Robert Kester joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his entrepreneurial journey. Photo courtesy of Honeywell

There are several ways for a Houston startup to make an exit — it could IPO, receive massive private equity funding, or even get acquired. It wasn't always in the plan for Robert Kester to have his startup take the acquisition route, but he saw a huge opportunity to get the technology he had worked on for a decade into the field — and he took it.

Kester co-founded Rebellion Photonics in 2010. A doctoral candidate at Rice University at the time, Kester had an idea for scaling a sensor technology that can detect chemicals. The developed device could be used to automate the process and improve safety on oil and gas sites.

"When we first got going, it was an idea on a napkin. We had no idea if it could work or not," Kester says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "So getting those first pilots from companies like BP — some of these major companies believing in us and deploying the technology. We grew it to a point where we'd shown value, and we were scaling the solution."

Kester says he initially saw this application benefitting onsite safety, but it quickly evolved into being a key took to promoting sustainability in a world where climate change is increasingly on everyone's mind. The company started considering a way to get its technology to scale — and fast. In 2019, Rebellion exited in an acquisition by Honeywell.

"For us it just made sense that we could team up with Honeywell and figure out how we could scale this thing globally and quickly, so that we could help be a solution for climate change," Kester continues.

Now, as president and general manager at Honeywell Rebellion, Kester still oversees his technology and, with the support of Honeywell, is able to see it be deployed at a quick pace.

Amid the pandemic, he was even able to make a pivot with his technology. Recognizing the importance of temperature reading as an early indicator of COVID-19, Kester and his team worked to develop ThermoRebellion, a temperature scanning technology that was implemented in airports — like JFK and Boston's Logan Airport — to screen travelers.

"I think the latest statistic I heard is that we've scanned over a million passengers coming in and out of the country," Kester says. "For me, I get a lot of satisfaction out of the fact that we're working on important issues in trying to keep the country safe."

Kester shares more about what he's focused on at Honeywell Rebellion on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

This week's Houston innovators to know includes Tudor Palaghita of Camppedia, Robert Kester of Honeywell, and Ed Wooten of Smith. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's Houston innovators to know are all using technology — but in completely different ways and across various sectors.

From creating a circular and sustainable economy for your company's technology to an online platform for your child's various activities — and even a socially distant way of checking temperatures — here is this week's who's who of Houston innovation.

Tudor Palaghita, CEO and founder of Camppedia

Tudor Palaghita has advanced his startup, Camppedia, so that parents can have virtual and in-person activities for their kids this summer. Photo courtesy of Camppedia

Like most of the world, Tudor Palaghita's year isn't going as planned. The founder of Camppedia — an online marketplace and tool for parents finding and managing their kids' activities — was hoping this summer was going to be his company's break-out moment and proof of concept. Instead, he's had to act quickly and pivot to focus on community and virtual opportunities.

"If anything, the pandemic forced us to move a lot of things forward," Palaghita says on the recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The focus on the community was also something coming earlier than planned, but it was the most wonderful thing to come out of this. It really feels like everybody came together to give and to help each other."

Camppedia's business model is to give local camp and program providers — mostly small businesses, Palaghita says — a place to seamlessly reach parents. Now, these providers need Camppedia's platform more than ever as parents seek options a as they return to work or continue to look for at-home entertainment for their kids. Click here to read more.

Robert Kester, founder of Rebellion Photonics and president and general manager at Honeywell

Robert Kester found a new use for his temperature monitoring tech he created for the oil and gas industry. Photo courtesy of Honeywell

As the pandemic began to spread across the country, Robert Kester saw an opportunity for his technology he built for the oil and gas industry. Kester founded Rebellion Photonics, which Honeywell acquired in December of last year, and the company's ThermoRebellion temperature software uses infrared imaging technology and artificial intelligence to quickly conduct non-invasive screenings of people before they enter offices, banks, airports, as businesses begin to reopen.

"The key component is our software powered by artificial intelligence," Kester tells InnovationMap. "Our imaging systems leverage a decade of experience in the most advanced imaging technologies for gas leak detection, fire detection, and intrusion monitoring applications. The system features uncooled high-resolution FPA infrared sensors allowing for each pixel to be assessed for temperature."

By Kester's and his team's estimates, the ThermoRebllion system will be ready to deploy as early as June. Click here to read more.

