Nauticus Robotics has secured a new customer, taking expanding its services to Brazil. Photo courtesy of Nauticus

Houston-based Nauticus Robotics, a developer of autonomous ocean robots, has landed a deal to supply its equipment to one of the world’s largest energy companies — a deal that eventually could blossom into $100 million worth of contracts.

Under the deal, Nauticus will dispatch its Aquanaut autonomous subsea robot to support offshore oil exploration activities carried out by Brazil’s Petrobras. Specifically, Aquanaut — propelled by artificial intelligence-enabled software — will supervise infield inspection services over a two-month span.

The deal with Brazil’s Petrobras represents Nauticus’ entry into the South American market and puts Nauticus in a position to score several Petrobras contracts that could collectively be valued at $100 million. Both companies are publicly traded.

Nicolaus Radford, founder and CEO of Nauticus, says Brazil offers a significant market opportunity for his company, as South America’s largest nation boasts one of the world’s most active offshore energy basins.

“A contract with [a] worldwide leading operator for Nauticus speaks to the state-of-the-art technologies of our autonomous robots as we further penetrate the global markets,” Radford says in a news release.

Petrobras is one of the world’s biggest offshore operators, managing 57 platforms, operating 10,000 miles of oil and gas pipelines, and producing the equivalent of 2.6 million barrels of oil per day. The company generated $124.47 billion in revenue last year.

Founded in 2014, Nauticus posted revenue of $11.4 million in 2022. The company went public last year through a $560 million merger with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC). Nauticus recently opened a new office in The Ion, in addition to their Webster office.

“I see Nauticus being the preeminent ocean robotics company. I want Nauticus to be an empire. It starts small but it grows — and it grows in many different ways, and we’re exploring all of those different ways to grow,” Radford told InnovationMap in May. “We’re leading a technology renaissance in the marine space — and that happens only a few times in an industry.”

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Square Robot's Houston office has the ability to showcase the technology to its potential customers. Photo courtesy of Square Robot

Boston-based tech company grows Houston team to deliver robotics to energy industry

do the robot

The robots are coming. Although the rise of Chat GPT has frightened plenty of professionals, we’re not on the precipice of the singularity just yet. And some of Houston’s coolest robots are contained in above-ground tanks, simply doing jobs that are too expensive and difficult for humans. The mechanical helpers in question come courtesy of Square Robot.

Square Robot co-founder and chief technology officer Jerome Vaganay started the company in 2016 in Boston. The company opened its Houston office in August of 2019.

“A lot of our partners and client base is out of here,” says director of operations, Matt Crist.

Karishma Prasad, director of technical operations, who joined the team in Houston earlier this year, adds “It’s a great centralized place for us. Houston is a great hub both nationally and internationally. There is so much energy transition innovation happening here.”

Square Robot is indeed a robotics company, but it trades in a very specific type of robot. The SR-1 is an innovative tank inspector.

“Since the ‘60s there’s been a traditional way of going into a tank. People would go inside and clean it with a variety of products," Crist explains. "Once it was clean, they would come in and inspect it repair it and that could take months.”

In fact, it could often cause a 15 or 16-week outage, he says.

Square Robot’s brainstorm was to take the human element out of the process. In other words, robots can do the job more safely, efficiently and quickly than a human ever could by collecting 18,000 data points per square foot, while allowing the product — most often diesel — to stay in the tank.

Square Robot saves those vast weeks of time, but perhaps even more importantly, says Prasad, “We’re avoiding emissions being released into the atmosphere.”

With its key location in Houston, Square Robot has worked with most of the major names in the energy world, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, and Crist’s former employer, Phillips 66.

The latest robot is the SR-3, which is currently being tested in Houston. Curious webwatchers can see its progress on Square Robot’s website. Unlike the flagship SR-1, the new robot boasts a side launcher that allows it to be completely immersed in a tank before being launched.

But perhaps the most exciting thing about Square Robot’s 15-human Houston office is its test tank. There, potential partners can see exactly what the company’s ingenious creation can do. Square Robot will participate in ILTA, the International Operating Conference & Trade Show, which takes place from May 21-24. On the 24th, the company will host an open house from noon to 3 p.m. to allow potential users to see the SR-3 in action in the 42-foot-long test tank.

Square Robot will complete its hundredth tank inspection in May. It is also growing beyond the oil and gas world to include work with the power industry and was recently selected as a finalist in the Incubatenergy Lab Start Up program. This is one robot that we will happily allow to take over formerly all-too-human responsibilities.

Square Robot has a team of 15 in Houston. Photo courtesy of Square Robot

Stroke patients have a new hope for arm rehabilitation thanks to a team from UH. Photo courtesy of UH

Robotic device created at the University of Houston helps stroke patients to rehabilitate

next-gen recovery

Almost 800,000 people in the United States suffer from a stroke annually — and the affliction affects each patient differently. One University of Houston researcher has created a device that greatly improves the lives of patients whose stroke affected motor skills.

