Mobile vet business, virtual reality for space, plant-based biotech, and more — all this innovation and more is coming out of Houston startups. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: As 2020 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. This past year, InnovationMap featured profiles on dozens of these Houston startups — from blockchain and software companies to startups with solutions in health care and oil and gas. Here are excerpts of 10 that stood out throughout 2020 — be sure to click through to read the full story.

Houston health tech startup moves into new office amid major growth

BrainCheck has moved to a new office as it grows its team and expands its product. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Following a series A round of fundraising, a Houston digital health startup is on a bit of a hiring spree, leading to new office space the company has room to grow into.

BrainCheck, which was founded in 2015 by neuroscientist David Eagleman, is a cognitive assessment startup that has developed a software tool for primary care doctors to use to assess their patients' cognitive health so that they can more quickly diagnose and treat them for maladies like dementia.

The 19-person company headquartered in Houston — with a secondary office in Austin focused on product development — has relocated its operations from coworking space in the Texas Medical Center to an office in the Rice Village area. The move was made possible by an $8 million series A financing round that closed in October.

"It's pretty exciting to have reached this milestone where we need more space," Yael Katz, co-founder and CEO of BrainCheck, tells InnovationMap. "We were pretty much bursting at the seams in our old office." Click here to continue reading.

Houston startup raises $30M, plans to be 'next iconic chemical company' with plant-based alternatives

Solugen, which uses plant-centered biotechnology to produce environmentally friendly chemicals, has raised an additional $30 million and is speculated to soon reach unicorn status. Photo via solugentech.com

While Forbes recently anointed Houston-based Solugen Inc. as one of the next billion-dollar "unicorns" in the startup world, Dr. Gaurab Chakrabarti shrugs off the unicorn buzz.

Chakrabarti, a physician and scientist who's co-founder and CEO of the startup, concedes he doesn't know whether Solugen will be worth $1 billion or not. But he does know that the startup aspires to be a key competitor in the emerging "climate tech" sector, whose players strive to combat climate change. Chakrabarti estimates the climate-tech chemical space alone represents a global market opportunity valued at $1 trillion to $2 trillion per year.

Solugen's overarching goal in the climate-tech market: Replace petroleum-based chemicals with plant-based substitutes.

"I'd love it if we were the poster child that drives climate tech to be the next big, sexy trend," Chakrabarti says.

Chakrabarti acknowledges Solugen's investors, executives, and employees hope the startup succeeds financially. But success, he believes, goes beyond making money and plotting an exit strategy. Instead, Chakrabarti emphasizes "a shift in thinking" on climate tech that he says promises to transform the fledgling sector into a "true niche" that'll be "good for everyone." Click here to continue reading.

Houston mobile vet company plans to roll out services statewide

A Houston vet has seen growth in business for her mobile vet company due to the pandemic. Now, she's planning major growth. Photo courtesy of Rollin' Vets

It's safe to say that the real winners of work-from-home trends that sparked due to the pandemic are our pets. Dogs and cats that were used to not seeing their owners for eight hours every work day now have 24-hour access to attention, treats, and ear scratches.

This increased attention pets are getting from their owners has also meant an increased awareness of pet health, says Katie Eick, founder of Houston-based Rollin' Vets, a startup that has mobilized veterinary services.

"People are home and observing their animals more. They're seeing and recognizing things they might not have if they were at work all day," Eick says.

That's, of course, not the only way the pandemic has affected business for Eick. She founded her company in 2016 and was seeing steady growth as delivery and on-demand services like Uber, DoorDash, etc. increased in use and awareness. Click here to continue reading.

With fresh funds, this Houston entrepreneur plans to scale his industrial e-commerce startup

Tim Neal, CEO of Houston-based GoExpedi, shares how his company plans to scale following its recent series C closing. Photo by Colt Melrose for GoExpedi

Consumers are getting more and more used to picking up their laptops or phones and ordering everyday items in just a few clicks or taps — and seeing those items delivered in just a few days. To Tim Neal, CEO of Houston-based GoExpedi, ordering parts and tools for industrial businesses should be just as easy.

