CERAWeek attendees identified the four energy tech companies to watch. Photo via Getty Images

Wondering what energy tech companies you should keep an eye on? Wonder no more.

As a part of 2021 CERAWeek by IHS Markit, the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship hosted a virtual pitch competition today featuring 20 companies in four sessions. Each entrepreneur had four minutes to pitch, and then a few more to take questions from industry experts.

"Of the companies here today, we've intentionally selected a diverse group," says Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance at the start of the event. "They range from companies looking for their seed funding to companies that have raised $20 million or more."

The following companies pitched at the event: Acoustic Wells, ALLY ENERGY, Bluefield Technologies, Cemvita Factory, Connectus Global, Damorphe, Ovopod Ltd., DrillDocs, GreenFire Energy, inerG, Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, Nesh, Pythias Analytics, REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, Revterra, ROCSOLE, Senslytics, Subsea Micropiles, Syzygy Plasmonics, Transitional Energy, and Universal Subsea.

At the end of each session, attendees voted via Zoom poll on which startup had the most potential. According to the event attendees, the most promising energy tech companies are:

REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies

Asheville, North Carolina-based REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, an inaugural Greentown Houston member company, is working to "put a green spin on power." The company's micro-Expansion Turbine System produces green power for digital oilfield and pipeline initiatives through the recovery of excess natural gas pressure.

"RTT's technology provides a scalable, clean energy source to reliably power digital oilfield and pipeline initiatives at a significantly low operating cost," says Christopher Bean, founder and CEO, in his presentation. "Never has it been more important to make production and pipeline operations greener, safer, and efficient."

Connectus Global

Connectus Global, based in Calgary, provides custom technology solutions that can increase productivity, profits, and competitiveness. Connectus' Real-Time Location System, or RTLS, uses Ultra-Wide Band for communication and triangulation while hosting a Radio Frequency Identification Device, which come in the form of badges, tags, and receivers.

"In our first year, we received $800,000 in revenue and are on track to hit our numbers — $3.6 million — at the end of this fiscal year," says Mike Anderson, CEO of the company, in his presentation." We have a global white labeling agreement with Honeywell and we make up about 75 percent of their digitized workforce management portfolio."

The company's U.S. office is located in Houston.

DrillDocs

Houston-based DrillDocs has created an automated drilling cuttings characterization service, called CleanSight, that supports an operator's understanding of their wellbore's state of stability and cleanness in real time.

"We're taking computer vision to the drilling rig," says Calvin Holt, CEO and co-founder at DrillDocs, in his presentation. "Now for the first time, drilling and geomechanics teams will have unique, real-time data to ascertain the well's condition."

Revterra

Revterra, a Houston-based company and inaugural Greentown Houston member company, is creating a flywheel energy storage system for long-duration grid-scale applications.

"For those of us in Texas, the power outages we experienced a couple weeks ago are a stark reminder that the stability and the resiliency of our electric grid should be a top priority as we transition to low-emission power sources," says Ben Jawdat, founder and CEO at Revterra, in his presentation. "Energy storage is a critical element in both grid stability and enabling our transition to sustainable energy."

Here's what not to miss at the first all-virtual CERAWeek by IHS Markit. Screenshot via virtual.ceraweek.com

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

where to be online

While usually hundreds of energy experts, C-level executives, diplomats, members of royal families, and more descend upon Houston for the the annual CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference, this year will be a little different. Canceled last year due to COVID-19, CERAWeek is returning — completely virtually.

The Agora track is back and focused on innovation within the energy sector. The Agora track's events — thought-provoking panels, intimate pods, and corporate-hosted "houses" — can be accessed through a virtual atrium.

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.

Monday — New Horizons for Energy & Climate Research

The COVID-19 pandemic has made vivid and real the risks of an uncontrolled virus. Risks posed by climate change are also becoming more palpable every day. At the forefront of understanding these risks, universities are developing solutions by connecting science, engineering, business, and public policy disciplines. Along with industry and governments, universities are critical to developing affordable and sustainable solutions to meet the world's energy needs and achieve net-zero emission goals. Can the dual challenge of more energy and lower emissions be met? What is some of the most promising energy and climate research at universities? Beyond research, what are the roles and responsibilities of universities in the energy transition?

