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Houston software startup closes $1.5 million round as it grows to make bulk shipping more efficient

Voyager, a Houston SaaS company, has received fresh funds to develop its bulk shipping software. Tom Fisk/Pexels

Houston software startup Voyager is making waves in its quest to improve efficiency — and stem billions of dollars in losses — in the maritime bulk-shipping business. Now, it's got some fresh capital to help it achieve that mission.

On August 21, Voyager revealed it secured $1.5 million in seed funding from four investors from around the world: Austin-based ATX Venture Partners, Houston- and California-based Blue Bear Capital, New York City-based GreenHawk Capital, and Oman-based Phaze Ventures. Previous investors include Boulder, Colorado-based Techstars and Spring-based Knightsgate Ventures.

With its software-as-a-service offering, Voyager aims to modernize the workflows of operators in the maritime bulk-commodities industry. The company says its technology will become more vital as autonomous shipping and internet- and Internet of Things-enabled cargo vessels grow in popularity.

Voyager's technology enables all communication tied to a shipment to be handled via its web dashboard and app, essentially creating a one-stop shop for people who need to track messages about maritime bulk shipments.

"Shipping bulk commodities like crude oil, gas, and petrochemicals is still a highly manual and complex process, with $360 billion in ocean freight managed globally by email, phone, fax, and text in a high-volume, fast-paced environment," Matthew Costello, co-founder and CEO of Voyager, says in a release. "Data is decentralized and unstructured, and the process is rife with inefficiencies, lost opportunities, costly human errors and, overarchingly, billions in losses."

One shipment alone generates more than 4,000 emails and hundreds of documents, with at least 10 companies collaborating across several time zones, according to Voyager.

Voyager says the $1.5 million in funding will go toward:

  • Expanding its line of SaaS products.
  • Attracting more customers. This includes a foray into the oil and gas sector.
  • Enlarging its engineering, development, marketing, and sales teams. Voyager currently employs seven people at the company's new office in downtown Houston. Plans call for a 10-member workforce by the end of 2019 and a 20-member workforce by the end of 2020.

Costello and Bret Smart, Voyager's chief operating officer, launched the company in 2018. Both are veterans of the maritime industry, where they conducted a study that found roughly 40 percent of workers' time was spent on simple, low-value tasks like manual data entry. With that research in hand, Costello and Smart — who worked together at Stolt-Nielsen, a London-based provider of liquids transportation and storage that has a Houston office — came up with the Voyager software.

Among Voyager's customers are brokerage, terminal, and agency businesses, as well as ship owners and commodity producers. The company says one of its customers has realized more than $4 million in annual bottom-line savings by switching to Voyager, with another customer pegging its annual savings at $1.5 million.

"As industries move away from email to digital-based communication, Voyager will become a critical system of engagement," Costello says.

Down the road — or, in this case, the shipping channel — Voyager plans to supplement its cloud-based offerings with capabilities like machine learning and analytics.

"Opportunities for innovation in maritime abound, as the need for technological advancements exist in one of the world's biggest industries. Voyager is poised to be the leader in maritime operations," says Chris Shonk, managing partner of ATX Venture Partners.

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Building Houston

 
 

This UH engineer is hoping to make his mark on cancer detection. Photo via UH.edu

Early stage cancer is hard to detect, mostly because traditional diagnostic imaging cannot detect tumors smaller than a certain size. One Houston innovator is looking to change that.

Wei-Chuan Shih, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, recently published his findings in IEEE Sensors journal. According to a news release from UH, the cells around cancer tumors are small — ~30-150nm in diameter — and complex, and the precise detection of these exosome-carried biomarkers with molecular specificity has been elusive, until now.

"This work demonstrates, for the first time, that the strong synergy of arrayed radiative coupling and substrate undercut can enable high-performance biosensing in the visible light spectrum where high-quality, low-cost silicon detectors are readily available for point-of-care application," says Shih in the release. "The result is a remarkable sensitivity improvement, with a refractive index sensitivity increase from 207 nm/RIU to 578 nm/RIU."

Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

What Shih has done is essentially restored the electric field around nanodisks, providing accessibility to an otherwise buried enhanced electric field. Nanodisks are antibody-functionalized artificial nanostructures which help capture exosomes with molecular specificity.

"We report radiatively coupled arrayed gold nanodisks on invisible substrate (AGNIS) as a label-free (no need for fluorescent labels), cost-effective, and high-performance platform for molecularly specific exosome biosensing. The AGNIS substrate has been fabricated by wafer-scale nanosphere lithography without the need for costly lithography," says Shih in the release.

This process speeds up screening of the surface proteins of exosomes for diagnostics and biomarker discovery. Current exosome profiling — which relies primarily on DNA sequencing technology, fluorescent techniques such as flow cytometry, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) — is labor-intensive and costly. Shih's goal is to amplify the signal by developing the label-free technique, lowering the cost and making diagnosis easier and equitable.

"By decorating the gold nanodisks surface with different antibodies (e.g., CD9, CD63, and CD81), label-free exosome profiling has shown increased expression of all three surface proteins in cancer-derived exosomes," said Shih. "The sensitivity for detecting exosomes is within 112-600 (exosomes/μL), which would be sufficient in many clinical applications."

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