best of the rest

Houston investors, mentors name 9 most promising energy startups at Rice Alliance event

Here are the most promising energy tech startups in the market today. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

This week, 39 energy startup companies from all over the world pitched in Houston — and nine were recognized as being the most promising of the batch.

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship returned its Offshore Technology Conference pitch event to its in-person capacity and host the annual event at the Ion Houston for the first time. The event featured three-minute pitches from the companies, and a select group of corporate and venture investors decided on the top nine to honor.

"We asked investors and corporates to look at the companies here today and help us determine the companies most promising — based on those that have an innovative technology that is solving a large problem, has customers willing to pay for it, and has the right team to build and grow their company," Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance says to the crowd at the event on May 3.

Here's which energy tech companies stood out to investors.

EarthEn

EarthEn, a Chandler, Arizona-based company, is a grid-scale energy storage solution. The technology can provide short-term — 6 to 8 hours — and long-term — over 100 hours — storage. The EarthEn pods provide a cheaper alternative and are built using 3D printing.

Echogen Power Systems

Based in Akron, Ohio, Echogen Power Systems has created a technology that captures heat that would otherwise be lost and converts it to a useable power source. The solution allows for any customer that operates at significant levels of heat to have a cost-effective energy option.

FuelX Innovation

Based in Aiken, South Carolina, FuelX Innovation is manufacturing solid-state hydrogen products and power systems, impacting mobile hydrogen fuel cell-powered applications. The company is focused on producing the lowest cost Alane, or aluminum hydride, for the fuel cell.

Lillianah Technologies

Lillianah Technologies, based in the Houston area in Spring, uses algae to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The company sells carbon offsets to corporations.

oPRO.ai

oPRO.ai — which is based in Los Altos, California — is providing its customers with deep learning optimization software for process and responsible operations for oil and gas, petrochemical, chemicals, and metal industries.

Proteum Energy

Phoenix, Arizona-based Proteum Energy provides its customers low-cost, clean hydrogen by reforming renewable ethanol into renewable hydrogen.

Sync Power Solutions

Embracing a clean sheet approach, Sync Power Solutions, based in Abilene, Texas, created a solution involving a redesign of electric motors and generators to increase energy efficiency, save on costs, and more.

Utility Global

Houston-based Utility Global is using high temperature electrolysis without the use of electricity to produce hydrogen from waste gases.

ZL Innovations

Based in Portland, Oregon, ZL Innovations is focused on eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from failed industrial valves. The company's solution is a magnetic actuation assembly that can be better sealed to prevent emissions.

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UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

The University of Houston is taking a bold step — or, in this case, roll — in foodservice delivery. UH's Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership is now deploying a robot server in Eric’s Restaurant at its Hilton College.

Booting up this new service is major bragging rights for the Coogs, as UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery.

These rolling delivery bots come from the state-of-the-art food service robot called Servi. The bots, created by Bear Robotics, are armed with LiDar sensors, cameras, and trays, and automatically return to their posts when internal weight sensors detect a delivery has been completed.

Not surprisingly, these futuristic food staffers are booting up plenty of buzz at UH.

“People are excited about it,” says Dennis Reynolds, who is dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and oversees the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Launching robot waitstaff at UH as a test market makes sense, he notes, for practical use and larger implications.

The Servi robots deliver food from the kitchen to the table. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

“Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” he says in an announcement. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”

Bear Robotics, a tech company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs, hosted a Servi showcase at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year. After seeing the demo, Reynolds was hooked. UH's Servi robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October.

Before sending the bot to diners' tables, the bot was prepped by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. That meant weeks of mapping, programming, and — not surprisingly — “test driving” around the restaurant.

Tanner even created a digital map of the restaurant to teach the Servi its pathways and designated service points, such as table numbers. “Then, we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything," he adds.

But does having a robot deliver food create friction between human and automated staff? Not at Eric's. “The robot helps my workflow,” Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s says. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”

Once loaded, the kitchen staff can tell the Servi robots where to take the dishes. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Reynolds believes robots will complement their human counterparts and actually enhance the customer experience, even in unlikely settings.

“Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds says. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”

To that end, he plans to use Servi bots in other UH venues. “The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds notes. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”

Critics who denounce robot servers and suggest they will soon displace humans are missing the point, Reynolds adds. “This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds says. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”

Servi bots come at a time of dynamic growth for Hilton College. A recent rebrand to “Global Hospitality Leadership” comes as the college hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation, which includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower. The student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a larger space with plenty of updates. The neighboring Eric’s Club Center for Student Success helps with recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services, and career development.

“To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” Reynolds adds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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