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The University of Houston ranks 60th on the National Academy of Inventors’ (NAI) list of the Top 100 Universities in the U.S. Granted Utility Patents.

This new list was created to celebrate American innovation and to highlight the universities that play a large role in advancing the innovation ecosystem within the U.S. and beyond.

Utility patents are among the most valuable assets in the world because they give inventors exclusive commercial rights to produce and utilize their technologies.

UH had 32 patents granted last year, and more than 200 granted since 2015. The University is also home to the nation’s top-ranked undergraduate entrepreneurship program and is one of the top 25 royalty-earning universities in the country.

UH joins the University of Texas (3rd), Texas A&M (37th), Texas Tech (tied for 75th) and Baylor (tied for 75th) as the only Texas institutions ranked.

“This recognition further underscores our commitment to innovation and the impactful research taking place at UH,” says Ramanan Krishnamoorti, vice president of energy and innovation at UH. “It is a testament to the dedication and ingenuity of our faculty, researchers, and students who continue to push the boundaries of knowledge and drive positive change in our world through their hard work and inventive contributions.”

Since 2013, NAI has published a list of the top 100 patent-producing universities worldwide, and UH has made that list seven of the past eight years. This new list is meant to provide a more focused view of the national innovation landscape and the contributions made by U.S. academic institutions.

“As a U.S.-based national academy, it is important to us not only to showcase innovation happening on the broader world stage, but here at home as well,” says Jamie Renee, executive director of the NAI. “Invention has been part of the American experience since the country’s inception, with intellectual property being protected in the Constitution.”

NAI’s Top 100 lists are created using calendar year data provided by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Top 100 placement includes all named assignees listed on the patent.

“Innovation has always been at the heart of U.S. culture and the Top 100 U.S. Universities list allows us to recognize and celebrate the commitment these universities have to the American tradition of invention and protection of IP,” adds Renee.

The National Academy of Inventors is a member organization comprising U.S. and international universities, and governmental and non-profit research institutions, with over 4,000 individual inventor members and fellows spanning more than 250 institutions worldwide.

It was founded in 2010 to recognize and encourage inventors with patents issued from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), enhance the visibility of academic technology and innovation, encourage the disclosure of intellectual property, educate and mentor innovative students, and translate the inventions of its members to benefit society.

The NAI has a close partnership with the USPTO that is reflected in their joint mission to expand access to underrepresented individuals and institutions participating in the invention and innovation ecosystem.

Photo by Jon Burke

Innovation and new business incubation at the University of Houston’s Technology Bridge is on a roll

Start Me Up

When Jacob Thomas first came to the University of Houston’s Technology Bridge in 2016, he knew it was the perfect incubator space to grow his company, Alchemy Sciences. The excellent support infrastructure enabled the fledgling oil recovery business to focus on improving its technology, product and business development, and operations.

“Technology Bridge also had the advantage of being located at a premier, research-focused university that afforded the opportunity to collaborate not just with other startups but with groundbreaking innovators on campus,” Thomas says.

And when Hadi Ghasemi, an associate professor in the UH Cullen College of Engineering, launched Elemental Coatings for his revolutionary anti-icing material in 2019, his ideal space was literally minutes from his campus laboratory.

“We have one of the best spaces in town right here near campus,” he says. “From a ready-made workforce to the facilities, it was a unique opportunity that was perfect for us.”

Thomas and Ghasemi aren’t alone in their assessments. They are part of a booming community of entrepreneurs setting up shop in Technology Bridge, Houston’s premier innovation park for technology commercialization, industrial partnerships, and startup development, located adjacent to the UH campus along the Gulf Freeway.

Connecting people and ideas

UH prides itself on spurring innovation, from the first spark of an idea to the transfer of knowledge and technology. The University is home to the nation’s top-ranked undergraduate entrepreneurship program and is one of the top 25 royalty-earning universities in the United States. And for seven of the past eight years, UH has ranked among the top 100 global universities for the number of utility patents issued.

Tanu Chatterji, the associate director of startup development at Technology Bridge, includes those accolades in her pitch to prospective tenants. But it’s the wealth of established relationships with UH researchers and potential employees already on campus that is the biggest selling point.

