VPC founder Claudio Gutierrez. Courtesy photo

Flexibility has always been a core component of Valens Project Consulting, but the unpredictable last year — as COVID-19 has ravaged the economy and oil industry, especially — has strengthened that vital skill even more.

"As the lockdown loomed and predictions of a closed economy foretold the massive loss of business, I was ready to hunker down and expect the loss of 100 percent of our customers," says VPC's owner and founder Claudio Gutierrez. "But by May, VPC had lost only a quarter of our customers, and by September we were down by just 50 percent — not nearly the disaster I had been prepared for."

Gutierrez understood that this situation was ultimately temporary, and when they were able to, these accounts would return as customers — with no hard feelings from his end.

Instead, VPC focused on what it could do to improve its own operations during the pandemic, and top of the list was growing the staff. Since the worst of the lockdown, VPC has expanded its permanent engineering resources in a variety of disciplines, including electrical engineer, process engineer, and reservoir engineer.

Its industries have expanded, too. VPC started out mainly in the engineering field, taking on project management, process improvement, cost reductions, and more on a contract basis.

Now, after a slight COVID delay, it has expanded its base of fabrication and industrial distribution companies to include those offering disaster relief (such as temporary emergency housing), automation companies, and construction companies.

VPC is even venturing into public projects, with a few in partnership with Harris County currently in the works.

Gutierrez also focused on the value of face-to-face meetings by traveling to seek out new markets, and now supports projects in Florida, Washington, and Louisiana. Next on the docket: expanding outside the U.S. and into Latin America.

But until these global plans can be realized, Valens Project Consulting has been organizing virtual activities and developing a podcast presence. You might have spotted them on LinkedIn, where Gutierrez's personal network has grown significantly and VPC has been adding followers daily.

The importance of in-person networking has not been lost on Gutierrez, however. He makes sure all precautions are in place for both his staff and clients, and that everyone's safety is top of mind.

"I've become an advocate for in-person meetings," he says. "I don't want virtual meetings to become 'the new normal.'"

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Visit the website learn more about Valens Project Consulting or its offshoot, Potens Energy.

When time is money, speed is everything. Photo by chain45154/Getty Images

Houston entrepreneur explains how aiming small generates big growth even in trying times

Project by Project

Since founding Valens Project Consulting in 2017, Claudio Gutierrez has seen his business continue a steady climb upwards as smaller companies discover the benefit of having engineering assistance on retainer.

While large firms might have an entire department dedicated to engineering, project management, process improvement, and cost reduction, it is the medium-to-small companies looking to fill that gap on a case-by-case basis that are Gutierrez's bread and butter.

"I attribute our success to our business model," he says. "The companies we work with may not always need our services, but when they do, they need them yesterday."

A low-cost retainer-like structure means that — even better — those services have already been paid for. Larger companies can blow through their budgets quickly, but Valens' small, consistent price tag means they are always available and ready to begin the next project.

"It sounds counterintuitive to seek out smaller companies, but it works for us," he says.

The Valens Project Consulting team can also leap into action immediately with an incredibly quick response time.

"Being so flexible has been very valuable to us," Gutierrez says. "Some large oil and gas companies tend to move slowly, but when time is money, small businesses need that speed."

Valens is ensuring even quicker response times during this current uncertain environment caused by COVID-19, with constant communication and greater flexibility with payments. And now, in the midst of the worst oil crash in history, he understands how important it is to be able to support his company's customers with flexible payment terms and going above and beyond what's expected of engineering support.

"We're all wearing different hats at various times these days — it's a policy that our current customers appreciate," says Gutierrez.

It's understanding what these companies need, and when they need it, that is Gutierrez's special skill, in addition to something unique for his industry.

"For an engineer, I've been told I have people skills," he says. In fact, his warm demeanor and amiable personality work in tandem with other "soft skills" such as being trilingual and growing up global (he's originally from Nicaragua), having experienced different cultures all over the world.

Claudio GutierrezClaudio Gutierrez. Courtesy photo

Though Valens Project Consulting specializes mainly in the oil and gas industry, it has made inroads into food distribution and the medical field.

It's also expanding into a different vertical: the distribution of heavy industrial equipment. Potens Energy ("potens" means "power" in Latin, just as "valens" means "effective" or "strong") was recently formalized as a new company with Gutierrez's business partner, Danny Salinas, PhD.

