Investor Jason Calacanis lent his time and expertise to seven Houston startups. Photo via twitter.com/houex

Imagine having to pitch your company to a famed investor who has made investments in over 200 companies — seven of which achieved unicorn status. Now, imagine having to do that onstage in front of an audience — in person and virtually viewing.

That was seven Houston entrepreneurs' morning on March 4 during Houston Tech Rodeo. Jason Calacanis heard from the founders and gave his feedback on their business models, as well as general pitch advice. While some of his notes were in the realm of constructive criticism, he stayed pretty positive — for the most part.

"If you're a founder, you're signing up for a 70 percent failure. It's basically a suicide mission, except you don't actually die. You just hit the reset button and go again," Calacanis says to the crowd.

Calacanis also has a great deal of optimism for the region itself, noting on the potential of the innovation ecosystem, and, as an aside, the local basketball team.

"There's no reason Houston as big as a center as Austin has become," Calacanis says. "All it takes is for some of the rich people to say, 'instead of investing in some bond or Wall Street somewhere where they don't know what's going on and to take it and pay it forward with an entrepreneur."

Here are the seven Houston companies that pitched fir Calacanis, as well as some of his feedback.

Topper Luciani, CEO and founder of Goodfair

goodfair

Houston-based Goodfair sells bundles of used clothing at a low cost. Photo courtesy of Goodfair

Kicking things off was Topper Luciani, CEO and founder of Goodfair, CEO and founder of Goodfair. On a mission to counteract the pollution of fast fashion, the company, which launched in 2018, sells second-hand clothing using "mystery shopping," shipping all of their clothing in variety packs chosen according to a customer's size and taste. This eliminates the cost of photographing, measuring, lowering the price for both the customer and the company.

"Climate chance is Gen Z's crisis, and they are our customers," Luciani tells Calacanis and the crowd.

Goodfair expects to do $5 million in revenue this year, as well as raise its seed round. Calacanis give Luciani advice to make sure he answers the question of, in a world with recycled clothing stores and a growing need for environmentalism, why now?

Katharine Forth, CEO and founder of Zibrio

Balancing is important throughout your life, and Zibrio has the tools and tips for you to use to stay centered. Pexels

From NASA to your bathroom floor — Katharine Forth, CEO and founder of Zibrio, has found a new way to track balance. With her company, people can have the everyday ability to figure out how balanced they are on scale of 1 to 10. The scale gathers data from your weight, your postural control, your muscles and other factors to calculate the rating.

But Forth's business is split between two products — a consumer-focused scale and a scale made for medical professionals to use. Calacanis says it's one scale too many and to focus on just one for now. He compared the company to if Uber tried to launch its upgrades its made over the years all at once.

"You're coming out of the gate with UberPool and UberBlack. Big mistake," he says.

Amy Gross, founder and CEO, VineSleuth Inc

vinesleuth

Houston-based VineSleuth created a custom algorithm to match you with new wines based on wines you've had in the past. Courtesy of VineSleuth

Picking wine out isn't rocket science, and yet, "confusion is costing the industry billions," says Amy Gross, founder and CEO, VineSleuth Inc. The company's custom algorithm is backed by research from sensory scientists at Cornell University, and relies on both data collection and machine learning to determine specific wines that will match an individual customer's tastes.

The B2B approach has launched in a few restaurants around town and, as of this week, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo's Wine Garden. But how Gross is currently approaching business isn't exactly attractive to investors.

"The business comes across as a small niche business, which is going to cause investors to run," Calacanis explains.

His advice is to use the technology to prove to restaurants and bars that they are overpaying for their wines.

Panos Moutafis, CEO and co-founder, Zenus Biometrics

Zenus Biometrics uses its facial recognition software to provide seamless check in at events around the world. Courtesy of Zenus Biometrics

What started as a convenient way to check into events is now a facial recognition solution to event data. Zenus Biometrics can scan faces of event attendees for security — but also for data analytics, says Panos Moutafis, CEO and co-founder.

While the tech company has already evolved, Calacanis saw even more potential for the software, comparing it to the iPhone. The device is used more for a camera and app usage than an actual phone.

"As technologists we build something," Calacanis says. "Then we find out what people actually use it for."

While based in Houston now, Moutafis mentions that he will soon be relocated to Austin.

