This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Tammi Wallace of the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce, Adam Putterman of OURS, and Ghazal Qureshi of UpBrainery. 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 edtech to mental health — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Tammi Wallace, co-founder of the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce

Tammi Wallace of the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce was a panelist on The Ion's Pride in Tech event. Photo via LinkedIn

There are a few days left in Pride Month, and Houston's tech community came together last week to celebrate — but also discuss some of the challenges within the ecosystem for LGBTQIA+ entrepreneurs.

In a Q&A with InnovationMap, Tammi Wallace, co-founder of the Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce, shared her advice for LGBTQIA+ innovators and allies.

"Get involved with the Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce," she says. "Since 2016, the chamber has been working to build a strong community to support LGBTQIA+ entrepreneurs and get them access to resources to help their businesses grow and thrive." Click here to read more.

Adam Putterman, co-founder of OURS

Adam Putterman, co-founder of OURS, shares how he jumped on the opportunity that is innovating the future of relationship health. Photo courtesy of OURS

More than ever before, people are warming up to the idea of seeking professional health care for more than just their bodies, Adam Putterman, co-founder of OURS says on the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"We've seen a massive shift in the perception of counseling and therapy — and, more importantly, all the aspects of health that are not just your body," he explains. "It's no longer just going to the gym, it's meditating, coaching for a professional field. We've found that people are taking that mindset and applying it to their relationship as well."

After launching its beta in 2020, OURS worked in stealth to develop its product, which officially launched in May. The platform costs $400 for a four-week program that includes six personalized interactive sessions with an OURS guide at the helm of the experience. These one-hour technology-powered sessions are based around an innovative new technology, called Loveware, and include dynamic and meaningful conversations between a couple that are built around the magic that comes from being in the room with an expert. Click here to listen to the full episode and read more.

Ghazal Qureshi, founder and CEO of UpBrainery

Innovations like artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and machine learning certainly have advantages in the edtech sector. Photo courtesy

The education community is facing big changes thanks to technology and new innovations. In a guest column for InnovationMap, Ghazal Qureshi — founder and CEO of UpBrainery, a Houston-based immersive educational technology platform — shares how things like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and more have the potential to impact the sector.

"AI has created benefits for educators as well, such as it has created a task automation system in which all kinds of daily mundane tasks including grading papers, admin work, replying to queries, etc. have been directly automated," she writes. "Although adopting cutting-edge technology in the educational industry for most institutions is certainly not a piece of cake as it is time-consuming and very costly." Click here to read more.

Tammi Wallace of the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce is a panelist on The Ion's Pride in Tech event. Photo via LinkedIn

Q&A: How the Houston tech community can support LGBTQIA+ innovators

pride month

It's Pride Month, and the Houston tech community is celebrating its LGBTQIA+ community — as well as addressing some challenges faced within the business arena.

The Ion Houston, Austin-based Pride.VC, and Houston-based Sesh Coworking are collaborating on a Pride in Tech event, tomorrow, June 24, at noon at the Ion. It's free to attend and all is welcome. The Ion is also encouraging attendees to come early for a cup of coffee at Common Bond for the weekly Cup of Joey networking happy hour from 8:30 to 10:30 am.

The event will feature a panel moderated by Sesh's Maggie Segrich and Meredith Wheeler, and will tackle topics around how Houston can do more to build a truly inclusive business community. The panelists include

Wallace, who co-founded the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce in 2016, joined InnovationMap for a quick Q&A ahead of the event.

InnovationMap: What kind of challenges do LGBTQIA+ founders in Houston face these days?

Tammi Wallace: First, LGBTQIA+ founders need to be at the table and have a voice. When we launched the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce in 2016, our primary goal was to make sure we were seen, heard and engaged.

A seat and a voice at the table matters because LGBTQIA+ founders often lack visibility in the broader economic ecosystem and continue to experience discrimination. This means they cannot engage with their full and authentic selves as entrepreneurs and experience unique challenges. More specifically, they face challenges with access to venture capital and angel investment funds and these entrepreneurs lack strong LGBTQIA+ role models and mentors.

In fact, some LGBTQIA+ business owners never come out because they fear losing customers or clients. We hear stories all the time about LGBTQIA+ founders not seeking either traditional or non-traditional funding because they fear that they will have to out themselves in the process and fear discrimination and a lack of acceptance in the process. Disclosing personal information, such as financial information, in some cases, can effectively out them as an LGBTQIA+ person. Funding paths must be fully inclusive and ensure that the process is viewed from the lens of the LGBTQIA+ entrepreneur and how that can impact their access to capital.


    IM: How would you recommend these founders find the community and support they are looking for? 

    TW: Definitely get involved with the Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce. Since 2016, the chamber has been working to build a strong community to support LGBTQIA+ entrepreneurs and get them access to resources to help their businesses grow and thrive.

