The 2023 Houston Innovation Awards celebrated Houston's tech and entrepreneurship community. Photo by Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

That's a wrap on the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards — and boy did the event deliver on networking, award wins, and plenty of celebrating Houston's tech and entrepreneurship community.

With a crowd of around 600 attendees, the Houston Innovation Awards, which took place on November 8 at Silver Street Studios in partnership with Houston Exponential, celebrated over 50 finalists and a dozen winners across categories. Click here to see who won an award.

Learn more about this year's honorees in InnovationMap's the editorial series:

See below for photos from the event.

The 2023 Houston Innovation Awards took place on Nov. 8.

Photo by Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

The 2023 Houston Innovation Awards revealed its big winners across 13 categories. Photos courtesy

Houston Innovation Awards winners revealed at 2023 event

drum roll, please...

Who are the top innovators and startups in Houston? We just found out for you.

The Houston Innovation Awards honored over 50 finalists categories, naming the 12 winners at the event. The 2023 Trailblazer Award recipient, Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, was also honored at the event by inaugural winner, Barbara Burger.

The 2023 judges — who represent various industries and verticals in Houston — scored over 200 submissions. The event, hosted November 8 in partnership with Houston Exponential and emceed by Scott Gale, executive director of Halliburton Labs, revealed the winners.

The event's sponsors included Halliburton Labs, Microsoft, The Ion, Houston Community College, Houston Energy Transition Initiative, NOV, Tito's Handmade Vodka, Uncle Nearest Premium Whisky, 8th Wonder Brewery, and 8th Wonder Cannabis.

Without further adieu, here the winners from the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards.

BIPOC-Owned Business: Milkify

The winner of the BIPOC-Owned Business category, honoring an innovative company founded or co-founded by BIPOC representation, is Milkify, a service that turns breast milk into a shelf-stable powder.

Female-Owned Business: The Postage

The winner of the Female-Owned Business category, honoring an innovative company founded or co-founded by a woman, is The Postage, a comprehensive life planning and succession software platform for families and small businesses.

Hardtech Business: Syzygy Plasmonics

The winner of the Hardtech Business category, honoring an innovative company developing and commercializing a physical technology, is Syzygy Plasmonics, a deep decarbonization company that builds chemical reactors designed to use light instead of combustion to produce valuable chemicals like hydrogen and sustainable fuels.

Digital Solutions Business: RepeatMD

The winner of the Digital Solutions Business category, honoring an innovative company developing and programming a digital solution to a problem in an industry, is RepeatMD, software platform for customer loyalty, eCommerce, and fintech solutions to enhance the patient experience and provide a new source of revenue for the aesthetics and wellness space.

Social Impact Business: ALLY Energy

The winner of the Social Impact Business category, honoring an innovative company providing a solution that would enhance humanity or society in a significant way, is ALLY Energy, helping energy companies and climate startups find, develop, and retain great talent.

Sustainability Business: Fervo Energy

The winner of the Sustainability Business category, honoring an innovative company providing a solution within renewables, climatetech, clean energy, alternative materials, circular economy, and beyond, is Fervo Energy, leveraging proven oil and gas drilling technology to deliver 24/7 carbon-free geothermal energy.

Life Science Business: CellChorus

The winner of the Life Science Business category, honoring an innovative company within the health and medical industries designing a treatment or technology, is CellChorus, using AI to evaluate immune cell function and performance to improve the development and delivery of therapeutics.

Corporate of the Year: Houston Methodist

The winner of the Corporate of the Year category, honoring a corporation that supports startups and/or the Houston innovation community, Houston Methodist, a hospital system and health care innovation leader.

DEI Champion: Calicia Johnson

The winner of the DEI Champion, honoring an individual who is leading impactful diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and progress within Houston and their organization, is Calicia Johnson, chair of Blacks at Microsoft Houston.

Ecosystem Builder: Joey Sanchez

The winner of the Ecosystem Builder category, honoring an individual who has acted as a leader in developing Houston’s startup ecosystem, is Joey Sanchez, founder of Cup of Joey and senior director of ecosystems at the Ion.

Mentor of the Year: Wade Pinder

The winner of the Mentor of the Year category, honoring an individual who dedicates their time and expertise to guide and support to budding entrepreneurs, is Wade Pinder, founder of Product Houston.

People's Choice: 

The winner of the People's Choice: Startup of the Year category, selected via an interactive voting portal during the event, is Blue People, helping bring ideas to life through software development expertise.

