy of TrueLeap

Houston edtech startup closes oversubscribed pre-seed round to increase access to learning

fresh funding

An edtech startup has just secured funding to further its mission of increasing accessibility to education.

TrueLeap Inc., global digital education startup addressing the digital divide in education, has raised $610,000, which is over its target of $500,000. The round was led by United Kingdom-based Maya Investments Limited.

"This oversubscribed funding round, led by Maya Investments Limited, is a testament to the urgent need for innovative educational technologies in emerging markets. Our commitment to providing affordable and integrated solutions is stronger than ever," says Sandip Bordoloi, CEO and Co-Founder of TrueLeap, in a news release.

Of the nearly 2 billion K-12 students in the world, only 640 million people have access to internet, and an even smaller populace — 390 million — have access to digital learning tools. That's what TrueLeap aims to change.

The company offers a comprehensive approach for customers with a suite of technology including software — a Learning Management System and Content Management System — as well as hardware infrastructure, digital content, training and support, and data-driven intelligence.

TrueLeap targets schools in emerging markets and currently has operations in the United States, India, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

TrueLeap's co-founder Sunny Zhang recently joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the company's mission. As a professor at University of St. Thomas, she's experienced first hand how challenging managing digital learning can be — on all sides, from student and teacher to even administrative. She's working to design a comprehensive platform of hardtech and software for educators globally.

The idea and technology is being developed out of Born Global Ventures, a Houston venture studio focused on advancing immigrant-founded technology. As founding partner of the organization, Zhang explains some of the unique challenges immigrant founders face on the show — and why Houston is a prime location to foster this kind of community.

"We were motivated to bridge the gap between academia and business to facilitate commercialization process, but especially with the global market in mind," Zhang says. "Houston is the number one diverse city in the United States and the number one city in the US for foreign business."

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Sunny Zhang of TrueLeap, Jim Dillon of BiVACOR, and Livia Schiavinato Eberlin of Baylor College of Medicine. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Each week, I'm introducing you to three Houston innovators to know — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Sunny Zhang, founder of TrueLeap

Sunny Zhang joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

It's safe to say Sunny Zhang has a handle on the machine and cycle that innovation as a tenured business professor, startup founder, and venture capital investor. An academic at her core, she looks at innovation from the outside in — and inside out — in her various roles.

But there is a throughline for Zhang, and it's observing the innovation cycle. In her 20 years, she's worked closely with startups on the topic.

"My research has always focused on the innovation diffusion process — essentially the psychological and behavioral science of innovation diffusion when a product is introduced in a marketplace. How is that adoption going in a network as a result in many factors — internally and externally in a digital world and in the international and global market," Zhang says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"I've been seeing how innovation works, how products are getting adopted, and the behavioral process in it. We talk about 'go-to market,' but I want to promote 'come-from market.' Identify the problem itself," Zhang says, explaining that as both an academic and life-long learner, this is important to her.

Jim Dillon, CEO of BiVACOR

Jim Dillon has been named CEO of BiVACOR. Photo courtesy of BiVACOR

Houston-based medical device company BiVACOR has brought aboard a new CEO.

Jim Dillon, a longtime executive in the medical device sector, has been hired to lead BiVACOR and join its board of directors. Dillon succeeds former heart surgeon Dr. Thomas Vassiliades, whose appointment as CEO was announced in January 2022.

“Jim’s leadership style, combined with his experience in building high-performance teams as well as expertise in the heart failure field, makes him the ideal person to lead BiVACOR,” Raymond Cohen, chairman of BiVACOR, says in a news release. Continue reading.

Livia Schiavinato Eberlin, associate professor of surgery at Baylor College of Medicine

Livia Schiavinato Eberlin was named the 2024 recipient of the Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research. Photo via bcm.edu

An associate professor of surgery at Baylor College of Medicine has won a prestigious award for young chemical scientists in the state and secured $3 million in funding to further develop her technology.

