A new energy-focused startup accelerator hopes to better connect the dots between big companies and tech startups. Getty Images

While being renown as the energy capital of the world, Houston doesn't have an active oil and gas-focused accelerator program for the various startups rising in the energy industry. That is, until now.

Houston-based BBL Ventures, an early stage capital fund for energy startups, has announced BBL Labs, a new accelerator is based in Station Houston. BBLL is accepting applications for its inaugural cohort by February 22.

"BBLV looks forward to engaging in this partnership to drive entrepreneurial innovation focused on identified challenges and technology gaps in the global energy and natural resources industry," says Patrick Lewis, managing partner at BBLVentures, in a release.

BBLL will use BBLV's data on what the oil and gas industry needs from new tech startups as well as its connections to big energy companies to better connect the dots within the accelerator program.

Historically, tech startups focused on oil and gas solutions have a lot of trouble finding funding and validation in the industry — for a few reasons, Lewis says. On one hand, there's a disconnect between oil and gas companies and the startups that have solutions to industry problems, and on the other, the VC funds aren't there.

"Energy tech is a grossly underfunded industry. Venture capitalists hate it — the hyper cyclical industry, extremely long sales cycles, slow adopters — but that creates opportunities," Lewis says.

So what BBL's venture arm has done is flip the script on this way energy startups and big oil companies have traditionally functioned. Currently, it's up to the energy startups to tell large energy companies why their company or industry needs new technology to solve a problem. But what BBL has realized with it's venture arm is that it's much more efficient if the industry figures out its greatest technology needs and then looks for companies solving that problem. To do that, BBL's Innovation Navigator Software acts as a tool for energy employees to identify pain points.

"We've built software that's meant to be used pervasively across the organization — from the drilling engineer out in the field to the global office manager to the CTO," Lewis says.

These employees can log their daily pain points in the system, categorize them, and flag their priority. BBL takes that information, develop a reverse pitch, and market it to the startup ecosystem globally to identify companies that are addressing the problems of these energy employees.

BBL will use this proprietary pain point data to drive the new accelerator to produce a cohort of 10 startups creating technology that oil and gas companies have already indicated they need. Each cohort will go through six months of programing located in Station Houston. The two entities will collaborate on resources including lab space, investment, advisory services, mentorship, and more.

"Station Houston exists to support startups and with BBL Labs now inside our four walls, we can offer the Houston startup community access to even more resources and support," says Station CEO Gabriella Rowe. "At the same time, our 130 mentors are ready to roll up their sleeves and help these businesses get off the ground and start making an impact."

Validere, a Canada-based energy logistics company, is expanding in Houston. Courtesy of Validere

Canadian startup fresh off $7 million seed funding raise picks Houston for U.S. expansion

Energy Tech

Houston's established reputation as the energy capital of the world combined with burgeoning tech scene has made the city attractive for a growing oil and gas company with roots in Canada.

Validere is an oil and gas company focused on using real-time data and both artificial and human intelligence insights to improve its clients' quality, trading, and logistics. The company's technology enhances the ability of oil and gas traders to make informed decisions, which currently are made based off unreliable product quality data. Annually, $2 trillion of product moves around the oil and gas industry, and Validere uses the Internet of Things to improve the current standard of decision making.

"It's like if you'd go to the grocery store to buy milk not knowing if it's 1 percent, 2 percent, or cream," co-founder Nouman Ahmad says about how companies are currently making oil and gas trading decisions.

In October, Validere concluded its seed funding round with $7 million. Among Validere supporters are several Silicon Valley power players, such as Sallyport Investments, Y Combinator, Real Ventures, Moment Ventures, and ZhenFund. The funds, in part, will help the company expand into the United States market.

"The goal in 2019 is to be at the same stage — in terms of customer success — in the U.S. market as we were at the end of 2018 in the Canadian market," Ahmad says.

The company has seen great success in Canada, and some of its existing clients have business in the Houston area already, Ahmad says.

With the increased focus on Houston comes a growing office. Currently, Ahmad leads the efforts in town with one other staffer, however, operations won't be a skeleton crew for too much longer. Ahmad says he is "aggressively hiring" in the Bayou City, which will be a key office for them as they grow across the country.

"As we think about the long-term future of the business, Houston is one of the most important markets for us going forward," Ahmad says.

Houston has been a welcoming community to the Canadian transplant, who says he spends most of his time here now. Both the startup and tech scenes in Houston have been valuable resources to the company — as has the energy industry's potential clients.