Ed Wooten, director of IT asset disposition at Smith

Building a circular economy for electronics requires attention to detail in the areas of design, buyback, or return systems, advanced recycling and recapturing, durability and repair, and urban mining, writes Ed Wooten. Photo courtesy of Smith

For 20 years, Ed Wooten has worked to help clients figure out how to navigate the processes of buyback, recycling, and repair in order to create sustainable and profitable solutions to reduce e-waste.

"The world produces 40 million tons of e-waste annually, and only 20 percent of that is being disposed of properly," Wooten writes in a guest column for InnovationMap. "A circular economy is a system in which all materials and components are kept at their highest value and where e-waste is essentially designed out of the system."

Wooten gives his advice for creating a circular economy. Click here to read more.

A temperature checking technology originally created for oil and gas industry has pivoted amid the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Honeywell

Tech giant warms up to temperature monitoring system created by Houston startup

temp tech

A Houston startup's temperature monitoring system originally developed for oil and gas facilities is being used to help companies safely get their employees back into work.

The ThermoRebellion temperature software uses technology from Houston-based Rebellion Photonics, which Honeywell acquired in December of last year. The technology uses infrared imaging technology and artificial intelligence to quickly conduct non-invasive screenings of people before they enter offices, banks, airports, as businesses begin to reopen.

Robert Kester, Rebellion Photonics founder and Honeywell president and general manager, says the ongoing health crisis called for a reimagining of the AI-driven oil and gas technology, which is used to quickly detect leaks by using a real-time monitoring platform that provides automated notifications.

"The key component is our software powered by artificial intelligence," Kester tells InnovationMap. "Our imaging systems leverage a decade of experience in the most advanced imaging technologies for gas leak detection, fire detection, and intrusion monitoring applications. The system features uncooled high-resolution FPA infrared sensors allowing for each pixel to be assessed for temperature."

As states begin to lift stay-at-home orders, a return to a new normal is expected, as people begin to go back to the workplace and have to spend time in commercial buildings surrounded by others. In Houston's Memorial Hermann Hospital, temperature scanners by Austin-based Athena Security have already been installed, minimizing contact and reducing foot traffic congestion in entrances.

"Experts believe temperature checks can become more common in public spaces," says Kester. "Our system works allows for social distancing as people don't have to queue closely. Imagine an airport, for example, it wouldn't be feasible to have passengers wait in additional long lines for temperature screening."

The ThermoRebellion system can scan individuals in groups for effective screening at a wide range of sites and venues, instantly providing temperature results in an non-invasive manner, to keep employees and customers safe from introducing and spreading coronavirus.

"It's important for people to get back to work safely, whether that's an office building or a factory, or taking a flight to meet a customer," says Kester.

Honeywell is moving the technology to its piloting phase, racing against the clock to meet the demand as businesses open for business. The system, according to Kester, is intuitive and easy to use, implementing audible and visual alarms to alert if a person has elevated body temperature. Plus, it can also be easily deployed to different access points.

The fast-tracked product couldn't have been done without the team of designers and engineers who quickly pivoted from gas imaging to body temperature solutions. The team is already recruiting potential users who are interested in implementing the system in their facilities.

By Kester's and his team's estimates, the ThermoRebllion system will be ready to deploy as early as June.

"It's going to be difficult for people to go back to busy locations without knowing that companies are taking proactive steps to protect its patrons or employees," says Kester. "We're excited to be part of the set of solutions that can help improve safety."

A new hub on Rice University campus, Houston receives national rankings, and more local innovation news. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Shell commits to $10M carbon initiative with Rice University, Houston startup acquired by Honeywell, and more innovation news

Short Stories

Even toward the end of the year and amid the holiday season, Houston's innovation news can be a lot to keep up with. Here are seven short stories of Houston innovation — from an exit for a Houston startup and a multimillion-dollar clean energy commitment from Shell to new national recognitions for Houston and 2020 plans unveiled for MassChallenge in Houston.

Shell commits $10 million to new Carbon Hub at Rice University

Matteo Pasquali will lead the new hub at Rice University. Courtesy of Rice University

Rice University has introduced its Shell-backed Carbon Hub — a research initiative to innovate zero-emissions technologies. According to a news release, Shell has committed to a $10 million arrangement for the hub.

