United Airlines is interested in buying Cemvita's sustainable aviation fuel when it's produced. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Houston startup with sustainable biotech solutions lands new customer in United Airlines

ready for takeoff

An innovative Houston company is celebrating a new deal with a global airline.

Cemvita Corp. announced a new offtake arrangement with United Airlines. Cemvita's first full-scale sustainable aviation fuel plant will provide up to 1 billion gallons of SAF to United Airlines. The 20-year contract specifies that Cemvita will supply up to 50 million gallons annually to United.

It's not the first collaboration Cemvita has had with the airline. Last year, United invested in the biotech company, which used the funding to open its Houston pilot plant.

“Since our initial investment last year, Cemvita has made outstanding progress, including opening their new pilot plant – an important step towards producing sustainable aviation fuel,” United Airlines Ventures President Michael Leskinen says in a news release. “United is the global aviation leader in SAF production investment, but we face a real shortage of available fuel and producers. Cemvita’s technology represents a path forward for a potentially significant supply of SAF and it’s our hope that this offtake agreement for up to one billion gallons is just the beginning of our collaboration.”

Founded in Houston in 2017 by brother-sister team Moji and Tara Karimi, Cemvita's biotechnology can mimic the photosynthesis process, turning carbon dioxide into feedstock. The company's SAF plan hopes to increase reliability of existing SAFs and lower impact of fuel creation.

“Biology is capable of truly amazing things,” Moji Karimi, CEO of Cemvita, says in the release. “Our team of passionate, pioneering, and persistent scientists and engineers are on a mission to create sustainable BioSolutions that redefine possibilities.”

“We are thrilled to partner with United Airlines in working towards transforming the aviation industry and accelerating the energy transition,” he continues. “This agreement featuring our unique SAF platform is a major milestone towards demonstrating our journey to full commercialization.”

Earlier this year, United, which was reportedly the first airline to announce its goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, launched its UAV Sustainable Flight FundSM. The fund, which named Cemvita to its inaugural group of portfolio companies, has raised over $200 million, as of this summer.

Moji and Tara Karimi co-founded Cemvita in 2017. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

A New York-based nonprofit that provides tech training has announced its opening a location in the Ion. Photo courtesy of the Ion

Ion Houston expands tech workforce development partnership with nonprofit

tech training

Houstonians can now apply to a new, tuition-free program at the Ion to boost their tech skills and knowledge.

Earlier this year the Ion announced New York-based Per Scholas as its workforce development partner. And starting October, Per Scholas will launch its 12- to 15- week technology skills training courses at the innovation hub, the Ion announced this week.

The new operation, known as Per Scholas Houston, is backed by support from from BlackRock Inc. and Comcast NBCUniversal.

Per Scholas Houston will first introduce the nonprofit's IT Support course. The program will give students an opportunity to earn a Google IT Support Professional Certificate and the CompTIA A+ certification. Click here to apply.

“Per Scholas commends the vision and commitment of the City of Houston, Ion, Rice University, and so many others, to catalyze change, grow ideas and innovation, and drive impact. We are thrilled that Per Scholas Houston is now part of the effort,” Plinio Ayala, president and CEO of Per Scholas, says in a statement. “With tremendous investment from Ion, BlackRock, Comcast, our proven skills training will develop technologists to power Houston’s workforce today – and tomorrow–creating a more inclusive and equitable economy. We can’t wait to get started.”

According to the company, more than 80 percent of those who complete Per Scholas training programs find full-time employment within a year of graduating, and about 85 percent of Per Scholas graduates are people of color. Per Scholas has 20 locations in the U.S., including a location in downtown Dallas.

