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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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston expert on the advantages of adopting robotic dog technology

guest column

What has 4 legs, can recognize your face, and precisely obey commands on cue? If you guessed a dog, you’re half right.

I’m referring to robotic dogs, a modern marvel of innovative engineering. AT&T recently expanded our solution offers to include network-connected robotic dogs for public safety, defense, federal and state agencies, local police and fire departments, and commercial customers. We do this in collaboration with a leading provider of robotic dogs, Ghost Robotics.

Robotic dogs are just one way we are proving the innovation and transformational possibilities of 5G and IoT. Network-connected robotic dogs can deliver a broad range of IoT use cases, including many that have previously required putting personnel in dangerous situations. Here’s a quick look at some of the fantastic capabilities network-connected robotic dogs deliver.

  • Our robotic dogs can support public safety agencies and organizations on FirstNet – the nation’s only network built with and for America’s first responders. FirstNet delivers always-on prioritized network connectivity for these “first responder” robotic dogs, helping them stay connected during disaster response and recovery, facilities surveillance, and security operations. They can support search and rescue, venture into areas that could imperil human lives, and support the ability to reestablish local communications services following major infrastructure damage.
  • We can integrate Geocast into the robotic dogs to provide Beyond-Visual-Line-of-Sight (BVLOS) operational command and control so that operators of the dogs can be located virtually anywhere in the world and remotely operate them. Geocast is an AT&T innovation covered by 37 patents.
  • The robotic dogs can be equipped with sensors that allow them to operate autonomously without human intervention. They can be outfitted with drones that can launch and return to their backs while in motion, allowing the drones and dogs to perform missions as an integrated team.
  • Rugged terrain? Water? Not a problem. These robotic dogs can move across natural terrain, including sand, rocks, hills, rubble, and human-built environments, like stairs. They can operate fully submerged in water and, like living dogs, can swim.
  • An early use case adopted by the military involves equipping our robotic dogs with wireless network-connected cameras and deploying them to patrol military bases. Robotic dogs we provided to the Air Force at Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle are doing just that. Our robotic dogs patrol the flight line and base perimeter at Tyndall, feeding video data in real-time to base personnel who can safely track activity 24/7/365 and support the safety of base operations. They can perform the same task for commercial users, indoors or outdoors. For example, they can patrol the perimeters of large warehouses or outdoor fence lines.
  • They can also support hazmat efforts, inspect mines and high-voltage equipment, and detect explosive devices including improvised explosive devices (IEDs): all while keeping people out of harm’s way.
  • Another interesting use case involves equipping robotic dogs with Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRADs). LRADs are sound cannons that produce noise at high decibels and varying frequencies. We have discussed with the Navy the possibility of outfitting our robotic dogs with sound cannons to warn off wild boars and feral dog packs that have impeded operating crews working on telecommunications infrastructure located in remote areas of one of its bases.

Commercial applications for network-connected robotic dogs are proliferating. Utility companies, for example, are using robotic dogs equipped with video cameras to perform routine equipment inspections in substations. Human inspection requires operators to shut down the facilities during inspections; the robotic dogs eliminate the need to take this precaution. Allied Market Research projects a $13.4 billion global market for the particular use case of robotic dogs performing such inspections.

Our robotic dogs can also be equipped with technology that extends network connectivity into difficult-to-reach areas or mechanical arms that can grip and carry materials such as tools. Their use cases include Pick and Pack capabilities for warehouse operations to improve order fulfillment efficiency.

And this is just the beginning. We’ve said from the outset that the 5G journey of innovation and solution development would evolve to deliver new ways to conquer many challenges.

Now, we’ve let the dogs out.

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Lance Spencer is the Houston-based client executive vice president of defense at AT&T Public Sector.

Exclusive: Hardtech-focused program announces Houston expansion, seeks local leader

changing the world

An organization that directs support to scientists developing impactful technology has decided on Houston for its fifth program.

Activate was founded in Berkeley, California, in 2015 to bridge the gap between the federal and public sectors to deploy capital and resources into the innovators creating transformative products. The nonprofit expanded its programs to Boston and New York before launching a virtual fellowship program — Activate Anywhere, which is for scientists 50 or more miles outside one of the three hubs.

