San Diego-based rBIO moved to Houston to take advantage of the growing ecosystem of biomanufacturing and synthetic biology. Photo via Getty Images

Cameron Owen had an idea for a synthetic biology application, and he pitched it to a handful of postdoctoral programs. When he received the feedback that he didn't have enough research experience, he decided to launch a startup based in San Diego around his idea. He figured that he'd either get the experience he needed to re-apply, or he'd create a viable company.

After three years of research and development, Owen's path seems to have taken him down the latter of those two options, and he moved his viable company, rBIO, to Houston — a twist he didn't see coming.

“Houston was not on my radar until about a year and a half ago,” Owen says, explaining that he thought of Houston as a leading health care hub, but the coasts still had an edge when it came to what he was doing. “San Diego and the Boston area are the two big biotech and life science hubs.”

But when he visited the Bayou City in December of 2021, he says he saw first hand that something new was happening.

“Companies from California like us and the coastal areas were converging here in Houston and creating this new type of bioeconomy,” he tells InnovationMap.

Owen moved to Houston last year, but rBIO still has an academic partner in Washington University in St. Louis and a clinical research organization it's working with too, so he admits rBIO's local footprint is relatively small — but not for long.

"When we look to want to get into manufacturing, we definitely want to build something here in Houston," he says. "We’re just not to that point as a company."

In terms of the stage rBIO is in now, Owen says the company is coming out of R&D and into clinical studies. He says rBIO has plans to fundraise and is meeting with potential partners that will help his company scale and build out a facility.

With the help of its CRO partner, rBIO has two ongoing clinical projects — with a third coming next month. Owen says right now rBIO is targeting the pharmaceutical industry’s biologics sector — these are drugs our bodies make naturally, like insulin. About 12 percent of the population in the United States has diabetes, which translates to almost 40 million people. The demand for insulin is high, and rBIO has a way to create it — and at 30 percent less cost.

This is just the tip of the iceberg — the world of synthetic biology application is endless.

“Now that we can design and manipulate biology in ways we’ve never been able to before,” Owen says, "we’re really only limited by our own imagination.”

Synthetic biology is a field of science that involves programing biology to create and redesign natural elements. While it sounds like science fiction, Owen compares it to any other type of technology.

“Biology really is a type of software,” he says. “Phones and computers at their core run on 1s and 0s. In biology, it’s kind of the same thing, but instead of two letters, it’s four — A, C, T, and G.”

“The cool thing about biology is the software builds the hardware,” he continues. “You put that code in there and the biology builds in and of itself.”

Owen says the industry of synthetic biology has been rising in popularity for years, but the technology has only recently caught up.

“We’re exploring a brave new world — there’s no doubt about that,” Owen says.

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Houston organizations launch study to explore hydrogen-powered travel

sustainability takes flight

A few major players have teamed up to look into making air travel more sustainable — and it's all happening in Houston.

The Center for Houston’s Future, Airbus, and Houston Airports have signed a memorandum of understanding intended to study the “feasibility of a hydrogen hub at George Bush Intercontinental Airport." The study, which will conclude in March of 2025, will include the participants that will collaborate ways to rethink how their infrastructures could be designed and operated to reduce an overall environmental footprint, and lead to hydrogen-powered aircrafts like the ones Airbus plans to bring to fruition by 2035.

In 2020, Airbus debuted its ZEROe hydrogen-powered aircraft project. The “Hydrogen Hub at Airports'' concept by Airbus unites key airport ecosystem players to develop ways to decarbonize all airport-associated infrastructure with hydrogen. The study will include airport ground transportation, airport heating, end-use in aviation, and possibly ways to supply adjacent customers in transport and local industries.

The use of hydrogen to power future aircraft aims to assist in eliminating aircraft CO2 emissions in the air, and also can help decarbonize air transport on the ground. With Houston being such a large city, and a destination for some many visiting on business, the Houston airports was an easy spot to assign the study.

"Houston’s airports are experiencing tremendous growth, connecting our city to the world like never before,” Jim Szczesniak, the aviation director for the city of Houston, says in a news release. “As we continue to expand and modernize our facilities, participating in this sustainability study is crucial. Continuing to build a sustainable airport system will ensure a healthy future for Houston, attract top talent and businesses, and demonstrate our commitment to being a responsible global citizen.

"This study will provide us with valuable insights to guide our development and position Houston as a global leader in sustainable aviation innovation for generations to come.”

