Moji Karimi joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share how Cemvita has evolved with three distinct lines of energy transition businesses. Photo courtesy of Digital Wildcatters

A lot has changed since Moji Karimi co-founded his biotech company Cemvita with his sister Tara in 2017. In fact, a lot has changed just in 2023 — for Cemvita, for the energy transition, and for world as a whole.

In the past year, Cemvita has evolved its business to target three verticals, all within the company's mission of using synthetic biology to create solutions for the energy transition. Now, as Karimi explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast, Cemvita is a startup of startups.

Its eCO2 business line targets carbon dioxide utilization for feedstock, the technology's legacy application. But this year, Cemvita spun out its gold hydrogen arm into Gold H2, which has celebrated a successful pilot in the Permian Basin and raised early-stage funding. Cemvita has another vertical, a resource mining operation — under its Endolith spinoff — that operates out of a satellite office in Colorado.

While tackling the various verticals might seem ambitious, Karimi explains that they are all aligned with Cemvita's core mission and technology.

"If you think about it, everything we're doing has something to do with nature," he says on the show. "Environmental microbiology, biotech, and synthetic biology — it's now available, and we have the tools to do it. We want to be the company that goes and finds those applications and translates it from the idea and the science to the technology, and then scale it up into the engineer solution."



The way Cemvita is doing it is through partnerships. Karimi says he doesn't care about his logo being on the side of his plant, rather that a company can take the technology and apply it on a greater scale.

"The core of what we do is collaboration," he says. "What we care about is for the solutions to come to life."

Cemvita has a longstanding partnership with Oxy, first as an early investor in 2019, and later committing to establishing a plant around Cemvita's CO2-converting tech. Similarly, United Airlines invested in Cemvita before securing a massive offtake agreement with the airline for sustainable aviation fuel.

On the podcast, Karimi share some of his advice and observations on tackling startup-corporate relationships, as well as how these partnerships will continue in the new year. Karimi described 2023 as a year of resiliency, and he has big plans to deliver on for 2024.

"This next year is all about focused execution," he says, noting specifically a pre-commercial demo plant for CO2 utilization, a gold hydrogen field trial to prove out tech for Gold H2, and ongoing speed column tests for Endolith.

"We're graduating from the startup phase," Karimi says. "We need to make sure we don't lose the agility of being a startup."

United Airlines is interested in buying Cemvita's sustainable aviation fuel when it's produced. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Houston startup with sustainable biotech solutions lands new customer in United Airlines

ready for takeoff

An innovative Houston company is celebrating a new deal with a global airline.

Cemvita Corp. announced a new offtake arrangement with United Airlines. Cemvita's first full-scale sustainable aviation fuel plant will provide up to 1 billion gallons of SAF to United Airlines. The 20-year contract specifies that Cemvita will supply up to 50 million gallons annually to United.

It's not the first collaboration Cemvita has had with the airline. Last year, United invested in the biotech company, which used the funding to open its Houston pilot plant.

“Since our initial investment last year, Cemvita has made outstanding progress, including opening their new pilot plant – an important step towards producing sustainable aviation fuel,” United Airlines Ventures President Michael Leskinen says in a news release. “United is the global aviation leader in SAF production investment, but we face a real shortage of available fuel and producers. Cemvita’s technology represents a path forward for a potentially significant supply of SAF and it’s our hope that this offtake agreement for up to one billion gallons is just the beginning of our collaboration.”

Founded in Houston in 2017 by brother-sister team Moji and Tara Karimi, Cemvita's biotechnology can mimic the photosynthesis process, turning carbon dioxide into feedstock. The company's SAF plan hopes to increase reliability of existing SAFs and lower impact of fuel creation.

“Biology is capable of truly amazing things,” Moji Karimi, CEO of Cemvita, says in the release. “Our team of passionate, pioneering, and persistent scientists and engineers are on a mission to create sustainable BioSolutions that redefine possibilities.”

