Wogbe Ofori, founder and chief strategist of WRX Companies, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss hardtech and Houston as an innovative city. Photo via LinkedIn

To Wogbe Ofori, the definition of entrepreneurship is simple: "To be more opportunity centric than risk averse." And Houston, as he says, has be entrepreneurial for a very long time — despite it being considered the specialty of a certain coastal region.

"Silicon Valley has hijacked the concept of innovation and entrepreneurship, and this city has been filled with entrepreneurs long before the concept of 'tech entrepreneurs,'" Ofori says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Ofori, the founder and chief strategist of WRX Companies, has developed a keen eye for entrepreneurship and innovation activity in Houston and shares his observations on the show. An adviser to Nauticus Robotics and strategist to Intuitive Machines and Jacobs, he's also served as a mentor across the local innovation community.

In fact, on the episode, he explains what makes a good mentor for founders in tech. Ofori says he specializes in helping entrepreneurs see around corners and think things through, make wise decisions, and get things done.

"It starts with an ability to listen," Ofori says of advisers and mentors. "One of the keys to my advisory practice is to not only listen but reframe and ask a lot of questions."

"What differentiates this from therapy — and sometimes the line can be fine," he continues, "is that as a mentor or adviser in the context of commerce, is you're always thinking about it toward a transaction in the marketplace."

As he's spent a lot of time working with hardtech founders, Ofori has observed a momentum within energy transition innovation — specifically Houston's role in it.

"It's difficult for an incumbent to disrupt itself. We’ve been positioning ourselves as moving from the energy capital of the world to the energy transition capital," he says. "Now we are just at the place where we're really going to start to see the difference between those who were caught up in the excitement of the energy transition, and those who really have the faith to see this thing through."

Activate announced Cyrus Wadia as its new CEO and opened its 2024 applications. Photo courtesy of Activate

New-to-Houston hardtech accelerator names new CEO, opens applications

apply now

A national organization that helps accelerate scientists into entrepreneurs has named its new CEO in the same week that applications opened for its 2024 cohort.

This week, Activate announced Cyrus Wadia as CEO of the organization. Based California, Activate recently expanded to Houston. The two-year accelerator provides funding and support for its selected cohorts.

Wadia most recently served as director of worldwide product sustainability at Amazon. He also oversaw sustainable business and innovation at Nike and was appointed assistant director of clean energy and materials R&D at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Barack Obama.

"I’m thrilled to join this incredible team at such an exciting moment for the organization. Because of Activate, scientists are designing new products, accelerating the creation of new businesses, and becoming leaders who will transform our future," Wadia says in the news release. "I look forward to building on this momentum to expand the role science leadership plays in solving society’s most pressing issues.”

Wadia’s new role takes effect on October 16. Todd Johnson has served as interim CEO for the past year, and he will return to his role on Activate’s board of directors with the transition. The program's led locally by Jeremy Pitts, managing director for Activate Houston, who was named to the role last month.

The announcement came just a few days before Activate opened applications for its 2024 program — which will be the first year to have a Houston cohort. Applications are open until October 17 across Activate's five programs. The two-year, hardtech-focused program was founded in Berkeley, California, in 2015 and expanded to Boston and New York before launching its virtual program, Activate Anywhere.

“Activate’s recruitment process is crucial, as it centers around finding scientists directly interested in solving urgent problems,” Pitts says. “Activate fellows are turning their technical breakthroughs into businesses that can help industries like manufacturing, energy, chemicals, computing, and agriculture, to meet their decarbonization and resiliency goals.”

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A version of this article originally ran on EnergyCapitalHTX.

Square Robot's Houston office has the ability to showcase the technology to its potential customers. Photo courtesy of Square Robot

Boston-based tech company grows Houston team to deliver robotics to energy industry

do the robot

The robots are coming. Although the rise of Chat GPT has frightened plenty of professionals, we’re not on the precipice of the singularity just yet. And some of Houston’s coolest robots are contained in above-ground tanks, simply doing jobs that are too expensive and difficult for humans. The mechanical helpers in question come courtesy of Square Robot.

Square Robot co-founder and chief technology officer Jerome Vaganay started the company in 2016 in Boston. The company opened its Houston office in August of 2019.

“A lot of our partners and client base is out of here,” says director of operations, Matt Crist.

Karishma Prasad, director of technical operations, who joined the team in Houston earlier this year, adds “It’s a great centralized place for us. Houston is a great hub both nationally and internationally. There is so much energy transition innovation happening here.”

