This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Moji Karimi of Cemvita Factory, Thomas Vassiliades of BiVACOR, and Veronica Wu of First Bight Ventures. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries recently making headlines in Houston across biotech and medical device.

Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita

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.

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." Continue reading.


Thomas Vassiliades, CEO of BiVACOR

Led by CEO Thomas Vassiliades, a former heart surgeon, BiVACOR is based on a system of magnetic levitation. Photo courtesy

A Houston company with a breakthrough heart health tech has received a green light from the FDA.

BiVACOR, a Houston-headquartered medical device company, has received FDA approval for its Total Artificial Heart (BTAH) IDE first-in-human early feasibility study (EFS). The BTAH device itself is designed to take over all function for patients with heart failure. The BTAH is roughly the size of a human fist, which means that, while it could support an active adult male, it may also fit many women and children.

Led by CEO Thomas Vassiliades, a former heart surgeon, BiVACOR is based on a system of magnetic levitation.

“Our pump is just one moving impeller that sits in the middle of the housing where the blood is. Imagine an artificial heart — the container that has your blood — and the device spinning in the inside — basically a wheel spinning your blood to the rest of your body. The device is suspended by magnets — it's not touching anything,” Vassiliades told InnovationMap in a podcast earlier this year. Continue reading.

Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures

First Bight Venture's BioWell has received a $741,925 grant to continue supporting bioindustrial startups. Photo courtesy

A Houston-based nonprofit accelerator that works with early-stage synthetic biology startups has secured nearly $750,000 to support its mission.

First Bight Ventures' accelerator, BioWell, secured $741,925 of the $53 million doled out as a part of the "Build to Scale" Grant program that the U.S. Economic Development Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, has established. First Bight was one of 60 organizations to receive funding.

The funding will support the BioWell's mission to establish a "vibrant bioeconomy" by helping startups scale and commercialize "through access to a unique combination of pilot bioproduction infrastructure," according to a news release from First Bight.on.

"Often times, early-stage startups gain momentum and hit important milestones, but ultimately find themselves heading toward the 'Valley of Death,' where progress is made on their enterprise, but no sufficient revenue is generated for the company's stability and longevity," Wu says in the release. "This 'Build to Scale' program's support will help offset these inevitable challenges in our bio-industrial space." Continue reading.

The study will include 10 hospitals enrolled as possible sites and is slated to begin in 2024. One location is Houston’s own Texas Heart Institute. Photo courtesy of BiVACOR

Houston medical device company with long-lasting artificial heart reaches FDA milestone

feasibility focused

A Houston company with a breakthrough heart health tech has received a green light from the FDA.

BiVACOR, a Houston-headquartered medical device company, has received FDA approval for its Total Artificial Heart (BTAH) IDE first-in-human early feasibility study (EFS). The BTAH device itself is designed to take over all function for patients with heart failure. The BTAH is roughly the size of a human fist, which means that, while it could support an active adult male, it may also fit many women and children.

Led by CEO Thomas Vassiliades, a former heart surgeon, BiVACOR is based on a system of magnetic levitation. “Our pump is just one moving impeller that sits in the middle of the housing where the blood is. Imagine an artificial heart — the container that has your blood — and the device spinning in the inside — basically a wheel spinning your blood to the rest of your body. The device is suspended by magnets — it's not touching anything,” Vassiliades told InnovationMap in a podcast earlier this year.

Because of that, BiVACOR could potentially last for a patient’s entire life with no wear — something, Vassiliades explains, is new to the field.

The EFS includes 10 hospitals enrolled as possible sites and is slated to begin in 2024. One location is Houston’s own Texas Heart Institute.

“I am eager to begin the BiVACOR Total Artificial Heart EFS to evaluate what I believe is a promising and potentially life-saving technology,” Joseph Rogers, CEO of the Texas Heart Institute, says in a press release. “The implantation of a TAH system is a potential treatment option for patients with heart failure who need support while on the heart transplant waiting list and for those who do not qualify for a transplant. The BTAH is designed to replace the function of the native heart completely. It is an impressive technology, and I am excited to see the potential of BTAH in treating patients with severe heart failure.”

