Robert Kester joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his entrepreneurial journey. Photo courtesy of Honeywell

There are several ways for a Houston startup to make an exit — it could IPO, receive massive private equity funding, or even get acquired. It wasn't always in the plan for Robert Kester to have his startup take the acquisition route, but he saw a huge opportunity to get the technology he had worked on for a decade into the field — and he took it.

Kester co-founded Rebellion Photonics in 2010. A doctoral candidate at Rice University at the time, Kester had an idea for scaling a sensor technology that can detect chemicals. The developed device could be used to automate the process and improve safety on oil and gas sites.

"When we first got going, it was an idea on a napkin. We had no idea if it could work or not," Kester says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "So getting those first pilots from companies like BP — some of these major companies believing in us and deploying the technology. We grew it to a point where we'd shown value, and we were scaling the solution."

Kester says he initially saw this application benefitting onsite safety, but it quickly evolved into being a key took to promoting sustainability in a world where climate change is increasingly on everyone's mind. The company started considering a way to get its technology to scale — and fast. In 2019, Rebellion exited in an acquisition by Honeywell.

"For us it just made sense that we could team up with Honeywell and figure out how we could scale this thing globally and quickly, so that we could help be a solution for climate change," Kester continues.

Now, as president and general manager at Honeywell Rebellion, Kester still oversees his technology and, with the support of Honeywell, is able to see it be deployed at a quick pace.

Amid the pandemic, he was even able to make a pivot with his technology. Recognizing the importance of temperature reading as an early indicator of COVID-19, Kester and his team worked to develop ThermoRebellion, a temperature scanning technology that was implemented in airports — like JFK and Boston's Logan Airport — to screen travelers.

"I think the latest statistic I heard is that we've scanned over a million passengers coming in and out of the country," Kester says. "For me, I get a lot of satisfaction out of the fact that we're working on important issues in trying to keep the country safe."

Kester shares more about what he's focused on at Honeywell Rebellion on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

A temperature checking technology originally created for oil and gas industry has pivoted amid the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Honeywell

Tech giant warms up to temperature monitoring system created by Houston startup

temp tech

A Houston startup's temperature monitoring system originally developed for oil and gas facilities is being used to help companies safely get their employees back into work.

The ThermoRebellion temperature software uses technology from Houston-based Rebellion Photonics, which Honeywell acquired in December of last year. The technology uses infrared imaging technology and artificial intelligence to quickly conduct non-invasive screenings of people before they enter offices, banks, airports, as businesses begin to reopen.

Robert Kester, Rebellion Photonics founder and Honeywell president and general manager, says the ongoing health crisis called for a reimagining of the AI-driven oil and gas technology, which is used to quickly detect leaks by using a real-time monitoring platform that provides automated notifications.

"The key component is our software powered by artificial intelligence," Kester tells InnovationMap. "Our imaging systems leverage a decade of experience in the most advanced imaging technologies for gas leak detection, fire detection, and intrusion monitoring applications. The system features uncooled high-resolution FPA infrared sensors allowing for each pixel to be assessed for temperature."

As states begin to lift stay-at-home orders, a return to a new normal is expected, as people begin to go back to the workplace and have to spend time in commercial buildings surrounded by others. In Houston's Memorial Hermann Hospital, temperature scanners by Austin-based Athena Security have already been installed, minimizing contact and reducing foot traffic congestion in entrances.

"Experts believe temperature checks can become more common in public spaces," says Kester. "Our system works allows for social distancing as people don't have to queue closely. Imagine an airport, for example, it wouldn't be feasible to have passengers wait in additional long lines for temperature screening."

The ThermoRebellion system can scan individuals in groups for effective screening at a wide range of sites and venues, instantly providing temperature results in an non-invasive manner, to keep employees and customers safe from introducing and spreading coronavirus.

"It's important for people to get back to work safely, whether that's an office building or a factory, or taking a flight to meet a customer," says Kester.

Honeywell is moving the technology to its piloting phase, racing against the clock to meet the demand as businesses open for business. The system, according to Kester, is intuitive and easy to use, implementing audible and visual alarms to alert if a person has elevated body temperature. Plus, it can also be easily deployed to different access points.

The fast-tracked product couldn't have been done without the team of designers and engineers who quickly pivoted from gas imaging to body temperature solutions. The team is already recruiting potential users who are interested in implementing the system in their facilities.

By Kester's and his team's estimates, the ThermoRebllion system will be ready to deploy as early as June.

"It's going to be difficult for people to go back to busy locations without knowing that companies are taking proactive steps to protect its patrons or employees," says Kester. "We're excited to be part of the set of solutions that can help improve safety."

