These Rice University students are going for extra credit in the name of sustainability. Photo via Rice.edu

A group of Rice University students have added a new extracurricular to their transcript.

Launched last fall, Rice New Energy Fund, or RNEF, is the country's first student-managed energy transition investment fund, according to a news release from Rice. The fund's goal is to generate returns for scholarships while advancing decarbonization technology and providing education and diversity in investment.

“We needed more funds and a more focused strategy to be competitive,” Shikhar Verma , class of ’24 and founder of the fund, says in the release. “Everyone in Houston is talking about the energy transition, but not many people know what that actually entails. We want students to learn how to be responsible financiers and lead this transition.”

To join, students are required to participate in the Rice Undergraduate Finance Club’s training program and undergraduate investment fund, since the RNEF operates as a part of the club. Anyone can join the program, no matter their major.

“Our team’s diverse academic background allows us to explore investments more holistically,” Verma says. “For instance, we have engineers who can evaluate technologies and scaling risk and pre-law students to appraise the regulatory and policy environment.”

Verma says he and his fellow team members have tapped into a group of mentors, advisers and donors for the fund, including former Rice Board of Trustees chair Bobby Tudor as well as renowned executives Steve Pattyn and Stephen Trauber, per the release.

The RNEF has raised $200,000 in donations, and plans to start investing in the fall with a hope to create a portfolio of 200 new energy-related companies.

“We needed more funds and a more focused strategy to be competitive,” Verma said. “Everyone in Houston is talking about the energy transition, but not many people know what that actually entails. We want students to learn how to be responsible financiers and lead this transition.”

An energy transition venture team has moved into the Ion. Photo courtesy of The Ion

Houston-based clean energy venture firm opens new office, adds partner

making moves

A Houston-based venture capital firm has been busy — with deploying capital, growing its team, and moving into new space.

Energy Transition Ventures has opened an office in the Ion Houston. The fund, which was announced last year, was founded by Craig Lawrence and Neal Dikeman — two former Silicon Valley venture capitalists with Texas ties. The team has a presence in Austin, as well as a satellite office in San Mateo.

"We’re excited after working remotely since we 'opened our doors' during the pandemic, to place our first office in the Ion," says Dikeman, adding that he's excited to work with the community's leadership. "I know several other investors have been looking or are in process to relocate to the Ion, but I believe we are the first venture capital fund to move in. Looking forward to the time when we are just one of long list of funds competing for startup founders’ attentions at Ion."

In addition to the new office space, ETV has also added a third investing partner. Q Song — vice president of GS Group, which was an early investor in the fund — relocated from Seoul, Korea, to Houston last summer to join the organization full time.

“Houston is a natural fit both professionally and personally," Song says. "GS Group has been partnered with Chevron in the GS Caltex refinery, one of five largest refineries in the world, for decades, and there is a huge Korean expat community here as well. For ETV, we needed a place like the Ion both suitable for hosting investors and executives when they come to town, and where startup founders feel comfortable and at home.”

The firm has made investments in four startups, and three have been announced publicly, Dikeman says. The most recent investment was in green hydrogen company Ohmium, which was founded by former SunEdison, Bloom Energy, and Plug Power executives and closed a $45 million round last month.

ETV has also invested in Dronebase, an aerial inspection company for renewables, and Resilient Power, a power electronics startup launching a next generation EV Fastcharging product.

The Offshore Technology Conference has revealed plans for its Energy Transition Pavilion. Photo via OTC/Facebook

Major international energy conference announces low-carbon activation

new to OTC

A new pavilion being introduced at this year’s Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) will focus on the energy industry’s low-carbon future.

The Energy Transition Pavilion will showcase technological advances in alternative energy, including efforts to promote energy decarbonization and sustainability. OTC describes the pavilion as a “go-to meeting place for conversation and dialogue around the energy transition.”

“OTC is widely recognized as a central hub for energy professionals and industry thought leaders to collaborate and develop solutions for the energy challenges surfacing this generation and [the] next,” Paul Jones, chairman of OTC, says in a news release. “The addition of the Energy Transition Pavilion enables us to bring together cutting-edge technologies and offshore industry expertise that combined can develop the innovative solutions required to deliver the global transition to a low-carbon economy.”

