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

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.

The opening of the pilot plant marks the debut of Cemvita’s eCO2 business as a wholly owned subsidiary. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Fast-growing startup with carbon-free solution sets up pilot plant in Houston

big moves

Cleantech startup Cemvita has set up a pilot plant in its hometown of Houston to develop technology for converting carbon emissions as feedstock to make products like fertilizer, plastics, methane, and fuel.

The opening of the pilot plant marks the debut of Cemvita’s eCO2 business as a wholly owned subsidiary. The term eCO2 refers to equivalent carbon dioxide, or a way to measure a combination of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

With a capacity of more than 14,000 gallons, the plant is producing eCO2 oil, an alternative to soybean oil. The company already is shipping samples of eCO2 products to customers, including renewable-fuel companies and plastics manufacturers.

Cemvita says the biofuel industry is facing feedstock shortages and price fluctuations. Biofuel feedstocks produce starches or sugars that can be converted to produce ethanol, while others produce oil that can be used in biodiesel production, according to the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) program.

“Traditional biofuels, including renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel, have relied on oils derived from crops, such as soybean and corn, as well as recycled vegetable oils,” Cemvita says. “As demand grows for petroleum-free alternatives, feedstock is in short supply and must compete with food markets. Crops of soybeans, sugar, and corn use huge swaths of land, and the raw materials require extensive refining — two factors that impede the processes from being sustainable.”

By contrast, eCO2 plants like Cemvita’s can supply feedstock production with minimal land and electricity requirements, and without relying on hydrogen or sunlight, the company says. Furthermore, the output of eCO2 plants is designed to carbon-negative, not just carbon-neutral.

Cemvita’s eCO2 biomanufacturing platform uses engineered microbes that absorb and convert carbon dioxide into feedstocks and finished products.

“The energy transition requires completely new, cost-effective approaches for heavy industry,” Charlie Nelson, chief operating officer of Cemvita, says in a news release. “We built this next-generation pilot plant in response to strong demand from … partners who are actively seeking sustainable solutions to the … feedstock shortage.”

Brother-and-sister team Moji and Tara Karimi founded Cemvita in 2017.

Investors in Cemvita include Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, an investment arm of Houston-based Occidental Petroleum, as well as BHP Group, Mitsubishi, and United Airlines Ventures.

Oxy Low Carbon Ventures and United Airlines Ventures are financing Cemvita’s work on sustainable jet fuel. United Airlines operates a hub at George Bush Intercontinental Airport Houston.

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

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Houston startup taps new corporate partner for AI-backed sustainability consumer tech

out of the boxes

With the help of a new conversational artificial intelligence platform, a Houston startup is ready to let brands get up close and personal with consumers while minimizing waste.

IBM and Boxes recently partnered to integrate the IBM watsonx Assistant into Boxes devices, providing a way for consumer packaged brands to find out more than ever about what its customers like and want.

The Boxes device, about the size of a 40-inch television screen, dispenses products to consumers in a modern and sustainable spin on the old-fashioned large vending machine.

CEO Fernando Machin Gojdycz learned that business from his entrepreneur father, Carlos Daniel Machin, while growing up in Uruguay.

“That’s where my passion comes from — him,” Gojdycz says of his father. In 2016, Gojdycz founded Boxes in Uruguay with some engineer friends

Funded by a $2,000 grant from the University of Uruguay, the company's mission was “to democratize and economize affordable and sustainable shopping,” in part by eliminating wasteful single-use plastic packaging.

“I worked for one year from my bedroom,” he tells InnovationMap.

Fernando Machin Gojdycz founded Boxes in Uruguay before relocating the company to Greentown Houston. Photo courtesy of Boxes

The device, attached to a wall, offers free samples, or purchased products, in areas of high foot traffic, with a touch-screen interface. Powered by watsonx Assistant, the device asks survey questions of the customer, who can answer or not, on their mobile devices, via a QR code.

In return for completing a survey, customers can get a digital coupon, potentially generating future sales. The software and AI tech tracks sales and consumer preferences, giving valuable real-time market insight.