Featuring: Kenneth B. Medlock, III, James A. Baker, III, and Susan G. Baker Fellow In Energy And Resource Economics, Baker Institute and Senior Director, Center For Energy Studies at Rice University

Catch the panel at 1 pm on Monday, March 1. Learn more.

Tuesday — Conversations in Cleantech: Powering the energy transition

With renewables investment outperforming oil and gas investment for the first time ever in the middle of a pandemic, 2020 was a tipping point in the Energy Transition. Low oil prices intensified energy majors' attention on diversification and expansion into mature and emerging clean technologies such as battery storage, low-carbon hydrogen, and carbon removal technologies. Yet, the magnitude of the Energy Transition challenge requires an acceleration of strategic decisions on the technologies needed to make it happen, policy frameworks to promote public-private partnerships, and innovative investment schemes.

Three Cleantech leaders share their challenges, successes, and lessons learned at the forefront of the Energy Transition. What is their vision and strategy to accelerate lowering emissions and confronting climate change? Can companies develop clear strategies for cleantech investments that balance sustainability goals and corporate returns? What is the value of increasing leadership diversity for energy corporations? Can the Energy Transition be truly transformational without an inclusive workforce and a diverse leadership?

Featuring: Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, which is opening a location in Houston this year.

The event takes place at 11:30 am on Tuesday, March 2. Learn more.

Wednesday — Rice Alliance Venture Day at CERAWeek

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship pitch event will showcase 20 technology companies with new solutions for the energy industry. Each presentation will be followed by questions from a panel of industry experts.

Presenting Companies: Acoustic Wells, ALLY ENERGY, Bluefield Technologies, Cemvita Factory, Connectus Global, Damorphe, Ovopod Ltd., DrillDocs, GreenFire Energy, inerG, Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, Nesh, Pythias Analytics, REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, Revterra, ROCSOLE, Senslytics, Subsea Micropiles, Syzygy Plasmonics, Transitional Energy, and Universal Subsea.

The event takes place at 9 am on Wednesday, March 3. Learn more.

Thursday — How Will the Energy Innovation Ecosystem Evolve?

Although the cleantech innovation ecosystem—research institutions, entrepreneurs, financiers, and support institutions—is diverse and productive, converting cleantech discoveries and research breakthroughs into commercially viable, transformative energy systems has proven difficult. With incumbent energy systems economically efficient and deeply entrenched, cleantech innovation faces a fundamental dilemma—the scale economies necessary to compete require a large customer base that does not yet exist. How is our clean energy innovation ecosystem equipped to be transformative? What needs to be strengthened? Is it profitable to focus on individual elements, or should we consider the system holistically, and reframe our expectations?

Featuring: Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president at Chevron Technology Ventures

The event takes place at 7:30 am on Thursday, March 4. Learn more.

Friday — Cities: Managing crises & the future of energy

Houston is the capital of global energy and for the past four decades the home of CERAWeek. Mayor Sylvester Turner will share lessons from the city's experience with the pandemic, discuss leadership strategies during times of crisis, and explore Houston's evolving role in the new map of energy.

The event takes place at 8 am on Friday, March 5. Learn more.

Here's what Houston startups won prizes at the inaugural Venture Houston conference. Photo via Getty Images

Inaugural Houston Venture startup pitch competition names big winners and doles out nearly $1M

taking home the W

Just a few months ago, Venture Houston 2021 was just an idea. Now, the two-day conference concluded with over 2,500 registrants and doled out nearly $1 million in cash and investment prizes to startups.

The idea was to bring together startups, investors, corporations, and anyone who cares to advance the Houston tech ecosystem, says Sandy Guitar, managing director at HX Venture Fund, at the closing event. The conference, which was put on by HXVF, the Houston Angel Network, the Rice Alliance, and Houston Exponential, wrapped up with the announcement of nine startups taking home investment or cash prizes.