Jones is principal of Houston-based Lockbridge Energy, a consulting firm that serves the energy industry.

The 2022 conference will take place May 2-5 at Houston’s NRG Park. It’ll be the first fully in-person conference since 2019. Last year’s conference, held in August, was a blend of virtual and in-person activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 conference was canceled.

Presenting sponsors of the pavilion are:

  • Deloitte
  • Nabors Industries
  • Schlumberger
  • Technip Energies

Tier One sponsors are TechnipFMC and Wartsila North America, and Tier Two sponsors are Hiber and the University of Houston’s energy initiative.

Among the events at the pavilion will be a panel discussion 9:45-11 am May 3 that will explore whether there’s space for oil and gas in a low-carbon environment.

Members of the panel will be:

  • Amy Chronis, the Houston-based U.S. oil, gas, and chemicals lead at Deloitte.
  • Guillermo Sierra, vice president of strategic initiatives for energy transition at Houston-based Nabors Industries.
  • Paul Sims, vice president of marketing at Houston-based Schlumberger.
  • Jane Stricker, vice president of energy transition Greater Houston Partnership and executive director of the partnership’s Houston Energy Transition Initiative.
  • Nicolas Tcherniguin, head of offshore technologies at Paris-based Technip Energies, which has a significant presence in Houston.
A new UH-led program will work with energy corporations to prepare the sector's future workforce. Photo via Getty Images

University of Houston leads data science collaboration to propel energy transition

seeing green

Five Texas schools have teamed up with energy industry partners to create a program to train the sectors future workforce. At the helm of the initiative is the University of Houston.

The Data Science for Energy Transition project, which is funded through 2024 by a $1.49 million grant from the National Science Foundation, includes participation from UH, the University of Houston-Downtown, the University of Houston-Victoria, the University of Houston-Clear Lake, and Sam Houston State University.

The project will begin but introducing a five-week data science camp next summer where undergraduate and master’s level students will examine data science skills already in demand — as well as the skills that will be needed in the future as the sector navigates a shift to new technologies.

The camp will encompass computer science and programming, statistics, machine learning, geophysics and earth science, public policy, and engineering, according to a news release from UH. The project’s principal investigator is Mikyoung Jun, ConocoPhillips professor of data science at the UH College of Natural Science and Mathematics.

The new program's principal investigator is Mikyoung Jun. Photo via UH.edu

“It’s obvious that the Houston area is the capital for the energy field. We are supporting our local industries by presenting talented students from the five sponsoring universities and other Texas state universities with the essential skills to match the growing needs within those data science workforces,” Jun says in the release. “We’re planning all functions in a hybrid format so students located outside of Houston, too, can join in.”

Jun describes the camp as having a dual focus — both on the issue of energy transition to renewable sources as well as the traditional energy, because that's not being eradicated any time soon, she explains.

Also setting the program apart is the camp's prerequisites — or lack thereof. The program is open to majors in energy-related fields, such as data science or petroleum engineering, as well as wide-ranging fields of study, such as business, art, history, law, and more.

“The camp is not part of a degree program and its classes do not offer credits toward graduation, so students will continue to follow their own degree plan,” Jun says in the release. “Our goal with the summer camp is to give students a solid footing in data science and energy-related fields to help them focus on skills needed in data science workforces in energy-related companies in Houston and elsewhere. Although that may be their first career move, they may settle in other industries later. Good skills in data processing can make them wise hires for many technology-oriented organizations.”

Jun's four co-principal investigators include Pablo Pinto, professor at UH’s Hobby School of Public Affairs and director of the Center for Public Policy; Jiajia Sun, UH assistant professor of geophysics; Dvijesh Shastri, associate professor of computer science, UH-Downtown; and Yun Wan, professor of computer information systems and chair of the Computer Science Division, UH-Victoria. Eleven other faculty members from five schools will serve as senior personnel. The initiative's energy industry partners include Conoco Phillips, Schlumberger, Fugro, Quantico Energy Solutions, Shell, and Xecta Web Technologies.

