Featured Innovator

Oil and gas startup exec positions Houston company for more growth in 2019

Christopher Robart leads Ambyint — a technology company creating the Nest thermostat for oil rigs — with his twin brother, Alex. Courtesy of Ambyint

Most of Christopher Robart's 10-year career in oil and gas has been deliberate and calculated — researching the right startup to be involved in or finding the right buyer for a company he invested in. However, his actual start in the industry wasn't so intentional.

"I sort of fell into oil and gas after I got of college back in 2003," says Robart, who is the president of Ambyint USA. "Before that, I was involved in a few startup things — some digital and some not. I was always sort of an entrepreneur."

Robart shares the passion of entrepreneurialism with his twin brother, Alex, CEO of Ambyint. The two have similar work experiences, since they act as an oil and gas startup team in Houston. One of the first companies the duo bought and sold was PacWest Consulting Partners, which was sold to IHS Energy in 2014, Robart says. The second one, Digital H2O, they founded, grew the team, lead some investments, and sold it to Genscape in 2015.

The pair's newest endeavor is Ambyint, an oilfield smart technology company with Canadian origins. The Robart brothers have been involved in it for about two and a half years.

Christopher Robart spoke with InnovationMap about his career and what he hopes to accomplish with his oil and gas startup in 2019.

InnovationMap: How did you and your brother first get involved in Ambyint?

Christopher Robart: After we left IHS, we knew that our next up was going to be software and upstream oil and gas, but there were a lot of question marks. We did our due diligence. We leveraged all that information we found and settled on which market we wanted to be in. We ended up finding Ambyint and liked what they had built to date, but they had some gaps and shortcomings, particularly on the commercial side, and they had no U.S. presence. We thought those two gaps were something we'd be helpful filling out. We went through a fairly lengthy process to lead an investment into the company, and essentially took over through that process.

IM: So, Ambyint still has an office in Canada?

CR: The Canada office is primarily a technology office, with some sales capabilities up there. The U.S. is primarily sales, marketing, and customer support.

IM: How does the technology work?

CR: The easiest way to explain it is we're like a Nest thermostat for your oil wells. It's a piece of hardware and a piece of software. It's wired into the well's control system and tied up to cloud-based software. From there, we've been deploying artificial intelligence, machine learning, deep learning, etc.

IM: What do you look for in customers?

CR: Oil companies of any shape or size, really. Oil and gas industry aren't really known for being early adopters of technology. There's a lot of resistance to change, particularly at the production level, which we focus on. So we're looking for early adopters looking to lead the way.

We're in pretty much all the major oil-producing areas in the U.S. and Canada. We also have customers in Mexico, Chili, and Egypt. There's a few more countries in the Middle East we're trying to get into.

IM: Are you planning another fundraising round?

CR: We'll embark on a series B in the near future. We closed our series A, and it was pretty large, so we're in a good place. (The series closed in September of 2017 with $11.5 million raised, according to Crunchbase.)

IM: What are your goals for 2019?

CR: We've built a lot of cool technology, and we continue to do that. Our focus for 2019 is to continue to commercialize and expand our customer base. Our sales cycle is pretty long. It could be a year from the time we bring an initial lead to the table, running a pilot, getting results, and developing a plan. It's a long, slow, and, in some cases, a painful process.

When you're doing things like machine learning, you're teaching a machine how to do something a human would do something. What's required to do that is a massive amount of data to start, and from there, it's a never ending journey of data collection and monitoring your accuracy.

We've been focused on one specific artificial lift pump — every well will eventually take a piece of artificial lift pump. We work on the most common artificial lift pump, but it's just one of six key types. In addition to selling more of that pump, we are in the process of expanding to additional lift types.

IM: What keeps you up at night, as it pertains to your business?

CR: Change management. Getting our customers to adopt new technology and embrace change. That's it. We're constantly trying to get our customers to move more quickly.

IM: How do you and your brother work together? Do you each play different roles in the company?

CR: Our backgrounds are similar. We're twins, but we have personality differences. I spend a little more time with our customers than he does and with new product initiatives. I get pretty hands on.

His mandate is less focused on walking and talking with customers and more on managing the functions of the business and working with the leadership team. As well as financing and fundraising.

We've got a pretty good division of labor, but there is a lot of overlap of what we do.

IM: What are some of the pros and cons of being in Houston?

CR: Obviously the pro of being in Houston is it being the oil capital of the world. All our customers are here. It's sort of a must.

The downside of running a technology company in town is that tech talent is quite thin on the ground in Houston — especially what we're looking for. So, we don't have any tech team members in the Houston office. I'll put it mildly in that we are skeptical of the talent pool for really strong software developers in the Houston market.

------

Portions of this interview have been edited.

UH's business school has been recognized for innovation and entrepreneurship. Photo via bauerticker.uh.edu

Hitting headlines this month are innovation news stories from sustainability and education to funding and startup competitions.

In this innovation news roundup, two health-focused startups raise money, the University of Houston earns two pats on the back, a Houston-based former WeWork exec joined the C-suite of a sustainable clothing company, and more.

BrainCheck closes $8 million seed round

BrainCheck has received funding to grow its cognitive assessment platform. Photo via braincheck.com

Houston-based BrainCheck, a cognitive health tech platform closed its $8 million series A funding round. Austin-based S3 Ventures and Chicago-based Tensility Venture Partners co-led the round, and Austin-based True Wealth Ventures and Kansas-based Nueterra Capital also contributed to the round.

