3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Kerri Smith of the Rice Alliance, Trevor Best of Syzygy Plasmonics, and Muriel Foster of gBETA Houston. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from cleantech to startup acceleration — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Kerri Smith, managing director of the Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator

Kerri Smith of the Rice Alliance joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Rice's Clean Energy Accelerator. Photo courtesy of Rice

As the managing director for the Rice Alliance for Entrepreneurship and Technology's Clean Energy Accelerator, Kerri Smith is focused not only on the program's cohorts but on supporting the Houston cleantech ecosystem as a whole. CEA works with Greentown Houston, which is just next door to the program's home at The Ion, and the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Initiative.

"Rice Alliance has a strong history of demonstrating collaboration with a number of organizations," Smith says. "I think one of the primary benefits that we have in these collaborative opportunities is to ensure that we are collectively building a capable and diverse pipeline of talent to solve for these problems and provide them with access to experiencing all of the benefits of our ecosystem."

Smith shares more about what she's looking for in the second cohort of CEA on a recent Houston Innovators Podcast episode, as well as what she sees as Houston's role in the energy transition. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Trevor Best, co-founder and CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics

Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the growth of his cleantech startup. Photo courtesy of Syzygy

Trevor Best is gearing up to fundraise for and scale his cleantech startup, Syzygy Plasmonics. The company has also grown its team to 60 people and is preparing to move into a new 45,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Pearland this summer.

"What we're seeing is the market's appetite for our kind of technology — deep tech for decarbonization in energy and chemicals — is really high. If we want to meet global demand for our product, we need to get ready to scale," Best says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Best is keeping a close eye what the market will be looking for, and the interest seems to be in hydrogen as a clean energy solution, which has positioned Syzygy in a great place. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Muriel Foster, director of gBETA Houston

Muriel Foster, a native Houstonian, is the new director of gBETA Houston. Image via LinkedIn

A national startup accelerator has announced its fifth local cohort, which includes five Houston companies participating in the spring 2022 class, and the new leader that will oversee the program. Muriel Foster is the newly named director of gBETA Houston, which is designed to help guide early-stage startups find early customer traction, connect with mentors, and more.

“The five companies selected for the Spring 2022 cohort tackle unique problems that have propelled them to create a business that solves the issues they once faced," Foster says in a news release. "From public speaking, apparel comfort, and food delivery from underrepresented restaurant owners, these founders have found their niche and are ready to continue to make an enormous impact on the Houston ecosystem."

A Houston native, she has her master’s in public administration from Texas Southern University and a bachelor’s in marketing from Oklahoma State University. Her background includes work in the nonprofit sector and international business consulting in Cape Town, South Africa, and she's worked within programming at organizations such as MassChallenge, BLCK VC, and now gener8tor. Click here to read more.

Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Syzygy

Houston cleantech company prepares to move into new facility, scale to meet global demand

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 133

When it comes to hardtech, not a lot of startups get the chance to say they're doing things cheaper than they're expected to, but Trevor Best and his clean tech startup, Syzygy Plasmonics, are in the minority there.

"One of the good things about our technology, because we use light instead of heat, we're able to build our reactors out of very low-cost materials — like aluminum and glass. So, we are continually under budget," he says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We actually only recently started spending the $23 million we raised over a year ago."

Syzygy, founded in Houston based off research from Rice University, is a chemical company that's developed a photocatalyst-powered hydrogen fuel cell technology that produces a cheaper source of energy that releases fewer carbon emissions. The company has scaled its reactor up in size and hopes the product hits the market next year. The device allows operators of plans power their facilities with a much smaller carbon footprint — at a competitive price, too.

Despite the benefits of being under budget, Best says it's not keeping him from running a full court press on fundraising and scaling for the future. Syzygy has grown its team to 60 people and is preparing to move into a new 45,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Pearland this summer.

"We're about to go out and fundraise more though," Best says on the show. "What we're seeing is the market's appetite for our kind of technology — deep tech for decarbonization in energy and chemicals — is really high. If we want to meet global demand for our product, we need to get ready to scale."

Best says he's keeping a close eye what the market will be looking for, and the interest seems to be in hydrogen as a clean energy solution, which has positioned Syzygy in a great place.

"The reason hydrogen is having a moment is because it is like a swiss army knife for fighting climate change," Best says. "There are a lot of applications for using hydrogen — to the point where I would say that I don't think planet Earth can truly decarbonize without it. That has resulted in a lot of interest in Syzygy's technology."