The program's first iteration will select 40 students to participate in the camp this summer. Applications, which have not opened yet, will be made available online.

The Data Science for Energy Transition project is a collaboration between five schools. Image via UH.edu

The promotion of drones helps the city of Houston transition to becoming the energy 2.0 capital of the world, says this expert. Photo courtesy

Houston expert shares how developing drone technology can make an impact across industries

guest column

The state of Texas, as well as the rest of the nation, has been intensely impacted by the effects of climate change as well as aging utility infrastructure. Innovative drone technologies help address the pressing inspection and mapping needs of utilities and other critical infrastructure across the country, primarily bridges and roads, railways, pipelines, and powerplants.

There is a significant need for high-precision inspection services in today's market. Additional work will result if the proposed infrastructure bill passes. The bill has $73 billion earmarked toward modernizing the nation's electricity grid. Drone —or UAS (unmanned aerial systems)— technological advances, including thermal imaging, LiDAR (light detection and ranging), IRR (infrared radiation and remote sensing), and AI/ML (artificial intelligence/machine learning) are applied toward determining and predicting trends and are instrumental toward making our country safer.

"The newest advances in drone technology are not so much in the drones themselves, but rather, in the sensors and cameras, such as thermal cameras. Technologies such as LiDAR are now more cost-effective. The newer sensors permit the drones to operate in tighter spaces and cover more acreage in less time, with higher accuracy and fidelity", according to Will Paden, president of Soaring Eagle Technologies, a Houston-based tech-enabled imaging company servicing utility and energy companies.

Paden anticipates growth in the use of the technology for critical infrastructure including utilities, pipelines, power plants, bridges, buildings, railways, and more, for routine and post-storm inspections

"[Soaring Eagle's] ability to harness UAS technology to efficiently retrieve field data across our 8,000+ square mile area is unprecedented. Coupling this data with post-processing methods such as asset digitization unlocked a plethora of opportunities to visualize system resources and further analyze the surrounding terrain and environment," says Paige Richardson, GIS specialist with Navopache Electric Cooperative. "Our engineering and operations departments now have the ability to view 3D substation models, abstract high-resolution digital evaluation models, and apply these newfound resources as they work on future construction projects."

The promotion of drones helps the city of Houston transition to becoming the energy 2.0 capital of the world. The UAS (unmanned aerial systems) technology offers an environmentally cleaner option for routine and post-storm inspections, replacing the use of fossil fuels consumed by helicopters. The use of drones versus traditional inspection systems is significantly safer, more efficient and accurate than traditional alternatives such as scaffolding or bucket trucks. Mapping and inspection work can be done at much lower costs than with manned aircraft operations. These are highly technical flights, where the focus on safety and experience flying both manned and unmanned aircraft, is paramount.

There is much work ahead in high-tech drone technology services, especially for companies vetted by the FAA with high safety standards. According to one study, the overall drone inspection & monitoring market is projected to grow from USD 9.1 billion in 2021 to USD 33.6 billion by 2030, at a CAGR of 15.7 percent from 2021 to 2030. North America is estimated to account for the largest share of the drone inspection & monitoring market from 2021 to 2030.

Paden predicts the use of machine learning/artificial intelligence (ML/AI) and data automation will continue to improve over the next 3-5 years, as more data is collected and analyzed and the technology is a applied to "teach it" to detect patterns and anomalies. He anticipates ML/AI will filter out the amount of data the end users will need to view to make decisions saving time and money for the end users.

Learn more at the Energy Drone & Robotics Summit taking place in The Woodlands on October 25 through October 27.

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Alex Danielides is head of business development for Houston-based Iapetus Holdings, a privately held, minority and veteran-owned portfolio of energy and utility services businesses. One of the companies is Soaring Eagle Technologies.

