Houston House at SXSW 2024 featured conversations about startup scaling, tips from CEOs, and more. Photo via Allie Danziger/LinkedIn

Houston innovators talked big topics at SXSW 2024 — from the startup scaling and converging industries to the future of work.

Houston House, which was put on by the Greater Houston Partnership on March 11, hosted four panels full of experts from Houston. If you missed the day-long activation, here are some highlights from the experts who each commented on the future of the Bayou City when it comes to startups, technology, innovation, and the next generation's workforce.

"When we think about Houston, we think about access to at-scale infrastructure, amenities, and workforce and talent pools."

— Remington Tonar, co-founder and chief growth officer at Cart.com, says about why the company chose to return its headquarters back to Houston last year. One of these amenities, Tonar explained, is Houston's global airports.

"If New York and Austin had a baby, it would be Houston, because you have friendly people with a big-city culture."

— Mitra Miller, vice president and board member of Houston Angel Network, says, adding that Houston has a cost efficiency to it, which should be at the forefront of founders' minds when considering where to locate.

"We are not only attracting global talents, we are also attracting global wealth and foreign investments because we are the rising city of the future. We are the global launch pad where you can scale internationally very quickly."

— Sunny Zhang, founder of TrueLeap, says adding how there's a redistribution of global workforce happening when you consider ongoing global affairs.

"We overwhelmingly as a company, and my co-founder would agree, knew we had to go the Houston path. And we started funneling a lot more resources here."

— Carolyn Rodz, co-founder and CEO of Hello Alice, says, explaining that the pandemic helped equalize the talent across the country, and this has been to the benefit of cities like Houston.

"Houston is here with arms open, welcoming people and actively recruiting."

— Sean Kelly, co-founder and CEO of Amperon, says, emphasizing how Texas has made moves to being business friendly. Amperon was founded in New York, before moving to Houston a couple years ago.

"There is a revolution starting to happen in Houston right now."

— Trevor Best, co-founder and CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics, says, first commenting on the momentum from Rice University, where his company's technology originates from. But, as he adds, when you compare the ecosystem when the startup was founded in 2019 to where it's at now, "there is so much more happening."

"Houston has a critical mass in terms of aerospace."

— Stephanie Munez Murphy of Aegus Aerospace says, saying specifically that NASA's Johnson Space Center holds some responsibility for that. "JSC is the home of opening up space commercialization."

"There's diversity in industries people are coming from, but also in terms of experience and expertise that (Houstonians) have."

— Robyn Cardwell of Omniscience says, adding that Houston's diversity goes further than just where people originate from. "Houston has all these pieces put together ... for growing and scaling organizations," she adds.

"I've worked with thousands of students in Houston who are actively looking to better themselves and grow their career post college or post high school and go into the workforce."

— Allie Danziger of Ascent Funding says, adding that Gen Z, which is already entering the workforce, is entrepreneurial and ready to change the world. "Seeing the energy of Houstonians is just thrilling," she adds.

"We're working together in the Houston community. ... There are so many opportunities to collaborate but we need conveners." 

— Stacy Putman of INEOS says, adding that within industry there has been a lack of discussion and collaboration because of competition. But, as she's observing, that's changing thanks to conveners at colleges or at the Greater Houston Partnership.

"The opportunity for Houston is that everybody has to step up to be in some way, shape, or form helping us with this."

— Raj Salhotra of Momentum Education says about supporting the future workforce of Houston, including low-income household students.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Lori-Lee Elliott of Dauntless XR, Sandip Bordoloi of TrueLeap, and Stephanie Nolan of Square Robot. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every Monday, I'm introducing you to three Houston innovators to know — 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.

Lori-Lee Elliott, CEO and co-founder of Dauntless XR

Lori-Lee Elliott of Dauntless XR joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share about her tech company's evolution. Photo via LinkedIn

As Lori-Lee Elliott was building out her company — an augmented reality software company to enhance industrial workflow — she was approached by a representative in the Air Force interested in her technology. That conversation would end up leading to a major rebrand and pivot, as well as multiple federal contracts and grants for the Houston startup.

Dauntless XR — originally founded as Future Sight AR in 2018 — has two software platforms that bring customers flexible mixed reality solutions. The Air Force uses the Aura platform to create 3D replays of missions, while NASA plans to utilize the technology for analyzing space weather data.