“We are thrilled to partner with United Airlines in working towards transforming the aviation industry and accelerating the energy transition,” he continues. “This agreement featuring our unique SAF platform is a major milestone towards demonstrating our journey to full commercialization.”

Earlier this year, United, which was reportedly the first airline to announce its goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, launched its UAV Sustainable Flight FundSM. The fund, which named Cemvita to its inaugural group of portfolio companies, has raised over $200 million, as of this summer.

Moji and Tara Karimi co-founded Cemvita in 2017. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

The opening of the pilot plant marks the debut of Cemvita’s eCO2 business as a wholly owned subsidiary. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Fast-growing startup with carbon-free solution sets up pilot plant in Houston

big moves

Cleantech startup Cemvita has set up a pilot plant in its hometown of Houston to develop technology for converting carbon emissions as feedstock to make products like fertilizer, plastics, methane, and fuel.

The opening of the pilot plant marks the debut of Cemvita’s eCO2 business as a wholly owned subsidiary. The term eCO2 refers to equivalent carbon dioxide, or a way to measure a combination of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

With a capacity of more than 14,000 gallons, the plant is producing eCO2 oil, an alternative to soybean oil. The company already is shipping samples of eCO2 products to customers, including renewable-fuel companies and plastics manufacturers.

Cemvita says the biofuel industry is facing feedstock shortages and price fluctuations. Biofuel feedstocks produce starches or sugars that can be converted to produce ethanol, while others produce oil that can be used in biodiesel production, according to the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) program.

“Traditional biofuels, including renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel, have relied on oils derived from crops, such as soybean and corn, as well as recycled vegetable oils,” Cemvita says. “As demand grows for petroleum-free alternatives, feedstock is in short supply and must compete with food markets. Crops of soybeans, sugar, and corn use huge swaths of land, and the raw materials require extensive refining — two factors that impede the processes from being sustainable.”

By contrast, eCO2 plants like Cemvita’s can supply feedstock production with minimal land and electricity requirements, and without relying on hydrogen or sunlight, the company says. Furthermore, the output of eCO2 plants is designed to carbon-negative, not just carbon-neutral.

Cemvita’s eCO2 biomanufacturing platform uses engineered microbes that absorb and convert carbon dioxide into feedstocks and finished products.

“The energy transition requires completely new, cost-effective approaches for heavy industry,” Charlie Nelson, chief operating officer of Cemvita, says in a news release. “We built this next-generation pilot plant in response to strong demand from … partners who are actively seeking sustainable solutions to the … feedstock shortage.”

Brother-and-sister team Moji and Tara Karimi founded Cemvita in 2017.

Investors in Cemvita include Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, an investment arm of Houston-based Occidental Petroleum, as well as BHP Group, Mitsubishi, and United Airlines Ventures.

Oxy Low Carbon Ventures and United Airlines Ventures are financing Cemvita’s work on sustainable jet fuel. United Airlines operates a hub at George Bush Intercontinental Airport Houston.

Cemvita has some news regarding its C-level execs. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Houston biotech company expands leadership team

growing biz

An innovative Houston startup that's working with energy companies to decarbonize their operations has made changes to its C-suite.

Tara Karimi, who co-founded Cemvita with her brother Moji, has transition to the company's chief science officer. Liz Dennett has been hired to Karimi's previous role of CTO. The changes enable Karimi to focus on leading Cemvita's scientific research and development efforts as well as participating in driving innovation within the biotech industry as a whole, according to the company's press release.

"I'm excited to take on the role of chief science officer at Cemvita and what it represents for our company's growth," says Karimi in the release. "As chief science officer, I look forward to shaping policy and driving the conversation around the role of biotechnology in the energy transition."

As CTO, Dennett will lead the development of Cemvita's unique biotech products that tap into microbes to decarbonize operations on energy plants. Most recently, Dennett was vice president of data architecture and data engineering at Wood Mackenzie. She previously worked in tech and sustainability-focused roles at Hess Corp., Biota Technology, and Amazon Web Services.