Safir Ali, co-founder and CEO of Hamper

Houston-based Hamper, which makes dry cleaning convenient, won the Rockets and BBVA Compass' LaunchPad competition. Courtesy of Hamper

Safir Ali grew up in his parents' dry cleaning store, and he observed that the biggest inconvenience for customers was them trying to make it to the cleaners to get their clothes before it closed. His company, Hamper, aims to provide a solution as "the Red Box of dry cleaning." Customers can deposit their dry cleaning in a kiosk in their office building, and it will be delivered to pick-up locations.

Calacanis liked that Ali has a background in the dry cleaning business."It takes somebody who is so obsessed that they aren't going to give up," he says, adding that he liked Ali's story.

"When you have something new – something that's novel, you could get a lot of attention," Calacanis says. "For things that are not novel, you have to use performance. You have to use the metrics."

Dyan Gibbens, founder and CEO, Trumbull Unmanned

Trumbull Unmanned equips energy companies with data-retrieving drones. Photo via trumbullunmanned.com

Trumbull Unmanned has created an enterprise software company to analyze data collected from drones flying over oil and gas sites. The technology allows workers to maintain a safe distance and still collect the information needed. Dyan Gibbens, founder and CEO, has secured some impressive contracts with companies, including Exxon.

Calacanis asked Gibbens about those contracts and how much they were usually for, but didn't like her first answer.

"Every answer we get as investors is, 'It depends,'" Calacanis says, explaining a "pro tip" for entrepreneurs. " You want to lead with some examples and get some ground truth. Sell us that ground truth."

Calacanis' next piece of advice for Gibbens was to add a second set of data collecting technology, such as a moisture sensor or heat sensor, creating two sets of data for clients.

"Being agnostic to how you solve the problem is [a big opportunity]. Also, that becomes an upsell," Calacanis says.

Ksenia Yudina, founder and CEO, UNest

UNest is a tax-free way to save money for your children's education. Photo via unestapp.com

UNest is using user-friendly app technology to set up college funds for millennial parents. And Founder Ksenia Yudina has gotten some great reception, which has caused financial advisers to take note and even reach out. But Calacanis says they are, in a way, the enemy for her product and she needs to not spread out her resources trying to partner with financial advisers.

"Part of being a successful founder is knowing what you need more and what to stay focused on," Calacanis says. "If you remain a product that people like, everyone is going to drown you in opportunities. And as CEO you have to know when to say no."

With Houston having the fastest growing veteran population in the country, the innovation ecosystem has plenty of veterans turned entrepreneurs. Here are five to know today. Courtesy photos

5 Houston entrepreneurs to know this Veterans Day

American heroes

Over a quarter of a million United States military veterans call Houston home, and that number is growing.

"Houston has the second largest and fastest growing veteran population in the country," says Reda Hicks, a Houston entrepreneur and military spouse herself. "That's a very significant chunk of our city to share an affinity, and it's not something Houston has talked about."

For its large veteran population, Houston was selected in January 2018 as the third location to set up a chapter of Bunker Labs, an acceleration and incubation organization for military-affiliated entrepreneurs.

"Our whole goal is to help empower military-affiliated people to start and grow businesses," says Hicks, who is one of the Houston leads for the program, a lawyer, and the founder of GotSpot Inc.

The program provides resources for veterans, military spouses, or anyone whose lives were affected by a family member in the military. Bunker Labs provides a digital platform for early-stage ideas called Launch Lab that's used by hundreds annually, and also has face-to-face programming through its Veterans in Business program hosted through WeWork.

"It can be the case that veterans can feel siloed, and it's wonderful to have those people around you who can really understand you, but for businesses to grow, they have to really understand the ecosystem they live in," Hicks says.

In honor of Veterans Day, here are a few Houston veteran entrepreneurs to know.

Dyan Gibbens, founder and CEO of Trumbull Unmanned

Dyan Gibbons

Dyan Gibbons translated her Air Force experience with unmanned missiles into a drone services company. Courtesy of Alice

Dyan Gibbons found her dream career in the United States Air Force Academy. She served as engineering acquisitions officer managing stealth nuclear cruise missiles, and even went on to supported Air Force One and Global Hawk UAS engineering and logistics. After her years of service, she transitioned into the reserves, when she discovered she was ineligible to serve again. She went back to the drawing board to recreate herself — this time, as an entrepreneur.