Fifteen of Houston Innovation Awards finalists share the best advice they've given or received. Photo via Getty Images

Overheard: Houston Innovation Awards finalists share top advice for fellow founders

Take note

The startup journey is a long and winding road, and there's many ways to navigate it. Fifteen of this year's finalists have shared what their most valuable startup advice for their fellow Houston founders.

From the importance of mentorship to tips for female and BIPOC founders, these pearls of wisdom come directly from a selection of finalists across a handful of categories, including DEI Champion, BIPOC-Owned Business, Female-Owned Business, and Mentor of the Year.

Read these excerpts of advice from Houston's innovation community's top startup founders and supporters.

Click here to secure your tickets to the November 8 event where we'll name the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards winners.

"Be comfortable with asking for and accepting help. This journey is a marathon, not a sprint, but helping yourself with supportive people around is critical." — Cameron Carter of Rosarium Health, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"Underrepresented founders often have trouble asking for what they want or deserve. ... Don't be scared to ask for what you want, or what you believe you deserve." — Pedro Silva of Milkify, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"It's not 'fake it' until you make it. It's 'take it' until you make it. Be proud to be you." — Pamela Singh of CaseCTRL, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"When starting a company, remember it’s a game of attrition. The best way to last longer than your nearest neighbor is to find your tribe." — Aaron Fitzgerald of Mars Materials, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"Know your worth and add tax. Choose your partners wisely — at home and work. Invest in the best stock you own: YOU." — Katie Mehnert of ALLY Energy, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"Whatever battle you're fighting now that no one knows about — go ahead and WIN the war." — Shoshi Kaganovsky of Feelit Technologies, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"My advice would be to find truly effective mentors who are willing to open up their network for you. It doesn't matter if the mentors are men or women — what matters is that they genuinely care about your professional success and who you are as a person." — Tatiana Fofanova of Koda Healthcare, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"Remember...There are a BILLION ways to apply sunscreen, but no matter how you apply it, it ALL protects you from the sun. Like sunscreen, there are infinite ways to succeed in the startup world. Trust your gut, stick to your vision, and keep trying until you find what works for you. ... Your purpose and vision should be your North Star, guiding decisions in team-building, coaching, and creating a company culture. Stick to that purpose—it's what will drive you through the rollercoaster of entrepreneurship." — Emily Cisek of The Postage, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"First and foremost, embrace your uniqueness. As a woman of color, you bring a distinctive perspective to the table. Your background is not just a part of who you are; it's a strength that sets you apart in a male-dominated industry. ... Resilience is your greatest ally. Challenges will arise, and it's okay to acknowledge them. What matters most is how you respond. Each obstacle is an opportunity for growth and learning. ... Lastly, trust yourself. You are not just running a business; you are shaping a narrative of empowerment and change." — Ghazal Qureshi of UpBrainery Technologies, a Female-Owned Business finalist

"Figure out, learn, and understand your mission inside and out and use it to make all your major business (and sometimes personal) decisions." — LaGina R Harris, founder and CEO of The Us Space and Mentor of the Year finalist

"Know your value and continue advocating for inclusion." — Janice Tran of Kanin Energy, a BIPOC-Owned Business finalist

"Be your true, authentic self. There are going to be some people that like what you are doing, and there's going to be some people that don't, but the biggest thing is being true to who you are, and that's always going to flourish more than being who someone else wants you to be." — Muriel Foster, director of gBETA Houston and Mentor of the Year finalist

"Until you hire someone, you are the one wearing the product manager hat. You've got to love the problem more than the solution." — Wade Pinder, founder of Product Houston and Mentor of the Year finalist

"Be the person your younger self needed. Representation really does matter. Be a listening ear, share your lessons, and allow people to blossom under your leadership." — Michelle Ngome, founder and president of the African American Marketing Association and DEI Champion finalist

"Embrace your unique perspective as a source of strength and innovation. ... In Houston's dynamic startup scene, your presence and contributions as a traditionally marginalized founder or investor are essential for driving innovation and diversity. By staying resilient, seeking support, and advocating for inclusivity, you can navigate the entrepreneurial journey and make a lasting impact on both your business and the broader community." — Jessica Adebiyi, diversity and professional development director at Womble Bond Dickinson and DEI Champion finalist

Get to know the startups in the running for the Houston Innovation Awards People's Choice award. Photos courtesy

Here's what companies are in the running for Houston's startup of the year

you decide

There's one category at the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards that's yet to be decided — and that's because the decision is up to you.

