The six finalists for the sustainability category for the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards weigh in on their challenges overcome. Photos courtesy

Six Houston-area sustainability startups have been named finalists in the 2023 Houston Innovation Awards, but they didn't achieve this recognition — as well as see success for their businesses — without any obstacles.

The finalists were asked what their biggest challenges have been. From funding to market adoption, the sustainability companies have had to overcome major obstacles to continue to develop their businesses.

The awards program — hosted by InnovationMap, and Houston Exponential — will name its winners on November 8 at the Houston Innovation Awards. The program was established to honor the best and brightest companies and individuals from the city's innovation community. Eighteen energy startups were named as finalists across all categories, but the following responses come from the finalists in the sustainability category specifically.

    Click here to secure your tickets to see who wins.

    1. Securing a commercial pilot

    "As an early-stage clean energy developer, we struggled to convince key suppliers to work on our commercial pilot project. Suppliers were skeptical of our unproven technology and, given limited inventory from COVID, preferred to prioritize larger clients. We overcame this challenge by bringing on our top suppliers as strategic investors. With a long-term equity stake in Fervo, leading oilfield services companies were willing to provide Fervo with needed drilling rigs, frack crews, pumps, and other equipment." — Tim Latimer, founder and CEO of Fervo Energy

    2. Finding funding

    "Securing funding in Houston as a solo cleantech startup founder and an immigrant with no network. Overcome that by adopting a milestone-based fundraising approach and establishing credibility through accelerator/incubator programs." — Anas Al Kassas, CEO and founder of INOVUES

    "The biggest challenge has been finding funding. Most investors are looking towards software development companies as the capital costs are low in case of a risk. Geothermal costs are high, but it is physical technology that needs to be implemented to safety transition the energy grid to reliable, green power." — Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems

    3. Market adoption

    "Market adoption by convincing partners and government about WHP as a solution, which is resource-intensive. Making strides by finding the correct contacts to educate." — Janice Tran, CEO and co-founder of Kanin Energy

    "We are creating a brand new financial instrument at the intersection of carbon markets and power markets, both of which are complicated and esoteric. Our biggest challenge has been the cold-start problem associated with launching a new product that has effectively no adoption. We tackled this problem by leading the Energy Storage Solutions Consortium (a group of corporates and battery developers looking for sustainability solutions in the power space), which has opened up access to customers on both sides of our marketplace. We have also leveraged our deep networks within corporate power procurement and energy storage development to talk to key decision-makers at innovative companies with aggressive climate goals to become early adopters of our products and services." — Emma Konet, CTO and co-founder of Tierra Climate

    4. Long scale timelines

    "Scaling and commercializing industrial technologies takes time. We realized this early on and designed the eXERO technology to be scalable from the onset. We developed the technology at the nexus of traditional electrolysis and conventional gas processing, taking the best of both worlds while avoiding their main pitfalls." — Claus Nussgruber, CEO of Utility Global

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    This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

    Here are five events you have to check out if you're interested in offshore innovation. Zukiman Mohamad/Pexels

    6 can't-miss innovation events at the 2019 Houston Offshore Technology Conference

    Where to be at OTC

    It's the 50th year of the Houston Offshore Technology Conference — and a lot has changed about the program since 1969.

    "In 1969 at OTC, you could see the suit we'd put humans in to go under water," Wafik Beydoun, chairman of the OTC board of directors tells InnovationMap. "Now, you can see the robots that explore the seafloor."

    OTC, which takes place at NRG Park from May 6 to 9, is separated by a few different tracks. While there's no innovation track specifically, we've identified, with Beydoun's help, five different events to be sure to make if you're looking for startup involvement and innovative discussions.

    May 5 — Data Gumbo's Pre-Party

    Houston-based blockchain company, Data Gumbo, wants to help you start out OTC week right with a crawfish boil. Network outside of NRG Park — and with a beer in hand.

    Details: The event is from 5 to 8 pm on Sunday, May 5, at The Cannon (1336 Brittmoore Rd). Learn more.

    May 6 — The Rice Alliance Startup Roundup

    Fifty promising energy technology companies will present to potential investors and OTC attendees. All of the startups have initial funding under their belts and are seeking their A, B, C, or later rounds with technology validation, field trial experience, and/or initial company revenue.

    Details: The event is from 2 to 4:30 pm on Monday, May 6, at NRG Arena, level 2 in the Stockman's Club. Learn more.

    May 6 — OTC Spotlight on New Technology® Award Program

    Check out the latest and greatest from offshore tech at this awards presentation. Hey startups, here's the tech O&G companies care about.

