3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Veronica Wu of First Bight Ventures, Kate Evinger of Pokatok, and Jill Chapman of Insperity. 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 synthetic biology to sportstech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures

Photo courtesy of First Bight Ventures

Veronica Wu saw the potential in Houston for a vibrant synthetic biology hub that can propel one of the most exciting field of technology into the future. So, she founded First Bight Ventures to invest in synthetic biology startups in hopes to attract them to Houston.

“We have a moment in time where we can make Houston the global epicenter of synthetic biology and the bio economy," Wu says to a group of stakeholders last week at First Bight's Rocketing into the Bioeconomy event. "Whether its energy, semiconductor, space exploration, or winning the World Series — Houstonians lead. It’s in our DNA. While others look to the stars, we launch people into space.”

At First Bight's event, Wu introduced the company's new team members. Click here to read more.

Kate Evinger, director of Pokatok Labs

Photo courtesy of gBETA

Pokatok Labs — a scale-up program for sportstech startups — is in between its first and second cohorts, and Director Kate Evinger joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to look back at the inaugural class and share what the team is looking for in applications.

"Our mission is to help be a partner with all the exciting things happening in Houston — from the startup entrepreneurship side to the things we're seeing in the sports community — to continue to elevate and uplift the voices here in addition to bringing folks in from all over the world to celebrate the human experience in sports and to continue driving innovation in this space," she says on the show.

Evinger shares more about Pokatok Labs and the potential she sees for Houston to continue evolving as a hub for sports innovation on the podcast. Click here to read more.

Jill Chapman, senior performance consultant with Insperity

Photo courtesy of Insperity

Workplace culture can make or break a company of any size — especially now in this labor market. Making your office environment a place employees feel like they can take paid time off and vacations is key to prevent burnout and turnover. Jill Chapman, senior performance consultant with Insperity, writes in a guest column her tips for fostering this type of environment.

"As small business owners continue to navigate the labor shortage, savvy leaders recognize the significance of retaining existing employees, so it behooves them to encourage PTO usage to foster a highly engaged and energized workforce," she writes. Click here to read more.

Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures, recently announced new team members and her hopes for making Houston a leader in synthetic biology. Photo courtesy of First Bight Ventures

Houston synthetic biology VC grows team ahead of foundry launch

future of tech

Since launching earlier this year, a Houston-based venture capital firm dedicated to investing in synthetic biology companies has made some big moves.

First Bight Ventures, founded by Veronica Wu, announced its growing team and plans to stand up a foundry and accelerator for its portfolio companies and other synthetic biology startups in Houston. The firm hopes to make Houston an international leader in synthetic biology.

“We have a moment in time where we can make Houston the global epicenter of synthetic biology and the bio economy," Wu says to a group of stakeholders last week at First Bight's Rocketing into the Bioeconomy event. "Whether its energy, semiconductor, space exploration, or winning the World Series — Houstonians lead. It’s in our DNA. While others look to the stars, we launch people into space.”

At First Bight's event, Wu introduced the company's new team members. Angela Wilkins, executive director of the Ken Kennedy Institute at Rice University, joined First Bight as partner, and Serafina Lalany, former executive director of Houston Exponential, was named entrepreneur in residence. Carlos Estrada, who has held leadership positions within WeWork in Houston, also joins the team as entrepreneur in residence and will oversee the company's foundry and accelerator that will be established to support synthetic biology startups, Wu says.

“First Bight is investing to bring the best and the brightest — and most promising — synthetic biology startups from around the country to Houston," Wu continues.

First Bighthas one seed-staged company announced in its portfolio. San Diego-based Persephone Biosciences was founded in 2017 by synthetic and metabolic engineering pioneers, Stephanie Culler and Steve Van Dien. The company is working on developing microbial products that impact patient and infant health.