Ahmad Atwan founded VC Fuel in Houston to fund the future of the energy transition. Photo courtesy of VC Fuel

Houston investor launches fund to fuel early-stage energy transition startups

Q&A

When Ahmad Atwan decided he was going to launch a venture capital fund focused on early-stage energy transition startups, Houston was a no brainer. But while there are similar funds on each of the coasts, Atwan learned that VC Fuel's concept was going to be kind of niche for Houston.

"We're the only early stage climate tech or energy transition firm in Houston right now, which is really surprising," Atwan tells InnovationMap, explaining that the Bay Area is home to dozens of these funds and there are even more on the East Coast. "I'm hoping there'll be more (similar funds in Houston), but it's also kind of a nice position to be in."

Atwan shares more about VC Fuel and the $100 million fund, which he's still raising for while also investing in a few startups at the same time, in an interview with InnovationMap. He also discusses how his expertise as a former founder and former private equity investor with Morgan Stanley and BlackRock makes him an opportune value-add investor.

InnovationMap: Why did you decide to start VC fuel?

Ahmad Atwan: I decided to start VC fuel because I've been in the energy industry my entire career. I've been both an entrepreneur — I started two companies in the 2000s that I sold. One was a energy technology firm and one was a Brazilian ethanol company.

After that I was on the buy side buying pretty large private energy companies — anywhere from the size of $500 million to $2 billion. And over that whole time, energy was a very exciting industry and was growing very fast.

But as I saw climate change happening more rapidly and becoming more of a reality, and as I started looking and investing in some renewable energy sources, like wind and solar, I realized that's really where my passion was and what I wanted to do. And at the same time, the world was moving towards that as well, and investors really wanted to have exposure to new energy or energy transition areas.

IM: What are you looking for in potential investment opportunities?

AA: The areas that we focus on are all decarbonized and kind of all across the board, ranging from clean agriculture, hydrogen, carbon capture and storage or carbon capture and usage, to energy efficiency, clean industrial processes, and more. And I think these are areas that they right now comprise less than 2 percent of the global energy mix, but they're going to be north of 10, 15, 20 percent over time. So, these are high growth areas, and they are either lower, zero, or even negative emissions.

We're looking specifically for companies that we call seed stage or series A, generally, sometimes series B. So, they're companies that are relatively early in their development, but have some sort of commercial traction. And ones that are looking for not only a venture capital firm, but someone that can be their partner and help guide them and help them in certain areas, like raising their next round of funding, helping them get introduced to customers.

IM: With your experience, what do you feel like you bring to the table as a hands-on investor?

AA: I think in my decade-plus in private equity, when I was an investor on the boards of a company, I always tended to be one of the most involved in helping guide operations and working with senior management. And I think that's probably because I was a founder in the past, so I really identify with founders and I try to figure out with them what's the gap in their skillset or knowledge base that needs to be filled. Sometimes it's one that I can naturally help fill, which might be on the financial side or on the commercial side. And sometimes it's just bringing in other experts to help the company out.

But I think having been both on the founder and the private equity side, I think I empathize with the founder usually. And I would give this advice to all founders out there: the most important relationship they're going to have is with their lead venture capitalist, because that's going to be the defining relationship that helps them get to legitimacy in terms of the next round of funding. It's something that I kind of learned from friends in Silicon Valley. It's not only building the relationship for VC fuel — it's building a relationship with one of the individuals in our firm, whether it's me or one of my partners, and having them be really invested in the company.

IM: Why did you decide on Houston for VC Fuel's HQ?

AA: First of all, Houston is the undisputed energy capital of the world. So to me, especially when you're looking at energy transition sectors that have to work with the energy industry, it was a no brainer. For a lot of the technologies we deal with — like carbon capture — and the businesses we deal with, it's going to be essential for them to connect with the energy world.

I think a second reason, frankly, and I didn't realize this until we really got deep into the idea is that we're a little bit unique and we have a little bit of a competitive advantage. There are over 30 climate tech firms in the Bay Area, and there are a large number as well in New York and Boston. We're the only early stage climate tech or energy transition firm in Houston right now, which is really surprising. And I'm hoping there'll be more of those, but that's also kind of a nice position to be in because, as we see opportunities come out of the energy companies, and as we try to attract talent and grow, we think we have a pretty unique offering.