"Trying to address climate change is like playing whack-a-mole; you think you're making something better, and you realize that made something else get worse," says Carbon Hub director, Matteo Pasquali, in the release. "For example, you make cars more fuel efficient by removing weight, and then realize you've increased CO2 emissions by using more aluminum and carbon fibers. Or you try to fix CO2 into a useful product, and you realize you now need much more energy than you had gotten by making the CO2 in the first place."

The plan is to "fundamentally change how the world uses hydrocarbons," reads the release. Rather than burning hydrocarbons for fuel, creating carbon dioxide, the hydrocarbons "will be split to make clean-burning hydrogen fuel and solid carbon materials that can be used to make buildings, cars, clothing and more."

Through the partnership with Shell — and other potential partners — the hub will help fund and lead $100 million of science and engineering initiatives. The inaugural meeting for the hub is expected to be early next year and will be hosted by The Center for Energy Studies at Rice's Baker Institute for Public Policy.

"Providing energy to the world's population in an economically and environmentally sustainable manner is the global energy challenge," says Ken Medlock, senior director of the Center for Energy Studies, in the release. "In part, this will require new technologies and forward-looking, creative thinking, which is exactly what Carbon Hub offers."

Houston-based Rebellion Photonics acquired by Honeywell

Photo via rebellionphotonics.com

Innovative gas monitoring technology company, Rebellion Photonics, founded by Allison Sawyer and Robert Kester in Houston in 2009, has been acquired by Honeywell for an undisclosed amount.

The business will be rolled into Honeywell's Safety and Productivity Solutions business, as well as through Honeywell's Performance Materials and Technologies business, according to a press release.

"Honeywell is an amazing company and a recognized leader in our industry. We are excited to be part of their world-class family," Kester, who serves as CEO of Rebellion Photonics, says in the release. "Automated visual monitoring is the future of gas leak detection. Combining our products with Honeywell's platform will make this the new industry standard for safety and environmental monitoring globally."

MassChallenge to announce details of its second Houston cohort

Photo courtesy of MassChallenge

MassChallenge Texas has released new details of its second cohort in Houston. The zero equity startup accelerator based in downtown will run its second cohort from June to September of next year. Up to 100 startups will be selected for the Houston program, and another cohort of up to 100 startups will run along the same timeline in Austin.

On the line for prizes this year is six months of free office space, experts and mentors, the MassChallenge curriculum, access to top corporate leaders, as well as cash prizes and in-kind support — valued at over $500,000.

Both Austin and Houston will celebrate the launch of the two programs on January 29 — Houston's event will take place at the Four Seasons Hotel (1300 Lamar St.) from 5:30 to 7:30 pm.

MassChallenge recently announced its new home in The Cannon's Downtown Launch Pad in partnership with Amegy Bank.

Houston named in Inc.'s top 50 cities to start a business

houston skyline

Getty Images

Houston just made it onto the list of the top 50 cities to start a business, according to Surge Cities index, Inc., and Startup Genome. Coming in at No. 45, the Bayou City ranked behind Austin (No. 1) and Dallas (No. 29).

"Houston wants to be known as the Third Coast, a place that is both a business and cultural hub," the blurb on Inc. reads. "A place where people want to be. And this city, one of the most diverse in the country, is well on its way."

The report highlights Houston's historic hold on the oil and gas industry, the Texas Medical Center's established presence, and the space innovation happening at NASA. Roger Griesmeyer, a partner at Hunton Andrews Kurth, says in the article that Houston has low regulations and taxes coupled with "a highly educated populace, great weather, and a bunch of money."

"There's such diversity and a confluence of talent and opportunity in one place," says Griesmeyer in the article. "Houston is selling a lifestyle brand with all the resources to bear."

Houston was ranked highly on three factors:

  • No. 23 for job creation
  • No. 20 for wage growth
  • No. 25 for population growth

Accenture announces finalists for Houston-based competition

Courtesy of Accenture

In February, Accenture's Houston innovation hub will host the fourth annual Accenture HealthTech Innovation Challenge. Eleven companies have been named finalists and are headed to Houston in the new year.

"This annual HealthTech challenges creates an exciting opportunity to connect healthcare incumbents with emerging businesses to drive health system evolution focused on improving the lives of consumers and clinicians by enhancing access, affordability, quality and experience," says Brian Kalis, managing director of digital health and innovation services at Accenture, in the news release. "We are all looking forward to the final round and awards ceremony on February 6, 2020 in Houston when the finalists will present to an exclusive panel of healthcare executive judges."