Wu, who worked at Apple before the launch of the iPhone and Tesla before Elon Musk was a household name, says she saw what was happening in Houston after her brother moved to town. She first invested in Houston's synthetic biology ecosystem when she contributed to one of Solugen's fundraising rounds. The alternative plastics company is now a unicorn valued at over $1 billion.

“I founded First Bight because of what I see is the next great wave of technology innovation," she says at the event. "I founded it in Houston because the pieces are right here.”

First Bight Ventures has added two Houstonians to its advisory board. Image via Getty Images

Houston-based synthetic biology investment fund taps 2 prominent advisers for board

on boarding

Earlier this year, a new synthetic biology-focused venture capital fund launched in Houston, and now its added to its esteemed set of advisers.

Veronica Wu, former Apple and Tesla exec, founded First Bight Ventures, a new VC firm focused exclusively on early-stage synthetic biology startups, in January and named her initial board members. This month, she's added to those ranks with two Houstonians joining the advisory board — Gaurab Chakrabarti, co-founder and CEO of Solugen, and Kevin Coker, co-founder and CEO of Proxima CRO.

"We are excited to announce the addition of Dr. Gaurab Chakrabarti and Kevin Coker," Wu says in a press release. "These two advisors are experts in their respective fields of medicine and biotechnology. They are proven leaders of Houston-based companies, which is key to our overall growth strategy, as we seek to establish Houston as a geographic center for innovation in Synthetic Biology."

Gaurab co-founded Solugen, a Houston unicorn that creates enzymes that can turn sugar into chemicals, in 2016. He studied computational neuroscience at Brown University and received his master's and PhD in cancer biology and enzymology at the University of Texas.

Representing the health care side of synthetic biology, Kevin Coker runs Houston-based Proxima CRO, a regulatory and clinical partner for the emerging biotech and medical device industry. He is also the founder and partner of the M1 MedTech accelerator and the Host of the Inventing Tomorrow podcast.

"I couldn't be more excited to work with Veronica and First Bight Ventures," Coker says in the release. "The time is now for companies developing Synthetic Biology products and platforms. Much of this technology has reached commercial level maturity and we are beginning to see exciting things happen, particularly in Houston."

The two join six other advisers on the board:

  • Dr. Ethel Rubin, an experienced life sciences executive with commercialization and investment experience across multiple therapeutic areas and modalities.
  • Lekan Akinyanmi, founder and CEO of Cambridge Growth Partners, a holding company with interests in mining, finance, oil/gas, and renewable energy.
  • Dr. Guochun Liao, founder of IDbyDNA, which focuses on utilizing next-generation sequencing and AI/ML for infectious disease management.
  • Mario Maia, leader of the corporate investment arm of Novozymes.
  • Peter Oleksiak, former CFO senior vice president for DTE Energy Co., a Fortune 500 diversified energy compan.
  • Davy Wang, senior director at Oracle Cloud.
Veronica Wu joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share why she's looking to invest in synthetic biology startups. Photo courtesy of First Bight Ventures

Silicon Valley transplant bets on Houston to lead synthetic biology

houston innovators podcast episode 119

Veronica Wu isn't afraid of jumping head first into a new field or technology. In fact, the former Apple, Tesla, and Motorola executive has built her career around getting in on the ground floor.

"A lot of my career has been about looking for the next thing. One of the things I've found is I have a strong passion for building and scaling big ambitions or innovations," Wu says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "When I see the opportunity, it gets me really excited. One of the reasons I have a passion for technology is how it constantly changes and pushes the boundaries."

Wu's next big thing she's betting on? Synthetic biology — and she's doing it here in Houston. Wu recently relocated from Silicon Valley to Houston last year, and now she's launched First Bight Ventures, a venture capital firm focused on finding and investing in early-stage synbio companies.

The industry as a whole is still nascent, Wu explains, because most of these emerging innovations weren't able to be accomplished until recently. Additionally, a lot of people don't fully understand what the field encompasses, but she's hoping to shine a spotlight on the industry and the innovators in the space with First Bight Ventures.

