Hylio, based just south of Houston, is setting out to bring the agriculture industry into the 21st century. Photo courtesy of Hylio

Renowned American inventor Thomas Edison once said, "There's a way to do it better, find it."

That timeless adage has been the spark that has ignited countless technological advances over the years and Hylio is no different, applying it to its own mission to disrupt the agricultural technology space.

With rampant systemic inefficiencies with current crop spraying solutions negatively affecting farm economics, Hylio developed its AgroDrone, a precision crop spraying drone system that is revolutionizing ag-tech.

"Our company started about five years ago, when we were delivering in Central America and noticed the way people were doing spraying was extremely inefficient," says Arthur Erickson, CEO and co-founder of Hylio. "They were doing it either by hand or by plane or helicopter. If you are doing it by hand, you are doing it extremely slow and very inaccurate. If you're doing it by plane or helicopter, you're doing it faster, but you're extremely inaccurate."

In most cases, when farmers use traditional crop spraying methods such as helicopter or plane, up 90 percent of the fertilizer or pesticides miss their intended targets or float away.

However, AgroDrone, which was recently accepted into the Capital Factory accelerator, provides for a very precise method of applying those chemicals with its intuitive planning system, which monitors and controls the spray volumes using pre-existing map files or polygons.

"For the past year, we've been our own first customer," says Erickson. "We've used the technology in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala on 40,000 acres. We learned the product and what made it more efficient by using it in the field 10 hours a day. We built this from the ground up using it as a farmer would. We worked out all the bugs, optimized it and made it reliable, so when farmers are out there in the mud or in the rain, it still works."

The drone's flight software allows it to be completely turnkey. The electron-based application can be run on any cross platform and gives pilots control over the drone at all times.

Additionally, the redundant critical flight system ensures stable flight.

"Our software was made completely in house," says Erickson. "Like a Google map interface, you can set up your own pre-loaded missions, in different polygon shapes, draw them yourself or import polygon files and generate missions for the drone to fly."

Because of the radar altimeters fitted on the drones, farmers are able to reduce the amount of chemicals they use because the drones maintain optimal height over crops at all times, which minimizes drift and maximizes application quality.

"If you talk to any farmer that has 400 acres of corn, for example, and they want to get it sprayed, it would cost them maybe $400 times 10 for labor times 10 for chemicals, so about $8000," says Erickson. "The problem is they're providing a brute force solution to a problem that is very simple to solve with a drone.

"If they've got weeds on their 400 acres, and the weeds are only on one or two acres, little spots in the field, they just want to eliminate those spots, so they don't need to pay someone to spray their entire field, so they're saving the chemical cost per acre is $10 bucks. So if they run our drone for 10 minutes, they're literally saving $7,000 or more."

The innovators behind Hylio started the company because they were passionate about drones, but saw that the crop spraying system for farmers was broken and inefficient, so they sought to make the process better and more sustainable.

"Farmers are responsible for how we eat, how everyone eats," says Erickson. "The current technologies used in agriculture is outdated and not very cost effective. We looked at the farm economics and wanted to help develop viable solutions. Every farmer has to battle weeds; it is universal. All crop and weeds are different, but it is the same concept. The more you control the weeds, the more money you make at the end of the year. A farmer could lose 20 percent or more of their crops if they do not control their weeds properly. Despite the inefficiencies and razor thin margins, farmers still use helicopters and planes because they have to kill those weeds.

"There's a better way to do it with drones and it comes at a fraction of the price."

The AgroDrone starts at $19,300 and is delivered to the farmer fully tested and assembled. The package includes four pairs of 30,000 mAh 22V LiPo batteries, charging equipment, one handheld GPS tracker unit and access to the Hylio AgroSol Mission Control Software.

The software, which was designed by farmers for farmers, requires a recurring monthly fee that ranges from $100 to $500 depending on the level.

Hylio also provides the central device that can control multiple drones at the same time and service hundreds of acres per day.

"The people that are doing the weed control spraying for farmers literally won't come out because it's not worth their time to just come out and spray one or two acres," says Erickson. "So even if a farmer has a problem that they know is only on one or two acres, they have to spray the whole thing, because they market will only allow people to spray the entire amount. They cannot come out and afford to spray one or two acres. However, if you buy a drone, you can do it yourself with the click of a button. Farmers are saving literally $10,000 per application depending on how big their crop is."

According to the US Department of Agriculture, American farmers received $11.5 billion in subsidies in 2017. That number will be drastically higher in 2019 to offset the market losses farmers will see due to President Donald Trump's trade war with China.

With profits in continual decline, Hylio's mission to improve margins for farmers continues.