Square Robot is indeed a robotics company, but it trades in a very specific type of robot. The SR-1 is an innovative tank inspector.

“Since the ‘60s there’s been a traditional way of going into a tank. People would go inside and clean it with a variety of products," Crist explains. "Once it was clean, they would come in and inspect it repair it and that could take months.”

In fact, it could often cause a 15 or 16-week outage, he says.

Square Robot’s brainstorm was to take the human element out of the process. In other words, robots can do the job more safely, efficiently and quickly than a human ever could by collecting 18,000 data points per square foot, while allowing the product — most often diesel — to stay in the tank.

Square Robot saves those vast weeks of time, but perhaps even more importantly, says Prasad, “We’re avoiding emissions being released into the atmosphere.”

With its key location in Houston, Square Robot has worked with most of the major names in the energy world, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, and Crist’s former employer, Phillips 66.

The latest robot is the SR-3, which is currently being tested in Houston. Curious webwatchers can see its progress on Square Robot’s website. Unlike the flagship SR-1, the new robot boasts a side launcher that allows it to be completely immersed in a tank before being launched.

But perhaps the most exciting thing about Square Robot’s 15-human Houston office is its test tank. There, potential partners can see exactly what the company’s ingenious creation can do. Square Robot will participate in ILTA, the International Operating Conference & Trade Show, which takes place from May 21-24. On the 24th, the company will host an open house from noon to 3 p.m. to allow potential users to see the SR-3 in action in the 42-foot-long test tank.

Square Robot will complete its hundredth tank inspection in May. It is also growing beyond the oil and gas world to include work with the power industry and was recently selected as a finalist in the Incubatenergy Lab Start Up program. This is one robot that we will happily allow to take over formerly all-too-human responsibilities.

Square Robot has a team of 15 in Houston. Photo courtesy of Square Robot

Houston-based Nauticus Robotics founder, Nicolaus Radford, shares the latest from his company and why we're primed for a hardtech movement. Image via LinkedIn

Houston innovator shares difficult journey to IPO, the challenges of hardtech innovation, and more

Q&A

It's been a busy past year or so for Nicolaus Radford, founder and CEO of Nauticus Robotics. He's taken his company public at a difficult time for the market, launched new partnerships with the United States Marine Corps, and even welcomed a new family member.

Originally founded in 2014 as Houston Mechatronics, Nauticus Robotics has designed a fleet of underwater robots and a software platform for autonomous operations. Radford caught up with InnovationMap about these recent milestones for him and the company in an interview.

InnovationMap: Tell me about life after IPO. What’s been surprising for you leading your company through the transition and now on the other side of IPO?

Nicolaus Radford: I'll tell you what, it’s the hardest thing I ever did in my professional career by a factor of 10. Everybody finds their red line once or twice in their career. You know, when you're working 100 hours a week, you're going to bed at 2 am, you're waking up at 6:30 am, you're sleeping three hours a night, right? Everybody's found that moment once in a while and you're like, “okay, I've touched my red line and I would never want to do that again.” This was I knew where my red line was, and I went so far beyond it, I couldn't even see where I thought my red line was. It was a very exceptionally challenging period of time. It took a long to complete the transaction, and the market was just changing under our feet. Rules were and regulations were changing — were we grandfathered in or were we not?

I'm part of some business organizations and, and some of those confidential relationships have turned into friendships. And a couple of them call me and they're like, “we're really worried. We think this is going to be we don't know if you're going to get it done. And we just want you to be aware that you're not you may not get it done.” It is a little scary because once you engage in it, you're running quite a tab with bankers and law firms and all sorts of things. And if you don't complete the deal, it just might kill the company. But we did it. We were one of a few people last year to actually get a deal over the line. I'm very proud of that. I think it speaks to the quality of the deal that we had. The macro economic environment was exceptionally difficult. It remains to be very difficult today. But we had strong backing from our strategic investors and our partners that were already on the cap table. They put a tremendous amount of money into the deal.

You know, I look back on it and it's, you know, ringing the Nasdaq bell when we listed, and giving that speech at the podium — it was a surreal moment. I remember when I was standing there looking at the Nauticus logo on the seven-story Nasdaq tower, having as many people in the company as we could bring, and just sharing that moment with all of them, especially my wife, who, I will be very clear about this, I could not have gotten through this moment without her. She is the rock that keeps our family together and my head straight. A little known fact — we had a newborn during this time as well, so that was also very difficult. And and she just handled so much that there's just not another person like her.

