The six finalists for the sustainability category for the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards weigh in on their challenges overcome. Photos courtesy

Six Houston-area sustainability startups have been named finalists in the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards, but they didn't achieve this recognition — as well as see success for their businesses — without any obstacles.

The finalists were asked what their biggest challenges have been. From funding to market adoption, the sustainability companies have had to overcome major obstacles to continue to develop their businesses.

The awards program — hosted by InnovationMap, and Houston Exponential — will name its winners on November 8 at the Houston Innovation Awards. The program was established to honor the best and brightest companies and individuals from the city's innovation community. Eighteen energy startups were named as finalists across all categories, but the following responses come from the finalists in the sustainability category specifically.

    Click here to secure your tickets to see who wins.

    1. Securing a commercial pilot

    "As an early-stage clean energy developer, we struggled to convince key suppliers to work on our commercial pilot project. Suppliers were skeptical of our unproven technology and, given limited inventory from COVID, preferred to prioritize larger clients. We overcame this challenge by bringing on our top suppliers as strategic investors. With a long-term equity stake in Fervo, leading oilfield services companies were willing to provide Fervo with needed drilling rigs, frack crews, pumps, and other equipment." — Tim Latimer, founder and CEO of Fervo Energy

    2. Finding funding

    "Securing funding in Houston as a solo cleantech startup founder and an immigrant with no network. Overcome that by adopting a milestone-based fundraising approach and establishing credibility through accelerator/incubator programs." — Anas Al Kassas, CEO and founder of INOVUES

    "The biggest challenge has been finding funding. Most investors are looking towards software development companies as the capital costs are low in case of a risk. Geothermal costs are high, but it is physical technology that needs to be implemented to safety transition the energy grid to reliable, green power." — Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems

    3. Market adoption

    "Market adoption by convincing partners and government about WHP as a solution, which is resource-intensive. Making strides by finding the correct contacts to educate." — Janice Tran, CEO and co-founder of Kanin Energy

    "We are creating a brand new financial instrument at the intersection of carbon markets and power markets, both of which are complicated and esoteric. Our biggest challenge has been the cold-start problem associated with launching a new product that has effectively no adoption. We tackled this problem by leading the Energy Storage Solutions Consortium (a group of corporates and battery developers looking for sustainability solutions in the power space), which has opened up access to customers on both sides of our marketplace. We have also leveraged our deep networks within corporate power procurement and energy storage development to talk to key decision-makers at innovative companies with aggressive climate goals to become early adopters of our products and services." — Emma Konet, CTO and co-founder of Tierra Climate

    4. Long scale timelines

    "Scaling and commercializing industrial technologies takes time. We realized this early on and designed the eXERO technology to be scalable from the onset. We developed the technology at the nexus of traditional electrolysis and conventional gas processing, taking the best of both worlds while avoiding their main pitfalls." — Claus Nussgruber, CEO of Utility Global

    ------

    This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

    Want to work for one of the top startups in Houston? Some of the best in Houston are hiring. Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

    Looking for a job? These 2023 Houston Innovation Awards finalists are hiring

    calling all applicants

    More than half of this year's startup finalists in the Houston Innovation Awards are hiring — who's looking for a job at one of the best startups in Houston?

    When submitting their applications for the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards, which is taking place November 8 at Silver Street Studios, every startup was asked if it's hiring. Twenty-seven of the 35 startup honorees said yes, ranging from over 20 to just one positions open at each company.

    Click here to secure your tickets to see which of these growing startups win.

    Here's a look at which of the top startups in Houston are seeking new team members.

    Double-digit growth

    When it comes to the awards finalists looking to scale their team by 10 or more new hires, five finalists are growing rapidly.

    Medical practice software platform RepeatMD, fresh off a $40 million raise — which included participation from Houston-based Mercury — is reportedly growing its team. The company, which has 115 employees already, is looking for over 20 new hires.

    Female-owned business Feelit Technologies, which is using nanotechnology for preventive maintenance to eliminate leaks, fires and explosions, increase safety and reduce downtime, has 50 employees, and only three of which are in Houston – for now. The company hopes to grow its team by 12 to 15 employees in Houston alone.