"Farming is heavily subsidized now," says Erickson. "None of them are making money, so they desperately need something to increase their bottom lines. We are here to make farmers' lives better and help them feed us better. It's a win win."

Paladin Drones wants eyes in the skies within 30 seconds of an emergency call. Getty Images

Houston drone company creating the next generation of first responders

To the rescue

When 911 is called, first responders usually arrive at the scene around three or four minutes after the call's placed. But Houston-based Paladin Drones wants to have eyes on the ground ­— or eyes in the sky — within the first 30 seconds.

The company's mission is simple: to outfit public agencies and first-responders with drones that can be autonomously deployed to the site of an emergency. Equipped with thermal sensors and flying around 200 feet high, the drones can give police and firefighters near-instantaneous information on a situation underway.

At the beginning of April, Paladin Drones began working with the Memorial Villages Police Department to respond to incidents in Memorial Villages, Hunter's Creek, Piney Point Village, and Bunker Hill.

"(This is) one of the first departments in the country to be testing this technology," says Paladin Drones co-founder Divyaditya Shrivastava. "We're very limited in the area that we cover, and that's just because we're taking baby steps and going as carefully and deliberately as possible."

Paladin Drones was co-founded by Shrivastava and Trevor Pennypacker. In 2018, the company went through a three-month boot camp at Y Combinator, a California-based incubator that's churned out Dropbox, AirBNB, Instacart and more. Through Y Combinator, Paladin Drones was connected with venture capital investors in Houston.

The company's drones capture critical information, such as a vehicle's color and body type, a suspect's clothing, or the direction a suspect fled the scene. And since roughly 70 percent of 911 calls involve witnesses or passerby giving inaccurate information about the emergency's location, these drones will be able to pinpoint the exact location of an emergency, further aiding the arrival of first responders.

"We're working on tracking technology to give the drones the capability to auto-follow (suspects)," Shrivastava says.

Paladin Drones is looking to hire a handful of employees in the coming months, Shrivastava says. He declined to disclose any information on the company's funding plans, but said it's still involved with Y Combinator in California.

Shrivastava began developing Paladin Drones when he was finishing high school in Ohio. The summer before his senior year, a friend's house burned down. While nobody was injured in the fire, the home was destroyed, and Shrivastava spoke with the local firefighters. Tragically, the 911 call that alerted firefighters of the emergency was one of the 70 percent of calls that involved inaccurate location information.

"If they'd known the exact location, the house would've been saved," Shrivastava says. "A fire doubles every 30 seconds."

Fluidity Technologies' joystick-like device is designed based on movement in space. Courtesy of Fluidity

Houston-based company's device is revolutionizing drone technology across industries

Unmanned with one hand

It's not enough that Scott Parazynski has spent 57 days, 15 hours and 34 minutes in space. Nor is the fact that he's trained as a trauma surgeon. Not even climbing Mount Everest as a team physician for the Discovery Channel could satisfy one of Earth's most talent-blessed residents. Now Parazynski is on course to change multiple industries with his latest invention.

Not surprisingly, the member of the US Astronaut Hall of Fame based his design on movement in space. He wanted to approximate the movement of simultaneously shifting from one place to another, but also changing the body's orientation. In zero gravity, it takes precision and planning, Parazynski says, to do that in the most efficient way possible.

As a member of the Houston Methodist Research Institute, his goal was to create a joystick-like device "that would revolutionize surgical robotics." That is still a target for the technology, but with his own Houston-based company, Fluidity Technologies, Parazynski is first releasing the device as a drone controller known as FT Aviator.

"Mostly because it's an enormously growing marketplace and the barriers are a lot less," he admits.

That's not to say Parazynski is anything less than a world-class expert on the subject of flight.

"I've flown aircraft and spacecraft," says Parazynski. "But none allowed for the precision of motion I was looking for. None prevented unintended motion."

Lifelong passion
He himself has had toy drones for as long as they've been available and purchased his first "serious drones" three or four years ago, around the same time he conceived of FT Aviator.

When he started to research other drone controllers, he realized that most current models aren't too different from relics from the 1930s on display at the Smithsonian.

"There has been zero innovation in flight control," he says.

As opposed to the two-handed controllers that recall 1990s video game systems, FT Aviator only requires the attention of the pilot's dominant hand. This is especially useful to those using drone cameras. Instead of complex machinations that often require multiple launches, the user can simply make adjustments to the camera with his or her other hand.

"It does this incredibly intuitive motion with a drone or computer game or virtual augmented reality," Parazynski says, listing other potential uses for the technology.