I was excited but cautious at the same time. I mean, the life of a CEO of a public company at large, it's all about the process following a process, the regulations, the administration of the public company, the filings, the reportings — it can feel daunting. I have to rise to the occasion to tackle that in this the next stage of the company.

IM: You’re working with the military on a project that adapts Nauticus’s tech for Marine Corps use. What’s it been like working with the military on this project?

NR: We've probably worked with military interests for the last six years, but all of the things that we have been doing have been extremely confidential and hush. Now we've been able to work with customers that have a stronger public facing persona, and the Defense Innovation Unit is one of those. Their charter is it's quite literally looking for commercial technology and adapting that towards military applications, and so it's been nice to be able to show the utility and the application of of a lot of our technology and what we've been working on for so long as it's applied on a broader scale to the big services, whether it's the Navy or the Marine Corps. Both of the programs we’re working on are all about mine countermeasures, and mines are really, really difficult, especially underwater mines. We've been we've been applying all of Nauticus’s broad technology portfolio to being able to search autonomously and being able to identify and neutralize threats in the water. I love that mission because anytime we can remove our service men and women from these situations, that's just the right thing to do. There are those three universal truths — all babies are cute, all puppies are huggable, and all Canadians are nice. But there's a fourth one — nobody wants to defuse an underwater bomb. And so I'm really happy to be working on robotics technologies where that's the case.

IM: The Ion recently announced Nauticus as a new tenant. What’s the strategy behind creating a footprint there?

NR: We've signed the definitive documents with the Ion about our presence there. We’ve been designing it for a while, and now we're starting to build it out. They're giving us temporary space, so we're going to be immediately there. Nauticus was really born from this connection to spaceflight. We started up Nauticus around NASA, and there's an incredible amount of talent here. And people tend to change jobs sometimes, so we were attracting a lot of talent from NASA. Now that NASA has solidified their mission and what they're doing and gained a little traction, we wanted to have more draw from the universities being up in town. Clear Lake, even though we have water access and it's much closer to Galveston where we test a lot, we wanted to be up in town. So, we're creating a bit of an innovation center. There's a lot more collisions downtown with customers and talent, it just made sense that we had to be there. And because we support the city of Houston so much and what they're doing for the startup community and early stage companies like ourselves that, we want to support that.

IM: How would you describe the state of the hardtech sector?

NR: We still need improvement by far. Hardtech companies are still viewed as a bad investment. We're always going out to investor events, and I remember this one investor came up to me and asked me to tell him a little bit about my company. The second he got into the essence of what we do and sussed out that obviously we are not just a software company, he just goes full stop. “Hey, listen, you know, our investment thesis is we only invest in software companies.” I had just kind of had it and I sort of shot back at him and I just said, “that's a rather that's a rather dumb value proposition and pretty shortsighted.” And we parted ways. It just irritates me that that's this is most of everybody's comeback. Like, they're a special class because they only invest in software companies.

I'm sure you've heard of ChatGPT and how that's going to alter the world forever. Now is probably a really shitty time to be a software developer, and I think it's going to place an extra emphasis and value on hard tech companies because I haven't seen ChatGPT run a run a milling machine yet break a piece of metal on a machine or assemble a circuit board. I love that now the position of companies like ours that are in the robotics space where you take this multidisciplinary blend of hardware, software, and electronics toward an application, because I think that is going to start becoming a premium value.

Software companies tend to attract more equity investment because people have this idea that the scaling costs and the startup costs are lower. Anyone with a keyboard can get online, create a website, and have an e-commerce business. Turns out, that because that’s true, there’s a million out there. What I love about a hardtech company that if you get it right, the cost of trying to compete with that company that figured it out is so high that the negative now begins the benefit. A fast follower is almost impossible.

The VC community sprung up in a post World War II world to help fund the commercialization of the computer and silicon — that's kind of what it originated from. I mean, there was not an investment vehicle that companies that were developing technology in this space could go to and get a loan, couldn't go to the bank. The venture capital world developed to help spawn hard tech investments. And, I hate to break it to you, but one of the most valuable companies in the world was a hard tech company: Tesla. This is a physical world. And I believe the last 50 years were absolutely characterized by the ubiquitous manipulation of the virtual world, but the next 50 years are going to be characterized by the ubiquitous manipulation of the physical world. And that's where we're at.

IM: What’s next for Nauticus?