UH engineering professor Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal developed a next-generation robotic arm that can be controlled by the user's brainwaves. The portable device uses a brain-computer interface (BCI) developed by Contreras-Vidal. Stroke patient Oswald Reedus, 66, is the first person to use a device of this kind.

Reedus lost the use of his left arm following a stroke that also caused aphasia, or difficulty speaking. While he's been able to recover his ability to speak clearly, the new exoskeleton will help rehabilitate his arm.

When strapped into the noninvasive device, the user's brain activity is translated into motor commands to power upper-limb robotics. As patients like Reedus use the device, more data is collected to improve the experience.

“If I can pass along anything to help a stroke person’s life, I will do it. For me it’s my purpose in life now,” says Reedus in a news release from UH. His mother and younger brother both died of strokes, and Reedus is set on helping the device that can help other stroke patients recover.

Contreras-Vidal, a Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen distinguished professor, has led his device from ideation to in-home use, like with Reedus, as well as clinical trials at TIRR Memorial Hermann. The project is funded in part from an $813,999 grant from the National Science Foundation’s newly created Division of Translational Impacts.

"Our project addresses a pressing need for accessible, safe, and effective stroke rehabilitation devices for in-clinic and at-home use for sustainable long-term therapy, a global market size expected to currently be $31 billion," Contreras-Vidal says in the release. "Unfortunately, current devices fail to engage the patients, are hard to match to their needs and capabilities, are costly to use and maintain, or are limited to clinical settings."

Dr. Gerard E. Francisco, chief medical officer and director of the Neuro Recovery Research Center at TIRR Memorial Hermann, is leading the clinical trials for the device. He's also chair and professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. He explains that TIRR's partnership with engineering schools such as the Cullen College of Engineering at UH and others around the nation is strategic.

“This is truly exciting because what we know now is there are so many ways we can induce neuroplasticity or how we can boost recovery,” says Francisco in the release. “That collaboration is going to give birth to many of these groundbreaking technologies and innovations we can offer our patients.”

Both parts of the device — a part that attaches to the patient's head and a part affixed to their arm — are noninvasive. Photo courtesy of UH

Over 450 student teams competed in an annual international robotics competition in Houston last weekend. Photo by Argenis Apolinario/FIRST

International robotics competition brings STEM students to Houston

automation nation

Adolescents from 40-plus countries convened in Houston to put their robotic skills to test at the annual FIRST Championship last week.

The massive robotics championship returned this year to the George R. Brown to conclude the 2021-22 season of the international program, which is aimed at preparing youth ages 12 to 18 for the future through various robotics challenges and competitions.

The theme of this year’s season was FIRST FORWARD, in which students were challenged to think of new ways to overcome transportation challenges, “from the shipment of packages in rural and urban areas, to disaster relief delivery and high-tech space transit,” according to a release from the STEM organization.

The season was sponsored by California-based semiconductor company Qualcomm and was inspired in part by the UN Sustainable Development Goal of building resilient infrastructure, promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and fostering innovation, according to the statement.

“I have met so many great students, volunteers, mentors, alumni, and sponsors who truly embody the FIRST mission and core Values," FIRST CEO Chris Moore says in a statement after the event. "People who strive to be gracious professionals who innovate, compete, and collaborate with equal energy. People who share our common passion for science and technology as a force for good with the world. The rewards of your efforts don’t stop at this event.”

Teams competed in final matches for FIRST's two major competitions.

In the FIRST Robotics Competition, which featured the RAPID REACT Game presented by Boeing, students were required to reimagine the future of his-speed transport with strict rules, limited resources, and time limits and using autonomous and driver-operated skills.

More than 3,200 teams competed during this game throughout the 2002 FIRST season and 454 teams advanced to the championship at the GRB. Team 1629 from Accident, Maryland, took home the top prize in this competition. Other teams from Austin, New York, Hawaii, Mexico, and Turkey were finalists.

In the FIRST Tech Challenge, teams were asked to think like engineers, building robots from reusables kits in the game FREIGHT FRENZY presented by Raytheon Technologies. Thousands of teams competed in this event throughout the season with 160 teams advancing to Houston. Team 8565 (the TechnicBots) from Plano won the top award.

A FIRST LEGO League challenge was also open to younger students, ages 4 to 16, and the championship. Also during the event, actress and director Gillian Jacobs accepted an award for the film "More Than Robots," which follows four teams as they prepare for the 2020 FIRST competition. The film premiered at SXSW last month and is featured on Disney+.

“I named this documentary ‘More Than Robots’ because as you all well know better than anyone, FIRST is about so much more than robots. I learned that it's about teamwork, compassion, friendship, learning new skills, and challenging yourself to do things you never dreamed you were capable of," Jacobs said at the event.

FIRST's 2022-23 season, dubbed FIRST ENERGIZE, will focus on innovative energy solutions. The season opens in May. Learn more here.

The theme of this year’s season was FIRST FORWARD, in which students were challenged to think of new ways to overcome transportation challenges. Photo by Argenis Apolinario/FIRST

Six Breezy One robots have landed in Houston's airports. Photo via buildwithrobots.com

Houston airports deploy disinfecting robots in their terminals

now boarding: automation

What stands four feet tall, measures 22 inches wide, and weighs about 265 pounds? One of the six robots that disinfect George Bush Intercontinental/Houston Airport and William P. Hobby Airport.