No Texas companies were selected as finalists. The 11 selected startups are: New York-based Capital Rx, Minneapolis-based Carrot Health, San Francisco-based Cleo, Boston-based DynamiCare Health, San Francisco-based InsightRX, United Kingdom-based Lantum, Washington, D.C.-based Mira, Denver-based Orderly Health, New York City-based Paloma Health, St. Louis-based TCARE, and Seattle-based Xealth.

Houston area ranked the 18th best-paying city for software developers

Chart via heytutor.com

According to a new report from HeyTutor.com, the Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land metroplex is the 18th best-paying city for software developers. The report factored in salary and employment statistics for Houston and other U.S. metropolitan areas using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics.

Houston's mean adjusted software developer salary is $107,672 annually, according to the report. Here are some other interesting statistics regarding the Houston area from the data:

  • Mean software developer salary (adjusted): $107,672
  • Mean software developer salary (unadjusted): $109,503 — compared to $109,914 nationally
  • Mean salary across all occupations (unadjusted): $54,290 — compared to $51,960 nationally
  • Number of software developer jobs: 20,400 — compared to $51,960 nationally
  • Median home price: $205,600 — compared to $226,800 nationally

Business idea competition calls for applications

Photo courtesy of LILIE

The Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship has announced the applications for the 2020 H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge business idea competition, which will take place on March 25. On the line is $60,000 in prize money to the teams, and the applications are open to Rice-affiliated teams until 11:59 pm on January 20.

To apply, click here.

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New Houston venture studio emerges to target early-stage hardtech, energy transition startups

funding the future

The way Doug Lee looks at it, there are two areas within the energy transition attracting capital. With his new venture studio, he hopes to target an often overlooked area that's critical for driving forward net-zero goals.

Lee describes investment activity taking place in the digital and software world — early stage technology that's looking to make the industry smarter. But, on the other end of the spectrum, investment activity can be found on massive infrastructure projects.

While both areas need funding, Lee has started his new venture studio, Flathead Forge, to target early-stage hardtech technologies.

“We are really getting at the early stage companies that are trying to develop technologies at the intersection of legacy industries that we believe can become more sustainable and the energy transition — where we are going. It’s not an ‘if’ or ‘or’ — we believe these things intersect,” he tells EnergyCapital.

Specifically, Lee's expertise is within the water and industrial gas space. For around 15 years, he's made investments in this area, which he describes as crucial to the energy transition.

“Almost every energy transition technology that you can point to has some critical dependency on water or gas,” he says. “We believe that if we don’t solve for those things, the other projects won’t survive.”

Lee, and his brother, Dave, are evolving their family office to adopt a venture studio model. They also sold off Azoto Energy, a Canadian oilfield nitrogen cryogenic services business, in December.

“We ourselves are going through a transition like our energy is going through a transition,” he says. “We are transitioning into a single family office into a venture studio. By doing so, we want to focus all of our access and resources into this focus.”

At this point, Flathead Forge has seven portfolio companies and around 15 corporations they are working with to identify their needs and potential opportunities. Lee says he's gearing up to secure a $100 million fund.

Flathead also has 40 advisers and mentors, which Lee calls sherpas — a nod to the Flathead Valley region in Montana, which inspired the firm's name.

“We’re going to help you carry up, we’re going to tie ourselves to the same rope as you, and if you fall off the mountain, we’re falling off with you,” Lee says of his hands-on approach, which he says sets Flathead apart from other studios.

Another thing that's differentiating Flathead Forge from its competition — it's dedication to giving back.

“We’ve set aside a quarter of our carried interest for scholarships and grants,” Lee says.

The funds will go to scholarships for future engineers interested in the energy transition, as well as grants for researchers studying high-potential technologies.

“We’re putting our own money where our mouth is,” Lee says of his thesis for Flathead Forge.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston-based lunar mission's rocky landing and what it means for America's return to the moon

houston, we have a problem

A private U.S. lunar lander tipped over at touchdown and ended up on its side near the moon’s south pole, hampering communications, company officials said Friday.

Intuitive Machines initially believed its six-footed lander, Odysseus, was upright after Thursday's touchdown. But CEO Steve Altemus said Friday the craft “caught a foot in the surface," falling onto its side and, quite possibly, leaning against a rock. He said it was coming in too fast and may have snapped a leg.