It's FT Aviator's natural movement that will one day make Fluidity's core technology a groundbreaker in surgical robotics. Since the da Vinci surgical robot's 2000 FDA approval, the machine has created controversy. In the hands of a well-trained surgeon, it substantially reduces healing time. But there is no approval process for doctors to use it, so disasters in the hands of untrained practitioners have made the news.

By using the simpler mechanism of Parazynski's technology, the learning curve for robotic surgery is far less steep.

"What we want to do is make it so someone with less training can enjoy the same outcomes," Parazynski explains.

Cross-industry innovation
Ideally, one day a doctor in Houston will be able to operate remotely on a patient across the globe. Thanks to the device's tactile feedback, it's a realistic goal.

But Parazynski foresees "dozens of applications" for his invention, which will begin shipping in February. Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico has already engaged Fluidity, just one on a list of about 50 businesses and government institutions interested to work with the company when it comes onto the marketplace.

"But any good startup will tell you it's about focus," the entrepreneur admits.

That means that for now, he and his team have his eye specifically on controlling drones. Within two weeks of launching a Kickstarter this fall for the business, Fluidity doubled its goal. The FT Aviator has been named a 2019 Innovation Award Honoree at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show. But Parazynski says he owes much of his success to Houston, his home of a quarter century.

Fluidity is based out of a WeWork coworking space.

"I think it's a really exciting place to have a tech startup" Parazynski says. "It's not yet to the scale of Silicon Valley or even Austin but certainly the innovation that's taking place here warrants a major tech hub."

And thanks to Parazynski's work, that day may be coming sooner rather than later.

Drone on

Courtesy of Fluidity

From surgeries to flying drones, Fluidity's technology will affect several industries.

These energy startup leaders are the reason Houston will keep its "energy capital of the world" title. Courtesy images

3 Houston energy innovators to know this week

Who's Who

Houston's known as the energy capital of the world, but it won't stay that way if the city as a whole doesn't work toward innovation. These three professionals started their own companies to improve efficiency and promote ingenuity in their fields. From drones and AI to quicker pipeline data access, this week's three innovators to know are the future of the energy industry.

Lori-Lee Emshey, co-founder of Future Sight AR

Courtesy of Future Sight AR

Growing up the daughter of an oil and gas professional and traveling the world, Lori-Lee Emshey studied journalism and didn't necessarily intend to go into the family business, so to speak. However, that's where she ended up. She was surrounded by innovation and technology in New York working at The Daily Beast, but when she got her first job on an energy construction site, she returned to the antiquated process of pen and paper. The wheels started turning for her.

Future Sight AR is a company that is working on smart device technology for large oil and gas pants, where workers can see — in real time — how to fix a problem or log an issue. The company has done a proof of concept and is looking to do three pilot program as well as a round of funding in early 2019.

Jay Bhatty, CEO and founder of NatGasHub.com

Courtesy of Jay Bhatty

As vice president of energy trading at JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s investment-banking arm, Jay Bhatty felt frustrated by the sluggish nature of natural-gas-trading activities, and he decided to something about it. He founded Houston-based NatGasHub.com in October 2016 to streamline the traditionally complicated processes of moving natural gas from one point to another, and of unearthing data about natural gas pipelines.

After only a little over two years in business, NatGasHub.com already is profitable — a rare feat in the startup world.

Dyan Gibbens, founder and CEO of Trumbull Unmanned

Courtesy of Alice

Dyan Gibbens maybe have thought her true purpose was serving in the military, but it's lately it's leading her Houston-based drone technology company, Trumbull Unmanned, to great success. While in her doctorate program, the Air Force veteran started the idea using unmanned vehicles to patrol refineries and plants in the energy and utilities sector. The company took flight — her first clients were Chevron and ExxonMobil.

Gibbens juggles motherhood and engineering — among other responsibilities — as her company grows and technology evolves.


Dyan Gibbens translated her Air Force experience with unmanned missiles into a drone services company. Courtesy of Alice

Houston drone company has big business on the horizon

The sky's the limit

Dyan Gibbens found her dream career. She studied engineering, learned to fly at the United States Air Force Academy, went into pilot training, and served as engineering acquisitions officer managing stealth nuclear cruise missiles. She even went on to support Air Force One and Global Hawk UAS engineering and logistics. She dedicated five years to active service before transitioning to the reserves.

"When I went to transition, I learned I was permanently disqualified from ever serving again," Gibbens said. "It was devastating to me, because all I've ever wanted to do was serve."

She went into a doctorate program — she already had her MBA — and was close to finishing up when her drone startup took flight. Trumbull Unmanned provides drone services to the energy sector for various purposes. With her experience as a pilot and managing unmanned missiles, she knew the demand for drones was only growing — and, being from Texas, she knew what industry to focus on.

