The latest Houston innovation news includes a name for the burgeoning Texas A&M University campus in the Texas Medical Center. Photo courtesy of TAMU

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and it's likely some might have fallen through the cracks. From a Texas university naming its burgeoning new campus to a Houston SaaS startup with fresh funds, here are some short stories in Houston innovation.

ThoughtTrace raises $10M series B

ThoughtTrace has received investment from Chevron Technology Ventures. Photo via thoughttrace.com

ThoughtTrace Inc., a Houston-based software-as-a-service startup closed a $10 million series B round led by Canadian venture capital fund McRock Capital with contribution from Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures.

"Chevron Technology Ventures (CTV) pursues externally-developed technologies and new business solutions that have the potential to enhance the way Chevron produces and delivers affordable, reliable and ever-cleaner energy," says Barbara Burger, president of CTV, in a release. "ThoughtTrace fits that mandate with the potential to automate the complex, time-consuming, and document-intensive workflows required for our ongoing business operations."

ThoughtTrace's software quickly analyzes documents and contracts and produces results at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional methods. With the fundraising deal, Scott MacDonald, McRock's co-founder and managing partner, will join ThoughtTrace's Board of Directors.

"We are extraordinarily excited to have both McRock and Chevron join the team. McRock brings a great background in the industrial space, which we see as a great fit. In the case of Chevron, they went from being a new customer in 2019 to an investor in 2020," says Nick Vandivere, ThoughtTrace CEO, in a release.

"With the new capital raise, ThoughtTrace will accelerate its investment in creating AI with unparalleled speed and accuracy, grow strategic partnerships and platform integrations, and add to its existing team of talented professionals, all of which will bring further value to the growing ThoughtTrace customer-base," Vandivere continues.

Texas A&M names its Texas Medical Center campus

The new campus will be called Texas A&M Innovation Plaza. Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University System

After announcing its plans for a $546 million medical complex in Houston's Texas Medical Center in February, Texas A&M University has released the name of the 5-acre campus rising at the intersection of Holcombe Boulevard and Main Street: Texas A&M Innovation Plaza.

The project will be completed in phases. The first phase, which will open later this year, is a renovation of an 18-floor building at 1020 Holcombe Blvd., which will to be the new home for EnMed, a dual degree program that produces both a master's in engineering and a medical degree.

"EnMed is just the first example of innovation that Texas A&M System intends to bring to the Texas A&M Innovation Plaza," says Chancellor John Sharp in a news release. "We are excited to have such a visible location in the Texas Medical Center."

Rice Business Plan Competition lays out virtual plans

The competition must go on. Photo via rbpc.rice.edu

This year's Rice Business Plan Competition, which was planned for March 26 to 28, was canceled due to COVID-19, but the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship has decided to offer up an alternative: A virtual RBPC. Forty two student teams will compete over three virtual events.

  • Elevator Pitch Competition on June 17 (Open to the public): Each team will deliver 60-second pitches.
  • Round 1 on June 18 (Open to startups and judges only ): Each team will deliver 10-minutes to pitch to a panel of judges followed by Q&A.
  • Live finals on June 19 (open to the public): The seven finalists will pitch to the judges, and following a round of questions from judges, the winners and prizes will be announced.

Two health care educational institutions team up for new program

Xavier University and Baylor College of Medicine have launched a collaborative medical track. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Louisiana's Xavier University and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston have joined forces to allow Xavier students a smooth transition into Baylor's graduate programs. Xavier students, including traditionally underrepresented minorities — according to a press release — will have the opportunity to apply for the program in November. Three students will be selected for the program, which facilitates acceptance into the medical school.

"Our commitment at Baylor College of Medicine to diversity and inclusion creates the best environment for success across our mission areas of healthcare, research, education and community outreach," says Dr. Paul Klotman, president, CEO and executive dean of Baylor College of Medicine, in the release. "This important collaboration with Xavier University will strengthen this commitment, and I look forward to welcoming students from this new partnership into the Baylor family."

Klotman continues to express how inclusiveness is a priority for BCM and for this partnership.

"We live in a world where healthcare is changing and evolving," says Dr. Anne McCall, provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs at Xavier, in the release. "This partnership will further equip our students with the diverse tools and training that they'll need to foster equity in the medical field and compete on an international level."

University of Houston begins offering virtual tours for perspective students

Potential UH Cougars can get the 411 on campus via a virtual tour tool. Photo via uh.edu

Before COVID-19 sent everyone home and canceled gatherings, classes, and events across the world, the University of Houston was already working on a way for potential students to tour and learn more about the campus. Now, in light of the pandemic, UH has released this virtual tour offering complete with live interaction from UH student ambassadors.

"I'm really excited about the live component we just added because prospective students can ask questions just like during a face-to-face campus tour and that interaction is invaluable," says Mardell Maxwell, executive director of UH Admissions, in a release. "UH is so committed to access, and we see this as a great opportunity not only for students in Houston and Texas, but for those coming from out of state. We are opening up access to campus across the world."

Anyone can sign up for a tour online through the university's website.

