3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Bill Snyder of Vivante Health, Kelly McCormick of UH, and Sean Hunt of Solugen. Courtesy photos

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 tech to synthetic biology — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Bill Snyder, CEO of Vivante Health

Houston startup exec, Bill Snyder, has fresh funding for growth. Photo via vivantehealth.com

Houston-based Vivante Health closed a $16 million series A funding round, and the fresh funding will support commercial scaling and growth of the company, which is based in Houston's JLABS @ TMC space.

"The Series A financing round represents another pivotal milestone in our mission to improve our member's digestive health and provide outcomes at scale for our enterprise partners," says Bill Snyder, Vivante Health CEO, in a news release. "We are thrilled to partner with premier investors in this latest round of funding that will enable us to continue our rapid growth trajectory and further establish ourselves as the leader in digestive health."

The company is reinventing the way chronic conditions are managed through its digital health program, GIThrive, which equips people with digestive issues with technology, advanced science, and on-demand support. Click here to read more.

Kelly McCormick, managing director of RED Labs

Kelly McCormick wanted to help support UH small business owners. Photo via UH.edu

For years, the University of Houston and Rice University have been working together to support tech startups. Now the pair has announced two new programs — RED Launch and BlueLaunch, respectively — to focus on small businesses. The programs are open to University of Houston and Rice University affiliates who are interested in starting or growing a small business.

"Since inception, RED Labs programming focused mostly on tech entrepreneurship," says Kelly McCormick, managing director of RED Labs. "A few years ago, we began to build out course offerings at the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship for students interested in small businesses.

"Through those courses, I saw incredible engagement and enthusiasm from students interested in starting a small business, but recognized the need for intensive support beyond classes," she continues.

McCormick says that last summer, UH piloted the first iteration of RED Launch with a small group of UH students, and now UH has brought in Rice to the initiative as well. Click here to read more.

Sean Hunt, co-founder and CTO of Solugen

Solugen has been named among the most innovative companies in the world — and was deemed the No. 1 most innovative manufacturers. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston-based Solugen has ranked second on Fast Company’s 2022 list of the 50 most innovative companies in the world. It also sits at No. 1 on the magazine’s list of the world’s most innovative manufacturers.

Last year, Solugen announced it raised $357 million in a Series C round, catapulting it to “unicorn” status. The Series C round bumped up the startup to a valuation of $1.8 billion, pushing it well past the $1 billion mark required for a unicorn designation.

“This fundraising round allows us to continue expanding the footprint of our Bioforge technology to give industries the products they need to reduce emissions in their existing supply chains, without compromising on performance or economics,” Sean Hunt, co-founder and chief technology officer of Solugen, said in a news release about the $357 million round. Click here to read more.

A new UH-led program will work with energy corporations to prepare the sector's future workforce. Photo via Getty Images

University of Houston leads data science collaboration to propel energy transition

seeing green

Five Texas schools have teamed up with energy industry partners to create a program to train the sectors future workforce. At the helm of the initiative is the University of Houston.

The Data Science for Energy Transition project, which is funded through 2024 by a $1.49 million grant from the National Science Foundation, includes participation from UH, the University of Houston-Downtown, the University of Houston-Victoria, the University of Houston-Clear Lake, and Sam Houston State University.

The project will begin but introducing a five-week data science camp next summer where undergraduate and master’s level students will examine data science skills already in demand — as well as the skills that will be needed in the future as the sector navigates a shift to new technologies.

The camp will encompass computer science and programming, statistics, machine learning, geophysics and earth science, public policy, and engineering, according to a news release from UH. The project’s principal investigator is Mikyoung Jun, ConocoPhillips professor of data science at the UH College of Natural Science and Mathematics.

The new program's principal investigator is Mikyoung Jun. Photo via UH.edu

“It’s obvious that the Houston area is the capital for the energy field. We are supporting our local industries by presenting talented students from the five sponsoring universities and other Texas state universities with the essential skills to match the growing needs within those data science workforces,” Jun says in the release. “We’re planning all functions in a hybrid format so students located outside of Houston, too, can join in.”

Jun describes the camp as having a dual focus — both on the issue of energy transition to renewable sources as well as the traditional energy, because that's not being eradicated any time soon, she explains.

Also setting the program apart is the camp's prerequisites — or lack thereof. The program is open to majors in energy-related fields, such as data science or petroleum engineering, as well as wide-ranging fields of study, such as business, art, history, law, and more.