She went into a doctorate program — she already had her MBA — and was close to finishing up when her drone startup took flight. Trumbull Unmanned provides drone services to the energy sector for various purposes. With her experience as a pilot and managing unmanned missiles, she knew the demand for drones was only growing — and, being from Texas, she knew what industry to focus on.

"I wanted to start a company that uses unmanned systems or drones to improve safety and improve the environment and support energy," Gibbons tells InnovationMap in a previous interview.

Nicole Baldwin, chief visionary officer and founder of Biao Skincare

Nicole Baldwin

Photo via toryburchfoundation.org

Before founding her tech-enabled, all-natural skincare line, Biao, Nicole Baldwin served in the Army Civil Affairs Units and was deployed to Bagram, Afghanistan. In honor of Veterans Day, she shared on Facebook an image of her with young girls outside the compound she lived in.

"I often tell people not to thank me for my service, because I don't feel like I should be thanked for doing something I genuinely wanted to do," she writes in the post. "I am grateful every moment of my life knowing that I did all the things in and out of uniform that was felt from the heart."

Baldwin's company, which uses a skin-scanning technology has taken off, and she's participated in Houston's Bunker Labs programming, and she has also been a Tory Burch fellow and appeared on Shark Tank.

Brett Rosenberg, founder of Semper Fi Systems

Photo via LinkedIn.com

Brett Rosenberg spent a few years in the U.S. Air Force before he took his experience from national security to a different kind of security.

Rosenberg's startup is another one utilizing the resources of Houston's Bunker Labs. Semper Fi Systems takes information security experts' knowledge and machine learning solutions to optimize cybersecurity and avoid regulatory financial exclusion.

Nathan Wilkes, CEO of Guidon Holdings

Photo via LinkedIn.com

After four years in the U.S. Army based in Georgia, Nathan Wilkes enrolled in business school at Texas A&M University. It was during the program when he founded Guidon Holdings, a Cypress-based aggregates company that — through screening, washing, separating, clarifying, and much more — can turn a natural resource that is considered waste into something of value.

Wilkes is also a West Point Academy graduate and a member of the 2019 Bunker Labs Houston cohort.

Tim Kopra, partner at Blue Bear Capital

An U.S. Army vet, Tim Kopra spent over 244 days in space, and now he's using his tech background to invest in emerging energy companies. Courtesy of Tim Kopra

Before he spent a career total of 244 days in space, Tim Kopra first served his country in the United States Army. Nowadays, he serves the Houston innovation ecosystem as an investor and adviser to startups and entrepreneurs in the energy tech industry.

As a partner at venture fund Blue Bear Capital, Kopra uses his experience in the Army and in space to do figure out if entrepreneurs have what it takes to go the distance and if their technology is worth investing in.

"On face value, it may sound like an odd match, taking someone with a tech and operational background and putting them in venture, but quite frankly it feels very familiar to me because my career has really been focused on working on complex technology and operations with very small teams," tells InnovationMap in a previous interview. "It's not just a theoretical understanding of the technology, but understanding how to use the technology and how it works."

The Texas Medical Center has contributed to a $16 million round in a TMCx08 member company. Courtesy of TMCx

TMCx company raises $16 million, Exxon scales work with Houston drone startup, and more innovation news

Short stories

With a busy September just days away, the Houston innovation world has seen an uptick in news. Just in case you missed some, here are some short stories from Houston startups — funding, product launches, clinical trials, oh my.

TMC invests in Luma Health's recent $16 million round

Luma Health, a San Francisco-based startup and TMCx08 cohort member, has closed a $16 million Series B round. The Texas Medical Center contributed to the round, along with U.S. Venture Partners and Cisco. PeakSpan Capital lead the series.

The company has a text-first communication platform to ease and automate the provider-patient conversations. The money, per VentureBeat, will go toward scaling up business.

"As we've spent more time with patients, doctors, and healthcare teams across the country, we've seen the disconnect between patients and clinics — patients really struggle to connect with their clinic, and clinics struggle to simply get a hold of their patients," the companies founders write on their website. "The one consistent theme we've heard after now deploying Luma Health at over 300 clinics is: how can we make it easier for our patients to get started on their care journey and connect with us as they map their personal path to healing?"

