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.

------

Portions of this interview have been edited.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston solar energy exec shines light on company growth and IPO

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 15

It was all about the timing for John Berger, founder and CEO of Sunnova, a Houston-based residential solar energy company.

When he founded his company in 2012 in Houston, solar energy wasn't the trendy sustainability option it is today, but Berger saw the potential for technology within the industry. So, with a lot of perseverance and the right team behind him, he scaled Sunnova through nationwide expansion, billions of money raised, and a debut on the stock market last July — something that also happened with great timing.

About 72 hours after Sunnova went public last July, the Federal Reserve System announced it was going to cut rates. Additionally, Sunnova's IPO occurred ahead of WeWork's failed IPO.

"We went public in a market that still isn't back open again, I think, for IPOs," Berger says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We had pretty good timing when we went out the door."

However great the timing was, Sunnova's success is built on the hard work and skills of the company's employees, Berger explains on the podcast, and now running a public company requires a dynamic leader.

"I really look at myself and how I can change myself," Berger says. "I'm a different CEO today than I was 12 months ago, and hopefully I'll be a different CEO in 12 months, because the company demands it."

In the episode, Berger lifts the curtain on Sunnova's IPO, explains where he sees the solar energy industry headed, how battery storage technology has evolved, and why he's not worried about who ends up in the White House. Listen to the full episode below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


California self-driving vehicle startup has all eyes on Houston — here's why

On a roll

Houston — with its sprawl and winding roads broken up across various neighborhoods — is particularly challenging when it comes to self-driving car navigation. And that's exactly why Nuro, a California-based tech startup that's raised over $1 billion in funding, decided to focus on the Bayou City for its autonomous vehicle delivery pilot programs.

"Houston is our first full-scale operations city," Sola Lawal, product operations manager in Houston, tells InnovationMap. "All eyes at Nuro are focused on Houston."

Last year alone, Nuro launched three pilots in six of Houston's ZIP codes from Bellaire to the Heights. The first of which was a partnership with Kroger in March, followed by the announcement of autonomous pizza delivery from Domino's in June. Last month, Nuro announced its latest delivery partner was Walmart.

Lawal explains Houston's appeal to Nuro in a few ways, but the challenging landscape is key. Nuro cars are learning from the narrow, tree-laden streets of West University or the pedestrian-heavy, ditch-lined paths in the Heights.

"There's a ton for us to learn, but it's a great microcosm of the United States in a number of different ways," he says.

In addition to its diversity within its street types, Houston, named the most diverse city in the country, represents an ideal customer base, says Lawal, a Houston native himself. Houstonians are open minded about new experiences.

"If you think and look across Houston, the average commute is over 60 minutes for people to get back and forth," Lawal tells InnovationMap. "As we surveyed across major cities we were interested in, Houston stood out as a place where customers said they don't want go to the grocery store if they don't have to or get in their cars again to pick up their pizza."

The third reason Houston was a great market for Nuro is the amount of regulatory support the state of Texas has — Gov. Greg Abbott announced the launch of the Texas Connected and Autonomous Vehicle task force a year ago — as well as the support at the city level.

"It's been a welcoming environment from the mayor's office down for us to be here," Lawal says.

Since entering the Houston market, Nuro's local operations have grown to over 100 employees. The company still has software operations out of California, and some work being done in Arizona, but the Houston is the largest — and growing as the company seeks new partnerships with more stores with a goal of eliminating errands once and for all.

"The way that we think about this is that this new technology and our mission of accelerating robotics for everyday life, is we will bring the people what they want," Lawal says when asked about what types of stores Nuro is looking to partner with.

Eventually, Lawal says, the plan would be to have every errand be delivery optimized with Nuro technology — from big-box stores like Walmart to your local florist.

"Our goal is to have a platform that retailers can connect to in order to provide easy and inexpensive delivery," he says.

Currently, Nuro's technology is still in learning mode. Nuro's fleet of Prius cars with staff onboard are driving up and down Houston streets mapping and taking notes on a daily basis. The company also has bots, called the R2 fleet, that are designed to be unmanned.

