The BioWell, founded by biotech investor First Bight Ventures, was established to support sustainability-focused bioindustrial startups. Photo via Getty Images

Bioindustrial technologies have a high potential for impacting sustainability — but they tend to need a little bit more help navigating the startup valley of death. That's where the BioWell comes in.

Carlos Estrada, head of Venture Acceleration at BioWell, says the idea for the accelerator was came to First Bight Ventures, a Houston-based biomanufacturing investment firm, as it began building its portfolio of promising companies.

"While we were looking at various companies, we found ourselves finding different needs that these startups have," Estrada says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "That's how the opportunity for the BioWell came about."

Specifically, bioindustrial companies, which are tapping into life science innovation to create more sustainable products or services, need early funding, lab space, and strategic corporate partners to help research and develop their startups.

"The very direct challenge that we are seeing is that these companies very often have to spend their funds to build out their own lab spaces," Estrada says, "so by the time they're trying to focus back on the product itself, they are starting to run out of funding."

Carlos Estrada, head of Venture Acceleration at BioWell, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share why Houston is already a great hub for bioindustrial innovation. Photo courtesy of BioWell

BioWell is currently selecting its inaugural cohort and is also actively searching for its physical location to build out the program and facilities. Last year, BioWell secured $741,925 of the $53 million doled out as a part of the "Build to Scale" Grant program from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

In addition to solving for specific challenges bioindustrial companies face, Estrada says the program will provide support for general startup and entrepreneurial guidance, like business plan development, navigating investors and grant funding, and more.

Just as First Bight Ventures was founded strategically in Houston to make the most of the local resources, the BioWell will operate out of the Bayou City — a market Estrada says has everything the industry needs.

"We have the right talent — our universities produce great researchers. We have the energy companies that are utilizing (a workforce) with transferable skills," he says on the show. "We also have the infrastructure, the square footage, and various real estate companies creating shells for lab space. We have the know how, the universities, and all at a lower cost, which plays a big role in the equation."

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

Calling all biotechnology startups focusing on sustainable feedstocks, commercially viable yields, and purpose fit microbes. Photo via Getty Images

Houston organization rolls out new accelerator to support companies tackling 'pressing global challenges'

CALLING FOR APPLICANTS

A Houston organization — freshly funded by a $700,000 U.S. Economic Development Administration’s “Build to Scale” grant — is seeking its first accelerator cohort of industrial biology startups.

Founded by Houston-based First Bight Ventures, the BioWell has launched a virtual accelerator program that will provide programming, networking, mentorship, and financial resources to its inaugural cohort of 10 bioindustrial startups. The selected companies will also have access to specialized pilot bioproduction infrastructure throughout the nine-month program.

“BioWell equips startups with more than just capital. We provide a foundation for breakthrough innovations by combining access to cutting-edge bioproduction facilities with expertise that nurtures scalability. This comprehensive support is crucial for transforming pioneering ideas into market-ready solutions that can address pressing global challenges,” Carlos Estrada, head of venture acceleration at BioWell, says in a news release.

Applications for the program are open until May 15, and the cohort will be announced in June. Specifically, BioWell is seeking seed or pre-seed startup applicants that have a technology readiness level of 3 to 5, focusing on areas including low-cost and sustainable feedstocks, commercially viable yields, and purpose fit microbes.

“During our selection process, we'll prioritize startups that demonstrate a commitment to not only hitting milestones but also to building sustainable revenue streams for long-term survival. This phase necessitates keen awareness of market dynamics, customer demands, and sound financial management,” adds First Bight Ventures and BioWell Founder Veronica Wu.

In December, BioWell secured $741,925 of the $53 million doled out as a part of the "Build to Scale" Grant program that the U.S. Economic Development Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, has established. First Bight was one of 60 organizations to receive funding.

Ex-Apple exec Wu founded First Bight Ventures in Houston in 2022 after relocating from Silicon Valley and seeing the region's potential for biotech.