ExxonMobil scales its arrangement with Houston drone company

Dyan Gibbons

Dyan Gibbons is the CEO of Trumbull Unmanned. Courtesy of Alice

Houston-based Trumbull Unmanned has provided its drone technology to ExxonMobil since 2014. Now, the major energy company is scaling up its involvement with the local company.

Trumbull was recently awarded a five-year Unmanned Aircraft Systems Agreement and now will expand drone data collection and inspections as part of a new contract.

"Trumbull is grateful to serve amazing clients. After conducting data collection and inspections for ExxonMobil in over 25 locations, we are excited to scale operations starting in the Americas," says Trumbull CEO Dyan Gibbens in a release. "We look forward to helping ExxonMobil integrate amazing safety, efficiency, and data-driven technology into their operations."

Houston-founded startup relocates to Austin

Ben Johnson's business idea turned into a growing company making the lives of apartment dwellers easier. Courtesy of Apartment Butler

A company founded in Houston has moved its headquarters to Austin, according to reports. Spruce — formerly known as Apartment Butler — provides luxury services (like dry cleaning, cleaning, and pet services) to apartment complexes.

Founder Ben Johnson told InnovationMap last December that, even though he's raised two rounds of funding from Houston — a $2 million Seed and a $3 million Series A — it was tough to convince venture capital firms from Houston. Houston-based Mercury Fund and Austin-based Capital Factory contributed to both the company's rounds. Princeton, New Jersey-based Fitz Gate Ventures led the Series A round, and the Houston Angel Network contributed too.

"Every single VC I pitched to wanted to require us to move to Austin as a condition to our funding," Johnson tells InnovationMap in a previous article. "I wanted to grow this business in Houston. I thought I was going to have to move to Austin because there wasn't a VC for us here."

Spruce already has a presence in Austin. The company has its services in 35 Austin-area apartment complexes, per the Austin Business Journal, as well as having Austin-based employees. Earlier this year, Spruce expanded its services to Denver, representing the first out-of-state business for the company.

Houston anti-fungal fabric fashion line launches

Accel Lifestyle is a anti-stink, ethically sourced athletic line. Courtesy of Accel

Houston entrepreneur, Megan Eddings, was disappointed with the athleticwear industry. She couldn't find a company that prioritized ethical and sustainable designs that were made with a fabric that wouldn't hold on to that strong, unpleasant sweat smell. So, a chemist by trade, she made her own.

Now, after months and months of work, Eddings has launched her company and the fitness line, Accel Lifestyle. The products are made in the United States in ethical conditions and shipped in 100 percent biodegradable packaging without any plastics involved. The custom-designed fabric — called the Prema™ fabric, which is now patent pending in 120 countries — doesn't hold onto the stink from working out, meaning consumers will be less inclined to throw them away, preventing unnecessary textile waste.

"I founded Accel Lifestyle because, even though there are so many fitness apparel companies today, none of them hit all the boxes on my checklist. I wanted to support a fashionable fitness apparel company that has an ethical supply chain (no sweatshops), and a fabric that doesn't smell. What did I find? Absolutely nothing. And, I wanted to change that," says Eddings in a release. "With my science background and experience working in science labs at University of Virginia and Brown University, it took 2.5 years to create the fabric from scratch, using the most luxurious threads available and a trade secret protected science."

Houston medical device startup releases positive clinical trial results

Photo via nanospectra.com

A Houston medical device company using nanomedicine has released early results in its clinical trials treating prostrate cancer. Nanospectra Biosciences Inc.'s AuroLase technology uses laser-excited gold-silica nanoparticles with various medical imaging tools to focally remove low to intermediate grade tumors within the prostate, according to its study outcomes published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"As the first ultra-focal therapy for prostate cancer, AuroLase has the potential to maximize treatment efficacy while minimizing side effects associated with surgery, radiation, and traditional focal therapies," says David Jorden, CEO of Nanospectra, in a news release. "We are encouraged by the clinical success of our feasibility study to date and look forward to the initiation, potentially next month, of the pivotal study with an expected cumulative treatment population of 100 subjects."

One of the company's co-founders, Naomi J. Halas, is a professor of biophysics at Rice University.

Canadian oil and gas company with a growing presence in Houston named finalist in World Oil awards

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

While Houston can't completely claim Canadian oil and gas data company Validere, the company, which has a growing presence in the Bayou City, has been named a finalist in a prestigious awards program.