“This is very powerful,” he says.

Boxes partnered in Uruguay with major consumer brands like Kimberly-Clark, SC Johnson and Unilever, and during COVID, pivoted and offered PPE products. Then, with plans of an expansion into the United States, Boxes in 2021 landed its first U.S. backer, with $120,000 in funding from startup accelerator Techstars.

This led to a partnership with the Minnesota Twins, where Boxes devices at Target Field dispensed brand merchandise like keychains and bottles of field dirt.

Gojdycz says while a company in the Northeast is developing a product similar in size, Boxes is not “targeting traditional spaces.” Its software and integration with AI allows Boxes to seamlessly change the device screen and interface, remotely, as well.

Boxes aims to provide the devices in smaller spaces, like restrooms, where they have a device at the company's headquarters at climate tech incubator Greentown Labs. Boxes also recently added a device at Hewlett Packard Enterprise headquarters in Spring, as part of HPE’s diversity startup program.

Boxes hopes to launch another sustainable innovation later this year, in universities and supermarkets. The company is also developing a device that would offer refillable detergent and personal cleaning products like shampoo and conditioner with a reusable container.

Since plastic packaging accounts for 40 percent of retail price, consumers would pay far less, making a huge difference, particularly for lower-income families, he says.

“We are working to make things happen, because we have tried to pitch this idea,” he says.

Some supermarket retailers worry they may lose money or market share, and that shoppers may forget to bring the refill bottles with them to the store, for example.

“It’s about..the U.S. customer,” he says, “….but we think that sooner or later, it will come.”

Boxes has gotten funding from the accelerator startup branch of Houston-based software company Softeq, as well as Mission Driven Finance, Google for Startups Latino Founders Fund, and Right Side Capital, among others.

“Our primary challenges are scaling effectively with a small, yet compact team and maintaining control over our financial runway,” Gojdycz says.

The company has seven employees, including two on its management team.

Gojdycz says they are actively hiring, particularly in software and hardware engineering, but also in business development.

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

Houston software company to manage IRA compliance for solar, storage company with national presence

tapping into tech

Houston company's Inflation Reduction Act compliance management software has scored a new partner.

Empact Technologies announced a multi-year agreement with Ampliform, which originates, builds, develops, and operates utility-scale solar and solar plus storage projects. The Empact platform uses a combination of software and services to ensure projects meet IRS regulatory requirements, which focus on wage and apprenticeship, domestic content, and energy and low-income community incentives. The terms of the agreement were not disclosed

Empact will partner specifically with Ampliform’s project Engineering, Procurement, and Construction (EPC) firms, subcontractors, and key suppliers of steel and iron products. In addition, they will work through a project’s life cycle for EPC’s solar modules, trackers, and inverters to manage prevailing wage & apprenticeship, domestic content, and other tax incentive qualification and compliance.

“The team at Ampliform had the leadership and foresight to recognize the significant risks of IRA non-compliance and the need to have third party compliance management in place prior to construction kick-off," Charles Dauber, CEO and founder of Empact, says in a news release. We look forward to helping Ampliform fully leverage the IRA tax incentives to develop and build their project development pipeline.”

Ampliform has approximately 700MW of projects in short-term development. Ampliform also plans 3GW of projects in its development pipeline. Ampliform’s future expansion plans exceed more than 13GWdc in total. Empact will manage the IRA compliance for these projects. According to a Goldman Sachs report, the IRA is estimated to provide $1.2 trillion of incentives by 2032.

Guest column: Cold weather and electric vehicles — separating fact from fiction

EVs in winter

Winter range loss is fueling this season’s heated debate around the viability of electric vehicles, but some important context is needed. Gasoline cars, just like their electric counterparts, lose a significant amount of range in cold weather too.

According to the Department of Energy, the average internal combustion engine’s fuel economy is 15 percent lower at 20° Fahrenheit than it would be at 77° Fahrenheit, and can drop as much as 24 percent for short drives.

