The Future is Now

5 emerging energy tech companies in Houston revolutionizing the industry

It might not be surprising to discover that the energy capital of the world is a hub for energy startups. Getty Images

If you thought Houston's wildcatter days were exciting, just you wait. Houston has an emerging ecosystem of tech startups across industries — from facial recognition devices used at event check in to a drone controller that mimics movement in space.

A somewhat obvious space for Houston entrepreneurs is oil and gas. While the energy industry might have a reputation of being slow to adapt new technologies, these five Houston startups are developing the future of the industry — one device at a time.

Future Sight AR

Lori-Lee Emshey's Future Sight AR is revolutionizing antiquated construction tools using augmented reality. Courtesy of Future Sight AR

Working on an oil and gas construction site is like constructing a really large puzzle — one that, if constructed incorrectly, could have dangerous and costly consequences. On her first job in the industry, Lori-Lee Emshey was required to move through the site with a pen and a clipboard to mark down any issues or problems, only to later log that information into a computer. It was a slow process, and she felt frustrated by that.

"I was really shocked at how much work they were doing with such little technology," Emshey says. "I thought, 'there's so much room for innovation here.'"

She created Future Sight AR that uses artificial reality technologies on a smart device so that technicians can instantly see instructions and solutions for the hardware they are constructing on the site.Read more about Future Sight AR here.

Nesh

Nesh's digital assistant technology wants to make industry information more easily accessible for energy professionals. Photo courtesy of Thomas Miller/Breitling Energy

Access to information is endless in the digital age, but Sidd Gupta wanted to create a digital assistant that specifically focused on the energy industry. Nesh is an information bot that users can chat questions to. Think: Siri or Alexa, but with an engineering degree.

"We created Nesh as something super-simple to use," Gupta says. "There's no learning curve, no technical knowledge required, you just need to speak plain English."

Nesh has the potential to change productivity and hiring requirements in various energy companies. Read more about Nesh here.

Cemvita Factory

The Karimi siblings have created a way to synthetically convert CO2 into glucose, and they are targeting the energy and aerospace industries for their technology. Courtesy of Cemvita Factory

Energy companies are getting more and more pressure to create a sustainable solution for the carbon dioxide refineries produce on a daily basis. Houston-based Cemvita Factory has a solution. The company has a patented technology that can convert CO2 into glucose — just like plants do in the photosynthesis process.

"We go to these companies and say, 'What do you want to convert CO2 into?,'" Moji Karimi, co-founder of Cemvita, says. "Then, we do a quick pilot in six months in our lab, and we show them the metrics. They decide if they want to scale it up."

The company also has big plans for making an impact on the aerospace industry too. Read more about Cemvita here.

NatGasHub.com

Jay Bhatty looked at how pipeline data reached traders and thought of a better way. Getty Images

Information around natural gas pipelines — such as whether a pipeline has capacity issues that could trigger a spike in prices — has, for years, been scattered across the web. Now, Houston-based NatGasHub.com aggregates pipeline data from dozens upon dozens of websites.

Jay Bhatty, a veteran of the natural-gas-trading business, founded the Houston-based NatGasHub.com platform, which runs on cloud-based software, launched in late 2017. The company is already profitable and hasn't taken any outside funding. Read more about NatGasHub.com here.

Arundo Analytics

This growing Houston company is providing industrial industries with smart analytics. Courtesy of Arundo

While information can be slow and siloed between energy companies, energy professionals come across the same problem within their own organization. Arundo Analytics is developing software to help connect the dots within an energy company's operations.

Stuart Morstead, co-founder and chief operating officer of Arundo, says that most industrial companies that encounter issues with operations such as equipment maintenance "lack the data science and software capabilities to drive value from insights into their daily operations." Read more about Arundo Analytics here.

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Building Houston

 
 

Gaurab Chakrabarti, the CEO and co-founder of Solugen, shared his entrepreneurial journey on the SXSW stage this year. Photo courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

At a fireside chat at SXSW, a Houston founder pulled back the curtain on his entrepreneurial journey that's taken him from an idea of how to make the chemicals industry more sustainable to a company valued at over $2 billion.

Gaurab Chakrabarti, the CEO and co-founder of Solugen, joined the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston House at SXSW on Monday, March 13, for a discussion entitled, "Building a Tech Unicorn." In the conversation with Payal Patel, principal of Softeq Ventures, he share the trials and tribulations from the early days of founding Solugen. The company, which has raised over $600 million since its founding in 2016, has an innovative and carbon negative process of creating plant-derived substitutes for petroleum-based products.

The event, which quickly reached capacity with eager SXSW attendees, allowed Chakrabarti to instill advice on several topics — from early customer acquisition and navigating VC investing to finding the right city to grow in and setting up a strong company culture.

Here are seven pieces of startup advice from Chakrabarti's talk.

1. Don’t be near a black hole.

Chakrabarti began his discussion addressing the good luck he's had standing up Solugen. He's the first to admit that luck is an important element to his success, but he says, as a founder, you can set yourself up for luck in a handful of ways.