Last year, the Houston Airport System spent close to $1 million for six Breezy One robots made by Albuquerque, New Mexico-based Build With Robots. The robots, each costing $160,000, now help the airports’ human crews keep the two airports sanitized.

George Bush Intercontinental has four of the robots, and Hobby has two.

“Breezy One is an autonomous disinfecting robot. It moves on its own and disinfects any route that someone chooses at the push of a button. It disperses a disinfectant fog which reaches all surfaces, penetrates fabrics, and even disinfects the air,” according to Build With Robots.

The robot disinfects germy surfaces such as tables, chairs, doorknobs, and keyboards. A Breezy One robot can decontaminate more than 150,000 square feet of space in one hour with a patented, environmentally safe disinfectant, purportedly eliminating 99.9999 percent of viruses and bacteria. New Mexico’s Sandia National Laboratories developed the disinfectant.

Build With Robots, founded in 2017, launched Breezy One in 2020 at the Albuquerque International Sunport. The company developed the technology in conjunction with the City of Albuquerque’s Aviation Department. In January, Build With Robots announced it raised $5 million in funding. That was preceded by a seed round of about $1 million.

Before the disinfectant-filled robots go about their work, members of the Build With Robots team map the buildings where they’ll operate autonomously. The team members then load the maps into the robots. The robots follow commands given by a facility’s custodial team.

Traci Rutoski, manager of custodial services at Hobby, says Build With Robots “is providing us with the best tools to keep our passengers, employees, and stakeholders safe.”

Sam Rea, terminal manager at George Bush Intercontinental, says the Breezy One robots have enabled the airport to step up cleanliness in the COVID-19 era.

“With the onset of the pandemic, we needed to explore new and innovative solutions so that when people come through the airports, whether for work or travel, they feel safe and secure,” Rhea says in a news release.

Augusto Bernal, a spokesman for the Houston Airport System, says that while the disinfecting robots have been effective, there are no plans to add more of them.

Aside from the Houston Airport System and the Albuquerque airport, customers of Build With Robots include HVAC manufacturer Goodwin’s 4.2-million-square-foot operation at Daikin Texas Technology Park in Waller, Mount Vernon ISD in East Texas, the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and Albuquerque’s Electric Playhouse amusement center. The robots, which can be purchased or leased, are designed to sanitize airports, arenas, stadiums, school buildings, and other heavily trafficked places.

Goodwin has installed one robot in Waller.

“This robot’s going to be able to clean 200,000 square feet of office and conference rooms in two, maybe two-and-a-half hours,” Charlie Strange, facilities manager at Goodwin’s Waller operation, told The Verge last November. “It would take my team all night long to do that — wiping down every surface by hand.”

This hospital has conducted a unique and innovative procedure using robotics. Photo via hcahoustonhealthcare.com

Houston-area hospital performs first robotic-assisted lung surgery

robots in health care

HCA Houston Healthcare Clear Lake performed its first peripheral lung biopsy using robotic-assisted technology this month, making it the first hospital in the area to perform the minimally-invasive and innovative procedure.

Pulmonologist Dr. Alfred Maksoud performed the first two robotically-assisted procedures on March 1 and was attended by thoracic surgeon Dr. Melissa Korb and pulmonologist Dr. Maher Dahdel.

The procedures were conducted via an ultra-thin, easily maneuverable catheter that's able to navigate tight airways and pass through tight bends. A three-dimensional module of the patient's lung (created prior to surgery through a CT scan) was displayed on a computer screen to serve as a reference point for the doctors, as well as a live camera footage inside the lung.

The technology allows doctors to now reach nodules in any airway segment in the lung and extract more precise biopsies from the peripheral lung areas.

It will make the treatment easier on patients, which traditionally would require a CT scan and needle inserted into the patient's chest wall from outside of the body to reach these abnormal spots. This presented high risks of lung collapses for those with advanced lung disease.

“The technology allows us to go through the natural airways of the lung, so there is no puncturing of the lung tissue from the outside of the lining of the lung,” Maksoud said in a statement. “It is a safer way to approach lesions that are in the periphery of the lung for patients who have fairly advanced underlying lung disease.”

Additionally, this technology will support early diagnosis of lung disease when used for screenings due to its ability to reach previously unreachable areas of the lung.

“Approximately 75 percent of lung cancer cases are diagnosed in an advanced stage. Early lung cancer detection is imperative to increase the survival rate,” Todd Caliva, CEO at HCA Houston Healthcare Clear Lake, said in a statement. “We're excited to implement new innovations that allow us to enhance the level of care our patients receive.”

Houston-area hospitals have become hubs for robotic-assisted surgery in recent years.

Baylor St. Luke's has become a top cardiac robotics program since 2019. Meanwhile, others, like Houston Methodist, have developed AI technologies to simulate entire surgeries artificially with a goal of allowing surgeons to practice and plan their technique.
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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.