Best of the best

Rice Alliance names 10 most promising energy technology companies at its annual forum

These 10 companies are ones to look out for. Getty Images

From fast-charging batteries and hydrogen fuel alternatives to metals recycling and artificial intelligence-driven data tools, energy tech startups have a lot to offer the industry.

After nearly 60 pitches, the Rice Alliance for for Technology and Entrepreneurship named 10 startups to look out for in the energy industry. The announcement was made at the conclusion of the annual Energy and Clean Technology Venture Forum hosted at Rice University on September 11.

Of the 10, five hail from Houston. Check out this year's energy tech startups to look out for.

Sensytec

Fresh off a win from Houston's inaugural MassChallenge Texas cohort, Houston-based Sensytec again scored big. Sesnsytec's technology is known as the "smart concrete" because they've created a device that can be embedded into concrete and monitor its structure in real time. The company was founded out of the University of Houston in 2016 by Ody de la Paz.

Rheidiant

Another Houston-based company, Rheidiant uses industrial Internet of Things to optimize data from the pipelines. As a result, Rheidiant's technology can increase productivity, reduce leaks, quickly respond in emergency situations, and enhance visibility in the field. Rheidiant was founded in 2014 by CEO Murat Ocalan.

Nesh

Houston-based Nesh has created a smart assistant for oil and gas. Using artificial intelligence, Nesh can answer any question from an oil and gas employee to improve their decision-making process and cut down on the time it takes to find solutions. Nesh was founded in 2018 by Sidd Gupta and the company closed its seed round in April.

GBatteries

GBatteries, based in Ottawa, Canada, is changing the lithium battery charging game. With a mission of revolutionizing the electric car industry, GBatteries has created an artificial intelligence-backed technology that can charge a lithium battery to half full in 5 minutes. The company has 10 patents granted and 28 pending and has pilot programs in the works with automotive companies.

HARBO Technologies

Tel Aviv, Israel-based HARBO Technologies bills itself as the fastest and most effective oil spill response system in the world.The company's T-Fence system can be deployed quickly and by a team of as little as two people. HARBO was founded in 2013 by CEO Boaz Ur and has raised three rounds of funding, according to Crunchbase.

Sensorfield

It's not the first time Houston-based Sensorfield has been deemed most promising by the Rice Alliance. The company has created easy to install, wireless devices for monitoring throughout the industrial process. In May, the startup was selected for Chevron Technology Ventures' Catalyst Program.

MolyWorks Materials Corp.

California startup, MolyWorks Materials Corp., is improving the way industrial materials are recycled by building by creating a network of distributed recycling and additive manufacturing. Old metals materials go in, and metallic powder for manufacturing new products come out.

Lilac Solutions

Oakland, California-based Lilac Solutions exists to enhance lithium production as the demand rises with the growth of the electronic vehicles industry. Lilac has created a unique ion exchange technology that can lower the cost of lithium production while increasing the speed. The company is currently operating pilot programs.

Mission Secure

Mission Secure Inc. has created an industrial control system that can protect energy companies from potential cybersecurity threats as well as educate on the process. Based in Charlottesville, Virginia, MSI is venture backed and serving clients in Houston.

Syzygy Plasmonics

Houston-based Syzygy Plasmonics is fresh off a $5.8 million series A funding round it closed in August. The company is creating a hydrogen fuel cell technology that produces a cheaper source of energy that releases fewer carbon emissions. The hydrogen-fueled technology originated out of research done over two decades by two Rice University professors, Naomi Halas and Peter Nordlander. Earlier this summer, the Rice Alliance named Syzygy a most promising startup at the Offshore Technology Conference.

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Building Houston

 
 

Cheers Health has expanded its product line as it evolves as a wellness-focused brand. Photo courtesy of Cheers

Houston-based startup Cheers first got a wave of brand devotees after it was passed over by investors on Shark Tank in 2018. In the years since, Cheers secured an impressive investment, launched new products, and became a staple hangover cure for customers. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted businesses, the company rose to the occasion and experienced its first profitable year as drinking and wellness habits changed across America.

Cheers initially started its company under the name Thrive+ with a hangover-friendly pill that promised to minimize the not-so-fun side effects that come after a night out. The capsules support the liver by replacing lost vitamins, reduce GABAa rebound and lower the alcohol-induced acetaldehyde toxicity levels in the body. The company's legacy product complemented social calendars and nights on the town, providing next day relief.

With COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures, the days of pub crawls and social events were numbered. Cheers founder Brooks Powell saw the massive behavior change in people consuming alcohol, and leaned into his vision of becoming more than just a hangover cure but an "alcohol-related health company," he says.