In its first year, the Venture Houston conference attracted over 266 startup applications, and a group of Houston innovation leaders named 30 semifinalists that pitched on Thursday, February 4. On Friday, February 5, seven finalists pitched:

  • Koda Health
  • Spark Biomedical Inc
  • PATH EX, Inc.
  • Conversifi
  • CellChorus
  • MacroFab, Inc.
  • Mainline

The top three startups in the competition took home cash prizes — Macrofab won first place and $15,000 from Halliburton Labs, Spark Biomedical won second place and $10,000 from Softeq, and PathEx won third place and $5,000 from ChampionX.

  • Work & Mother won $250,000 from The Artemis Fund
  • MacroFab won $250,000 — $100,000 from Mercury Fund and $150,000 from Carnrite Ventures
  • Conversifi won $200,000 — $100,000 from Next Coast Ventures and $100,000 from Live Oak Venture Partners
  • Koda Health won $50,000 from Houston Angel Network
  • CellChorus won $50,000 from Texas Halo Fund
  • Nesh won $50,000 from Plug and Play
  • Cemvita Factory won $25,000 from baMa

Two previously announced prizes — $500,000 from Fitz Gate Ventures and $250,000 from Montrose Lane — were not given out.

The Venture Houston organizers are already looking forward to next year's program, but in the meantime Guitar had a parting call to action.

"Keep helping your fellow entrepreneur," she says, "that's really what Venture Houston 2021 is really about at the end of the day. The entrepreneur journey is a difficult one — often a lonely one — and sometimes one of hard knocks. Please keep finding entrepreneurs within your ecosystem. Let's help them with our advice, our capital, and our understanding."

Finding funding might be harder during the pandemic. But there are some startups thinking outside the box to attain theirs. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

How Houston startups can find funding in the age of coronavirus

Houston voices

Almost eight months in to the pandemic and many startups are still fighting to survive. Finding funding has become harder in an era the New York Times calls "The Great Unwinding." But not every startup is succumbing to a bleak fate. Some have shown unique strategies for attaining funding. Here, we'll delve into a few examples of startup companies whose founders have managed to snag funding and stay afloat amid the crashing waters of coronavirus.

Government contracts

Payam Banazadeh, CEO of Capella Space, told Graham Winfrey, senior technology editor for Inc., that it would behoove tech startups to look into acquiring government contracts if possible. His Silicon Valley-based satellite communications startup snagged a lucrative government contract with the Department of Defense. "The government seeks startups that are doing unique things. If they find a product they like, they're going to pursue it. Government contracts help raise additional funding while also de-risking companies in the eyes of investors," Banazadeh said.

Funding conversations matter

Nesh is a company based in Houston that acts as a smart assistant for the energy industry. The startup spent the pandemic engaged in conversations with potential investors. "It's easier to talk to investors at this time. We've had more conversations in the past few months than all of 2019, but nobody is willing to write checks just yet," said Sidd Gupta, founder of Nesh, to Crunchbase News, a tech startup-centric outlet.

The Houston-based company also pivoted by expanding into other oil and gas areas like renewables. Nesh even decided to make its platform accessible free of charge during the shutdown.

Take matters into your own hands

Laally is a breastfeeding assistance device company. During their funding strategizing, they examined all the usual funding avenues: VC, angels, debt, non-profit and potential partnerships with bigger entities. Most of these sources asked for proof of concept and a proven history of solid sales before even thinking of putting money on the table.

Well, that wasn't possible for founders Max and Kate Spivak. They decided to go it alone. Self-funding. "As a family and rookie entrepreneurs, we made the decision to put our money in the balance and hire a partner for the tech part of the business," Max Spivak said told Crunchbase News.

"Even when things got rough as the pandemic worsened, and they did get very rough for us, we didn't have pressure from investors to liquidate assets or investors demanding their money back. That's because we were our own funders," said Kate Spivak.

Creativity can conquer COVID-19

Sometimes adversity is the mother of creativity. These three startup founders stepped outside the box of traditional funding strategies. They discovered ways to change their companies and attain funding during a pandemic that has its foot on the neck of the economy.

