Andrew Chang, managing director of United Airlines Ventures, says it's his job to accelerate the airline's mission to decarbonize operations. Photo via LinkedIn

While someone might not immediately make the connection between aviation and the energy transition, United Airlines understands the importance of more sustainable fuel — and has put its money where its mouth is.

According to an International Energy Agency report, the aviation accounted for 2 percent of global energy-related CO2 emissions last year. Earlier this year, United Airlines launched a fund that called for collaboration across the industry.

After only five months, the United Airlines Ventures Sustainable Flight Fund SM increased to nearly $200 million and added new financial partners, airlines, and more. The fund takes on funding from its 13 limited partners and exists separately from United's core business operations.

Andrew Chang, managing director of United Airlines Ventures, says it's his job to accelerate the airline's mission to decarbonize operations. He explains that working together on the fund is the key for advancing sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF.

"We all recognize that we may compete in our core business, but with the importance of sustainable aviation fuel and given that it's an industry that doesn't exist — you can't compete for something that doesn't exist — let's collaborate and work together to explore technologies that can directly or indirectly support the commercialization and production of sustainable aviation fuel," he says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

United Airlines also recently signed an offtake agreement with Cemvita Factory, a Houston biotech startup that's working on SAF. Chang discusses this partnership on the show, as well as explaining how he works with other startups and what he's looking for.

The offtake agreement and the fund are just two examples of how United is building to a more sustainable future. As Chang explains on the show, the aviation industry hasn't evolved too much over the past three or four decades.

"It's been a challenging market," he says, blaming the ever-evolving macroeconomic conditions for providing challenges for the airline, taking away its focus from new technologies. "But I think we are at a point where the industry is in a healthier place, the sector has consolidated, we are supported by our consumers, and we are now empowered with the financial and strategic capital to think ahead."

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

The Houston energy transition ecosystem is primed for collaborative partnerships – but here's what to keep in mind. Photo courtesy of Digital Wildcatters

Addressing the need for collaboration in Houston's energy transition

Editor's note

When it comes to advancing the energy transition in Houston and beyond, experts seem to agree that collaborations between all major stakeholders is extremely important.

In fact, it was so important that it was the first panel of the second day of FUZE, an energy-focused conference put on by Digital Wildcatters. EnergyCapital HTX and InnovationMap were the event's media partners, and I, as editor of these news outlets, moderated the panel about collaborations.

I wanted to take a second to reflect on the conversation I had with the panelists earlier this week, as I believe their input and expertise — from corporate and nonprofit to startup and investing — was extremely valuable to the greater energy transition community.

Here were my three takeaways from the panel, titled "Collaborative Partnerships: Leveraging synergy in the energy sector."

Early-stage tech startups need bridges to cross their valleys.

The energy transition is a long game — and an expensive one, as Jane Stricker, executive director of the Houston Energy Transition Initiative, explains on the panel. And, just like most startups, the path to commercialization and profitability is long — and definitely not promised.

"When you look at innovation and startups, the multiple valleys of death a startup will go through on their journey, we have to find more ways to bridge those valleys and get more technology to get up that mountain and to a place where it can be scaled," she says.

She explains that corporations aren't always good at innovating, but they are impactful about rolling out de-risked technology at a global scale. But the technology has to get to that point first, so it takes a much earlier intervention for corporates — or another entity, like incubators and accelerators — to help in that developmental process.

"In Houston we have the potential to build out that ecosystem — we already have a lot of pieces in place, so it's about connecting the dots," Stricker says. "It's only by all of the different parts of the ecosystem understanding what each other does and what unique role they play in the process that we can really leverage the strengths of each of them to help create those partnerships and opportunities."

As Amy Henry, CEO of EUNIKE Ventures explains, corporates have their own challenges.

"Energy companies themselves have their own valley of death, and from where they are sitting, that's why they need to collaborate," she says on the panel. "And now we're talking about an unprecedented rate of getting technology commercialized."

EUNIKE works as a go between for corporates — almost as an expansion for them, Henry explains, and they are facing a challenging time too.

"Energy companies are just not early adopters of technology," she says. "But they are also going through their own transformation. At the same time, you've had this huge knowledge leakage in terms of all the workforce reduction."

Startups and corporates speak a different language.

Moji Karimi has had several partnerships with corporations with his biotech startup Cemvita Factory, including a recent offtake agreement with United. For Karimi, it's about learning about your corporate partner.

"In partnerships, especially for startups, you need to understand what is the language of love for the company at time," he says on the panel. "Is it growth, is it perception and PR, is it deployment of capital, or is there a specific bottleneck that we can help remove."

For HETI, Striker says they hope to act as a translator between the two parties.

"How do we enable more connectivity between the companies that have a technology that may be of interest to the larger companies looking for a solution?" Striker explains of HETI's mission. "And how do we make sure industry is communicating opening and broadly?"

Now is the time for action.

For Karimi, the solution is simple: More action is needed.

"Generally, we just need to talk less and do more," he says of what he wants to see from corporates, adding that more checks need to be written.

