#HTXTechRodeo

7 Houston entrepreneurs pitch their companies to famed Silicon Valley investor

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."

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Building Houston

 
 

Camilo Mejia, CEO and founder of Houston-based Enovate Upstream, has big plans for increasing efficiency across the oil and gas sector. Photo courtesy of Enovate

A Houston energy tech company announced a new artificial intelligence platform that aims to digitize the oil and gas sector to provide the best efficiency and return on investment at every stage of the supply chain cycle — from drilling and production to completion.

Enovate Upstream's exponential growth, says Camilo Mejia, CEO and founder of the company, has already led to two new strategic partnerships in the works with European and Latin American companies.

"We see a better future in the oil and gas industry," Mejia shares in an interview with InnovationMap. "Our team worked in various roles in O&G, and we don't think the industry will end up as some people may think. The future will be different and digitized, we are just here to facilitate that transition to give back to the industry that gave us a lot."

The company's proprietary cloud-based ADA AI digital ecosystem is challenging the assumptions of the industry by using new technology powered artificial intelligence to provide historical data with AI to give real-time production forecasting. Thanks to the cloud, users can access the information anywhere in the world.

The new platform combines three models — digital drilling, digital completions, and digital production — that provide precise data that can be customized to the client's needs, integrating into an existing platform easily for a real-time view of their return on investment and carbon emission output.

Mejia shares more about his company's growth and what goals Enovate Upstream is setting to continue the course of digitization in the oil and gas industry in the Q&A with InnovationMap.

InnovationMap: What inspired Enovate Upstream’s focus on artificial intelligence technology for the upstream value chain?

Camilo Mejia: For the past five or six years, there's been talk of digitalization, and the value of data. The next level is not the value of the data, it's about the automation, how you can improve operations, and how you can help customers to make better decisions. Every single technology that we are developing here is about the return of investment.

Our AI concept is about the physics behind the data. We are accelerating digital adoption by properly showing the tangible value of the technology by speaking the same language and showing the value from the oil and gas perspective, which was one of the challenges other AI technology faced to break into the industry before. Our artificial intelligence component upgrades this technology to optimize the industry while integrating it with this digital ecosystem all in one place. The digital ecosystem we're building covers the entire value chain.

One of the challenges the industry faces is around capital allocation — how we can help customers to properly allocate capital into projects, which is a fundamental way we forecast new projects. Another challenge is the size of the organization that ranges from corporations to small businesses. They have many opportunities to improve cost but that varies across companies.

We are overcoming that challenge in order to develop a technology that can show the inefficiencies between the sizes. The third challenge is the adoption of digital technology. There are two different ways of deploying artificial intelligence. One is data-driven analysis, data-driven models, or data trading — this is the foundation.

IM: What fundamental changes do you think your cloud-based ADA technology can provide across every stage of the value chain?

CM: The biggest change we have in the platform is revising the workflow based on the production size. We use the data the customers already have, to develop a model that changes the way we forecast production in the industry. Before you deploy the capital and execute the project, you are going to have a better idea of the maximum potential profitability, so you can make better decisions at any stage from that point.

One of the inspirations for this was Tesla. The automotive industry was failing to provide a self-driving vehicle because it was using mathematical approaches, but Tesla overcame that challenge using data of millions of drivers to drive and park the cars efficiently, optimizing the process.

We are doing exactly the same, which is applying mathematical equations only for drilling forecasts, production forecasts, and using the data from the wells to see how the projects are behaving. We also integrate the modules so every single module is communicating with each other at every stage to correlate back to a production forecast to set your targets or operation based on that expected return of investment.

Our concept is about the return of investment, in order to develop the ROI concept, you got to plan the events right and the varying size production, that becomes the second component. The third component is about optimization of operations, which is about automation to improve operations and therefore decision-making. We are developing technology that has a very modern interface to automate operations in a more intuitive way so customers can be independent in the process and make the best decisions.

IM: At the moment, there is a need for virtual connections. How does your technology allow certain hands-on tasks to be handled remotely?

CM: In many ways, we have a big project in the Gulf of Mexico. We place technologies that we are using in today's market and deploy a platform that customers can use independently. We can also automate operations to the cloud by just deploying, trimming the data out of the field straight to the cloud so that people in the field can actually use the AI component to optimize operations. We don't require face to face interaction using the cloud environment.

Since the coronavirus these digital components have been on demand, we have grown about 500 percent from the end of Q1 and into the middle of Q2. We are experiencing an acceleration in the adoption of digital technology, but the ability to deploy the technology through the cloud has been instrumental in gaining more traction in the market. As a matter of fact, just as an indicator, we have been hiring people since the start of the coronavirus.

IM: Enovate Upstream started a year ago since then you’ve experienced exponential growth. What are a couple of goals that the company will achieve by the end of the year?

CM: Our strategy is focused on the next level for the company, which is securing funding round with investors in London. We are also aiming to facilitate the deployment of our technology globally. We are focusing on the United States and Latin America, but we hope to expand our funding round to Europe and the Middle East.

Our other goal lies with our partnerships, we are working through a distribution channel, through larger service companies that are facilitating the commercialization of the technology. The focus is on enabling these companies to properly support the customers by doing more technology integration and increasing the value creation.

The next goal is obviously to sustain the company, even though we have been growing, there is a lot of uncertainty in the market, and we are focusing on building the culture of the company, which is challenging in a virtual space.

IM: How has Enovate Upstream navigated an unstable market amid your rapid growth?

CM: That's a good question. I think the lesson is that you can always end up in a different direction. Coronavirus is having a big impact on many businesses, often negatively, but for us, it was instrumental to realize the full potential of the technology we were developing.

We saw that the activity was going from operations to the financial sector with companies selling assets to sustain their business. There were a lot of customers trying to decide what kind of wells they need to continue producing, so that was a market that we didn't capture before.

We grew the technology in that direction by starting a second company called Energy Partners. We created a joint venture with some producers in South Texas to make better decisions in asset acquisition. It was instrumental for us to realize the full potential on the finance side, as opposed to operations where the initial focus was.

We have assets in South Texas now and from a technology standpoint, it's the ideal way to test our analytic technology. We use our technology to properly evaluate the return of investment to make decisions about acquiring assets to optimize the operations and increase production. We have the opportunity to prove the technology with our investments, so we can actually build trust with customers. We are 100 percent sure that the technology works the way we say it works.

IM: There’s a huge emphasis on sustainability in the energy industry. How does your technology reduce carbon emissions?

CM: There are two kinds of components here. The first one is about optimizing operations — personnel transportation at the field level. We have studied calculations of what carbon dioxide output looks like to reduce it in terms of optimizing transportation, technology, and contributing to innovative ideas. We are currently initiating a feasibility study on a carbon capture technology, and working with customers to provide value in the technology in various aspects.

IM: I see several partnerships have already begun. Are you looking for more and what role do these partnerships play for your business?

CM: We have two partnerships about to close. One is with Telefonica, a Spanish telecommunications company, and another with Pluspetrol, an Argentinian production company. Telefonica provides cybersecurity services to oil and gas companies, we actually work with them to deploy our technology in Latin America and Europe. They provide the cloud and cybersecurity component while we provide the AI component.

In terms of our technology development, Pluspetrol has been one of our partners from the very beginning and we continue developing more technologies with this particular customer. They provide us with access to real data and real operational conditions that facilitate technological innovation.

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