As the world grapples with the implications of climate change and shifts toward sustainable technologies, it's important to put the pros and cons of EVs and traditional gas vehicles in perspective. And while Houston isn't known as the coldest of climates, you still might want to review this information.

The Semantics of Energy Consumption Hide the Real Issue: Cost

First, let's talk about the language. When discussing gas vehicles in cold climates, the conversation often centers around "fuel efficiency." It sounds less threatening, doesn't it? But in reality, this is just a euphemism for range loss, something for which EVs are frequently criticized.

Why does that matter? Because for most drivers who travel less than 40 miles a day, what range loss really means is higher fueling costs. When a gas vehicle loses range, it costs a lot more than the same range loss in an EV. For example, at $3.50 a gallon, a car that gets 30 MPG in warm weather and costs $46.67 to go 400 miles suddenly costs $8.24 more to drive the same distance. By contrast, an EV plugging in at $0.13 per kWh usually costs $13 to go 400 miles and bumps up to a piddly $16.25 even if it loses 20 percent efficiency when the temperature drops.

Some EV models lose 40 percent in extreme cold. OK, tack on another $3. That still leaves almost $30 in the driver’s pocket. Over the course of a year, those savings pile up.

Let’s Call It What It Is: Fear Mongering

Any seismic shift in technology comes with consumer hesitancy and media skepticism. Remember when everyone was afraid to stand in front of microwaves and thought the waves would make the food unsafe to eat? Or how, just a decade or so back everyone was talking about how cell phones could spontaneously explode?

Fear of new technology is a natural psychological response and to be expected. But it takes the media machine to turn consumer hesitation into a frenzy. Any way you slice it, 2023 was one big platform for expressing fears around EVs. Headline-grabbing tales of EV woes often lacked context or understanding of the technology. In a highly partisan landscape where EVs have been dubbed liberal leftist technology, what should be seen as a miraculous pro-American, pro-clean-air, pro-energy independence, pro-cost saving advancement is getting a beating in the press. In this environment, every bit of “bad EV news” spirals out into an echo-chamber of confirmation bias.

For example, Tesla’s recent software update was hyped as a 2 million vehicle “recall” even though the software was updated over the air without a single car needing to leave the driveway. Hertz's recent decision to reduce its Tesla fleet was seen by many as a referendum on the cars’ quality but was actually a decision based on Hertz’s miscalculations around repair costs and a mismatch in their projections of consumer demand for EV rentals.

While the cost of repairs might be higher, maintenance and fuel costs are still much lower than gas vehicles. EVs are better daily-use cars than rentals because while our country’s public charging infrastructure is still lagging, home charging is a huge benefit of EV ownership. Instead, the Hertz move and the negative coverage are further spooking the public.

The Truth About EVs

Despite the challenges, it's crucial to acknowledge the environmental advantages of EVs. For instance, EVs produce zero direct emissions, which significantly reduces air pollution and greenhouse gasses. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EVs are far more energy efficient than gas-powered cars, converting more than 77 percent of electrical energy from the grid to power, compared to 12-30 percent for gasoline vehicles.

This efficiency translates to a cleaner, more sustainable mode of transportation. And stories of EVs stranded in Chicago aside, generally they perform well in cold weather, as clearly demonstrated in Norway. In Norway, the average temperature hovers a solid 10 degrees lower than in the U.S. Yet 93 percent of new cars sold there are electric. The first-ever drive from the north to the south pole was also completed by an electric vehicle. The success story of EVs in Norway and demonstration projects in harsh winter climates serve as a powerful counterargument to the notion that EVs are ineffective in cold weather.

So where does this leave us? The discourse around EVs and gasoline vehicles in cold weather needs a more balanced and factual approach. The range loss in gasoline vehicles is a significant issue that mirrors the challenges faced by EVs. By acknowledging this and understanding the broader context, we can have a more informed and equitable discussion about the future of automotive technology and its impact on our environment.

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Kate L. Harrison is the co-founder and head of marketing at MoveEV, an AI-backed EV transition company that helps organizations convert fleet and employee-owned gas vehicles to electric, and reimburse for charging at home.