    Details: The event is from 4 to 5 pm on Monday, May 6, at NRG Center, level 1, Rotunda Area. Learn more.

    May 6-8 — OTC University R&D Showcase 

    The OTC University R&D Showcase provides universities the opportunity to share with attendees their current and planned R&D projects that are relevant to offshore technology and bend the ear of over 60,000 professionals.

    Details: The event is from Monday, May 6, to Wednesday, May 8, at NRG Center, level 2, outside room 600. Learn more.

    May 8 — Women in the Industry Sharing Experiences (WISE): Diversity Drives Innovation: Start the Conversation

    Samina Farid leads the discussion on diversity, inclusion, and innovation.

    Details: The event is from 7:30 to 9 am on Wednesday, May 8. Location not indicated. Learn more.

    May 8 — Young Professionals: The Tech Young Professionals Need to Know About

    This young professional event is inclusive, information-rich, and inspirational. The event consists of a panel discussion where you have the opportunity to learn from successful industry leaders about the future of oil and gas technology and networking where you can enjoy a game of networking Bingo and find your future business partner, new best friend, or both.

    Details: The event is from 4 to 6 pm on Wednesday, May 8, in room 202. Learn more.

    Bonus — Week-long exhibition 

    Stop by the exhibit all week long to see examples of new offshore technology from leading companies. Learn more.

    The Agora track of CERAWeek focuses on all things innovation in energy, from panels to pods and even "houses" like the one pictured. CERAWeek/Facebook

    5 can't-miss innovation events at CERAWeek featuring Houston speakers

    Agora track

    Hundreds of energy experts, C-level executives, diplomats, members of royal families, and more are descending upon Houston for the 2019 CERAWeek by IHS Markit. For the second year, the conference will have its Agora track, focused on innovation within the energy sector. The Agora track's events — thought-provoking panels, intimate pods, and corporate-hosted "houses" — will take place in various locations in the George R. Brown Convention Center.

    Undoubtedly, many of the panels will have Houston representatives considering Houston's dominance in the industry, but here are five innovation-focused events you can't miss during CERAWeek that feature Houstonians.

    March 11: Oil & Gas: Realizing value from digital transformation

    In oil and gas, money talks, but justifying the value of integrating new technology or devices can be tricky and hard to navigate. Houston-based Justin Rounce of TechnipFMC and Michelle Pfluger of Chevron Corp. are among the panelists who will attempt to shed light on best practices and new ways of thinking.

    Catch the panel at 4:30 pm on Monday, March 11. Learn more.

    March 12: Sea Change: Autonomy, automation, offshore & the ocean

    Offshore oil and gas rigs are a hotbed for new innovations and technologies — especially when it comes to automation. Two Houstonians join the panel that will discuss emerging tech in offshore E&P — Diana Grauer, TechnipFMC director, External Technology Engagement – North America, and Nicolaus Radford, Houston Mechatronics chief technology officer.

    The event takes place at 9:15 am on Tuesday, March 12. Learn more.

    March 12: Digital Ledgers: Oil & gas supply chain

    Let's talk blockchain integration in oil and gas. The technology has a lot of potential in several aspects of the supply chain, but this panel — which features Andrew Bruce of Houston-based Data Gumbo — will weigh the pros and cons of the technology as well as go over the initial results of early adaptors.

    The discussion begins on Tuesday, March 12, at 2.45 pm. Learn more.

    March 12: Models of Innovation: Today & tomorrow

    Inarguably, the energy's innovation ecosystem differs from that of other industries, but to what end? A panel of professionals — including Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures President Barbara Burger — will debate the challenges within innovation in energy, innovative corporations, and the best strategies moving forward.

    The panel is on Tuesday, March 12, at 2.45 pm. Learn more.

    March 14: Urban Resilience in a Changing Climate

    You can't have an energy-focused conference without addressing the elephant in the room that is climate change, and Houston-based Sunova CEO John Berger and City of Houston Chief Sustainability Officer Lara Cottingham are the right people to do it.

    The panel will take place on Thursday, March 14, at 10:30 am. Learn more.

    Can't-miss pods

    While panels focus on a challenging topic of discussion, the Agora Pods are platforms for companies to showcase new tech or developments or present their successes. Here are some pods hosted by Houston companies you shouldn't miss.

    Penrose's advance process control software can increase production by 10 to 15 percent in downstream oil and gas refineries. Pexels

    Houston oil and gas software company is increasing downstream productivity while lowering emissions

    Efficient energy

    In the next 30 years, the world will need 30 percent more energy due to population growth. While energy production will increase to keep up with demand, there is an increasing concern with the impact on the environment.