“You do make your own luck, but you have to be putting in the work to do it," Chakrabarti says, adding that it's not an easy thing to accomplish. “There are things you can be doing to increase your luck surface area."

One of the principals he notes on is not surrounding yourself with black holes. These are people who don't believe in your idea, or your ability to succeed, Chakrabarti explains, referencing a former dean who said he was wasting his talent on his idea for Solugen.

2. The co-founder dynamic is the most important thing.

Early on, Chakrabarti emphasizes how important having a strong co-founder relationship is, crediting Solugen's co-founder and CTO Sean Hunt for being his "intellectual ping-pong partner."

“If you have a co-founder, that is the thing that’s going to make or break your company,” he says. “It’s not your idea, and it’s not your execution — it’s your relationship with your co-founder.”

Hunt and Chakrabarti have been friends for 12 years, Chakrabarti says, and, that foundation and the fact that they've been passionate about their product since day one, has been integral for Solugen's success.

"We had a conviction that we were building something that could be impactful to the rest of the world," he says.

3. Confirm a market of customers early on.

Chakrabarti says that in the early days of starting his company, he didn't have a concept of startup accelerators or other ways to access funding — he just knew he had to get customers to create revenue as soon as possible.

He learned about the growing float spa industry, and how a huge cost for these businesses was peroxide that was used to sanitize the water in the floating pods. Chakrabarti and Hunt had created a small amount of what they were calling bioperoxide that they could sell at a cheaper cost to these spas and still pocket a profit.

“We ended up owning 80 percent of the float spa market,” Chakrabarti says. “That taught us that, ‘wow, there’s something here.”

While it was unglamourous work to call down Texas float spas, his efforts secured Solugen's first 100 or so customers and identified a path to profitability early on.

“Find your niche market that allows you to justify that your technology or product that has a customer basis,” Chakrabarti says on the lesson he learned through this process.

4. Find city-company fit.

While Chakrabarti has lived in Houston most of his life, the reason Solugen is headquartered in Houston is not due to loyalty of his hometown.

In fact, Chakrabarti shared a story of how a potential seed investor asked Chakrabarti and Hunt to move their company to the Bay Area, and the co-founders refused the offer and the investment.

“There’s no way our business could succeed in the Bay Area," Chakrabarti says. He and Hunt firmly believed this at the time — and still do.

“For our business, if you look at the density of chemical engineers, the density of our potential customers, and the density of people who know how to do enzyme engineering, Houston happened to be that perfect trifecta for us," he explains.

He argues that every company — software, hardware, etc. — has an opportunity to find their ideal city-company fit, something that's important to its success.

5. Prove your ability to execute.

When asked about pivots, Chakrabarti told a little-known story of how Solugen started a commercial cleaning brand. The product line was called Ode to Clean, and it was marketed as eco-friendly peroxide wipes. At the time, Solugen was just three employees, and the scrappy team was fulfilling orders and figuring out consumer marketing for the first time.

He says his network was laughing at the idea of Chakrabarti creating this direct-to-consumer cleaning product, and it was funny to him too, but the sales told another story.

At launch, they sold out $1 million of inventory in one week. But that wasn't it.

“Within three months, we got three acquisition offers," Chakrabarti says.

The move led to a brand acquisition of the product line, with the acquirer being the nation's largest cleaning wipe provider. It meant three years of predictable revenue that de-risked the business for new investors — which were now knocking on Solugen's door with their own investment term sheets.

“It told the market more about us as a company,” he says. “It taught the market that Solugen is a company that is going to survive no matter what. … And we’re a team that can execute.”

What started as a silly idea led to Solugen being one step closer to accomplishing its long-term goals.

“That pivot was one of the most important pivots in the company’s history that accelerated our company’s trajectory by four or five years," Chakrabarti says.

6. Adopt and maintain a miso-management style.

There's one lesson Chakrabarti says he learned the hard way, and that was how to manage his company's growing team. He shares that he "let go of the reins a bit" at the company's $400-$500 million point. He says that, while there's this idea that successful business leaders can hire the best talent that allows them to step back from the day-to-day responsibilities, that was not the right move for him.

“Only founders really understand the pain points of the business," Chakrabarti says. "Because it’s emotionally tied to you, you actually feel it."

Rather than a micro or macro-management style, Chakrabarti's describes his leadership as meso-management — something in between.

The only difference, Chakrabarti says, is how he manages his board. For that group, he micromanages to ensure that they are doing what's best for his vision for Solugen.

7. Your culture should be polarizing.

Chakrabarti wrapped up his story on talking about hiring and setting up a company culture for Solugen. The company's atmosphere is not for everyone, he explains.

“If you’re not polarizing some people, it’s not a culture,” Chakrabarti says, encouraging founders to create a culture that's not one size fits all.

He says he was attracted to early employees who got mad at the same things he did — that passion is what makes his team different from others.

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