Based on his own experience, Karimi says some corporates are better to work with than others. He says he prefers working with the companies that don't try to mix in their startup pilots with the "bread and butter" of the business.

"Everyone has so much on their plate," he says, giving the example of Oxy Low Carbon Ventures being an offshoot of Oxy's main business.

Karimi says corporates should think of their startup pilots as an opportunity to try something new and different — something they'd never be able to test internally.

David Maher, business development director of Americas at Linde, says now that there's been regulatory framework, Linde knows what to invest in. The company has a particular interest in hydrogen.

"Another big piece of it is scale," Maher says of what Linde thinks about when considering innovative partnerships. "What's great about Houston is we have density and scale already."

United Airlines is interested in buying Cemvita's sustainable aviation fuel when it's produced. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

United Airlines signs offtake arrangement with Houston startup for sustainable fuel production

green fuel incoming

An innovative Houston company is celebrating a new deal with a global airline.

Cemvita Corp. announced a new offtake arrangement with United Airlines. Cemvita's first full-scale sustainable aviation fuel plant will provide up to 1 billion gallons of SAF to United Airlines. The 20-year contract specifies that Cemvita will supply up to 50 million gallons annually to United.

It's not the first collaboration Cemvita has had with the airline. Last year, United invested in the biotech company, which used the funding to open its Houston pilot plant.

“Since our initial investment last year, Cemvita has made outstanding progress, including opening their new pilot plant – an important step towards producing sustainable aviation fuel,” United Airlines Ventures President Michael Leskinen says in a news release. “United is the global aviation leader in SAF production investment, but we face a real shortage of available fuel and producers. Cemvita’s technology represents a path forward for a potentially significant supply of SAF and it’s our hope that this offtake agreement for up to one billion gallons is just the beginning of our collaboration.”

Founded in Houston in 2017 by brother-sister team Moji and Tara Karimi, Cemvita's biotechnology can mimic the photosynthesis process, turning carbon dioxide into feedstock. The company's SAF plan hopes to increase reliability of existing SAFs and lower impact of fuel creation.

“Biology is capable of truly amazing things,” Moji Karimi, CEO of Cemvita, says in the release. “Our team of passionate, pioneering, and persistent scientists and engineers are on a mission to create sustainable BioSolutions that redefine possibilities.”

“We are thrilled to partner with United Airlines in working towards transforming the aviation industry and accelerating the energy transition,” he continues. “This agreement featuring our unique SAF platform is a major milestone towards demonstrating our journey to full commercialization.”

Earlier this year, United, which was reportedly the first airline to announce its goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, launched its UAV Sustainable Flight FundSM. The fund, which named Cemvita to its inaugural group of portfolio companies, has raised over $200 million, as of this summer.

Moji and Tara Karimi co-founded Cemvita in 2017. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

At a recent SXSW panel, four Houston energy experts discussed the importance of research, commercialization, and more in Houston to drive the energy transition. Photo via Getty Images

Experts address Houston's energy transition role — from research to commercialization

HOUSTON @ SXSW

Every part of the energy industry is going to have a role in the energy transition — from the universities where the research and development is happening to the startups and the incumbent industry leaders, as a recent SXSW panel discussed.

“We are well known in Houston for being the energy capital of the world," Jane Stricker, executive director of the Houston Energy Transition Initiative, says as moderator of the panel. "The industry typically comes together with stakeholders to think about the solutions and how to solve this dual challenge of continuing to provide more energy to the world but doing it in a way that significantly reduces emissions at the same time.”

The panel, entitled "Ground Zero: Creating Pathways from Research to Scale Deployment," was put on by HETI, an organization under the Greater Houston Partnership, and took place Sunday, March 12, in Austin at SXSW.

“I often say that I believe Houston is ground zero for the transition because we have this unique combination of assets, infrastructure, innovation, research at universities, and a collective understanding of the importance of energy to people’s lives that allows us to tackle this problem in new ways," she continues.

Sticker was joined by Paul Cherukuri, vice president for innovation at Rice University; Juliana Garaizar, chief development and investment officer at Greentown Labs; and Tara Karimi, co-founder and CTO of Cemvita Factory. The panel highlighted the challenges facing Houston as it promises to lead the energy transition.

For Cherukuri, whose innovation-focused position was newly created when he was appointed to it last August, it's a pivotal moment for research institutions.

"It's really an exciting time in Houston because universities are changing," says Cherukuri. "Rice University itself is changing in dramatic ways, and it's a great opportunity to really plug into the energy transition inside of Houston."

The role he plays, as he explains, is to connect Rice innovators to the rest of the city and the world.

"We have to partner through the accelerators as well as with with companies who can catch what we've made and take it to scale," he continues. "That's uniquely something that we can do in Houston. It's not something that a lot of cities can do."

Representing the scaling efforts is Greentown Labs, and Garaizar explains how the Massachusetts-based organization, which has its second outpost in Houston, connects its member companies to corporate partners that can become funders, pilot partners, customers, and more. But scaling can only be accomplished with the right technologies and the proper funding behind them.

