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.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Houston SPAC announces merger with Beaumont-based tech company in deal valued at $100M

speaking of spacs

A Houston SPAC, or special purpose acquisition company, has announced the company it plans to merge with in the new year.

Beaumont-based Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc., a provider of thermal imaging platforms, and Houston-based SportsMap Tech Acquisition Corp. (NASDAQ: SMAP), a publicly-traded SPAC with $117 million held in trust, announced their agreement for ICI to IPO via SPAC.

Originally announced in the fall of last year, the blank-check company is led by David Gow, CEO and chairman. Gow is also chairman and CEO of Gow Media, which owns digital media outlets SportsMap, CultureMap, and InnovationMap, as well as the SportsMap Radio Network, ESPN 97.5 and 92.5.

The deal will close in the first half of 2023, according to a news release, and the combined company will be renamed Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc. and will be listed on NASDAQ under a new ticker symbol.

“ICI is extremely excited to partner with David Gow and SportsMap as we continue to deliver our innovative software and hardware solutions," says Gary Strahan, founder and CEO of ICI, in the release. "We believe our software and sensor technology can change the way companies across industries perform predictive maintenance to ensure reliability, environmental integrity, and safety through AI and machine learning.”

Strahan will continue to serve as CEO of the combined company, and Gow will become chairman of the board. The transaction values the combined company at a pre-money equity valuation of $100 million, according to the release, and existing ICI shareholders will roll 100 percent of their equity into the combined company as part of the transaction.

“We believe ICI is poised for strong growth," Gow says in the release. "The company has a strong value proposition, detecting the overheating of equipment in industrial settings. ICI also has assembled a strong management team to execute on the opportunity. We are delighted to combine our SPAC with ICI.”

Founded in 1995, ICI provides infrared and imaging technology — as well as service, training, and equipment repairs — to various businesses and individuals across industries.

Report: Federal funding, increased life science space drive industry growth in Houston

by the numbers

Federal funding, not venture capital, continues to be the main driver of growth in Houston’s life sciences sector, a new report suggests.

The new Houston Life Science Insight report from commercial real estate services company JLL shows Houston accounted for more than half (52.7 percent) of total funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) across major Texas markets through the third quarter of this year. NIH funding in the Houston area totaled $769.6 million for the first nine months of 2022, exceeding the five-year average by 19.3 percent.

VC funding for Houston’s life sciences sector pales in comparison.

For the first nine months of this year, companies in life sciences raised $147.3 million in VC, according to the report. Based on that figure, Houston is on pace in 2022 to meet or surpass recent life sciences VC totals for most other years except 2021. JLL describes 2021 as an “outlier” when it comes to annual VC hauls for the region’s life sciences companies.

JLL notes that “limited venture capital interest in private industry has remained a challenge for the city’s life sciences sector. Furthermore, it may persist as venture capital strategies are reevaluated and investment strategies shift toward near-term profits.”

While life sciences VC funding has a lot of ground to cover to catch up with NIH funding, there are other bright spots for the sector.

One of those bright spots is the region’s rising amount of life sciences space.

The Houston area boasts more than 2.4 million square feet of space for life sciences operations, with another 1.1 million under construction and an additional 1.5 million square feet on the drawing board, the report says. This includes a soon-to-open lab spanning 25,000 square feet in the first phase of Levit Green.

A second bright spot is the migration of life sciences companies to the region. Two Southern California-based life sciences companies, Cellipoint Bioservices and Obagi Cosmeceuticals, plan to move their headquarters and relocate more than half of their employees to The Woodlands by the first half of 2023, according to the report.

“Houston’s low tax rate and cost of living were primary drivers for the decisions, supported by a strong labor pool that creates advantages for companies’ expansion and relocation considerations,” JLL says.

Here's what Houston startups need to know about internal communications

guest column

Startup founders often focus on outward victories. However, if they look inward and get internal communications right, this can prioritize, inspire, and retain talent, which is the heart of the company.

Consistent internal communication helps employees to understand the company's core values and mission and the evolving internal policies and procedures — health care benefits, reorganizations, remote work — that accompany a young business. Investing in internal communications also supports external public relations efforts because the best company storytellers are well-informed employees.

Consider these tactics for effective internal communications.

Prioritize messaging

In any startup, internal procedures evolve as the company grows. Take control of the narrative while easing employees' minds by prioritizing internal messaging.

Whether transitioning to a more flexible work schedule, updating healthcare benefits, or rolling out a performance review process, planning messages in advance can help team members understand the change, the impact, and how they can contribute positively to the development.

Well-informed employees help mitigate uneasiness and tend to achieve business goals more quickly. Make sure to allow the employees time to reflect and react.

Support managers

Leaders and mid-level managers play an integral role in internal communications by cascading information throughout the organization. They regularly engage with their employees, so it is important that managers feel confident and supported in their communication skills.

Managers can benefit from a common company language, talking points, or communications training for more effective and productive conversations. By identifying, clarifying, and reinforcing common goals and key objectives for managers, companies can strengthen productivity and eliminate confusion, especially if the company changes teams' roles and responsibilities.

Be consistent

Make sure that the drumbeat remains steady, whether this includes a monthly town hall meeting or weekly CEO emails. Since communication is not necessarily one-size-fits-all, use a communication approach tailored to the workforce.

For example, there might be more effective communication methods than email for employees not behind a desk. As a smaller company, take that time to connect with the team directly because as the company swells, that one-on-one experience will become increasingly difficult to manage.

Listen to employees

Delivering top-down messaging that resonates with the workforce remains critical. However, internal communication is a two-way street.

Allow team members to give valuable feedback. Encourage team members to share their thoughts about the company, concerns, and how to improve communications. Issue internal surveys or hold face-to-face meetings to gain useful insight.

Understanding these critical proof points will enable more effective communication and quick action on any issues.

Be a human

Keep humanity at the heart of internal communications. Amid the company's transition, maintain transparency and recognize the emotional toll some changes can have on teammates. The best talent will remain when they feel connected, informed and listened to.

Greater employee engagement can help build a strong company culture of accountability, authenticity and communication, setting up the business for bigger success.

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Melanie Taplett is a communications and public relations consultant for the technology, energy, and manufacturing industries.