Formerly competitors and collaborators in the space race, Houston and Huntsville, Alabama, are now moving the needle on biotech. Getty Images

Before scientists flocked to Boston and Silicon Valley; a tech boom occured in the American south that served as a defining moment for the United States: the Space Race.

At the time, two cities were the epicenters of mankind's desire to elevate its existence into the stars. Astronauts controlled the path of rockets that were built in Huntsville, Alabama, while radioing back and forth with Mission Control in Houston, Texas.

Today, the two cities are still aligned, but the final frontier is closer to home. Houston and Huntsville are currently flourishing in the scope of biotechnology, using the innovative research of thousands of scientists, academics, and clinicians to further human knowledge

Houston is the home to the world's largest medical center — the Texas Medical Center, or TMC — and an impressive community developing cutting-edge companies ranging from med to biotech. However, Huntsville is hot on its heels.

Turning an infrastructure initially dedicated to aerospace and aeronautical innovation into an emerging bioscience hub, Huntsville boasts around 50 biotech companies and a genomic research institute. The ecosystem has the highest concentration of STEM workers per capita in the country and is rallied around a collaborative research environment that boasts an impressive tech portfolio, including resident companies like Blue Origin, Facebook, and Google, while still managing to embody southern hospitality.

Mirroring the concerted efforts of the past, my Houston-born startup, Van Heron Labs, has recently taken a leap of faith in moving much of their laboratory operations to Huntsville, while many core team members remain in Houston. Being frustrated with the options for available and affordable lab space in Houston, the completely bootstrapped Van Heron Labs decided to stretch one foot into Alabama while the other stays rooted in the TMC ecosystem.

One positive upside to the shift to remote work in light of the COVID-19 pandemic are new opportunities for company employees, investors, and mentors to be physically separated, while collaborating and retaining productivity. These new dynamics of distance have allowed Van Heron Labs to expand their technical operations while maintaining ties to Houston.

VHL has recently moved into the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, where they continue to develop their technology surrounding improved culture media, which hasn't changed much since scientists saw the publication of the first Peanuts comic. Recently, VHL has established a collaborative partnership with fellow Huntsville biotech Foresight Biosciences, and the two will be exploring a wealth of industries together.

Despite the distance, VHL still continues heavy involvement in the Houston ecosystem. My co-founder, Alec Santiago, is the current Director of non-profit, Enventure, and uses his experiences of establishing a biotech startup to help prepare the students around him to do the same.

Additionally, VHL currently has 17 interns, including current and former University of Houston students, Rice University graduate students, and even a local physics PhD. VHL has also long been in talks with companies in TMC, where they have established connections dedicated to growth. Ultimately, they hope to bridge the two cities and help give each access to new ideas, resources, funding, and mentorship.

Too often, emerging biotech startups struggle to get off the ground, and a lack of capital limits what could grow to be great ideas. To foster the growth of innovators around the nation several cities are primed to step in and welcome researchers. Institutions within Alabama's biotech ecosystem are leading the movement.

For just $188 a month, biotech startup companies located at HudsonAlpha campus can enjoy their own office space, and access to tailored programming which includes commercial IP assessments, regular investor forums and pitch opportunities, membership in supporting bioscience organizations, discounted laboratory supplies, as well as help with public relations, human relations, finding mentors, capital, and legal help.

VHL has taken full advantage of these opportunities, while maintaining a presence in Houston, and urges others to do the same. The lifting of our nation's innovators as a whole is a positive movement, and one that can increase access to many bright minds. Just as in the space race, working together regardless of geography can offer unlimited potential and may even take us to an entirely new plane.

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Rebecca Vaught is the co-founder of Van Heron Labs.

This week's Houston innovators to know includes Rebecca Vaught of Van Heron Labs, Samantha Lewis of GOOSE Capital, and Camilo Mejia of Enovate Upstream. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Houston entrepreneurs are like the city itself — resilient. And much like the wildcatters that preceded them, they are self-starters and hard working. This week's roundup of Houston innovators all reflect these attributes — whether they're founding their company amid a global pandemic or rebranding a 15-year-old investing institution.

Rebecca Vaught, co-founder of Van Heron Labs

Entrepreneur hopes to bring microbiology into the future with her Houston-based, pandemic-founded startup

Rebecca Vaught started her biotech company just ahead of COVID-19, but she shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast that it's meant more opportunities than challenges. Photo courtesy of Van Heron Labs

When Rebecca Vaught's accelerator program shutdown due to COVID-19, she didn't let that stop the progress for here fledgling biotech business. In fact, it was a turning point.