BrainCheck's digital platform allows physicians to better assess cognitive function in their patients. The new funds will be used for research and development, including customizing the platform's algorithm for an enhanced patient experience, according to a news release.

"Cognitive healthcare should be an end-to-end solution where problems can be assessed early, and results shared between patients and physicians," says Dr. Yael Katz, co-founder and CEO of BrainCheck, in the release. "By analyzing multiple forms of data, BrainCheck helps physicians create and fine tune personalized interventions. This not only improves outcomes for current patients, but is invaluable to developing management and treatment strategies for future generations."

Former WeWork exec Emily Keeton joins C-suite of a sustainable clothing startup

Goodfair has created a digital thrifting platform. Photo via goodfair.com

After a little over two years at WeWork in leadership positions, Emily Keeton has left the coworking space company to join a Houston startup. Keeton, who was among the founders of Station Houston, is now the chief operating officer at Goodfair, a direct-to-consumer thrift platform based in Houston.

"The rise of fast fashion is contributing to major environmental change," she tells InnovationMap. "Right now, the average American buys 68 new garments a year and wears each one only 7 times. Clothing production is responsible for over 20 percent of all industrial water pollution."

Keeton says she was connected with Goodfair's CEO, Topper Luciani, through the company's lead investor, Paul Bricault of California-based Amplify. Luciani just moved to Houston, and the company also has a warehouse here.

Goodfair sells bundles of "pre-loved" clothes based on size and category at a low price point.

"You know you'll get a medium flannel shirt, but you don't know exactly what color. If you don't like it, you can get a new order for the cost of shipping only," Keeton says. "We have created an entirely new model for this industry, which is an over $14 billion market."

NurseDash raises bridge round as the startup braces for growth

Houston-based NurseDash is the Uber of staffing nursing shifts in medical facilities. Photo via nursedash.com

A growing Houston startup has received bridge funding ahead of opening a larger round. NurseDash, a digital staffing tool for nurses and medical facilities, has received $500,000 from East Coast-based SEI Ventures.

The corporate-backed fund has contributed greatly to higher education institutions, like Capella University, which has a large nursing program.

"Some of the ways we think we can help NurseDash accelerate their growth is getting getting word out to Capella's tens of thousands of alumni and hundreds of employer partners to make sure they are aware of the advantages of the platform, and potentially organizing an educational partnership as well," Taylor Chapman, Houston native and principal at SEI Ventures, tells InnovationMap.

NurseDash, which launched in 2017, now has a presence in 80 facilities on the platform and over 1,000 clinician users in Houston, Austin, and Northeast Ohio.

"We are excited to have SEI join us as a strategic investor and the opportunity that it brings for us to provide enhanced educational opportunities to our clinicians as well as greater exposure the wonderfully talented group that comprises the alumni and nursing students of Cappella University," says CEO and Co-founder Jake Kohl in an email.

University of Houston programs receive recognition

The University of Houston's business school has been recognized for two of its programs. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

The University of Houston's business school has two more feathers to add to its cap.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek named the MBA program at the C. T. Bauer College of Business as among the world's best programs for entrepreneurs. The program tied for ninth in the B- category out of 126 programs surveyed.

"Bauer students indeed reflect the values of our beloved Houston," Professional Programs Associate Dean Leiser Silva says in a news release. "Like our city, they have grit, they are resilient, and they are the bearers of an unparalleled ingenuity. It is in their character to assume calculated risks and be entrepreneurs."

Meanwhile, Bauer's Stimulating Urban Renewal through Entrepreneurship received the 2019 Award of Excellence for Innovation + Talent at the recent University Economic Development Association annual summit. The program creates a partnership between UH students and local entrepreneurs and area business leaders.

"At the heart of the program is experiential learning for our students, along with a commitment to service and civic engagement," says SURE™ founder and director Saleha Khumawala, in a news release.

Capital Factory seeks Texas companies for artificial intelligence challenge

blockchain

Capital Factory is looking for AI companies to compete for $100,000. Getty Images

Austin-based Capital Factory, which has a statewide presence, is looking for startups with artificial intelligence technologies.

The $100,000 Artificial Intelligence Challenge is asking companies to submit their solutions to four key challenges decided by the Army Artificial Intelligence Task Force. The four challenges are: Intelligence support for long-range precision, automated threat recognition for the next-generation combat vehicle, human resources and talent management, and predictive maintenance for military assets.

The competition will conclude on November 12th, at Capital Factory's Defense Innovation Summit. Five technology finalists will be judged by a panel, and one will receive a $100,000 investment that day. The deadline to apply online is October 21.

Work & Mother announces new location

Houston-based Work & Mother is rethinking how new mothers pump in the office. Courtesy of Work & Mother

Houston startup Work & Mother, which runs lactation centers for new moms returning to work, has another location opening. Brookfield Properties announced that Work & Mother has signed a lease for a 949-square-foot space at Three Allen Center at 333 Clay St. in downtown Houston with an expectation top open next summer.

"We are thrilled to partner with Brookfield Properties on this project. We've found that companies aren't equipped to fully address such a private and intimate issue as pumping breast milk in the office," says Abbey Donnell, founder and CEO, in a news release. "It doesn't make sense for every company in a large office tower to take this on individually. Work & Mother is a better economic option for companies in that they reduce their legal risks and create a better working environment, preserving their own office space for their core business."