material science matters

Houston-based foundation commits $100M to Rice University to create new institute

The Welch Foundation has announced a $100 million gift to Rice University to establish The Welch Institute focused on materials science. Photo courtesy of Rice

A private foundation that funds chemical research within the state of Texas is dedicating funds to a new venture — an institute focused on advanced materials at Rice University.

The Welch Foundation announced today a $100 million gift to Rice University to establish The Welch Institute. The institute will foster the study of matter, the design and discovery of new materials, and nanotechnology, and it will be led by an independent board of directors and scientific advisory board.

"The Welch Institute will focus on the development of advanced materials for the good of society and to advance the vision of Robert A. Welch, who believed in basic chemical research as a powerful force for transformative breakthroughs and improving the quality of life," says Welch Foundation Chair and Director Carin Barth in a news release. "It will bring together top minds across all disciplines to catalyze innovation and center leadership in the field right here in the Houston area."

Material science has an impact across industries — from energy, water, space, telecommunications, manufacturing, transportation, and more.

"Innovation is the foundation of progress. More than ever, the discovery of new knowledge is in turn the precursor of innovation. That is why universities and the work we do are key components of the innovation ecosystem," said Rice University President David Leebron at the press conference. "We expect the Welch Institute to serve the needs of all mankind, but we also expect it will secure a stronger future for the people of Houston."

The institute has a huge opportunity to lead the way in material science in the United States — as most of the current research and innovation within this field is happening on foreign land.

"While [material science] is fundamental to every conceivable aspect of our lives, the United States may be falling behind in terms of advancement in this field," says Gina Luna, board member of The Welch Foundation and acting president of The Welch Institute, at the press conference. "Of the top 10 material science institutes in the world today, not one of them is in the U.S. We believe the Welch Institute can change that."

Luna adds that the organization will bring together experts together in Houston, "where we just know how to get things done," she adds.

Rice is an ideal home for the initiative, says Pulickel M. Ajayan, chair of Rice's department of materials science and nanoengineering, and Houston stands to benefit from the program as well.

"This new institute will serve as an international hub for materials research, so that people from all around the world can come here and spend time and see Houston and Rice as a destination for materials research," he adds.The Welch Foundation has granted over $1 billion in funds and has endowed 48 chairs at 21 Texas universities, says Peter Dervan, chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board of The Welch Foundation and Bren Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology.

"We want to develop the Institute while maintaining all of our legacy grant programs and awards, which have served Texas scientists so well over the years," he adds,

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Building Houston

 
 

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Thomas Vassiliades of BiVACOR, Katie Mehnert of ALLY Energy, and Don Whaley of OhmConnect Texas. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know — the first of this new year — I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from health care innovation to energy — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Thomas Vassiliades, CEO of BiVACOR

BiVACOR named Thomas Vassiliades as CEO effective immediately. Photo courtesy of BiVACOR

Thomas Vassiliades has been named CEO of BiVACOR, and he replaces the company's founder, Daniel Timms, in the position. BiVACOR is on track to head toward human clinical trials and commercialization, and Vassiliades is tasked with leading the way.

Vassiliades has over 30 years of experience within the medical device industry as well as cardiothoracic surgery. He was most recently the general manager of the surgery and heart failure business at Abiomed and held several leadership roles at Medtronic. Dr. Vassiliades received his MD from the University of North Carolina, and his MBA was achieved with distinction at Emory University.

“I am excited and honored to join the BiVACOR team, working closely with Daniel and the entire team as we look forward to bringing this life-changing technology to the market,” says Dr. Vassiliades in the release. “Throughout my career, I’ve been guided by the goal of bringing innovative cardiovascular therapies to the market to improve patient care and outcomes – providing solutions for those that don’t have one. BiVACOR is uniquely well-positioned to provide long-term therapy for patients with severe biventricular heart failure.” Click here to read more.

Katie Mehnert, CEO and founder of ALLY Energy

Katie Mehnert joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the future of energy amid a pandemic, climate change, the Great Resignation, and more. Photo via Katie Mehnert

Katie Mehnert started ALLY Energy — originally founded as Pink Petro — to move forward DEI initiatives, and she says she started with building an audience first and foremost, but now the technology part of the platform has fallen into place too. Last summer, ALLY Energy acquired Clean Energy Social, which meant doubling its community while also onboarding new technology. On the episode, Mehnert reveals that this new website and platform is now up and running.

"We launched the integrated product a few weeks back," Mehnert says. "The whole goal was to move away from technology that wasn't serving us."

Now, moving into the new year, Mehnert is building the team the company needs. She says she hopes to grow ALLY from two employees to 10 by the end of the year and is looking for personnel within customer support, product developers, and sales and service. While ALLY is revenue generating, she also hopes to fundraise to further support scaling. Click here to read more.

Don Whaley, president at OhmConnect Texas

Texas is about a month away from the anniversary of Winter Storm Uri — would the state fair better if it saw a repeat in 2022? Photo courtesy

The state of Texas is about a month away from the one year anniversary of Winter Storm Uri — but is the state better prepared this winter season? Don Whaley, president at OhmConnect Texas, looked at where the state is now versus then in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"Governor Abbott has gone on record guaranteeing that the lights will stay on this winter, and I am inclined to agree. With the reinforcement of our fuel systems being mandated by the Railroad Commission, 2023 to 2025 should receive the same guarantee," he writes. "Beyond that, as the demand for electricity in Texas continues to grow, we will need to rely on the initiatives under consideration by the PUCT to attract investment and innovation in new, dispatchable generation and flexible demand solutions to ensure long-term stability in the ERCOT market.

Whaley has worked for over 40 years in the natural gas, electricity, and renewables industries, with specific experience in deregulated markets across the U.S. and Canada. He founded Direct Energy Texas and served as its president during the early years of deregulation. Click here to read more.

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