"A lot of people probably would have seen that as the stopping point but that was actually the beginning of the company," Vaught says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "What it allowed us to do was actually establish the lab and do the hard work."

As Vaught says, the biotech company, Van Heron Labs, is what it is thanks to the pandemic — not just in spite of it. Click here to read more and listen to the podcast episode.

Samantha Lewis, director of GOOSE Capital

Samantha Lewis, director of GOOSE Capital, shares how the investment firm has rebranded and is focused on the future. Photo courtesy of GOOSE

A prominent investment group, GOOSE Capital — previously known as GOOSE Society of Texas — has opted for a rebranding to move itself into the future for Seed and Series A investment. Samantha Lewis, director of GOOSE, explains the decision means more than just a new name and upgraded website.

"As for the future of GOOSE Capital, expect great things," she tells InnovationMap. "Our rebranding is one of the many steps we are taking to solidify our position in the Seed and Series A venture scene."

Rather than operating as a fund, the GOOSE Capital model enables its corps of investors comprised of Fortune 500 execs and successful serial entrepreneurs direct access to a portfolio of startups and investment deals. At the same time, GOOSE's portfolio companies are able to receive support from these investors. Click here to read more.

Camilo Mejia, CEO and founder of Enovate Upstream

Houston entrepreneur plans to revolutionize and digitize the energy industry

Camilo Mejia, CEO and founder of Houston-based Enovate Upstream, has big plans for increasing efficiency across the oil and gas sector. Photo courtesy of Enovate

Enovate Upstream announced its new artificial intelligence platform that aims to digitize the oil and gas sector to provide the best efficiency and return on investment at every stage of the supply chain cycle — from drilling and production to completion.

"We see a better future in the oil and gas industry," Mejia shares in an interview with InnovationMap. "Our team worked in various roles in O&G, and we don't think the industry will end up as some people may think. The future will be different and digitized, we are just here to facilitate that transition to give back to the industry that gave us a lot."

The company's proprietary cloud-based ADA AI digital ecosystem is challenging the assumptions of the industry by using new technology powered artificial intelligence to provide historical data with AI to give real-time production forecasting. Thanks to the cloud, users can access the information anywhere in the world. Click here to read more.

Rebecca Vaught started her biotech company just ahead of COVID-19, but she shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast that it's meant more opportunities than challenges. Photo courtesy of Van Heron Labs

Entrepreneur hopes to bring microbiology into the future with her Houston-based, pandemic-founded startup

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 40

While startups everywhere are struggling to adapt in the tumultuous times of COVID-19, Rebecca Vaught and her company, having launched just ahead of the pandemic, don't actually know any other way of existing.

After watching some of her friends thrive in Houston's life science ecosystem, she knew Houston was the place she wanted to start the company that she'd been envisioning and plotting for years. She took a chance on the city, moved in, and began Enventure's Biodesign accelerator. The program shutdown as COVID-19 spread, much like other programs, but Vaught wasn't going to let that stop her momentum.

"A lot of people probably would have seen that as the stopping point but that was actually the beginning of the company," Vaught says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "What it allowed us to do was actually establish the lab and do the hard work."

As Vaught says, the biotech company, Van Heron Labs, is what it is thanks to the pandemic — not just in spite of it.

"While it's been challenging, the pandemic — in a lot of ways — is the only thing we've ever known and it's a lot of reason why the company has taken off and been successful," Vaught says on the show.

She runs the company with co-founder Alec Santiago and a team of 17 interns — all located across the country. Vaught herself is currently residing in Huntsville, Alabama, after struggling to find lab space in Houston. However, the relocation has been a blessing in disguise.

"Both ecosystems are extremely unique and both bring something different to the table," she says. "My next mission, through my lived experience, is igniting or uniting the Houston and Huntsville biotech ecosystems."

On the episode, Vaught explains how the two cities — each representing key parts of space exploration history and burgeoning tech scene — complement each other. She also shares her plans for growth and the need to bring microbiology into the future.

Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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These are the events to attend each day during the Houston Tech Rodeo 2021

where to be

For the second year, Houston Exponential has tapped into the Houston innovation ecosystem to coordinate a week of events to speak to the city's startups, investors, and startup development organizations.

Houston Tech Rodeo will feature over 160 events between May 16 to 23 both online and all across town. From panels and meetups to office hours and pitch events, there's a lot to navigate in the second annual week. For a complete list of Tech Rodeo events (most of which are free), head to the website.