“If you are looking to grow a company and plug into a major ecosystem, Technology Bridge is where you want to be. You have access to the talent, expertise, facilities, and resources you need to be successful,” says Chatterji, noting that UH is a Carnegie-designated Tier One research university with 35 faculty members in the National Academy of Inventors.

"The students, faculty and resources at the heart of our ecosystem set us apart from everyone else," says Ramanan Krishnamoorti, UH vice president of energy and innovation.

Right now, Technology Bridge has more than 20 companies utilizing a wealth of amenities, including private and shared incubator lab spaces designed to support chemical, mechanical, and life sciences startups.

The Innovation Center features large, fully equipped and furnished office spaces with open and private areas, conference rooms and collaborative meeting areas, and a common kitchen area.

Additionally, startups receive unmatched access to UH faculty, one-on-one mentorship opportunities, and the full support of the UH Office of Technology Transfer and Innovation to help with funding, workshops, grant development, and commercialization.

“This is an innovation environment that is unique to Houston. We’re all about connecting people and ideas,” Chatterji says.

A community for innovators

To access the benefits of Technology Bridge and enjoy its competitive rental rates, companies are required to fulfill certain criteria. This includes committing to a minimum one-year contract and actively engaging with the UH innovation community at one of three levels: hiring university talent, working collaboratively on projects with faculty or sponsoring research, or commercializing UH intellectual property.

“We’re not looking to give out cheap space to anyone who’s just going to move out in three years,” Chatterji says. “We really want the right partners on board to help us cultivate this ecosystem.”

Technology Bridge is home to a diverse mix of companies, comprising both external organizations and spinoffs founded by faculty, graduate students, and staff. While some ventures are still in the early stages, actively seeking funding and assembling their teams, a handful have already reached the exciting milestone of selling products and are preparing to transition into larger, more permanent facilities.

“The higher the engagement, the higher the discount they get on their lease,” Chatterji says. “On the flip side, there’s incentive for UH to keep these companies within our family so we get to share new ideas and innovations and they can mentor our faculty and students.”

Building for the future

It’s not only innovators who are taking notice of the remarkable developments happening at Technology Bridge.

U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, who represents Texas’ 29th congressional district where Technology Bridge is located, helped secure nearly $3 million in federal funding for infrastructure improvements that will further grow its position as a leader in Houston’s innovation space.

“We have a lot of momentum at Technology Bridge as we continue to support Houston’s growing innovation economy,” says Ramanan Krishnamoorti, vice president of energy and innovation at UH. “We’re building great partnerships and providing these startups with everything they need to commercialize technologies and be successful.”

Most of the $2.875 million will benefit the UH Industry & International Innovation Hub (UHI), a planned center for industry partner engagement with an investor and mentoring studio and event space.

It will also increase onsite industry and startup capacity and establish workforce development and training rooms. The remaining money will be used to establish The Deck Innovation & Coworking Center, with eight new private offices that will increase lease revenue by a projected 150 percent. The entire project is expected to increase capacity by more than 20 companies.

“No other space in Houston has what we have,” adds Krishnamoorti. “It’s not just the Tech Bridge, it’s the University of Houston Tech Bridge. The students, faculty, and resources at the heart of our ecosystem set us apart from everyone else.”

Success stories

In recent years, startups at Technology Bridge have developed innovations in advanced materials, pharmaceuticals, and food and agriculture, as well as infrastructure and construction, optometry, medical devices, and computer software.

Among their accomplishments are hundreds of groundbreaking inventions such as a plant-based polymer with the potential to replace petroleum-based plastics and revolutionary therapeutics that have had a profound impact on patients worldwide, offering treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and epilepsy.

Thomas’ Alchemy Sciences, renowned for its portfolio of products that enhance the efficiency of oil and gas production in multiple basins across the United States, is now embarking on the early stages of expansion to Latin America. The company recently graduated from Technology Bridge, moving into a larger space to accommodate its growing operations.

“An incubation ecosystem like this is essential for technology startups as they begin their journey” Thomas says. “The proactive staff, modern lab facilities, and associated support system enabled us to conduct experimental work efficiently and was key to our growth over the past five years.”