Thanks to people like Sidd Gupta, Payam Banazadeh, and the Spivaks, startup founders have a better idea of what they need to do for their startups to live another day. For their companies to see a light at the end of an 8-month long tunnel. The pandemic might have our faces covered, our friends at arm's length, and our jobs in limbo. But it cannot strip away the power of human ingenuity, innovation, and creativity. The founders named above are walking proof.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

These 10 companies are ones to look out for. Getty Images

Rice Alliance names 10 most promising energy technology companies at its annual forum

Best of the best

From fast-charging batteries and hydrogen fuel alternatives to metals recycling and artificial intelligence-driven data tools, energy tech startups have a lot to offer the industry.

After nearly 60 pitches, the Rice Alliance for for Technology and Entrepreneurship named 10 startups to look out for in the energy industry. The announcement was made at the conclusion of the annual Energy and Clean Technology Venture Forum hosted at Rice University on September 11.

Of the 10, five hail from Houston. Check out this year's energy tech startups to look out for.

Sensytec

Fresh off a win from Houston's inaugural MassChallenge Texas cohort, Houston-based Sensytec again scored big. Sesnsytec's technology is known as the "smart concrete" because they've created a device that can be embedded into concrete and monitor its structure in real time. The company was founded out of the University of Houston in 2016 by Ody de la Paz.

Rheidiant

Another Houston-based company, Rheidiant uses industrial Internet of Things to optimize data from the pipelines. As a result, Rheidiant's technology can increase productivity, reduce leaks, quickly respond in emergency situations, and enhance visibility in the field. Rheidiant was founded in 2014 by CEO Murat Ocalan.

Nesh

Houston-based Nesh has created a smart assistant for oil and gas. Using artificial intelligence, Nesh can answer any question from an oil and gas employee to improve their decision-making process and cut down on the time it takes to find solutions. Nesh was founded in 2018 by Sidd Gupta and the company closed its seed round in April.

GBatteries

GBatteries, based in Ottawa, Canada, is changing the lithium battery charging game. With a mission of revolutionizing the electric car industry, GBatteries has created an artificial intelligence-backed technology that can charge a lithium battery to half full in 5 minutes. The company has 10 patents granted and 28 pending and has pilot programs in the works with automotive companies.

HARBO Technologies

Tel Aviv, Israel-based HARBO Technologies bills itself as the fastest and most effective oil spill response system in the world.The company's T-Fence system can be deployed quickly and by a team of as little as two people. HARBO was founded in 2013 by CEO Boaz Ur and has raised three rounds of funding, according to Crunchbase.

Sensorfield

It's not the first time Houston-based Sensorfield has been deemed most promising by the Rice Alliance. The company has created easy to install, wireless devices for monitoring throughout the industrial process. In May, the startup was selected for Chevron Technology Ventures' Catalyst Program.

MolyWorks Materials Corp.

California startup, MolyWorks Materials Corp., is improving the way industrial materials are recycled by building by creating a network of distributed recycling and additive manufacturing. Old metals materials go in, and metallic powder for manufacturing new products come out.

Lilac Solutions

Oakland, California-based Lilac Solutions exists to enhance lithium production as the demand rises with the growth of the electronic vehicles industry. Lilac has created a unique ion exchange technology that can lower the cost of lithium production while increasing the speed. The company is currently operating pilot programs.

Mission Secure

Mission Secure Inc. has created an industrial control system that can protect energy companies from potential cybersecurity threats as well as educate on the process. Based in Charlottesville, Virginia, MSI is venture backed and serving clients in Houston.

Syzygy Plasmonics

Houston-based Syzygy Plasmonics is fresh off a $5.8 million series A funding round it closed in August. The company is creating a hydrogen fuel cell technology that produces a cheaper source of energy that releases fewer carbon emissions. The hydrogen-fueled technology originated out of research done over two decades by two Rice University professors, Naomi Halas and Peter Nordlander. Earlier this summer, the Rice Alliance named Syzygy a most promising startup at the Offshore Technology Conference.

The new programming geared at idea-stage startups has officially commenced at TMC Innovation Institute. Courtesy of TMCx

New TMCx program launches, C-level execs named at Houston startups, and more innovation news

Short stories

There's been a lot of recent Houston innovation news, and you might have missed something. Keep up to date with all the news happening among startups and technology in Houston in this innovation news roundup.