Here are the events you should make sure not to miss. (InnovationMap is a partner for the event.)

Note: You must register for HTR to be able to register for each event. For that reason, the event pages aren't linked directly. Find the information for each event through the HTR event website under the agenda tab, then sort by the day to find the specific event.

Monday: Gettin' in the Game with Master P: A Fireside Chat

The second annual Houston Tech Rodeo kicks off with hip-hop mogul, actor, producer, entrepreneur, and philanthropist, Percy (Master P) Miller on Monday, May 17, at 8 pm. "Gettin' In the Game with Master P" will be an exclusive fireside chat with the legend himself, interviewed by A-List Angels author and former Forbes editor, Zack O'Malley Greenburg. Hear about Master P's journey going from an international rap artist to a CEO, avid investor, and founder of Nemesis RR-- adding diversity in the automotive industry and empowering a culture of dreamers.

The event is free and available online. Register online.

Other Monday online events not to miss:

  • 11 am — HTX: Building a Thriving & Inclusive Innovation Ecosystem — join leaders from across the region's startup ecosystem, including Halliburton Labs, DivInc and The Ion, as they discuss how Houston has become a thriving hub for digital technology while fostering a culture of inclusive innovation.
  • 3 pm — All Roads Lead to Houston - Cross Industry Collaboration, the Intersection of Innovation — this event will focus on the "how" rather than "why", systemic barriers to collaboration, and available resources to analyze, de-risk and solve technology problems through meaningful collaboration.

Tuesday: Unleashing Innovation for Resilience in Disaster and Risk Mitigation

Tired of the hurricanes, snow and ice, COVID and just about every other disaster affecting Houstonian's businesses, homes, communities? Join risk mitigation experts for an in-person and virtual panel on May 18 at 2 pm. The panelists will address how Greater Houston becomes an innovation hub for pre-disaster and risk mitigation across droughts and floods, spills and leaks, fires and explosions, health and pandemics...and engages diverse populations for inclusion as entrepreneurs and mitigated locations.

The event is free and available online. Register online.

Other Tuesday online events not to miss:

  • 11:30 am — Demystifying Med Tech & Digital Health InvestmentsAttend this event to learn from the experts on what investors are seeking in digital health and med tech.
  • Noon — Made in Houston: Building Houston's Digital FutureHouston is on a mission to lead the way in digital transformation. How governments and corporations should accelerate the use of tech solutions and services while balancing the concerns of individuals on the adoption of such tools?
  • 5 pm (hybrid) — HTX Sports Tech: Panel & Happy Hour — HTX Sports Tech is hosting an in-person and online happy hour discussion between Houston's esports and sports industry leaders as we'll discuss the landscape of the esports and sports tech industry, share ideas on the role the industry can impact Houston's developing tech ecosystem, and opportunities to shape the future of the industry through innovative and collaborative efforts.

Wednesday: How Will Innovation Create a Diverse Rising Tide Within Houston's Ecosystem?

Houston is building a thriving innovation ecosystem, but innovation itself won't advance diverse economic prosperity given the status quo. So the question is…how will Houston leverage the city's biggest asset — its diversity — to maximize our potential? Panelists discuss at the online event on May 19 at 11 am.

The event is free and available online. Register online.

Other Wednesday online events not to miss:

  • 11 am — The Big Deal with EsportsDid an esports tournament really sell out the Staples Center? Did the winner of the Fortnite World Cup really make more than Tiger Woods in the Masters? Is esports really bigger than Major League Baseball? Join the discussion on how esports is transforming the business of competitive entertainment.
  • 3 pm — How 3D Printing Can Transform Houston's Manufacturing LandscapeJoin Houston 3D printing experts as they discuss the changing manufacturing landscape of the city and highlight the importance of innovation, economic impact, and sustainability through the adoption of industrial 3D printing technologies.
  • 4 pm — Rice Business Entrepreneurship Association Presents: Throw Your Wild Idea into the Arena First Pitch Competition Have you identified a problem space and a tech-enabled potential solution? The Rice Business Entrepreneurship Association wants to hear your early-stage wild idea. Come make your 90 second pitch and seek advisors, team members, and helpful feedback on your concept. Submit your info here.

Thursday: Female Founders' Tough Lessons Learned

Have an idea for a startup, already launched and building your startup, or just want to hear from those who've already been there? Join a powerhouse panel of female startup founders on May 20 at 9:30 am. Listen as the panelists share their journey and entrepreneurial struggles, and what it really takes to launch and run a startup.