These bots are smaller than normal cars and are completely electric. Rather than being designed to protect passengers inside like traditional automobiles, the R2s are designed to be safe for people outside the vehicle.

"It's a new way of thinking about transportation and what our vehicles can and should do," Lawal says.

2020 is the year of these R2 bots, and some areas can expect to see them in action — specifically focused on Domino's pizza delivery — in just a matter of weeks.

Houston flight-tracking software company grows its local and international presence

taking flight

FlightAware LLC's business success has, for the most part, flown under the radar in Houston.

Many travelers know about the B2C flight-tracking functionality of FlightAware. "That's a very, very competitive space. We play in that space, but it's not our core business," founder and CEO Daniel Baker says.

These days, the privately held Houston company earns most its revenue from the B2B data it provides to airlines and other aviation clients, according to Baker. He declines to reveal revenue figures, but notes that the company — which bills itself as the world's largest flight-tracking and flight data platform — hasn't taken a penny of outside funding since it started in 2005.

Today, FlightAware employs about 110 people, with the majority of them located in Houston, Baker says. The company also maintains offices in Austin, New York City, London, and Singapore.

By the end of 2020, the companywide workforce should exceed 135, as FlightAware aims to add three new hires per month this year in areas such as Internet of Things, data science, sales, and administration, Baker says. Most of the new employees will work in Houston.

Baker says FlightAware takes an aggressive approach to hiring, with the goal of bringing aboard "really awesome people" who share levels of talent, collaboration, and "culture fit" similar to those of current employees.

By the end of 2021, FlightAware likely will run out of room in its 24,000-square-foot office at 11 Greenway Plaza in the Greenway/Upper Kirby area, Baker says. That means FlightAware will need to take about 15,000 additional square feet at 11 Greenway Plaza or relocate to a different building, he says. The company moved into its current home in 2017 from a 14,000-square-foot office at 8 Greenway Plaza.

Baker, who's a private pilot and a board member of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum, launched the company 15 years ago as a way to combine two passions: software development and aviation.

"It was originally a hobby, and it became a business," Baker says. "It's an unlikely story. We're really, really fortunate that the timing was right."

Although FlightAware started off tracking flights in the general aviation space, it has since expanded to supply aviation data to both travelers and businesses. Each month, about 15 million passengers use the FlightAware app, which earns praise from a slew of travel critics.

Among flight-tracking apps, FlightAware "is a bit of a Swiss army knife," Condé Nast Traveler magazine observes. The FlightAware app lets you follow flights in real time, including where an incoming plane is coming from, how close it is to arriving, and what kind of weather it's encountering en route, the magazine notes. In addition, the app can send push notifications about arrivals, departures, gate changes, flight delays, and flight cancellations.

Now, FlightAware relies on the consumer-facing technology "as a stepping stone to have a bigger impact," Baker says. "Every project that we undertake is larger than the last one."

That "bigger impact" involves cranking out data that enables commercial airlines, cargo carriers, business aviation companies, and air traffic controllers to be proactive instead of reactive regarding flight activity, he says.

FlightAware's corporate customers include United Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, business-jet operator NetJets and GPS technology provider Garmin. Baker says a North American airline that he declines to name will soon roll out FlightAware technology to its airport gate agents.

For airlines, FlightAware's software delivers accurate data to help cut down, among other issues, on problems with flight delays, gate assignments, and flight connections, Baker says. FlightAware pulls data from more than 25,000 aircraft surveillance websites covering nearly 200 countries as well as air traffic control systems in more than 45 countries.

While the consumer-oriented features of FlightAware's technology face competition from the likes of FlightStats, FlightView, and The Flight Tracker, the B2B landscape is less populated. Over the years, corporate giants like Airbus, Boeing, and IBM have tackled aviation data on their own but have wound up forging data partnerships with FlightAware, according to Baker."

We see every potential competitor as a future customer," Baker says.