METRO launches a driver-less route, Houston biotech company raises millions, and more quick innovation news. Courtesy of METRO

So much Houston innovation news — so little time. In order to help keep in touch with all the news happening among startups and technology in Houston, we're hitting the highlights in this innovation news roundup.

If you know of innovation-focused news happening, email me at natalie@innovationmap.com with the details andsubscribe to our daily newsletterthat sends fresh stories straight to your inboxes every morning.


METRO launches a self-driving shuttle on Texas Southern University's campus

Courtesy of Metro

The first autonomous shuttle in Houston recently had its maiden voyage on Texas Southern University's campus. The route is a one-mile stretch that is called the "Tiger Walk.' The EasyMile shuttle can transport 12 passengers and is operated by First Transit. The project is a pilot program for METRO to see if it has successful applications in other public transportation efforts.

"When passengers board this all electric vehicle they will be riding into the future and experiencing a mode of transportation that in just a few years may become commonplace," says METRO Chair Carrin Patman in a release.

The first phase of the pilot kicked off June 5, as reported in a previous InnovationMap article.

After being deemed a hot tech company by Crunchbase, Data Gumbo grows its C-suite

Courtesy of Data Gumbo

In June, Data Gumbo was named among Crunchbase's top 50 hottest tech companies. The list looked for growing tech startups that have raised between $5 million and $20 million, with a recent round closing in the past six months. The Houston-based company closed its most recent round of $6 million in the spring.

Following the round completion, Data Gumbo's CEO, Andrew Bruce, noted the funds were intended to further develop the company's technology and grow the team. As of last week, Bruce made good on the promise and announced the company's new chief commercial officer, Sergio A. Tuberquia.

"As our new capital is being used to expand our commercial blockchain network, we are also expanding our internal teams to support our rapid global growth," says Bruce in a news release. "With Sergio joining to lead revenue efforts, this will further our company's mission to help oil and gas companies — and ultimately all industries -—realize greater efficiencies and cost savings in the supply chain. Sergio's mix of startup technology and oil and gas industry experience will greatly benefit Data Gumbo and its customers as the industry moves into digital oilfield solutions like blockchain."

Biotech company extends its Series D round to $43 million

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Following a $20 million commitment from Sanford Health, Houston-based InGeneron Inc. has extended its Series D round to $43 million. The funds will go toward further developing the company's regenerative medicine and cell therapy. InGeneron currently has a clinical study for rotator cuff recovery.

The investment by South Dakota-based Sanford Health was announced in March, and last month, InGeneron made the call to expand the series.

"Sanford Health's continued support helps advance InGeneron's regenerative cell therapy into the expansive pivotal trial phase, a significant step toward bringing our therapy into the clinic," says Angelo Moesslang, CEO of InGeneron, in a release. "This is an exciting time for the company, as one of the largest health systems in the United States further affirms the potential of adipose-derived regenerative cell therapy, while we diligently work to make it available to patients."

Rice Business Plan winner to ring the Nasdaq bell

Courtesy of Rice University

The company that won the top prize at the Rice Business Plan Competition and walked away with almost $700,000 is claiming another one of its prizes. Vita Inclinata Technologies will ring the opening bell at Nasdaq on July 3.

The company, which created a technology to advance helicopter safety, will be represented by its CEO, Caleb Carr, and Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, and Will Roper, the U.S. Air Force's assistant secretary for acquisition, will also attend. The livestream footage is available online, beginning at 8:30 am central.

Mercury Fund raising money

Texas Money

Getty Images

Crunchbase broke the news that Houston-based Mercury Fund has secured $82 million of its fourth fund, Mercury Fund Ventures IV, that will total $125 million, per a regulatory filing that PE Hub reported on. Mercury Fund refused to comment on the ongoing raise, but intends to release more information following the close, a representative confirmed to InnovationMap.

According to Crunchbase's proprietary data, it's the largest fund to date for the firm. The most recent fund closed in 2014 at $105 million. Mercury Fund specializes in SaaS, cloud, and data science technology, according to its website.

Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine researcher recognized

Courtesy of Rice University

Olga Dudchenko, a genomics researcher at Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine, been named to MIT Technology Review magazine's 2019 list of 35 Innovators Under 35.

Dudchenko, who is completing her postdoctoral fellowship at Rice's Center for Theoretical Biological Physics, has developed a method to sequence and assemble the genome of any organism for less than $1,000. Her process is comparable the that of the Human Genome Project, which cost $3 billion.

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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.

Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.