Best shares more about what else he's watching closely in clean tech — including carbon accounting and inconsistency in green energy solutions — as well as how the Houston innovation ecosystem has evolved over the years on the podcast episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Three Houston companies pitched their energy transition technologies at an international competition. Photo via Getty Images

3 energy transition companies with Houston ties pitch at international conference

seeing green

It's all hands on deck for pioneering technology to advance the energy transition and climatetech, and three companies with a Houston presence just took the national stage to showcase their climate change solutions.

The United Nations' 2021 COP26, hosted by the Net Zero Technology Centre in Glasgow, featured 10 startup organizations from across the globe battling it out to be crowned the Clean Energy Startup Champion.

The Ion Houston nominated five startups to the competition, and three made it to the finals. Syzygy Plasmonics, which is developing a new type of photocatalytic chemical reactor to reduce both cost and emissions for major commodity chemicals, claimed third place in the competition. The other two Ion nominees that pitched were:

  • S2G Energy, an Ion Smart Cities Accelerator participant, and cloud-based Energy Assistant platform that collects data and manages devices from almost any source to capture efficiency opportunities
  • Cemvita Factory, which applies synthetic biology to reverse climate change and transform CO2 into a usable material
"The Ion partnered with Net Zero with the vision to bring innovative and transformative startups out of the North/Central and South American market to the stage in Glasgow," says Jan E. Odegard, executive director of The Ion, in a statement. "We took a look around our own ecosystem both at The Ion and the Ion District and S2G Energy, Syzygy Plasmonics, and Cemvita Factory were easy and obvious nominations, as they were all working towards achieving net zero and are exemplars of startup innovation within our ecosystem."
Australia-based Mineral Carbonation Int'l, focused on carbon transformation, claimed first place and the title of top Clean Energy Startup Champion. PJP Eye, based in Japan and working on commercialised plant-based carbon batteries, came in second.
Syzygy Plasmonics has raised $23 million thanks to international support. Photos via plasmonics.tech

Houston alternative energy startup raises $23M series B with global support

money moves

A Houston startup founded based off research coming out of Rice University has closed its series B funding, the company announced this week.

Founded in 2017, Syzygy Plasmonics is a chemical company developing a photocatalyst-powered hydrogen fuel cell technology that produces a cheaper source of energy that releases fewer carbon emissions. As of this week, the company has $23 million more to fund its scaling and grow its team thanks to the closing of its series B financing led by Hong Kong-based Horizons Venture. Equinor Ventures, a new investor, also joined in on the round, along with previous seed and series A investors including The Engine, GOOSE Capital, and Evok Innovations.

"With renewable electricity as an energy source, our technology is cleaner, and because of the stability and activity of our photocatalysts, we can drive dozens of possibilities, tuning reactions that produce different chemicals," says Trevor Best, Syzygy Plasmonics' co-founder and CEO, in a news release. "Our initial product will focus on eliminating emissions from hydrogen production, transforming the industrial process involved in making semiconductors, LEDs and metals. Our system will also enable industries that are consumers of hydrogen fuel cells, like fuel cell vehicles."

The hydrogen-fueled technology originated out of research done over two decades by two Rice University professors, Naomi Halas and Peter Nordlander and further developed by the company's co-founder and CTO, Suman Khatiwada. The technology has the ability to both lower costs and emissions at industrial plants. According to the release, Syzygy's first product focused on hydrogen and the technology has the potential to cut the cost of zero emission hydrogen in half, when compared to other alternatives such as electrolysis.

"There are rules in chemical engineering, and you can't break them, but we follow them in a different way," CEO Trevor Best previously told InnovationMap. "What we're doing is fundamentally different. We're using light instead of heat to drive chemical reactions."

Currently, Syzygy employs 26 people and plans to double its workforce in the next year in order to launch its first full-size, commercial-ready chemical reactors in 2022.

In August of 2019, Syzygy raised its $5.8 million series A and secured Department of Energy ARPA-E and National Science Foundation SBIR Program grants.

"The keys to unlock the potential of hydrogen energy lie within production cost reduction and safety enhancements. Syzygy uses a photocatalysis process to produce H2 on premises, therefore mitigating risks of explosion imposed by the transportation of liquid hydrogen while lowering production costs to increase overall energy efficiency. This technology will be applicable to a wide-range of use-cases, enabling a faster path toward zero-emissions," says Patrick Poon of Horizons Ventures, who is also a new board member at Syzygy.

The international fundraise also attracted interest from Norway-based Equinor's venture arm, which has operations in more than 30 countries.