The People's Choice: Startup of the Year category will honor the fan favorite of this year's awards. Seven companies will be showcasing their unique technologies at the event, and attendees get to decide their fate.

Click here to secure your tickets to the November 8 event where you get to help choose the winner of this exciting category.

Here are the seven companies, selected by this year's judges, who are up for the honor.

Blue People, helping bring ideas to life through software development expertise.

Enrique Carro, CEO of Blue People. Photo courtesy of Blue People

What's the company culture like at your company? How big of a priority is maintaining it as the company grows?

At our company, culture isn't just a buzzword; it's the heart of who we are. We have this fun concept called the "Blue Tags" where everyone picks a cool, sometimes hilarious, nickname—it's our way of saying, "Hey, we love your uniqueness!" And guess what? Fridays are special because we gather employees for a celebratory meeting where tequila shots are allowed that we call Viernes De Shots (Friday's Shots). However, it's not just about the shots; it's about building connections and recognizing our achievements as a team. Furthermore, our "Blue Principles", or what other companies call core values, guide us every day, woven into everything we do. As we grow, keeping this inclusive vibe alive is at the top of our to-do list! Cheers to a unique and awesome workplace!

How would you describe your leadership style in three words?

Adaptive, inspirational, and empowering

How has your company given back to the community in the past year or so?

In the past year, our company has been deeply committed to giving back to the community through various initiatives. We actively engaged in the Tejano Tech Summit and fostered dialogue with Tech & Tequila talks. Moreover, we dedicated our time as judges in the Young Inventors competition, encouraging and supporting young talent. Our CTO played a pivotal role by mentoring students in software engineering projects, emphasizing cloud technology, modern stack, and agile methodologies. We also proudly emerged as winners in the 50 cent G-Unity Business Lab Pitch competition and actively participated in programs like gener8tor gBeta accelerator and Codelaunch. Additionally, we extended our outreach to the academic realm, coaching and mentoring participants in events such as the Sam Houston State University Innovation Pitch Competition, where we achieved 1st place, and collaborating with Latin Venture Studio as partners. As a testament to our commitment to community engagement, we are part of the DevOpsDays Houston organization committee, contributing to a series of technical conferences. Furthermore, we play a role in The Houston Tech Rodeo, showcasing the best of the Houston startup community through conferences and friendly competitions, reinforcing our dedication to the growth and development of the community we are part of.

DrySee, innovative waterproof dressing with liquid intrusion technology.

Robert Bradley Greer is the CEO of DrySee. Photo via LinkedIn

What's the company culture like at your company? How big of a priority is maintaining it as the company grows?

DrySee has an adaptive environment with open communication and transparency. Our leadership is available to receive and provide regular feedback, and values the spirit of entrepreneurship. DrySee feels that the imaginative and engaged atmosphere is important to our growth and success.

How would you describe your leadership style in three words?

Inclusive, team-oriented, and consensus-driven.

How has your company given back to the community in the past year or so?

We donated thousands of DrySee bandages to the medical efforts in Ukraine.

Eden Grow Systems, next generation farming technologies.

Leo Barton Womack Jr is the CEO of Eden Grow Systems. Photo courtesy of Eden Grow

What's the company culture like at your company? How big of a priority is maintaining it as the company grows?

We are on a mission to bring food sovereignty to the people. Our vision is that our world is A Garden OF Eden, and we are here to serve it.

How would you describe your leadership style in three words?

Service, example, and commitment.

How has your company given back to the community in the past year or so?

We are deploying our systems into food desserts, schools, Ukraine, and around the world helping underserved communities begin their journey to food independence.

Feelit Technologies, nanotechnology for preventive maintenance to eliminate leaks, fires and explosions, increase safety and reduce downtime.

Shoshi Kaganovsky, president of North America at Feelit Technologies. Photo courtesy of Feelit

What's the company culture like at your company? How big of a priority is maintaining it as the company grows?

Culture is people-oriented. We are focusing on building a team that lasts. Diversity is key. Giving chances and creating opportunities is what will advance our world further. We believe that the human asset is the most important asset we have. It's a huge priority for us to maintain this is make sure that as we grow, our culture leads the way for us, with respect, dedication and innovation.

How would you describe your leadership style in three words?

Lead by example.

How has your company given back to the community in the past year or so?

School supplies, mentorship programs for children, sponsorship and hiring people from war zones/conflicted territories.