"Think of synthetic biology as a cell programming, like we can program software in the virtual world," Wu explains on the show. "Now we're able to reprogram our physical world."

In Houston, Wu gives two examples of companies working in the synbio space: Cemvita Factory and Solugen. However, Houston is an ideal market for synthetic biology because of two of the city's top industries — health care and energy.

"Both of (these industries) have tremendous opportunities and challenges for us as humanity," Wu explains. She says that reprogramming biology can both help reduce carbon emissions and protect humans from emerging diseases.

"I see Houston — with its tremendous resources and talent already existing in these industries — really has that potential to leverage the technologies and become an innovation leader in this particular area," Wu says.

Wu shares more on her first impressions of Houston and what she hopes to accomplish with the new VC firm on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Veronica Wu of First Bight Ventures, BJ Schaknowski of symplr, and Mikyoung Jun of the University of Houston. 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 — the first of this new year — I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from health care innovation to energy — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures

Veronica Wu, who moved to Houston from Silicon Valley last year, has launched a new venture capital firm to help accelerate synthetic biology startups. Photo courtesy of First Bight Ventures

Veronica Wu is a relative newcomer to Houston. She made the move from Silicon Valley to the Bayou City in the middle of 2021. Wu has announced the launch of First Bight Ventures, a new VC firm focused exclusively on early-stage synthetic biology startups, and based right here in Houston. She plans to leverage the local market to incubate these startups locally, according to the release.

“Houston is well positioned to become a major center for synthetic biology with its existing talent, industries, and capital," she says.

Wu has over 20 years of experience in managerial positions at tech companies like Apple, Tesla, and Motorola, and she served as a founding team member of McKinsey & Company’s Greater China office's business technology practice. Click here to read more.

BJ Schaknowski, CEO of symplr

Houston-based symplr has made another strategic acquisition as it grows its software offerings to its health care clients. Image via symplr.com

Houston-based symplr, which provides software solutions for governance, risk management, and compliance and is backed by California-based Clearlake Capital Group L.P. and Massachusetts-based Charlesbank Capital Partners, announced last week that it will acquire Midas Health Analytics Solutions.

Symplr will acquire the Midas platform, which provides users with operations efficiency via data analytics, from New Jersey-based Conduent Incorporated (Nasdaq: CNDT). The deal, valued at $340 million, is expected to close in the first quarter of 2022.

"Midas Health Analytics Solutions brings actionable data and insights to help symplr's health system clients improve patient care and deliver better outcomes," says BJ Schaknowski, CEO of symplr, in a news release. "With integrated quality outcomes and machine learning-based advanced analytics, our combined compliance, quality and safety software portfolio can better predict patient specific risks, deliver population health insights, and proactively improve and support business intelligence performance further advancing symplr's mission of transforming healthcare operations." Click here to read more.

Mikyoung Jun, ConocoPhillips professor of data science at the UH College of Natural Science and Mathematics

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

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.

At the helm of the initiative is principal investigator Mikyoung Jun, ConocoPhillips professor of data science at the UH College of Natural Science and Mathematics.

“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.” Click here to read more.

Veronica Wu, who moved to Houston from Silicon Valley last year, has launched a new venture capital firm to help accelerate synthetic biology startups. Photo courtesy of First Bight Ventures

Former Apple exec starts Houston-based VC firm focused on synthetic biology

new to hou

Calling all startups with synthetic biology solutions — there's a new venture capital firm looking to invest in you.

Veronica Wu has announced the launch of First Bight Ventures, a new VC firm focused exclusively on early-stage synthetic biology startups.

“Synthetic Biology aims to take parts of natural biology systems to produce organisms/cells/biological systems with novel or enhanced characteristics. It sits at the convergence of technology and biology, and provides us a powerful tool to address some of the biggest challenges humanity faces, like cancer/incurable diseases, sustainability and climate change," Wu says in a news release.

