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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Houston innovator joins VC world to increase her social impact

Q&A

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Houston college system plans to open $30M resiliency-focused center

to the rescue

Houston’s initiative to protect the city from catastrophes is getting a big boost from Houston Community College.

The college is developing the Resilience Center of Excellence to aid the city’s resilience campaign. At the heart of this project is the 65,000-square-foot, $30 million Resiliency Operations Center, which will be built on a five-acre site HCC’s Northeast campus. The complex is scheduled to open in 2024.

HCC estimates the operations center will train about 3,000 to 4,000 local first responders, including police officers and firefighters, during the first three years of operation. They’ll be instructed to prepare for, manage, and respond to weather, health and manmade hazards such as hurricanes, floods, fires, chemical spills, and winter freezes.

According to The Texas Tribune, the operations center will include flood-simulation features like a 39-foot-wide swift water rescue channel, a 15-foot-deep dive area, and a 100-foot-long “rocky gorge” of boulders.

The college says the first-in-the-nation Resilience Center of Excellence will enable residents, employers, civic organizations, neighborhoods, and small businesses to obtain education and certification aimed at improving resilience efforts.

“Our objective is to protect the well-being of our citizens and our communities and increase economic stability,” Cesar Maldonado, chancellor of HCC, said when the project was announced.

Among the programs under the Resiliency Center of Excellence umbrella will be non-credit courses focusing on public safety and rescue, disaster management, medical triage, and debris removal.

Meanwhile, the basic Resilience 101 program will be available to businesses and community organizations, and the emergency response program is geared toward individuals, families, and neighborhoods.

HCC’s initiative meshes with the City of Houston’s Resilient Houston, a strategy launched in 2020 that’s designed to protect Houston against disasters. As part of this strategy, the city has hired a chief resilience and sustainability officer, Priya Zachariah.

“Every action we take and investment we make should continue to improve our collective ability to withstand the unexpected shocks and disruptions when they arrive — from hurricanes to global pandemics, to extreme heat or extreme cold,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said last year. “The time is now to stop doing things the way we’ve always done them because the threats are too unpredictable.”

In an InnovationMap guest column published in February 2021, Richard Seline, co-founder of the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub, wrote that the focus of resilience initiatives should be pre-disaster risk mitigation.

“There is still work to be done from a legislative and governmental perspective, but more and more innovators — especially in Houston — are proving to be essential in creating a better future for the next historic disaster we will face,” Seline wrote.