Validere is a finalist in the World Oil Awards' best data management and application solution award. The company is up against technology from the likes of Schlumberger, Halliburton, Siemens, NOV, Baker Hughes, and more,

The company has created a software that allows for 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.

Of course, the energy capital of the world has been a major city for growth — something co-founder Nouman Ahmad tells InnovationMap in a previous interview.

"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.

From closing a million-dollar raise to being tapped by Google to serve on a council, Houston entrepreneurs have been busy. Courtesy of Security Gate

Company closes $1M round, new nonprofit startup hub launches, and more Houston innovation news

Short Stories

Wrapping up March, there's been a lot of innovator and startup news that's slipped through the cracks. From funds closing and incubator applications opening, here's all the news bits you need to know.

SecurityGate closes $1 million fund

Photo via securitygate.io

Houston-based SecurityGate closed its $1 million seed round on March 22. The lead investor was a private investment group in Houston. The startup, a B-to-B, software-as-a-service cybersecurity company, will use the funds to further refine its business and grow its team.

"We're excited our investment team understands the need for digital transformation in the critical infrastructure security space," CEO and co-founder, Ted Gutierrez says.

In February, SecurityGate traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina, to accept the Game Changers award. Gutierrez said being able to bring home that award really spurred the last leg of the raise.

Impact Hub Houston launches with fundraising campaign

Photo via LinkedIn

Houston's Impact Hub, a nonprofit organization focused on impacting change within the world through startups and technologies, has officially launched. The organization also launched its fundraising campaign called 321 Impact.

Led by Grace Rodriguez, Impact Hub Houston will set up shop in a few "pop-up" locations to truly serve all of the city. The first location will soon be announced, Rodriguez writes online.

Impact Hub Houston also announced a few other projects the organization has launched or is working on:

MassChallenge Texas will open Houston application at kick-off event

Photo via greenstreetdowntown.com

MassChallenge Texas announced its first Houston cohort in January, indicating that applications will open sometime in April. Last week, the zero-equity incubator program revealed that applications will open following an April 10th launch party event. The networking event will be at the Four Seasons in downtown Houston and will take place from 6 to 9 pm. Guests can RSVP here, and startups can begin the application process at masschallenge.org/apply to start their application. The application deadline is May 8, 2019 at noon.

Google taps Houston innovator for AI-focused council

Dyan Gibbons

Courtesy of Alice

Google has selected Houston innovator and founder of Trumbull Unmanned, Dyan Gibbens, as a member of its inaugural Advanced Technology Executive Advisory Council focused on AI. The council will meet with Google's executive leadership quarterly throughout 2019, beginning in April. Kent Walker, senior vice president of Global Affairs at Google, introduced Gibbens, and the fellow council members, in a blog post.

"We hope this effort will inform both our own work and the broader technology sector," writes Walker in the post. "In addition to encouraging members to share generalizable learnings in their ongoing activities, we plan to publish a report summarizing the discussions. Council members represent their individual perspectives, and do not speak for their institutions."

Houston to host nationwide pitch competition finals

Photo via celebrasianconference.com

The country's largest Asian organization is concluding its pitch competition in Houston. The contest, called What's Your Pitch: Innovations Meets the Market, is put on by the United States Pan Asian Chamber of Commerce. Chaired by Diane Yoo, former director of the Rice Angel Network, the semifinal and final rounds will take place in Houston on June 4 and 5, respectively. $100,000 work of cash and prizes is on the line. For more info on the contest, click here.

FutureSight AR selected as the only Texas startup for an international program

future sight AR

Courtesy of Future Sight AR

Houston-based Future Sight AR was selected for Magic Leap's Independent Creators Program in the productivity category and was awarded a grant to continue development. The program, which had over 6,500 applicants, will take place through March and some of April. FutureSight AR, which uses artificial reality to make oil and gas construction workers more productive, is the only startup represented from Texas in the program, says co-founder of the company, Lori-Lee Emshey.

Lyft introduces new programs and opportunities in Houston

Courtesy of Lyft

Lyft will bring or expand three driver-focused programs to the Houston market, the company announced this week.