Livia Schiavinato Eberlin was named the 2024 recipient of the Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research in December. The award was established by the Houston-based Welch Foundation and recognizes the accomplishments of chemical scientists in Texas who are early in their careers. Eberlin will be granted $100,000 for this honor.

Eberlin runs the Eberlin Lab for Medical Mass Spectrometry at BCM and is known for her groundbreaking work in the application of mass spectrometry technologies, which are changing how physicians treat cancer and analyze tissues.

In the same week, Baylor College of Medicine announced that the Eberlin Lab received $3 million in funding from The Marcus Foundation to further develop the MasSpec Pen technology in breast cancer surgeries. Eberlin developed the tool in 2016 while she was serving as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin. The MasSpec Pen is a device for detecting cancer directly on tissues. Continue reading.

Sunny Zhang joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston is primed to lead the rise of emerging ecosystems this year, says innovator

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 219

It's safe to say Sunny Zhang has a handle on the machine and cycle that innovation as a tenured business professor, startup founder, and venture capital investor. An academic at her core, she looks at innovation from the outside in — and inside out — in her various roles.

But there is a throughline for Zhang, and it's observing the innovation cycle. In her 20 years, she's worked closely with startups on the topic.

"My research has always focused on the innovation diffusion process — essentially the psychological and behavioral science of innovation diffusion when a product is introduced in a marketplace. How is that adoption going in a network as a result in many factors — internally and externally in a digital world and in the international and global market," Zhang says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"I've been seeing how innovation works, how products are getting adopted, and the behavioral process in it. We talk about 'go-to market,' but I want to promote 'come-from market.' Identify the problem itself," Zhang says, explaining that as both an academic and life-long learner, this is important to her.

Her startup, TrueLeap, was born out of this mentality. As a professor at University of St. Thomas, she's experienced first hand how challenging managing digital learning can be — on all sides, from student and teacher to even administrative. She's working to design a comprehensive platform of hardtech and software for educators globally.

The idea and technology is being developed out of Born Global Ventures, a Houston venture studio focused on advancing immigrant-founded technology. As founding partner of the organization, Zhang explains some of the unique challenges immigrant founders face on the show — and why Houston is a prime location to foster this kind of community.

"We were motivated to bridge the gap between academia and business to facilitate commercialization process, but especially with the global market in mind," Zhang says. "Houston is the number one diverse city in the United States and the number one city in the US for foreign business."

Zhang, who's also leading the steering committee of Houston Women in VC, a networking group for female investors that meets the second Tuesday of each month, says Houston has momentum going into 2024, a year she says is particularly promising for innovation ecosystems.

"I believe in Houston – I believe in emerging ecosystems in general," she says. "I think this year is going to be the rise of emerging ecosystems.

"It's up to us to tell our story so that we can attract more global wealth and global talent," Zhang continues. "I definitely think Houston is the ideal destination."

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Innovative coastline project on Bolivar Peninsula receives federal funding

flood mitigation

The Galveston’s Coastal Barrier Project recently received federal funding to the tune of $500,000 to support construction on its flood mitigation plans for the area previously devastated by Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Known as Ike Dike, the proposed project includes implementing the Galveston Bay Storm Surge Barrier System, including eight Gulf and Bay defense projects. The Bolivar Roads Gate System, a two-mile-long closure structure situated between Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, is included in the plans and would protect against storm surge volumes entering the bay.

The funding support comes from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and will go toward the preconstruction engineering and design phase of Ecosystem Restoration feature G-28, the first segment of the Bolivar Peninsula and West Bay Gulf Intracoastal Waterway Shoreline and Island Protection.

Coastal Barrier Project - Galveston Projects

The project also includes protection of critical fish and wildlife habitat against coastal storms and erosion.

