Cemvita Factory is working on a pilot plant with Oxy to scale its biotechnology. Photo via OxyLowCarbon.com

Occidental's venture arm — Oxy Low Carbon Ventures — has announced its plans to construct and operate a one metric ton per month bio-ethylene pilot plant featuring Houston-based Cemvita Factory's technology that biomimics photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide into feedstocks.

The new plant will scale the process, which was jointly developed between Cemvita and OLCV, and is expected sometime next year, according to a press release from Oxy.

"Today bio-ethylene is made from bio-ethanol, which is made from sugarcane, which in turn was created by photosynthesizing CO2. Our bio-synthetic process simply requires CO2, water and light to produce bio-ethylene, and that's why it saves a lot of cost and carbon emissions," says Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita Factory, in the release. "This project is a great example of how Cemvita is applying industrial-strength synthetic biology to help our clients lower their carbon footprint while creating new revenue streams."

Oxy and Cemvita have been working together for a while, and in 2019, OLCV invested an undisclosed amount into the startup. The investment, according to the release, was made to jointly explore how these advances in synthetic biology can be used for sustainability efforts in the bio-manufacturing of OxyChem's products.

"This technology could provide an opportunity to offer a new, non-hydrocarbon-sourced ethylene product to the market, reducing carbon emissions, and in the future benefit our affiliate, OxyChem, which is a large producer and consumer of ethylene in its chlorovinyls business," says Robert Zeller, vice president of technology at OLCV, in a news release.

Moji Karimi founded the company with his sister and Cemvita CTO, Tara, in 2017. The idea was to biomimic photosynthesis to take CO2 and turn it into something else. The first iteration of the technology turned CO2 into sugar — the classic photosynthesis process. Karimi says the idea was to create this process for space, so that astronauts can turn the CO2 they breathe out into a calorie source.

"Nature provided the inspiration," noted Dr. Tara Karimi, co-founder and CTO of Cemvita Factory. "We took a gene from a banana and genetically engineered it into our CO2-utilizing host microorganism. We are now significantly increasing its productivity with the goal to achieve commercial metrics that we have defined alongside OLCV."

A couple weeks ago, Moji Karimi joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss growth and challenges Cemvita Factory faced.

"We're defining this new category for application of synthetic biology in heavy industries for decarbonization," he shares on the show. Stream the episode below.

From oil and gas deals to finance-focused initiatives, this week's innovators are ones to watch. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's Who

As Houstonians head back to work or school following a fun summer break, we know two things for sure.

The first is that traffic will get back to its headache inducing craziness and that Houston startup news will only get more frequent. This week's innovators to know include oil and gas entrepreneurs with big deals on the line plus a finance-savvy woman who wants to encourage others to take control of their personal finance.

Tara Karimi, co-founder and chief scientist at Cemvita Factory

Cemvita Factory

Courtesy of Cemvita Factory

A brother-sister team has taken a huge step forward with their biotech startup, Cemvita Factory. Moji Karimi, who has a background in the oil and gas industry, and his sister, Tara, who has a background in biotech, teamed up a few years ago to create a technology that can mimic photosynthesis, turning carbon dioxide into glucose. It was Tara who figured out the technique and then the two worked backward to identify the industries — oil and gas and space — to work within.

Now, Cemvita is celebrating an investment from an Occidental Petroleum subsidiary — Oxy Low Carbon Ventures LLC.

"We have an ambitious goal to take one gigaton of CO2 out of the carbon cycle in the next decade and are very excited about being a part of Occidental's journey to become a carbon-neutral company," says Tara, co-founder and chief scientist, in a release.

Read more about Cemvita Factory here.

Travis Parigi, founder and CEO of LiquidFrameworks

Courtesy of LiquidFrameworks

Travis Parigi has built his software company from the ground up. Now, for the first time, he's thinking strategically about growth, thanks to a new financial partner.