"I wanted to start a company that uses unmanned systems or drones to improve safety and improve the environment and support energy,"

InnovationMap: What exactly does Trumbull Unmanned do?

Dyan Gibbens: We fly drones in challenging and austere environments to collect and analyze data for the energy sector. We fly across upstream, midstream, and downstream either on or off shore. We focus on three areas: digital transformation, inspection and operations, and technology development and integration.

The types data we collect and analyze could be LiDAR — light detection and ranging — to multispectral — to see the help of different properties — to visible — to perform tech-enabled inspections. We've recently hired inspectors in house as well. On LiDAR, we just hired a subject matter expert.

IM: So, the company is growing. What else is new for Trumbull?

DG: We just signed a few five-year agreements with supermajors. We're excited about that and the new hires. We're starting to do more on communications and situational awareness. We're doing more in energy and now in the government.

IM: What were some early challenges you faced?

DG: We are 100 percent organically funded — from our savings and from client contracts. Our first client was ExxonMobil. Our second client was Chevron. We had to prove ourselves over and over. We had to work hard to earn and then maintain that business. For us, it was also adjusting to a fluctuation in cash flow. It was going from a steady job to betting on yourself, and we didn't know anyone in Houston.

IM: What's the state of drone technology in the field?

DG: We've continued to see a hybrid approach toward services. Meaning, there's an in-house component and outsourced component. On the outsourced component, we intend to provide that for our clients. On the in-house component, while we don't train the masses, we do train our clients on request. We've promoted that model from the beginning. We think it makes sense that they are trained to do something simple, like take a picture, but for some of the more difficult projects, they outsource to us.

We're going to continue to see increased autonomy. There are really some amazing things already in autonomy, but there's still a lot of challenges flying in dense environments such as refineries and plants.

IM: How is Houston's startup scenes for veterans? What resources are out there?

DG: The way I see it is veterans have made a commitment to serve us, so we should make a commitment to serve them. That's my philosophy. Large companies have different programs, which is great, and there are entities such as Combined Arms, which has full services for transitioning veterans where you can go in and one-stop shop to get support from everything like getting connected to the VA to help working through PTSD to getting help transitioning to business. There are also really good Service Academy networks. More and more opportunities exist to step up to serve veterans.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Exclusive: Houston coworking company to open sports tech-focused hub

go team

It's game time for a Houston-based coworking company that's working on opening a sports innovation hub this summer.

The Cannon is working on opening new hub in 53 West, a Galleria-area office building recently renovated by Braun Enterprises. The project is in partnership with Gow Media, InnovationMap's parent company, and will be co-located with the media business that runs Gow Broadcasting LLC and the SportsMap Radio Network, which includes local sports station 97.5 as well as national syndicated content.

The Cannon's founder Lawson Gow tells InnovationMap that Gow Media — founded by Lawson's father, David Gow — and Braun Enterprises were opportunistic partners for the organization.

"We've always been optimistically looking for strategic partners that we can co-locate with or team up with to create a hyper focused, niche community," Lawson Gow says. "We've spent a lot of time thinking about what that can be."

Expected to open midsummer, the new two-story space will have 23 offices and a 1,500-square-foot open space that can be used for events. All existing Cannon members will have access to the space, and potential tenants can expect a similar pricing model to The Cannon's other three Houston-area locations.

Houston makes sense for sports tech, which Gow defines as encompassing four categories of innovation — fan engagement, activity and performance, fantasy and gambling, and esports. Houston has the money, the big four sports teams, a big fan base, and corporate interest, he explains.

"Sports tech is a thing we can win at. There's no global hub for sports tech — so Houston can do that," Gow says. "We've always had that in our heads as a direction we want the city to head down, so it just makes it so opportunistic to create a space for that kind of innovation at work for the city."

53 West has been undergoing renovations recently. Photo via braunenterprises.com

Houston-based cancer and disease bio-venture launches after multimillion dollar series A

money moves

Sporos Bioventures LLC launched this month after closing a $38.1 million round of series A financing.

The Houston-based biotech company aims to accelerate the development of breakthrough therapies for cancer and immune diseases by sharing resources, capital, access to clinical trial infrastructure, and talent from within its knowledgeable team of biotech executives, entrepreneurs, academic scholars, and investors. The company was launched with four entities: Tvardi Therapeutics, Asylia Therapeutics, Nirogy Therapeutics, and Stellanova Therapeutics.