The CHF was a founding organizer of the HyVelocity Hydrogen Hub, which was selected by the U.S. Department of Energy as one of seven hydrogen hubs in the nation, and will work in the Houston area and the Gulf Coast. The HyVelocity Hydrogen Hub is eligible to receive up to $1.2 billion as part of a Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding to advance domestic hydrogen production.

“The Center for Houston’s Future is pleased to have played a crucial role in bringing together the partners for this study,” Brett Perlman, the center's outgoing CEO and president, adds. “With Houston’s role as the world’s energy capital, our record of energy innovation and desire to lead in the business of low-carbon energy, Houston is the perfect place to develop our airports as North American clean hydrogen pioneers.”

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 fast-growing geothermal company, a human resources expert, and an outgoing climatetech CEO.

Tim Latimer, co-founder and CEO of Fervo Energy

Tim Latimer, CEO and co-founder of Fervo Energy, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Fervo Energy

Geothermal energy has been growing in recognition as a major player in the clean energy mix, and while many might think of it as a new climatetech solution, Tim Latimer, co-founder and CEO of Fervo Energy, knows better.

"Every overnight success is a decade in the making, and I think Fervo, fortunately — and geothermal as a whole — has become much more high profile recently as people realize that it can be a tremendous solution to the challenges that our energy sector and climate are facing," he says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

In fact, Latimer has been bullish on geothermal as a clean energy source since he quit his job as a drilling engineer in oil and gas to pursue a dual degree program — MBA and master's in earth sciences — at Stanford University. He had decided that, with the reluctance of incumbent energy companies to try new technologies, he was going to figure out how to start his own company. Through the Stanford program and Activate, a nonprofit hardtech program that funded two years of Fervo's research and development, Latimer did just that. Read more.

Karen Leal, performance specialist at Insperity

Karen Leal, performance specialist at InsperityTime to think ahead, business owners. Here's what this expert thinks you need to prioritize. Photo courtesy

Not only is upskilling your workforce on a regular basis good for performance purposes, it also contributes to a positive company culture, writes Karen Leal, performance specialist with Houston-based Insperity, in a guest column.

"Learning and development (L&D) programs give employees the resources to grow within their current role and ready them for their possible advancement into new positions and/or another role or function," she writes. "This development should be a collaborative effort with the employee to support the employee’s growth goals. L&D programs build and strengthen your organization’s learning culture, which encourages employees to lean into the overall corporate culture and promotes employee engagement."

She goes on to outline the major benefits when developing L&D programs that impact business success. Read more.

Kevin Knobloch, CEO of Greentown Labs

Kevin Knobloch is stepping down as Greentown Labs CEO, effective on July 31. Photo via LinkedIn

While not based full time in Houston, Kevin Knobloch has led Greentown Labs, which is co-located in the Boston and Houston areas, as president and CEO for the past several months. Last week, he announced he's stepping down.

Knobloch will continue in his role until the end of July 2024.

“It has been an honor to lead this incredible team and organization, and a true privilege to get to know many of our brilliant startup founders," Knobloch says in the news release. “Greentown is a proven leader in supporting early-stage climatetech companies and I can’t wait to see all that it will accomplish in the coming years.” Read more.

Houston investors back new platform for retail traders looking to follow financial influencers

making a splash

As anyone who witnessed the impact Gamestop's meme stock had on the country already realizes, influential investors can drive momentum within the financial sector. And one company with fresh funding from a Houston firm is betting on that exactly.

CashPool is a new mobile platform that gives everyday investors the opportunity to derive influence from the investment strategies and trades made by trusted and influential stock traders who have built substantial followings on social media platforms. By allowing retail traders the chance to join social media influencers’ various “pools” on its platform, CashPool is primed to change the way the masses acquire wealth.

This is the kind of algorithmic trading aimed at a new generation of investors that gets the attention of early-stage venture capital funds like Houston-based Ten X Labs, a pre-seed angel fund that recently invested in CashPool to help the trading platform continue its mission of transforming the investment landscape.

"We are thrilled to receive funding from Ten X Labs, as it validates our innovative approach to trading and investing," CashPool Founder and CEO Averett Barksdale says in a news release. "This investment will enable us to further enhance our platform, expand our user base and continue to revolutionize the industry. We believe that everyone should have transparent, governed access to profitable trading and investment opportunities, and through CashPool we are making that vision a reality."