“The camp is not part of a degree program and its classes do not offer credits toward graduation, so students will continue to follow their own degree plan,” Jun says in the release. “Our goal with the summer camp is to give students a solid footing in data science and energy-related fields to help them focus on skills needed in data science workforces in energy-related companies in Houston and elsewhere. Although that may be their first career move, they may settle in other industries later. Good skills in data processing can make them wise hires for many technology-oriented organizations.”

Jun's four co-principal investigators include Pablo Pinto, professor at UH’s Hobby School of Public Affairs and director of the Center for Public Policy; Jiajia Sun, UH assistant professor of geophysics; Dvijesh Shastri, associate professor of computer science, UH-Downtown; and Yun Wan, professor of computer information systems and chair of the Computer Science Division, UH-Victoria. Eleven other faculty members from five schools will serve as senior personnel. The initiative's energy industry partners include Conoco Phillips, Schlumberger, Fugro, Quantico Energy Solutions, Shell, and Xecta Web Technologies.

The program's first iteration will select 40 students to participate in the camp this summer. Applications, which have not opened yet, will be made available online.

The Data Science for Energy Transition project is a collaboration between five schools. Image via UH.edu

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Dorit Donoviel of TRISH, Nuri Firat Ince of UH, and Vanessa Wade of Connect the Dots. 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 space to engineering — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Dorit Donoviel, director of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health

Dorit Donoviel, director of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health

The new program will work with commercial spaceflight crews to bring back crucial research to one database. Photo via Libby Neder Photography

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, at Baylor College of Medicine announced a unique program that will work with commercial spaceflight providers and their passengers. The EXPAND — Enhancing eXploration Platforms and Analog Definition — Program will collect information and data from multiple space flights and organize it in one place. TRISH selected TrialX to build the centralized database.

"The space environment causes rapid body changes. This can help us understand how we humans react to and overcome stress. Ensuring that space explorers remain healthy pushes us to invent new approaches for early detection and prevention of medical conditions," says Dorit Donoviel, executive director at TRISH, in the release.

"Studying a broad range of people in space increases our knowledge of human biology. TRISH's EXPAND program will leverage opportunities with commercial spaceflight providers and their willing crew to open up new research horizons." Click here to read more.

Nuri Firat Ince, associate professor of biomedical engineering at UH

A medical device designed by a UH professor will close the loop with high frequency brain waves to prevent seizures from occurring. Photo via uh.edu

Nuri Firat Ince, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at UH, has received a federal grant aimed at helping stop epileptic seizures before they start. The BRAIN Initiative at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke awarded the $3.7 million grant to go toward Ince's work to create a seizure-halting device based on his research.

According to UH, Ince has reduced by weeks the time it takes to locate the seizure onset zone (SOZ), the part of the brain that causes seizures in patients with epilepsy. He's done this by detecting high-frequency oscillations (HFO) forming "repetitive waveform patterns" that identify their location in the SOZ.

"If the outcomes of our research in acute settings become successful, we will execute a clinical trial and run our methods with the implanted … system in a chronic ambulatory setting," Ince says. Click here to read more.

Vanessa Wade, founder and owner of Connect the Dots

It's time for large corporations to step up to support small businesses founded by people of color. Photo courtesy

In her guest column for InnovationMap, Vanessa Wade addressed some of the challenges she faced founding a company as a person of color — specifically the lack of access to funding. In the article, she calls corporations to action to help business leaders like herself.

"The journey ahead can feel discouraging, but the good news is that now I have a much better idea of what it will take to build an equitable road back and get businesses like mine on even footing," she writes. Click here to read more.

The Coogs have scored some serious cash. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

University of Houston roars with massive $1.2 billion raised in new campaign

Cougar cash

The University of Houston Cougars have a reason to roar this fall. The school has announced a massive fundraising feat of $1.2 billion for scholarships, professorships, facilities, and programs as part of the "Here, We Go" initiative that closed on August 31.

Specifically, the campaign raised $1,235,427,334. The final tally was announced by UH System Chancellor and UH president Renu Khator during her 12th annual fall address on October 28., where she thanked high-profile donors and volunteer campaign co-chairs Tilman J. Fertitta ('78), Beth Madison ('72), John L. Nau III, and Marvin E. Odum III (M.B.A. '95).

The campaign, which surpassed the $1 billion milestone in 2019, some 18 months ahead of schedule, was designed to strategically transform UH System universities with priorities to support student scholarships and fellowships, build state-of-the-art facilities, attract and retain top faculty, advance academic programs, workforce training and research, and build a nationally relevant athletics program, according to a press release. It began in 2012 and launched publicly in January 2017, before concluding in August of this year.

More than 187,000 donors, including 133,000 new donors contributed to the campaign, highlighting the pride felt by alumni and friends. Donations came from all 50 states and 46 countries, according to the school.