The event is free and available online. Register online.

Other Thursday online events not to miss:

  • 11 am — BORN GLOBAL — Houston Tech Rodeo's International track will offer thoughtful discussions on the hour beginning at 11 am with a keynote.
  • 2 pm — Creating Space (and Tech) for DiversityA diverse panel of experts in space and technology will speak on their experience in these fields.

Friday: $50k Houston Investment Challenge

The Capital Factory challenge will occur on May 21 at Houston Tech Rodeo in partnership with Houston Exponential and will feature five technology startup finalists from greater Houston that will be evaluated by a panel of successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. One will walk away with a $50,000 investment.

The event is free and available online. Register online.

Other Friday online events not to miss:

  • 11 am — FemTech Panel — Join a virtual discussion with femtech leaders brought to you by FemTech Focus.
  • 1 pm — Innovation at Scale: Boosting Climatetech and Clean Energy Startups — Join Greentown Labs Houston for a virtual panel on incubating and supporting clean energy startups. The panel, featuring leaders from the regional climatetech innovation ecosystem and moderated by Greentown Houston Launch Director Juliana Garaizar, will discuss how to best set up startups for success and scale.

4 Houston companies clock in among America’s best employers, says Inc.

happy workers

Houston has already been heralded as a hotbed for innovation. Now, a handful of local companies are in the spotlight as the best places to work.

Four Houston companies are among 429 businesses named May 12 to Inc. magazine's 2021 list of the country's best workplaces. They are:

  • Marketing and PR firm CKP, Houston.
  • Environmental restoration company Ecosystem Planning and Restoration, Tomball.
  • IT automation platform Liongard, Houston.
  • Online recruiting service WizeHire, Houston.

"We've taken steps, especially during the pandemic, to build an amazing team and inclusive culture that is rooted in collaboration," Liongard CEO Joe Alapat says in a news release. "I am proud every day of the work this team is doing and the positive impact we're having on the managed services industry, and thrilled that our employees share our excitement and enthusiasm."

Meanwhile, 11 Austin companies receiving kudos are:

  • 9Gauge Partners, a business management consulting firm.
  • AgileAssets, a provider of transportation management software.
  • AlertMedia, an emergency communication and monitoring platform.
  • Decent, a provider of health insurance.
  • Fourlane, a provider of QuickBooks support.
  • Made In Cookware, an e-commerce startup that sells pots, pans, and other cookware.
  • Mighty Citizen, a branding, marketing, and communications firm.
  • OJO Labs, a platform for buying and selling homes.
  • Ontic, a company whose software helps companies address physical threats.
  • Q1Media, a digital media company.
  • The Zebra, an insurance marketplace.

Nick Soman, founder and CEO of Decent, says his company seeks to trust, respect, and appreciate every employee.

"This year that has meant quickly helping employees who lost power during an unprecedented snowstorm find a warm place to stay and offering unlimited time off," Soman says in a news release. "Being recognized as a top workplace is a special honor for Decent. Our people are at the heart of our company. They foster our amazing culture and drive our consistently outstanding customer service."

Lukas Quanstrom, CEO of Ontic, says his company is committed to upholding the core values, standards, and practices that contributed to the Inc. honor.

"Over the past year, the Ontic team has experienced rapid growth reinforcing how important our supportive, entrepreneurial culture is to nurturing talent and prioritizing our employees' overall welfare," Quanstrom says in a news release.

Each nominated company took part in an employee survey, conducted by Quantum Workplace, on topics including management effectiveness, perks, and employee growth. Also, an organization's benefits were audited to help determine the employer's standing.

Elsewhere in Texas, seven Dallas-Fort Worth employers, four Houston-area employers, and one San Antonio employer made the Inc. list.

Dallas-Fort Worth area

  • Staffing and recruiting firm BridgeWork Partners, Dallas.
  • Commercial real estate services company esrp, Frisco.
  • Staffing agency Frontline Source Group, Dallas.
  • PR and marketing firm Idea Grove, Dallas.
  • HVAC and plumbing warranty company JB Warranties, Argyle.
  • Technical consulting firm Stratosphere Consulting, Dallas.
  • NetSuite consulting firm The Vested Group, Plano.

Inc. highlights esrp's employee emergency fund, which offers "a financial lifeline for a range of life events, including funerals, medical emergencies, and welcoming new grandchildren. The omnipresent resource is funded through anonymous employee donations."

San Antonio

The only San Antonio company to make the 2021 list was IT services provider Mobius Partners.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.