    "How do you produce more energy without emission increases or more air quality pollution?" asks Erdin Guma, CFO of Penrose Technologies.

    According to Guma, Penrose is uniquely well-suited to solve these serious challenges with its advanced process control technology increases the productivity of a chemical plant or refinery by 10 to 15 percent. The increase in productivity means the plants use less fuel to produce the energy. The plant then releases fewer emissions while producing the same amount of energy.

    The technology itself is an automation software — similar to autonomous software on a plane. The autonomous operation increases downstream productivity, which brings about the energy efficiency.

    "Our autopilot software (like a human operator) can manage and foresee any unexpected disturbances in the plant," Guma explains. "The achievements that the Penrose technology has brought about seemed impossible to chemical and process engineers in the refinery space a few years ago."

    Penrose recently signed its first project with one of the biggest downstream firms in the world. With a network of refineries and petrochemical plants around the world, this contract could lead to a global roll out of the Penrose technology.

    A ground-breaking technology for O&G
    The word "Penrose" is taken from a penrose triangle, an impossible geometrical object. Guma explained that the energy efficiency brought about from their software seemed impossible at first. Penrose has been able to reduce emissions inside plants and refineries by 15 to 20 percent while keeping production at the same level.

    In 2007, a chief engineer working at a major oil and gas processing plant in Houston procured the technology for one of his plants. When the engineer saw how well the technology worked, he founded Penrose Technologies in 2017 with Tom Senyard, CTO at Penrose, who originally developed the technology.

    After starting the company at the end of 2007, Penrose joined Station Houston. Guma said that by becoming a member, Penrose was able to plug into a large refining and petrochemical network.

    "Penrose Technologies is completely self-financed. We worked with [Station Houston] as we finalized the software to find out what potential customers thought of the product. For us, Station Houston has been a great sounding board to potential investors in the company," Guma says.

    Guma also explained that while there has been an uptick in innovation in the last few years, the refining and petrochemical business is traditional a slow mover in the uptake of innovation.

    "I think more major oil and gas firms are becoming attune to startups and the innovation solutions they offer," Guma says.

    He went on to explain that the biggest challenge Penrose faces is perception. Since the software allows plant operators and engineers at the plant to be hands off in the processes, there is a concern with reliability. For industry insiders, any viable product must be reliable even when process conditions at the plant change, which can happen often.

    "The Penrose software is maximum hand off control from operators, and the reliability of our software gives us a huge edge in other competing products that can be unreliable," Guma says.

    Future growth on a global market
    Given the pressing need for more environmentally sustainable energy production, new technology will be adopted in the oil and gas energy. As Guma explains it, there will be no way to continue producing energy as it's been produced for decades because the negative effects of air pollution and emissions will be too severe — particularly in the areas where refineries operate.

    "We see the global market for this type of technology as severely underserved," Guma says. "It's a big and sizable market, and I think we can reach a $2 to $3 billion valuation in the next five years."

    With a core team of six employees in Houston, Penrose's software is now commercially available, and the company is in full growth mode at this point. The software can be distributed directly to customers, but they are working to develop distribution with major engineering companies as well.

    Guma is grateful to be in an environment conducive to energy start-ups. He sees Houston as a major advantage given its proximity to the energy sector.

    "No technology rises up in a vacuum. Any new technology needs a good ecosystem to come from," says Guma. "Houston was that ecosystem for Penrose."

    The Oil and Gas Startups Podcast talks to local entrepreneurs who are shaking up the industry. Pexels

    Growing Houston podcast is bridging the gap between energy and tech

    On air

    Collin McLelland and Jacob Corley want you to know that Houston has a whole lot of innovation in the oil and gas industry, and they want to tell you about it.

    The two energy professionals launched the Oil and Gas Startups Podcast a few months ago to talk to energy entrepreneurs about oil and gas technology, leadership, and innovation.

    "Jake and I really had a mission to shine a light on the oil and gas industry and what was happening in the technology and startup space," McLelland says. "There's a lot of exciting things going on, but not really a medium of content to see it."

    The duo interviews a leader or founder of an energy startup — notable ones include Data Gumbo, Blue Bear Capital, and OAG Analytics — on an almost-weekly basis. Corley says he can tell the podcasts are helpful to listeners, because he and McLelland are learning a lot themselves.

    "The conversations we have are genuine and authentic. The questions we ask are real," Corley says. "When we schedule something with someone, we purposely try to find out just enough about them to find out if we'll have a good episode with them."

    Along with their sincere questioning, the hosts also bring a diversity in industry to the table.

    "Collin is the guy who grew up in the field, and I have more of the tech background," Corley says. "From that standpoint, we really compliment each other."