GoExpedi, which just closed a $25 million series C round, has seen rising demand for its e-commerce platform focused on industrial orders, and Neal credits this demand on a change in mindset within the industrial sector. Additionally, he says he's seen clients more and more focused on cutting costs.

Neal shared his company's plans for growth and scale, as well as how fundraising during a pandemic went, in an interview with InnovationMap. Click here to continue reading.

Family-owned composting startup redesigns how Houston disposes of waste

A Houston-area family has made it their business to help Houstonians reduce waste in a convenient, sustainable way. Photo courtesy of Happy Earth Compost

Jesse Stowers has always strived to do his part for the environment. From recycling and making eco-conscious choices, the Stowers were doing everything right, but was it enough?

The family of five was throwing away two trash bags of waste a day that would later end up in landfills until Stowers stumbled on composting as a solution. In May, he launched Happy Earth Compost, a company set on making Houston more sustainable.

If you're unfamiliar with composting, get ready for a crash course. Composting is a sustainable method of decomposing organic solid wastes and turning that waste into compost, a substance that helps plants grow. Food scraps and household items like rice, pasta, meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, fruits, coffee grounds, spoiled food, and tea bags are just a few of the many things that can be composted rather than thrown away.

"Your food waste and compostable waste is anywhere from 25 to 50 percent depending on the family," explains Stowers. According to Happy Earth Compost, one human creates an estimated 1,642 pounds of trash each year. Click here to continue reading.

Houston virtual reality company collaborates with space health organization

Houston-based Z3VR has been granted $500,000 to work or virtual reality applications in space. Photo courtesy of Z3VR

Houston-based startup Z3VR received a $500,000 grant from Baylor College of Medicine's Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, last month to continue exploring how the wide world of virtual reality can boost mental and physical health for astronauts on a mission to Mars.

Founded in 2017 by a group of emerging tech enthusiasts, Z3VR discovered its niche in what CEO Josh Ruben calls the "intersection of biosensors and VR" and began consulting with TRISH in 2018. Last year, the company received its first funding from the institution to create virtual reality platforms that promote exercise and provide additional sensory experiences for isolated Mars-bound astronauts.

This new grant, however, takes Z3VR's mission one step farther. The year-long grant will allow Z3VR, in partnership with NASA labs in California and Houston, to further develop their VR platform to use eye movement tracking to identify cognitive, psychiatric, or ophthalmological issues before they arise.

Getting out ahead of issues is more important than ever on the Mission to Mars. Because of the duration and distance of the mission, these astronauts will be uniquely isolated and will face a communication lag of up to 45 minutes between space shuttle and command center.

"What that means from a health care perspective is that pretty much everything you need to treat and diagnose these astronauts needs to be self contained on the spacecraft itself," Ruben says. "The system that we are building is sensitive enough to pick up on these cognitive, ophthalmological, and psychiatric conditions well before they become clinically relevant. It'll be long before the astronaut knows there's a problem. That's the hope." Click here to continue reading.

Houston startup — buoyed by Halliburton — plans to scale

Houston-based Nanotech was the first company to be selected for Halliburton Labs, a recently announced startup incubator. Photo via halliburtonlabs.com

A Houston-based material science startup that uses nanotechnology for thermal insulation and fireproofing has been chosen as the first participant of Halliburton Labs, an innovation incubator, announced late last month by the oil and gas giant.

Halliburton Company chose Nanotech Inc., among a round of contenders to be the first participant of their 12-month program located at their Houston headquarters. Halliburton will provide Nanotech with its own office space, access to Halliburton facilities, technical expertise, and an extensive network to accelerate their product to market.

"With Nanotech's shield material we can have fireproofing infrastructure, saving lives and helping save the planet," says Mike Francis, CEO of Nanotech. "But it's tremendously difficult to scale our small lab to take our product globally, so when we heard about this opportunity with Halliburton Labs, we jumped immediately on it."