Parigi's company, LiquidFrameworks, is an enterprise software company with applications in the upstream and downstream services industry. While the software focuses on automation and AI applications, Parigi tells InnovationMap that he has his eyes on emerging technology all the time. I keep a keen watch on a lot of the different technologies that are emerging out there.

"Blockchain is certainly one of them that we're looking at," Parigi says. "I think there's some interesting things that we might be able to do with that as it relates to price book management, which is complex and varied. It could be that blockchain could end up providing a nice mechanism for both parties to independently have pricing data verified."

Read more about Parigi and LiquidFrameworks here.

Eryn Schultz, co-founder of pHERsonal Finance Day

Courtesy of pHERsonal Finance Day.

Eryn Schultz wanted to encourage women to take control of their finances. So she created her own holiday for it called pHERsonal Finance Day. She hosted Houston panels and talks on the day — Friday, August 23 — and motivated women everywhere to take a moment and make a smart financial plan.

"In a world of women's marches and the 'Future is Female' t-shirts, women should be stepping up to shape their financial futures," Schultz writes in a guest column for InnovationMap. "For that reason, women should take a financial health day."

Schultz had a great turnout and reception for the Houston event, and she's already planning for next year.

Read more about pHERsonal Finance Day here.

Cemvita Factory has made a deal with Houston-based Oxy subsidiary. Courtesy of Cemvita Factory

Oxy backs Houston startup's carbon dioxide-transforming technology

Cha-ching

A Houston startup's carbon dioxide conversion technology has impressed Occidental Petroleum's low carbon subsidiary.

Oxy Low Carbon Ventures LLC has invested an undisclosed amount of funds into Cemvita Factory, the companies announced on August 15.

"One of OLCV's strategic priorities is to develop and commercialize CO2 utilization technologies that complement Occidental's core businesses and product lines, with the goal of helping Occidental find value in new markets and attain its aspiration of becoming carbon neutral," says Richard Jackson, OLCV president, in a news release. "Cemvita Factory's CO2 utilization platform has the potential to harness the power of nature and create new, sustainable pathways for the bio-manufacturing of our products."

Cemvita was founded by two siblings — Moji Karimi, who has a background in the oil and gas industry, and his sister, Tara, who has a background in biotech. Cemvita's biotechnology can replicate photosynthesis — absorbing CO2 and transforming it into glucose or other substances.

While the amount invested in Cemvita isn't disclosed, Moji previously told InnovationMap that he could run a custom pilot program for an energy company for less than $100,000.

"With the investment received from Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, we plan to demonstrate that our technology can economically scale from test tube to the field," Moji, who is the company's CEO, says in the release.

According to the release, Cemvita has a network of clients it is working with to reduce the industry's carbon footprint.

"We have an ambitious goal to take one gigaton of CO2 out of the carbon cycle in the next decade and are very excited about being a part of Occidental's journey to become a carbon-neutral company," says Tara, co-founder and chief scientist, in the release.

The Karimi siblings have created a way to synthetically convert CO2 into glucose, and they are targeting the energy and aerospace industries for their technology. Courtesy of Cemvita Factory

Houston company is solving the energy and space industries' carbon dioxide problems with synthetic photosynthesis

See ya, CO2

Houston-based Cemvita Factory is unlike most startups. Before even knowing what industry they were going to affect, Moji Karimi and his sister, Tara, established their company, which uses synthetic photosynthesis — the process of turning carbon dioxide into glucose for plants.

"In some ways, this company started with the solution, rather than the problem," Moji Karimi, co-founder of Cemvita, says. "Then we said, 'if we could replicate photosynthesis, what problems can we solve?'"

Once the technology was set in place, Karimi, who has a background in oil and gas drilling, says he identified the energy industry in need of something like this. He says he saw an increased pressure on large energy companies to adapt sustainable ways to get rid of the CO2 that is produced as a result of drilling.

More and more companies are investing in a process called carbon dioxide capturing — but it's expensive and not yet cost efficient for energy companies to commit to. But that's changing. Karimi says the process that once cost $600 per ton of CO2 now can be found as cheap as $30.