BiVACOR’s chief medical officer is Texas Heart Institute cardiac surgeon William Cohn. He said that this EFS is a “critical milestone” for him and the BiVACOR team.

“This device will provide a unique approach to help patients currently with limited clinical options,” he explains.

The upcoming study is planned for biventricular heart failure patients who need a mechanical circulatory support device as a bridge to later transplantation. However, the team hopes that future studies will follow to chart the BTAH’s success with short-term and long-term destination therapy.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Albert Huang of Allotrope Medical, Janice Tran of Kanin Energy, and Thomas Vassiliades of BiVACOR. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

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

Albert Huang, founder of Allotrope Medical

Allotrope Medical was founded in 2016 by Dr. Albert Huang. Image via LinkedIn

Illinois-based Northgate Technologies Inc. announced the acquisition of Houston-founded Allotrope Medical earlier this month. Founded in 2016 by Dr. Albert Huang, the startup has designed an electrosurgical ureter identification system for optimizing surgery for both robotic and non-robotic laparoscopic surgical procedures. Huang, according to his LinkedIn, is now chief medical officer for NTI.

"To have taken this from idea to exit has been a true honor," Huang writes in a post on LinkedIn. "To all those that have generously given me their time, their input, their investment, and even more importantly, those that believed in me and this technology, thank you." Read more.

Janice Tran, CEO of Kanin Energy

Kanin Energy set up shop in Greentown Labs last year to grow its impact on the energy transition. Photo via LinkedIn

Last year, Janice Tran, CEO of Kanin Energy, a waste-heat-to-power concept that uses a technology called organic rankine cycle, moved from Calgary, Canada, to Houston to continue growing as a company.

“We’re hiring and building our team office out of Greentown. It’s been really great for us,” she says, adding that becoming part of the Houston energy ecosystem has been invaluable for Kanin.

The investments being made in climate tech and in energy transition make Space City the right place for the company. Read more.

Thomas Vassiliades, CEO of BiVACOR

Thomas Vassiliades, CEO of BiVACOR, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of BiVACOR

Though most of the BiVACOR team works on the West Coast and even Australia, the medical device company has its headquarters in Houston because it's the "center of the universe when it comes to blood pumps," says Dr. Thomas Vassiliades, CEO of BiVACOR.

The company has designed a unique device that can both fully replace the human heart and last the rest of the patient's life, something neither artificial on transplanted hearts can do.

"The device is suspended by magnets — it's not touching anything," he says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "So, theoretically, the device has no wear and can last as long as the patient can possibly live. That's new to the field." Read more.

Thomas Vassiliades, CEO of BiVACOR, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of BiVACOR

How this Houston-headquartered company is innovating the future of heart replacement

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 183

Heart disease is one of the most common causes of death in the United States — one in five deaths, according to the CDC. But there's not a long-term solutions for patients — even for those lucky enough to have a successful heart transplant. But a Houston-headquartered medical device company is working on one.

BiVACOR has created a technology that, theoretically, could completely replace a patient's heart and last them the rest of their lives.

"The design is critical," says Thomas Vassiliades, CEO of BiVACOR, on the Houston Innovators Podcast. He joined the organization last year after spending 20 years of a heart surgeon, then transitioning to medical device development over a decade ago.

Vassiliades explains the industry's challenges on the show, saying that there's no comprehensive, lasting replacement to the human heart on the market. While some treatments — like transplants and medical devices that partially replace the heart's capabilities — exist, nothing that completely replaces the heart lasts longer than 10 to 12 years.

"The BiVACOR system is based on magnetic levitation," Vassiliades says about the technology. "Our pump is just one moving impeller that sits in the middle of the housing where the blood is. Imagine an artificial heart — the container that has your blood — and the device spinning in the inside — basically a wheel spinning your blood to the rest of your body.

