Problem solving

ExxonMobil taps two new technologies in a Houston reverse pitch program

ExxonMobil named two winners in its inaugural reverse pitch competition with BBL Ventures. Courtesy of OctoRD

ExxonMobil and BBL Ventures have teamed up to flip the script on pitch competitions. Rather than have startups pitch themselves, the two companies collaborated on a reverse pitch event where Exxon identifies a few problems and search for companies that can build a solution.

The purpose of the event, says Tim Westhoven, technology scouting and venturing at ExxonMobil at the Baytown refinery, was to get the company out of its day-to-day to spark new ideas and innovation.

"Typically, as an engineer, when we think about how we solve a problem, we start inside the organization," Westhoven says at the event, which took place on Wednesday, June 5, at Station Houston. "Then we think about what problems we want to solve. Sometimes, you don't even think at all about what's available on the outside. This reverse pitch is us thinking about the impact we want to have and what the outside can offer."

In his experience, once an organization goes outside itself for solutions, they can find more options to choose from.

"As we cycle through and innovate on these things and find more and more outside solutions to a particular problem, we find the impact scales very quickly," Westhoven says.

The reverse pitch contest, which launched in March, asked for solutions to two problems ExxonMobil employees actually encounter. The first is regarding the opening process equipment, with the goal being to "create a method to stop exposure to flow or residual material," according to the website. The company needs a device that works remotely, thus reducing the risk of exposure and contact with the material for technicians.

The other problem ExxonMobil is looking to solve has to do with reducing arc flash that result in exposure to electrical charges. The company has "identified the promotion of personal safety as a priority action in addressing and reducing negative events on campuses globally," the website says. All the specifics for these two issues are available online.

For both problems, ExxonMobil wants AI and automation involved — and that's deliberate to minimize human involvement, which can lead to error.

"Human error causes 40 to 70 percent of those issues," Westhoven says. "This is why we are looking to robotics and automation to solve this problem."

Seven companies pitched during the evening, and two — one for each solution — were named winners. Here's what solutions stood out to the judges, potentially took home $60,000, and are up for a pilot program at ExxonMobil.

Opening Process Equipment: OctoRD

Courtesy of OctoRD

OctoRD's OPE solution includes using materials that are already available on the market to create a safer solution to the current process. In fact, Kevin Larsen, founder of Phoenix, Arizona-based OctoRD, even brought an early prototype to his pitch to demonstrate for the judges.

"My whole background has been taking technology, applying it to problems, and getting it into production and real life," he says.

OctoRD's product would take 90 days to get to market. It would allow for employees to open and close the device from up to 15 feet away, and, should an emergency occur, would have an automatic shutting feature. While the current model satisfies the requirements for the category, Larsen's pitch even included future ways to advance the tool.

Reducing Arc Flash: CBS ArcSafe

Courtesy of CBS ArcSafe

CBS ArcSafe, based in Denton, Texas, has been around for a while and knows how to increase worker safety using technology, says Justin Gaull, marketing manager for CBS ArcSafe. The company has designed over 700 tools for safety purposes.

"Our business is the business of safety, and decreasing arc flash hazards is our priority," he says to the crowd at the pitch event.

The company's solution would take 10 weeks or less to get from discovery to production to market. The technology includes a switchgear box, the Elliot 230-PM, that syncs with a remote that allows workers to operate well out of the arc flash zone — even up to 300 feet away with the wireless option. There would also be a video camera able to capture a view of the gauges so the operator can see them in real time.

The Texas Medical Center has contributed to a $16 million round in a TMCx08 member company. Courtesy of TMCx

With a busy September just days away, the Houston innovation world has seen an uptick in news. Just in case you missed some, here are some short stories from Houston startups — funding, product launches, clinical trials, oh my.

TMC invests in Luma Health's recent $16 million round

Luma Health, a San Francisco-based startup and TMCx08 cohort member, has closed a $16 million Series B round. The Texas Medical Center contributed to the round, along with U.S. Venture Partners and Cisco. PeakSpan Capital lead the series.

The company has a text-first communication platform to ease and automate the provider-patient conversations. The money, per VentureBeat, will go toward scaling up business.

"As we've spent more time with patients, doctors, and healthcare teams across the country, we've seen the disconnect between patients and clinics — patients really struggle to connect with their clinic, and clinics struggle to simply get a hold of their patients," the companies founders write on their website. "The one consistent theme we've heard after now deploying Luma Health at over 300 clinics is: how can we make it easier for our patients to get started on their care journey and connect with us as they map their personal path to healing?"

ExxonMobil scales its arrangement with Houston drone company

Dyan Gibbons

Dyan Gibbons is the CEO of Trumbull Unmanned. Courtesy of Alice

Houston-based Trumbull Unmanned has provided its drone technology to ExxonMobil since 2014. Now, the major energy company is scaling up its involvement with the local company.