With his sister's technology, Karimi says they can take that captured carbon dioxide and turn it into other chemicals too. Each oil and gas company client can specify what they want to turn it into and, for less than $100,000, Cemvita will run a pilot program for them. Cemvita sells the exclusive rights to the technology, but still maintains its IP.

"We go to these companies and say, 'What do you want to convert CO2 into?,'" Karimi says. "Then, we do a quick pilot in six months in our lab, and we show them the metrics. They decide if they want to scale it up."

What seemed like another obvious industry for this process was aerospace. Many companies involved in aerospace exploration have Mars on the mind, and the planet's atmosphere is over 95 percent carbon dioxide. Plus, Cemvita can provide a more sustainable way to dispose of CO2 onboard spacecrafts. The current practice is essentially just discarding it by filtering it off the spaceship.

Putting a system in place
Cemvita was founded in August of 2017 and used 2018 to really establish itself. The company took second place at Dubai's Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre Innovation Challenge and completed the accelerator program at Capital Factory.

Realizing the process is new and without the backing of an educational institution, Karimi says he and his sister needed a way to answer any questions and concerns, so Tara wrote a book. "Molecular Mechanisms of Autonomy in Biological Systems" is published by Springer.

Karimi also lead a talk at Tudor Pickering Holt's Energy Disruptor conference. His discussion, "From Mars to Midland," garnered a lot of interest from energy professionals.

The future is now
Karimi says 2019 is all about execution. He never thought he and his sister would overlap their industries, but now there's more of a need of interdisciplinary collaboration than ever before.

"There are a lot of opportunities bringing a proven science or technology from one industry into another to solve problems," he says.

The company has growth plans this year. The team has bootstrapped everything financially so far, but is looking for its first funding round in the middle of 2019. And, as far as the Karimi siblings are concerned, they are in the exact right place to grow.

"We're in Houston, and we have a technology that is from biotech and have applications in the space industry and the energy industry," Karimi says. "There would not have been any better place for us in the country than Houston."

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Houston researchers tap into tech to provide new brain-related health care solutions

research roundup

Research, perhaps now more than ever, is crucial to expanding and growing innovation in Houston — and it's happening across the city right under our noses.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of research news, three Houston institutions are working on brain-related health care solutions thanks to technologies.

University of Houston research team focused on brain injury treatment through computation

Badri Roysam and his team at the University of Houston are working with the National Institute of Health to develop tools to treat concussions and brain injuries. Photo via uh.edu

A University of Houston researcher is tapping into technology to better treat brain injuries and conditions that scientists have not yet figured out treatment for. Badri Roysam, the current chair of electrical and computer engineering at UH and a Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen University Professor, and his team have created a new computational image analysis methods based on deep neural networks.

"We are interested in mapping and profiling unhealthy and drug-treated brain tissue in unprecedented detail to reveal multiple biological processes at once - in context," Roysam says in a UH press release about his latest paper published in Nature Communications. "This requires the ability to record high-resolution images of brain tissue covering a comprehensive panel of molecular biomarkers, over a large spatial extent, e.g., whole-brain slices, and automated ability to generate quantitative readouts of biomarker expression for all cells."

Roysam's system, which was developed at the the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, analyzes the images on UH's supercomputer automatically and can reveal multiple processes at once – the brain injury, effects of the drug being tested and the potential side effects of the drug, per the release.

"Compared to existing screening techniques, using iterative immunostaining and computational analysis, our methods are more flexible, scalable and efficient, enabling multiplex imaging and computational analysis of up to 10 – 100 different biomarkers of interest at the same time using direct or indirect IHC immunostaining protocols," says Roysam in the release.

The open-source toolkit, which was developed thanks to a $3.19 million grant from the National Institute of Health, is also adaptable to other tissues.

