HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 26

Early-stage energy tech startups to be hit hard by COVID-19 and flooded oil market, Houston expert says

Sean Guerre of Innovate Energy joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share how energy startups are especially challenged in the current climate. Photo courtesy of Innovate Energy

The oil and gas industry has been hit with a double whammy of challenges with COVID-19 and its imminent recession, but the global industry was already facing an oversupply of oil — and now an even smaller demand.

One of this confluence of obstacles' victims is going to be early-stage energy tech startups, Sean Guerre, managing director of Innovate Energy, says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"When you think about what's happening in the oil downturn, unfortunately it's just a slice in huge uncertainty sandwich that we're all having to go through right now," Guerre says.

Not only is the pandemic unprecedented, but the cyclical energy industry hasn't faced a situation with so much discrepancy between supply and demand since the 1930s, which is a bit too far back to really take in any lessons learned.

Energy tech startups that are pre-funding and pre-pilots are going to struggle to get a foot in the door at bigger companies and aren't going to find much funding — both venture capital and corporate venture are down, Guerre says. He recommends really focusing on messaging moving forward — startups need to pitch cost-saving and efficient solutions.

"You've got to make sure your message fits the market," Guerre says. "What was working four weeks ago is probably not what you're going forth with now."

Innovate Energy, which produces online content for the advancement of energy tech and innovation, has seen a rise in interest in digital and unmanned solutions like robotics and industrial virtual reality.

"We're seeing a huge interest in autonomous, unmanned solutions," Guerre says. "Anything in that remote, autonomous area that allows people to continue to do inspections, mapping, surveying, and all kinds of work that don't involve more people being involved in the process — we're seeing a real acceleration there."

Startups are also challenged with a lack of events and networking opportunities with the COVID-19 mandates to stay at home and social distance. Guerre, who founded Stone Fort Group to put on virtual and in-person programming, says it's a new burden on event holders to use technology to optimize their events for the happenstance and socialization that happens at in-person events.

"How do we actually help people connect who wouldn't normally would have connected if they hadn't been sitting next to each other in a general session or waiting in line at the coffee line," he says on the show.

Guerre shares his thoughts on the state of energy moving forward, and how key these virtual events are on the podcast. Listen to the full episode below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.



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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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