Syzygy has completed more than 1,500 hours of testing of the cell to generate hydrogen from ammonia. Photo via Syzygy

Houston-based Syzygy Plasmonics is charging ahead with the world’s first light-powered reactor cell for industrial chemical reactions.

Syzygy says its Rigel reactor cell has met initial performance targets and is now available to order. The cell enables a customer to produce up to five tons of low-carbon hydrogen per day.

Syzygy has completed more than 1,500 hours of testing of the cell to generate hydrogen from ammonia. Testing of the ammonia e-cracking cell began in late 2023 and is still taking place.

The company hopes to capitalize on market demand in places like Asia and Europe. Syzygy says importers of liquified natural gas (LNG) in these places are being required to seek low-carbon alternatives, such as low-carbon ammonia. Some of this ammonia will be cracked to produce hydrogen for sectors like power generation and steel production.

Syzygy’s technology harnesses energy from high-efficiency artificial lighting to e-crack ammonia, eliminating the need for combustion. When powered by renewable electricity, Rigel cell stacks can deliver hydrogen from low-carbon ammonia.

“The testing at our Houston facility is going exceptionally well,” Syzygy CEO Trevor Best says in a news release.

The company is now ready to deliver projects capable of producing five tons of hydrogen per day. By 2025, Best says, 10-ton installations should come online. A year later, Syzygy expects to graduate to 100-ton projects.

Last year, Syzygy received a major boost when Mitsubishi Heavy Industries America invested in the company. The amount of the investment wasn’t disclosed.

In 2022, Syzygy raised $76 million in series C funding in a round led by Carbon Direct Capital.

Hit the highlights of Venture Houston 2023 with these overheard moments from the event. Photo courtesy of HX Venture Fund

Founders, investors sound off on Houston's VC scene, energy innovation potential, and more

EAVESDROPPING in Houston

Last week, nearly 1,000 people convened in Houston to discuss venture capital activity, startups, and decarbonization, and the Houston factor among it all.

On September 7, Venture Houston hosted several keynote addresses and panels throughout the day's programming, and investors from across the country discussed with Houston-based startup and corporate leaders on topics from seed funding to cultivating an ecosystem.

The annual event, presented by HX Venture Fund, a fund of funds that deploys capital into VC funds with an interest in Houston, had one significant through line throughout the day, and it was Houston's role within innovation and the energy transition.

Whether you missed the event or were there to soak in every second, here's a roundup of key statements on this topic from the panelists.

“We mapped out Texas as a high priority because we knew you can’t do energy without Texas. You can’t do energy without Houston."

Carmichael Roberts, investment committee co-lead for Breakthrough Ventures. "The opportunity that Houston has to be the unambiguous leader is because everywhere else can do energy transition, but they still can’t do what Houston does,” he continues.

“There’s no better place in the world than Houston to build and scale a climate tech startup.”

Tim Latimer, CEO and co-founder of Fervo Energy. “But I don’t know if I’m ready to make the claim that we’re the best place to start a business,” he adds.

“Houston needs that first, higher-profile investor who’s Houston-based, Houston-first, and wants to put as much capital as possible into energy transition and climate tech companies.”

Craig Wilson, managing director of NYU’s Tandon Future Labs. “Houston is blessed with an incredible amount of CVC and late stage capital," he continues. "What it really could use is early stage capital.”

“There are a couple aspects you need for an ecosystem, and Houston has been putting a lot of those in place, but it’s not perfect yet, and there’s still work that this ecosystem needs to do."

Trevor Best, CEO and co-founder of Syzygy Plasmonics. Startups need talent, facilities, capital, and customers. “Here in Houston, for energy transition technologies, I don’t know if there’s an ecosystem that can check the box (for customers) stronger than Houston," he adds, explaining that talent is here too. Where Houston needs improvement, according to Best, is in facilities, which is seeing some progress, and capital development.

“I think Houston is actually the perfect place for becoming the energy transition capital. If you ask me, I think we already are.” 

Andrea Course, venture principal of Shell Ventures. “It really just takes people doing what we’re doing now to make it even greater," she adds.

“We have to figure out ways for how big energy companies work with new technology providers in partnership and not say it’s a David versus Goliath thing.”

Gaurab Chakrabarti, co-founder and CEO of Solugen. “That’s a philosophical misalignment,” he continues. “Instead of saying it’s an absolute problem, accept that it’s a transition.”

