The sky's the limit

Houston drone company has big business on the horizon

Dyan Gibbens translated her Air Force experience with unmanned missiles into a drone services company. Courtesy of Alice

Dyan Gibbens found her dream career. She studied engineering, learned to fly at the United States Air Force Academy, went into pilot training, and served as engineering acquisitions officer managing stealth nuclear cruise missiles. She even went on to supported Air Force One and Global Hawk UAS engineering and logistics. She dedicated five years to active service before transitioning to the reserves.

"When I went to transition, I learned I was permanently disqualified from ever serving again," Gibbens said. "It was devastating to me, because all I've ever wanted to do was serve."

She went into a doctorate program — she already had her MBA — and was close to finishing up when her drone startup took flight. Trumbull Unmanned provides drone services to the energy sector for various purposes. With her experience as a pilot and managing unmanned missiles, she knew the demand for drones was only growing — and, being from Texas, she knew what industry to focus on.

"I wanted to start a company that uses unmanned systems or drones to improve safety and improve the environment and support energy,"

InnovationMap: What exactly does Trumbull Unmanned do?

Dyan Gibbens: We fly drones in challenging and austere environments to collect and analyze data for the energy sector. We fly across upstream, midstream, and downstream either on or off shore. We focus on three areas: digital transformation, inspection and operations, and technology development and integration.

The types data we collect and analyze could be LiDAR — light detection and ranging — to multispectral — to see the help of different properties — to visible — to perform tech-enabled inspections. We've recently hired inspectors in house as well. On LiDAR, we just hired a subject matter expert.

IM: So, the company is growing. What else is new for Trumbull?

DG: We just signed a few five-year agreements with supermajors. We're excited about that and the new hires. We're starting to do more on communications and situational awareness. We're doing more in energy and now in the government.

IM: What were some early challenges you faced?

DG: We are 100 percent organically funded — from our savings and from client contracts. Our first client was ExxonMobil. Our second client was Chevron. We had to prove ourselves over and over. We had to work hard to earn and then maintain that business. For us, it was also adjusting to a fluctuation in cash flow. It was going from a steady job to betting on yourself, and we didn't know anyone in Houston.

IM: What's the state of drone technology in the field?

DG: We've continued to see a hybrid approach toward services. Meaning, there's an in-house component and outsourced component. On the outsourced component, we intend to provide that for our clients. On the in-house component, while we don't train the masses, we do train our clients on request. We've promoted that model from the beginning. We think it makes sense that they are trained to do something simple, like take a picture, but for some of the more difficult projects, they outsource to us.

We're going to continue to see increased autonomy. There are really some amazing things already in autonomy, but there's still a lot of challenges flying in dense environments such as refineries and plants.

IM: How is Houston's startup scenes for veterans? What resources are out there?

DG: The way I see it is veterans have made a commitment to serve us, so we should make a commitment to serve them. That's my philosophy. Large companies have different programs, which is great, and there are entities such as Combined Arms, which has full services for transitioning veterans where you can go in and one-stop shop to get support from everything like getting connected to the VA to help working through PTSD to getting help transitioning to business. There are also really good Service Academy networks. More and more opportunities exist to step up to serve veterans.

------

Portions of this interview have been edited.

Tech startups are popping up across industries from real estate to oil and gas, and these three founders are among the leaders in technology. Courtesy images

Often, technology and innovation are mistaken for each other. While not mutually exclusive, both tech and innovation work well together in Houston across all industries — from oil and gas to real estate and social media. These three founders engaged technology for their individual startups.

Srini Katta, founder and CEO of Social Chains

Courtesy of Social Chains

As a social media user, your data is already out there and being used for marketing purposes. But, rather than the Facebooks or Googles of the world making a profit, Srini Katta wanted to create a platform where users made a profit off their own data.

"On our platform, the user is a stakeholder. Our platform distributes 50 percent of the profits to the users," he says.

Social Chains already has 5,000 users and, Katta says, that's with little to no marketing efforts, which Katta is about to launch.

Martin Kay, founder and CEO of Entera Technology

Courtesy of Entera

Martin Kay, who splits his time between Houston and the Bay Area for his startup Entera Technologies, knew there had to be a better way for people searching for a home to buy. He drew a comparison between homebuyers and Netflix viewers to create Entera's software.

"We're a little bit like Netflix," he says. "They go out and get content from everyone, and they begin to watch your behavior. So, Netflix has 2,000 profiles and you probably fit five or six of those. We have almost 100 profiles and what we do is say, we're going to understand what you want, watch your behavior and instead of giving you 40,000 properties on a big map, we actually match you based on your preferences, to the five or six houses that are best for you."

Houston-based Entera has grown as the platform loads more and more data for its users to engage with.

Luther Birdzell, CEO and founder of OAG Analytics

Courtesy of OAG Analytics

Luther Birdzell always knew he wanted to run his own company, but the software and analytics professional worked in various industries before realizing that oil and gas had a huge opportunity for savings using analytics. He founded OAG Analytics in 2013 to help provide a solution for these companies.

"When I founded OAG Analytics, our mission then — and still is today — was to build a platform for the upstream oil and gas industry that enables them to manage their data, introduces world-class machine learning in minutes without having to write a single line of code, and allow them to run simulations on the resulting analysis," Birdzell says.

The company has grown to 25 employees and tripled its revenue last year. The team is forecasting another year of high grow for 2019.