If you know of innovation-focused news happening, email me at natalie@innovationmap.com with the details and subscribe to our daily newsletter that sends fresh stories straight to your inboxes every morning.

TMCalpha premieres 

Courtesy of TMC

The Texas Medical Center has long counseled budding medical entrepreneurs in various capacities through its TMC Innovation Institute, but wanted to introduce programming specifically for early-stage companies. That's how TMC alpha was born and announced at the most recent TMCx Demo Day.

The program officially launched on July 18 and will host meetups on the third Thursday of every month.

"Over the past five years, TMC Innovation has blossomed into a global proving ground for healthcare startup companies from across the world, and we could not be more pleased with the myriad ways in which the ecosystem here has expanded in nature," says TMC Innovation Director Tom Luby in a release. "That being said, we realized that TMC Innovation needed to do more for the local innovation community and offer ample resources to support homegrown talent from within the confines of the largest medical city in the world. With TMC alpha, the hope is to connect anyone with a fledgling healthcare idea to the TMC Innovation network and create a two-way channel of meaningful dialogue."

Innowatts scores extra funding and names new C-level exec

Photo via innowatts.com

Houston-based AI-enabled analytics company, Innowatts, is growing in more ways than one. The company, which is fresh off an over $18.2 million Series B fundraise, added move funds and a new C-level executive.

Veronorte, a South American venture capital firm backed by one of the largest utilities in Colombia, became an additional investor in the company with an undisclosed contribution. Meanwhile, Eric Danziger joined the company as its new chief revenue officer. He will be tasked with the growth and sales of Innowatts' eUtility™ product.

"As the utility grid becomes more complex with the proliferation of electric vehicles and distributed generation," says Danziger in a release, "utility companies have to adapt to the data generated and needs of their consumers to manage these complex requirements."

Startup snags free office space prize

Photo courtesy of The Cannon

Shoot, a digital marketplace that simplifies the photographer and videographer booking process, has scored free office space in the newly opened Cannon building after receiving the second annual Insperity Innovation Scholarship.

The company was co-founded by Simbai Mutandiro and Alina Merida and has already launched its beta platform. The company will release its next version of the platform soon.

"Our relationship with The Cannon and the Insperity Innovation Scholarship are part of our initiative to help startups become successful more quickly by connecting and collaborating with like-minded individuals," says Larry Shaffer, Insperity senior vice president of marketing and business development, in a release. "We congratulate Shoot on receiving this scholarship and wish the co- founders continued success in furthering their entrepreneurial dream."

The other three finalists in the contest — Delfin, Social Chains, and SOTAOG — will receive open desk memberships at The Cannon for six months.

Houston falls low on the list of cities booming with growing private companies

Texas Money

Getty Images

When it comes to the major metros with the biggest jump in private businesses with over $1 million in revenue, Houston is the last on the list for Texas cities. LendingTree looked at the data, and, between 2014 and 2016, Houston only saw an increase of 4.9 percent in million-dollar business growth. This earned the Bayou City a No. 32 ranking across the country.

Dallas was slightly ahead of Houston with 5.2 percent growth and a No. 29 rank. Meanwhile, Austin earned the top spot with 15.1 percent growth. San Antonio, the only other Texas metro in the study, ranked No. 12 with 9 percent growth.

Nesh forms partnership

Oil rig

Photo courtesy of Thomas Miller/Breitling Energy

The Woodlands-based WellDatabase has announced a partnership with Nesh, an AI-optimized tool that's like the Siri or Alexa of oil and gas.

"The technology is amazing and we are thrilled to work with the Nesh team," writes John Ferrell, CEO of WellDatabase, in a blog post. "The integration allows Nesh to run real-time queries against WellDatabase. Users can ask a multitude of questions and get instant answers. They can also work with the Nesh team directly to train and build new questions and workflows."

Rice University and Cognite join forces

Courtesy of Cognite

When Oslo, Norway-based Cognite announced its dual U.S. headquarters in Houston and Austin, it had plans to engage universities from the get go. Now, the company, which specializes in data software with industrial applications, has officially created a partnership and internship program with Rice University.