Fervo Energy, leveraging proven oil and gas drilling technology to deliver 24/7 carbon-free geothermal energy.

Tim Latimer, CEO and co-founder of Fervo Energy. Photo via LinkedIn

What's the company culture like at your company? How big of a priority is maintaining it as the company grows?

Fervo's culture revolves around four core values: build things that last; innovate through collaboration; do what we say we're going to do; stop and smell the roses. Taken together, these values create a highly creative, collaborative, and optimistic culture in which employees are encouraged to be open-minded, honest, and supportive. Maintaining this culture as Fervo's scales is one of the executive team's highest priorities.

How would you describe your leadership style in three words?

Visionary, determined, and collaborative.

How has your company given back to the community in the past year or so?

Fervo has joined the Real Energy Alliance of Houston and the Greater Houston Partnership to contribute to the broader Houston business and environmental community. Fervo also sponsored a class at Rice University to provide undergrads with clean energy mentorship and experiential learning opportunities. Fervo also recruited summer interns from the University of Houston Bauer College of Business.

Rhythm Energy, 100 percent renewable electricity service for residential customers in Texas.

P.J. Popovic, CEO of Houston-based Rhythm Energy. Photo courtesy of Rhythm

What's the company culture like at your company? How big of a priority is maintaining it as the company grows?

At Rhythm Energy, our company culture is defined by several key aspects: Passionate: Our team is genuinely passionate about renewable energy and our mission to make a positive impact on the planet. Collaborative: Collaboration is at the heart of our culture. We encourage cross-functional teamwork and open communication. Encouraging: We foster an environment that encourages innovation and supports employees in pursuing their ideas and initiatives. Flexibility: Our employees appreciate the flexibility we offer, allowing them to balance work and life effectively. Impact: Everyone at Rhythm Energy understands the meaningful impact our work has on the environment and society. Maintaining this culture is a top priority for us as we grow. We take proactive steps, such as quarterly surveys and team discussions, to gather feedback and implement positive changes. Our commitment to preserving this culture remains unwavering.

How would you describe your leadership style in three words?

Visionary, resilient, and approachable.

How has your company given back to the community in the past year or so?

Rhythm gives back to the community in a variety of ways. First, we have a very sustainable approach to our work environment, which promotes a remote first work culture, recycles, composts, and uses sustainable office supplies. Second, we actively participate in community service projects, whether volunteering at the Houston Food Bank, doing park clean up at Buffalo Bayou Park or planting trees at Memorial Park. Last, but not least, we partner with many local organizations, such as elementary school PTOs, youth sports clubs and performing arts education programs like Theatre Under the Stars, and really focus on giving back and educating the youth in the community, as they are the future and most impacted by our sustainable decisions today.

The Postage, a comprehensive life planning and succession software platform for families and small businesses.

Emily Cisek, CEO and co-founder of The Postage. Photo courtesy of The Postage

What's the company culture like at your company? How big of a priority is maintaining it as the company grows?

At The Postage, our company culture is all about understanding, supporting, and empowering each other. We're like a team of sailors, believing that when we lift one boat, we lift all. We value empathy, making sure we put ourselves in our customers' shoes, understanding their needs, and building solutions that truly matter. Everyone is encouraged to go that extra mile, take initiative, and embrace challenges as opportunities to learn and grow. We believe in transparency, keeping communication open, honest, and straightforward. As we grow, keeping this culture alive and thriving is a big deal for us. It's what makes us who we are, and we'll keep nurturing it because it's key to our success and how we want to make a positive mark in the world.

How would you describe your leadership style in three words?

Empathetic, transparent, and empowering.

How has your company given back to the community in the past year or so?

At The Postage, we're all about giving back and spreading kindness in the community. For the past three years, we've been honored to partner with the Smilin Rylen Foundation, a cause that truly hits home for us. Rylen's spirit is a big inspiration for us. He's a driving force behind our dedication to making a positive impact every day. So, to celebrate his life we encourage acts of kindness within our team and community. Small gestures, like helping out or sharing a kind word, mean a lot to us and embody the positivity Rylen always shared. Our commitment doesn't stop there. We proudly support the Smilin Rylen Foundation, not only financially but by getting involved in their events. We believe in spreading kindness and compassion, just as they do. At The Postage, we're all about making a positive mark, and Houston is our hub to make that happen. We're committed to uplifting our diverse and vibrant community, embracing the opportunity to lead the way. Even though we're a young company, our goal of creating a positive impact on people's lives remains strong, and we're thrilled about the future and the potential to keep making a meaningful difference, right here in Houston and beyond.

