the view from heti

Houston’s revolutionary energy shift: A personal journey of discovery

"In reflecting upon my journey through Houston’s energy landscape, it’s evident that the city stands on the cusp of a transformative era." Photo via Getty Images
The following was written by Pavan Kumar Medepalli, MBA candidate at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

As I reflect on my past visit to Houston, it’s not the usual sights or activities that linger but the pulse of a city redefining its energy narrative. The vibrant energy, the breakthroughs in innovation, and the spirited conversations with passionate individuals left an indelible mark. To my LinkedIn community, I invite you to join me on this journey into the heart of Houston’s transformative landscape.

Houston, traditionally known as the “Energy Capital of the World,” is now pioneering a new path. My recent trip provided a deep dive into its evolution from a primary energy hub to a beacon of global energy transition. At the forefront of this change are entities like HETI, Ion, Renewable Energy Alliance Houston, and Greentown Labs, each shaping a vibrant ecosystem of innovation.

During my recent three-day trip to Houston, I had the incredible opportunity to immerse myself in some of the city’s most groundbreaking and influential spaces dedicated to energy innovation and sustainability. The experience was nothing short of transformative, and I’m eager to share some of the highlights and personal takeaways from this journey.

Houston Energy Transition Initiative (HETI):

HETI, with its compelling mission to revolutionize the energy landscape, stands out as a beacon of Houston’s dedication to sustainable change. This initiative capitalizes on Houston’s rich energy heritage, tapping into its vast infrastructure, expertise, and financial prowess, aiming to facilitate the global transition towards a cleaner, sustainable energy future.

One of the highlights of my trip was the privilege of interacting with Jane Stricker, Vice President of HETI. Her insights were invaluable. As the VP elaborated, HETI’s goal is not just about innovating for cleaner energy but establishing a framework where the transition is inclusive, impactful, and resilient. The organization aims to bring together diverse stakeholders, from industry stalwarts to budding researchers, forging a collective vision for the energy future.

It was quite interesting to know that HETI is backed by its member companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, SABIC and their strategy is to:

  • Jumpstart efforts in the sectors where Houston has a strategic advantage, Like CCUS, Clean Hydrogen, Circular Economy, and Energy Storage Solutions.
  • Attract and support companies in established new energy industries like Wind, Solar, RNG, Low-carbon LNG, and biofuels.

I truly appreciate the efforts of HETI and Greater Houston Partnership for their continuous efforts to be at the forefront of Energy Transition.

Ion

The Ion has provided a perfect ecosystem for founders, researchers, innovators, investors and corporate leaders to build scalable enterprises.

Navigating the vibrant ecosystem of the Ion innovation hub in downtown Houston, I quickly realized its uniqueness. This hub isn’t just about co-working spaces or networking events; it offers a dynamic platform where founders and innovators come to life with their ideas. I sensed the entrepreneurial spirit in every corner, every discussion, and every presentation.

In my exploration, I discovered that startups, both budding and established, frequently have opportunities to pitch their ideas. This isn’t just a standard pitch session; it’s a transformative experience. Founders present their innovations and visions to an audience that’s a blend of seasoned professionals, industry experts, and potential investors. Each pitch session felt like a grand performance, filled with passion, determination, and vision.

What’s even more impressive is how these sessions cater to investors. For them, the Ion hub becomes a treasure trove of opportunities. As an investor, sifting through numerous pitches can be a daunting task. But here, the environment ensures they witness only the most promising and aligned pitches, allowing them to identify the right investment opportunities that match their portfolios and interests.

The frequency of these pitches ensures a continuous flow of fresh ideas, and as a founder, you’re always in front of an audience that matters. It’s a win-win: founders get regular feedback and potentially find the right partners, while investors stay updated with the latest innovations and can quickly spot the next big thing.

Immersing myself in this environment, I felt the palpable excitement. Founders eagerly prepping for their pitches, investors actively engaged in discussions, and the continuous buzz of potential collaborations. The Ion hub has successfully created a space where ideas meet capital, where dreams meet reality, and where every pitch could be the beginning of the next big success story.

Greentown Labs

As I delved deeper into the ecosystem of Greentown Labs after my engagement with The Ion, I was struck by the holistic approach this hub takes toward nurturing innovation. Beyond being a space for clean tech and sustainable ventures, Greentown Labs offers a myriad of resources tailored for startups.

One of the standout features is their state-of-the-art prototyping labs. Founders have access to cutting-edge equipment, enabling them to transform their visionary ideas into tangible prototypes, fast-tracking the path from concept to realization.

But it’s not just about physical resources. Greentown Labs champions a collaborative ethos. Shared resources mean startups can lean on each other, pooling knowledge and skills and fostering an environment of mutual growth. This spirit of collaboration extends to their mentorship programs. New ventures can tap into a wealth of experience, gaining insights and guidance from seasoned professionals who’ve walked the path before.

Engaging with founders from CLS Wind and Mars Materials, it became evident how such an integrated support system propels their ambitions. Greentown Labs, in essence, is more than just a hub; it’s a community. A community where sustainability meets innovation, where ideas are nurtured with the right tools and mentorship, and where the future of clean tech is being crafted.

