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-based health tech startup is revolutionizing patient selection for clinical trials

working smarter

On many occasions in her early career, Dr. Arti Bhosale, co-founder and CEO of Sieve Health, found herself frustrated with having to manually sift through thousands of digital files.

The documents, each containing the medical records of a patient seeking advanced treatment through a clinical trial, were always there to review — and there were always more to read.

Despite the tediousness of prescreening, which could take years, the idea of missing a patient and not giving them the opportunity to go through a potentially life-altering trial is what kept her going. The one she didn’t read could have slipped through the cracks and potentially not given someone care they needed.

“Those stories have stayed with me,” she says. “That’s why we developed Sieve.”

When standard health care is not an option, advances in medical treatment could be offered through clinical trials. But matching patients to those trials is one of the longest standing problems in the health care industry. Now with the use of new technology as of 2018, the solution to the bottleneck may be a new automated approach.

“Across the globe, more than 30 percent of clinical trials shut down as a result of not enrolling enough patients,” says Bhosale. “The remaining 80 percent never end up reaching their target enrollment and are shut down by the FDA.”

In 2020, Bhosale and her team developed Sieve Health, an AI cloud-based SaaS platform designed to automate and accelerate matching patients with clinical trials and increase access to clinical trials.

Sieve’s main goal is to reduce the administrative burden involved in matching enrollments, which in turn will accelerate the trial execution. They provide the matching for physicians, study sponsors and research sites to enhance operations for faster enrollment of the trials.

The technology mimics but automates the traditional enrollment process — reading medical notes and reviewing in the same way a human would.

“I would have loved to use something like this when I was on the front lines,” Bhosale says, who worked in clinical research for over 12 years. “Can you imagine going through 10,000 records manually? Some of the bigger hospitals have upwards of 100,000 records and you still have to manually review those charts to make sure that the patient is eligible for the trial. That process is called prescreening. It is painful.”

Because physicians wear many hats and have many clinical efforts on their plates, research tends to fall to the bottom of the to-do list. Finding 10-20 patients can take the research team on average 15-20 months to find those people — five of which end up unenrolling, she says.

“We have designed the platform so that the magic can happen in the background, and it allows the physician and research team to get a jumpstart,” she says.” They don’t have to worry about reviewing 10,000 records — they know what their efforts are going to be and will ensure that the entire database has been scanned.”

With Sieve, the team was able to help some commercial pilot programs have a curated data pool for their trials – cutting the administrative burden and time spent searching to less than a week.

Sieve is in early-stage start up mode and the commercial platform has been rolled out. Currently, the team is conducting commercial projects with different research sites and hospitals.

“Our focus now is seeing how many providers we can connect into this,” she says. “There’s a bigger pool out there who want to participate in research but don’t know where to start. That’s where Sieve is stepping in and enabling them to do this — partnering with those and other groups in the ecosystem to bring trials to wherever the physicians and the patients are.”

Arti Bhosale is the co-founder and CEO of Sieve Health. Photo courtesy of Sieve

Houston nonprofit unveils new and improved bayou cleaning vessel

litter free

For over 20 years, a nonprofit organization has hired people to clean 14 miles of bayou in Houston. And with a newly updated innovative boat, keeping Buffalo Bayou clean just got a lot more efficient.

Buffalo Bayou Partnership unveils its newest version of the Bayou-Vac this week, and it's expected to be fully operational this month. BBP Board Member Mike Garver designed both the initial model of the custom-designed and fabricated boat as well as the 2022 version. BBP's Clean & Green team — using Garver's boat — has removed around 2,000 cubic yards of trash annually, which is the equivalent of about 167 commercial dump trucks. The new and improved version is expected to make an even bigger impact.

“The Bayou-Vac is a game changer for our program,” says BBP field operations manager, Robby Robinson, in a news release. “Once up and running, we foresee being able to gain an entire workday worth of time for every offload, making us twice as efficient at clearing trash from the bayou.”

Keeping the bayou clean is important, since the water — and whatever trash its carrying — runs off into Galveston Bay, and ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico. The improvements made to the Bayou-Vac include removable dumpsters that can be easily swapped out, slid off, and attached to a dump truck. The older model included workers having to manually handle trash and debris and a secondary, land-based vacuum used to suck out the trash from onboard.

Additionally, the Bayou-Vac now has a moveable, hydraulic arm attached to the bow of the vessel that can support the weight of the 16-foot vacuum hose. Again, this task was something done manually on the previous model of the Bayou-Vac.

“BBP deeply appreciates the ingenuity of our board member Mike Garver and the generosity of Sis and Hasty Johnson and the Kinder Foundation, the funders of the new Bayou-Vac,” BBP President Anne Olson says in the release. “We also thank the Harris County Flood Control District and Port Houston for their longtime support of BBP’s Clean & Green Program.”