Here's who won big for Houston innovation. Photos courtesy

In a virtual awards program, Houston Exponential has revealed the winners of the inaugural Listies awards.

The Listies, brought to you by Houston Exponential in partnership with InnovationMap, named the winning companies and people across 12 awards on November 20 at 3 pm as a part of Impact Hub's annual The Houston Innovation Summit (THIS).

Nominations were open until Friday, November 6, and then a group of judges made up of members of the Houston innovation ecosystem reviewed the submissions to settle on the 38 finalists. Click here to see the finalists.

Here's who took home the big wins.

SDO Superstar: MassChallenge Texas

Photo courtesy of MassChallenge

A startup development organization can be an accelerator program, an incubator, or a coworking space — and organizations falling into all three of these sectors were nominated for this category. MassChallenge Texas, which has been running its non-equity, general accelerator program in Houston for two years, stood out to judges to take the win for the SDO Superstar category.

Individual Contributor: Slawek Omylski of SecurityGate

Photo via LinkedIn

The individual contributor award was meant to find and recognize a non-founder who was essential to the success of a Houston startup, and that's exactly how SecurityGate's team sees Slawek Omylski, director of engineering. Not only has he been essential from the start over three years ago when he joined as employee No. 4, but Omylski, when unexpectedly having to move back home to Italy, never missed a single meeting or tech deployment despite being an ocean away from the rest of his team. Known as "Suave" by his teammates, his nominators say Omylski is usually the first to arrive at the office and the last to leave.

Civic Innovation: Annapurna Solutions

Image viaannapurnasolutions.org

Everyone knows that the key to sustainability is reducing, reusing, and recycling, but the fact of the matter is no one has quite perfected recycling. Houston-based Annapurna Solutions is stepping in to help. The company provides innovative technology solutions to address waste and recycling challenges, helping to make cities smart and sustainable — like the company's ReciklApp.

Welcome to Houston: Greentown Labs

Photo via greentownlabs.com

Greentown Labs is a startup development organization, but it's are also a startup itself, but when it opens its doors in Houston in the spring, the organization isn't starting from scratch. After years of working with over 200 climatech companies in the Boston area, Greentown's expansion into Houston means incubating Houston energy tech companies and furthering the conversation and activation within the energy transition.

Investor of the Year: Integr8d Capital

Photo via TMC.edu

John "J.R." Reale has been a well respected mentor, entrepreneur, and investor in Houston for years. His firm Integr8d Capital has invested in several Houston companies, including Liongard from seed stage to series A and series B. Reale is also the entrepreneur in residence for the TMC Innovation Institute.

Corporate Innovator: Houston Methodist

Courtesy of Methodist Hospital/Facebook

Houston Methodist and its Center for Innovation led by Roberta Schwartz is leading health tech innovation in Houston. In January, the hospital opened its Technology Hub, 3,500-square-foot space renovated from a former 18-room patient wing to showcase and test new digital health technologies like virtual reality, ambient listening, wearables, and more. Additionally, the hub helped with the training of dozens of doctors with the rise of telemedicine during COVID-19.

Outstanding Leadership: Grace Rodriguez

Photo courtesy of Grace Rodriguez

Grace Rodriguez's career spans industry and time, but her leadership has been consistent throughout. She currently serves Impact Hub Houston as CEO and executive director. Her nominator calls her an inspiration and someone who "shows up," clearly loving everything she does and is responsible. During COVID-19, she's gone above and beyond to provide resources and information to everyone who needs it, including launching a fund to help pay for meals for health care workers and first responders. The LIFE Fund raised over $20,000.

COVID Phoenix: Luminare

Image via luminaremed.com

Originally founded by Dr. Sarma Velamuri to treat and fight sepsis, Luminare took its sepsis platform and pivoted it to created a COVID self-assessment and testing tool. Their digital platform directed 5.5 million people to COVID-19 testing sites in just 21 days, according to its nomination. The tool was used by Harris County and several other entities.

DEI Champion: Maria Maso

Photo courtesy of Nijalon Dunn

Maria Maso is looking out for minorities when it comes to investment. As the founder and CEO of the Business Angel Minority Association (baMa) — an Angel Association aimed at bridging minority-founded startups with accesses to capital — Maria has been a champion for diversity. She also has helped to educate and activate 40 diverse investors through baMa's Diversity Investor Academy, according to her nomination.

Mentor of the Year: Landi Spearman

Photo via LinkedIn

Landi Spearman's approach to mentorship, according to her nominee, is to mentor the full person — from professional to personal life — through Organized SHIFT, which focuses on helping highly productive leaders, individuals and organizations in their quest to sustain positive growth internally and externally. She also supports entrepreneurs though The Ion, Station Houston, General Assembly, the National Urban League, Power to Fly, Black Women in Science and Engineering, the Greater Houston Partnership, the Greater Houston Black Chamber, Pink Petro, and more.