  • Drivers can opt into Lyft Direct, a bank account with no fees that links to a debit card. Rather than cashing their check from Lyft, drivers can instantly access earnings and even receive points for cash back on specific purchases.
  • Lyft will open a Vehicle Service Center, which is a new and improved version of Lyft Hubs. The idea is to have mechanics work on the vehicles of Lyft drivers at cost, rather than the drivers having to pay full-price for their repairs. Also new to the program is the opportunity to provide mobile repair services for drivers on the go.
  • Lyft announced that Houston will have more locations of the Express Drive program, where Lyft drivers can use a rental car and receive subsidized earnings.

Blockchain entrepreneur profiled by Rice University publication

Courtesy of Topl

Houston-based Topl's co-founder, Kim Raath, was featured in a piece for Rice University as a part of the school's Spotlights on Diversity in Engineering. Her company, Topl, uses blockchain technology to connect the dots on industries — from food to oil and gas. To read the feature of how Raath went from backpacking through developing countries to startup founder, click here.

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Short stories will be a regular roundup on InnovationMap. If your company recently closed on a round, received recognition, or has any news, please email Natalie Harms at natalie@innovationmap.com with the information.

These energy startup leaders are the reason Houston will keep its "energy capital of the world" title. Courtesy images

3 Houston energy innovators to know this week

Who's Who

Houston's known as the energy capital of the world, but it won't stay that way if the city as a whole doesn't work toward innovation. These three professionals started their own companies to improve efficiency and promote ingenuity in their fields. From drones and AI to quicker pipeline data access, this week's three innovators to know are the future of the energy industry.

Lori-Lee Emshey, co-founder of Future Sight AR

Courtesy of Future Sight AR

Growing up the daughter of an oil and gas professional and traveling the world, Lori-Lee Emshey studied journalism and didn't necessarily intend to go into the family business, so to speak. However, that's where she ended up. She was surrounded by innovation and technology in New York working at The Daily Beast, but when she got her first job on an energy construction site, she returned to the antiquated process of pen and paper. The wheels started turning for her.

Future Sight AR is a company that is working on smart device technology for large oil and gas pants, where workers can see — in real time — how to fix a problem or log an issue. The company has done a proof of concept and is looking to do three pilot program as well as a round of funding in early 2019.

Jay Bhatty, CEO and founder of NatGasHub.com

Courtesy of Jay Bhatty

As vice president of energy trading at JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s investment-banking arm, Jay Bhatty felt frustrated by the sluggish nature of natural-gas-trading activities, and he decided to something about it. He founded Houston-based NatGasHub.com in October 2016 to streamline the traditionally complicated processes of moving natural gas from one point to another, and of unearthing data about natural gas pipelines.

After only a little over two years in business, NatGasHub.com already is profitable — a rare feat in the startup world.

Dyan Gibbens, founder and CEO of Trumbull Unmanned

Courtesy of Alice

Dyan Gibbens maybe have thought her true purpose was serving in the military, but it's lately it's leading her Houston-based drone technology company, Trumbull Unmanned, to great success. While in her doctorate program, the Air Force veteran started the idea using unmanned vehicles to patrol refineries and plants in the energy and utilities sector. The company took flight — her first clients were Chevron and ExxonMobil.

Gibbens juggles motherhood and engineering — among other responsibilities — as her company grows and technology evolves.


Dyan Gibbens translated her Air Force experience with unmanned missiles into a drone services company. Courtesy of Alice

Houston drone company has big business on the horizon

The sky's the limit

Dyan Gibbens found her dream career. She studied engineering, learned to fly at the United States Air Force Academy, went into pilot training, and served as engineering acquisitions officer managing stealth nuclear cruise missiles. She even went on to support Air Force One and Global Hawk UAS engineering and logistics. She dedicated five years to active service before transitioning to the reserves.

"When I went to transition, I learned I was permanently disqualified from ever serving again," Gibbens said. "It was devastating to me, because all I've ever wanted to do was serve."

She went into a doctorate program — she already had her MBA — and was close to finishing up when her drone startup took flight. Trumbull Unmanned provides drone services to the energy sector for various purposes. With her experience as a pilot and managing unmanned missiles, she knew the demand for drones was only growing — and, being from Texas, she knew what industry to focus on.

"I wanted to start a company that uses unmanned systems or drones to improve safety and improve the environment and support energy,"

InnovationMap: What exactly does Trumbull Unmanned do?

Dyan Gibbens: We fly drones in challenging and austere environments to collect and analyze data for the energy sector. We fly across upstream, midstream, and downstream either on or off shore. We focus on three areas: digital transformation, inspection and operations, and technology development and integration.