“Working with biological systems presents a unique challenge but also a unique opportunity," says Dennett in the release. "It’s uniquely difficult to go from benchtop to in-situ reactors or oil wells with microbes and to achieve the kind of incredible results that we’re seeing in the lab. You need to build teams with deep specializations in chemistry, biology, energy systems, and geology.”

Dennett, who has her PhD and Master's from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has served on Cemvita's advisory board for about a year, will report to CEO Moji Karimi directly.

“I know that Tara and Liz are going to make history at Cemvita,” says Moji Karimi in the release. “With 15 years of experience using data-driven approaches to solve pressing energy challenges, Liz brings to bear the kind of creativity and expertise that can quickly and meaningfully advance Cemvita’s impact on the Energy Transition.”

At a recent SXSW panel, four Houston energy experts discussed the importance of research, commercialization, and more in Houston to drive the energy transition. Photo via Getty Images

Experts address Houston's energy transition role — from research to commercialization

Houston @ SXSW

Every part of the energy industry is going to have a role in the energy transition — from the universities where the research and development is happening to the startups and the incumbent industry leaders, as a recent SXSW panel discussed.

“We are well known in Houston for being the energy capital of the world," Jane Stricker, executive director of the Houston Energy Transition Initiative, says as moderator of the panel. "The industry typically comes together with stakeholders to think about the solutions and how to solve this dual challenge of continuing to provide more energy to the world but doing it in a way that significantly reduces emissions at the same time.”

The panel, entitled "Ground Zero: Creating Pathways from Research to Scale Deployment," was put on by HETI, an organization under the Greater Houston Partnership, and took place Sunday, March 12, in Austin at SXSW.

“I often say that I believe Houston is ground zero for the transition because we have this unique combination of assets, infrastructure, innovation, research at universities, and a collective understanding of the importance of energy to people’s lives that allows us to tackle this problem in new ways," she continues.

Sticker was joined by Paul Cherukuri, vice president for innovation at Rice University; Juliana Garaizar, chief development and investment officer at Greentown Labs; and Tara Karimi, co-founder and CTO of Cemvita Factory. The panel highlighted the challenges facing Houston as it promises to lead the energy transition.

For Cherukuri, whose innovation-focused position was newly created when he was appointed to it last August, it's a pivotal moment for research institutions.

"It's really an exciting time in Houston because universities are changing," says Cherukuri. "Rice University itself is changing in dramatic ways, and it's a great opportunity to really plug into the energy transition inside of Houston."

The role he plays, as he explains, is to connect Rice innovators to the rest of the city and the world.

"We have to partner through the accelerators as well as with with companies who can catch what we've made and take it to scale," he continues. "That's uniquely something that we can do in Houston. It's not something that a lot of cities can do."

Representing the scaling efforts is Greentown Labs, and Garaizar explains how the Massachusetts-based organization, which has its second outpost in Houston, connects its member companies to corporate partners that can become funders, pilot partners, customers, and more. But scaling can only be accomplished with the right technologies and the proper funding behind them.

"Sixty percent of the technologies that are going to be used to decarbonize the world haven't yet been invented," she says on the panel. "So, there's a huge pull for technology right now. And we see people who are only on the private equity space now finally invested in a lot of earlier series like series A, but there's still some road to to be made there."

Houston-based Cemvita Factory is in the scale phase, and Karimi explains how she's actively working with companies to apply the company's unique biotechnology to convert CO2 to natural resources to accommodate each customer's needs. Cemvita is on the front lines of interacting with incumbent energy businesses that play a major role in the future of energy.

"The way we communicate with energy companies, we tell them that us to be the innovation arm for you and we work together," Karimi says. "I think it's everybody needs to understand it's a transition. There is no way to just change the way that chemicals are produced just immediately and replace it with something new. It's a transition that needs both aspects."

The United and Occidental investment arms are planning to form a joint venture to commercialize the technology. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Houston biotech startup scores $5M to fuel sustainable aviation innovation

seeing green

Houston cleantech startup Cemvita Factory has scored a $5 million investment from United Airlines Ventures, the venture capital fund of the Chicago-based airline.