Donation highlights include:

  • $50 million gift from an anonymous donor — the campaign's single largest contribution to hire faculty and establish four new institutes in the areas of energy, infrastructure, precision medicine, and global engagement.
  • $20 million from Tilman J. Fertitta for renovation and construction of the Fertitta Center, a 7,100-seat multi-purpose arena that is home to the Houston Cougars men's and women's basketball teams and the women's volleyball team.
  • $20 million from the John P. McGovern Foundation benefitting arts students and faculty. The Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts was named in honor of the gift.
  • $17 million from Andy and Andrea Diamond to create the Diamond Family Scholars program which offers financial, academic and mentoring support for students aging out of the foster care system.
  • $16 million from the John M. O'Quinn Foundation to support the UH Law Center and construction of its new state-of-the-art building, the John M. O'Quinn Law Building.
  • $15 million thanks to Humana Inc. to launch the Humana Integrated Health System Sciences Institute and help defray start-up and operational costs for the UH College of Medicine, as well as fund endowed chairs at several UH colleges.
  • $13 million from the Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Family Foundation to the nation's No. 1 undergraduate entrepreneurship program at the C.T. Bauer College of Business with a total expected impact of $15 million with matching gift.

"You inspired us to dream big, challenged us to be relevant and forced us to stay focused," said Khator, in a statement. "You led us from all directions, often making calls for us and introducing us to people who cared about Houston and our role in Houston's future."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

UH has launched its Tech Map, which visualizes startup and innovation activity across the city. Photo via Getty Images

University of Houston launches interactive map of the city's innovation ecosystem

introducing tech map

The greater Houston area spans 9,444 square miles — an area larger than the entire state of New Jersey — and the question was never if Houston's sprawl was going to affect interaction between startups, resources, and opportunities, but how to overcome these physical challenges with digital solutions. The latest of which has launched out of the University of Houston's Technology Bridge.

The Tech Map — an interactive, embeddable visualization that takes data about startups and other innovation players and compiles it into a map of entrepreneurial activity in the Houston area — has officially launched with hundreds of startups represented already.

"This kind of tool — it really tells you where innovation is happening, it's not just in the startup development organizations," says Lindsay Lewis, executive director of communications for the UH Division of Research. "It's amazing to see that it's happening all over the city."

The tool, which is free to embed and available to anyone, is already live on Houston Exponential's homepage and the city of Houston's Innovation Portal. It's comprised of data submitted by startup development organizations, self-submitted information, and research by the Tech Bridge's team.

To be represented on the map, click here.


Lewis stresses the importance of creating the tool in a collaborative way, which is why bringing on partners and their databases was so key. The tool isn't designed in Cougar Red or predominantly feature UH-based startups or anything. The Tech Map isn't meant to rock the boat of what any other organization is doing, rather just visually represent the goings on.

"For us, it was a balance between trying to show the story of Houston and where innovation is happening and aggregating, but what we didn't want to do was be a replacement. We wanted this to be a resource for an individual starting point," says Chris Taylor, executive director for the Tech Bridge. "The biggest challenge for most people is you really don't know where to start."

This year has been one for digital tools focused on better portraying Houston's innovation ecosystem. This summer, Houston Exponential launched the HTX TechList to virtually connect startups, mentors, investors, and other movers and shakers in Houston. The two entities are collaborative — HTX TechList's data is even involved in the Tech Map.

"There was a need for connection," Taylor says. "Since 2013 when I got here, that's always been a challenge and a hurdle. How do we connect all these different stakeholders in a way that's meaningful."

While the map is launched and ready to be used, it's only the beginning for it as it grows its data and adds new features.

"We're not done with this map — this is just the 1.0 version," Lewis says. "We're meeting to talk about next-step functionalities and where we are going to take it."

UH and a local company are developing a new COVID-19 vaccine. Photo by Getty Images

University of Houston partners with local company to develop cutting-edge COVID vaccine

COOGS TACKLE COVID

A major Houston university has taken a big leap in the race to battle debilitating diseases such as COVID-19. The University of Houston has entered into an exclusive license option agreement with AuraVax Therapeutics Inc., a Houston-based biotech company developing novel vaccines against aggressive respiratory diseases such as coronavirus, according to a press release.

This means AuraVax has the option to exclusively license a new intranasal COVID-19 vaccine technology developed by Navin Varadarajan, an M.D. Anderson professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. Varadarajan is a co-founder of AuraVax.

The vaccine is a nasal inhalant, much like FluMist. Based on pre-clinical experimentation, Varadarajan reports his technology not only elicits a mucosal immune response, but also systemic immunity, according to UH.