"Diversification is key," says Gutierrez. "While the bulk of our business will always be energy and power generation, it doesn't hurt to explore necessary elements that all people need."

Claudio Gutierrez. Courtesy photo

Houston entrepreneur engineers support solutions for businesses

In the Lone Star State, size is often seen as a badge of honor — after all, "everything's bigger in Texas." However, small and medium-sized businesses are the bread and butter of Claudio Gutierrez's engineering consulting business, Valens Project Consulting.

Throughout his years as an engineer and manager at a variety of companies, Gutierrez noticed a gap.

"I found that smaller companies that didn't have a need for dedicated engineering departments occasionally did need help with engineering, project management, process improvement, cost reduction, and things of that nature," he says.

In 2017, Gutierrez decided to do something about it and officially launched Valens Project Consulting. The company specializes in helping small and medium-sized businesses grow their revenue by focusing on business efficiencies and strengthening an existing customer base.

Valens is a Latin word that translates to "effective" or "strong," and those are Gutierrez's goals for the companies with which he works.

Based in Houston since 2007, the Nicaraguan-born Gutierrez has worked at a variety of companies, ranging from an armored vehicle manufacturer to several cable management companies. At each company, Gutierrez's hard work was consistently rewarded with promotions and projects all over the world.

Throughout his years in the engineering world, Gutierrez honed his skills as a project manager and was also known for his great people skills. So he decided to combine his knack for sales with his engineering acumen and fill a void he'd begun noticing in the industry: that of reliable engineering staffing for companies that don't necessarily need an entire department.

Gutierrez started out as the sole employee of Valens Project Consulting, but now manages a growing staff of engineering professionals. The company has expanded its services from simply project management to include business development, lean manufacturing implementation, and more. They're currently in the initial phases of adding a new business vertical — industrial distribution — through which Valens Project Consulting will sell heavy equipment.

One factor that sets Valens Project Consulting apart is how nimble it is. A smaller staff, Gutierrez explains, can be "extremely flexible and have extremely fast reaction times." Valens Project Consulting achieves this through a combination of remote work and collaboration with other small companies.

"We understand our customers' intents and needs, and we're mindful of limited budgets, so we believe in fulfilling the spirit of the project, rather than being beholden to the letter of the project," says Gutierrez. "We can do this because we fully embrace technology that allows for remote work as much as possible, and by not being captive to a single, central location."

In addition to his contributions to Houston's business economy, Gutierrez is a staunch participant in and supporter of the arts. He has played classical piano for nearly three decades and used to be in a heavy metal band. Gutierrez is a huge fan of the Houston Symphony and is on the Houston Grand Opera board of trustees.

Gutierrez is both creative and analytical, and combines these two mindsets to create holistic business solutions for his clients.

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Houston college lands $5M NASA grant to launch new aerospace research center

to infinity and beyond

The University of Houston was one of seven minority-serving institutions to receive a nearly $5 million grant this month to support aerospace research focused on extending human presence on the moon and Mars.

The $4,996,136 grant over five years is funded by the NASA Office of STEM Engagement Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) Institutional Research Opportunity (MIRO) program. It will go toward creating the NASA MIRO Inflatable Deployable Environments and Adaptive Space Systems (IDEAS2) Center at UH, according to a statement from the university.

“The vision of the IDEAS2 Center is to become a premier national innovation hub that propels NASA-centric, state-of-the-art research and promotes 21st-century aerospace education,” Karolos Grigoriadis, Moores Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of aerospace engineering at UH, said in a statement.

Another goal of the grant is to develop the next generation of aerospace professionals.

Graduate, undergraduate and even middle and high school students will conduct research out of IDEAS2 and work closely with the Johnson Space Center, located in the Houston area.

The center will collaborate with Texas A&M University, Houston Community College, San Jacinto College and Stanford University.

Grigoriadis will lead the center. Dimitris Lagoudas, from Texas A&M University, and Olga Bannova, UH's research professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Space Architecture graduate program, will serve as associate directors.

"Our mission is to establish a sustainable nexus of excellence in aerospace engineering research and education supported by targeted multi-institutional collaborations, strategic partnerships and diverse educational initiatives,” Grigoriadis said.