Wu has over 20 years of experience in managerial positions at tech companies like Apple, Tesla, and Motorola, and she served as a founding team member of McKinsey & Company’s Greater China office's business technology practice.

As an investor, Wu has funded 300 early-stage tech companies in the past six years. She's seen her portfolio companies reach major accomplishments, including 34 unicorns, six SPACs, and four IPOs to date, per the release.

She's betting on synthetic biology by launching First Bight Ventures — the first and only VC firm completely devoted to this field. The firm has already struck up a partnership with Ginkgo Bioworks, a leading synthetic biology platform provider.

"The potential applications are far reaching in scope as well as impact.” Wu says. “Presently, we stand at a significant inflection point. Synthetic Biology is to 2022 what the ‘.com’ era was to the 90s.”

Wu is a relative newcomer to Houston. She made the move from Silicon Valley to the Bayou City in the middle of 2021. She plans to leverage Houston's market to incubate these startups locally, according to the release.

“Houston is well positioned to become a major center for synthetic biology with its existing talent, industries, and capital," she says.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

These were the most-read guest columns by Houston innovators in 2022

2022 in review

Editor's note: Every week, InnovationMap — Houston's only news source and resource about and for startups — runs one or two guest columns written by tech entrepreneurs, public relations experts, data geniuses, and more. As Houston's innovation ecosystem gets ready for 2023, here are some of this year's top guest contributor pieces — each with pertinent information and advice for startups both at publishing and into the new year. Make sure to click "read more" to continue reading each piece.

Is your New Year's resolution to start contributing? Email natalie@innovationmap.com to learn more.

Houston expert: How to navigate Gen Z's quiet quitting movement at your company

Your perspective on quiet quitting is probably generational, says one Houston expert and startup founder. Photo via Getty Images

This month, the internet has been discussing "quiet quitting," the practice of employees setting hard boundaries about when they work and to what extent they are willing to go beyond the outlined expectations of their jobs.

The conversation around quiet quitting has also been lively at the Ampersand offices. As a training company that is dedicated to training new professionals for employers both big and small, it's critically important for our team to have a good grasp on the relationship employees have with their jobs, and what motivates them to succeed. So we had a long meeting where we discussed what quiet quitting meant to each of us. Read more.

Houston expert shares how small business leaders can encourage PTO use

Retaining employees is no easy feat these days. Encouraging a healthy PTO policy can help avoid burnout. Photo courtesy of Joe Aker

As many small businesses continue to operate in a challenging, fast-paced environment, one thing that has arrived at breakneck speed is midyear, along with the summer months. Theoretically, to ensure work-life balance, most employees should have 50 percent of their PTO remaining to use for summer vacations and during the second half of the year. In reality, that is probably not the case given workers are hesitant to use their PTO, leaving approximately five days of unused PTO on the table during 2020 and 2021.

While the pandemic affected PTO usage the last two years, the labor shortage appears to be a major contributor in 2022, which has led to PTO hoarding and increasing levels of employee burnout. Although these factors can be compounded for small business owners because there are fewer employees to handle daily responsibilities, it is imperative for workers to take PTO, returning recharged with a fresh perspective on the tasks at hand. Read more.

Houston expert: 3 emotional intelligence tips for improving patient-practitioner experience

A Houston expert shares how to improve on communication in the health care setting. Image via Getty Images

After spending hours with healthcare professionals as both a consultant and patient, I know that it takes a special kind of person to take care of others in their most distressing and vulnerable times. That responsibility has been in overdrive because of COVID, causing emotional burnout, which in turn affects patient care. By equipping yourself with emotional intelligence, you can be more resilient for yourself and patients.

Emotional intelligence is keeping your intelligence high, when emotions are high.