The types data we collect and analyze could be LiDAR — light detection and ranging — to multispectral — to see the help of different properties — to visible — to perform tech-enabled inspections. We've recently hired inspectors in house as well. On LiDAR, we just hired a subject matter expert.

IM: So, the company is growing. What else is new for Trumbull?

DG: We just signed a few five-year agreements with supermajors. We're excited about that and the new hires. We're starting to do more on communications and situational awareness. We're doing more in energy and now in the government.

IM: What were some early challenges you faced?

DG: We are 100 percent organically funded — from our savings and from client contracts. Our first client was ExxonMobil. Our second client was Chevron. We had to prove ourselves over and over. We had to work hard to earn and then maintain that business. For us, it was also adjusting to a fluctuation in cash flow. It was going from a steady job to betting on yourself, and we didn't know anyone in Houston.

IM: What's the state of drone technology in the field?

DG: We've continued to see a hybrid approach toward services. Meaning, there's an in-house component and outsourced component. On the outsourced component, we intend to provide that for our clients. On the in-house component, while we don't train the masses, we do train our clients on request. We've promoted that model from the beginning. We think it makes sense that they are trained to do something simple, like take a picture, but for some of the more difficult projects, they outsource to us.

We're going to continue to see increased autonomy. There are really some amazing things already in autonomy, but there's still a lot of challenges flying in dense environments such as refineries and plants.

IM: How is Houston's startup scenes for veterans? What resources are out there?

DG: The way I see it is veterans have made a commitment to serve us, so we should make a commitment to serve them. That's my philosophy. Large companies have different programs, which is great, and there are entities such as Combined Arms, which has full services for transitioning veterans where you can go in and one-stop shop to get support from everything like getting connected to the VA to help working through PTSD to getting help transitioning to business. There are also really good Service Academy networks. More and more opportunities exist to step up to serve veterans.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Photos: Here's a sneak peek at The Ion Houston's construction progress

eye on the ion

The Ion Houston is expected to open its doors this year, and the building's exterior is close to completion. Now, the construction team is focusing on interiors and then tenant build outs.

The 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub owned and managed by Rice Management Co. is slated to be a convening building for startups, corporations, academic partners, investors, and more. The building is organized as follows:

  • The underground Lower Level will act as academic flex space with a few classrooms and open-concept desks for The Ion's accelerators, including: The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, DivInc, the Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator, and the Aerospace Innovation Hub and Accelerator. There will also be an event space and The Ion's own programming.
  • On the first, street-level floor, The Ion's restaurant tenants will reside with access from both the greenspace as well as into the building. The Ion's first three restaurant tenants include: Late August, Common Bond, and STUFF'd Wings.
  • Additionally, the first floor will be home to a venture studio and the prototyping lab. There is additional space available for other tenants.
  • On the second floor, there will be 58,000 square feet of coworking space managed by Common Desk. Note: For floors 2 and up of the Ion, tenants will have access cards that allow them entrance. The first and lower floors will not require access cards.
  • The third floor of the building will house eight to 10 tenants each with 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space. Chevron was announced as the first tenant and will reside on this floor.
  • On the fourth and fifth floors, The Ion will house one to two larger tenants on each level. These levels of the building were added on to the existing structure. The fourth floor features two balconies that tenants will have access to. Microsoft is signed on to have its space on half of the fifth floor.
The Ion is still planning on an open date in late spring or summer. For leasing information, click here. Scroll through the slideshow of construction images and renderings to see the progress of the building.

Exterior nears completion

Photo by Natalie Harms

The building's exterior is almost complete and kept much of the original building's facade. The new materials brought in match the existing color scheme.

Texas winery taps Houston tech company for innovative AR experience

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The Lone Star State is home to a vibrant and innovative wine scene, but, just like most hospitality businesses, winemakers missed the opportunity to engage with their patrons amid the pandemic. With a new idea of how to engage its customers, Messina Hof, an award-winning Texas winery, rolled out a new tech-optimized, at-home experience.

The winery partnered with VISION, a Houston-based production group, to create an augmented reality app. Combining the efforts of Messina Hof's in-house label design team and the animation capabilities of VISION, the app took four months to design.

