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Houston drone company sees rising need for automation within the energy industry and beyond

In a post-COVID-19 world, it's time for drones and automation to shine. Photo courtesy of Airobotics

For years, Ran Krauss has watched the drone and automation industry be overhyped and misunderstood. But due to a myriad of causes — a global pandemic that's forced workers to stay home, a oil glut that's caused energy company layoffs, and years of work pushing through new regulation — it's finally time, Kauss believes, for drone technology to take-off.

Krauss has worked in the drone industry for years and, in 2014, co-founded Airobotics, a full-service drone company, with Meir Kliner. Between COVID-19 and an oversupply of oil, energy companies, which make up most of Airobotics clients, are seeing how important automation and drone technology is.

"Everyone watched Netflix before, but the pandemic increased demand," Krauss tells InnovationMap. "For us, our ability to provide remote monitoring applications was always something of value, but obviously in times like this when staff can't get into a site, there's more significance."

The COVID-19 crisis, Krauss explains, has perhaps sped up energy companies' plans to integrate this type of technology.

"One of the effects of the pandemic is reconsidering the timeline and deployment of robotics as a whole to deal with future threats like this," he says. "The world is going to think differently about automation, robotics, and drones."

Krauss saw an opportunity for drone technology within industrial business, but wanted to take it a step further with automation. That's how he came up with the idea for a drone in a box — an idea that became Airobotics. The company's technology operates as a one-stop shop for companies looking for drone and automation technology.

Airobotics's technology includes a docking station that even has a robotic arm to replace batteries in the drone. Photo courtesy of Airobotics

The Airobotics device comes complete with a docking station that even has an automated arm to replace batteries, for instance, so limited human interaction is needed. Airobotics works with its clients to customize data collection needs, and then manages the operations as a service provider.

"As an operator, we figured out that we needed to create an automated system — similar to an autonomous car — for safety, productivity, and cost effectiveness. That's why we started a robotics company," he says.

While Airobotics — which has clients worldwide — has offices in the United States, Israel, and Singapore, Texas is a focus for the company, Krauss says.

The company's technology has seen historic approval from regulators in each of the countries it operates in. Specifically, Krauss praises what the Federal Aviation Administration is doing to advance drone technology regulation, and the department recognizes Airobotics as subject matter experts.

"We're working very closely with the FAA, which has identified us as a partner to help them create the right environment for drones to be integrated into the airspace," Krauss says. "You can't ignore new technologies but just saying, 'OK, this thing [isn't allowed to] fly.' There has to be the right balance of public safety and encouraging new technologies to take place."

It's not only industry and regulatory support Airobotic has seen. The company has gone through quite a few funding rounds and raised over $110 million.

"Our investors have identified the situation and the market potential our company has over anybody else," Krauss says. "We're the trailblazers, which comes at a cost — it's much easier to follow than to lead. But, we're happy to do so."

Perhaps, one of the biggest challenges for the company and the industry is educating potential clients. The word "drone" is used to describe everything from a remote-controlled device with a camera on it that's just a few hundred dollars online to Airobotics's Optimus device, which is made up of thousands of parts.

"There is definitely a constant need for market education in this sector — always has been the case," Krauss says.

For Krauss, he's seen drone technology go through this "hype phase," and he sees a bright future for what drone and automation capabilities are coming.

"I think we're going to see a resurgence in this industry in the coming years — with applications in the real world with real value generation, not just hype and science fiction," he says.

One industry that's ripe for drone technology disruption — smart cities innovation. Krauss says he hopes Houston is a city that looks to utilize the tech.

"I think the digitization of the urban environment is going to be the next sector where we're going see drones create a lot of value," he says.

Airobotics has clients within the industrial sector. Photo courtesy of Airobotics

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Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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