"This partnership illustrates Cognite's commitment to attracting top people to build the most talented software engineering team in the world," says John Markus Lervik, Cognite co-founder and CEO, in a release. "Cognite solves some of the most complex problems related to industrial digitalization. To do that, we need the best minds, so partnering with Rice University was a natural choice."

Rice students are currently in Norway this summer working for Cognite as a part as the inaugural program.

The Cannon teams up with Thompson & Knight

Courtesy of The Cannon

Houston-based law firm Thompson & Knight has officially signed on to provide resources for The Cannon startups in a strategic partnership between the two companies.

"Thompson & Knight is pleased to partner with Houston-based entrepreneurs who are building the innovation, services, and technological platforms of the very near future," says Mark M. Sloan, managing partner of Thompson & Knight, in a news release. "We will offer our experience in the issues common to startup businesses, including intellectual property, technology, corporate, labor, and other areas of counsel that will help further the goals of these pioneering companies."

The law firm will have an office in The Cannon's recently opened building in West Houston.

Solugen names president

Getty Images


In May, Houston-based chemicals company, Solugen Inc., closed a $32 million round. Now, the company has put a portion of that money to work to hired the newest executive on the team. Jason Roberts, who has a decade of chemicals and oil and gas experience, has joined Solugen as president.

"What I found most compelling about Solugen was the company's quick successes and their overarching goal of decarbonizing the chemicals industry," says Roberts in a release. "The company's fundamental chemistry and technologies have created products that no one in the industry currently has. I am excited to join this young company's fast moving team at such a significant time in its history and look forward to helping scale their innovative products and services."

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Photos: Here's a sneak peek at The Ion Houston's construction progress

eye on the ion

The Ion Houston is expected to open its doors this year, and the building's exterior is close to completion. Now, the construction team is focusing on interiors and then tenant build outs.

The 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub owned and managed by Rice Management Co. is slated to be a convening building for startups, corporations, academic partners, investors, and more. The building is organized as follows:

  • The underground Lower Level will act as academic flex space with a few classrooms and open-concept desks for The Ion's accelerators, including: The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, DivInc, the Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator, and the Aerospace Innovation Hub and Accelerator. There will also be an event space and The Ion's own programming.
  • On the first, street-level floor, The Ion's restaurant tenants will reside with access from both the greenspace as well as into the building. The Ion's first three restaurant tenants include: Late August, Common Bond, and STUFF'd Wings.
  • Additionally, the first floor will be home to a venture studio and the prototyping lab. There is additional space available for other tenants.
  • On the second floor, there will be 58,000 square feet of coworking space managed by Common Desk. Note: For floors 2 and up of the Ion, tenants will have access cards that allow them entrance. The first and lower floors will not require access cards.
  • The third floor of the building will house eight to 10 tenants each with 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space. Chevron was announced as the first tenant and will reside on this floor.
  • On the fourth and fifth floors, The Ion will house one to two larger tenants on each level. These levels of the building were added on to the existing structure. The fourth floor features two balconies that tenants will have access to. Microsoft is signed on to have its space on half of the fifth floor.
The Ion is still planning on an open date in late spring or summer. For leasing information, click here. Scroll through the slideshow of construction images and renderings to see the progress of the building.

Exterior nears completion

Photo by Natalie Harms

The building's exterior is almost complete and kept much of the original building's facade. The new materials brought in match the existing color scheme.

Texas winery taps Houston tech company for innovative AR experience

cheers

The Lone Star State is home to a vibrant and innovative wine scene, but, just like most hospitality businesses, winemakers missed the opportunity to engage with their patrons amid the pandemic. With a new idea of how to engage its customers, Messina Hof, an award-winning Texas winery, rolled out a new tech-optimized, at-home experience.

The winery partnered with VISION, a Houston-based production group, to create an augmented reality app. Combining the efforts of Messina Hof's in-house label design team and the animation capabilities of VISION, the app took four months to design.

"It was a labor of love for both parties to be able to experiment with this; it was uncharted territory," says Karen Bonarrigo, owner and chief administrative officer of Messina Hof.

The three wines released — Emblaze (Sweet Red), Vitality (Dry White), and Abounding (Dry Red) — each tells a story through the AR experience.