"Something that we realized when we built out this platform is that it doesn't have to be for just one thing," Elliott says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We can make it ingest all kind of data sources. It does require us as the developers and the architects to go in and learn about each application. And that's great because I get bored easily and it's an endless source of fascination." Continue reading.

Sandip Bordoloi, CEO and co-founder of TrueLeap

TrueLeap Inc., global digital education startup addressing the digital divide in education, has raised $610,000. Photo via LinkedIn

An edtech startup has just secured funding to further its mission of increasing accessibility to education.

TrueLeap Inc., global digital education startup addressing the digital divide in education, has raised $610,000, which is over its target of $500,000. The round was led by United Kingdom-based Maya Investments Limited.

"This oversubscribed funding round, led by Maya Investments Limited, is a testament to the urgent need for innovative educational technologies in emerging markets. Our commitment to providing affordable and integrated solutions is stronger than ever," says Sandip Bordoloi, CEO and Co-Founder of TrueLeap, in a news release. Continue reading.

Stephanie Nolan, director of sales at Square Robot

It's a different world for startups on the other side of the pandemic — especially for business development. One Houston innovator shares her lessons learned. Photo courtesy of Square Robot

The post-pandemic world of business development has evolved, as Stephanie Nolan, director of sales at Square Robot, has observed. In a guest column for InnovationMap, she shares her experience and lessons learned.

"When I joined the Houston team at Square Robot, a startup that was trying to disrupt an industry, I had to learn how to navigate a post-pandemic sales world — where hybrid work, reliance on emails, and video based web calls are now the norm — coupled with the challenges of working for a relatively new company," she writes.

She shares how she prioritizes in-person meetings and taps into important networking organizations. Continue reading.

The edtech company offers a comprehensive approach to shrinking the digital divide with a suite of technology including software, hardware, and more. Photo courtesy of TrueLeap

Houston edtech startup closes oversubscribed pre-seed round to increase access to learning

fresh funding

An edtech startup has just secured funding to further its mission of increasing accessibility to education.

TrueLeap Inc., global digital education startup addressing the digital divide in education, has raised $610,000, which is over its target of $500,000. The round was led by United Kingdom-based Maya Investments Limited.

"This oversubscribed funding round, led by Maya Investments Limited, is a testament to the urgent need for innovative educational technologies in emerging markets. Our commitment to providing affordable and integrated solutions is stronger than ever," says Sandip Bordoloi, CEO and Co-Founder of TrueLeap, in a news release.

Of the nearly 2 billion K-12 students in the world, only 640 million people have access to internet, and an even smaller populace — 390 million — have access to digital learning tools. That's what TrueLeap aims to change.

The company offers a comprehensive approach for customers with a suite of technology including software — a Learning Management System and Content Management System — as well as hardware infrastructure, digital content, training and support, and data-driven intelligence.

TrueLeap targets schools in emerging markets and currently has operations in the United States, India, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

TrueLeap's co-founder Sunny Zhang recently joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the company's mission. As a professor at University of St. Thomas, she's experienced first hand how challenging managing digital learning can be — on all sides, from student and teacher to even administrative. She's working to design a comprehensive platform of hardtech and software for educators globally.

The idea and technology is being developed out of Born Global Ventures, a Houston venture studio focused on advancing immigrant-founded technology. As founding partner of the organization, Zhang explains some of the unique challenges immigrant founders face on the show — and why Houston is a prime location to foster this kind of community.

"We were motivated to bridge the gap between academia and business to facilitate commercialization process, but especially with the global market in mind," Zhang says. "Houston is the number one diverse city in the United States and the number one city in the US for foreign business."

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Sunny Zhang of TrueLeap, Jim Dillon of BiVACOR, and Livia Schiavinato Eberlin of Baylor College of Medicine. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Each week, I'm introducing you to three Houston innovators to know — 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.

Sunny Zhang, founder of TrueLeap

Sunny Zhang joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

It's safe to say Sunny Zhang has a handle on the machine and cycle that innovation as a tenured business professor, startup founder, and venture capital investor. An academic at her core, she looks at innovation from the outside in — and inside out — in her various roles.

But there is a throughline for Zhang, and it's observing the innovation cycle. In her 20 years, she's worked closely with startups on the topic.