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Innovative coastline project on Bolivar Peninsula receives federal funding

flood mitigation

The Galveston’s Coastal Barrier Project recently received federal funding to the tune of $500,000 to support construction on its flood mitigation plans for the area previously devastated by Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Known as Ike Dike, the proposed project includes implementing the Galveston Bay Storm Surge Barrier System, including eight Gulf and Bay defense projects. The Bolivar Roads Gate System, a two-mile-long closure structure situated between Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, is included in the plans and would protect against storm surge volumes entering the bay.

The funding support comes from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and will go toward the preconstruction engineering and design phase of Ecosystem Restoration feature G-28, the first segment of the Bolivar Peninsula and West Bay Gulf Intracoastal Waterway Shoreline and Island Protection.

Coastal Barrier Project - Galveston Projects

The project also includes protection of critical fish and wildlife habitat against coastal storms and erosion.

“The Coastal Texas Project is one of the largest projects in the history of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” says Col. Rhett A. Blackmon, USACE Galveston District commander, in a statement. “This project is important to the nation for many reasons. Not only will it reduce risk to the vulnerable populations along the Texas coast, but it will also protect vital ecosystems and economically critical infrastructure vital to the U.S. supply chain and the many global industries located here.”

Hurricane Ike resulted in over $30 billion in storm-related damages to the Texas coast, reports the Coastal Barrier Project, and created a debris line 15 feet tall and 40 miles long in Chambers County. The estimated economic disruption due to Hurricane Ike exceeded $150 billion, FEMA reported.

The project is estimated to take two years to complete after construction starts and will cost between $4 billion and $6 billion, reports Texas A&M University at Galveston.

Houston organization selects research on future foods in space health to receive $1M in funding

research and development

What would we eat if we were forced to decamp to another planet? The most immediate challenges faced by the food industry and astronauts exploring outside Earth are being addressed by The Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) at Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Space Medicine’s newest project.

Earlier this month, TRISH announced the initial selection for its Space Health Ingress Program (SHIP) solicitation. Working with California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Baylor-based program chose “Future Foods for Space: Mobilizing the Future Foods Community to Accelerate Advances in Space Health,” led by Dr. Denneal Jamison-McClung at the University of California, Davis.

“TRISH is bringing in new ideas and investigators to propel space health research,” says Catherine Domingo, TRISH operations lead and research administration associate at Baylor College of Medicine, in the release. “We have long believed that new researchers with fresh perspectives drive innovation and advance human space exploration and SHIP builds on TRISH’s existing efforts to recruit and support new investigators in the space health research field, potentially yielding and high-impact ideas to protect space explorers.”

The goal of the project is to develop sustainable food products and ingredients that could fuel future space travelers on long-term voyages, or even habitation beyond our home planet.

Jamison-McClung and her team’s goal is to enact food-related space health research and inspire the community thereof by mobilizing academic and food-industry researchers who have not previously engaged with the realm of space exploration. Besides growing and developing food products, the project will also address production, storage, and delivery of the nutrition created by the team.

To that end, Jamison-McClung and her recruits will receive $1 million over the course of two years. The goal of the SHIP solicitation is to work with first-time NASA investigators, bringing new minds to the forefront of the space health research world.

“As we look to enable safer space exploration and habitation for humans, it is clear that food and nutrition are foundational,” says Dr. Asha S. Collins, chair of the SHIP advisory board, in a press release. “We’re excited to see how accelerating innovation in food science for space health could also result in food-related innovations for people on Earth in remote areas and food deserts.”

Clean energy nonprofit CEO to step down, search for replacement to begin

moving on

Greentown Labs, which is co-located in the Boston and Houston areas, has announced its current CEO is stepping down after less than a year in the position.

The nonprofit's CEO and President Kevin Knobloch announced that he will be stepping down at the end of July 2024. Knobloch assumed his role last September, previously serving as chief of staff of the United States Department of Energy in President Barack Obama’s second term.

“It has been an honor to lead this incredible team and organization, and a true privilege to get to know many of our brilliant startup founders," Knobloch says in the news release. “Greentown is a proven leader in supporting early-stage climatetech companies and I can’t wait to see all that it will accomplish in the coming years.”

The news of Knobloch's departure comes just over a month after the organization announced that it was eliminating 30 percent of its staff, which affected 12 roles in Boston and six in Houston.

According the Greentown, its board of directors is expected to launch a national search for its next CEO.

“On behalf of the entire Board of Directors, I want to thank Kevin for his efforts to strengthen the foundation of Greentown Labs and for charting the next chapter for the organization through a strategic refresh process,” says Dawn James, Greentown Labs Board Chair, in the release. “His thoughtful leadership will leave a lasting impact on the team and community for years to come.”

Knobloch reportedly shifted Greentown's sponsorship relationships with oil companies, sparking "friction within the organization," according to the Houston Chronicle, which also reported that Knobloch said he intends to return to his clean energy consulting firm.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.