A special thank you to Jane Stricker from Houston Energy Transition Initiative (HETI), whose passion and vision for a sustainable energy future left a profound impact on me; Kay McCall from Renewable Energy Alliance – Houston, whose leadership and insights were truly enlightening; Barbara Burger, whose innovative approach to bridging traditional energy with emerging technologies is commendable; and Joey Sanchez from Ion Houston, whose deep understanding of Houston’s business ecosystem and dedication to fostering change enriched my perspective immensely. Each of you played a pivotal role in making my experience memorable and filled with invaluable learnings. Thank you for your time, willingness to share, and for being such inspiring figures in this transformative journey Houston is undertaking.

In reflecting upon my journey through Houston’s energy landscape, it’s evident that the city stands on the cusp of a transformative era. The concerted efforts of organizations like HETI, Ion, and Greentown Labs exemplify Houston’s unwavering commitment to reimagining its energy identity. This isn’t just about evolving from its storied past as the “Energy Capital of the World.” It’s about setting the gold standard for what energy transition on a global scale looks like. Houston’s evolution, fueled by innovation, collaboration, and sheer determination, sends a resounding message to the world: the energy transition is not just feasible; it’s already underway. The endeavors and successes in this space are a testament to Houston’s vision and resilience, proving that any city can redefine its narrative with the right framework and community. As I conclude my reflections, I’m filled with a profound sense of optimism. Houston, you’ve not only lived up to your legacy but are also charting a new course that will inspire generations to come.

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This article originally ran on the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Initiative blog. HETI exists to support Houston's future as an energy leader. For more information about the Houston Energy Transition Initiative, EnergyCapitalHTX's presenting sponsor, visit htxenergytransition.org.

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A View From HETI

IBM and Boxes recently partnered to integrate the IBM watsonx Assistant into Boxes devices, providing a way for consumer packaged brands to find out more than ever about what its customers like and want. Photo courtesy of Boxes

With the help of a new conversational artificial intelligence platform, a Houston startup is ready to let brands get up close and personal with consumers while minimizing waste.

IBM and Boxes recently partnered to integrate the IBM watsonx Assistant into Boxes devices, providing a way for consumer packaged brands to find out more than ever about what its customers like and want.

The Boxes device, about the size of a 40-inch television screen, dispenses products to consumers in a modern and sustainable spin on the old-fashioned large vending machine.

CEO Fernando Machin Gojdycz learned that business from his entrepreneur father, Carlos Daniel Machin, while growing up in Uruguay.

“That’s where my passion comes from — him,” Gojdycz says of his father. In 2016, Gojdycz founded Boxes in Uruguay with some engineer friends

Funded by a $2,000 grant from the University of Uruguay, the company's mission was “to democratize and economize affordable and sustainable shopping,” in part by eliminating wasteful single-use plastic packaging.

“I worked for one year from my bedroom,” he tells InnovationMap.

Fernando Machin Gojdycz founded Boxes in Uruguay before relocating the company to Greentown Houston. Photo courtesy of Boxes

The device, attached to a wall, offers free samples, or purchased products, in areas of high foot traffic, with a touch-screen interface. Powered by watsonx Assistant, the device asks survey questions of the customer, who can answer or not, on their mobile devices, via a QR code.

In return for completing a survey, customers can get a digital coupon, potentially generating future sales. The software and AI tech tracks sales and consumer preferences, giving valuable real-time market insight.

“This is very powerful,” he says.

Boxes partnered in Uruguay with major consumer brands like Kimberly-Clark, SC Johnson and Unilever, and during COVID, pivoted and offered PPE products. Then, with plans of an expansion into the United States, Boxes in 2021 landed its first U.S. backer, with $120,000 in funding from startup accelerator Techstars.

This led to a partnership with the Minnesota Twins, where Boxes devices at Target Field dispensed brand merchandise like keychains and bottles of field dirt.

Gojdycz says while a company in the Northeast is developing a product similar in size, Boxes is not “targeting traditional spaces.” Its software and integration with AI allows Boxes to seamlessly change the device screen and interface, remotely, as well.

Boxes aims to provide the devices in smaller spaces, like restrooms, where they have a device at the company's headquarters at climate tech incubator Greentown Labs. Boxes also recently added a device at Hewlett Packard Enterprise headquarters in Spring, as part of HPE’s diversity startup program.

Boxes hopes to launch another sustainable innovation later this year, in universities and supermarkets. The company is also developing a device that would offer refillable detergent and personal cleaning products like shampoo and conditioner with a reusable container.

Since plastic packaging accounts for 40 percent of retail price, consumers would pay far less, making a huge difference, particularly for lower-income families, he says.

“We are working to make things happen, because we have tried to pitch this idea,” he says.

Some supermarket retailers worry they may lose money or market share, and that shoppers may forget to bring the refill bottles with them to the store, for example.

“It’s about..the U.S. customer,” he says, “….but we think that sooner or later, it will come.”

Boxes has gotten funding from the accelerator startup branch of Houston-based software company Softeq, as well as Mission Driven Finance, Google for Startups Latino Founders Fund, and Right Side Capital, among others.

“Our primary challenges are scaling effectively with a small, yet compact team and maintaining control over our financial runway,” Gojdycz says.

The company has seven employees, including two on its management team.

Gojdycz says they are actively hiring, particularly in software and hardware engineering, but also in business development.

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

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