    We create connections and give LGBTQIA+ entrepreneurs a space and place to walk through the door as their full and authentic selves. Through the Chamber, LGBTQIA+ founders can find support, whether from other entrepreneurs, mentors and Corporate Partners. We collaborate with the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) as well as the other LGBTQIA+ chambers in Texas to drive connections and build a strong LGBTQIA+ business network across the country and the state.

    We encourage LGBTQIA+ businesses to get LGBTBE® Certified as well which offers even more connection with other certified businesses, major corporations and other key stakeholders and mentoring opportunities with major companies. We can help these founders get started with the LGBTBE® certification process and tap into national, regional and statewide resources.

    IM: How do you recommend startup development organizations, investors, and other businesses become better allies to the LGBTQIA+ startup community? 

    TW: Ensure that LGBTQIA+ entrepreneurs and business and community leaders are engaged with your organization. Organizations like the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce and the Ion are working "boots on the ground" to support the LGBTQIA+ business community and can offer the opportunity for meaningful collaboration. We also recommend advocating for others -- when you are around a table, look around and if the LGBTQIA+ community is not being represented, ask why.

    If representation is around the table, be intentional to ensure that we have a voice. As organizations that are involved in Houston's economic ecosystem, be strong and visible advocates for the LGBTQIA+ business community through engagement of businesses and the Chamber throughout the year. Be engaged -- not just during Pride Month, but twelve months out of the year.

    Whether a startup, investor or a business, you can help raise the profile for LGBTQIA+ businesses and the LGBTQIA+ business movement.

    Supporting LGBT-founded startups is crucial to Houston business success. Ylanite Koppens/Pexels

    Houston business leader on the importance of engaging the LGBTQ community

    Pride Month

    When we think about different groups within the business ecosystem in our region, the LGBTQ business community historically has not been at the table. As we close this year's Pride Month, it's time to reflect on the the importance the LGBTQ population has within Houston and local businesses.

    While the LGBTQ community has realized historic gains, such as marriage equality, serious gaps in legal protections remain, resulting in discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. In fact, there are twenty-nine states where a person can be fired for their sexual orientation or gender identity. That kind of job insecurity coupled with an entrepreneurial spirit has driven many in the LGBTQ community to start their own businesses.

    Many LGBTQ-owned businesses in the region are obtaining the LGBTBE® certification, opening the door for these business owners to participate in corporate supplier diversity programs such as those offered by Fortune 500 corporations like Bank of America, Chevron, Shell. and United. These and many other companies greatly value diverse suppliers as part of their supply chain inclusivity goals and they embrace the diversity that LGBTQ businesses bring as part of that inclusion equation. The LGBTBE® certification is part of supplier diversity and inclusion programs that typically include participation of businesses owned by minorities, veterans, and women as examples.

    The Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce is hosting its annual Pride in Business Celebration on Friday, June 28, at 5:30 pm at the Hyatt Regency Houston. Click here for more information.

    Why get certified?

    Traditionally, LGBTQ business owners have been excluded from these opportunities within the broader business community and many have stayed in the closet because of the fear of losing clients, employees, and revenue. In fact, many LGBTQ business owners can experience a coming out process in their professional life that is entirely different from the one they have experienced in their personal life. The LGBTBE® certification gives LGBTQ owned businesses an opportunity to participate in contracting opportunities and to be valued for the service or product they provide, as well as because of who they are as LGBTQ suppliers and as part of an ecosystem of diverse entrepreneurs.

    How does a business qualify for the certification?

    A company must be at least 51 percent LGBTQ-owned, operated, managed, and controlled along with other criteria comparable to similar certification programs. The certifying body for the LGBTBE® certification is the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC). In order to get certified, a business owner should complete the application through the NGLCC.

    Greater Houston LGBT Chamber members are eligible for a fee waiver, as part of the Houston chamber's affiliate relationship with the NGLCC. This is a "win-win" for businesses with the waiver of the fee and the opportunity to take advantage of the many benefits and support offered to LGBTQ entrepreneurs through the Chamber.

    What's the impact?

    Making sure that the LGBTQ business community has access to economic opportunity is good for business and good our region. Looking forward to the goal of full and equal rights for the LGBTQ community, economic opportunity is a key milestone for LGBTQ entrepreneurs and the community as a whole. The LGBTQ business community is part of the economic fabric in our region and key to Houston's economic success.

    While the LGBTQ business community is poised for tremendous growth in the region as corporations and consumers seek out LGBTQ-supportive businesses, the traditional barriers for LGBTQ-owned businesses must be removed and economic opportunity a priority whether through the LGBTBE® certification or actively engaging LGBTQ entrepreneurs with the broader business community.


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    Tammi Wallace is the co-founder and board chair of the Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce. She is also the founder and principal consultant of EnFocus Group, which connects organizations to the power of LGBTQ diversity and inclusion through training and consulting.

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

    brainiac

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

    on the rise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    RESULTS ARE IN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.