NR: What’s next is tough to talk about, because I can only talk about what’s already been published. I see Nauticus being the preeminent ocean robotics company. I want Nauticus to be an empire. It starts small but it grows — and it grows in many different ways, and we’re exploring all of those different ways to grow. We’re leading a technology renaissance in the marine space — and that happens only a few times in an industry.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Activate is planting its roots in Houston with a plan to have its first set of fellows next year. Photo via Getty Images

Exclusive: Hardtech-focused program announces Houston expansion, seeks local leader

changing the world

An organization that directs support to scientists developing impactful technology has decided on Houston for its fifth program.

Activate was founded in Berkeley, California, in 2015 to bridge the gap between the federal and public sectors to deploy capital and resources into the innovators creating transformative products. The nonprofit expanded its programs to Boston and New York before launching a virtual fellowship program — Activate Anywhere, which is for scientists 50 or more miles outside one of the three hubs.

"Our mission is to empower scientists to reinvent the world by bringing their research to market," Aimee Rose, executive managing director of Activate, tells InnovationMap. "There's so much technical talent that we educate in this country every year and so many amazing inventions that happen, that combining the two, which is the sort of inventor/entrepreneur, and giving them the support mechanisms they need to get on their feet and be successful, has the potential to unlock an incredible amount of value for the country, for the environment, and to address other social problems."

This year, Activate is planting seeds in Houston to grow a presence locally and have its first set of fellows in 2024. While Activate is industry agnostic, Rose says a big draw from Houston is the ability to impact the future of energy.

"We're super excited about Houston as an emerging ecosystem for the clean energy transition as being the energy capital of the world, as well as all the other emerging players there are across the landscape in Houston," Rose says. "I think we can move the needle in Houston because of our national footprint."

The first order of business, Rose says, is hiring a managing director for Activate Houston. The job, which is posted online, is suited for an individual who has already developed a hardtech business and has experience and connections within Houston's innovation ecosystem.

"We want to customize the program so that it makes the most sense for the community," Rose says about the position. "So, somebody that has the relationships and the knowledge of the ecosystem to be able to do that and somebody that's kind of a mentor at heart."

The program is for early-stage founders — who have raised less than $2 million in funding — working on high-impact technology. Rose explains that Activate has seen a number of microelectronics and new materials companies go through the program, and, while medical innovation is impactful, Activate doesn't focus on pharmaceutical or therapeutic industries since there are existing pathways for those products.

Ultimately, Activate is seeking innovators whose technologies fall through the cracks of existing innovation infrastructure.

"Not every business fits into the venture capital model in terms of what investors would expect to be eventual outcomes, but these these types of businesses can still have significant impact and make the world a better place," Rose says, explaining how Activate is different from an incubator or accelerator. "As opposed as compared to a traditional incubator, this is a very high touch program. You get a living stipend so you can take a big business technical risk without a personal risk. We give you a lot of hands on support and mentoring."

Each of the programs selects 10 fellows that join the program for two years. The fellows receive a living stipend, connections from Activate's robust network of mentors, and access to a curriculum specific to the program.

Since its inception, Activate has supported 104 companies and around 146 entrepreneurs associated with those companies. With the addition of Houston, Activate will be able to back 50 individuals a year.

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Texas nonprofit grants $68.5M to Houston organizations for recruitment, research

Three prominent institutions in Houston will be able to snag a trio of high-profile cancer researchers thanks to $12 million in new funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

The biggest recruitment award — $6 million — went to the University of Texas MD Anderson Center to lure researcher Xiling Shen away from the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation in Los Angeles.

Shen is chief scientific officer at the nonprofit Terasaki Institute. His lab there studies precision medicine, including treatments for cancer, from a “systems biology perspective.”

He also is co-founder and former CEO of Xilis, a Durham, North Carolina-based oncology therapy startup that raised $70 million in series A funding in 2021. Before joining the institute in 2021, the Stanford University graduate was an associate professor at Duke University in Durham.

Shen and Xilis aren’t strangers to MD Anderson.

In 2023, MD Anderson said it planned to use Xilis’ propriety MicroOrganoSphere (MOS) technology for development of novel cancer therapies.

“Our research suggests the MOS platform has the potential to offer new capabilities and to improve the efficiency of developing innovative drugs and cell therapies over current … models, which we hope will bring medicines to patients more quickly,” Shen said in an MD Anderson news release.