"We plan to stop COVID-19, a respiratory virus, at its point of entry — the nasal cavity — and we believe our intranasal platform is a differentiated approach that will lead to a vaccine with increased efficacy to create sustained immunity to COVID-19," said Varadarajan in a statement.

So how does it work? Varadarajan is utilizing the spike protein, which helps the virus enter the target cell, and is the major target for neutralizing antibodies as it binds to the ACE 2 cellular receptor, for virus entry. The professor prefers using proteins because of their ability to induce strong immune responses, flexibility and scalability, and the absence of infectious particles, per UH.

Varadarajan's company, AuraVax, has created a next-generation vaccine platform that combines the potential of in-home administration with the ability to deliver complete immunity. The technology has been validated for COVID-19 in initial animal studies and results in immunity measured by both B-cell and T-cell responses.

"We believe AuraVax has a competitive advantage given the immune responses and a supply chain that is well-suited for widespread distribution and self-administration distribution," said Varadarajan. "We are excited to be collaborating with the University of Houston and look forward to future success by advancing the development of this novel intranasal vaccine technology to address a multitude of respiratory viruses, starting with COVID-19."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Experts: How to better prepare Houston to combat climate related challenges

guest column

Houston is no stranger to hurricanes, and in recent years winter storms have become an increasing concern. Following the winter freeze in 2021, more than 4 million Texans were left without power, water, or heat. The state’s infrastructure system was adversely impacted concurrently — including workplaces, hospitals, transportation, homes, drinking water distribution, electric power generation, agriculture, and grocery stores. Now, a new potential disaster is on the horizon. Recent research shows Houston is most likely to be affected by wildfires, a climate-related challenge that our city has not previously faced.

According to the Gensler Research Institute’s 2022 U.S. Climate Action Survey, since 2019, only 18 percent of Americans believe their communities are built to withstand climate change. The good news is Americans overwhelmingly agree that addressing climate change is urgent. The question many are asking is — “How can we take action to better prepare buildings and cities to weather the climate challenge?” The solution is simple. In order to understand where we need to go, we must understand how we got here.

With a population that has more than doubled in the past 50 years, it is challenging for most Houstonians to imagine a time when The Bayou City was nothing more than agricultural lands and oil fields. Today, Houston is known for being the fourth-most populous city in the United States. It is a sprawling concrete jungle home to the world’s largest concentration of healthcare and research institutions. When reflecting on the past 50 years, one can’t help but evaluate the city’s successes and shortcomings. While Houston has succeeded in becoming a diverse, international city, we have sacrificed the very ecology that once made up one of the country’s most productive agricultural areas. By 1980, Houston possessed the least amount of green space per person in the country.

As new developments popped up across the city, it became difficult to convince developers to pursue third-party certifications such as LEED, a globally recognized symbol of sustainability that provides the framework for designing healthy, efficient, carbon saving buildings. We can credit Hines with being one of the few developers in Houston to prioritize green design during the early-2000s. City leaders also began advocating for resilient strategies and more green space to attract and retain international talent and businesses. In recent years, we have seen an increase in buildings that are achieving LEED certification, and soon it will become the baseline.

The Houston Advanced Research Center, Photography by Shau Lin Hon, Slyworks Photography

An example of a project leading the way for resilient design is The Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC). In 2017 the organization completed work on its LEED Platinum Certified headquarters which was designed to meet the ENERGY STAR certification rate of 99 (out of 100). This means that the building is more efficient than 99 percent of all office buildings in the United States. Skanska is another construction and development company bringing a sustainable mindset to downtown Houston with its work on Bank of America Tower. In 2019, the 775,000 square foot building became the largest LEED v4 Platinum Core and Shell certified project in the world to date and was developed with harvesting technology that will significantly reduce energy usage.

It’s also important to understand the impact that the climate crisis is having on people. 91 percent of U.S. Gen Z/Millennials have been affected by extreme weather events since 2019, the most of any generation. These experiences have resulted in two generations preparing to react and combat climate change and has encouraged a spirit of transparency among companies who choose to share their environmental goals and strategies.

For architects and designers, addressing building and energy codes is proving to be the next big design consideration. As codes progress in the coming years, the result will be more unique and unexpected building designs.

When reimagining the use of buildings, Architects Paulina Abella and Tayler Trojcak propose an experimental process for repurposing vacant buildings called High Hackers. The concept provides an opportunity for developers to offer prime downtown real estate to people with diverse skill sets, whom they call “hackers,” to pursue projects shaped by their individual ideas. These hackers—makers, artists, and academics—will work alongside one another in spaces that encourage them to coexist with creatives from other fields and disciplines. More importantly, it fosters a collaborative, organic, and innovative workflow.