"Houston market is very receptive and ready for innovative companies that are solving problems for them," Ahmad says.

The company was founded in 2015 at Harvard by entrepreneurs who saw the potential for better transparency in the oil and gas industry. Validere's other co-founder and CTO, Ian Burgess, first had the idea for the technology after an accident happened in Canada; a train carrying crude oil derailed and blew up a small town killing 45 people.

"The industry largely bases important operational decisions on poor quality data," Burgess says in a release. "Our platform not only informs product quality reliably and in real time, but it also uses AI to help oil and gas companies optimize product movement."

SafePass is a reusable visitor pass for large campuses — corporate, schools, oil and gas, etc. — that need a digital system to protect both the campus and the visitor. Photo via safepassglobal.com

Houston tech company aims to make campuses more secure with tracking device

Can't pass this up

There's an only public service announcement from the 1960s that asks, "It's 10:00 p.m., do you know where your children are?" The idea behind it was to encourage parents to ensure their children's safety, by encouraging them to be home before what was then the youth curfew in several states.

"Do you know where your visitors are right now?" asks the SafePass website, providing an answer: "You do if you have SafePass."

The visitor management system is the brainchild of Ronald Huff, who initially envisioned the system as a hall pass for students. The electronic pass would monitor students in real time, if they left class to go to the nurse or the restroom, meaning adults would be able to find them in the event of an emergency. But as Huff and his business partners proceeded through product development, they realized SafePass had a stronger lure as a system that could manage visitors across several platforms – business, schools, and secure environments.

The system works like this: companies issue a SafePass visitor badge to visitors, contractors or others who are temporarily on the grounds of their facilities. The badge records signal strengths from WiFi routers set up around the facility and tracks where the visitor is in real time.

"Visitors don't know a facility as well as the people who work there every day do," said Huff. "If there's smoke or a fire, they might get lost. So, SafePass helps provide a record of where they are, meaning that people can find them if there's an emergency or an evacuation."

SafePass is also reusable. The electronic badge is designed to be used over and over again, unlike common printed paper badges that visitors stick on.

"We're 100 percent eco-friendly," said Huff.

He and his partners built the demo for the product at the end of 2017 and began shopping it at trade shows. The reaction was immediate, with multiple companies wanting to take on the system. SafePass is about to launch a pilot phase with some Fortune 100 companies, and has plans to expand soon beyond that.

Companies can currently email their floor plans to SafePass, which creates routes within the floor plans, fixing geolocations. Then the signal strength from WiFi routers is digitally mapped within the building using an Android app. This allows the electronic badge to know where a guest is as he or she is traveling throughout a given facility.

"I think most people know that cell phones record almost everything we do," said Huff, explaining that SafePass isn't designed to infringe on personal privacy. "This isn't a Big Brother situation. Above all else, we're concerned about the safety of both people who are visiting a facility and those who work there every day."

Huff said SafePass can also help companies with safety and security compliance. For instance, oil and gas companies are audited by third parties on how secure their facilities are. SafePass' technology helps them not only score higher on an audit, but actually keep their facilities secure.

"A product like ours solves so many different problems," he said.

After nearly two and half years of development, Huff said he's excited about what's to come.

"This is really my baby," he said of the company. "And it's been such a blessing to work with this team of developers and programmers and sales people. We've got a great team and great clients. This is a dream come true."

SafePass has made a splash on the Houston digital innovation scene and was even named one of the most promising startups at the recent Texas Digital Summit.

Houston-based MacroFab has created the Uber or Airbnb of electronics manufacturing. Getty Images

Houston electronics manufacturing company gears up for growth

On the line

It takes an unnecessarily long time for electronic devices to get from idea to reality — and much of that is due to inefficiency in manufacturing. Just getting a prototype together takes weeks of back and forth between the engineer and the manufacturer.

"The business model for contract manufacturing hadn't changed in 30 years," Chris Church says. "It was phone calls, emails, going out and playing golf, going to lunch, and negotiating everything endlessly."

Houston-based MacroFab is addressing these antiquated and outdated ways of manufacturing and changing the way electronics manufacturing is done. For its revolutionary work, the company has consistently seen its revenue at least double — sometimes tripling or quadrupling — every year, and projects to at least triple in 2019.

