Patrick Lewis co-founded BBL Ventures that helps connect energy companies to startups that have innovative technology solutions for their pain points. Courtesy of Patrick Lewis

The energy industry is at an inflection point. In order to compete, oil and gas companies are really focusing on innovation and engaging startups. That's where Patrick Lewis comes in.

Lewis, co-founder of BBL Ventures, has been a tech investor in the Houston innovation ecosystem for about 25 years, and he started seeing an opportunity to help large companies identify their pain points and connect them with startups that have the technology to design solutions. He created BBL Ventures — and an accelerator for its portfolio companies, BBL Labs out of Station Houston — to become a matchmaker of sorts for big corporations and the startups that can help them stay competitive.

"At our core, we're an investment firm, but our mission statement is to be the innovation partner for the energy and natural resources industry," Lewis says on the fourth episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

The key element to BBL's model is the reverse-style pitch. Rather than hosting a pitch competition with a wide range of energy tech startups, BBL teamed up with ExxonMobil earlier this year and identified two specific robotics problems and called for startups to pitch solutions.

After the success of the reverse pitch, BBL hosted an Emerging Technology Symposium at The Cannon last month. The event brought together individuals on both sides of the table — the corporates and the startups — further bridging the gap between the two.

Lewis discusses BBL's past success and future plans, as well as what keeps him up at night as a tech investor in Houston on this week's podcast. Check it out below and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.


ExxonMobil named two winners in its inaugural reverse pitch competition with BBL Ventures. Courtesy of OctoRD

ExxonMobil taps two new technologies in a Houston reverse pitch program

Problem solving

ExxonMobil and BBL Ventures have teamed up to flip the script on pitch competitions. Rather than have startups pitch themselves, the two companies collaborated on a reverse pitch event where Exxon identifies a few problems and search for companies that can build a solution.

The purpose of the event, says Tim Westhoven, technology scouting and venturing at ExxonMobil at the Baytown refinery, was to get the company out of its day-to-day to spark new ideas and innovation.

"Typically, as an engineer, when we think about how we solve a problem, we start inside the organization," Westhoven says at the event, which took place on Wednesday, June 5, at Station Houston. "Then we think about what problems we want to solve. Sometimes, you don't even think at all about what's available on the outside. This reverse pitch is us thinking about the impact we want to have and what the outside can offer."

In his experience, once an organization goes outside itself for solutions, they can find more options to choose from.

"As we cycle through and innovate on these things and find more and more outside solutions to a particular problem, we find the impact scales very quickly," Westhoven says.

The reverse pitch contest, which launched in March, asked for solutions to two problems ExxonMobil employees actually encounter. The first is regarding the opening process equipment, with the goal being to "create a method to stop exposure to flow or residual material," according to the website. The company needs a device that works remotely, thus reducing the risk of exposure and contact with the material for technicians.

The other problem ExxonMobil is looking to solve has to do with reducing arc flash that result in exposure to electrical charges. The company has "identified the promotion of personal safety as a priority action in addressing and reducing negative events on campuses globally," the website says. All the specifics for these two issues are available online.

For both problems, ExxonMobil wants AI and automation involved — and that's deliberate to minimize human involvement, which can lead to error.

"Human error causes 40 to 70 percent of those issues," Westhoven says. "This is why we are looking to robotics and automation to solve this problem."

Seven companies pitched during the evening, and two — one for each solution — were named winners. Here's what solutions stood out to the judges, potentially took home $60,000, and are up for a pilot program at ExxonMobil.

Opening Process Equipment: OctoRD

Courtesy of OctoRD

OctoRD's OPE solution includes using materials that are already available on the market to create a safer solution to the current process. In fact, Kevin Larsen, founder of Phoenix, Arizona-based OctoRD, even brought an early prototype to his pitch to demonstrate for the judges.

"My whole background has been taking technology, applying it to problems, and getting it into production and real life," he says.

OctoRD's product would take 90 days to get to market. It would allow for employees to open and close the device from up to 15 feet away, and, should an emergency occur, would have an automatic shutting feature. While the current model satisfies the requirements for the category, Larsen's pitch even included future ways to advance the tool.

Reducing Arc Flash: CBS ArcSafe

Courtesy of CBS ArcSafe

CBS ArcSafe, based in Denton, Texas, has been around for a while and knows how to increase worker safety using technology, says Justin Gaull, marketing manager for CBS ArcSafe. The company has designed over 700 tools for safety purposes.

"Our business is the business of safety, and decreasing arc flash hazards is our priority," he says to the crowd at the pitch event.

The company's solution would take 10 weeks or less to get from discovery to production to market. The technology includes a switchgear box, the Elliot 230-PM, that syncs with a remote that allows workers to operate well out of the arc flash zone — even up to 300 feet away with the wireless option. There would also be a video camera able to capture a view of the gauges so the operator can see them in real time.

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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.