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Innovation and new business incubation at the University of Houston’s Technology Bridge is on a roll

Start Me Up

When Jacob Thomas first came to the University of Houston’s Technology Bridge in 2016, he knew it was the perfect incubator space to grow his company, Alchemy Sciences. The excellent support infrastructure enabled the fledgling oil recovery business to focus on improving its technology, product and business development, and operations.

“Technology Bridge also had the advantage of being located at a premier, research-focused university that afforded the opportunity to collaborate not just with other startups but with groundbreaking innovators on campus,” Thomas says.

And when Hadi Ghasemi, an associate professor in the UH Cullen College of Engineering, launched Elemental Coatings for his revolutionary anti-icing material in 2019, his ideal space was literally minutes from his campus laboratory.

“We have one of the best spaces in town right here near campus,” he says. “From a ready-made workforce to the facilities, it was a unique opportunity that was perfect for us.”

Thomas and Ghasemi aren’t alone in their assessments. They are part of a booming community of entrepreneurs setting up shop in Technology Bridge, Houston’s premier innovation park for technology commercialization, industrial partnerships, and startup development, located adjacent to the UH campus along the Gulf Freeway.

Connecting people and ideas

UH prides itself on spurring innovation, from the first spark of an idea to the transfer of knowledge and technology. The University is home to the nation’s top-ranked undergraduate entrepreneurship program and is one of the top 25 royalty-earning universities in the United States. And for seven of the past eight years, UH has ranked among the top 100 global universities for the number of utility patents issued.

Tanu Chatterji, the associate director of startup development at Technology Bridge, includes those accolades in her pitch to prospective tenants. But it’s the wealth of established relationships with UH researchers and potential employees already on campus that is the biggest selling point.

“If you are looking to grow a company and plug into a major ecosystem, Technology Bridge is where you want to be. You have access to the talent, expertise, facilities, and resources you need to be successful,” says Chatterji, noting that UH is a Carnegie-designated Tier One research university with 35 faculty members in the National Academy of Inventors.

"The students, faculty and resources at the heart of our ecosystem set us apart from everyone else," says Ramanan Krishnamoorti, UH vice president of energy and innovation.

Right now, Technology Bridge has more than 20 companies utilizing a wealth of amenities, including private and shared incubator lab spaces designed to support chemical, mechanical, and life sciences startups.

The Innovation Center features large, fully equipped and furnished office spaces with open and private areas, conference rooms and collaborative meeting areas, and a common kitchen area.

Additionally, startups receive unmatched access to UH faculty, one-on-one mentorship opportunities, and the full support of the UH Office of Technology Transfer and Innovation to help with funding, workshops, grant development, and commercialization.

“This is an innovation environment that is unique to Houston. We’re all about connecting people and ideas,” Chatterji says.

A community for innovators

To access the benefits of Technology Bridge and enjoy its competitive rental rates, companies are required to fulfill certain criteria. This includes committing to a minimum one-year contract and actively engaging with the UH innovation community at one of three levels: hiring university talent, working collaboratively on projects with faculty or sponsoring research, or commercializing UH intellectual property.

“We’re not looking to give out cheap space to anyone who’s just going to move out in three years,” Chatterji says. “We really want the right partners on board to help us cultivate this ecosystem.”

Technology Bridge is home to a diverse mix of companies, comprising both external organizations and spinoffs founded by faculty, graduate students, and staff. While some ventures are still in the early stages, actively seeking funding and assembling their teams, a handful have already reached the exciting milestone of selling products and are preparing to transition into larger, more permanent facilities.

“The higher the engagement, the higher the discount they get on their lease,” Chatterji says. “On the flip side, there’s incentive for UH to keep these companies within our family so we get to share new ideas and innovations and they can mentor our faculty and students.”

Building for the future

It’s not only innovators who are taking notice of the remarkable developments happening at Technology Bridge.

U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, who represents Texas’29th congressional district where Technology Bridge is located, helped secure nearly $3 million in federal funding for infrastructure improvements that will further grow its position as a leader in Houston’s innovation space.

“We have a lot of momentum at Technology Bridge as we continue to support Houston’s growing innovation economy,” says Ramanan Krishnamoorti, vice president of energy and innovation at UH. “We’re building great partnerships and providing these startups with everything they need to commercialize technologies and be successful.”

Most of the $2.875 million will benefit the UH Industry & International Innovation Hub (UHI), a planned center for industry partner engagement with an investor and mentoring studio and event space.

It will also increase onsite industry and startup capacity and establish workforce development and training rooms. The remaining money will be used to establish The Deck Innovation & Coworking Center, with eight new private offices that will increase lease revenue by a projected 150 percent. The entire project is expected to increase capacity by more than 20 companies.

“No other space in Houston has what we have,” adds Krishnamoorti. “It’s not just the Tech Bridge, it’s the University of Houston Tech Bridge. The students, faculty, and resources at the heart of our ecosystem set us apart from everyone else.”

Success stories

In recent years, startups at Technology Bridge have developed innovations in advanced materials, pharmaceuticals, and food and agriculture, as well as infrastructure and construction, optometry, medical devices, and computer software.