"Our mission is to empower scientists to reinvent the world by bringing their research to market," Aimee Rose, executive managing director of Activate, tells InnovationMap. "There's so much technical talent that we educate in this country every year and so many amazing inventions that happen, that combining the two, which is the sort of inventor/entrepreneur, and giving them the support mechanisms they need to get on their feet and be successful, has the potential to unlock an incredible amount of value for the country, for the environment, and to address other social problems."

This year, Activate is planting seeds in Houston to grow a presence locally and have its first set of fellows in 2024. While Activate is industry agnostic, Rose says a big draw from Houston is the ability to impact the future of energy.

"We're super excited about Houston as an emerging ecosystem for the clean energy transition as being the energy capital of the world, as well as all the other emerging players there are across the landscape in Houston," Rose says. "I think we can move the needle in Houston because of our national footprint."

The first order of business, Rose says, is hiring a managing director for Activate Houston. The job, which is posted online, is suited for an individual who has already developed a hardtech business and has experience and connections within Houston's innovation ecosystem.

"We want to customize the program so that it makes the most sense for the community," Rose says about the position. "So, somebody that has the relationships and the knowledge of the ecosystem to be able to do that and somebody that's kind of a mentor at heart."

The program is for early-stage founders — who have raised less than $2 million in funding — working on high-impact technology. Rose explains that Activate has seen a number of microelectronics and new materials companies go through the program, and, while medical innovation is impactful, Activate doesn't focus on pharmaceutical or therapeutic industries since there are existing pathways for those products.

Ultimately, Activate is seeking innovators whose technologies fall through the cracks of existing innovation infrastructure.

"Not every business fits into the venture capital model in terms of what investors would expect to be eventual outcomes, but these these types of businesses can still have significant impact and make the world a better place," Rose says, explaining how Activate is different from an incubator or accelerator. "As opposed as compared to a traditional incubator, this is a very high touch program. You get a living stipend so you can take a big business technical risk without a personal risk. We give you a lot of hands on support and mentoring."

Each of the programs selects 10 fellows that join the program for two years. The fellows receive a living stipend, connections from Activate's robust network of mentors, and access to a curriculum specific to the program.

Since its inception, Activate has supported 104 companies and around 146 entrepreneurs associated with those companies. With the addition of Houston, Activate will be able to back 50 individuals a year.

Four Houston scientists named rising stars in research

who to watch

Four Houston scientists were named among a total of five Texas rising stars in research by the Texas Academy of Medicine, Engineering, Science & Technology, or TAMEST, last month.

The group will be honored at the 2023 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards by TAMEST in May. According to Edith and Peter O’Donnell Committee Chair Ann Beal Salamone, the researchers "epitomize the Texas can-do spirit."

The Houston winners include:

Medicine: Dr. Jennifer Wargo

A physician and professor of surgical oncology and genomic medicine at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Wargo was named a 2023 honoree for her discoveries surrounding the "important connection between treatment outcomes and a patient’s gut microbiome," according to a statement from TAMEST.

Engineering: Jamie Padgett

The Stanley C. Moore Professor of Engineering at Rice University, Padgett was honored for her work that aims to "enhance reliability and improve the sustainability of critical community infrastructure" through developing new methods for multi-hazard resilience modeling.

Physical sciences: Erez Lieberman Aiden

As a world-leading biophysical scientist and an associate professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor College of Medicine, is being honored for his work that has "dramatically impacting the understanding of genomic 3D structures." He is working with BCM to apply his findings to clinical settings, with the hope that it will eventually be used to treat disease by targeting dark matter in the body.

Technology innovation: Chengbo Li

As a geophysicist at ConocoPhillips, Li is being recognized for innovations in industry-leading Compressive Seismic Imaging (CSI) technology. "This CSI technology allows the oil and gas industry to produce these seismic surveys in less time, with less shots and receivers, and most importantly, with less of an environmental impact," his nominator Jie Zhang, founder and chief scientist of GeoTomo LLC, said in a statement.


James J. Collins III at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas was also named this year's rising star in the biological sciences category for his research on schistosomiasis, a disease that impacts some of the world’s poorest individuals.

The O'Donnell Awards have granted more than $1.5 million to more than 70 recipients since they were founded in 2006. Each award includes a $25,000 honorarium and an invitation to present at TAMEST’s Annual Conference each year, according to TAMEST's website.

The awards expanded in 2002 to include both a physical and biological sciences award each year, thanks to a $1.15 million gift from the O’Donnell Foundation in 2022.