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

 
 

Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures, recently announced new team members and her hopes for making Houston a leader in synthetic biology. Photo courtesy of First Bight Ventures

Since launching earlier this year, a Houston-based venture capital firm dedicated to investing in synthetic biology companies has made some big moves.

First Bight Ventures, founded by Veronica Wu, announced its growing team and plans to stand up a foundry and accelerator for its portfolio companies and other synthetic biology startups in Houston. The firm hopes to make Houston an international leader in synthetic biology.

“We have a moment in time where we can make Houston the global epicenter of synthetic biology and the bio economy," Wu says to a group of stakeholders last week at First Bight's Rocketing into the Bioeconomy event. "Whether its energy, semiconductor, space exploration, or winning the World Series — Houstonians lead. It’s in our DNA. While others look to the stars, we launch people into space.”

At First Bight's event, Wu introduced the company's new team members. Angela Wilkins, executive director of the Ken Kennedy Institute at Rice University, joined First Bight as partner, and Serafina Lalany, former executive director of Houston Exponential, was named entrepreneur in residence. Carlos Estrada, who has held leadership positions within WeWork in Houston, also joins the team as entrepreneur in residence and will oversee the company's foundry and accelerator that will be established to support synthetic biology startups, Wu says.

“First Bight is investing to bring the best and the brightest — and most promising — synthetic biology startups from around the country to Houston," Wu continues.

First Bighthas one seed-staged company announced in its portfolio. San Diego-based Persephone Biosciences was founded in 2017 by synthetic and metabolic engineering pioneers, Stephanie Culler and Steve Van Dien. The company is working on developing microbial products that impact patient and infant health.

Wu, who worked at Apple before the launch of the iPhone and Tesla before Elon Musk was a household name, says she saw what was happening in Houston after her brother moved to town. She first invested in Houston's synthetic biology ecosystem when she contributed to one of Solugen's fundraising rounds. The alternative plastics company is now a unicorn valued at over $1 billion.

“I founded First Bight because of what I see is the next great wave of technology innovation," she says at the event. "I founded it in Houston because the pieces are right here.”

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