Nanotech Inc., started with a singular technology and a simple mission to fireproof the world and reduce energy consumption globally. The base nano shield, flex shield, and forged shield products contain nanoparticles ranging from 1 micrometer to 1 nanometer in a water-based solution with other inorganic compounds. The coating is heat resistant, non-flammable, and the nontoxic properties ensure it is sustainable for the environment. Click here to continue reading.Click here to continue reading.

This Houston tech startup is helping businesses find the funds during COVID-19 crisis and beyond

Houston startup Grant Source, which helps its clients find the right grants to apply for, has seen a surge in business amid the coronavirus shutdown. Getty Images

Since 2015, Grant Source has perfected the art of helping businesses, foundations, and organizations find and secure grant funding — and now their expertise has become vital to COVID-19 response initiatives.

With the devastation caused by the novel coronavirus, America's medical organizations have been scrambling to obtain the funds required to purchase the testing kits, masks, PPE, and other life-saving products needed to help curb the effects of the global pandemic and now, thanks to the mobile and web platform, they're getting the assistance they need to accomplish that goal.

"COVID-19 response is actually our claim to fame right now," says Allen Thornton, founder and CEO of Grant Source. "We have probably done more business in the last few months than we have since we started. Simply because we are helping people find grants with the CARES Act. There's over $500 billion out there, which has created overnight a $40 billion market opportunity for us."

Grant Source has worked extensively with city, county, state, and government agencies to secure grant funding, which is why they have become a game changer for those that need emergency capital to combat COVID-19's challenges. Click here to continue reading.

Houston energy tech startup raises $11M to grow its team locally

Houston-based Datagration Solutions Inc. has raised millions in its latest round — led partially by a local VC firm — to grow its local presence. Photo via Datagration Solutions/Facebook

An $11 million round of funding will fuel national and international growth at Houston-based Datagration Solutions Inc., whose cloud-based software aggregates data to improve workflows and analytics at upstream oil and gas operators.

Houston-based venture capital firm Quantum Energy Partners LLC and New York City-based venture capital firm Global Reserve Group LLC led the round. Datagration represents the sixth investment in energy tech involving the duo of Quantum Energy Partners and Global Reserve Group.

Braxton Huggins, chief marketing officer at Datagration, says the new capital will enable the company to build a technology team in Houston; add to its operations, sales, and marketing team in Houston; and supplement its development team in Austria. These new hires will help Datagration expand its national and international market presence, he says.

Huggins says Datagration aims to more than double in size by the end of 2021. The startup currently employs more than 30 people. Click here to continue reading.

Houston startup uses artificial intelligence to bring its clients better business forecasting calculations

Houston-based Complete Intelligence was just recognized by Capital Factory as the "Newcomer of the Year." Photo via completeintel.com

The business applications of artificial intelligence are boundless. Tony Nash realized AI's potential in an underserved niche.

His startup, Complete Intelligence, uses AI to focus on decision support, which looks at the data and behavior of costs and prices within a global ecosystem in a global environment to help top-tier companies make better business decisions.

"The problem that were solving is companies don't predict their costs and revenues very well," says Nash, the CEO and founder of Complete Intelligence. "There are really high error rates in company costs and revenue forecasts and so what we've done is built a globally integrated artificial intelligence platform that can help people predict their costs and their revenues with a very low error rate."

Founded in 2015, Complete Intelligence is an AI platform that forecasts assets and allows evaluation of currencies, commodities, equity indices and economics. The Woodlands-based company also does advanced procurement and revenue for corporate clients.

"We've spent a couple years building this," says Nash. "We have a platform that is helping clients with planning, finance, procurement and sales and a host of other things. We are forecasting equity markets; we are forecasting commodity prices, currencies, economics and trades. We built a model of the global economy and transactions across the global economy, so it's a very large, very detailed artificial intelligence platform."

That platform, CI Futures, has streamlined comprehensive price forecasting and data analysis, allowing for sound, data-based decisions.

"Our products are pretty simple," says Nash. "We have our basic off the shelf forecast which is called CI Futures, which is currencies, commodities, equities and economics and trade. Its basic raw data forecasts. We distribute that raw data on our website and other data distribution websites. We also have a product called Cost Flow, which is our procurement forecasting engine, where we build a material level forecasting for clients." Click here to continue reading.

