Houston Voices

University of Houston-founded company shares its lessons learned from accelerator programs

Houston-based Sensytec founder gives his advice for accelerating your startup. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

A startup accelerator provides promising companies with an opportunity to boost their chances of marketing their technologies. These programs help small companies pivot their technologies strategically, interface with industry sectors and engage with mentor network to better pitch their ideas to the market.

Unfortunately, most startups will never have the chance to participate in an accelerator. But the information gained from such an experience can be valuable knowledge for all entrepreneurs who wish to accelerate their business.

Sensytec – a UH startup that developed smart cement to monitor the health of structures – was recently accepted into the Techstars Energy Accelerator. Techstars Energy is a highly competitive accelerator in Norway that partners with Equinor, Kongsberg, and Mckinsey to find sustainable technologies for the energy industry. Sensytec's smart cement technology is being considered for use in new oil and gas wells and concrete structures.

Sensytec president Ody De La Paz learned quite a bit about what companies are looking for when it comes to new technology and what entrepreneurs can do to boost their startups.

Understand where your tech fits into the market

Though joining Techstars to better position their smart cement technology to energy companies, De La Paz has learned the many ways in which his company's tech could be positioned to other markets.

"Recognizing the way the market is moving is critical to successfully pitching your tech to customers," he says. "But you have to be honest with yourself – your target market may not be the one you need to pitch your tech to make money."

According to De La Paz, this is where many inventors may miss their opportunity to profit.

"It's understandable that many researchers and inventors are passionate about the one problem they are trying to solve," he says. "But the real trick is trying to discover the solution currently needed by industry sectors – and that is continually changing."

His recommendation? Be open to any opportunity.

"It's not so much about you or your technology," he says. "It's about how your technology fits within an industry's business strategy. It's always about what the company needs, so there may be different applications to consider."

Focus on company values

Every decision made by industry will be focused on the bottom line. It's business, after all. But in addition to providing a high-value, low-cost solution for companies, aligning your tech with company core values may win over a few more hearts.

"Because we know that Equinor has a 'safety first' approach and values sustainability, we put together a solid business case to reflect those values," says De La Paz.

Current technologies used to monitor cement are not as accurate as they should be, says De La Paz. This leads to very costly solutions. So Sensytec built a business case that outlines how their technology accurately reports when cement loses structural health, allowing companies to proactively fix problems before they become disasters.

"We know exploration and drilling will continue," he says. "But if we can show how our technology is not only cost effective, but a safer choice for oil and gas companies like Equinor, we will align with their values and that's very important to them."

Seek feedback — and lots of it

One of the things De La Paz has experienced while in the Techstars Energy accelerator is the value of feedback.

In fact, he says you can't get enough of it, that every piece of feedback, every perspective gained is another clue that helps you figure out if your technology is needed and, if so, how to pitch it.

Here's what he suggests:

1. Interview as many customers as possible

According to De La Paz, every person working in that industry has perspective. He and his team have interviewed hundreds of experts, from the architect to the concrete manufacturer to subcontractors. "It's important to understand your customer and how they think about our technology," he says.

2. Find mentors

In addition to interviewing customers, select a few as mentors. Business leaders, strategists, and even everyday users, can help you toss around ideas.

3. Be honest with yourself

When you receive the feedback, be honest with yourself, says De La Paz. You may be better suited for another market or you may need to pivot your technology, but this will not happen if the feedback is not used wisely.

De La Paz also stress the value of patience and persistence during this process.

"It's a very long process and there's a lot you have to consider," he says. "But if you stay on top of everything and follow through, it will help your startup get moving more quickly."


------

This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Lindsay Lewis is the director of strategic research communications at UH.

The University of Houston campus has 30 new members — self-driving, food-delivering robots. Photo courtesy of UH

For a small delivery fee of $1.99, students, faculty, and staff across the University of Houston campus can now get their lunch delivered by self-driving robots.

Thirty of San Francisco-based Starship Technologies' autonomous delivery robots now roam the campus thanks to a partnership with New York-based Chartwells Higher Education. The Houston campus is the first to roll out robotic food deliveries.

"This revolutionary delivery method will make it more convenient for the campus community to take advantage of our diverse dining program from anywhere on campus while expanding the hours of operation," says Emily Messa, associate vice president for administration, in a news release. "By opening our campus to this innovative service, which is paid for by the customers, the university didn't have to spend any money purchasing the technology, yet we're enhancing our food delivery capabilities."

Through the Starship Deliveries app, which is available on iOS and Android, users can select from 11 dining institutions and then identify where they are on campus. The platform allows the user to track the progress, and the device can hold up to 20 lbs of food and has the space for about three shopping bags of groceries.

"This increases our capacity to reach more customers, and I expect the robots will quickly become part of campus life," says David Riddle, Chartwells resident district manager, in a news release. (Chartwells manages UH Dining). "Robot delivery will also grow opportunities for UH Dining employees by increasing service hours and growing sales. It has also created additional jobs for students dedicated specifically to servicing the autonomous robots. It's an important advancement for foodservice at UH."

Using machine learning, artificial intelligence and sensors, the company's robots have driven over 350,000 miles and completed over 150,000 deliveries. The Starship robots "can cross streets, climb curbs, travel at night and operate in both rain and snow," per the release.

"Robotic delivery is affordable, convenient and environmentally friendly," says Ryan Tuohy, senior vice president of business development for Starship, in the release. "We're excited to start offering students, staff and faculty at Houston delivery within minutes when they need it most."