"The device is suspended by magnets — it's not touching anything," he continues. "So, theoretically, the device has no wear and can last as long as the patient can possibly live. That's new to the field."

Daniel Timms, BiVACOR's founder and CTO, knew there had to be a better, more permanent solution and has been working on the technology since he was a postdoctoral student at Queensland University of Technology in Australia. His work took him to Houston's Texas Heart Institute, the "center of the universe when it comes to blood pumps," says Vassiliades.

The company recently raised $18 million in funding to support its growing team and continued growth. BiVACOR is a Class 3 medical device — the most rigorously regulated type of device, so the funding raised will support the company as it continues to meet the FDA's requirements and proceeds into implantation and clinical trials.

While headquartered in Houston and has close ties to THI, most of BiVACOR's team works out of Huntington Beach, California, just 30 minutes away from its manufacturing partner — something that has been critical for the design phase. Other employees work in Europe and Australia, which has resulted in government grant funding. Each market the company works in has a strategic purpose — and Houston's role is testing.

"We're going to be training all our clinical sites in Houston, and we're going to continue to do ongoing testing," he says. "We're very comfortable with the design of the device, ... but there's always more. And we have a long-term plan to iterate on the device to make it even better."

Vassiliades shares more of the challenges he's facing as he commercializes BiVACOR's technology on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


BiVACOR has received fresh funding from its investors to further develop its artificial heart. Photo courtesy of BiVACOR

Houston med device startup raises $18M, prepares to hire

money moves

A Houston medical device company that is developing an artificial heart announced it has received investment funding to the tune of $18 million.

BiVACOR's investment round was led by Boston-based Cormorant Asset Management and Australia's OneVentures's Healthcare Fund III. According to the company, the funding will be deployed to continue research and development, hiring executives, and support the path to first in human trials.

“We are extremely grateful for the ongoing support from our core investors," says Thomas Vassiliades, who was named CEO of BiVACOR last year, in a news release. "This additional commitment further validates our technology and the need for improved options to treat end-stage biventricular heart failure.

“With this financing, we will be able to double the size of our organization and add key positions from the C-suite to research and development. We are well positioned to advance our preclinical activities and aim to conduct our First in Human early feasibility study planned for the end of the year,” he continues.

Billed as the first long-term treatment for patients with severe biventricular heart failure, the BiVACOR Total Artificial Heart is an implantable artificial heart that utilizes rotary blood pump technology. This technology includes magnetic levitation and is a "durable, reliable, and biocompatible heart replacement," per the company's release. It's about the size of a fist and can be used in a wide range of patients including some children and women and up to adult males.

“Under the leadership of its expert management team, the company has developed a credible strategy for growth as they march toward first in human studies,” says Jeannie Joughin, board chair and principal at One Ventures, in the release. “There is a huge gap in care for patients waiting for a heart transplant, and we are confident that BiVACOR will continue to execute its strategy to swiftly get the Total Artificial Heart into the patients who need it most.”

The company raised its $22 million series B round in early 2021, which was also led by Cormorant Asset Management and OneVentures. To date, BiVACOR has raised $60 million.

“BiVACOR continues to execute on its strategy, and there was no question that we would jump in to lead this funding,” says Bihua Chen, CEO and founder of Cormorant Asset Management. “We are impressed by BiVACOR’s world-class team and continued dedication to push the technology in the clinic. We’re excited to support their growth and vision to transform the treatment of biventricular heart failure with the world’s first fully MAGLEV total artificial heart.”