Applicants must be 18 or older to apply and have earned a high school diploma or equivalent and be a U.S. citizen or authorized to work in the U.S., according to Per Scholas's website. They must pass an assessments review before beginning coursework, meet the nonprofit's learner pre-training income criteria and be available to attend classes Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

In early May, The Ion announced 10 new tenants that were either relocating or expanding their presence in Houston, bringing the total space leased to 86 percent. Later that month, it added corporate giants Occidental, United Airlines Ventures and Woodside Energy as partners.
The Ion named three corporate partners ahead of its annual innovation-focused festival. Photo courtesy of the Ion

Houston innovation hub adds Oxy, United, and Woodside as partners

onboarding

Houston’s Ion innovation hub has recruited three heavyweight corporate partners, the hub announced earlier this week.

The new partners are:

  • Houston-based energy company Occidental (known as Oxy).
  • United Airlines Ventures, the sustainability-focused VC arm of Chicago-based United Airlines. United operates a major hub in Houston.
  • Australia-based Woodside Energy, which maintains an office in Houston.

Oxy, United Airlines Ventures, and Woodside will share their expertise in support of Ion’s mission to transform Houston into a global innovation ecosystem, according to an Ion news release. In addition, they will participate in Ion programming and network with Ion affiliates. Executives from all three of the new partners will serve on the Ion Leadership Advisory Roundtable.

“Welcoming our newest partners into Ion’s ecosystem is a further testament to our momentum in the aerospace and energy transition,” says Jan Odegard, who became executive director of the Ion in 2021 after a year of holding the interim position. “Each organization brings their own culture of innovation that aligns with what we are doing at the Ion.”

Michael Leskinen, president of United Airlines Ventures, says the VC firm believes “the Ion will be the epicenter for Houston’s rapidly growing innovation community — a one-stop shop to share ideas, foster startups, and to develop relationships with Houston’s brightest companies and academia.”

Oxy, United Airlines Ventures, and Woodside join Ion corporate partners such as:

  • Aramco Americas
  • Baker Botts
  • BP
  • Chevron
  • ExxonMobil
  • Global Custom Commerce
  • Intel
  • Microsoft
  • Transocean

The Ion announced the new corporate partners in advance of the second annual Ion Activation Festival, set for May 17-19. The Ion and Rice Management Co. host the festival, which shines a spotlight on entrepreneurship and innovation in Houston.

Activities will take place primarily at the Ion’s 16-acre campus. To register for the festival, visit the Ion’s website.

The inaugural festival, held in 2022, drew more than 2,500 attendees.

City of Houston has entered into an agreement with Texas Southern University to develop an aviation program at the Houston Spaceport. Photo via fly2houston.com

Local university gets green light to launch new building at Houston Spaceport

cleared for takeoff

With a financial boost from the City of Houston, the aviation program at Texas Southern University will operate an aeronautical training hub on a two-acre site at Ellington Airport.

The Houston Airport System — which runs Ellington Airport, George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Hobby Airport, and Houston Spaceport — is chipping in as much as $5 billion to build the facility, which will train aeronautical professionals.

On May 3, the Houston City Council authorized a five-year agreement between the airport system and TSU to set up and operate the facility.

The facility will feature:

  • A 22,000-square-foot aircraft hangar
  • 20,000 square feet of aircraft apron
  • 7,200 square feet of office and training space
  • A 12,000-gallon, above-ground aviation fuel tank
  • Vehicle parking

Thanks to NASA and United Airlines, among other employers, Houston is home to more than 500 aviation and aerospace companies. Over 23,000 people in the Houston area work in the aviation and aerospace sector.

“The air transportation industry in Houston and across the United States is growing and provides career opportunities for those with the skills needed to succeed,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says in a news release.

Mario Diaz, director of aviation for Houston’s airports, says the new training center will “invest in and inspire the next generation of aviation professionals.”

“The facility at Ellington Airport continues the illustrious story of Houston’s aeronautical history. … Soon, students at Texas Southern University will apply the crucial lessons learned at Ellington Airport to revolutionize the aviation industry,” says Diaz.