"My research has always focused on the innovation diffusion process — essentially the psychological and behavioral science of innovation diffusion when a product is introduced in a marketplace. How is that adoption going in a network as a result in many factors — internally and externally in a digital world and in the international and global market," Zhang says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"I've been seeing how innovation works, how products are getting adopted, and the behavioral process in it. We talk about 'go-to market,' but I want to promote 'come-from market.' Identify the problem itself," Zhang says, explaining that as both an academic and life-long learner, this is important to her.

Jim Dillon, CEO of BiVACOR

Jim Dillon has been named CEO of BiVACOR. Photo courtesy of BiVACOR

Houston-based medical device company BiVACOR has brought aboard a new CEO.

Jim Dillon, a longtime executive in the medical device sector, has been hired to lead BiVACOR and join its board of directors. Dillon succeeds former heart surgeon Dr. Thomas Vassiliades, whose appointment as CEO was announced in January 2022.

“Jim’s leadership style, combined with his experience in building high-performance teams as well as expertise in the heart failure field, makes him the ideal person to lead BiVACOR,” Raymond Cohen, chairman of BiVACOR, says in a news release. Continue reading.

Livia Schiavinato Eberlin, associate professor of surgery at Baylor College of Medicine

Livia Schiavinato Eberlin was named the 2024 recipient of the Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research. Photo via bcm.edu

An associate professor of surgery at Baylor College of Medicine has won a prestigious award for young chemical scientists in the state and secured $3 million in funding to further develop her technology.

Livia Schiavinato Eberlin was named the 2024 recipient of the Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research in December. The award was established by the Houston-based Welch Foundation and recognizes the accomplishments of chemical scientists in Texas who are early in their careers. Eberlin will be granted $100,000 for this honor.

Eberlin runs the Eberlin Lab for Medical Mass Spectrometry at BCM and is known for her groundbreaking work in the application of mass spectrometry technologies, which are changing how physicians treat cancer and analyze tissues.

In the same week, Baylor College of Medicine announced that the Eberlin Lab received $3 million in funding from The Marcus Foundation to further develop the MasSpec Pen technology in breast cancer surgeries. Eberlin developed the tool in 2016 while she was serving as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin. The MasSpec Pen is a device for detecting cancer directly on tissues. Continue reading.

Sunny Zhang joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston is primed to lead the rise of emerging ecosystems this year, says innovator

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 219

It's safe to say Sunny Zhang has a handle on the machine and cycle that innovation as a tenured business professor, startup founder, and venture capital investor. An academic at her core, she looks at innovation from the outside in — and inside out — in her various roles.

But there is a throughline for Zhang, and it's observing the innovation cycle. In her 20 years, she's worked closely with startups on the topic.

"My research has always focused on the innovation diffusion process — essentially the psychological and behavioral science of innovation diffusion when a product is introduced in a marketplace. How is that adoption going in a network as a result in many factors — internally and externally in a digital world and in the international and global market," Zhang says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"I've been seeing how innovation works, how products are getting adopted, and the behavioral process in it. We talk about 'go-to market,' but I want to promote 'come-from market.' Identify the problem itself," Zhang says, explaining that as both an academic and life-long learner, this is important to her.

Her startup, TrueLeap, was born out of this mentality. As a professor at University of St. Thomas, she's experienced first hand how challenging managing digital learning can be — on all sides, from student and teacher to even administrative. She's working to design a comprehensive platform of hardtech and software for educators globally.

The idea and technology is being developed out of Born Global Ventures, a Houston venture studio focused on advancing immigrant-founded technology. As founding partner of the organization, Zhang explains some of the unique challenges immigrant founders face on the show — and why Houston is a prime location to foster this kind of community.

"We were motivated to bridge the gap between academia and business to facilitate commercialization process, but especially with the global market in mind," Zhang says. "Houston is the number one diverse city in the United States and the number one city in the US for foreign business."

Zhang, who's also leading the steering committee of Houston Women in VC, a networking group for female investors that meets the second Tuesday of each month, says Houston has momentum going into 2024, a year she says is particularly promising for innovation ecosystems.

"I believe in Houston – I believe in emerging ecosystems in general," she says. "I think this year is going to be the rise of emerging ecosystems.

"It's up to us to tell our story so that we can attract more global wealth and global talent," Zhang continues. "I definitely think Houston is the ideal destination."

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.