With this new joint effort, Syzygy is one step closer to commercial scale of its decarbonization technology. Photo courtesy of Syzygy

Houston startup teams up with nonprofit research for decarbonization pilot

seeing green

A Houston tech company has joined forces with a nonprofit to test a new sustainable fuel production process.

The project is a joint effort from Houston-based Syzygy Plasmonics and nonprofit research institute RTI International and sponsored by Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corporation of Americas. Based in the RTI facility in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, the six-month pilot is testing a way to convert two potent greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) — into low-carbon-intensity fuels, which have the potential to replace petroleum-based jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

"This demonstration will be the first of its kind and represents a disruptive step in carbon utilization. The sustainable fuels produced are expected to quickly achieve cost parity with today's fossil fuels," says Syzygy CEO Trevor Best in a news release. "Integrating our technology with RTI's Fischer-Tropsch synthesis system has the potential to significantly reduce the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation without requiring major fleet modifications."

According to Syzygy, the pilot is a step toward being able to scale the process to a commercial-ready Syzygy e-fuels plant.

"By making minor adjustments in the process, we also expect to produce sustainable methanol using the same technology," Best continues.

An independent research institute, RTI International's focus is on improving the human condition. The multidisciplinary nonprofit seeks to support science-based solutions like Syzygy's technology, which has already proven its scale-up capabilities in earlier testing.

Through the partnership, RTI will assist Syzygy with process design and systems integration for the pilot-scale demonstration. Once it reaches commercial scale, the technology is expected to turn millions of tons of CO2 per year to produce sustainable fuels.

"We are excited about the opportunity to collaborate with Syzygy to test and assist in the scale-up of this promising technology," says Sameer Parvathikar, Ph.D., the director of the Renewable Energy and Energy Storage program in RTI's Technology Advancement and Commercialization business unit. "This work aligns with our capabilities, our goals of helping de-risk and commercialize novel technologies, and our vision to address the world's most critical problems with science-based solutions."

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Stuart Corr of Pumps & Pipes, Trevor Best of Syzygy, and Jennifer Steil of Northwestern Mutual. Photos courtesy

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 clean energy technology to financial planning — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Stuart Corr, executive director of Pumps & Pipes

What do Houston's three key industries — aerospace, medicine, and energy — have in common? Pumps and pipes, Stuart Corr explains. Photo via pumpsandpipes.org

Stuart Corr, executive director of Pumps & Pipes, and his team are gearing up for the organization's big annual event — which is returning to its in-person capacity. Though most people would not connect the dots on what all the health care, energy, and aerospace industries have in common, but for Stuart Corr, the connection is clear. It's all a bunch of pumps and pipes.

The Houston organization was founded in 2007 to strengthen the collaboration across Houston's three key industries. The city has NASA down the street, the world's largest medical center, and is regarded as the "energy capital of the world." Through the Pumps & Pipes network, innovators across these entities can share resources and collaborate.

"Pumps & Pipes is all about our network — about innovation on demand. It's the idea that we understand what's in other people's toolkits and innovation and technology portfolios," Corr says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovator Podcast. "Ideally, we want to use these new technologies to solve our own problems."

The event is on December 5 at the Ion. Tickets are on sale now. Read more.Read more.

Trevor Best, co-founder and CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics

Syzygy Plasmonics has raised a series C round of funding. Photo courtesy of Syzygy

Houston-based Syzygy Plasmonics closed a $76 million series C financing round led by New York-based Carbon Direct Capital.

The investment funding raised will help the company to "further development and delivery of all-electric reactor systems that eliminate fossil-based combustion from chemical manufacturing and reduce the carbon intensity of hydrogen, methanol, and fuel," per a news release.

"Closing this fundraising round with such strong support from financial and strategic investors and with commercial agreements in hand is a signal to the market," Syzygy Plasmonics CEO and Co-Founder Trevor Best says in the release. "Forward-thinking companies have moved beyond setting decarbonization goals to executing on them. Syzygy is unique in that we are developing low-cost, low-carbon solutions to offer across multiple industries." Read more.

Jennifer Steil, wealth management adviser for Northwestern Mutual

In observance of Women’s Entrepreneurship Day on November 19, a Houstonian shares her four key considerations for women who want to start their own businesses. Photo courtesy

Saturday was Women’s Entrepreneurship Day, and one Houston-based financial planner shared some tips and considerations for aspiring female founders.

In her guest column for InnovationMap, Jennifer Steil, financial planner for Northwestern Mutual, explained the importance of authenticity and advice on building the right team and support network.