Addressing an underserved market
Church — who has a background in hardware development, specifically within robotics — created MacroFab in 2013 and launched the platform in 2015. Misha Govshteyn joined the board in 2014 and became CEO last summer. The duo co-founded cloud-based security-as-a-service company, Alert Logic, in Houston in 2002.

Using its custom software, MacroFab enables customers to upload their designs through the website, where they can then receive projected timeline and pricing information from the get go. The company has its own manufacturing area in its office for prototypes and small orders, but its network of large manufacturers is a key part of the MacroFab's growth equation.

The company has about 20 manufacturing plants as partners that can pick up manufacturing jobs from MacroFab customers when the plant has space on its lines up for grabs. Rather than let available capacity go to waste, these plants can easily pick up the design and materials to start production.

"It's not dissimilar to what Uber is doing with cars — there's a lot of people with cars that could give you a ride if they knew you were out there," Govshteyn says. "It's that matchmaking function is essentially what we're doing with our customers."

The manufacturing partners benefit from jobs they otherwise wouldn't have, and the MacroFab customers get access to a plant that they didn't have to do the legwork to find. Govshteyn says a he's heard horror stories from people who had orders that were unceremoniously dropped by a manufacturer because another one of its clients just placed a large order.

"That shouldn't happen. If a factory gets too busy, it should be easy enough to take that job and move it somewhere else," Govshteyn says. "But, right now, there's not a way to do that."

Using cloud technology, the MacroFab platform can easily share the design and translate it to any given factory, Church says. They also have a technology that combine smaller orders together so there's no wasted resources, which brings down the cost for the customer.

While usually a company might have to find a new manufacturer as they scale up and start making larger orders, MacroFab customers don't have to start from scratch to find a new plant that can take their order — MacroFab will do the matchmaking for them.

"We've created and are continuing to build a marketplace for excess manufacturing capacity," Church says.

MacroFab owns the customer experience and the sales aspect — ensuring a more positive and consistent experience — while the manufacturers can just take the jobs and go.

Scaling up
The manufacturing marketplace is a newer focus for MacroFab — the company just launched it in beta this year — and is a big proponent of the company's growth. Before, the company was limited to what it could produce in its own factory taking on prototype and small orders. Now, with access to the manufacturers, the company has served 1,700 customers, building 500,000 units for about 4,000 different products. Those figures, Church says, are scaling up so rapidly as they expand to new partners.

"This is the first quarter where more gets produced outside of our factory than inside of it," Govshteyn says. "By this time in Q1, 75 percent of our revenue will [come from outside manufacturing plants.]"

Since manufacturing plants haven't historically collaborated, Govshteyn says the reception from manufacturers has been "cautiously optimistic." But then they realize they are getting customers for free — all they have to do is meet the requirements and deliver on time, he says.

"It's great for them to see that their factory is only half used, but then they can fill it up with jobs from MacroFab," Govshteyn says.

Houston has been a great city for MacroFab with its port manufacturing and logistics, two things Govshteyn says MacroFab is focusing on.

"At the end of the day, we're a manufacturing company, and I think we'll dabble in logistics," he says. "There's a lot worse places to start a logistics-heavy company."

Lori-Lee Emshey's Future Sight AR is revolutionizing antiquated construction tools using augmented reality. Courtesy of Future Sight AR

Houston company has sight set on AR solutions for industrial construction

Visual aid

When Lori-Lee Emshey got her first oil and gas construction job in Australia, she was carrying around a backpack full of papers.

"I was really shocked at how much work they were doing with such little technology," Emshey says. "I thought, 'there's so much room for innovation here.'"

She realized that it wasn't just that site or the company she was working for — this was a problem across the industry. So, she came up with a solution. Houston-based Future Sight AR is an augmented reality technology to more efficient work on industrial construction sites. Workers can use a smart device in the field, point it at a problem on site, log the issue, and see the steps needed to fix it.

Constructing a company
Emshey realized the potential for a company in January 2016. Since then, she's partnered up with her co-founders, Sofia Lazaro and Veena Somareddy, attended accelerators and conferences across the country, completed a proof of concept, until finally incorporated this year.

It was a well-paced start for the company because they got to prove time and time again there was a need for the company. Emshey says she never wanted to start a company just to start a company. They worked tirelessly at the beginning to ensure there was no one out there already doing this in the way they were doing it.

"I feel like a lot of entrepreneurs now become an entrepreneur because it's trendy and cool, and you want to put it in your Instagram bio," she says. "The three of us aren't like that. We did this because we had to. It wasn't going to get done another way, and we couldn't let this giant opportunity float on by."