The equity investment is aimed at propelling commercialization of sustainable aviation fuel through a process involving carbon dioxide (CO2) and synthetic microbes.

Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, a subsidiary of Houston-based Occidental Petroleum that’s a founding investor in Cemvita, and United Airlines Ventures are financing the startup’s work on sustainable jet fuel. United Airlines operates a hub at George Bush Intercontinental/Houston Airport.

If that work pans out, the United and Occidental investment arms plan to form a joint venture to commercialize the technology. The joint venture might include construction of plants for the production of sustainable aviation fuel.

Sustainable aviation fuel, known as SAF, is an alternative to jet fuel that uses non-petroleum feedstock and offers lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Founded by brother-sister team Moji and Tara Karimi in 2017, Cemvita Factory relies on synthetic biology to turn carbon dioxide into chemicals and alternative fuels, including SAF. The startup, founded in 2017, is among the first companies to employ this technology to support heavy-industry decarbonization and find ways to take advantage of microbiology to convert CO2 into fuel.

“The use of SAF is a promising approach that we believe can significantly reduce global emissions from aviation and further decarbonization initiatives to combat climate change,” Richard Jackson, president of operations for U.S. onshore resources and carbon management at Occidental, says in a news release.

Cemvita is the third SAF-related startup to receive an investment from United Airlines Ventures.

The partnership among Cemvita, Occidental, and United is among many initiatives seeking to ramp up production of SAF. For instance, the U.S. Department of Energy is collaborating with the U.S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other federal agencies to develop a strategy for scaling SAF technology.

The global SAF market is projected to grow from $219 million in 2021 to more than $15.7 billion by 2030, according to Research and Markets.

The International Air Transport Association says more than 370,000 flights have been fueled by SAF since 2016. Over 26.4 million gallons of SAF were produced last year.

Last month in France, aircraft manufacturer Airbus flew a A380 test jet for about three hours with one of the four engines operating solely on SAF. The three other engines ran on conventional fuel.

In December 2021, United flew a 737 MAX 8 jet from Chicago O’Hare International Airport to Washington Reagan National Airport outside Washington, D.C., with one of the two engines operating only on SAF. It was the first commercial flight with passengers aboard to use SAF in that capacity. The other engine ran on conventional fuel.

United CEO Scott Kirby, who was aboard the historic flight, said the flight was “not only a significant milestone for efforts to decarbonize our industry, but when combined with the surge in industry commitments to produce and purchase alternative fuels, we’re demonstrating the scalable and impactful way companies can join together and play a role in addressing the biggest challenge of our lifetimes.”

For now, airlines are allowed to use up SAF for up to 50 percent of the fuel on commercial flights.

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Exclusive: Houston hydrogen spinout names energy industry veteran as CEO

good as gold

Cleantech startup Gold H2, a spinout of Houston-based energy biotech company Cemvita, has named oil and gas industry veteran Prabhdeep Singh Sekhon as its CEO.

Sekhon previously held roles at companies such as NextEra Energy Resources and Hess. Most recently, he was a leader on NextEra’s strategy and business development team.

Gold H2 uses microbes to convert oil and gas in old, uneconomical wells into clean hydrogen. The approach to generating clean hydrogen is part of a multibillion-dollar market.

Gold H2 spun out of Cemvita last year with Moji Karimi, co-founder of Cemvita, leading the transition. Gold H2 spun out after successfully piloting its microbial hydrogen technology, producing hydrogen below 80 cents per kilogram.

The Gold H2 venture had been a business unit within Cemvita.

“I was drawn to Gold H2 because of its innovative mission to support the U.S. economy in this historical energy transition,” Sekhon says in a news release. “Over the last few years, my team [at NextEra] was heavily focused on the commercialization of clean hydrogen. When I came across Gold H2, it was clear that it was superior to each of its counterparts in both cost and [carbon intensity].”

Gold H2 explains that oil and gas companies have wrestled for decades with what to do with exhausted oil fields. With Gold H2’s first-of-its-kind biotechnology, these companies can find productive uses for oil wells by producing clean hydrogen at a low cost, the startup says.