Trumbull was recently awarded a five-year Unmanned Aircraft Systems Agreement and now will expand drone data collection and inspections as part of a new contract.

"Trumbull is grateful to serve amazing clients. After conducting data collection and inspections for ExxonMobil in over 25 locations, we are excited to scale operations starting in the Americas," says Trumbull CEO Dyan Gibbens in a release. "We look forward to helping ExxonMobil integrate amazing safety, efficiency, and data-driven technology into their operations."

Houston-founded startup relocates to Austin

Ben Johnson's business idea turned into a growing company making the lives of apartment dwellers easier. Courtesy of Apartment Butler

A company founded in Houston has moved its headquarters to Austin, according to reports. Spruce — formerly known as Apartment Butler — provides luxury services (like dry cleaning, cleaning, and pet services) to apartment complexes.

Founder Ben Johnson told InnovationMap last December that, even though he's raised two rounds of funding from Houston — a $2 million Seed and a $3 million Series A — it was tough to convince venture capital firms from Houston. Houston-based Mercury Fund and Austin-based Capital Factory contributed to both the company's rounds. Princeton, New Jersey-based Fitz Gate Ventures led the Series A round, and the Houston Angel Network contributed too.

"Every single VC I pitched to wanted to require us to move to Austin as a condition to our funding," Johnson tells InnovationMap in a previous article. "I wanted to grow this business in Houston. I thought I was going to have to move to Austin because there wasn't a VC for us here."

Spruce already has a presence in Austin. The company has its services in 35 Austin-area apartment complexes, per the Austin Business Journal, as well as having Austin-based employees. Earlier this year, Spruce expanded its services to Denver, representing the first out-of-state business for the company.

Houston anti-fungal fabric fashion line launches

Accel Lifestyle is a anti-stink, ethically sourced athletic line. Courtesy of Accel

Houston entrepreneur, Megan Eddings, was disappointed with the athleticwear industry. She couldn't find a company that prioritized ethical and sustainable designs that were made with a fabric that wouldn't hold on to that strong, unpleasant sweat smell. So, a chemist by trade, she made her own.

Now, after months and months of work, Eddings has launched her company and the fitness line, Accel Lifestyle. The products are made in the United States in ethical conditions and shipped in 100 percent biodegradable packaging without any plastics involved. The custom-designed fabric — called the Prema™ fabric, which is now patent pending in 120 countries — doesn't hold onto the stink from working out, meaning consumers will be less inclined to throw them away, preventing unnecessary textile waste.

"I founded Accel Lifestyle because, even though there are so many fitness apparel companies today, none of them hit all the boxes on my checklist. I wanted to support a fashionable fitness apparel company that has an ethical supply chain (no sweatshops), and a fabric that doesn't smell. What did I find? Absolutely nothing. And, I wanted to change that," says Eddings in a release. "With my science background and experience working in science labs at University of Virginia and Brown University, it took 2.5 years to create the fabric from scratch, using the most luxurious threads available and a trade secret protected science."

Houston medical device startup releases positive clinical trial results

Photo via nanospectra.com

A Houston medical device company using nanomedicine has released early results in its clinical trials treating prostrate cancer. Nanospectra Biosciences Inc.'s AuroLase technology uses laser-excited gold-silica nanoparticles with various medical imaging tools to focally remove low to intermediate grade tumors within the prostate, according to its study outcomes published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"As the first ultra-focal therapy for prostate cancer, AuroLase has the potential to maximize treatment efficacy while minimizing side effects associated with surgery, radiation, and traditional focal therapies," says David Jorden, CEO of Nanospectra, in a news release. "We are encouraged by the clinical success of our feasibility study to date and look forward to the initiation, potentially next month, of the pivotal study with an expected cumulative treatment population of 100 subjects."

One of the company's co-founders, Naomi J. Halas, is a professor of biophysics at Rice University.

Canadian oil and gas company with a growing presence in Houston named finalist in World Oil awards

Validere, a Canada-based energy logistics company, is expanding in Houston. Courtesy of Validere

While Houston can't completely claim Canadian oil and gas data company Validere, the company, which has a growing presence in the Bayou City, has been named a finalist in a prestigious awards program.

Validere is a finalist in the World Oil Awards' best data management and application solution award. The company is up against technology from the likes of Schlumberger, Halliburton, Siemens, NOV, Baker Hughes, and more,

The company has created a software that allows for real-time data and both artificial and human intelligence insights to improve its clients' quality, trading, and logistics. The company's technology enhances the ability of oil and gas traders to make informed decisions, which currently are made based off unreliable product quality data. Annually, $2 trillion of product moves around the oil and gas industry, and Validere uses the Internet of Things to improve the current standard of decision making.

Of course, the energy capital of the world has been a major city for growth — something co-founder Nouman Ahmad tells InnovationMap in a previous interview.

"As we think about the long-term future of the business, Houston is one of the most important markets for us going forward," Ahmad says.