When the pandemic first hit, Powell and his team noticed an immediate dip in sales — a relatable story for businesses in the grips of COVID-19.

"There is a three day period where we went from having the best month in company history to the worst month in company history, over a 72 hour stretch," he remarks.

He soon called an emergency board meeting and rattled off worst-case "doomsday" scenarios, he says.

"Thankfully, we never had to do any of these strategies because, ultimately, the team was able to rally around the new positioning for the brand which was far more focused on alcohol-related health," he says.

"We found that a lot less people were getting hangovers during 2020, because generally when you binge drink, you tend to binge drink with other people," he explains.

He noticed that health became an important focus for people, some who began to drink less due to the lack of social gatherings. On the contrary, some consumers began to drink more to fill the idle time.

According to a JAMA Network report, there was a 54 percent increase in national sales of alcohol for the week stay-at-home orders began last March, as compared to the year prior.

"All of a sudden, you have all of these people who probably aren't binge drinking but they're just frequently consuming alcohol. Their drinks per week are shooting up, and they're worried about liver health," explains Powell.

Outside of day-after support, Cheers leaned into its long-term health products to help drinkers consume alcohol in a healthier way. Cheers Restore, a dissolvable powder consumers can mix into their water, rehydrates the body by optimizing sodium and glucose molecules.

For continued support, Cheers Protect is a daily supplement designed to increase glutathione — an antioxidant that plays a key role in liver detoxification — and support overall liver health. Cheers Protect, which was launched in 2019, became a focus for the company as they pivoted its brand strategy and marketing to accommodate consumer behavior.

"The Cheers brand is just trying to reflect the mission statement, which is bringing people together through promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption," says Powell. "It fits with our vision statement, which is a world where everyone can enjoy alcohol throughout a long, healthy and happy lifetime,."

At the close of 2020, Cheers had generated $10.4 million in revenue and over $1.7m in profit — its first profitable year since launch.

During the brand's mission to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Cheers team was also laying the groundwork for its entry into the retail space. When Powell launched the company during his junior year at Princeton University, bringing Cheers to brick-and-mortar stores had always been a goal. He envisioned liquor and grocery stores where Cheers was sold next to alcohol as a complementary item. "It's like getting sunscreen before going to the beach, they kind of go hand in hand," he says.

"When we spoke with retailers, specifically bars and liquor stores, what we learned is that a lot of these places were hesitant to put pills near alcohol," he says. Wanting an attractive and accessible mode of alcohol-support, the Cheers team created the Cheers Restore beverage.

Utilizing the technology Cheers developed with Princeton University researchers, the Cheers Restore beverage incorporates the benefits of the pill in a liquid, sugar-free form. The company states that its in-vivo study found that the drink is up to 19 times more bioavailable than pure dihydromyricetin (DHM), a Japanese raisin tree extract found in Cheers products and other hangover-related cures.

"What we figured out is that if you combine DHM — our main ingredient — with something called capric acid, which is an extract from coconut oil, the bioavailability shoots way up," says Powell. He notes the unique taste profile and the "creaminess" capric acid provides. "Now you have this lightly carbonated, zero-sugar, lemon sherbert, essentially liver support, hangover beverage that tastes great in 12 ounces and can mix with alcohol," he explains.

The Cheers Restore beverage is already hitting the Houston-area, where its found a home on menus at Present Company. The company has also run promotions with Houston hangouts like Memorial Trail Ice House, Drift, and The Powder Keg.

Currently, the beverage is only available in retail capacity and cannot be ordered on the Cheers website. As Powell focuses on expanding Cheers Restore beverage presence in the region, he welcomes the idea of expanding nationally in the future to come. While eager customers await the drink's national availability, they can actively invest in Cheers through the company's recently-launched online public offering.

Though repivoting a company and launching a new product is exciting, the process did not come without its caveats and stressors. While Cheers profited as a business in 2020, the staff and its founder weren't immune to the struggles of COVID-19.

"I think 2020 was the first year that it really became real for me that Cheers is far more than just some sort of alcohol-related health brand and its products," says Powell. "Cheers is really its employees and everything that goes into being a successful, durable company that people essentially bet their careers on and their family's well-being on and so forth," he continues.

"It really does weigh on you in a different way that it's never weighed on you before," says Powell, describing the stress of the pandemic. The experience was "enlightening," he says, and he wants others to know it's not embarrassing to need help.

"There is no lack of great leaders out there that at long periods of their life they needed help in some way," he says. "For me that was 2020 and being in the grinder and feeling the stress of the unknown and all of that, but it could happen to anyone," he continues.

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