Industrial partners include Boeing, Axiom Space, Bastion Technologies and Lockheed Martin, according to UH.

UH is part of 21 higher-education institutions to receive about $45 million through NASA MUREP grants.

According to NASA, the six other universities to received about $5 million MIRO grants over five years and their projects includes:

  • Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage: Alaska Pacific University Microplastics Research and Education Center
  • California State University in Fullerton: SpaceIgnite Center for Advanced Research-Education in Combustion
  • City University of New York, Hunter College in New York: NASA-Hunter College Center for Advanced Energy Storage for Space
  • Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee: Integrative Space Additive Manufacturing: Opportunities for Workforce-Development in NASA Related Materials Research and Education
  • New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark:AI Powered Solar Eruption Center of Excellence in Research and Education
  • University of Illinois in Chicago: Center for In-Space Manufacturing: Recycling and Regolith Processing

Fourteen other institutions will receive up to $750,000 each over the course of a three-year period. Those include:

  • University of Mississippi
  • University of Alabama in Huntsville
  • Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge
  • West Virginia University in Morgantown
  • University of Puerto Rico in San Juan
  • Desert Research Institute, Reno, Nevada
  • Oklahoma State University in Stillwater
  • Iowa State University in Ames
  • University of Alaska Fairbanks in Fairbanks
  • University of the Virgin Islands in Charlotte Amalie
  • University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu
  • University of Idaho in Moscow
  • University of Arkansas in Little Rock
  • South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City
  • Satellite Datastreams

NASA's MUREP hosted its annual "Space Tank" pitch event at Space Center Houston last month. Teams from across the country — including three Texas teams — pitched business plans based on NASA-originated technology. Click here to learn more about the seven finalists.

Booming Houston suburb, other Texas towns among the fastest-growing U.S. cities in 2023

by the numbers

One Houston suburb experienced one of the most rapid growth spurts in the country last year: Fulshear, whose population grew by 25.6 percent, more than 51 times that of the nation’s growth rate of 0.5 percent. The city's population was 42,616 as of July 1, 2023.

According to U.S. Census Bureau's Vintage 2023 Population Estimates, released Thursday, May 16, Fulshear — which lies west of Katy in northwest Fort Bend County - ranked No. 2 on the list of fastest-growing cities with a population of 20,000 or more. It's no wonder iconic Houston restaurants like Molina's Cantina see opportunities there.

The South still dominates the nation's growth, even as America’s Northeast and Midwest cities are rebounding slightly from years of population drops. The census estimates showed 13 of the 15 fastest-growing cities in the U.S. were in the South — eight in Texas alone.

The Texas cities joining Fulshear on the fastest-growing-cities list are:

  • Celina (No. 1) with 26.6 percent growth (42,616 total population)
  • Princeton (No. 3) with 22.3 percent growth (28,027 total population)
  • Anna (No. 4) with 16.9 percent growth (27,501 total population)
  • Georgetown (No. 8) with 10.6 percent growth (96,312 total population)
  • Prosper (No. 9) with 10.5 percent growth (41,660 total population)
  • Forney (No. 10) with 10.4 percent growth (35,470 total population)
  • Kyle (No. 11) with 9 percent growth (62,548 total population)

Texas trends
San Antonio saw the biggest growth spurt in the United States last year, numbers-wise. The Alamo City added about 22,000 residents. San Antonio now has nearly 1.5 million people, making it the the seventh largest city in the U.S. and second largest in Texas.

Its population boom was followed by those of other Southern cities, including Fort Worth; Charlotte, North Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida; and Port St. Lucie, Florida.

Fast-growing Fort Worth (978,000) surpassed San Jose, California (970,000) to become the 12th most populous city in the country.

Meanwhile, population slowed in the Austin area. Jacksonville, Florida (986,000), outpaced Austin (980,000), pushing the Texas capital to 11th largest city in the U.S. (barely ahead of Fort Worth).

Population growth in Georgetown, outside Austin, slowed by more than one-fourth its population growth in 2022, the report says, from 14.4 percent to 10.6 percent. It's the same story in the Central Texas city of Kyle, whose population growth decreased by nearly 2 percent to 9 percent in 2023.