This week's innovators to know in Houston includes Marcelo Cordini of December Labs, Courtney Sikes Longmore of Pure Palate, and Josh Ruben of Z3VR. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In today's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators representing a diverse set of industries — from virtual reality to software development — all making headlines in Houston this week.

Marcelo Cordini, co-founder of December Labs

Marcelo Cordini, co-founder of December Labs, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the unique service his company provides an evolving tech workforce. Photo courtesy of December Labs

Marcelo Cordini realized that nowadays, software developers are like rockstars. They can make or break a startup or technology's success and finding the best development team can be hard to do. But hiring and cultivating software talent is a specialty most companies — big or small — has the time or expertise to handle. That's where December Labs comes in.

"We are always learning new technologies — that's our focus," Cordini says. "If you have a big company focused on real estate, your focus is on real estate — not technology. So, if you partner with a company like us, it will give you that value to have someone who knows how to hire developers and how to train them."

Cordini joined the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to discuss the unique service his company provides and the state of software employment is in these days. Read more and stream the episode.

Courtney Sikes Longmore, founder at Pure Palate

Women in the work place have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. Photo via Pexels

According to Labor Department statistics, 1.1 million people left the workforce in August and September, and of that 800,000 were women. This data wasn't surprising to Courtney Sikes Longmore, an entrepreneur and founder of Pure Palate — however it was a call to action. She teamed up with Sesh Coworking to host a panel (click here to stream) to discuss how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected women and co-wrote a guest article with Maggie Segrich on the subject too.

"A decline of women in the labor force, on teams, in leadership positions and in decision-making roles compromises not just our economy's recovery and productivity, but also the innovation and effectiveness in industry, competitiveness on a global scale, aspirations of future generations of women, and society as a whole," they write. Read more.

Josh Ruben, CEO of Z3VR

Houston-based Z3VR has been granted $500,000 to work or virtual reality applications in space. Photo courtesy of Z3VR

The Houston-based Translational Research Institute for Space Health is always trying to find and support innovations that will help current and future astronauts, and Josh Ruben's company, Z3VR, was a perfect fit to work on virtual reality applications in space. The company received a $500,000 grant from TRISH last month to continue exploring how the wide world of virtual reality can boost mental and physical health for astronauts on a mission to Mars.

"This TRISH funding means the world," he says. "Not only do we have these partnerships within NASA, which we expect will really help address these problems, but we are already taking the funds and putting them to work in the US health care system." Read more.

Houston-based Z3VR has been granted $500,000 to work or virtual reality applications in space. Photo courtesy of Z3VR

Houston virtual reality company collaborates with space health organization

money for the mission

Houston-based startup Z3VR received a $500,000 grant from Baylor College of Medicine's Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, last month to continue exploring how the wide world of virtual reality can boost mental and physical health for astronauts on a mission to Mars.

Founded in 2017 by a group of emerging tech enthusiasts, Z3VR discovered its niche in what CEO Josh Ruben calls the "intersection of biosensors and VR" and began consulting with TRISH in 2018. Last year, the company received its first funding from the institution to create virtual reality platforms that promote exercise and provide additional sensory experiences for isolated Mars-bound astronauts.

This new grant, however, takes Z3VR's mission one step farther. The year-long grant will allow Z3VR, in partnership with NASA labs in California and Houston, to further develop their VR platform to use eye movement tracking to identify cognitive, psychiatric, or ophthalmological issues before they arise.

Getting out ahead of issues is more important than ever on the Mission to Mars. Because of the duration and distance of the mission, these astronauts will be uniquely isolated and will face a communication lag of up to 45 minutes between space shuttle and command center.

"What that means from a health care perspective is that pretty much everything you need to treat and diagnose these astronauts needs to be self contained on the spacecraft itself," Ruben says. "The system that we are building is sensitive enough to pick up on these cognitive, ophthalmological, and psychiatric conditions well before they become clinically relevant. It'll be long before the astronaut knows there's a problem. That's the hope."