    Square Robot, an energy industry-focused robotics company that recently grew its presence in Houston, is hiring 10 to 30 new team members. It has 24 employees already in Houston.

    Solugen, an alternative chemicals business, has around 140 of its 200 employees in Houston. The company, which has raised over $600 million to date, is hiring an additional 10 to 15 new hires.

    Additionally, Blue People, also a finalist in last year's awards, is hiring 25 new employees. The company was founded in 2015 in Mexico and relocated its primary operations to Houston in 2020. Blue People, which develops software innovation for its clients, has over 150 employees — 10 of whom, including C-level executives, are based in Houston. Some of the company's new hires will be based in town.

    Steady growth

    Four Houston startups are hiring within the six to 10 team member range — all with fairly significant employee counts already.

    A finalist in last year's awards too, Venus Aerospace, a hypersonics company on track to fly reusable hypersonic flight platforms by 2024, is again growing its team. With 48 on-site employees and 23 working remotely, Venus's team will add another five to 10 employees.

    Syzygy Plasmonics, a deep decarbonization company that builds chemical reactors designed to use light instead of combustion to produce valuable chemicals like hydrogen and sustainable fuels, has 112 employees in Houston and plans to hire another eight to its team.

    Lastly, Fervo Energy, which recently raised $10 million, has 63 full-time employees (34 in Houston, 29 outside of Houston) and looking to hire seven more.

    Seeking selectively

    The following awards finalists are looking to grow their teams by just a handful or so — between one and five — of new hires:

    • ALLY Energy, helping energy companies and climate startups find, develop, and retain great talent.
    • CaseCTRL, an AI-powered surgery scheduling and coordination software for optimized procedures.
    • CellChorus, using AI to evaluate immune cell function and performance to improve the development and delivery of therapeutics.
    • FluxWorks, making frictionless gearboxes for missions in any environment.
    • Helix Earth Technologies, decarbonizing the built environment and heavy industry.
    • Hope Biosciences, a clinical stage biotechnology company focused on the development and delivery of adult stem cell based therapeutics.
    • Innovapptive, empowering the deskless workers in operations, maintenance and warehouses by unlocking the power of SAP through mobility.
    • INOVUES, re-energizing building facades through its non-invasive window retrofit innovations, making building smarter, greener, and healthier for a better and sustainable future.
    • Koda Health, , a tech-enabled care coordination service to improve serious illness care planning and drive savings for value-based care at scale.
    • Molecule, an energy/commodity trading risk management software that provides users with an efficient, reliable, responsive platform for managing trade risk.
    • Rhythm Energy, 100 percent renewable electricity service for residential customers in Texas.
    • Starling Medical, bringing the future of a proactive and predictive home-based healthcare system to patients today through passive AI powered at home urine screening.
    • Taurus Vascular, pioneering a new era of aortic aneurysm treatment by developing minimally invasive catheter solutions to drive better long-term patient outcomes.
    • Tierra Climate, decarbonizing the power grid faster by helping grid-scale batteries monetize their environmental benefits and change their operational behavior to abate more carbon.
    • UpBrainery Technologies, an innovative educational technology company that provides personalized and adaptive learning experiences to learners
    • Utility Global, a technology company converting a range of waste gases into sustainable hydrogen and syngas.
    • Voyager Portal, helping commodity shippers identify root causes of demurrage, reduce risk and streamline the entire fixture process.

    Here's your latest roundup of Houston startup and innovation news you may have missed. Photo via Getty Images

    Houston startup raises $25M, biz plan competition opens apps, and more local innovation news

    Short stories

    We're on the other side of the hill that is Houston's summer, but the Bayou City's still hot in terms of innovation news, and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

    In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, a Houston venture capital fund has made its latest investment, a hydrogen startup has raised fresh funding, accelerators open apps, and more.

    Houston hydrogen startup closes $25M series B

    This hydrogen company has fresh funding. Photo via utility.global

    Utility Global, a Houston-based sustainable hydrogen company, has closed its series B round of funding to the tune of $25 million, Axios reports.