Terence Fontaine, executive director of aviation at TSU, says the facility will house his program’s eight aircraft. It also will provide “an enhanced environment for student learning opportunities as we work to address our nation’s critical aviation needs,” says Fontaine.

TSU’s College of Science, Engineering & Technology offers a bachelor’s degree in aviation science management for students pursuing careers at airports, airlines, air traffic control centers, and other employers in the aviation sector. More than 100 students are enrolled in the program.

In January, United CEO Scott Kirby warned that due to shortages of pilots and other airline workers, plans to bulk up capacity in 2023 and beyond “are simply unachievable.”

He noted that United, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and Southwest Airlines alone intend to hire about 8,000 pilots this year, compared with a historical range of 6,000 to 7,000 pilots per year.

“We believe any airline that tries to run at the same staffing levels that it had pre-pandemic is bound to fail,” Kirby said on a United earnings call, “and likely to tip over to meltdown anytime there are weather or air traffic control stresses in the system.”

Houston serves as one of United’s hubs. The local hub employs more than 12,000 people. On May 4, the airline held a career fair aimed at filling jobs at George Bush Intercontinental. United plans to add 3,000 employees in Houston by 2026.

United Airlines plans on hiring 1,800 local employes — many of whom will be trained at a newly expanded training facility. Photo via United.com

United opens $32M expansion of high-tech training center, plans to hire hundreds

first-class facility

A new study highlights United Airlines’ multibillion-dollar impact on the Houston economy as the company eyes the addition of 1,800 local employees this year.

The study, done by Chicago-based consulting firm Compass Lexecon, shows United’s hub at George Bush Intercontinental Airport along with spending by foreign visitors arriving on flights operated by United and its partners contribute an estimated $5.3 billion in annual gross domestic product (GDP) in Texas.

Furthermore, the study says United’s direct employment in Houston accounts for $1.2 billion in annual economic activity, and the local hub indirectly supports 56,000 local jobs. Houston is one of United’s seven U.S. hubs.

“United continues to be a great partner and business leader in the city of Houston, connecting Houstonians to the world and investing in vital infrastructure projects that help enhance the travel experience for millions of travelers,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says in a news release.

The economic impact study was released in conjunction with the opening of the $32 million expansion of United’s flight attendant training center in Houston. Highlights of the 56,000-square-foot facility include a roughly 400-seat auditorium, and a 125,000-gallon pool and mock fuselage for practicing evacuation of a plane during a water landing.

This year, the Chicago-based airline is on track to add 15,000 workers, including 4,000 flight attendants. United employs more than 11,000 people in Houston and plans to hire 1,800 more in 2023.

The airline plans to train more than 600 flight attendants per month at the enlarged Houston facility.

“The best flight attendants in the industry deserve the best, most modern training facility in the country,” United CEO Scott Kirby says in a news release. “This expansion project is yet another example of an investment we made during the depths of the pandemic that will support our employees, further improve our ability to deliver great service, and set United up for success in 2023 and beyond.”

New United flight attendants will go through a six-and-a-half-week training course at the Houston facility and then return every 18 months to stay up to date on flight qualifications.

United posted profit of $737 million last year, down 75.5 percent from the pre-pandemic year of 2019, on operating revenue of nearly $44.5 billion, up 3.9 percent from 2019.

In 2022, the airline’s investment arm, United Ventures, announced an investment of up to $37.5 million in Houston-based NEXT Renewable Fuels. The company, which produces renewable fuel for the aviation sector, is developing a biofuel refinery in Oregon.

NEXT plans to go public this year through a SPAC merger with a publicly traded shell company.

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Houston startup recognized for inclusivity on journey to commercialize next-gen therapeutics

future of medicine

A new Houston biotech company won a special award at the 16th Annual SXSW Pitch Award Ceremony earlier this month.

Phiogen, one of 45 companies that competed in nine categories, was the winner for best inclusivity, much to the surprise of the company’s CEO, Amanda Burkhardt.