"We wanted to try not only and push the technology as far as we can push it, but also try to really incorporate some heavy storytelling," says Dan Pratt, VISION Creative Director.

The idea to incorporate technology felt like a natural one to Bonariggo.

"The earth, water, and sunshine all go into developing what the profile is for each wine," explains Bonarrigo.

Each of the three wines have scannable labels that bring up a VR experience for app users. Photo courtesy of Messina Hof

VISION, who worked alongside Messina Hof to develop the project, blended the winery's rich family ties with the Old World history of winemaking.

When customers download the app and hold their camera over the label, a trailing vine emerges onto the screen and wraps around the bottle. As vines grow around each bottle, the three each visually signify a different natural element of winemaking — earth, water and the sun. As a rustic sign emerges, it prompts users to then click for recipe pairing recommendations.

Rather than a single-use experience, Messina Hof and VISION wanted to create an app that users could both engage with and learn from. The AR app allows users to view recipes and browse wines in one place.

"We knew we wanted the app to be functional for people to be able to interact with both when they're doing the AR experience, but then also to be able to continue to come back to it later," shares Bonarrigo. While AR wine labels have emerged in some California vineyards, she says, "it's definitely uncharted territory for the Texas industry."

Overseeing the food and wine pairing at Messina Hof is one of Bonarrigo's passions, so it was a natural choice to include recipes in the app. Messina Hof offers a concept called Vineyard Cuisine, coined from the Bonarrigo family cookbook, and incorporates wine in every meal at the vineyard.

"The idea of tying [the wine] to a recipe gave us the opportunity to be able to share new ways [our customers] could use wines in their everyday cooking," she explains.

She hopes the app's recipe feature will help families connect together.

"So often we get used to sitting down at the table, eating really quickly, and then moving on to the next thing, but there's so much connection that can happen with each other when we can slow down a little bit and have a conversation," she continues.

To Pratt, AR was the perfect way to emphasize and expand on the shared experience of wine.

"We wanted this to be an extension of that experience for people. You know, based on the love of wine and laughter with friends," he says.

For those who can't currently gather in a room together, Bonarrigo has hopes that Messina Hof can bring people together from afar.

"I think now more than ever the ability for our regular customers, even within Texas, to then share those wines with family members or friends that are outside the state seems more intuitive," she explains.

"We are so used to being creatures of habit in sharing our wine face-to-face with people that when we had the unexpected opportunity to not do that, we realized that we still have ways to be able to connect with customers through technology," says Bonarrigo.

She finds the "ease of access of being able to connect with them through the online web store" has kept Messina Hof in touch with customers throughout the pandemic, as well as digital happy hours and tasting events.

Messina Hof Harvest Green Winery & Kitchen, the newest location, opened in February, becoming the Greater Houston-area's largest winery. The space features an expansive tasting room and 83-foot wine bar, full-service restaurant, covered patio, two private tasting rooms, a wine production, barrel room, and wine warehouse.

"We knew that when we launched that location that we wanted to be able to have a series of wines at that location that was special, but also out of the box," says Bonarrigo.

Bonarrigo and her husband Paul have ushered in the expansion of Messina Hof over the last nine years. The family business began in 1977 when Paul's parents, Paul Vincent and Merrill, started an experimental vineyard. Messina Hof has locations in Bryan, Grapevine, Fredericksburg, and Richmond.

"This is our largest winery expansion endeavor that we've done," she says. "We wanted the wines to be extra special."

Similar to Messina Hof, companies across industries are seeking to explore interactive technologies to reach their customer base. "A number of our clients, and also new clients that we may not have been able to reach before, have certainly reached out to us to figure out new ways to reach an audience," shares Pratt.

Winemaking may be an Old World skill, but Messina Hof is excited to bring Texas wine into the future.

"So much of winemaking is science, and so much of it is art. There's always this push and pull as to which is more of a majority in the end product," explains Bonarrigo, who notes that Messina Hof has been using technology to innovate and optimize the growing process. The new AR app is a push toward bringing the experience her family loves into the homes of customers.

"This definitely gives a new talking point to wine," she says.