    Houston-based private equity firm Ara Partners led the round. Other participating investors included: Samsung Ventures, NOVA, and Aramco.

    Utility Global, founded in 2018, has developed a clean hydrogen solution. The proprietary tech — called the eXERO Technology Platform — includes a zero electricity process that converts sustainable waste streams into high-purity hydrogen. Additionally, the company developed its H2Gen Product Line that delivers customers reliable, low carbon, and high purity hydrogen, which offers unparalleled feedstock flexibility and highly competitive economics.

    "Leveraging our industry-first eXERO™ Process, Utility Global is expanding into numerous industrial sectors," reads the company's website. "Whether it's next-gen fueling, green chemicals, or sustainable steel, Utility Global's products can meet your needs. Our ultra-high-purity hydrogen is also ideal for the electronics, food, and glass industries. In the steel industry, our waste-to-hydrogen offering converts waste-gases into pure hydrogen, enabling decarbonization of the steel making process.

    Houston female-focused VC fund leads round of fintech company

    The Artemis Fund — led by Diana Murakhovskaya, Leslie Goldman, and Stephanie Campbell — has announced its latest investment. Courtesy photos

    Houston-based Artemis Fund — a women-led, female-focused venture capital fund, has released information on its latest investment. The firm announced it has led the seed funding round for Los Angeles-based Payverse, a payment processor focusing on enabling global commerce via emerging technologies.

    The round also saw participation from Alpha Ascent Ventures, Frank Mastrangelo, Mary Wieler, and Jonathan Palmer. Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP represented Artemis in the deal.

    “The Artemis Fund invests in phenomenal female talent modernizing and diversifying wealth. Payverse is poised to transform the payments industry by making it easier and more cost-effective for businesses and consumers to transact globally," says Stephanie Campbell, general partner at The Artemis Fund, in a news release. "We are proud to lead the company’s seed round which includes other top FinTech experts and industry leaders."

    Houston public service professional accelerator opens applications for its second cohort

    HTXelerator is gearing up for its second cohort. Photo via HoustonTX.gov

    With its mission to identify and prepare future-focused leaders for public service, specifically boards, commissions, and city council, HTXelerator, a nonprofit that launched last fall, has opened applications for the second cohort. The three-month program trains class members on the nuts and bolts of city government and ends with a competition known as The Pitch, which enables each participant to put forward a policy platform for a hypothetical race.

    “The Houston region continues to grow and subsequently so does the need for public leadership to reflect the city’s dynamic diversity," says Renee Cross, senior director at the University of Houston's Hobby School of Public Affairs, in a news release. "HTXelerator will allow people with an interest in public service to learn from experts in government, non-profit organizations, academia and the private sector. Whether pursuing a leadership position or running for office, HTXelerator graduates will be ahead of the game.”

    Applications are due by August 22, and the cohort members will be announced by August 29. There is no fee to apply, but the program costs $250 per participant. Scholarships are available for those that need assistance. The program kicks off with a weekend retreat September 10 and 11 and ends with The Pitch competition on December 7.

    Houston startup partners with pet tech giant

    Wag, Robinhood, and DonateStock have teamed up on a new initiative. Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

    Houston-based DonateStock, a fintech platform that easily enables stock-based donations, has been adopted by Wag, a mobile-first marketplace for pet services. The company, which also struck a deal with Robinhood. Through these partnerships, the company has launched its Wag! Community Shares Program, a new method of charitable giving for the community of pet caregivers and for domestic pet nonprofit organizations, according to a news release.

    Through its SPAC, CHW Acquisition Corp., Wag! will reserve up to 300,000 shares of common stock for the program, to be arranged through and administered by Robinhood. The company goes into more details — including information on how to participate — in the release.

    “We are excited to play a key role in this ground-breaking initiative to use common stock to support domestic pet nonprofits at scale,” says Steve Latham, CEO and co-founder of DonateStock, in the release. “Our mission is to democratize charitable stock gifting. By allocating stock to more than 500 pet nonprofits, Wag! is expanding the definition of what that means.”