The most advanced of the four entities, Tvardi, is currently in Phase 1 clinical trial to evaluate it's STAT3 oral inhibitor. It was named a "most promising" life sciences company at the 2020 Texas Life Science Forum, hosted by BioHouston and the Rice Alliance in December. The remaining entities are in the development stages and are focused on cancer, autoimmune disease, fibrosis, and tumor growth, among other conditions.

"Sporos was founded to accelerate the development of new medicines by addressing inefficiencies and risk in the establishment of new biotech companies," Peter Feinberg, Sporos co-founder, said in a statement. "By leveraging our extensive network, including the Texas Medical Center, we first identify transformative scientific opportunities and then deploy our top-tier talent, funding, and operational support to drive these insights into a growing pipeline of first-in-class treatment options."

In conjunction with the launch, Sporos named Michael Wyzga as the company's founding CFO. Wyzga was previously CFO at Genzyme for 12 years and has held various senior-level positions in the industry.

"By strategically deploying valuable resources to young companies that would not typically be supported by top-tier seasoned talent and infrastructure, we believe that we can efficiently bring a diverse set of therapies through clinical development," Wyzga said in a statement. "I am thrilled to join a team with decades of scientific and operational expertise and look forward to guiding our strategic and financial growth."

Wyzga joins a team of seasoned leaders in the biotech and cancer research fields, including Dr. Ronald DePinho, professor of Cancer Biology and past president of MD Anderson, who will serve as the chair of Sporos' Strategic Advisory Council. Jeno Gyuris, a biotech executive in oncology drug discovery and development with more than 25 years of experience, will serve as chief science officer. And Alex Cranberg, an experienced active early-stage biotech investor, serves as director.

To expand or not to expand? Houston researcher weighs in on global growth

houston voices

You built your business from the ground up, patiently finding techniques and products that work, carefully crafting solid bonds with your clients. Then one day a new project, opportunity or simple request poses a question: Is it time to branch out overseas?

Of the welter of questions to consider, the first and most important involves location: not just the physical location of the prospective expansion site, but the cultural differences between a firm's home country and its new destination. Secondly, key company traits need to be considered in choosing the investment locations. Is your firm large or small? Young or old? Finally, of pivotal importance to companies outside the United States: Is your company privately held or state-owned?

In a recent paper, Rice Business professor Yan Anthea Zhang looked closely at these three variables with Yu Li of the University of International Business and Economics Business School in Beijing, China and Wei Shi of the Miami Business School at the University of Miami. What, the researchers wanted to know, was the relation of these three features and firms' location choices for their overseas investments?

To find out, Zhang and her colleagues analyzed 7,491 Chinese firms that had recently ventured into foreign markets with 9,558 overseas subsidiaries. Because China now has become the world's leading source of foreign direct investments, the sample promised to be instructive. Thanks to the large sample size, researchers could test hypotheses relating to firm size, age, ownership and the impact of geographical and cultural distance on their location choices.

After studying the elements of geographic distance and cultural distance, Zhang and her colleagues uncovered a paradox. Companies that had an advantage in tackling one dimension of distance were actually disadvantaged — because of the same characteristic — in another dimension.

How, exactly, did this paradox work? Larger firms, with access to more resources, can "experiment with new strategies, new products, and new markets," the researchers wrote. This large size makes geographic distance less of a concern, but it comes with a ponderous burden of its own. Company culture is directly influenced by the country of origin, Zhang wrote. Transferring that culture into a completely different environment can cause the kind of shock that could lead to failure, even with financial and physical resources to ease the geographical distance. Conversely, smaller firms may be more nimble and able to adapt to needed cultural changes — but lack the resources to make true inroads in a foreign market.

A similar paradox exists for older and younger firms, Zhang wrote. A younger firm is more likely to adapt to a culturally distant country than an older firm might, even if that youth means that geographical distance is a greater logistical challenge.

State-owned firms face a similar paradox, one that comes down to the balance of resources against cultural flexibility. A company with state-generated resources may be better equipped to move a caravan people, machinery and materials to a distant new location. However, state-owned companies often typically lack the internal cultural flexibility to handle expansion to a different environment.

What does this mean for the average manager? Simply that going global demands meticulous weighing of factors. Does your firm have the practical resources to expand overseas? Does your staff have the personal flexibility and willingness to meld company culture with that of a different milieu? It's a truism that major overseas expansions require money and heavy lifting. Less obviously, managers of successful companies must thread a very fine needle: ensuring they have the material resources to get their business overseas physically, while confirming that company culture is light enough on its feet to thrive in day-to-day life in a new place.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Yan Anthea Zhang, a professor and the Fayez Sarofim Vanguard Chair of Strategy in the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.