Known as the Oculometric Cognition Testing and Analysis in Virtual Environments (OCTAVE) approach, Z3VR's program is modeled after a system at the Visuomotor Control Lab at NASA Ames in California. In the lab, scientists can use high-frequency eye trackers to monitor 21 physiological properties that can point to early signs of mental and physical conditions. The goal is to shrink down the same trackers to fit not just on the spacecraft, but inside a VR headset.

Other VR companies have been able to implement eye tracking into their platforms for some time now — but not at this level of preciseness. Partnering engineers on the project will have to increase the image quality four fold and capture about 10 times the number of images per second in order to detect the minute eye movements Ruben and team are searching for.

Still, Ruben thinks VR is the ideal fit for this process. "When you are in a VR application, the developers have what is effectively total control of your entire sensory experience," he says. "If I am monitoring various aspects of your physiology while you're in a VR experience, I know that the way your body is reacting is directly a result of our VR experience."

Too, the team and Z3VR envisions that through their platform this type of cognitive tracking can be a passive process. While astronauts are using the devices to exercise or learn how to fix a problem on board, their program will be tracking their eye movement in the background — much like how your smart watch would track your heart rate — alerting the command center only when a problem arises.

For Ruben, this is their giant leap for mankind moment and how they can use their tool to make an impact for earth-bound individuals.

"We imagine a world where just by interacting with a game through one of these devices we are able to flag these neurological issues well before they are issues," he says.

Though their technology likely won't be put to use in space until the 2030s, the group is already in talks with academic institutions about partnering on their program for new clinical uses and is working with the FDA to bring in regulatory oversight, Ruben says.

"This TRISH funding means the world," he says. "Not only do we have these partnerships within NASA, which we expect will really help address these problems, but we are already taking the funds and putting them to work in the US healthcare system."

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5 can't-miss innovation events at CERAWeek featuring Houston speakers

where to be online

While usually hundreds of energy experts, C-level executives, diplomats, members of royal families, and more descend upon Houston for the the annual CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference, this year will be a little different. Canceled last year due to COVID-19, CERAWeek is returning — completely virtually.

The Agora track is back and focused on innovation within the energy sector. The Agora track's events — thought-provoking panels, intimate pods, and corporate-hosted "houses" — can be accessed through a virtual atrium.

Undoubtedly, many of the panels will have Houston representatives considering Houston's dominance in the industry, but here are five innovation-focused events you can't miss during CERAWeek that feature Houstonians.

Monday — New Horizons for Energy & Climate Research

The COVID-19 pandemic has made vivid and real the risks of an uncontrolled virus. Risks posed by climate change are also becoming more palpable every day. At the forefront of understanding these risks, universities are developing solutions by connecting science, engineering, business, and public policy disciplines. Along with industry and governments, universities are critical to developing affordable and sustainable solutions to meet the world's energy needs and achieve net-zero emission goals. Can the dual challenge of more energy and lower emissions be met? What is some of the most promising energy and climate research at universities? Beyond research, what are the roles and responsibilities of universities in the energy transition?

Featuring: Kenneth B. Medlock, III, James A. Baker, III, and Susan G. Baker Fellow In Energy And Resource Economics, Baker Institute and Senior Director, Center For Energy Studies at Rice University

Catch the panel at 1 pm on Monday, March 1. Learn more.

Tuesday — Conversations in Cleantech: Powering the energy transition

With renewables investment outperforming oil and gas investment for the first time ever in the middle of a pandemic, 2020 was a tipping point in the Energy Transition. Low oil prices intensified energy majors' attention on diversification and expansion into mature and emerging clean technologies such as battery storage, low-carbon hydrogen, and carbon removal technologies. Yet, the magnitude of the Energy Transition challenge requires an acceleration of strategic decisions on the technologies needed to make it happen, policy frameworks to promote public-private partnerships, and innovative investment schemes.

