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

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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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Houston doctors recognized among top creative leaders in business

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This week, Fast Company announced its 14th annual list of Most Creative People in Business — and two notable Houstonians made the cut.

Dr. Peter Hotez and his fellow dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, were named among the list for “open sourcing a COVID-19 Vaccine for the rest of the world.” The list, which recognizes individuals making a cultural impact via bold achievements in their field, is made up of influential leaders in business.

Hotez and Bottazzi are also co-directors for the Texas Children's Hospital's Center for Vaccine Development -one of the most cutting-edge vaccine development centers in the world. For the past two decades it has acquired an international reputation as a non-profit Product Development Partnership (PDP), advancing vaccines for poverty-related neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) and emerging infectious diseases of pandemic importance. One of their most notable achievements is the development of a vaccine technology leading to CORBEVAX, a traditional, recombinant protein-based COVID-19 vaccine.

"It's an honor to be recognized not only for our team's scientific efforts to develop and test low cost-effective vaccines for global health, but also for innovation in sustainable financing that goes beyond the traditional pharma business model," says Hotez in a statement.

The technology was created and engineered by Texas Children's Center for Vaccine Development specifically to combat the worldwide problem of vaccine access and availability. Biological E Limited (BE) developed, produced and tested CORBEVAX in India where over 60 million children have been vaccinated so far.

Earlier this year, the doctors were nominated for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize for their research and vaccine development of the vaccine. Its low cost, ease of production and distribution, safety, and acceptance make it well suited for addressing global vaccine inequity.

"We appreciate the recognition of our efforts to begin the long road to 'decolonize' the vaccine development ecosystem and make it more equitable. We hope that CORBEVAX becomes one of a pipeline of new vaccines developed against many neglected and emerging infections that adversely affect global public health," says Bottazzi in the news release from Texas Children's.

Fast Company editors and writers research candidates for the list throughout the year, scouting every business sector, including technology, medicine, engineering, marketing, entertainment, design, and social good. You can see the complete list here

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Samsung sets sights on nearly $200 billion expansion in Texas

chipping in

As it builds a $17 billion chipmaking factory in Taylor, tech giant Samsung is eyeing a long-term strategy in the Texas area that could lead to a potential investment of close to $200 billion.

Samsung’s plans, first reported by the Austin Business Journal, call for an additional $192.1 billion investment in the Austin area over several decades that would create at least 10,000 new jobs at 11 new chipmaking plants. These facilities would be at the new Taylor site and the company’s existing site in Northeast Austin.

The first of the 11 new plants wouldn’t be completed until 2034, according to the Business Journal.

“Samsung has a history already in the Austin market as an employer of choice, providing high wages, great benefits, and a great working environment. All of this will be on steroids in the not-too-distant future, creating a historic boost to the already booming Austin economy,” John Boyd Jr., a corporate site selection consultant, tells CultureMap.

Samsung’s preliminary plans were revealed in filings with the State of Texas seeking possible financial incentives for the more than $190 billion expansion. The South Korean conglomerate says the filings are part of the company’s long-range planning for U.S. chipmaking facilities.

Given that Samsung’s 11 new plants would be decades in the making, there’s no certainty at this point that any part of the potential $192.1 billion expansion will ever be built.

Last November, Samsung announced it would build a $17 billion chipmaking factory in Taylor to complete its semiconductor operations in Northeast Austin. Construction is underway, with completion set for 2024. Boyd proclaimed last year that the Taylor project will trigger an “economic tsunami” in the quiet Williamson County suburb.

The Taylor facility, which is expected to employ more than 2,000 people, ranks among the largest foreign economic development projects in U.S. history. The impact of a nearly $200 billion cluster of 11 new chipmaking plants would far eclipse the Taylor project.

The Taylor factory will produce advanced chips that power mobile and 5G capabilities, high-performance computing, and artificial intelligence.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.