Burkhardt tells InnovationMap that while she wanted to represent the heavily female patient population that Phiogen seeks to treat, really she just hires the most skilled scientists.

“The best talent was the folks that we have and it ends up being we have three green card holders on our team. As far as ethnicities, we have on our team we have Indian, African-American, Korean, Chinese Pakistani, Moroccan and Hispanic people and that just kind of just makes up the people who helped us on a day-to-day basis,” she explains.

Phiogen was selected out of 670 companies to be in the health and nutrition category at SXSW.

“We did really well, but there was another company that also did really well. And so we were not selected for the pitch competition, which we were a little bummed about because I killed the pitch,” Burkhardt recalls.

But Phiogen is worthy of note, pitch competition or not. The new company spun off from research at Dr. Anthony Maresso’s TAILOR Labs, a personalized phage therapy center at Baylor College of Medicine, last June.

“Our whole goal is to create the next generation of anti-infectives,” says Burkhardt.

That means that the company is making alternatives to antibiotics, but as Burkhardt says, “We’re hoping to be better than antibiotics.”

How does it work? Bacteriophages are viruses that infect bacteria.

“You can imagine them as the predators in the bacteria world, but they don't infect humans. They don't affect animals. They only infect bacteria,” Burkhardt explains.

Phiogen utilizes carefully honed bacteriophages to attack bacteria that include the baddies behind urinary tract infection (UTI), bacteremia (bacteria in the blood), and skin wounds.

The team’s primary focus is on treatment-resistant UTI. One example was a male patient who received Phiogen’s treatment thanks to an emergency-use authorization from the FDA. The gentleman had been suffering from an infection for 20 years. He was treated with Phiogen’s bacteriophage therapy for two weeks and completely cleared his infection with no recurrence.

Amanda Burkhardt is the CEO of Phiogen. Photo via LinkedIn

But Phiogen has its sights set well beyond the first maladies it’s treated. An oft-quoted 2016 report projected that by 2050, 10 million people a year will be dying from drug-resistant infections.

“A lot of scientists call it the silent pandemic because it's happening now, we're living in it, but there's just not as much being said about it because it normally happens to people who are already in the hospital for something else, or it's a comorbidity, but that's not always the case, especially when we're talking about urinary tract infections,” says Burkhardt.

Bacteriophages are important because they can be quickly trained to fight against resistant strains, whereas it takes years and millions of dollars to develop new antibiotics. There are 13 clinical trials that are currently taking place for bacteriophage therapy. Burkhardt estimates that the treatment method will likely gain FDA approval in the next five years.

“The FDA actually has been super flexible on progressing forward. Because they are naturally occurring, there's not really a safety risk with these products,” she says.

And Burkhardt, whose background is in life-science commercialization, says there’s no better place to build Phiogen than in Houston.

“You have Boston, you have the Bay [Area], and you have the Gulf Coast,” she says. “And Houston is cheaper, the people are friendlier, and it’s not a bad place to be in the winter.”

She also mentions the impressive shadow that Helix Park will cast over the ecosystem. Phiogen will move later this year to the new campus — one of the labs selected to join Baylor College of Medicine.

And as for that prize, chances are, it won’t be Phiogen’s last.

Houston student selected for prestigious health care research program

bright future

A Houston-area undergraduate student has been tapped for a prestigious national program that pairs early-career investigators with health research professionals.

Mielad Ziaee was selected for the National Institutes of Health’s 2023-2024 All of Us Research Scholar Program, which connects young innovators with experts "working to advance the field of precision medicine," according to a statement from UH. Ziaee – a 20-year-old majoring in psychology and minoring in biology, medicine and society who plans to graduate in 2025 — plans to research how genomics, or the studying of a person's DNA, can be used to impact health.