Among their accomplishments are hundreds of groundbreaking inventions such as a plant-based polymer with the potential to replace petroleum-based plastics and revolutionary therapeutics that have had a profound impact on patients worldwide, offering treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and epilepsy.

Thomas’ Alchemy Sciences, renowned for its portfolio of products that enhance the efficiency of oil and gas production in multiple basins across the United States, is now embarking on the early stages of expansion to Latin America. The company recently graduated from Technology Bridge, moving into a larger space to accommodate its growing operations.

“An incubation ecosystem like this is essential for technology startups as they begin their journey” Thomas says. “The proactive staff, modern lab facilities, and associated support system enabled us to conduct experimental work efficiently and was key to our growth over the past five years.”

Elemental Coatings, a company founded on technology pioneered by Ghasemi at his UH lab, produces anti-icing surfaces with exceptional durability, even in the harshest environmental conditions. After four years at Technology Bridge, Ghasemi said the company will double its workforce and move into a bigger facility early next year.

“When we started this journey, there were maybe two companies at Technology Bridge, so it’s been amazing to see this growth,” says Ghasemi. “Access to a knowledgeable workforce, along with the facilities and support for intellectual property protections and patents, was essential for us and is crucial for any startup.”

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from software to biotech — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Gaurab Chakrabarti, CEO and co-founder of Solugen

Solugen has announced two major partnerships. Photo via solugentech.com

Solugen had a busy week. The Houston-based company that makes sustainable chemicals announced two new partnerships.

Solugen and Sasol Chemicals, a business unit of Saslo Ltd., revealed that they are working together to explore commercialization of sustainably-made home and personal care products. Read more.

Later last week, Solugen announced that it has scored a partnership with ADM to build a biomanufacturing facility adjacent to an existing corn complex in Marshall, Minnesota. Read more.

Andy Grolnick, CEO of Graylog

Graylog, a Houston SaaS company, has new fuel to scale and develop its product. Photo via Graylog

A Houston software-as-a-service company has secured $39 million in financing and announced its latest upgrade to its platform.

Graylog, which has created an innovative platform for cybersecurity and IT operations, raised equity funding with participation from new investor Silver Lake Waterman and existing investors Piper Sandler Merchant Banking and Harbert Growth Partners leading the round.

“The growth we are seeing globally is a response to our team’s focus on innovation, a superior user experience, low total cost of ownership, and strong execution from our Go-To-Market and Customer Success teams,” Andy Grolnick, CEO of Graylog, says in a news release. “We expect this momentum to continue as Graylog expands its reach and raises its profile in the security market.” Read more.

Stuart Corr, executive director of Pumps & Pipes

A Houston expert shares reasons to swap screen time for extended reality. Photo via pumpsandpipes.org

Virtual and augmented reality are having a moment, as Stuart Corr, executive director of Pumps & Pipes, explains in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"The COVID-19 pandemic saw an unprecedented shift to even more screen time and interactions using remote video communication platforms," he writes. "It was also around this time that wireless virtual reality headsets were, for the first time ever, economically accessible to the consumer due to the large push of one multinational corporation. Fast forward to 2023, there are even more companies beginning to enter the market with new extended reality (XR) headsets (i.e. virtual, mixed, and augmented reality) that offer spatial computing – the ability for computers to blend into the physical worlds (amongst other things)."Read more.

Houston space tech company snags $9.5M contract, sets launch date for lunar mission

green light

Business at Houston-based space exploration company Intuitive Machines is taking off on two fronts.

First, Intuitive Machines has landed a nearly $9.5 million Air Force contract to develop technology for NASA’s Gateway project, the first space station that will orbit the moon. Specifically, the technology will support a high-powered nuclear fission system that will supply electricity for satellites, bypassing the need for power from solar, battery, or fuel-cell sources.

“As space exploration ventures become more ambitious and diverse, the need for efficient and reliable power sources in space is paramount,” Pete McGrath, vice president of business development at Intuitive Machines, says in a news release. “Developing the ability to expand power sources beyond solar, which requires heavy battery storage, could remove the burden of constantly worrying about a spacecraft’s arrays relative to the sun, and potentially deliver long-term stability for satellites that would otherwise lose power over time.”

Second, Intuitive Machines has set January window for the launch of its IM-1 lunar mission in conjunction with private aerospace company SpaceX. The liftoff is targeted for a multiday window that opens January 12, 2024.

“There are inherent challenges of lunar missions; schedule changes and mission adjustments are a natural consequence of pioneering lunar exploration,” Steve Altemus, co-founder, president, and CEO of Intuitive Machines, says in a news release. “Receiving a launch window and the required approvals to fly is a remarkable achievement, and the schedule adjustment is a small price to pay for making history.”

The IM-1 mission will be the company’s first attempted lunar landing as part of NASA’s commercial payload initiative.

Intuitive Machines went public earlier this year via SPAC. Co-founder Tim Crain shared a bit of the origin story of the company on a recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.