People's Choice and Soonicorn: Liongard

Photos via LinkedIn

People's Choice was based off how many nominations the startups received, and Liongard was a clear winner. The company, which also won in the Soonicorn category, has experienced major growth and, as the nominations read, that's to both Joe Alapat and Vincent Tran, co-founders, credit. The company has raised $12 million to date — the most recent round, a $10 million Series A — closed this year.

Houston-based SaaS company, Liongard, has closed its recent fundraising round led by one of HX Venture Fund's portfolio funds. Getty Images

Houston software startup closes $17M series B

money moves

A fast-growing software-as-a-service company has closed its latest round of funding to the tune of $17 million.

An information technology automation and management company, Liongard's round was led by Updata Partners with contribution by TDF Ventures, Integr8d Capital, and private investors. With customers in 20 countries, Liongard saw triple-digit customer growth and doubled its staff over the past 18 months, according to a news release.

Liongard's CEO, Joe Alapat, who co-founded the company with COO Vincent Tran in 2015, says that the new funds will continue to support its Roar platform — a software product that creates a single dashboard for all data systems and allows automation of managed service providers, or MSPs, for auditing and security within a company's IT.

"Since the launch of Liongard, the platform's adoption and popularity with MSPs has grown rapidly, transforming Liongard into a highly recognized brand in the MSP ecosystem," Alapat says in the release. "This new investment and the continued confidence of our investors will fuel our growth by giving us the means to further advance our solution's capabilities and serve our customers at an even better level."

Liongard's total funding now sits at over $20 million. Last year, the company raised a $4.5 million series A round following a $1.3 million seed round in 2018. TDF Ventures and Integr8d Capital have previously invested in the company.

Lead investor, Updata Partners, is based in Washington D.C. and invests in SaaS, tech-enabled service providers, and digital media and e-commerce. The HX Venture Fund, a fund-of-funds under Houston Exponential, has invested in Updata Partner's recent fund.

"Liongard has recognized an industry gap and addressed the need for greater visibility in how systems are managed," says Carter Griffin, a general partner at Updata Partners, in the release.

"The team created a valuable solution for MSPs, making the company an excellent investment opportunity for Updata. The combination of Liongard's in-demand platform, strong market presence, robust roadmap for ongoing growth and strong leadership team point to a company well-positioned for ongoing success."


Joe Alapat is the CEO of Houston-based Liongard. Courtesy of Liongard

Houston-based Liongard's Roar technology is helping its customers get all their IT services under one umbrella. Getty Images

Houston-based B2B tech company is connecting the dots on IT services

Hear me Roar

Houston-based startup Liongard, an Information Technology automation and management company, was founded on the idea that managing data and technology for companies shouldn't be so difficult.

Before founding Liongard, CEO Joe Alapat and COO Vincent Tran owned and operated Empact IT, an IT company, for more 10 years. In the decade they owned the company, Alapat said they saw the industry completely change as protecting a business' information and data became more challenging.

"[IT is] not all on one place in a data center anymore: it's in the Cloud, it's on the network, it's in app services and in on-premise [offices]," Alapat says. "The security problem is huge and that's exploding because … we lack visibility into basic things when we're managing IT. We just want to be able to manage it and get back to sanity."

After the duo sold the IT company in 2012, Alapat and Tran used the funds from the sale to launch Liongard in 2015 with the focus of automating the management of the plethora of systems that can overwhelm Managed Service Providers, or IT Service Providers.

"Everyone thinks their IT department is high-tech," Alapat says. "Unfortunately, the department that's supposed to be so high-tech is actually pretty manual. And they won't let on that it's challenging, but it really is [and] there's a lot of manual work involved."

So, Alapat and Tran developed Roar: a software product that creates a single dashboard for all data systems including the Cloud and apps, server networks, and on-site systems to make accessing and protecting the data easier. Alapat said Roar is able to inspect multiple systems and bring back rich information without logging into each different system.

Liongard joined entrepreneurial accelerator Station Houston — an association that helps place young businesses in front of investors — in June 2016 and gained access to its network of mentors, advisers, and investors.

In spring 2018, Liongard completed its Seed Stage round of its capital campaign with $1.3 million in investments. With these initial funds, Liongard was able to put Roar on the market in April 2018 and expand its client base — growing from two clients to now close to 200 customers in less than a year.

This year, the company will launch the second leg of its capital campaign with the goal of raising between $3 million to $4 million to help expand the company further.

Alapat said he thinks the company has been received well by Houston investors because Liongard offers a product that other IT management companies don't.

"No one has a unified way to look across the Cloud and network and apps and services and servers," Alapat

says. "There's plenty of different dashboards and solutions that looks at one or two of those things, but there's no single solution that consolidates all of that. That's what makes us different — that we unify all of that under one umbrella."

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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.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.