"Being a female business owner has its challenges, but it is also extremely rewarding. If you’re considering starting your own business, it’s important to remember to stay true to yourself and do your due diligence to prepare for whatever unique challenges may be thrown your way," she writes. Read more.

Syzygy Plasmonics has raised a series C round of funding. Photo courtesy of Syzygy

Houston company closes $76M series C round to fuel its mission of reducing carbon emissions

money moves

A Houston-based company that is electrifying chemical manufacturing has closed its largest round of funding to date.

Syzygy Plasmonics closed a $76 million series C financing round led by New York-based Carbon Direct Capital. The round included participation from Aramco Ventures, Chevron Technology Ventures, LOTTE CHEMICAL, and Toyota Ventures. The company's existing investors joining the round included EVOK Innovations, The Engine, Equinor Ventures, Goose Capital, Horizons Ventures, Pan American Energy, and Sumitomo Corporation of Americas. According to a news release, Carbon Direct Capital will join Syzygy's board and serve as the series C director.

"We were very attracted to the multiple use cases for the Syzygy reactor and the lifetime-value of each Syzygy customer," says Jonathan Goldberg, Carbon Direct Capital's CEO, in the release. "Emissions from hydrogen production total more than 900 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Syzygy's photocatalysis technology is a key solution to decarbonize hydrogen production as well as other critical industries."

Syzygy Plasmonics has a technology that harnesses the power of light to energize chemical reactions — rather than the traditional process that is fueled by heat. The Syzygy approach reduces feedstock waste and produces fewer emissions when powered by renewable electricity. According to the release, some series C participants have also formed commercial agreements to deploy Syzygy's technology to meet their decarbonization goals.

The investment funding raised will help the company to "further development and delivery of all-electric reactor systems that eliminate fossil-based combustion from chemical manufacturing and reduce the carbon intensity of hydrogen, methanol, and fuel," per the release.

"Our mission is to decarbonize chemical and fuel production," says Syzygy Plasmonics CEO and Co-Founder Trevor Best in the release. "Syzygy's aim is to achieve 1 gigaton of carbon emissions reductions by 2040, and the series C financing is a key milestone in building towards that goal.

"Closing this fundraising round with such strong support from financial and strategic investors and with commercial agreements in hand is a signal to the market," he continues. "Forward-thinking companies have moved beyond setting decarbonization goals to executing on them. Syzygy is unique in that we are developing low-cost, low-carbon solutions to offer across multiple industries."

Syzygy was founded based off a breakthrough discover out of Rice University from co-founders and professors Naomi Halas and Peter Nordlander, who invented high-performance photocatalysts. The company's collaborators then engineered a novel reactor that uses easy-to-find low-cost materials like glass, aluminum, and LEDs instead of high-cost metal alloys. After several field trials of the scalable, universal chemical reactor platform, Syzygy expects commercial units scheduled to ship in 2023.

"Syzygy is hyper-focused on aligning energy, technology, and sustainability," says Suman Khatiwada, CTO and co-founder of Syzygy, in the release. "The projects we are delivering are targeting zero-emissions hydrogen from green ammonia, low-emissions hydrogen from combustion-free steam methane reforming, and sustainable fuels made from carbon dioxide and methane. This technology is the future of chemical manufacturing."

Syzygy has raised a $23 million series B round last year following its $5.8 series A in 2019.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Juliana Garaizar of Greentown Labs, Trevor Best of Syzygy Plasmonics, and Nathan Ough of VoltaGrid. Photos courtesy

3 Houston energy 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 the energy industry recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Juliana Garaizar, head of the Houston incubator and vice president of innovation at Greentown Labs

Juliana Garaizar joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the incubator's upcoming Climatetech Summit. Photo courtesy of Juliana Garaizar

This week, Greentown Labs is hosting a two-day summit focused on elevating the conversation around clean energy and the energy transition in Houston and beyond, as well as serving as a showcase for emerging technologies coming out of Greentown's member companies.

"The main theme for this Climatetech Summit is commercialization, and we're trying to explore it in different ways," Juliana Garaizar, head of the Houston incubator and vice president of innovation for Greentown, says on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast. "We're going to have some great panels on rapid commercialization and Houston and the energy transition."

Last year, Houston played a role in Greentown's annual Climatetech Summit. The two-day streamed event in 2021 attracted over 2,500 viewers from 38 different countries. This year's event will return to in-person but keep the streaming element to maintain this opportunity to reach people all over the world. The summit kicks off on November 2 in Houston and continues on November 3 in Boston. (InnovationMap is a partner for the Houston portion of the summit.) Click here to read more.