“There is so much opportunity ahead of Gold H2 as the first company to use microbes in the subsurface to create a clean energy source,” Sekhon says. “Driving this dynamic industry change to empower clean hydrogen fuel production will be extremely rewarding.”

In 2022, Gold H2 celebrated its successful Permian Basin pilot and raised early-stage funding. In addition to Gold H2, Cemvita also spun out a resource mining operation called Endolith. In a podcast episode, Karimi discussed Cemvita's growth and spinout opportunities.

Rice University's student startup competition names 2024 winners, awards $100,000 in prizes

taking home the W

A group of Rice University student-founded companies shared $100,000 of cash prizes at an annual startup competition.

Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship's H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge, hosted by Rice earlier this month, named its winners for 2024. HEXASpec, a company that's created a new material to improve heat management for the semiconductor industry, won the top prize and $50,000 cash.

Founded by Rice Ph.D. candidates Tianshu Zhai and Chen-Yang Lin, who are a part of Lilie’s 2024 Innovation Fellows program, HEXASpec is improving efficiency and sustainability within the semiconductor industry, which usually consumes millions of gallons of water used to cool data centers. According to Rice's news release, HEXASpec's "next-generation chip packaging offer 20 times higher thermal conductivity and improved protection performance, cooling the chips faster and reducing the operational surface temperature."

The rest of the winners included:

  • Second place and $25,000: CoFlux Purification
  • Third place and $15,000: Bonfire
  • Outstanding Achievement in Social Impact Award and $1,500: EmpowerU
  • Outstanding Achievement in Artificial Intelligence and $1,000: Sups and Levytation
  • Outstanding Achievement in Consumer Goods Prize and $1,000: The Blind Bag
  • Frank Liu Jr. Prize for Creative Innovations in Music, Fashion and the Arts and $1,500: Melody
  • Outstanding Achievement in Climate Solutions Prizes and $1,000: Solidec and HEXASpec
  • Outstanding Undergraduate Startup Award and $2,500: Women’s Wave
  • Audience Choice Award and $2,000: CoFlux Purification

The NRLC, open to Rice students, is Lilie's hallmark event. Last year's winner was fashion tech startup, Goldie.

“We are the home of everything entrepreneurship, innovation and research commercialization for the entire Rice student, faculty and alumni communities,” Kyle Judah, executive director at Lilie, says in a news release. “We’re a place for you to immerse yourself in a problem you care about, to experiment, to try and fail and keep trying and trying and trying again amongst a community of fellow rebels, coloring outside the lines of convention."

This year, the competition started with 100 student venture teams before being whittled down to the final five at the championship. The program is supported by Lilie’s mentor team, Frank Liu and the Liu Family Foundation, Rice Business, Rice’s Office of Innovation, and other donors

“The heart and soul of what we’re doing to really take it to the next level with entrepreneurship here at Rice is this fantastic team,” Peter Rodriguez, dean of Rice Business, adds. “And they’re doing an outstanding job every year, reaching further, bringing in more students. My understanding is we had more than 100 teams submit applications. It’s an extraordinarily high number. It tells you a lot about what we have at Rice and what this team has been cooking and making happen here at Rice for a long, long time.”

HEXASpec was founded by Rice Ph.D. candidates Tianshu Zhai and Chen-Yang Lin, who are a part of Lilie’s 2024 Innovation Fellows program. Photo courtesy of Rice

2 Houston high schools rank among America's top 100 in 2024, says U.S. News

best in class

Two Houston high schools are dominating U.S. News and World Report's prestigious annual list of the country's best public high schools.

The 2024 rankings from U.S. News, released April 23, put Houston ISD’s Carnegie Vanguard High School at No. 31 nationally (up from No. 35 last year and No. 40 in 2022) among the country’s best high schools. The school also ranks No. 248 nationally among the best STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) high schools and No. 12 among the best magnet high schools.