    While still new, the podcast has seen a lot of growth — about 1,000 new listeners each week over the past couple weeks — which is surprising to the two hosts since the topic is niche and professional.

    "You think thing not many people would listen to a podcast that's so focused on something they do for their job, but that's completely wrong," Corley says.

    McLelland says they've seen a shift in the industry. What's been known as a siloed, traditional field is being upended by new technology being introduced into oil and gas companies. A downturn resulted in a need for efficiency and a younger senior-level leadership — that's what's changed in the business, McLelland says, and that's why the podcast is here to document.

    "To see the amount of traction the podcast has gotten within oil and gas really validates where the industry is going," McLelland says.

    The two want to keep doing what they're doing when it comes to the podcast, while expanding into other media. They've launched a YouTube channel, and are working on regular content for a blog.

    "We kind of wanted to bridge the gap between Silicon Valley and oil and gas and show the world what was going on in the industry — and specifically in Houston," McLelland says.


    Collin McLelland (right) and Jacob Corley are the hosts of Oil and Gas Startups Podcast.

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    Houston tech platform raises series C round backed by Mastercard

    money moves

    Hello Alice, a fintech platform that supports 1.5 million small businesses across the country, has announced its series C round.

    The amount raised was not disclosed, but Hello Alice reported that the fresh funding has brought the company's valuation to $130 million. Alexandria, Virginia-based QED Investors led the round, and investors included Mastercard, Backstage Capital, Guy Fieri, Golden Seeds, Harbert Growth Partners Fund, How Women Invest I, LP, Lovell Limited Partnership, Tyler “Ninja” and Jessica Blevins, and Tamera Mowry and Adam Housley, per a news release from the company.

    “We are thrilled to hit the milestone of 1.5 million small businesses utilizing Hello Alice to elevate the American dream. There are more entrepreneurs launching this year than in the history of our country, and we will continue to ensure they get the capital needed to grow,” Elizabeth Gore and Carolyn Rodz, co-founders of Hello Alice, say in a news release. “In closing our Series C, we welcome Mastercard to our family of investors and continue to be grateful to QED, How Women Invest, and our advocates such as Guy Fieri.”

    The funding will go toward expanding capital offerings and AI-driven tools for its small business membership.

    “Our team focuses on finding and investing in companies that are obsessed with reducing friction and providing superior financial services solutions to their customers,” QED Investors Co-Founder Frank Rotman says in the release. “Hello Alice has proven time and time again that they are on the leading edge of providing equitable access to capital and banking services to the small business ecosystem."

    Hello Alice, which closed its series B in 2021 at $21 million, has collaborated with Mastercard prior to the series C, offering small business owners the Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard in 2022 and a free financial wellness tool, Business Health Score, last year. Mastercard also teamed up with other partners for the the Equitable Access Fund in 2023.

    “With Hello Alice, we’re investing to provide support to small business owners as they look to access capital, helping to address one of the most cited business challenges they face,” Ginger Siegel, Mastercard's North America Small Business Lead, adds. “By working together to simplify access to the products and services they need when building and growing their business, we’re helping make a meaningful impact on the individuals who run their businesses, the customers they serve, and our communities and economy at large.”

    While Hello Alice's founders' mission is to help small businesses, their own company was threatened by a lawsuit from America First Legal. The organization, founded by former Trump Administration adviser Stephen Miller and features a handful of other former White House officials on its board, is suing Hello Alice and its partner, Progressive Insurance. The lawsuit alleges that their program to award10 $25,000 grants to Black-owned small businesses constitutes racial discrimination. Gore calls the lawsuit frivolous in an interview on the Houston Innovators Podcast. The legal battle is ongoing.

    Inspired by the lawsuit, Hello Alice launched the Elevate the American Dream, a grant program that's highlighting small businesses living out their American dreams. The first 14 grants have already been distributed, and Hello Alice plans to award more grants over the next several weeks, putting their grant funding at over $40 million.


    NASA awards $30M to Houston space tech company to develop lunar rover

    moon rider

    Houston-based space technology company Intuitive Machines has landed a $30 million NASA contract for the initial phase of developing a rover for U.S. astronauts to traverse the moon’s surface.

    Intuitive Machines is one of three companies chosen by NASA to perform preliminary work on building a lunar terrain vehicle that would enable astronauts to travel on the moon’s surface so they can conduct scientific research and prepare for human missions to Mars.

    The two other companies are Golden, Colorado-based Lunar Outpost and Hawthorne, California-based Astrolab.

