Efficient energy

Houston oil and gas software company is increasing downstream productivity while lowering emissions

Penrose's advance process control software can increase production by 10 to 15 percent in downstream oil and gas refineries. Pexels

In the next 30 years, the world will need 30 percent more energy due to population growth. While energy production will increase to keep up with demand, there is an increasing concern with the impact on the environment.

"How do you produce more energy without emission increases or more air quality pollution?" asks Erdin Guma, CFO of Penrose Technologies.

According to Guma, Penrose is uniquely well-suited to solve these serious challenges with its advanced process control technology increases the productivity of a chemical plant or refinery by 10 to 15 percent. The increase in productivity means the plants use less fuel to produce the energy. The plant then releases fewer emissions while producing the same amount of energy.

The technology itself is an automation software — similar to autonomous software on a plane. The autonomous operation increases downstream productivity, which brings about the energy efficiency.

"Our autopilot software (like a human operator) can manage and foresee any unexpected disturbances in the plant," Guma explains. "The achievements that the Penrose technology has brought about seemed impossible to chemical and process engineers in the refinery space a few years ago."

Penrose recently signed its first project with one of the biggest downstream firms in the world. With a network of refineries and petrochemical plants around the world, this contract could lead to a global roll out of the Penrose technology.

A ground-breaking technology for O&G
The word "Penrose" is taken from a penrose triangle, an impossible geometrical object. Guma explained that the energy efficiency brought about from their software seemed impossible at first. Penrose has been able to reduce emissions inside plants and refineries by 15 to 20 percent while keeping production at the same level.

In 2007, a chief engineer working at a major oil and gas processing plant in Houston procured the technology for one of his plants. When the engineer saw how well the technology worked, he founded Penrose Technologies in 2017 with Tom Senyard, CTO at Penrose, who originally developed the technology.

After starting the company at the end of 2007, Penrose joined Station Houston. Guma said that by becoming a member, Penrose was able to plug into a large refining and petrochemical network.

"Penrose Technologies is completely self-financed. We worked with [Station Houston] as we finalized the software to find out what potential customers thought of the product. For us, Station Houston has been a great sounding board to potential investors in the company," Guma says.

Guma also explained that while there has been an uptick in innovation in the last few years, the refining and petrochemical business is traditional a slow mover in the uptake of innovation.

"I think more major oil and gas firms are becoming attune to startups and the innovation solutions they offer," Guma says.

He went on to explain that the biggest challenge Penrose faces is perception. Since the software allows plant operators and engineers at the plant to be hands off in the processes, there is a concern with reliability. For industry insiders, any viable product must be reliable even when process conditions at the plant change, which can happen often.

"The Penrose software is maximum hand off control from operators, and the reliability of our software gives us a huge edge in other competing products that can be unreliable," Guma says.

Future growth on a global market
Given the pressing need for more environmentally sustainable energy production, new technology will be adopted in the oil and gas energy. As Guma explains it, there will be no way to continue producing energy as it's been produced for decades because the negative effects of air pollution and emissions will be too severe — particularly in the areas where refineries operate.

"We see the global market for this type of technology as severely underserved," Guma says. "It's a big and sizable market, and I think we can reach a $2 to $3 billion valuation in the next five years."

With a core team of six employees in Houston, Penrose's software is now commercially available, and the company is in full growth mode at this point. The software can be distributed directly to customers, but they are working to develop distribution with major engineering companies as well.

Guma is grateful to be in an environment conducive to energy start-ups. He sees Houston as a major advantage given its proximity to the energy sector.

"No technology rises up in a vacuum. Any new technology needs a good ecosystem to come from," says Guma. "Houston was that ecosystem for Penrose."

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Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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