Founded in 2008, BiVACOR maintains offices in Cerritos, California, and Brisbane, Australia. The company is affiliated with Houston's Texas Heart Institute, where the world's first artificial heart was implanted. BiVACOR's headquarters is at the Texas Medical Center complex.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Thomas Vassiliades of BiVACOR, Katie Mehnert of ALLY Energy, and Don Whaley of OhmConnect Texas. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

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


Thomas Vassiliades, CEO of BiVACOR

BiVACOR named Thomas Vassiliades as CEO effective immediately. Photo courtesy of BiVACOR

Thomas Vassiliades has been named CEO of BiVACOR, and he replaces the company's founder, Daniel Timms, in the position. BiVACOR is on track to head toward human clinical trials and commercialization, and Vassiliades is tasked with leading the way.

Vassiliades has over 30 years of experience within the medical device industry as well as cardiothoracic surgery. He was most recently the general manager of the surgery and heart failure business at Abiomed and held several leadership roles at Medtronic. Dr. Vassiliades received his MD from the University of North Carolina, and his MBA was achieved with distinction at Emory University.

“I am excited and honored to join the BiVACOR team, working closely with Daniel and the entire team as we look forward to bringing this life-changing technology to the market,” says Dr. Vassiliades in the release. “Throughout my career, I’ve been guided by the goal of bringing innovative cardiovascular therapies to the market to improve patient care and outcomes – providing solutions for those that don’t have one. BiVACOR is uniquely well-positioned to provide long-term therapy for patients with severe biventricular heart failure.” Click here to read more.

Katie Mehnert, CEO and founder of ALLY Energy

Katie Mehnert joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the future of energy amid a pandemic, climate change, the Great Resignation, and more. Photo via Katie Mehnert

Katie Mehnert started ALLY Energy — originally founded as Pink Petro — to move forward DEI initiatives, and she says she started with building an audience first and foremost, but now the technology part of the platform has fallen into place too. Last summer, ALLY Energy acquired Clean Energy Social, which meant doubling its community while also onboarding new technology. On the episode, Mehnert reveals that this new website and platform is now up and running.

"We launched the integrated product a few weeks back," Mehnert says. "The whole goal was to move away from technology that wasn't serving us."

Now, moving into the new year, Mehnert is building the team the company needs. She says she hopes to grow ALLY from two employees to 10 by the end of the year and is looking for personnel within customer support, product developers, and sales and service. While ALLY is revenue generating, she also hopes to fundraise to further support scaling. Click here to read more.

Don Whaley, president at OhmConnect Texas

Texas is about a month away from the anniversary of Winter Storm Uri — would the state fair better if it saw a repeat in 2022? Photo courtesy

The state of Texas is about a month away from the one year anniversary of Winter Storm Uri — but is the state better prepared this winter season? Don Whaley, president at OhmConnect Texas, looked at where the state is now versus then in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"Governor Abbott has gone on record guaranteeing that the lights will stay on this winter, and I am inclined to agree. With the reinforcement of our fuel systems being mandated by the Railroad Commission, 2023 to 2025 should receive the same guarantee," he writes. "Beyond that, as the demand for electricity in Texas continues to grow, we will need to rely on the initiatives under consideration by the PUCT to attract investment and innovation in new, dispatchable generation and flexible demand solutions to ensure long-term stability in the ERCOT market.

Whaley has worked for over 40 years in the natural gas, electricity, and renewables industries, with specific experience in deregulated markets across the U.S. and Canada. He founded Direct Energy Texas and served as its president during the early years of deregulation. Click here to read more.

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Houston organizations launch collaborative center to boost cancer outcomes

new to HOU

Rice University's new Synthesis X Center officially launched last month to bring together experts in cancer care and chemistry.

The center was born out of what started about seven years ago as informal meetings between Rice chemist Han Xiao's research group and others from the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Baylor College of Medicine. The level of collaboration between the two teams has grown significantly over the years, and monthly meetings now draw about 100 participants from across disciplines, fields and Houston-based organizations, according to a statement from Rice.

Researchers at the new SynthX Center will aim to turn fundamental research into clinical applications and make precision adjustments to drug properties and molecules. It will focus on improving cancer outcomes by looking at an array of factors, including prevention and detection, immunotherapies, the use of artificial intelligence to speed drug discovery and development, and several other topics.