Most populated cities
New York City with nearly 8.3 million people remained the nation's largest city in population as of July 1, 2023. Los Angeles was second at close to 4 million residents, while Chicago was third at 2.7 million and Houston was fourth at 2.3 million residents.

The 15 populous U.S. cities in 2023 were:

  1. New York, New York (8.3 million)
  2. Los Angeles, California (4 million)
  3. Chicago, Illinois (2.7 million)
  4. Houston, Texas (2.3 million)
  5. Phoenix, Arizona (1.7 million)
  6. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1.6 million)
  7. San Antonio (1.5 million)
  8. San Diego, California (1.4 million)
  9. Dallas (1.3 million)
  10. Jacksonville, Florida (986,000)
  11. Austin (980,000)
  12. Fort Worth (978,000)
  13. San Jose (970,000)
  14. Columbus, Ohio (913,000)
  15. Charlotte, North Carolina (911,000)

Modest reversals of population declines were seen last year in large cities in the nation's Northeast and Midwest. Detroit, for example, which grew for the first time in decades, had seen an exodus of people since the 1950s. Yet the estimates released Thursday show the population of Michigan’s largest city rose by just 1,852 people from 631,366 in 2022 to 633,218 last year.

It's a milestone for Detroit, which had 1.8 million residents in the 1950s only to see its population dwindle and then plummet through suburban white flight, a 1967 race riot, the migration to the suburbs by many of the Black middle class and the national economic downturn that foreshadowed the city's 2013 bankruptcy filing.

Three of the largest cities in the U.S. that had been bleeding residents this decade staunched those departures somewhat. New York City, which has lost almost 550,000 residents this decade so far, saw a drop of only 77,000 residents last year, about three-fifths the numbers from the previous year.

Los Angeles lost only 1,800 people last year, following a decline in the 2020s of almost 78,000 residents. Chicago, which has lost almost 82,000 people this decade, only had a population drop of 8,200 residents last year.

And San Francisco, which has lost a greater share of residents this decade than any other big city — almost 7.5 percent — actually grew by more than 1,200 residents last year.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

How this Houston clean energy entrepreneur is navigating geothermal's hype to 100x business growth

houston innovators podcast Episode 237

Geothermal energy has been growing in recognition as a major player in the clean energy mix, and while many might think of it as a new climatetech solution, Tim Latimer, co-founder and CEO of Fervo Energy, knows better.

"Every overnight success is a decade in the making, and I think Fervo, fortunately — and geothermal as a whole — has become much more high profile recently as people realize that it can be a tremendous solution to the challenges that our energy sector and climate are facing," he says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

In fact, Latimer has been bullish on geothermal as a clean energy source since he quit his job as a drilling engineer in oil and gas to pursue a dual degree program — MBA and master's in earth sciences — at Stanford University. He had decided that, with the reluctance of incumbent energy companies to try new technologies, he was going to figure out how to start his own company. Through the Stanford program and Activate, a nonprofit hardtech program that funded two years of Fervo's research and development, Latimer did just that.

And the bet has more than paid off. Since officially launching in 2017, Fervo Energy has raised over $430 million — most recently collecting a $244 million series D round. Even more impressive to Latimer — his idea for drilling horizontal wells works. The company celebrated a successful pilot program last summer by achieving continuous carbon-free geothermal energy production with Project Red, a northern Nevada site made possible through a 2021 partnership with Google.

Next up for Fervo is growing and scaling at around a 100x pace. While Project Red included three wells, Project Cape, a Southwest Utah site, will include around 100 wells with significantly reduced drilling cost and an estimated 2026 delivery. Latimer says there are a dozen other projects like Project Cape that are in the works.

"It's a huge ramp up in our drilling, construction, and powerplant programs from our pilot project, but we've already had tremendous success there," Latimer says of Project Cape. "We think our technology has a really bright future."

While Latimer looks ahead to the rapid growth of Fervo Energy, he says it's all due to the foundation he put in place for the company, which has a culture built on the motto, "Build things that last."

“You’re not going to get somewhere that really changes the world by cutting corners and taking short steps. And, if you want to move the needle on something as complicated as the global energy system that has been built up over hundreds of years with trillions of dollars of capital invested in it – you’re not going to do it overnight," he says on the show. "We’re all in this for the long haul together."