    NASA plans to initially use the vehicle for its Artemis V lunar mission, which aims to put two astronauts on the moon. It would be the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972 that astronauts would step foot on the lunar surface.

    The Artemis V mission, tentatively set for 2029, will be the fifth mission under NASA’s Artemis program.

    “This vehicle will greatly increase our astronauts’ ability to explore and conduct science on the lunar surface while also serving as a science platform between crewed missions,” says Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

    Intuitive Machines says the $30 million NASA contract represents its entrance into human spaceflight operations for the space agency’s $4.6 billion moon rover project. The vehicle — which Intuitive Machines has dubbed the Moon Reusable Autonomous Crewed Exploration Rover (RACER) — will be based on the company’s lunar lander.

    “Our global team is on a path to provide essential lunar infrastructure services to NASA in a project that would allow [us] to retain ownership of the vehicle for commercial utilization during periods of non-NASA activity over approximately 10 years of lunar surface activity,” says exploration,” says Steve Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Machines.

    Intuitive Machines’ partners on the RACER project include AVL, Boeing, Michelin, and Northrop Grumman.

    Intuitive Machines plans to bid on the second phase of the rover project after finishing its first-phase feasibility study. The second phase will involve developing, delivering, and operating the rover.

    In February, Intuitive Machines became the first private company to land a spacecraft on the moon with no crewmembers aboard. NASA was the key customer for that mission.

    Houston expert: How to avoid 'ghost hiring' while attracting top talent

    guest column

    One of the latest HR terms grabbing attention today is “ghost hiring.” This is a practice where businesses post positions online, even interviewing candidates, with no intention to fill them. In fact, the role may already have been filled or it may not exist.

    Usually, an applicant applies for the job, yet never hears back. However, they may be contacted by the recruiter, only to learn the offer is revoked or a recruiter ghosts them after a first-round interview.

    Applicants who are scouring job sites for the ideal position can become discouraged by ghost hiring. Employers do not usually have any ill intentions of posting ghost jobs and talking with candidates. Employers may have innocently forgotten to take down the listing after filling the position.

    Some employers may leave positions up to expand their talent pool. While others who are open to hiring new employees, even if they do not match the role, may practice ghost hiring when they want a pool of applicants to quickly pull from when the need arises. Finally, some employers post job roles to make it look like the company is experiencing growth.

    When employers participate in ghost hiring practices, job candidates can become frustrated, hurting the employer brand and, thus, future recruiting efforts. Even with the tight labor market and employee turnover, it is best not to have an evergreen posting if there is no intention to hire respondents.

    There are several ways employers can engage candidates and, likewise, build a talent pool without misleading job seekers.

    Network

    A recruiter at their core is a professional networker. This is a skill that many have honed through the years, and it continues to evolve through social media channels. While many recruiters lean on social media, you should not discount meeting people face-to-face. There is power in promoting your organization at professional meetings, alumni groups and civic organizations. Through these avenues, many potential candidates will elect for you to keep them in mind for future opportunities.

    Employee Referrals

    When recruiters want to deepen their talent pool, they cannot discount the employee referral. Simply letting employees know and clearly stating the exploratory nature of the conversation can lead to stellar results. Employees understand the organization, its culture and expectations, so they are more likely to refer the company to someone who would be a good fit and reflect highly on them.

    Alternative Candidates

    In recent years, organizations and recruiters are more dialed into skills-first recruiting practices. Creating job postings that emphasize the skill sets needed rather than the years of experience, specific college degree or previous job titles, can yield a crop of candidates who may be more agile and innovative than others. Fostering relationships with people who fit unique skills needed within the organization can help you develop a deeper bench of candidates.

    Contingent Workforce

    Part-time workers, freelancers, and independent contractors are a great way to build connections and the talent pool. These workers and their skills are known entities, plus they know the organization, which makes them valuable candidates for open roles. If their expertise is needed on a regular basis, it is easier to have open conversations about a potential expansion of their duties or offer full-time work.

    Internal Talent

    Human resources and recruiters need to work with managers and leadership to intimately know what kind of talent lies within their own organization. Current employees may have the strengths, skills, and capabilities to fill new positions or roles. Through conversations with employees and their managers, you can identify who can flex different skills, but even more importantly, the ambition to grow within the company.

    In every instance, it is crucial for recruiters and hiring managers to be transparent in their intentions. Communicating within your network that you are always looking for great talent to fill future roles sets the tone. When communicating with candidates, whether there is a pressing job opportunity or not, be clear from the onset regarding your intentions for hire. With a transparent approach to hiring and candidate development, you will keep the employer brand intact and maintain recruiting power.

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    Jaune Little is a director of recruiting services with Insperity.