“So far, we have quite a bit of operational capability even though we’re tipped over," he told reporters.

But some antennas were pointed toward the surface, limiting flight controllers' ability to get data down, Altemus said. The antennas were stationed high on the 14-foot (4.3-meter) lander to facilitate communications at the hilly, cratered and shadowed south polar region.

Odysseus — the first U.S. lander in more than 50 years — is thought to be within a few miles (kilometers) of its intended landing site near the Malapert A crater, less than 200 miles (300 kilometers) from the south pole. NASA, the main customer, wanted to get as close as possible to the pole to scout out the area before astronauts show up later this decade.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will attempt to pinpoint the lander's location, as it flies overhead this weekend.

With Thursday’s touchdown, Intuitive Machines became the first private business to pull off a moon landing, a feat previously achieved by only five countries. Japan was the latest country to score a landing, but its lander also ended up on its side last month.

Odysseus' mission was sponsored in large part by NASA, whose experiments were on board. NASA paid $118 million for the delivery under a program meant to jump-start the lunar economy.

One of the NASA experiments was pressed into service when the lander's navigation system did not kick in. Intuitive Machines caught the problem in advance when it tried to use its lasers to improve the lander's orbit. Otherwise, flight controllers would not have discovered the failure until it was too late, just five minutes before touchdown.

“Serendipity is absolutely the right word,” mission director Tim Crain said.

It turns out that a switch was not flipped before flight, preventing the system's activation in space.

Launched last week from Florida, Odysseus took an extra lap around the moon Thursday to allow time for the last-minute switch to NASA's laser system, which saved the day, officials noted.

Another experiment, a cube with four cameras, was supposed to pop off 30 seconds before touchdown to capture pictures of Odysseus’ landing. But Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s EagleCam was deliberately powered off during the final descent because of the navigation switch and stayed attached to the lander.

Embry-Riddle's Troy Henderson said his team will try to release EagleCam in the coming days, so it can photograph the lander from roughly 26 feet (8 meters) away.

"Getting that final picture of the lander on the surface is still an incredibly important task for us,” Henderson told The Associated Press.

Intuitive Machines anticipates just another week of operations on the moon for the solar-powered lander — nine or 10 days at most — before lunar nightfall hits.

The company was the second business to aim for the moon under NASA's commercial lunar services program. Last month, Pittsburgh's Astrobotic Technology gave it a shot, but a fuel leak on the lander cut the mission short and the craft ended up crashing back to Earth.

Until Thursday, the U.S. had not landed on the moon since Apollo 17's Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closed out NASA's famed moon-landing program in December 1972. NASA's new effort to return astronauts to the moon is named Artemis after Apollo's mythological twin sister. The first Artemis crew landing is planned for 2026 at the earliest.

3 female Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

If the energy transition is going to be successful, the energy storage space needs to be equipped to support both the increased volume of energy needed and new energies. And Emma Konet and her software company, Tierra Climate, are targeting one part of the equation: the market.

"To me, it's very clear that we need to build a lot of energy storage in order to transition the grid," Konet says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The problems that I saw were really on the market side of things." Read more.

Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. Photo courtesy of Sage

A Houston geothermal startup has announced the close of its series A round of funding.

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. The proceeds aim to fund its first commercial geopressured geothermal system facility, which will be built in Texas in Q4 of 2024. According to the company, the facility will be the first of its kind.

“The first close of our Series A funding and our commercial facility are significant milestones in our mission to make geopressured geothermal system technologies a reality,” Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems, says. Read more.

Clemmie Martin, chief of staff at The Cannon

With seven locations across the Houston area, The Cannon's digital technology allows its members a streamlined connection. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

After collaborating over the years, The Cannon has acquired a Houston startup's digital platform technology to become a "physical-digital hybrid" community.

Village Insights, a Houston startup, worked with The Cannon to create and launch its digital community platform Cannon Connect. Now, The Cannon has officially acquired the business. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“The integration of a world-class onsite member experience and Cannon Connect’s superior virtual resource network creates a seamless, streamlined environment for member organizations,” Clemmie Martin, The Cannon’s newly appointed chief of staff, says in the release. “Cannon Connect and this acquisition have paved new pathways to access and success for all.” Read more.