"We are efficiently overcoming the fluorescence signal limitations and achieving highly enriched and high-quality source imagery for reliable automated scoring at scale," says Roysam. "Our goal is to accelerate system-level studies of normal and pathological brains, and pre-clinical drug studies by enabling targeted and off-target drug effects to be profiled simultaneously, in context, at the cellular scale."

Houston Methodist and Rice University launch new collaboration to use robotics for clinical solutions

Rice University's Behnaam Aazhang and Marcia O'Malley are two of the people at the helm of the new center along with Houston Methodist's Dr. Gavin Britz. Photos via Rice.edu

Rice University and Houston Methodist have teamed up to create a new partnership and to launch the Center for Translational Neural Prosthetics and Interfaces in order to bring together scientists, clinicians, engineers, and surgeons to solve clinical problems with neurorobotics.

"This will be an accelerator for discovery," says the new center's co-director, Dr. Gavin Britz, chair of the Houston Methodist Department of Neurosurgery, in a news release. "This center will be a human laboratory where all of us — neurosurgeons, neuroengineers, neurobiologists — can work together to solve biomedical problems in the brain and spinal cord. And it's a collaboration that can finally offer some hope and options for the millions of people worldwide who suffer from brain diseases and injuries."

The center will have representatives from both Rice and Houston Methodist and also plans to hire three additional engineers who will have joint appointments at Houston Methodist and Rice.

"The Rice Neuroengineering Initiative was formed with this type of partnership in mind," says center co-director Behnaam Aazhang, Rice's J.S. Abercrombie Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, who also directs the neuroengineering initiative. "Several core members, myself included, have existing collaborations with our colleagues at Houston Methodist in the area of neural prosthetics. The creation of the Center for Translational Neural Prosthetics and Interfaces is an exciting development toward achieving our common goals."

The team will have a presence on the Rice campus with 25,000 square feet of space in the Rice Neuroengineering Initiative laboratories and experimental spaces in the university's BioScience Research Collaborative. The space at Houston Methodist is still being developed.

"This partnership is a perfect blend of talent," says Rice's Marcia O'Malley, a core member of both the new center and university initiative. "We will be able to design studies to test the efficacy of inventions and therapies and rely on patients and volunteers who want to help us test our ideas. The possibilities are limitless."

ExxonMobil announces $100B carbon-capture hub for Houston area

greener thinking

In a move that would be a gamechanger for Houston, oil and gas giant ExxonMobil envisions creating a $100 billion carbon-capture hub along the Houston Ship Channel.

ExxonMobil foresees the Houston Ship Channel being the site of an "innovation zone" for carbon capture and storage. In a blog post on the ExxonMobil website, Joe Blommaert, the Houston-based president of ExxonMobil Low Carbon Solutions, says Houston would be "the perfect place" for the project because:

  • The ship channel is home to dozens of refineries and petrochemical plants.
  • The geological formations in the Gulf of Mexico could "safely, securely, and permanently" store tons of carbon emissions under the sea floor, according to the blog post. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates the storage capacity along the U.S. Gulf Coast could handle 500 million metric tons of CO2.

Irving-based ExxonMobil, which employs more than 12,000 people in the Houston area, says the project could capture and store about 50 million metric tons of CO2 annually by 2030. By 2040, that number could rise to 100 million metric tons.

"We could create an economy of scale where we can reduce the cost of the carbon dioxide mitigation, create jobs, and reduce the emissions," Blommaert tells the Reuters news service.

In a news release, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner applauds the ExxonMobil plan.

"This proposal by ExxonMobil is the type of bold ambition and investment we will need to meet our climate goals and protect our communities from climate change," Turner says. "ExxonMobil's proposal represents a significant step forward for the energy industry, and I hope it brings more companies to the table to help Houston lead a global energy transition."

Turner notes that the Houston area is home to some of the largest emitters of carbon in the U.S., adding that everyone has "a responsibility and role to play in decarbonization."

Blommaert says the project would require public and private funding, along with "enhanced regulatory and legal frameworks that enable investment and innovation." According to Politico, ExxonMobil wants the federal government to kick in tax breaks or to set carbon-pricing policies to help get the project off the ground.