"We have announced our ambition to become a net-zero energy company by 2050 and in order for society at large to meet its climate goals it will require new solutions and technologies. We are pleased to announce the investment in Syzygy as one potential contributor to help the energy industry reduce emissions as part of our effort to shape the future of energy," says Gareth Burns, head of Equinor Ventures, in the release.

CERAWeek attendees identified the four energy tech companies to watch. Photo via Getty Images

Rice Alliance event identifies 4 most-promising energy tech companies at CERAWeek

startups to watch

Wondering what energy tech companies you should keep an eye on? Wonder no more.

As a part of 2021 CERAWeek by IHS Markit, the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship hosted a virtual pitch competition today featuring 20 companies in four sessions. Each entrepreneur had four minutes to pitch, and then a few more to take questions from industry experts.

"Of the companies here today, we've intentionally selected a diverse group," says Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance at the start of the event. "They range from companies looking for their seed funding to companies that have raised $20 million or more."

The following companies pitched at the event: Acoustic Wells, ALLY ENERGY, Bluefield Technologies, Cemvita Factory, Connectus Global, Damorphe, Ovopod Ltd., DrillDocs, GreenFire Energy, inerG, Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, Nesh, Pythias Analytics, REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, Revterra, ROCSOLE, Senslytics, Subsea Micropiles, Syzygy Plasmonics, Transitional Energy, and Universal Subsea.

At the end of each session, attendees voted via Zoom poll on which startup had the most potential. According to the event attendees, the most promising energy tech companies are:

REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies

Asheville, North Carolina-based REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, an inaugural Greentown Houston member company, is working to "put a green spin on power." The company's micro-Expansion Turbine System produces green power for digital oilfield and pipeline initiatives through the recovery of excess natural gas pressure.

"RTT's technology provides a scalable, clean energy source to reliably power digital oilfield and pipeline initiatives at a significantly low operating cost," says Christopher Bean, founder and CEO, in his presentation. "Never has it been more important to make production and pipeline operations greener, safer, and efficient."

Connectus Global

Connectus Global, based in Calgary, provides custom technology solutions that can increase productivity, profits, and competitiveness. Connectus' Real-Time Location System, or RTLS, uses Ultra-Wide Band for communication and triangulation while hosting a Radio Frequency Identification Device, which come in the form of badges, tags, and receivers.

"In our first year, we received $800,000 in revenue and are on track to hit our numbers — $3.6 million — at the end of this fiscal year," says Mike Anderson, CEO of the company, in his presentation." We have a global white labeling agreement with Honeywell and we make up about 75 percent of their digitized workforce management portfolio."

The company's U.S. office is located in Houston.

DrillDocs

Houston-based DrillDocs has created an automated drilling cuttings characterization service, called CleanSight, that supports an operator's understanding of their wellbore's state of stability and cleanness in real time.

"We're taking computer vision to the drilling rig," says Calvin Holt, CEO and co-founder at DrillDocs, in his presentation. "Now for the first time, drilling and geomechanics teams will have unique, real-time data to ascertain the well's condition."

Revterra

Revterra, a Houston-based company and inaugural Greentown Houston member company, is creating a flywheel energy storage system for long-duration grid-scale applications.

"For those of us in Texas, the power outages we experienced a couple weeks ago are a stark reminder that the stability and the resiliency of our electric grid should be a top priority as we transition to low-emission power sources," says Ben Jawdat, founder and CEO at Revterra, in his presentation. "Energy storage is a critical element in both grid stability and enabling our transition to sustainable energy."

Here's what not to miss at the first all-virtual CERAWeek by IHS Markit. Screenshot via virtual.ceraweek.com

5 can't-miss innovation events at CERAWeek featuring Houston speakers

where to be online

While usually hundreds of energy experts, C-level executives, diplomats, members of royal families, and more descend upon Houston for the the annual CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference, this year will be a little different. Canceled last year due to COVID-19, CERAWeek is returning — completely virtually.

The Agora track is back and focused on innovation within the energy sector. The Agora track's events — thought-provoking panels, intimate pods, and corporate-hosted "houses" — can be accessed through a virtual atrium.

Undoubtedly, many of the panels will have Houston representatives considering Houston's dominance in the industry, but here are five innovation-focused events you can't miss during CERAWeek that feature Houstonians.

Monday — New Horizons for Energy & Climate Research

The COVID-19 pandemic has made vivid and real the risks of an uncontrolled virus. Risks posed by climate change are also becoming more palpable every day. At the forefront of understanding these risks, universities are developing solutions by connecting science, engineering, business, and public policy disciplines. Along with industry and governments, universities are critical to developing affordable and sustainable solutions to meet the world's energy needs and achieve net-zero emission goals. Can the dual challenge of more energy and lower emissions be met? What is some of the most promising energy and climate research at universities? Beyond research, what are the roles and responsibilities of universities in the energy transition?

