3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

This week's innovators to know are involved in tech — from app development to revolutionizing the energy industry. Courtesy photos

From restaurant review apps to a device that monitors oil rigs, this week's innovators to know are tech savvy to say the least. All three took a chance on Houston for their startups, and that chance is paying off.

Christopher Robart, president of Ambyint USA

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

Christopher Robart — along with his twin brother, Alex — is in the business of business development. The two run Ambyint, an oil and gas tech company that creates the Nest thermostat of oil rigs.

The company is looking to expand its customer base this year, as well as grow to be able to service different types of rig pumps.

Sumit Sikka, co-founder of Crityk

Sumit Sikka moved to Houston in order to grow his restaurant reviewing app. Courtesy of Crityk

What started as a quest to find the best Moscow Mule in Southern California has turned into growing business thriving in Houston's dining scene. Sumit Sikka first visited Houston for an event to promote the app he co-founded, Crityk, and basically never left.

"I packed up some of my bags and decided to try here in Houston," Sikka says." It's a lot easier to get to decision makers here in Houston than in LA."

Moji Karimi, co-founder of Cemvita Factory

Moji Karimi's company can take carbon dioxide from a refinery and convert it into glucose or another chemical. Courtesy of Cemvita

Moji Karimi never thought his oil and gas career would overlap with his sister's medical research. But in some ways, the fact the two of them teamed up to create a company that takes carbon dioxide from the air and turns it into something else, makes perfect sense that it crosses industries.

"There are a lot of opportunities bringing a proven science or technology from one industry into another to solve problems," he says.


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

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

Featured Innovator

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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Self-driving pizza delivery goes live in Houston

innovation delivered

After announcing their partnership to work on pizza deliveries via self-driving robots in 2019, Dominos and Nuro have officially rolled out their technology to one part of town.

Beginning this week, if you place a prepaid order from Domino's in Woodland Heights (3209 Houston Ave.), you might have the option to have one of Nuro's R2 robot come to your door. This vehicle is the first do deliver completely autonomously without occupants with a regulatory approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to a news release.

"We're excited to continue innovating the delivery experience for Domino's customers by testing autonomous delivery with Nuro in Houston," says Dennis Maloney, Domino's senior vice president and chief innovation officer, in the release. "There is still so much for our brand to learn about the autonomous delivery space. This program will allow us to better understand how customers respond to the deliveries, how they interact with the robot and how it affects store operations."

Orders placed at select dates and times will have the option to be delivered autonomously. Photo courtesy of Nuro

The Nuro deliveries will be available on select days and times, and users will be able to opt for the autonomous deliveries when they make their prepaid orders online. They will then receive a code via text message to use on the robot to open the hatch to retrieve their order.

"Nuro's mission is to better everyday life through robotics. Now, for the first time, we're launching real world, autonomous deliveries with R2 and Domino's," says Dave Ferguson, Nuro co-founder and president, in the release. "We're excited to introduce our autonomous delivery bots to a select set of Domino's customers in Houston. We can't wait to see what they think."

California-based Nuro has launched a few delivery pilots in Houston over the past few years, including the first Nuro pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched last summer.

From being located in a state open to rolling out new AV regulations to Houston's diversity — both in its inhabitants to its roadways, the Bayou City stood out to Nuro, says Sola Lawal, product operations manager at Nuro.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Lawal says on an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Steam the episode here.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — startup development, fintech, and health care — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston

Impact Hub Houston has two new initiatives for female founders. Photo courtesy of Impact Hub Houston

Two accelerator programs were recently announced and they both are aimed at supporting female founders — and one Houston organization is behind them both. Impact Hub Houston announced that it has partnered up with Frost Bank to sponsor eight female founders to participate in Impact Hub's new Accelerate Membership Program.

Additionally, Impact Hub Houston has teamed up with MassChallenge for their own initiative supporting female founders in the Houston-Galveston region in partnership with Houston-based Workforce Solutions. The three organizations are collaborating to launch launch a bootcamp to support female founders in the greater Houston region.

"As a female founder myself, I'm incredibly excited about this opportunity to support and uplift more women entrepreneurs and women-led businesses in our region," says Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston, in a news release. "By now, it's no secret that women, and especially women of color, are under-invested in; and this is our chance to change that by helping more women strengthen their businesses and prepare to seek funding." Click here to read more.

Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed and COO of Republic

What does the future of investment look like? That's something Youngro Lee thinks about daily – and he shares his thoughts on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of NextSeed

The world of investing is changing — and the power shift is tilting from the rich elite to individuals. Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed and COO of Republic, has seen the change starting several years ago.

"Investing is traditionally seen as something you can't do unless you're rich," Lee says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There was a certain understanding of what anyone (looking to invest) should do. … But now the world is so different."

Lee shares more about the future of investing and how he's watched the Houston innovation ecosystem develop over the years on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Liz Youngblood, president of Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and senior vice president and COO of St. Luke's Health

As we enter year two of the pandemic, the way hospitals function now and in the future is forever changed. Photo courtesy

No industry has been unaffected by COVID-19, Liz Youngblood, president of Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and senior vice president and COO of St. Luke's Health, observes in a guest column for InnovationMap. But hospitals — they've had a spotlight shown on them and their technology adoption since day one of the pandemic.

"The pace of innovation for hospitals has been at breakneck speed — from the evolution of new treatment protocols to the need to reconfigure physical spaces to support an influx of patients while also promoting a healing environment during this unprecedented time," she writes.

Hospitals, she says, look and feel completely different now than they did last year and the year before that. Click here to read more.

Over $1.4M in prizes awarded at Rice University's student startup competition

RBPC 2021

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.