Elemental Coatings, a company founded on technology pioneered by Ghasemi at his UH lab, produces anti-icing surfaces with exceptional durability, even in the harshest environmental conditions. After four years at Technology Bridge, Ghasemi said the company will double its workforce and move into a bigger facility early next year.

“When we started this journey, there were maybe two companies at Technology Bridge, so it’s been amazing to see this growth,” says Ghasemi. “Access to a knowledgeable workforce, along with the facilities and support for intellectual property protections and patents, was essential for us and is crucial for any startup.”

Photo courtesy of UH

New energy institute from UH and Shell will put Houston at the center of innovation

The Great Energy Transfer

Two years ago, Texas’ failing electrical grid became a global sensation and the state was thrust into the spotlight of the developing energy crisis conversation.

This past year, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine again brought the push for alternative sources with a renewed sense of urgency to the top of agendas as oil became scarce.

Moving the energy industry into the future will require a deep investment not only in developing new and greener technology and infrastructure, but also in a dynamic and motivated new workforce.

This core concept forms the foundation of the UH energy initiative. It was with this common objective in mind that the University of Houston, Shell USA Inc., and Shell Global Solutions (US) Inc. began discussions about how to usher in a new energy era.

“What they were looking at was what really is important for both entities going forward,” says Joe Powell, Shell’s former chief scientist and chemical engineer. “And what type of collaboration could help achieve some of these very significant societal goals — which involve decarbonization and a move to the circular economy — but then also the problem of workforce development and how we excite students to choose careers in energy.”

In 2022, the two entities came together to open the Energy Transition Institute at UH, with Powell named as its founding executive director. The institute will lean on a $10 million initial donation from Shell and a total of at least $52 million overall in contributions. Through a just and equity-driven pathway, the institute will focus on the production and use of reliable, affordable, and cleaner energy.

“Energy is the lifeline of the world’s economy — in order to improve human development, you need to have access to affordable, reliable energy,” says Ramanan Krishnamoorti, vice president of energy and innovation at UH. He sees the institute playing a pivotal role in a societal reckoning about the impact of climate change. “We’re thinking about the global challenge of improving quality of life for the 11 billion people who will be on the planet by 2100.”

Taking shape
The institute will focus on four key workstreams. First, it will recruit expert faculty to collaborate with researchers across UH as they dive into the energy transition.

Second, it will seek to impact policymakers through education and public-private partnerships. A new UH Energy Transition Index will track the industry’s progress. Recruitment of policy-minded faculty will assist in the efforts.

“There’s a lot of headline debate about who’s responsible for global warming and what the solution should look like,” says Powell. “What we want to be at the University of Houston is a trusted voice in the conversation to really show some of the complexity and trade-offs.”

Third, as the institute looks to become the global academic leader of the energy transition, it will keep equity at its core, informing policies that address our most pressing challenges to provide secure, reliable, affordable, and sustainable energy for all.

As one of the most diverse public research universities in the country, it will seek to combat issues in all communities, from the disproportionate environmental health risks that hit low-income communities to the burdens of energy infrastructure and affordability.

Efforts will include developing relationships with other universities and institutions that serve communities impacted by these inequities and collaborating with grassroots organizations to research and address environmental justice initiatives and energy equity.

Finally, the institute will emphasize workforce and talent development by helping the current workforce better understand topics on sustainability, facilitating opportunities with Shell and other partners and integrating experts from Shell into UH experiential learning programs.

“We’re really here to empower the various schools and departments within the University of Houston by having a magnet to expand both the research dimension in this space of energy and circularity but also in the workforce development and student training aspects,” Powell says. “We’re looking to have Houston as a center of innovation, similar to what you see in Silicon Valley and in Boston for medicine.”

As the institute takes shape, it will focus research efforts on three key areas, cementing its reputation as the “Energy University:” hydrogen, carbon management, and circular plastics.

The institute will work closely with UH’s Hewlett Packard Enterprise Data Science Institute. “Data science will be driving a lot of new innovation and ways of working in the new energy and circularity economy,” Powell says.