Here are the two other Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awards that will bring noted cancer researchers to Houston:

  • $4 million to attract David Sarlah to Rice University from the University of Illinois, where he is an associate professor of chemistry. Sarlah’s work includes applying the principles of chemistry to creation of new cancer therapies.
  • $2 million to lure Vishnu Dileep to the Baylor College of Medicine from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is a postdoctoral fellow. His work includes the study of cancer genomes.

CPRIT also handed out more than $56.5 million in grants and awards to seven institutions in the Houston area. Here’s the rundown:

  • MD Anderson Cancer Center — Nearly $25.6 million
  • Baylor College of Medicine — Nearly $11.5 million
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — More than $6 million
  • Rice University — $4 million
  • University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston — More than $3.5 million
  • Methodist Hospital Research Institute — More than $3.3 million
  • University of Houston — $1.4 million

Dr. Pavan Reddy, a CPRIT scholar who is a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and director of its Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Care Center, says the CPRIT funding “will help our investigators take chances and explore bold ideas to make innovative discoveries.”

The Houston-area funding was part of nearly $99 million in grants and awards that CPRIT recently approved.

Houston space company's lunar lander touches down on the moon in historic mission

touchdown

A private lander on Thursday made the first U.S. touchdown on the moon in more than 50 years, but managed just a weak signal back until flight controllers scrambled to gain better contact.

Despite the spotty communication, Intuitive Machines, the company that built and managed the craft, confirmed that it had landed upright. But it did not provide additional details, including whether the lander had reached its intended destination near the moon’s south pole. The company ended its live webcast soon after identifying a lone, weak signal from the lander.

“What we can confirm, without a doubt, is our equipment is on the surface of the moon,” mission director Tim Crain reported as tension built in the company’s Houston control center.

Added Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus: “I know this was a nail-biter, but we are on the surface and we are transmitting. Welcome to the moon.”

Data was finally starting to stream in, according to a company announcement two hours after touchdown.

The landing put the U.S. back on the surface for the first time since NASA’s famed Apollo moonwalkers.

Intuitive Machines also became the first private business to pull off a lunar landing, a feat achieved by only five countries. Another U.S. company, Astrobotic Technology, gave it a shot last month, but never made it to the moon, and the lander crashed back to Earth. Both companies are part of a NASA-supported program to kick-start the lunar economy.

Astrobotic was among the first to relay congratulations. “An incredible achievement. We can’t wait to join you on the lunar surface in the near future,” the company said via X, formerly Twitter.

Intuitive Machines “aced the landing of a lifetime,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted.

The final few hours before touchdown were loaded with extra stress when the lander's laser navigation system failed. The company's flight control team had to press an experimental NASA laser system into action, with the lander taking an extra lap around the moon to allow time for the last-minute switch.

With this change finally in place, Odysseus descended from a moon-skimming orbit and guided itself toward the surface, aiming for a relatively flat spot among all the cliffs and craters near the south pole.

As the designated touchdown time came and went, controllers at the company's command center anxiously awaited a signal from the spacecraft some 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) away. After close to 15 minutes, the company announced it had received a weak signal from the lander.

Launched last week, the six-footed carbon fiber and titanium lander — towering 14 feet (4.3 meters) — carried six experiments for NASA. The space agency gave the company $118 million to build and fly the lander, part of its effort to commercialize lunar deliveries ahead of the planned return of astronauts in a few years.

Intuitive Machines' entry is the latest in a series of landing attempts by countries and private outfits looking to explore the moon and, if possible, capitalize on it. Japan scored a lunar landing last month, joining earlier triumphs by Russia, U.S., China and India.

The U.S. bowed out of the lunar landscape in 1972 after NASA's Apollo program put 12 astronauts on the surface. Astrobotic of Pittsburgh gave it a shot last month, but was derailed by a fuel leak that resulted in the lander plunging back through Earth's atmosphere and burning up.

Intuitive Machines’ target was 186 miles (300 kilometers) shy of the south pole, around 80 degrees latitude and closer to the pole than any other spacecraft has come. The site is relatively flat, but surrounded by boulders, hills, cliffs and craters that could hold frozen water, a big part of the allure. The lander was programmed to pick, in real time, the safest spot near the so-called Malapert A crater.

The solar-powered lander was intended to operate for a week, until the long lunar night.

Besides NASA’s tech and navigation experiments, Intuitive Machines sold space on the lander to Columbia Sportswear to fly its newest insulating jacket fabric; sculptor Jeff Koons for 125 mini moon figurines; and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for a set of cameras to capture pictures of the descending lander.