"At Rice, we are strong on the fundamental side of research in organic chemistry, chemical biology, bioengineering and nanomaterials,” Xiao says in the statement. “Starting at the laboratory bench, we can synthesize therapeutic molecules and proteins with atom-level precision, offering immense potential for real-world applications at the bedside ... But the clinicians and fundamental researchers don’t have a lot of time to talk and to exchange ideas, so SynthX wants to serve as the bridge and help make these connections.”

SynthX plans to issue its first merit-based seed grants to teams with representatives from Baylor and Rice this month.

With this recognition from Rice, the teams from Xiao's lab and the TMC will also be able to expand and formalize their programs. They will build upon annual retreats, in which investigators can share unpublished findings, and also plan to host a national conference, the first slated for this fall titled "Synthetic Innovations Towards a Cure for Cancer.”

“I am confident that the SynthX Center will be a great resource for both students and faculty who seek to translate discoveries from fundamental chemical research into medical applications that improve people’s lives,” Thomas Killian, dean of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences, says in the release.

Rice announced that it had invested in four other research centers along with SynthX last month. The other centers include the Center for Coastal Futures and Adaptive Resilience, the Center for Environmental Studies, the Center for Latin American and Latinx Studies and the Rice Center for Nanoscale Imaging Sciences.

Earlier this year, Rice also announced its first-ever recipients of its One Small Step Grant program, funded by its Office of Innovation. The program will provide funding to faculty working on "promising projects with commercial potential," according to the website.

Houston physicist scores $15.5M grant for high-energy nuclear physics research

FUTURE OF PHYSICS

A team of Rice University physicists has been awarded a prestigious grant from the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Physics for their work in high-energy nuclear physics and research into a new state of matter.

The five-year $15.5 million grant will go towards Rice physics and astronomy professor Wei Li's discoveries focused on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), a large, general-purpose particle physics detector built on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, a European organization for nuclear research in France and Switzerland. The work is "poised to revolutionize our understanding of fundamental physics," according to a statement from Rice.

Li's team will work to develop an ultra-fast silicon timing detector, known as the endcap timing layer (ETL), that will provide upgrades to the CMS detector. The ETl is expected to have a time resolution of 30 picoseconds per particle, which will allow for more precise time-of-flight particle identification.

The Rice team is collaborating with others from MIT, Oak Ridge National Lab, the University of Illinois Chicago and University of Kansas. Photo via Rice.edu

This will also help boost the performance of the High-Luminosity Large Hadron Collider (HL-LHC), which is scheduled to launch at CERN in 2029, allowing it to operate at about 10 times the luminosity than originally planned. The ETL also has applications for other colliders apart from the LHC, including the DOE’s electron-ion collider at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York.

“The ETL will enable breakthrough science in the area of heavy ion collisions, allowing us to delve into the properties of a remarkable new state of matter called the quark-gluon plasma,” Li explained in a statement. “This, in turn, offers invaluable insights into the strong nuclear force that binds particles at the core of matter.”

The ETL is also expected to aid in other areas of physics, including the search for the Higgs particle and understanding the makeup of dark matter.

Li is joined on this work by co-principal investigator Frank Geurts and researchers Nicole Lewis and Mike Matveev from Rice. The team is collaborating with others from MIT, Oak Ridge National Lab, the University of Illinois Chicago and University of Kansas.

Last year, fellow Rice physicist Qimiao Si, a theoretical quantum physicist, earned the prestigious Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship grant. The five-year fellowship, with up to $3 million in funding, will go towards his work to establish an unconventional approach to create and control topological states of matter, which plays an important role in materials research and quantum computing.

Meanwhile, the DOE recently tapped three Houston universities to compete in its annual startup competition focused on "high-potential energy technologies,” including one team from Rice.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.