"Sixty percent of the technologies that are going to be used to decarbonize the world haven't yet been invented," she says on the panel. "So, there's a huge pull for technology right now. And we see people who are only on the private equity space now finally invested in a lot of earlier series like series A, but there's still some road to to be made there."

Houston-based Cemvita Factory is in the scale phase, and Karimi explains how she's actively working with companies to apply the company's unique biotechnology to convert CO2 to natural resources to accommodate each customer's needs. Cemvita is on the front lines of interacting with incumbent energy businesses that play a major role in the future of energy.

"The way we communicate with energy companies, we tell them that us to be the innovation arm for you and we work together," Karimi says. "I think it's everybody needs to understand it's a transition. There is no way to just change the way that chemicals are produced just immediately and replace it with something new. It's a transition that needs both aspects."

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

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Houston's energy industry deemed both a strength and weakness on global cities report

mixed reviews

A new analysis positions the Energy Capital of the World as an economic dynamo, albeit a flawed one.

The recently released Oxford Economics Global Cities Index, which assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the world’s 1,000 largest cities, puts Houston at No. 25.

Houston ranks well for economics (No. 15) and human capital (No. 18), but ranks poorly for governance (No. 184), environment (No. 271), and quality of life (No. 298).

New York City appears at No. 1 on the index, followed by London; San Jose, California; Tokyo; and Paris. Dallas lands at No. 18 and Austin at No. 39.

In its Global Cities Index report, Oxford Economics says Houston’s status as “an international and vertically integrated hub for the oil and gas sector makes it an economic powerhouse. Most aspects of the industry — downstream, midstream, and upstream — are managed from here, including the major fuel refining and petrochemicals sectors.”

“And although the city has notable aerospace and logistics sectors and has diversified into other areas such as biomedical research and tech, its fortunes remain very much tied to oil and gas,” the report adds. “As such, its economic stability and growth lag other leading cities in the index.”

The report points out that Houston ranks highly in the human capital category thanks to the large number of corporate headquarters in the region. The Houston area is home to the headquarters of 26 Fortune 500 companies, including ExxonMobil, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Sysco.

Another contributor to Houston’s human capital ranking, the report says, is the presence of Rice University, the University of Houston and the Texas Medical Center.

“Despite this,” says the report, “it lacks the number of world-leading universities that other cities have, and only performs moderately in terms of the educational attainment of its residents.”

Slower-than-expected population growth and an aging population weaken Houston’s human capital score, the report says.

Meanwhile, Houston’s score for quality is life is hurt by a high level of income inequality, along with a low life expectancy compared with nearly half the 1,000 cities on the list, says the report.

Also in the quality-of-life bucket, the report underscores the region’s variety of arts, cultural, and recreational activities. But that’s offset by urban sprawl, traffic congestion, an underdeveloped public transportation system, decreased air quality, and high carbon emissions.

Furthermore, the report downgrades Houston’s environmental stature due to the risks of hurricanes and flooding.

“Undoubtedly, Houston is a leading business [center] that plays a key role in supporting the U.S. economy,” says the report, “but given its shortcomings in other categories, it will need to follow the path of some of its more well-rounded peers in order to move up in the rankings.”

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

New collaboration to build data center microgrid in Houston

coming soon

Two companies are teaming up to build a natural gas microgrid in Houston that will reduce emissions by 98 percent.

Provider of prime and backup power solutions RPower has teamed up with Houston’s ViVaVerse Solutions to build a 17-megawatt (MW) microgrid at the ViVa Center campus in Houston, which is expected to be commissioned by the end of the year.

The microgrid plans to employ ultra-low emissions and natural gas generators to deliver Resiliency-as-a-Service (RaaS), and this will connect to ViVaVerse's colocation data center operations during utility outages.

RPower will also deploy the microgrid across different ERCOT market programs, which will contribute to assist with essential capacity and ancillary services for the local grid. ERCOT has increased its use of renewable energy in recent years, but still has faced criticism for unstable conditions. The microgrids can potentially assist ERCOT, and also help cut back on emissions.

“RPower's pioneering microgrid will not only deliver essential N+1 resiliency to our data center operations but will also contribute to the local community by supplying necessary capacity during peak demand periods when the electric grid is strained,” Eduardo Morales, CEO of ViVaVerse Solutions and Morales Capital Group, says in a news release.

ViVaVerse Solutions will be converting the former Compaq Computer/HPE headquarters Campus into an innovative technology hub called the ViVa Center, which will host the High-Performance Computing Data Center, and spaces dedicated to mission critical infrastructure and technical facilities . The hub will host 200 data labs.

“We are thrilled to partner with ViVaVerse to deploy this `first of its kind' microgrid solution in the data center space,” Jeff Starcher, CEO of RPower, adds. “Our natural gas backup generation system delivers the same reliability and performance as traditional diesel systems, but with a 98 percent reduction in emissions. Further, the RPower system provides critical grid services and will respond to the volatility of renewable generation, further enabling the energy transition to a carbon free future.”