Last weekend was a tumultuous one for founders and funders in Houston and beyond. Here's what lessons were learned. Photo via Getty Images

Following Silicon Valley Bank collapse, banking diversification is key for Houston founders

SVB shake up

Last week, Houston founder Emily Cisek was in between meetings with customers and potential investors in Austin while she was in town for SXSW. She was aware of the uncertainty with Silicon Valley Bank, but the significance of what was happening didn't hit her until she got into an Uber on Friday only to find that her payment was declined.

“Being positive in nature as I am, and with the close relationship that I have with SVB and how they’ve truly been a partner, I just thought, ‘OK, they’re going to figure it out. I trust in them,'” Cisek says.

Like many startup founders, Cisek, the CEO of The Postage, a Houston-based tech platform that enables digital legacy planning tools, is a Silicon Valley Bank customer. Within a few hours, she rallied her board and team to figure out what they needed to do, including making plans for payroll. She juggled all this while attending her meetings and SXSW events — which, coincidentally, were mostly related to the banking and fintech industries.

Sandy Guitar had a similar weekend of uncertainty. As managing director of HX Venture Fund, a fund of funds that deploys capital to venture capital firms around the country and connects them to the Houston innovation ecosystem, her first concern was to evaluate the effect on HXVF's network. In this case, that meant the fund's limited partners, its portfolio of venture firms, and, by extension, the firms' portfolios of startup companies.

“We ultimately had no financial impact on venture fund 1 or 2 or on any of our portfolio funds or our underlying companies,” Guitar tells InnovationMap. “But that is thanks to the Sunday night decision to ensure all deposits.”

On Sunday afternoon, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. took control of SVB and announced that all accounts would be fully insured, not just up to the $250,000 cap. Customers like Cisek had access to their accounts on Monday.

“In the shorter term, the great news is SVB entity seems to be largely up and functioning in a business as usual manner,” Guitar says. “And they have a new leadership team, but their existing systems and predominantly the existing employee base is working well. And what we're hearing is that business as usual is taking place.”

Time to diversify

In light of the ordeal, Guitar says Houston founders and funders can take away a key lesson learned: The importance of bank diversification.

“We didn't think we needed one last week, but this week we know we need a resilience plan," she says, explaining that bank diversification is going to be added to "the operational due diligence playbook."

"We need to encourage our portfolio funds to maintain at least two banking relationships and make sure they're diversifying their cash exposure," she says.

A valued entity

Guitar says SVB is an integral part of the innovation ecosystem, and she believes it will continue on to be, but factoring in the importance of resilience and diversification.

"Silicon Valley Bank and the function that they have historically provided is is vital to the venture ecosystem," she says. "We do have confidence that either SVB, as it is currently structured or in a new structure to come, will continue to provide this kind of function for founders."

Cisek, who hasn't moved any of her company's money out of SVB, has similar sentiments about the importance of the bank for startups. She says she's grateful to the local Houston and Austin teams for opening doors, making connections, and taking chances for her that other banks don't do.

"I credit them to really being partners with startups — down to the relationships they connect you with," she says. "Some of my best friends who are founders came from introductions from SVB. I've seen them take risks that other banks won't do."

With plans to raise funding this yea, Cisek says she's already started her research on how to diversify her banking situation and is looking into programs that will help her do that.

Staying aware

Guitar's last piece of advice is to remain confident in the system, while staying tuned into what's happening across the spectrum.

“This situation that is central to the venture ecosystem is an evolving one," she says. "We all need to keep calm and confident in business as usual in the short term while keeping an eye to the medium term so that we know what happens next with this important bank and with other associated banks in the in our industry."

CodeLaunch named its winner — and more Houston innovation news. Photo courtesy of Honeycomb

Houston startup secures bank partnership, energy tech co. wins competition, and more

short stories

Houston startup founders have been moving and shaking in the local innovation ecosystem — from being recognized for their out-of-this-world innovation to big wins.

In this roundup of Houston startup and innovation news, a Houston company snags a major partnership, an energy tech startup wins big on stage, and more.

The Postage gets a new partner

The Postage platform will be available to AmBank Company's employees, customers, and their families. Photo courtesy of The Postage

A Houston tech platform that streamlines estate and legacy planning has entered into a partnership with AmBank Company — American State Bank, American Investment & Trust, and Perspective Insurance — in Sioux Center, Iowa. The bank will deliver The Postage's services to its employees, customers, and their families.