Three Cleantech leaders share their challenges, successes, and lessons learned at the forefront of the Energy Transition. What is their vision and strategy to accelerate lowering emissions and confronting climate change? Can companies develop clear strategies for cleantech investments that balance sustainability goals and corporate returns? What is the value of increasing leadership diversity for energy corporations? Can the Energy Transition be truly transformational without an inclusive workforce and a diverse leadership?

Featuring: Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, which is opening a location in Houston this year.

The event takes place at 11:30 am on Tuesday, March 2. Learn more.

Wednesday — Rice Alliance Venture Day at CERAWeek

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship pitch event will showcase 20 technology companies with new solutions for the energy industry. Each presentation will be followed by questions from a panel of industry experts.

Presenting Companies: Acoustic Wells, ALLY ENERGY, Bluefield Technologies, Cemvita Factory, Connectus Global, Damorphe, Ovopod Ltd., DrillDocs, GreenFire Energy, inerG, Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, Nesh, Pythias Analytics, REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, Revterra, ROCSOLE, Senslytics, Subsea Micropiles, Syzygy Plasmonics, Transitional Energy, and Universal Subsea.

The event takes place at 9 am on Wednesday, March 3. Learn more.

Thursday — How Will the Energy Innovation Ecosystem Evolve?

Although the cleantech innovation ecosystem—research institutions, entrepreneurs, financiers, and support institutions—is diverse and productive, converting cleantech discoveries and research breakthroughs into commercially viable, transformative energy systems has proven difficult. With incumbent energy systems economically efficient and deeply entrenched, cleantech innovation faces a fundamental dilemma—the scale economies necessary to compete require a large customer base that does not yet exist. How is our clean energy innovation ecosystem equipped to be transformative? What needs to be strengthened? Is it profitable to focus on individual elements, or should we consider the system holistically, and reframe our expectations?

Featuring: Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president at Chevron Technology Ventures

The event takes place at 7:30 am on Thursday, March 4. Learn more.

Friday — Cities: Managing crises & the future of energy

Houston is the capital of global energy and for the past four decades the home of CERAWeek. Mayor Sylvester Turner will share lessons from the city's experience with the pandemic, discuss leadership strategies during times of crisis, and explore Houston's evolving role in the new map of energy.

The event takes place at 8 am on Friday, March 5. Learn more.

Rice University develops 2 new innovative tools to detect COVID-19

pandemic tech

Rice University is once again spearheading research and solutions in the ongoing battle with COVID-19. The university announced two developing innovations: a "real-time sensor" to detect the virus and a cellphone tool that can detect the disease in less than an hour.

Sensing COVID
Researchers at Rice received funding for up to $1 million to develop the real-time sensor that promises to detect minute amounts of the airborne virus.

Teams at Rice and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston are working to develop a thin film electronic device that senses as few as eight SARS-CoV-2 viruses in 10 minutes of sampling air flowing at 8 liters per minute, per a press release.

Dubbed the Real-Time Amperometric Platform Using Molecular Imprinting for Selective Detection of SARS-CoV-2 (or, RAPID), the project has been funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Rice notes. Further funding will be contingent upon a successful demonstration of the technology.

Attacking with an app
Meanwhile, the university announced that its engineers have developed a plug-in tool that can diagnose COVID-19 in around 55 minutes. The tool utilizes programmed magnetic nanobeads and a tool that plugs into a basic cellphone.

First, a stamp-sized microfluidic chip measures the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein in blood serum from a standard finger prick.

Then, nanobeads bind to SARS-CoV-2 N protein, a biomarker for COVID-19, in the chip and transport it to an electrochemical sensor that detects minute amounts of the biomarker. Paired with a Google Pixel 2 phone and a plug-in tool, researchers quickly secured a positive diagnosis.

This, researchers argue, simplifies sample handling compared to swab-based PCR tests that must be analyzed in a laboratory.

"What's great about this device is that it doesn't require a laboratory," said Rice engineer Peter Lillehoj in a statement. "You can perform the entire test and generate the results at the collection site, health clinic or even a pharmacy. The entire system is easily transportable and easy to use."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.