Health care sets up an environment for a tornado of emotions, and the rules and regulations centered around patient-provider interactions are often complex to navigate. This leaves many on the brink of emotional exhaustion, and for survival’s sake, depersonalization with patients becomes the status quo. Feeling a disconnect with their patients is another added weight, as few get into this industry for just the paycheck – it’s the impact of helping people get healthy and stay healthy that motivates them. I’ve seen it time and time again with people in my life, as well as on my own patient journey as I battled stage 3 cancer. Read more.

Here's what types of technology is going to disrupt the education sector, says this Houston founder

Edtech is expected to continue to make learning more interactive, fun, and inclusive for people around the world. Photo via Pexels

Technology has always maneuvered education in a certain direction but the COVID-19 pandemic has forced it to shift towards a new direction entirely.

What started off as a basic video lecture turned into a more hybrid and innovative form of education, enabling student engagement and interactivity like never before. Social media forums allow teachers to pay one-on-one attention to students boosting their learning process.

With an edtech boom on the rise, there is a question of what further expansion in educational technology is expected. Here are some technology breakthroughs currently underway in the education sector. Read more.

Houston expert weighs in on marketing from an investor’s perspective

What should Houston startups know about marketing? Photo via Getty Images

Just what do investors want to see from a startup with regards to the company’s marketing? I recently spoke on this topic to a cohort of early-stage technology startup entrepreneurs at Softeq Venture Studio, an accelerator program that helps founders build investable technologies and businesses. Read more.

These elite Houston researchers were named among the most-cited in their fields

MVPs

Nearly 60 scientists and professors from Houston-area universities and institutions, working in fields from ecology to immunology, have been named among the most-cited researchers in the world.

The Clarivate Highly Cited Researchers 2022 list considers a global pool of public academic papers that rank in the top 1 percent of citations for field and publication year in the Web of Science. It then ranks researchers by the number of times their work has been cited, or referenced, by other researchers, which, according to the University of Houston, helps their findings "become more impactful and gain further credibility."

This year 6,938 researchers from 70 different countries were named to this list. About 38 percent of the researchers are based in the U.S.

“Research fuels the race for knowledge and it is important that nations and institutions celebrate the individuals who drive the wheel of innovation. The Highly Cited Researchers list identifies and celebrates exceptional individual researchers who are having a significant impact on the research community as evidenced by the rate at which their work is being cited by their peers," says David Pendlebury, head of research analysis at the Institute for Scientific Information at Clarivate, in a statement. "These individuals are helping to transform human ingenuity into our world’s greatest breakthroughs.”

Harvard University was home to the most researchers, with 233 researchers making the list, far outpacing Stanford University, which had the second highest total of 126 researchers.

Texas universities and institutions had a strong showing, too. The University of Texas at Austin had 31 researchers on the list, tying UT with the University of Minnesota and Peking University in China for the No. 35 spot. MD Anderson had 30 researchers on the list, the most among organizations in Houston, earning it a 38th place ranking, tied with the University of Maryland and University of Michigan.

Below is a list of the Houston-area highly cited researchers and their fields.

From UT MD Anderson Cancer Center

  • Jaffer Ajani (Cross-Field)
  • James P. Allison (Immunology)
  • Jan A. Burger (Clinical Medicine)
  • George Calin (Cross-Field)
  • Jorge Cortes (Clinical Medicine)
  • Courtney DiNardo (Clinical Medicine)
  • John V. Heymach (Clinical Medicine)
  • David Hong (Cross-Field)
  • Gabriel N. Hortobagyi (Cross-Field)
  • Robert R. Jenq (Cross-Field)
  • Hagop M.Kantarjian (Clinical Medicine)
  • Marina Y. Konopleva (Clinical Medicine)
  • Dimitrios P. Kontoyiannis (Cross-Field)
  • Scott E. Kopetz (Clinical Medicine)
  • Alexander J. Lazar (Cross-Field)
  • J. Jack Lee (Cross-Field)
  • Anirban Maitra (Clinical Medicine)
  • Robert Z. Orlowski (Clinical Medicine)
  • Padmanee Sharma (Clinical Medicine and Molecular Biology and Genetics)
  • Anil K. Good (Cross-Field)
  • Jennifer A. Wargo (Molecular Biology and Genetics)
  • William G. Wierda (Clinical Medicine)