IM: What has being located in Greentown Houston meant for you?

AA: It's been fantastic. I think Houston did a great job of attracting Greentown here as the second location. Working out of here, we're able to interact in real time with everything from startup companies to major corporations. You get such a diverse set of people who are passionate about energy transition. It's actually already led to some opportunities to invest in, as well as to connect with some of the bigger companies that want to invest with us. It's been just a great coincidence that we launched here when Greentown opened. We'd much rather be here than any other type of working space. So, we're very excited.

IM: What keeps you up at night as it pertains to the energy transition?

AA: I would say the first thing is commercial adoption. All of our companies so far have great management teams — especially founders — and excellent technology, but there's that bridge to actually get the technology adopted by a customer. Sometimes you can have the best technology, and it just never happens. So, I'm keeping my eye on how much progress are we making with commercial customers. A lot of these are big companies — whether it's a waste management or a tech company, like a Microsoft — are getting into energy transition. Customer adoption in that area is a key metric for us.

The second big one — and this one's a little newer to me because I didn't face it as much in the past — is regulation. So many of the areas that we look at are going to have their economics determined by regulations that are literally being written right now. For example, the Cares Act the by the Biden administration is deciding things like what the level of tax credits will be for carbon capture. The carbon capture company we've invested in suddenly sees their projects become a lot more profitable if that figure is on the higher side. It's important to keep our ear to the ground on regulation and try to anticipate where it's going. That's why we have a couple people who are ex-Department of Energy on our advisory board because we like to have that skill set.

IM: What's next for VC Fuel?

AA: Our cadence of investing is that we invest in about one company every couple of months, which is pretty fast for a venture capital firm in energy transition. What's next is for our current companies to get to the next stage of evolution. There is one that I can't talk about specifically, but it might be getting sold to a really exciting buyer — and it's very good to have that kind of exit early on in a fund's life. And for the rest of our portfolio companies it's about continuing to get customers and next rounds of funding.

We've done a really good job of building a portfolio. That's not concentrated in any one area of energy transition. We will continue to look for a diverse set of companies that compliment each other, and that can help each other out. One area we continue to look at is not just the carbon capture, but also the carbon use space where you can turn carbon into something that's actually productive. Another area that we continue to look at is the electric vehicle space, but not just traditional EVs, but the next generation EV technology.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Houston innovator on seeing a greener future on built environment

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 162

An architect by trade, Anas Al Kassas says he was used to solving problems in his line of work. Each project architects take on requires building designers to be innovative and creative. A few years ago, Kassas took his problem-solving background into the entrepreneurship world to scale a process that allows for retrofitting window facades for energy efficiency.

“If you look at buildings today, they are the largest energy-consuming sector — more than industrial and more than transportation,” Kassas, founder and CEO of INOVUES, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “They account for up to 40 percent of energy consumption and carbon emissions.”

To meet their climate goals, companies within the built environment are making moves to transition to electric systems. This has to be done with energy efficiency in mind, otherwise it will result in grid instability.

"Energy efficiency goes hand in hand with energy transition," he explains.

Kassas says that he first had the idea for his company when he was living in Boston. He chose to start the business in Houston, attracted to the city by its central location, affordable labor market, and manufacturing opportunities here.

Last year, INOVUES raised its first round of funding — a $2.75 million seed round — to scale up the team and identify the best markets to target customers. Kassas says he was looking for regions with rising energy rates and sizable incentives for companies making energy efficient changes.

"We were able to now implement our technology in over 4 million square feet of building space — from Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, and very soon in Canada," he says.

Notably missing from that list is any Texas cities. Kassas says that he believes Houston is a great city for startups and he has his operations and manufacturing is based here, but he's not yet seen the right opportunity and adaption

"Unfortunately most of our customers are not in Texas," "A lot of work can be done here to incentivize building owners. There are a lot of existing buildings and construction happening here, but there has to be more incentives."

Kassas shares more about his growth over the past year, as well as what he has planned for 2023 on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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

speaking of spacs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by the numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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