The Postage unique platform allows users important information organizational tools, as well as state-specific will document creation. The technology also allows users to share meaningful family memories, write future messages, and collaborate with loved ones of their choosing.

"Community is at the core of everything American State Bank does. They exemplify that by supporting their customers through the myriad of choices that arise while navigating their financial lives. The Postage fits right into that, and we are thrilled to share our platform with their employees and customers in their planning and organization efforts," says Emily Cisek, CEO and co-founder of The Postage, in a news release. "We hope to grow awareness of the family-driven digital solution and provide AmBank's customers the opportunity to gain control and safeguard their critical information. We look forward to providing AmBank's customers with the guidance they need to protect their wealth and wisdom now and for generations to come."

The partnership, which rolled out last month, was announced as American State Bank and the family of brands celebrated 50 years of business.

"Our commitment to delivering outstanding service and top-notch products to our customers, colleagues, and community has been unwavering for over half a century," says Joel Westra, AmBank first vice president. "This partnership allows us to extend our digital services while staying true to our core values of connection and community.

"Our team has witnessed the struggles of families coping with losing a loved one, we recognized the need for a service like The Postage," he continues. "Far too often, people are uncertain about the next steps, the whereabouts of important documents, and even their loved one's final wishes. We recognize that to prevent these challenges, families need help navigating difficult conversations and guidance on how to get started with their planning, which The Postage provides."

E360 wins Houston startup competition

E360 and Honeycomb Software share the win at the 2023 Houston CodeLaunch event. Photo by Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

CodeLaunch, a traveling seed-stage accelerator, hosted its second Houston startup pitch competition last week, and a Houston energy efficiency startup emerged victorious.

E360 won the top prize at the event on March 2. The program paired six finalists with consultant development teams to pitch and compete for up to $150,000. The startup's technology is a holistic building solution that monitors both the energy efficiency and indoor air quality of commercial buildings.

“The goal I pursued at CodeLaunch was to meet industry leaders and investors who can help take the product to the next level," says Mat Bonassera, chief enterprise architect at E360, in a news release. “The vast majority of buildings are both incredibly inefficient as well as dangerous to their occupants, due to the dangerous levels of compounds in the air.

"We solve both these complex problems at the same time," he continues. "This is unheard of in our industry. We do this by monitoring vast sums of IOT data and then using Machine Learning and real-time monitoring we adjust the building to optimize its performance. This is a revolutionary way to look at commercial buildings."

E360 shares the win with its partner development team Honeycomb Software, an international custom software development company. The provided hands-on support to E360 scale during a two-day hackathon held February 25 and 26.

“The desire to promote energy efficiency of the buildings and the sustainability in business influenced our decision of whom to work with during the Hackathon," says Oleksandr Semeniuk, CEO of Honeycomb Software, in the release. "Our team worked tirelessly to expand the functionality of E360, and this victory is a testament to their hard work and dedication."

Axiom named among most innovative companies

KBR is one of Axiom Space's partners on its new NASA-sanctioned ISS project. Photo via AxiomSpace.com

Fast Company named it's 50 most innovative companies — and Axiom Space, a Houston-based commercial, full-service orbital mission provider, was named No. 49 on the list. It was also recognized as one of the most innovative space tech companies "for going to space without a chaperone," per the magazine.

The article recognized several of Axiom's accomplishments, including:

  • Managing the first all-private mission to the International Space Station in April of 2022. The mission sent a four-person crew into space for 17 days.
  • Developing plans to expand the international community of space explorers, including Italy, Canada, New Zealand, and others.
  • Building a module to attach to the ISS, which is progress toward the world’s first commercial free-floating space station.

“In the space business, there’s a big focus on the transportation, the rockets,” Michael Suffredini, president and CEO of Axiom, tells Fast Company. “But if you think about the railroads that were built across the U.S., they were built to serve a destination. Without a reason to go somewhere, they wouldn’t exist. We’re building the destination in space—the real estate to allow multiple businesses to operate in low-Earth orbit and take advantage of the microgravity environment.”

NASA also makes the ranking for "showing that a public space program can still do big things," according to the list.

Calling all student-founded startups and businesses

Rice and UH have programs for startup and small business entrepreneurs. Photo via uh.edu

Rice University and the University of Houston have upcoming deadlines for their summer accelerators. The summer programs all operate in coordination with each other and offer support for student, faculty, or staff founders and their startups and small businesses.