    Annual business competition lifts off

    Houston business competition opens applications

    Small businesses in Houston can apply for the annual Liftoff Houston competition. Photo via liftoffhouston.smapply.org

    The city of Houston's annual business plan competition has kicked off. Liftoff Houston is an entrepreneurial initiative aimed at empowering Houston entrepreneurs mentorship and business support and education.The program's sponsor, Capital One Bank, provides cash prizes totaling $30,000.

    To be eligible for the startup program, the applicant:

    • Must be in the start-up phase of your business, which means you either must have a business idea or have a business in operation for less than one year
    • Must have revenue of less than $10,000
    • Must live within the city of Houston limits. Also, if you have a business location, it must be within the city of Houston limits.

    Participants can also apply for the 2022 Liftoff Houston Educational Pathway. There are no eligibility requirements for that program, which will support small businesses and provide access to workshops and the final competition event.

    There will be three award categories: product, service, and innovation.

    • $10,000 – Awarded for top “Product” Based Business Plan (Retail, resale, merchandise, etc.)
    • $10,000 – Awarded for top “Service” Based Business Plan (Food, labor, consulting, etc.)
    • $10,000 – Awarded for top “Innovation” Based Business Plan (Software, Hardware, inventions, new market businesses, etc.)

    The competition will open applications online on July 27 and close August 19. The full schedule is online.

    Here are the most promising energy tech startups in the market today. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

    Houston investors, mentors name 9 most promising energy startups at Rice Alliance event

    best of the rest

    This week, 39 energy startup companies from all over the world pitched in Houston — and nine were recognized as being the most promising of the batch.

    The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship returned its Offshore Technology Conference pitch event to its in-person capacity and host the annual event at the Ion Houston for the first time. The event featured three-minute pitches from the companies, and a select group of corporate and venture investors decided on the top nine to honor.

    "We asked investors and corporates to look at the companies here today and help us determine the companies most promising — based on those that have an innovative technology that is solving a large problem, has customers willing to pay for it, and has the right team to build and grow their company," Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance says to the crowd at the event on May 3.

    Here's which energy tech companies stood out to investors.

    EarthEn

    EarthEn, a Chandler, Arizona-based company, is a grid-scale energy storage solution. The technology can provide short-term — 6 to 8 hours — and long-term — over 100 hours — storage. The EarthEn pods provide a cheaper alternative and are built using 3D printing.

    Echogen Power Systems

    Based in Akron, Ohio, Echogen Power Systems has created a technology that captures heat that would otherwise be lost and converts it to a useable power source. The solution allows for any customer that operates at significant levels of heat to have a cost-effective energy option.

    FuelX Innovation

    Based in Aiken, South Carolina, FuelX Innovation is manufacturing solid-state hydrogen products and power systems, impacting mobile hydrogen fuel cell-powered applications. The company is focused on producing the lowest cost Alane, or aluminum hydride, for the fuel cell.

    Lillianah Technologies

    Lillianah Technologies, based in the Houston area in Spring, uses algae to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The company sells carbon offsets to corporations.

    oPRO.ai

    oPRO.ai — which is based in Los Altos, California — is providing its customers with deep learning optimization software for process and responsible operations for oil and gas, petrochemical, chemicals, and metal industries.

    Proteum Energy

    Phoenix, Arizona-based Proteum Energy provides its customers low-cost, clean hydrogen by reforming renewable ethanol into renewable hydrogen.

    Sync Power Solutions

    Embracing a clean sheet approach, Sync Power Solutions, based in Abilene, Texas, created a solution involving a redesign of electric motors and generators to increase energy efficiency, save on costs, and more.

    Utility Global

    Houston-based Utility Global is using high temperature electrolysis without the use of electricity to produce hydrogen from waste gases.

    ZL Innovations

    Based in Portland, Oregon, ZL Innovations is focused on eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from failed industrial valves. The company's solution is a magnetic actuation assembly that can be better sealed to prevent emissions.

    Ad Placement 300x100
    Ad Placement 300x600

    CultureMap Emails are Awesome

    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.

    ------

    This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.