Meanwhile, DeBakey High School for Health Professions ranks No. 70 nationally among the best high schools (down from No. 66 last year and No. 50 in 2022) and No. 19 among best magnet high schools. DeBakey ranked No. 426 nationally among best STEM high schools.

Topping the national list for 2024 is the BASIS Peoria Charter School in Peoria, Arizona.

Each year, U.S. News evaluates about 18,000 high schools on six factors: college readiness, reading and math proficiency, reading and math performance, underserved student performance, college curriculum breadth, and graduation rates.

“The 2024 Best High Schools rankings offer a starting point for parents to understand a school’s academic performance, whether it’s a prospective school or one that their child is already attending,” said LaMont Jones, Ed.D., the managing editor of education at U.S. News, in a release. “Accessible data on our high schools can empower families across the country as they navigate today’s educational environment and plan for the future.”

Elsewhere in Texas
Around the state, these Texas high schools also made it into the top 100 nationally:

  • Dallas ISD's The School for the Talented and Gifted, No. 6 (unchanged from last year). No. 21 nationally among the best STEM high schools, and No. 3 among the best magnet high schools.
  • Dallas ISD's Irma Lerma Rangel Young Women's Leadership School, No. 23 (down from No. 18 last year) and No. 10 nationally among the best magnet high schools.
  • Dallas ISD's Science and Engineering Magnet School, No. 29 nationally among the best high schools (down from No. 23 last year), No. 37 nationally among the best STEM high schools, and No. 11 nationally among the best magnet high schools.
  • Grand Prairie ISD's Collegiate Institute, No. 30 (up from No. 188 last year). No. 6 nationally among best charter high schools.
  • Austin ISD’s Liberal Arts and Science Academy, No. 38 (down from No. 32 last year and No. 34 in 2022). No. 34 nationally among the best STEM high schools.
  • BASIS San Antonio - Shavano Campus, No. 64 (up from No. 81 last year and No. 77 in 2022). No. 76 nationally among the best STEM high schools and No. 13 nationally among the best charter high schools.
  • Brownsville ISD's Early College High School, No. 71 (up from No. 229 last year).
  • Dallas ISD’s Judge Barefoot Sanders Law Magnet, No. 85 (up from No. 93 last year and No. 48 in 2022) . No. 21 nationally among the best magnet high schools.

When broken down just to Texas schools, Houston's Carnegie Vanguard High School (No. 5) and DeBakey High School for Health Professions (No. 8) are both in the top 10 best-rated public high schools in Texas this year, U.S. News says.

Other Houston-area schools that rank among Texas' 100 best are:

  • No. 24 – Kinder High School for Performing and Visual Arts, Houston ISD
  • No. 25 – Challenge Early College High School, Houston ISD
  • No. 29 – Young Women's College Prep Academy, Houston ISD
  • No. 32 – Eastwood Academy, Houston ISD
  • No. 37 – Harmony School of Innovation - Katy, Katy
  • No. 40 – Kerr High School, Alief ISD, Houston
  • No. 43 – Houston Academy for International Studies, Houston ISD
  • No. 47 – East Early College High School, Houston ISD
  • No. 59 – Clear Horizons Early College High School, Clear Creek ISD, Houston
  • No. 61 – Seven Lakes High School, Katy ISD
  • No. 63 – Early College Academy at Southridge, Spring ISD, Houston
  • No. 68 – KIPP Houston High School, Houston
  • No. 70 – North Houston Early College High School, Houston ISD
  • No. 71 – Victory Early College High School, Aldine ISD, Houston
  • No. 75 – Tompkins High School, Katy ISD
  • No. 76 – Clements High School, Fort Bend ISD, Sugar Land
  • No. 82 – Sharpstown International School, Houston ISD
  • No. 85 – Tomball Star Academy, Tomball ISD
  • No. 89 – Westchester Academy for International Studies, Spring Branch ISD, Houston
  • No. 95 – Harmony School of Innovation - Sugar Land, Sugar Land
  • No. 97 – Harmony School of Discovery - Houston, Houston
  • No. 98 – Energy Institute High School, Houston ISD

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.