Featuring: Kenneth B. Medlock, III, James A. Baker, III, and Susan G. Baker Fellow In Energy And Resource Economics, Baker Institute and Senior Director, Center For Energy Studies at Rice University

Catch the panel at 1 pm on Monday, March 1. Learn more.

Tuesday — Conversations in Cleantech: Powering the energy transition

With renewables investment outperforming oil and gas investment for the first time ever in the middle of a pandemic, 2020 was a tipping point in the Energy Transition. Low oil prices intensified energy majors' attention on diversification and expansion into mature and emerging clean technologies such as battery storage, low-carbon hydrogen, and carbon removal technologies. Yet, the magnitude of the Energy Transition challenge requires an acceleration of strategic decisions on the technologies needed to make it happen, policy frameworks to promote public-private partnerships, and innovative investment schemes.

Three Cleantech leaders share their challenges, successes, and lessons learned at the forefront of the Energy Transition. What is their vision and strategy to accelerate lowering emissions and confronting climate change? Can companies develop clear strategies for cleantech investments that balance sustainability goals and corporate returns? What is the value of increasing leadership diversity for energy corporations? Can the Energy Transition be truly transformational without an inclusive workforce and a diverse leadership?

Featuring: Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, which is opening a location in Houston this year.

The event takes place at 11:30 am on Tuesday, March 2. Learn more.

Wednesday — Rice Alliance Venture Day at CERAWeek

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship pitch event will showcase 20 technology companies with new solutions for the energy industry. Each presentation will be followed by questions from a panel of industry experts.

Presenting Companies: Acoustic Wells, ALLY ENERGY, Bluefield Technologies, Cemvita Factory, Connectus Global, Damorphe, Ovopod Ltd., DrillDocs, GreenFire Energy, inerG, Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, Nesh, Pythias Analytics, REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, Revterra, ROCSOLE, Senslytics, Subsea Micropiles, Syzygy Plasmonics, Transitional Energy, and Universal Subsea.

The event takes place at 9 am on Wednesday, March 3. Learn more.

Thursday — How Will the Energy Innovation Ecosystem Evolve?

Although the cleantech innovation ecosystem—research institutions, entrepreneurs, financiers, and support institutions—is diverse and productive, converting cleantech discoveries and research breakthroughs into commercially viable, transformative energy systems has proven difficult. With incumbent energy systems economically efficient and deeply entrenched, cleantech innovation faces a fundamental dilemma—the scale economies necessary to compete require a large customer base that does not yet exist. How is our clean energy innovation ecosystem equipped to be transformative? What needs to be strengthened? Is it profitable to focus on individual elements, or should we consider the system holistically, and reframe our expectations?

Featuring: Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president at Chevron Technology Ventures

The event takes place at 7:30 am on Thursday, March 4. Learn more.

Friday — Cities: Managing crises & the future of energy

Houston is the capital of global energy and for the past four decades the home of CERAWeek. Mayor Sylvester Turner will share lessons from the city's experience with the pandemic, discuss leadership strategies during times of crisis, and explore Houston's evolving role in the new map of energy.

The event takes place at 8 am on Friday, March 5. Learn more.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Rice University rises to No. 1 spot in new ranking of best college investments

money moves

By one measure, earning a degree at Rice University is the smartest move in the Lone Star State.

In its eighth annual ranking of colleges and university that give students the best return on their educational investment, personal finance website SmartAsset places Rice at No. 1 in Texas and No. 10 in the U.S. It’s the only Texas school to break into the national top 10.

To determine the best-value colleges and universities in each state, SmartAsset crunched data in these categories: scholarships and grants, starting salary for new graduates, tuition, living costs, and retention rate.

While the tuition ($47,350) and student living costs ($17,800) at Rice are the highest among the top 10 Texas schools on the list, the average amount of scholarships and grants ($43,615), average starting salary ($77,900), and retention rate (97 percent) also are among the highest.

According to Rice, tuition, fees, on-campus room and board, books, and personal expenses for the 2022-23 academic year add up to $74,110. That figure, which excludes financial aid, applies to a full-time, degree-seeking student living on campus.

“Rice University is consistently ranked as a best value in higher education and is one of America’s leading teaching and research universities,” the school’s Office of Financial Aid says. “By attending Rice, you will not only receive a superior education at a reasonable cost, you also will benefit from having a Rice degree long after graduation.”