Politico reports that the Biden administration isn't considering ExxonMobil's idea as it prepares a climate-change package.

"Meanwhile, environmental groups and many Democrats have slammed carbon-capture proposals as a climate strategy, saying the only way to permanently reduce greenhouse gas pollution is a wholesale switch away from fossil fuels," Politico says.

Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency maintains that carbon capture and storage "are critical for putting energy systems around the world on a sustainable path." Achieving net-zero goals "will be virtually impossible" without carbon capture and storage, the group says.

ExxonMobil announced creation of its Low Carbon Solutions business unit in February as part of its push to invest $3 billion in lower-emission energy initiatives through 2025. Low Carbon Solutions initially will focus on technology for carbon capture and storage. The business unit is exploring opportunities along the Gulf Coast, as well as in Wyoming, Belgium, the Netherlands, Qatar, Scotland, and Singapore.

Last year, ExxonMobil hit the pause button on a $260 million carbon-capture project in Wyoming due to fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Bloomberg news service.

In a December report, the Global CCS Institute, a think tank, said 65 commercial carbon-capture projects were in various stages of development around the world.

"Climate ambition, including efforts to decarbonize industry, has not been curtailed despite the adversities faced in 2020," Brad Page, CEO of the institute, says in a news release about the report. "We're continuing to see an upward trajectory in the amount of CO2 capture and storage infrastructure that is being developed. One of the largest factors driving this growth is recognition that achieving net-zero emissions is urgent yet unattainable without CO2 reductions from energy-intensive sectors."

Newly appointed innovation leader calls for more health care collaboration in Houston

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 80

Allison Post is a professional dot connector for the Texas Heart Institute. Located in the Texas Medical Center and founded in 1962, THI has long had a history of innovation — from Denton Cooley, THI's founder, performing the first artificial heart implementation in 1970.

Now, Post — who was appointed to a newly created position of manager of innovation partnerships — is focused on working with THI's latest generation of cardiac health innovators. She works internally to foster and support THI's brightest inventors as well as externally to make sure the institute is bringing in the best new technologies out there to its patients.

"The whole mission of the Texas Heart Institute is to help our patients. If that means that someone else has an incredible idea we want to jump onboard and bring it to people," Post says in this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Post, who has a bioengineering background and has worked on both sides of the table as an entrepreneur and a startup mentor, is looking to support breakthrough cardiac innovations within stem cells, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and more. And unfortunately, the cardiac health space has an increasing need to develop new health care solutions.

"Because of the growing burden of heart disease, heart failure, coronary artery disease, the unfortunately long list of things that can go wrong with someone's heart means the pressing need for therapies is just growing," she says on the show. "We're trying to keep up and break into things that people haven't done a lot of work on, such as women's heart health."

Another factor in Post's role, which she's had since last fall, is to bring THI further into both the TMC's innovation efforts as well as the greater Houston innovation ecosystem — as well as beyond. To her, Houston has a huge opportunity to lead health care innovation.

"It makes no sense that we aren't the health care leaders yet in med tech development. It should not be Boston, San Francisco, or Minneapolis. It should be Houston," Post says. "We have everything we need to do it. We just need to bring it all together."

The key to getting there, she says, is further collaboration. If there's one thing the world has learned about health care innovation from COVID-19, it's that when experts are rallying behind and collaborating on solutions, the speed of development is much faster.

"The more minds we have the better the solutions I going to be," she says.

Post says that she hopes her work at THI can inspire other institutions to collaborate ‚ since everyone has the same goal of helping patients.

"I only see just phenomenal things for Houston, and what I really want is for the Texas Medical Center to become even more interconnected. We've got to be able to transfer ideas and thoughts and intentions seamlessly between these institutions and right now there are a lot of barriers," Post says. "And I really think Texas Heart is hopefully going to serve as an example of how to take down those barriers."

Post shares more about what she's focused on and where THI is headed on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.