Trevor Best, co-founder and CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics

Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics, announced a new tool for clean energy. Photo courtesy of Syzygy

Houston-area energy tech startup Syzygy Plasmonics just released a free online tool at CarbonModel.com that enables users to calculate the greenhouse gas emissions and emission-reduction costs in as little as 60 seconds. It’s a more straightforward way of making those calculations than is offered by Argonne National Laboratory’s Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Technologies (GREET) model, the startup says.

Syzygy co-founder and CEO Trevor Best calls the Inflation Reduction Act “a major tailwind” for energy transition and hydrogen adoption.

“Existing hydrogen producers now have the fiscal support needed to sanction new projects. And companies that had been mulling hydrogen as a new business are incentivized to move more quickly,” Best says. “Both existing and new entrants in the hydrogen market want to know if their hydrogen is clean enough to qualify for [Inflation Reduction Act] tax credits.” Click here to read more.

Nathan Ough, president and CEO of VoltaGrid

Houston-based VoltaGrid provides small-scale, self-contained microgrids that can operate independently of major power grids or in tandem with other microgrids. Photo via LinkedIn

Bellaire-based VoltaGrid, which provides small-scale, self-contained microgrids that can operate independently of major power grids or in tandem with other microgrids, has hauled in $150 million in equity funding. VoltaGrid’s product consists of natural gas engines, portable energy storage, natural gas processing and grid power connectivity.

VoltaGrid says it will spend the fresh cash to grow its power generation portfolio, along with its low-carbon fuel program in partnership with Pilot. The low-carbon platform features hydrogen and compressed natural gas.

“VoltaGrid continues to set new milestones across multiple sectors and business lines as we execute on our proven strategy with key partners,” Nathan Ough, president and CEO of VoltaGrid, says. Click here to read more.

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New Houston venture studio emerges to target early-stage hardtech, energy transition startups

funding the future

The way Doug Lee looks at it, there are two areas within the energy transition attracting capital. With his new venture studio, he hopes to target an often overlooked area that's critical for driving forward net-zero goals.

Lee describes investment activity taking place in the digital and software world — early stage technology that's looking to make the industry smarter. But, on the other end of the spectrum, investment activity can be found on massive infrastructure projects.

While both areas need funding, Lee has started his new venture studio, Flathead Forge, to target early-stage hardtech technologies.

“We are really getting at the early stage companies that are trying to develop technologies at the intersection of legacy industries that we believe can become more sustainable and the energy transition — where we are going. It’s not an ‘if’ or ‘or’ — we believe these things intersect,” he tells EnergyCapital.

Specifically, Lee's expertise is within the water and industrial gas space. For around 15 years, he's made investments in this area, which he describes as crucial to the energy transition.

“Almost every energy transition technology that you can point to has some critical dependency on water or gas,” he says. “We believe that if we don’t solve for those things, the other projects won’t survive.”

Lee, and his brother, Dave, are evolving their family office to adopt a venture studio model. They also sold off Azoto Energy, a Canadian oilfield nitrogen cryogenic services business, in December.

“We ourselves are going through a transition like our energy is going through a transition,” he says. “We are transitioning into a single family office into a venture studio. By doing so, we want to focus all of our access and resources into this focus.”

At this point, Flathead Forge has seven portfolio companies and around 15 corporations they are working with to identify their needs and potential opportunities. Lee says he's gearing up to secure a $100 million fund.

Flathead also has 40 advisers and mentors, which Lee calls sherpas — a nod to the Flathead Valley region in Montana, which inspired the firm's name.

“We’re going to help you carry up, we’re going to tie ourselves to the same rope as you, and if you fall off the mountain, we’re falling off with you,” Lee says of his hands-on approach, which he says sets Flathead apart from other studios.

Another thing that's differentiating Flathead Forge from its competition — it's dedication to giving back.

“We’ve set aside a quarter of our carried interest for scholarships and grants,” Lee says.

The funds will go to scholarships for future engineers interested in the energy transition, as well as grants for researchers studying high-potential technologies.

“We’re putting our own money where our mouth is,” Lee says of his thesis for Flathead Forge.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston-based lunar mission's rocky landing and what it means for America's return to the moon

houston, we have a problem

A private U.S. lunar lander tipped over at touchdown and ended up on its side near the moon’s south pole, hampering communications, company officials said Friday.