When examining how you can better prepare and respond to ongoing climate-related challenges, we encourage prioritizing marginalized communities that are already experiencing most of the negative impacts. Promoting awareness and optimism in our communities is another simple yet effective way to make a difference. For businesses, creating a sense of continuity in the face of climate events, investing in energy and resource efficiency and adaptation, and addressing insurability and the long-term value of real estate will ultimately help lead Houston and its community members toward a place of preparedness and resiliency.

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Rives Taylor directs Gensler’s Global Design Resilience teams and initiatives and has been a faculty member of both Rice University and the University of Houston for 30 years. Maria Perez is a design resilience leader for Gensler’s South Central region and director of sustainable design based in Gensler’s Houston office.

Houston-based organization premieres space health tech documentary

watch now

A Houston space health organization has launched a film that is available to anyone interested in how space affects the human body.

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, which is housed out of Baylor College of Medicine in consortium with Caltech and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, announced a new documentary — “Space Health: Surviving in the Final Frontier.” The film, which covers how space affects humans both physically and mentally. It's free to watch online.

“This documentary provides an unprecedented look into the challenges – physical and mental – facing space explorers and the types of innovative research that TRISH supports to address these challenges,” says Dr. Dorit Donoviel, TRISH executive director and associate professor in Baylor’s Center for Space Medicine, in a news release. “We hope the film inspires students and researchers alike to see how their work could one day soon improve the lives of human explorers.”

The documentary interviews a wide range of experts — scientists, flight surgeons, astronauts, etc. — about all topics related to health, like food, medicine, radiation, isolation, and more. Some names you'll see on the screen include:

  • Former NASA astronaut Nicole Stott
  • Active NASA astronaut Victor Glover
  • NASA Associate Administrator Kathy Lueders
  • Inspiration4 Commander Jared Issacman
  • TRISH-funded researchers Level Ex CEO Sam Glassenberg and Holobiome CEO Philip Strandwitz

“Understanding and solving the challenges that face humans in space is critical work,” says Dr. Jennifer Fogarty, TRISH chief scientific officer, in the release. “Not only does space health research aim to unlock new realms of possibility for human space exploration, but it also furthers our ability to innovate on earth, providing insights for healthcare at home.”

TRISH is funded by NASA’s Human Research Program and seeks both early stage and translation-ready research and technology to protect and improve the health and performance of space explorers. This film was enabled by a collaboration with NASA and HRP.

New report shows why now is the time for Houston to emerge as a hub for hydrogen innovation

clean energy

Houston, known for being the energy capital of the world, has potential to lead innovation within the hydrogen space, and a new report lays out how.

The report, which was released today by the Center for Houston’s Future, is titled "Houston as the epicenter of a global clean hydrogen hub." The information explains how Houston-based assets can be leveraged to lead a global clean hydrogen innovation.

“The Houston region has the talent, expertise and infrastructure needed to lead the global energy transition to a low-carbon world. Clean hydrogen, alongside carbon capture, use, and storage are among the key technology areas where Houston is set up to succeed and can be an example to other leading energy economies around the world,” says Bobby Tudor, chair of the Greater Houston Partnership’s Houston Energy Transition Initiative, in a news release.

Together, GHP's HETI and over 100 experts representing 70 companies and organizations produced the report, along with McKinsey and Company, which donated significant research and economic analyses. Here are some highlights from the study, according to the release:

  • Clean hydrogen production could grow 5 times over current hydrogen production by 2050.
  • The establishment of a clean hydrogen industry could create 180,000 jobs (direct, indirect and induced) statewide, while adding $100 billion to Texas' GDP growth.
  • Globally, a Houston-led clean hydrogen hub could abate 220 million tons (MT) tons of carbon emissions by 2050.

“This report gives additional weight to the already strong case that Houston is uniquely positioned to lead a transformational clean hydrogen hub with global impact,” says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. “We can also deliver economic growth, create jobs and cut emissions across Houston and the Gulf Coast, including in underserved communities.”

The Houston region already produces and consumes a third of the nation’s hydrogen, per the release, and has more than 50 percent of the country’s dedicated hydrogen pipelines. These assets can be utilized to accelerate a transition to clean hydrogen, and the report lays out how.

"Using this roadmap as a guide and with Houston’s energy sector at the lead, we are ready to create a new clean hydrogen economy that will help fight climate change as it creates jobs and economic growth,” says Center for Houston’s Future CEO Brett Perlman. “We are more than ready, able and willing to take on these goals, as our record of overwhelming success in energy innovation and new market development shows.”