Once they got a firm footing, one of the challenges they faced was communicating the company's market need and how the technology works to individuals outside the industry. For Emshey, this was particularly annoying.

"I came from a journalism background, and it's storytelling," she says. "I thought, 'I should be able to do this.'"

Something eventually just clicked, and Emshey stopped seeing confused faces in response to her presentation, and she started seeing more head nodding. However, another challenge she says she occasionally faces is how she looks.

"It is tough. I'm pitching this industrial construction startup, and I show up and I'm a 5-foot-5 blond woman," she says. "And some people don't care, and some people would prefer I looked a different way."

Foreseeing the company's future
Raising capital has been the latest focus for Future Sight AR. Aside from some grants and accelerator money, the company hasn't raised much. They've only just started meeting with investors and have a plan to launch a round of fundraising next year. Emshey also says they are looking to partner with three companies to conduct a few pilots early next year.

It's a great time in technology for Future Sight AR as more and more people are using AR and virtual reality. People use AR or VR often — in SnapChat filters or through Pokemon Go!

Emshey says she thinks VR will grow first in gaming, while AR will take off through enterprise.

"Unlike VR when you're completely immersed, in AR, you're seeing your actual environment and one of the places you have to do that is at work," Emshey says.

Whether it's through being acquired or growing the company on its own, Emshey says she wants Future Sight AR to evolve the industry as a whole.

"If we could permanently change the way that we build projects — oil and gas or another industry — and move it toward something more efficient, safer, more productive, and a better experience for workers, and accomplish that in a permanent way in a permanent way, then we're successful," she says. "We really built this for me — I was the worker out in the field trying to do things, and it was unnecessarily difficult."

Every penny counts when you're starting a company. Getty Images

4 financial concerns to keep in mind when launching a startup

Must be the money

You have been working on a new creative technology idea for months, an idea that will solve a problem or make a current process even better. Your innovative idea is ready for the next step, and you, in turn, are prepared to begin your tech startup. Building a company can be stressful and exhausting, but also exhilarating and rewarding. As you begin your product launch, keep these financial tips in mind when starting out.

Consider your funding
Determine how much funding you can use from your personal accounts to jumpstart your business. By investing some of your own money into your company, you show good faith in your business plan and product. This method is appealing to investors because it shows you have a long-term commitment to the company. Next, determine how much you will need from other sources and what those other sources should be. Potential options of funding in addition to traditional bank loans are venture capitalists, angel investors, government grants, and support from business incubators.

Determine your budget
An essential step of starting up is concluding how much funding you need to get started. Establishing a realistic budget is crucial. It can make the difference between having a successful business or joining the 50 percent of small businesses that fail in the first four years. The hiring of employees, leasing office space or lab space, purchasing office equipment, paying for insurance (health and liability) and providing yourself a salary are all items that need to be included in your budget.

Unanticipated extra costs occur from time to time, so overestimate your expenses. Underestimating expenses can sink your startup. Ensure your business is solvent by preparing your budget for more. Additionally, keep in mind different types of expenses, and budget accordingly. For example, you may have one-time costs and on-going costs or fixed costs and variable costs.

Cash flow
According to a U.S. Bank Study, 82 percent of businesses that fail do so because of cash flow problems. Managing your cash flow is crucial to success. Without positive cash flow, you are not able to pay your employees, rent, or taxes. Having profits does not necessarily mean you have positive cash flow. Keep ongoing cash flow work sheets to ensure you have the cash you need to continue on a successful path.

Managing for life
As mentioned earlier, make sure you pay yourself something. It does not have to be a big salary in the beginning, but you need to eat. Additionally, you need to save for emergencies. An old rule of thumb states that an emergency fund should consist of three to six months' worth of expenses. As a result, an emergency fund can make the months where business is slow, or between projects, more sustainable.

Meanwhile, it is a good idea to separate your personal and business banking accounts. Doing so will allow you to stay more organized and help tracking and managing expenses easier. Additionally, separate accounts may be beneficial when paying taxes. Consult a tax professional for additional guidance on taxes. Finally, do not forget to save for your retirement. While it is important to focus on your new business, do not neglect to take care of your personal financial health.

With proper planning and continued financial monitoring, starting your own tech business can be done well and bring years of career satisfaction.

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Joseph Radzwill is senior vice president and a financial adviser with the wealth management division of Morgan Stanley in Houston.

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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.