Three other schools in or near the Houston metro area appear on SmartAsset’s list of the biggest-bang-for-your-buck schools in Texas:

  • Prairie View A&M University, No. 4. The university posted the lowest retention rate (74 percent) among the 10 schools. The remaining figures sit roughly in the middle of the pack.
  • University of Houston, No. 5. The university’s tuition ($8,913) was the lowest in the top 10, as was the average amount of scholarships and grants ($6,544).
  • Texas A&M University-College Station, No. 6. The university’s living costs are the second highest among the top 10 ($17,636), while its average starting salary for new grads lands at No. 3 ($64,400).

Other schools in the state’s top 10 are:

  • University of Texas at Austin, No. 2.
  • University of Texas at Dallas (Richardson), No. 3.
  • Texas Tech University in Lubbock, No. 7.
  • LeTourneau University in Longview, No. 8.
  • University of North Texas in Denton, No. 9.
  • Texas State University in San Marcos, No. 10.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston expert addresses the growing labor shortage within health care

guest column

Long before COVID-19 became a part of our new normal, the concerns around shortages in health care staffing were present.

To put this in real terms, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the latest projection of employment through the end of this decade is an increase of nearly 12 million jobs. A fourth of those — 3.3 million to be exact — are expected to go towards health care and social assistance roles.

Before the pandemic, the concerns centered around managing a growing retired population and a slowing in higher education nurse enrollment. Then amid the growing shortage concerns surrounding the support for aging baby boomers, we were all thrusted into a pandemic.

The stressors on health care professional staffing have doubled down and what the increased shortage has shown us is the need to intervene and change the traditional hiring practices. Speed to place a nurse on assignment doesn’t just ensure productivity — it is a matter of life or death.

Over the past several years, the evolution of technology has drastically changed how health care facilities operate and interact with their employees as well as patients. There was a point in time where the structure in health care staffing was rigid without flexibility or varieties of employment type. Conversations around travel positions, per diem, and permanent are all now commonplace as the recent shortages caused us to normalize the discussion around role type and use of technology to influence speed to hire.

This whole evolution was put to test when April 2020 came, and the initial brunt of the pandemic was in full swing. The entire world was in panic mode. During these quarantine times, we were in a state of a health care emergency with thousands of patients seeking health care. Unfortunately, hospitals could not keep up with this demand with their existing nurse professionals, and became severely overloaded and dangerous. Due to this the United States saw unprecedented labor shortages, impacting a large number of nurses and health care workers as it pertains to both their physical and mental health.

What we are seeing now is a period classified as the “The Great Rethinking,” where nurses and health care workers alike are speaking up for what they believe in and deserve. Salary transparency and flexibility are just the tip of the iceberg for this movement.

SkillGigs is unique in that we are giving the power back to registered nurses and health care professionals, while meeting the demand created by the pandemic. Our team has been fortunate to be a catalyst to direct the change in the future of work, and we look forward to continuing to innovate.

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Bryan Groom is the division president of health care at Houston-based SkillGigs.

Houston energy giant expands implementation of Canadian startup's tech

big, big energy

CruxOCM, a startup with a significant Houston presence that specializes in robotic industrial process automation for energy companies, has secured even more business from energy giant Phillips 66.

The value of the deal wasn’t disclosed.

Houston-based Phillips 66 has agreed to expand it use of CruxOCM’s pipeBOT technology to cover even more pipelines. The pipeBOT technology is designed to improve the safety and efficiency of control room operations for pipelines and reduce control room costs.

CruxOCM and Phillips 66 launched a test of pipeBOT in 2020.

CruxOCM, based in Calgary, Canada, says pipeBOT is engineered to decrease manual controls through intelligent automation. With this technology in place, the fatigue of control room operators declines, because as many as 85 percent fewer manual commands must be entered, according to CruxOCM. Therefore, control room operators can focus on higher-level tasks.

“At CruxOCM, we empower control room operators with modern software that enables the autonomous control rooms of tomorrow, within the safety constraints of today. We look forward to continuing to strengthen our relationship with Phillips 66 for many years to come,” Adam Marsden, chief revenue officer at CruxOCM, says in a news release.

Founded in 2017, Crux OCM (Crux Operations Control Management) established its Houston presence last year. Also in 2021, the startup raised $6 million in venture capital in a “seed extension” funding round. Bullpen Capital led the round, with participation from Angular Ventures, Root Ventures, Golden Ventures, Cendana Capital, and Industry Ventures.

In 2019, Angular Ventures and Root Ventures co-led a $2.6 million funding round.