Intuitive Machines initially believed its six-footed lander, Odysseus, was upright after Thursday's touchdown. But CEO Steve Altemus said Friday the craft “caught a foot in the surface," falling onto its side and, quite possibly, leaning against a rock. He said it was coming in too fast and may have snapped a leg.

“So far, we have quite a bit of operational capability even though we’re tipped over," he told reporters.

But some antennas were pointed toward the surface, limiting flight controllers' ability to get data down, Altemus said. The antennas were stationed high on the 14-foot (4.3-meter) lander to facilitate communications at the hilly, cratered and shadowed south polar region.

Odysseus — the first U.S. lander in more than 50 years — is thought to be within a few miles (kilometers) of its intended landing site near the Malapert A crater, less than 200 miles (300 kilometers) from the south pole. NASA, the main customer, wanted to get as close as possible to the pole to scout out the area before astronauts show up later this decade.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will attempt to pinpoint the lander's location, as it flies overhead this weekend.

With Thursday’s touchdown, Intuitive Machines became the first private business to pull off a moon landing, a feat previously achieved by only five countries. Japan was the latest country to score a landing, but its lander also ended up on its side last month.

Odysseus' mission was sponsored in large part by NASA, whose experiments were on board. NASA paid $118 million for the delivery under a program meant to jump-start the lunar economy.

One of the NASA experiments was pressed into service when the lander's navigation system did not kick in. Intuitive Machines caught the problem in advance when it tried to use its lasers to improve the lander's orbit. Otherwise, flight controllers would not have discovered the failure until it was too late, just five minutes before touchdown.

“Serendipity is absolutely the right word,” mission director Tim Crain said.

It turns out that a switch was not flipped before flight, preventing the system's activation in space.

Launched last week from Florida, Odysseus took an extra lap around the moon Thursday to allow time for the last-minute switch to NASA's laser system, which saved the day, officials noted.

Another experiment, a cube with four cameras, was supposed to pop off 30 seconds before touchdown to capture pictures of Odysseus’ landing. But Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s EagleCam was deliberately powered off during the final descent because of the navigation switch and stayed attached to the lander.

Embry-Riddle's Troy Henderson said his team will try to release EagleCam in the coming days, so it can photograph the lander from roughly 26 feet (8 meters) away.

"Getting that final picture of the lander on the surface is still an incredibly important task for us,” Henderson told The Associated Press.

Intuitive Machines anticipates just another week of operations on the moon for the solar-powered lander — nine or 10 days at most — before lunar nightfall hits.

The company was the second business to aim for the moon under NASA's commercial lunar services program. Last month, Pittsburgh's Astrobotic Technology gave it a shot, but a fuel leak on the lander cut the mission short and the craft ended up crashing back to Earth.

Until Thursday, the U.S. had not landed on the moon since Apollo 17's Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closed out NASA's famed moon-landing program in December 1972. NASA's new effort to return astronauts to the moon is named Artemis after Apollo's mythological twin sister. The first Artemis crew landing is planned for 2026 at the earliest.

3 female Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

If the energy transition is going to be successful, the energy storage space needs to be equipped to support both the increased volume of energy needed and new energies. And Emma Konet and her software company, Tierra Climate, are targeting one part of the equation: the market.

"To me, it's very clear that we need to build a lot of energy storage in order to transition the grid," Konet says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The problems that I saw were really on the market side of things." Read more.

Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. Photo courtesy of Sage

A Houston geothermal startup has announced the close of its series A round of funding.

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. The proceeds aim to fund its first commercial geopressured geothermal system facility, which will be built in Texas in Q4 of 2024. According to the company, the facility will be the first of its kind.

“The first close of our Series A funding and our commercial facility are significant milestones in our mission to make geopressured geothermal system technologies a reality,” Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems, says. Read more.

Clemmie Martin, chief of staff at The Cannon

With seven locations across the Houston area, The Cannon's digital technology allows its members a streamlined connection. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

After collaborating over the years, The Cannon has acquired a Houston startup's digital platform technology to become a "physical-digital hybrid" community.

Village Insights, a Houston startup, worked with The Cannon to create and launch its digital community platform Cannon Connect. Now, The Cannon has officially acquired the business. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“The integration of a world-class onsite member experience and Cannon Connect’s superior virtual resource network creates a seamless, streamlined environment for member organizations,” Clemmie Martin, The Cannon’s newly appointed chief of staff, says in the release. “Cannon Connect and this acquisition have paved new pathways to access and success for all.” Read more.