Connecting the dots

CashPool is broker agnostic connector, allowing its users to keep their current brokers like Robinhood, Coinbase, Charles Schwab, Acorns, Fidelity, ETRADE, Stash, Sofi and Betterment and creates a seamless investment experience.

“We are that middle piece,” says Barksdale. “So your money stays on whatever brokerage you’ve connected to the platform, and we just execute the trades on your brokerage for you.”

Considering that users’ money remains with their original brokerage, how does CashPool monetize its platform?

“We don’t charge users to execute trades,” says Barksdale. “We charge per pool you join. So, on our platform, strategies are called pools and a user can join as many strategies as they want.”

Financial influencers set the strategies. These are profitable traders who have become influencers on various social media platforms and built-up followings comprised of people who are or are desiring to be retail traders themselves.

“There are a ton of people out there who actually are profitable traders,” says Barksdale. “Same as what we saw happen with GameStop and the whole Reddit situation. That was a financial influencer, right? It just so happens that he had a strategy that he thought would work and it turned out for a while it did work, right?

“We want to not only empower the retail trader, but empower these financial influencers who are profitable as well. Just because it's a whole marketplace out there for it. But a lot of times the retail trader doesn't quite understand who to go with. On our platform, you could see the results of these financial influencers right before your eyes on our platform. So you can see if they're profitable or not, or if someone's just on Instagram or whatever, social media platform posting screenshots but aren’t actually executing those trades.”

Increasing transparency

With trading, past success can be an arbiter for future performance, so with CashPool, users can choose to join the pools of influencers who have documented success as a trader on the platform.

“On our platform you can't hide,” says Barksdale. “We're connected to their brokerage account, so we see what trades they're making in real time. We also see their performance in real time, and we display that on the platform. That's something that you really can't get around. So if someone on Instagram says they traded this stock, then I made X amount of dollars and had this percentage of return, then you go to the platform and look at your pool and see they didn't do that and were lying the whole time, it’s literally just putting everything out there in the open. We have the kind of transparency that doesn't exist currently right now in the space.”

Broadcasting one’s successes is easy, but what about the losses?

“I thought it was going to be a lot more difficult just thinking, do people really want to show what they're doing?” says Barksdale. “But the thing that I've seen is a lot of these traders are a whole lot more competitive. And the traders who are doing it, they're constantly talking out against people who aren't actually doing it in real life.

“A lot of the traders who are actually profitable, they do live trades every day. But how do users if they should pay to get into a specific trader’s live trading session? Like, how do they know they're profitable already?

“On CashPool, users can see an actual influencer's win rate and say, 'Okay, 86 percent of the time they are profitable, and I could see how many trades they've made in total.' From that standpoint, users can make an educated decision on what pools to join and pay for.”

CashPool users can join as many pools as they see fit, but the cost of each pool’s membership may vary due to the popularity or success percentage rate of the financial influencer.

“You can join as many pools as you want, but what we suggest is you start by joining the pools of influencers that you already follow and trust, that you're already following like on Twitter or YouTube or Instagram or whatever it may be,” says Barksdale. “We are suggesting that you follow them first and you join their pools first. What we do is on the monetization side is we allow the creators on our platform who are the influencers to set their own price for their pool.”

Building a secure network

Outside of who or what to follow, information security is likely a concern for potential users. Financial influencers’ trade information is readily available (win percentages and number of trades, not dollar amounts), but users’ won’t be able to see other users’ information on the platform.

“Currently, we have a list of 10 brokerages who are on board, and then we're working to onboard more as we keep going on,” says Barksdale. “So, we have like your Interactive brokerages, and we also have a few other ones that are UK specific and Canada specific. We would love to have every single brokerage on the platform, but unfortunately, there are a couple that are still kind of playing hard to get, so to speak.”

The first rollout of CashPool is set, but version two will likely include content creation from the financial influencers.

Barksdale, who has a background in product development and experience working at companies like Charles Schwab and Fidelity, is mostly excited about the prospect of CashPool unlocking expert financial strategies for everyone, not just the financial advisors behind the closed doors of Wall Street.

“Yes, my philosophy is that financial health and financial growth should be accessible for all,” says Barksdale. “The thing that gets me is it needs to be responsible. So, for example, RobinHood is a platform that doesn't necessarily care if you are making responsible decisions, they just care that you're trading on that platform.

“Our platform is strictly focused on actually being the place where these retail traders can make responsible decisions centered around investing and trading.”