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

 
 

A Houston founder and small-space expert founded TAXA Outdoors to create better campers than what was in the market. Now, amid the pandemic, he's seen sales skyrocket. Photo courtesy of TAXA Outdoors

In 2014 Garrett Finney, a former senior architect at the Habitability Design Center at NASA, brought his expertise in what he describes as "advocating for human presence living in a machine" to the outdoors market.

After being less-than enchanted by the current RV and camper offerings, the Houstonian developed a new series of adventure vehicles that could safely and effectively get its users off-grid — even if still Earth-bound — under the company he dubbed TAXA Outdoors.

The vehicles would follow much of the same standards that Finney worked under at NASA, in which every scenario and square inch would be closely considered in the smartly designed spaces. And rather that designing the habitats for style alone, function and storage space for essential gear took precedence. According to Finney, the habitat was to be considered a form of useful adventure equipment in its own right.

"Ceilings should be useful. They're not just for putting lights on," he says. "Even when there's gravity that's true."

Today TAXA offers four models of what they call "mobile human habitats" that can be towed behind a vehicle and sleep three to four adults, ranging from about $11,000 to $50,000 in price.

TAXA's mobile human habitats range in size and price. Photo courtesy of TAXA Outdoors

And amid the pandemic — where people were looking for a safe way to escape their homes and get outside — the TAXA habitats were flying off the shelves, attracting buyers in Texas, but mainly those in Colorado, California, and other nature-filled areas.

"January, was looking really good — like the break out year. And then the pandemic was a huge red flag all around the world," Finney says. "[But] we and all our potential customers realized that going camping was the bet. They were with their family, they were getting outside, they were achieving sanity having fun and creating memories."

According to TAXA President Divya Brown, the company produced a record 430 habitats in 2020. But it still wasn't enough to match the number of orders coming in.

"We had we had almost a year and a half worth of backlog at the old facility, which we've never experienced before," Brown says.

To keep up with demand, the company moved into a 70,000-square-foot space off of U.S. 290 that now allows multiple operations lines, as well as a showroom for their vehicles and enough room for their staff, which tripled in size from 25 to 75 employees since the onset of the pandemic.

The first priority at the new facility is to make up the backlog they took on in 2020. Next they hope to produce more than 1,000 habitats by the end of 2021 and 3,000 in the coming years.

"It's a pretty significant jump for us," Brown says. "We really believe there's a huge market for this."

With the new facility, the TAXA team hopes to catch up with the explosive sales growth. Photo courtesy of TAXA Outdoors

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