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

First Bight Venture's BioWell has received a $741,925 grant to continue supporting bioindustrial startups. Photo via Getty Images

Houston nonprofit accelerator receives grant funding to advance bioindustrial startups

the biowell

A Houston-based nonprofit accelerator that works with early-stage synthetic biology startups has secured nearly $750,000 to support its mission.

First Bight Ventures' accelerator, BioWell, secured $741,925 of the $53 million doled out as a part of the "Build to Scale" Grant program that the U.S. Economic Development Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, has established. First Bight was one of 60 organizations to receive funding.

The funding will support the BioWell's mission to establish a "vibrant bioeconomy" by helping startups scale and commercialize "through access to a unique combination of pilot bioproduction infrastructure," according to a news release from First Bight.

"Startups at BioWell will gain access to a robust ecosystem, expertise, mentorship, and financial resources essential for successfully commercializing their bio-industrial innovations," BioWell Executive Director Paul Palmer says in the release.

The BioWell is still working toward establishing a physical space and has worked out of the East End Maker Hub in the meantime. The organization has partnered with Urban Partnerships Community Development Corporation, or UP CDC, which led the application process on this federal grant.

"BioWell chose to partner with UP CDC for the EDA grant, to continue the successful model that UP CDC has created at the East End Maker Hub for advanced manufacturing. UP CDC looks forward to continuing our partnership with BioWell in the UP CDC's BioCity project that will position Houston at the forefront of bio-manufacturing," UP CDC's CEO Patrick Ezzell says in the release.

First Bight Ventures Founder Veronica Wu established the BioWell to target high-potential startups, which usually have to overcome lack of funding challenges early on.

"Often times, early-stage startups gain momentum and hit important milestones, but ultimately find themselves heading toward the 'Valley of Death,' where progress is made on their enterprise, but no sufficient revenue is generated for the company's stability and longevity," Wu says in the release. "This 'Build to Scale' program's support will help offset these inevitable challenges in our bio-industrial space."

She shares more about her mission for First Bight Ventures on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Listen to the interview from March below.

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

Algenesis bills its patented Soleic technology as the world’s first renewable, high-performance, fully biodegradable, and backyard-compostable polyurethane made from plants and algae. Photo via AlgenesisMaterials.com

Houston VC invests in early stage California biodegradable plastics startup

seed funding

Houston-based venture capital firm First Bight Ventures led a $5 million seed round for Encinitas, California-based startup Algenesis, a developer of biodegradable plastics.

Algenesis bills its patented Soleic technology as the world’s first renewable, high-performance, fully biodegradable, and backyard-compostable polyurethane made from plants and algae. Each year, 25 million tons of hard-to-recycle polyurethane are produced for the footwear, medical, and textile industries. Polyurethane, typically made from petroleum, usually ends up as landfill waste or environmental microplastics.

Algenesis says Soleic can biodegrade in compost within a matter of months and does not contain harmful PFAS chemicals found in other plastics.

Algenesis says the new funding will enable it to expand beyond soft-foam applications, such as midsoles and insoles for footwear, and into injection-molded products such as smartphone cases along with waterproof textiles.

Aside from First Bight Ventures, investors in the seed round are Singapore-based Circulate Capital, India-based MIH Capital, Chesapeake, Virginia-based Diamond Sports Group, and France-based Rhinoshield.

The investment comes on the heels of a $5 million grant Algenesis received from the U.S. Department of Energy to scale up production of biochemicals.

“To save our planet and ourselves, we must move away from petroleum-based plastics and toward bio-based alternatives. Algenesis is clearly at the forefront of making this possible,” says Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures.

First Bight, which launched in 2022, invests in early-stage startups working on synthetic biology.

“First Bight is investing to bring the best and the brightest — and most promising — synthetic biology startups from around the country to Houston,” Wu said last year.

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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.”