“I’ll be one of the ones that define what this field of personalized, precision medicine will look like in the future,” Ziaee said in a statement. “It’s exciting and it’s a big responsibility that will involve engaging diverse populations and stakeholders from different systems – from researchers to health care providers to policymakers.”

Ziaee aims to become a physician who can use an understanding of social health conditions to guide his clinical practice. At a young age, he was inspired to go into the field by his family's own experience.

According to UH, Ziaee is the oldest child of Iranian American immigrants. He saw firsthand the challenges of how language and cultural barriers can impact patients' access to and level of care.

“I think a lot of people define health as purely biological, but a lot of other factors influence our well-being, such as mental health, financial health, and even access to good food, medical care and the internet,” he said in a statement. “I am interested in seeing the relationship among all these things and how they impact our health. So far, a lot of health policies and systems have not really looked beyond biology.”

"I want everyone to have an equal chance to access health care and take charge of their well-being. We need to have the systems in place that let people do that,” he added.

Ziaee is already on his way to helping Houston-based and national health systems and organizations make headway in this area.

He was named as a student regent on the UH System Board of Regents last year, sits on the board of the Houston chapter of the American Red Cross, and is an Albert Schweitzer Fellow.

Last year he was a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention John R. Lewis scholar, for which he presented his research project about predicting food insecurity in pediatric clinical settings and recommendations to improve the assessment based off his summer research with the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

Prior to this, he completed a 10-week guided research experience using data visualization and predictive modeling techniques to assess food insecurity in the Third Ward.

“I just took every opportunity that came to me,” Ziaee said. “All my experiences connect with my central desire to increase health access and improve health care. I am very intentional about connecting the dots to my passion.”

Earlier this year, three UH student researchers were named among 16 other early-stage research projects at U.S. colleges and universities to receive a total of $17.4 million from the DOE's Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (FECM). The projects were each awarded between about $750,000 to up to $1.5 million.

Houston tech entrepreneur expands energy data co. in Europe, continues to scale

houston innovators podcast episode 229

The technology that Amperon provides its customers — a comprehensive, AI-backed data analytics platform — is majorly key to the energy industry and the transition of the sector. But CEO Sean Kelly says he doesn't run his business like an energy company.

Kelly explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that he chooses to run Amperon as a tech company when it comes to hiring and scaling.

"There are a lot of energy companies that do tech — they'll hire a large IT department, they'll outsource a bunch of things, and they'll try to undergo a product themselves because they think it should be IP," he says on the show. "A tech company means that at your core, you're trying to build the best and brightest technology."

To Kelly, Amperon should be hiring in the same field as Google and other big tech companies that sit at the top of the market. And Kelly has done a lot of hiring recently. Recently closing the company's $20 million series B round last fall led by Energize Capital, Amperon has tripled its team in the past 14 months.

With his growing team, Kelly also speaks to the importance of partnerships as the company scales. Earlier this month, Amperon announced that it is replatforming its AI-powered energy analytics technology onto Microsoft Azure. The partnership with the tech giant allows Amperon's energy sector clients to use Microsoft's analytics stack with Amperon data.

And there are more collaborations where that comes from.

"For Amperon, 2024 is the year of partnerships," Kelly says on the podcast. "I think you'll see partnership announcements here in the next couple of quarters."

Along with more partners, Amperon is entering an era of expansion, specifically in Europe, which Kelly says has taken place at a fast pace.

"Amperon will be live in a month in 25 countries," he says.

While Amperon's technology isn't energy transition specific, Kelly shares how it's been surprising how many clean tech and climate tech lists Amperon has made it on.

"We don't brand ourselves as a clean tech company," Kelly says, "but we have four of the top six or eight wind providers who have all invested in Amperon. So, there's something there."

Amperon, which originally founded in 2018 before relocating to Houston a couple of years ago, is providing technology that helps customers move toward a lower carbon future.

"If you look at our customer base, Amperon is the heart of the energy transition. And Houston is the heart of the energy transition," he says.