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New-to-Houston construction tech company files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy

After relocating its headquarters to Houston, Katerra has filed for bankruptcy. Photo via Getty Images

Construction startup Katerra, which only recently moved its North American headquarters from Silicon Valley to Houston, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy June 6 — five days after news reports indicated the company was shutting down most of its U.S. operations.

Katerra's filings in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Houston show the company and various affiliates have between $1 billion and $10 billion in liabilities and only $500 million to $1 billion in assets. In a June 6 news release, Katerra says it lined up $35 million in financing from a unit of Japan's SoftBank Group, the startup's largest investor.

Katerra recently notified its key stakeholders that many of its U.S. projects will be "demobilizing," according to the news release.

In an email sent June 1 to employees, Katerra said it would be winding down the majority of its U.S. operations and would lay off most of its U.S. employees. News website The Information first reported about the email. Globally, Katerra employs about 7,500 people.

Aside from letting go thousands of employees, Katerra is likely to walk away from dozens of construction projects it had agreed to build, The Information reported. As part of the bankruptcy case, Katerra plans to sell its renovation and Lord Aeck Sargent architecture businesses to unidentified buyers.

Katerra has been hemorrhaging money for months. In December, SoftBank pumped $200 million into Katerra, in addition to its previous investment of roughly $2 billion. Five months after Katerra received that cash infusion, Paal Kibsgaard stepped down as CEO, a role he'd held since July 2020. Kibsgaard is former chairman and CEO of Houston-based Schlumberger.

"The rapid deterioration of the company's financial position is the result of the macroeconomic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the construction industry, inability to procure bonding for construction projects following the unexpected insolvency proceedings of Katerra's former lender, and unsuccessful attempts to secure additional capital and business," according to the news release announcing the bankruptcy proceedings.

Greensill Capital, the lender referenced in the news release, filed for insolvency protection in March. Like Katerra, Greensill is backed by SoftBank.

Katerra was founded in 2015 with the intent to capitalize on technology — such as automation and robotics — in order to streamline construction. Its projects have included hotels and apartment buildings. Last year, it posted nearly $2 billion in revenue.

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Building Houston

 
 

Business and government leaders in the Houston area hope the region can become a hub for CCS activity. Photo via Getty Images

Three big businesses — Air Liquide, BASF, and Shell — have added their firepower to the effort to promote large-scale carbon capture and storage for the Houston area’s industrial ecosystem.

These companies join 11 others that in 2021 threw their support behind the initiative. Participants are evaluating how to use safe carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology at Houston-area facilities that provide energy, power generation, and advanced manufacturing for plastics, motor fuels, and packaging.

Other companies backing the CCS project are Calpine, Chevron, Dow, ExxonMobil, INEOS, Linde, LyondellBasell, Marathon Petroleum, NRG Energy, Phillips 66, and Valero.

Business and government leaders in the Houston area hope the region can become a hub for CCS activity.

“Large-scale carbon capture and storage in the Houston region will be a cornerstone for the world’s energy transition, and these companies’ efforts are crucial toward advancing CCS development to achieve broad scale commercial impact,” Charles McConnell, director of University of Houston’s Center for Carbon Management in Energy, says in a news release.

McConnell and others say CCS could help Houston and the rest of the U.S. net-zero goals while generating new jobs and protecting current jobs.

CCS involves capturing carbon dioxide from industrial activities that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere and then injecting it into deep underground geologic formations for secure and permanent storage. Carbon dioxide from industrial users in the Houston area could be stored in nearby onshore and offshore storage sites.

An analysis of U.S Department of Energy estimates shows the storage capacity along the Gulf Coast is large enough to store about 500 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is equivalent to more than 130 years’ worth of industrial and power generation emissions in the United States, based on 2018 data.

“Carbon capture and storage is not a single technology, but rather a series of technologies and scientific breakthroughs that work in concert to achieve a profound outcome, one that will play a significant role in the future of energy and our planet,” says Gretchen Watkins, U.S. president of Shell. “In that spirit, it’s fitting this consortium combines CCS blueprints and ambitions to crystalize Houston’s reputation as the energy capital of the world while contributing to local and U.S. plans to help achieve net-zero emissions.”

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