The four programs, and their focus and application deadlines, are as follows:

  • Rice's OwlSpark is focused on early-stage startup teams with at least one Rice student, faculty, or staff founders to grow from innovation to commercialization. Apply by March 13.
  • UH's RedLabs is focused on early-stage startup teams with at least one UH student, faculty, or staff founders to grow from innovation to commercialization. Apply by March 31.
  • Rice's BlueLaunch is focused on non-tech small business entrepreneurs who are either student, faculty, or staff at Rice. Apply by March 13.
  • UH's Red Launch is focused on non-tech small business entrepreneurs who are either student, faculty, or staff at UH. Apply by March 31.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston startup recognized for inclusivity on journey to commercialize next-gen therapeutics

future of medicine

A new Houston biotech company won a special award at the 16th Annual SXSW Pitch Award Ceremony earlier this month.

Phiogen, one of 45 companies that competed in nine categories, was the winner for best inclusivity, much to the surprise of the company’s CEO, Amanda Burkhardt.

Burkhardt tells InnovationMap that while she wanted to represent the heavily female patient population that Phiogen seeks to treat, really she just hires the most skilled scientists.

“The best talent was the folks that we have and it ends up being we have three green card holders on our team. As far as ethnicities, we have on our team we have Indian, African-American, Korean, Chinese Pakistani, Moroccan and Hispanic people and that just kind of just makes up the people who helped us on a day-to-day basis,” she explains.

Phiogen was selected out of 670 companies to be in the health and nutrition category at SXSW.

“We did really well, but there was another company that also did really well. And so we were not selected for the pitch competition, which we were a little bummed about because I killed the pitch,” Burkhardt recalls.

But Phiogen is worthy of note, pitch competition or not. The new company spun off from research at Dr. Anthony Maresso’s TAILOR Labs, a personalized phage therapy center at Baylor College of Medicine, last June.

“Our whole goal is to create the next generation of anti-infectives,” says Burkhardt.

That means that the company is making alternatives to antibiotics, but as Burkhardt says, “We’re hoping to be better than antibiotics.”

How does it work? Bacteriophages are viruses that infect bacteria.

“You can imagine them as the predators in the bacteria world, but they don't infect humans. They don't affect animals. They only infect bacteria,” Burkhardt explains.

Phiogen utilizes carefully honed bacteriophages to attack bacteria that include the baddies behind urinary tract infection (UTI), bacteremia (bacteria in the blood), and skin wounds.

The team’s primary focus is on treatment-resistant UTI. One example was a male patient who received Phiogen’s treatment thanks to an emergency-use authorization from the FDA. The gentleman had been suffering from an infection for 20 years. He was treated with Phiogen’s bacteriophage therapy for two weeks and completely cleared his infection with no recurrence.

Amanda Burkhardt is the CEO of Phiogen. Photo via LinkedIn

But Phiogen has its sights set well beyond the first maladies it’s treated. An oft-quoted 2016 report projected that by 2050, 10 million people a year will be dying from drug-resistant infections.

“A lot of scientists call it the silent pandemic because it's happening now, we're living in it, but there's just not as much being said about it because it normally happens to people who are already in the hospital for something else, or it's a comorbidity, but that's not always the case, especially when we're talking about urinary tract infections,” says Burkhardt.

Bacteriophages are important because they can be quickly trained to fight against resistant strains, whereas it takes years and millions of dollars to develop new antibiotics. There are 13 clinical trials that are currently taking place for bacteriophage therapy. Burkhardt estimates that the treatment method will likely gain FDA approval in the next five years.

“The FDA actually has been super flexible on progressing forward. Because they are naturally occurring, there's not really a safety risk with these products,” she says.

And Burkhardt, whose background is in life-science commercialization, says there’s no better place to build Phiogen than in Houston.

“You have Boston, you have the Bay [Area], and you have the Gulf Coast,” she says. “And Houston is cheaper, the people are friendlier, and it’s not a bad place to be in the winter.”

She also mentions the impressive shadow that Helix Park will cast over the ecosystem. Phiogen will move later this year to the new campus — one of the labs selected to join Baylor College of Medicine.

And as for that prize, chances are, it won’t be Phiogen’s last.

Houston student selected for prestigious health care research program

bright future

A Houston-area undergraduate student has been tapped for a prestigious national program that pairs early-career investigators with health research professionals.