"It was a labor of love for both parties to be able to experiment with this; it was uncharted territory," says Karen Bonarrigo, owner and chief administrative officer of Messina Hof.

The three wines released — Emblaze (Sweet Red), Vitality (Dry White), and Abounding (Dry Red) — each tells a story through the AR experience.

"We wanted to try not only and push the technology as far as we can push it, but also try to really incorporate some heavy storytelling," says Dan Pratt, VISION Creative Director.

The idea to incorporate technology felt like a natural one to Bonariggo.

"The earth, water, and sunshine all go into developing what the profile is for each wine," explains Bonarrigo.

Each of the three wines have scannable labels that bring up a VR experience for app users. Photo courtesy of Messina Hof

VISION, who worked alongside Messina Hof to develop the project, blended the winery's rich family ties with the Old World history of winemaking.

When customers download the app and hold their camera over the label, a trailing vine emerges onto the screen and wraps around the bottle. As vines grow around each bottle, the three each visually signify a different natural element of winemaking — earth, water and the sun. As a rustic sign emerges, it prompts users to then click for recipe pairing recommendations.

Rather than a single-use experience, Messina Hof and VISION wanted to create an app that users could both engage with and learn from. The AR app allows users to view recipes and browse wines in one place.

"We knew we wanted the app to be functional for people to be able to interact with both when they're doing the AR experience, but then also to be able to continue to come back to it later," shares Bonarrigo. While AR wine labels have emerged in some California vineyards, she says, "it's definitely uncharted territory for the Texas industry."

Overseeing the food and wine pairing at Messina Hof is one of Bonarrigo's passions, so it was a natural choice to include recipes in the app. Messina Hof offers a concept called Vineyard Cuisine, coined from the Bonarrigo family cookbook, and incorporates wine in every meal at the vineyard.

"The idea of tying [the wine] to a recipe gave us the opportunity to be able to share new ways [our customers] could use wines in their everyday cooking," she explains.

She hopes the app's recipe feature will help families connect together.

"So often we get used to sitting down at the table, eating really quickly, and then moving on to the next thing, but there's so much connection that can happen with each other when we can slow down a little bit and have a conversation," she continues.

To Pratt, AR was the perfect way to emphasize and expand on the shared experience of wine.

"We wanted this to be an extension of that experience for people. You know, based on the love of wine and laughter with friends," he says.

For those who can't currently gather in a room together, Bonarrigo has hopes that Messina Hof can bring people together from afar.

"I think now more than ever the ability for our regular customers, even within Texas, to then share those wines with family members or friends that are outside the state seems more intuitive," she explains.

"We are so used to being creatures of habit in sharing our wine face-to-face with people that when we had the unexpected opportunity to not do that, we realized that we still have ways to be able to connect with customers through technology," says Bonarrigo.

She finds the "ease of access of being able to connect with them through the online web store" has kept Messina Hof in touch with customers throughout the pandemic, as well as digital happy hours and tasting events.

Messina Hof Harvest Green Winery & Kitchen, the newest location, opened in February, becoming the Greater Houston-area's largest winery. The space features an expansive tasting room and 83-foot wine bar, full-service restaurant, covered patio, two private tasting rooms, a wine production, barrel room, and wine warehouse.

"We knew that when we launched that location that we wanted to be able to have a series of wines at that location that was special, but also out of the box," says Bonarrigo.

Bonarrigo and her husband Paul have ushered in the expansion of Messina Hof over the last nine years. The family business began in 1977 when Paul's parents, Paul Vincent and Merrill, started an experimental vineyard. Messina Hof has locations in Bryan, Grapevine, Fredericksburg, and Richmond.

"This is our largest winery expansion endeavor that we've done," she says. "We wanted the wines to be extra special."

Similar to Messina Hof, companies across industries are seeking to explore interactive technologies to reach their customer base. "A number of our clients, and also new clients that we may not have been able to reach before, have certainly reached out to us to figure out new ways to reach an audience," shares Pratt.

Winemaking may be an Old World skill, but Messina Hof is excited to bring Texas wine into the future.

"So much of winemaking is science, and so much of it is art. There's always this push and pull as to which is more of a majority in the end product," explains Bonarrigo, who notes that Messina Hof has been using technology to innovate and optimize the growing process. The new AR app is a push toward bringing the experience her family loves into the homes of customers.

"This definitely gives a new talking point to wine," she says.