Three non-Houston investors discussed the strengths and weaknesses of Houston's innovation ecosystem. Getty Images

You'll go cross-eyed looking at the same puzzle for too long, and sometimes it's better to take a step back and introduce some fresh perspectives and ideas from someone not so connected to the matter at hand.

At the second annual HX Capital Summit hosted by Houston Exponential at Rice University, HX gathered three out-of-town venture capital experts to discuss Houston's innovation ecosystem with Sandy Wallis, managing director at the HX Venture Fund. The fund-of-funds focuses on connecting non-local investors to Houston in order to bring new venture opportunities to town. On the panel, the experts discussed their observations about the Bayou City, which can be summed up as follows.

Community engagement and corporate interest are good signs for Houston 

Right off the bat, the panelists agreed that its much more encouraging visiting Houston nowadays than it was in the recent past. Clint Korver, managing director at San Francisco-based Ulu Ventures, has only recently played witness to the city, thanks to his firm's work with HX and the fund of funds.

"I'm just getting to know the Houston community," Korver says. "I'm really intrigued by how much community support there is."

Korver says that, not unlike Houston startups, Bay Area companies find it a challenge getting a foot in the door at major corporations. However, he's observed that Houston-based corporates want a seat at the table of Houston innovation.

"All the corporate attention that's being integrated here is super intriguing," Korver says. "That's our startups' hardest problems."

The other panelists, who are much closer to Houston, echoed Kover's interest in the role corporations play. Venu Shamapant, founding partner at Austin-based LiveOak Venture Partners, and Thomas Ball, founder and managing director at Austin-based Next Coast Ventures, have witnessed Houston evolve into what it is today over the past decade or so.

"We've both been coming to Houston over the past 20 years and been investing in startups, and it's been a dramatically different scene even in just the past five years," Shamapant says.

Houston's ecosystem is going to take time

While the panelists remarked on the evolution the city has and the support that large corporations seem to be willing to provide, Houston has other assets that's setting it up for success. The panelists mention a solid pool for talent, impressive educational institutions, and more.

"When I look at Houston, I think it has every ingredient for success, which is why I want to spend time here," Ball says.

Sure, as Ball says, Houston has the ingredients, but what it now needs is the time to cook.

"To me, it's more of just time that it's going to take. We can't bake this Houston cake by turning the thermostat up to 900 degrees in an hour. It's going to take three hours at 300," Ball says, adding that he doesn't know very much about baking. "It will take time. This won't be an overnight success. We're here for the long haul."

Houston has some challenges yet to overcome 

Wrapping up the panel, an audience member asked about the changes Houston still needs to make to really get to the point it needs to be at.

For Korver, the answer was pretty simple. Houston needs a big exit.

"There's this incredible amount of momentum that comes along with a successful company that takes a hold of everyone — the rising tide floats all boats thing," Korver says.

For Ball, particularly comparing Houston to other major innovation-focused cities, the issue is that Houston is so spread out.

"To me the one thing I struggle with in Houston is what I would call a density problem," Ball says. "I think you need density here and you need to concentrate your resources in certain places in this city."

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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.