Mielad Ziaee was selected for the National Institutes of Health’s 2023-2024 All of Us Research Scholar Program, which connects young innovators with experts "working to advance the field of precision medicine," according to a statement from UH. Ziaee – a 20-year-old majoring in psychology and minoring in biology, medicine and society who plans to graduate in 2025 — plans to research how genomics, or the studying of a person's DNA, can be used to impact health.

“I’ll be one of the ones that define what this field of personalized, precision medicine will look like in the future,” Ziaee said in a statement. “It’s exciting and it’s a big responsibility that will involve engaging diverse populations and stakeholders from different systems – from researchers to health care providers to policymakers.”

Ziaee aims to become a physician who can use an understanding of social health conditions to guide his clinical practice. At a young age, he was inspired to go into the field by his family's own experience.

According to UH, Ziaee is the oldest child of Iranian American immigrants. He saw firsthand the challenges of how language and cultural barriers can impact patients' access to and level of care.

“I think a lot of people define health as purely biological, but a lot of other factors influence our well-being, such as mental health, financial health, and even access to good food, medical care and the internet,” he said in a statement. “I am interested in seeing the relationship among all these things and how they impact our health. So far, a lot of health policies and systems have not really looked beyond biology.”

"I want everyone to have an equal chance to access health care and take charge of their well-being. We need to have the systems in place that let people do that,” he added.

Ziaee is already on his way to helping Houston-based and national health systems and organizations make headway in this area.

He was named as a student regent on the UH System Board of Regents last year, sits on the board of the Houston chapter of the American Red Cross, and is an Albert Schweitzer Fellow.

Last year he was a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention John R. Lewis scholar, for which he presented his research project about predicting food insecurity in pediatric clinical settings and recommendations to improve the assessment based off his summer research with the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

Prior to this, he completed a 10-week guided research experience using data visualization and predictive modeling techniques to assess food insecurity in the Third Ward.

“I just took every opportunity that came to me,” Ziaee said. “All my experiences connect with my central desire to increase health access and improve health care. I am very intentional about connecting the dots to my passion.”

Earlier this year, three UH student researchers were named among 16 other early-stage research projects at U.S. colleges and universities to receive a total of $17.4 million from the DOE's Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (FECM). The projects were each awarded between about $750,000 to up to $1.5 million.

Houston tech entrepreneur expands energy data co. in Europe, continues to scale

houston innovators podcast episode 229

The technology that Amperon provides its customers — a comprehensive, AI-backed data analytics platform — is majorly key to the energy industry and the transition of the sector. But CEO Sean Kelly says he doesn't run his business like an energy company.

Kelly explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that he chooses to run Amperon as a tech company when it comes to hiring and scaling.

"There are a lot of energy companies that do tech — they'll hire a large IT department, they'll outsource a bunch of things, and they'll try to undergo a product themselves because they think it should be IP," he says on the show. "A tech company means that at your core, you're trying to build the best and brightest technology."

To Kelly, Amperon should be hiring in the same field as Google and other big tech companies that sit at the top of the market. And Kelly has done a lot of hiring recently. Recently closing the company's $20 million series B round last fall led by Energize Capital, Amperon has tripled its team in the past 14 months.

With his growing team, Kelly also speaks to the importance of partnerships as the company scales. Earlier this month, Amperon announced that it is replatforming its AI-powered energy analytics technology onto Microsoft Azure. The partnership with the tech giant allows Amperon's energy sector clients to use Microsoft's analytics stack with Amperon data.

And there are more collaborations where that comes from.

"For Amperon, 2024 is the year of partnerships," Kelly says on the podcast. "I think you'll see partnership announcements here in the next couple of quarters."

Along with more partners, Amperon is entering an era of expansion, specifically in Europe, which Kelly says has taken place at a fast pace.

"Amperon will be live in a month in 25 countries," he says.

While Amperon's technology isn't energy transition specific, Kelly shares how it's been surprising how many clean tech and climate tech lists Amperon has made it on.

"We don't brand ourselves as a clean tech company," Kelly says, "but we have four of the top six or eight wind providers who have all invested in Amperon. So, there's something there."

Amperon, which originally founded in 2018 before relocating to Houston a couple of years ago, is providing technology that helps customers move toward a lower carbon future.

"If you look at our customer base, Amperon is the heart of the energy transition. And Houston is the heart of the energy transition," he says.