From Baylor College of Medicine

  • Erez Lieberman Aiden (Cross-Field)
  • Nadim J. Ajami (Cross-Field)
  • Christie M. Ballantyne (Clinical Medicine)
  • Malcolm K. Brenner (Cross-Field)
  • Hashem B. El-Serag (Clinical Medicine)
  • Richard Gibbs (Cross-Field)
  • Heslop, Helen Cross-Field
  • Joseph Jankovic (Cross-Field)
  • Sheldon L. Kaplan (Immunology)
  • Joseph F. Petrosino (Cross-Field)
  • Cliona Rooney (Cross-Field)
  • James Versalovic (Cross-Field)
  • Bing Zhang (Cross-Field)

From Rice University

  • Plucker M. Ajayan (Materials Science)
  • Pedro J. J. Alvarez (Environment and Ecology)
  • Naomi Halas (Materials Science)
  • Jun Lou (Materials Science)
  • Antonios G. Nikos (Cross-Field)
  • Aditya D. Mohite (Cross-Field)
  • Peter Nordlander (Materials Science)
  • Ramamoorthy Ramesh (Physics)
  • James M. Tour (Materials Science)
  • Robert Vajtai (Materials Science)
  • Haotian Wang (Chemistry)
  • Zhen-Yu Wu (Cross-Field)
  • From University of Houston
  • Jiming Bao (Cross-Field)
  • Shuo Chen (Cross-Field)
  • Whiffing Ren (Cross-Field)
  • Zhu Han (Computer Science)

From UTMB Galveston

  • Vineet D.Menachery (Microbiology)
  • Nikos Vasilakis (Cross-Field
  • Scott C. Weaver (Cross-Field)
  • From UT Health Science Center-Houston
  • Eric Boerwinkle (Cross-Field)

Overheard: Houston experts call for more open innovation at industry-blending event

eavesdropping at the Ion

Open innovation, or the practice of sourcing new technologies and idea across institutions and industries, was top of mind at the annual Pumps & Pipes event earlier this week.

The event, which is put on by an organization of the same name every year, focuses on the intersection of the energy, health care, and aerospace industries. The keynote discussion, with panelists representing each industry, covered several topics, including the importance of open innovation.

If you missed the discussion, check out some key moments from the panel.

“If we want to survive as a city, we need to make sure we can work together.”

Juliana Garaizar of Greentown Labs. "From being competitive, we’ve become collaborative, because the challenges at hand in the world right now is too big to compete," she continues.

“The pace of innovation has changed.”

Steve Rader of NASA. He explains that 90 percent of all scientists who have ever lived are alive on earth today. “If you think you can do it all yourself — and just find all the latest technology yourself, you’re kidding yourself.”

“You can’t close the door. If you do, you’re closing the door to potential opportunities.”

— Michelle Stansbury, Houston Methodist. “If you think you can do it all yourself — and just find all the latest technology yourself, you’re kidding yourself.” She explains that there's an influx of technologies coming in, but what doesn't work now, might work later or for another collaborator. "I would say that health care as a whole hasn’t been very good at sharing all of the things we’ve been creating, but that’s not the case today," she explains.

“The thing that makes Houston great is the same thing that makes open innovation great: diversity.”

— Rader says, adding that this makes for a great opportunity for Houston.

“Some of our greatest innovations that we’ve had come from other industries — not from health tech companies.”

— Stansbury says. "I think that's the piece everyone needs to understand," she says. "Don't just look in your own industry to solve problems."

“Nobody knows what is the best technology — the one that is going to be the new oil."

— Garaizar says. “All of this is going to be a lot of trial and error," she continues. “We don’t have the luxury of time anymore.”