“The Coastal Texas Project is one of the largest projects in the history of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” says Col. Rhett A. Blackmon, USACE Galveston District commander, in a statement. “This project is important to the nation for many reasons. Not only will it reduce risk to the vulnerable populations along the Texas coast, but it will also protect vital ecosystems and economically critical infrastructure vital to the U.S. supply chain and the many global industries located here.”

Hurricane Ike resulted in over $30 billion in storm-related damages to the Texas coast, reports the Coastal Barrier Project, and created a debris line 15 feet tall and 40 miles long in Chambers County. The estimated economic disruption due to Hurricane Ike exceeded $150 billion, FEMA reported.

The project is estimated to take two years to complete after construction starts and will cost between $4 billion and $6 billion, reports Texas A&M University at Galveston.

Houston organization selects research on future foods in space health to receive $1M in funding

research and development

What would we eat if we were forced to decamp to another planet? The most immediate challenges faced by the food industry and astronauts exploring outside Earth are being addressed by The Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) at Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Space Medicine’s newest project.

Earlier this month, TRISH announced the initial selection for its Space Health Ingress Program (SHIP) solicitation. Working with California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Baylor-based program chose “Future Foods for Space: Mobilizing the Future Foods Community to Accelerate Advances in Space Health,” led by Dr. Denneal Jamison-McClung at the University of California, Davis.

“TRISH is bringing in new ideas and investigators to propel space health research,” says Catherine Domingo, TRISH operations lead and research administration associate at Baylor College of Medicine, in the release. “We have long believed that new researchers with fresh perspectives drive innovation and advance human space exploration and SHIP builds on TRISH’s existing efforts to recruit and support new investigators in the space health research field, potentially yielding and high-impact ideas to protect space explorers.”

The goal of the project is to develop sustainable food products and ingredients that could fuel future space travelers on long-term voyages, or even habitation beyond our home planet.

Jamison-McClung and her team’s goal is to enact food-related space health research and inspire the community thereof by mobilizing academic and food-industry researchers who have not previously engaged with the realm of space exploration. Besides growing and developing food products, the project will also address production, storage, and delivery of the nutrition created by the team.

To that end, Jamison-McClung and her recruits will receive $1 million over the course of two years. The goal of the SHIP solicitation is to work with first-time NASA investigators, bringing new minds to the forefront of the space health research world.

“As we look to enable safer space exploration and habitation for humans, it is clear that food and nutrition are foundational,” says Dr. Asha S. Collins, chair of the SHIP advisory board, in a press release. “We’re excited to see how accelerating innovation in food science for space health could also result in food-related innovations for people on Earth in remote areas and food deserts.”

Clean energy nonprofit CEO to step down, search for replacement to begin

moving on

Greentown Labs, which is co-located in the Boston and Houston areas, has announced its current CEO is stepping down after less than a year in the position.

The nonprofit's CEO and President Kevin Knobloch announced that he will be stepping down at the end of July 2024. Knobloch assumed his role last September, previously serving as chief of staff of the United States Department of Energy in President Barack Obama’s second term.

“It has been an honor to lead this incredible team and organization, and a true privilege to get to know many of our brilliant startup founders," Knobloch says in the news release. “Greentown is a proven leader in supporting early-stage climatetech companies and I can’t wait to see all that it will accomplish in the coming years.”

The news of Knobloch's departure comes just over a month after the organization announced that it was eliminating 30 percent of its staff, which affected 12 roles in Boston and six in Houston.

According the Greentown, its board of directors is expected to launch a national search for its next CEO.

“On behalf of the entire Board of Directors, I want to thank Kevin for his efforts to strengthen the foundation of Greentown Labs and for charting the next chapter for the organization through a strategic refresh process,” says Dawn James, Greentown Labs Board Chair, in the release. “His thoughtful leadership will leave a lasting impact on the team and community for years to come.”

Knobloch reportedly shifted Greentown's sponsorship relationships with oil companies, sparking "friction within the organization," according to the Houston Chronicle, which also reported that Knobloch said he intends to return to his clean energy consulting firm.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.