Harnessing hydrogen
Some see hydrogen as a top candidate for the future of clean energy, but squeezing out the full potential of the most abundant element in the universe will take much more research and development. With the Energy Transition Institute, the University of Houston is taking a step to lead the vector into the future.

Proponents of hydrogen point to its capacity to fuel cars and heat homes while reducing carbon emissions. The institute’s efforts will focus on industrial, storage, and transportation capabilities. Powell sees hydrogen powering heavy-duty transportation, improving air quality by pumping trucks with hydrogen made from clean energy sources. “You can think of it as the diesel fuel of the future,” he says.

One of the biggest challenges to the continued growth of wind and solar is the disparity in its availability — across regions and countries. Hydrogen, again, can help. Hydrogen can be transported through gas pipelines or in liquid form via ships, making it a leading option to store and transfer renewables.

Powell says he’s already been working with regions and countries with abundant wind and solar opportunities. He sees South America, the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand as leaders.

“Essentially, bringing in the energy from regions of the world that have the most intense and durable wind and solar, and distributing it to areas that don’t have quite as good local resource access,” he says.

Of course, there’s value in transferring energy via hydrogen even before the global renewable energy infrastructure reaches maturity.

Had the technology been available and policy interests aligned, the U.S. and other allies could have easily shipped energy reserves last year when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused an energy crisis throughout Europe.

As the institute gets its footing, it won’t be the only hydrogen-focused entity in the city.

In 2021, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law earmarked $7 billion to create 6-10 clean hydrogen hubs nationwide.

UH is the lead academic partner on a proposal, the Hydrogen Transition (LIGH2T) Hub, in partnership with the Southern States Energy Board and the National Energy Technology Laboratory, as well as other organizations. Of the 79 applicants across the country, LIGH2T was one of just 33 projects encouraged to move forward with a full application. Already, the Texas Gulf Coast region produces about a third of the hydrogen used in the U.S., according to Houston Public Media.

“When you think about hydrogen, two-thirds of all the hydrogen pipelines, 95 percent of the hydrogen infrastructure is here in the greater Houston region,” Krishnamoorti says. “If we want to take that next huge leap and start to integrate both incumbent and new technologies, this is where we’ve got the infrastructure in place.”

Carbon, plastics, and beyond
For all the discussion over the past two decades around plastics, we recycle only about 8 percent of all plastic waste today. Meanwhile, 4percent leaks back into the environment, damaging wildlife ecosystems.

“The question is,” Powell says, “how do you reengineer that economy so that there are incentives to be recycling material and not have it lost as waste that falls outside of the system?”

If there’s a place tailor-made to tackle the problem, it’s Houston. No city in the world has a larger concentration of petrochemical manufacturing facilities.

But the challenge is a stout one; while some plastics can be mechanically recycled, others need to go through a chemical conversion process, requiring significant energy as they’re broken down into new materials and made ready for reconstruction. Hence, the institute’s central theme is about creating a cleaner and more efficient system of collection, sourcing, and sorting.

Over time, Powell envisions a complete transformation of the plastics life cycle. Today, the products are largely made from crude oil and, for the most part, thrown into landfills at the end of their life.

In the future, we’ll have “complex multicomponent recycle streams” that reuse the waste material, incorporating clean energy and human-made approaches, like direct air capture of carbon dioxide to curb greenhouse gases. “That’s a very exciting area,” Powell says. “It’s a little bit less developed in terms of having integrated solutions laid out.” That just means there’s opportunity for leadership.

Whether focusing on circular plastics, decarbonization, or advancing hydrogen initiatives, the institute will look to keep the state at the center of conversation on the future of energy and climate change. Since the failure of the state’s electrical grid two years ago, the headlines and social media images here haven’t always been flattering.

But for all its imperfections, Texas has something other regions do not: a global voice. “How do we keep Houston’s ecosystem and Texas’ ecosystem at the forefront of transforming the world?” asks Krishnamoorti. “We’ve been seen as the energy leaders. We’ve not necessarily been seen as the sustainable energy leaders.”

With the help of the Energy Transition Institute, that could change.

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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.”