“When we were founded, we were a chemical company. Today, we have morphed into a technology company,” says Kendra Lee, CEO of Merichem. Photo via LinkedIn

How this 78-year-old Houston chemical company is evolving as an energy tech leader

at the helm

Kendra Lee had no designs on running the family business.

“In fact, I never planned on being a part of Merichem,” Lee recalls.

In 1945, Lee’s grandfather, John T. Files, and a pair of business partners founded the company in Houston. Their goal was to take a potential waste product and turn it into something that would benefit the oil and gas industry — an early attempt at sustainability.

What started as a soap and industrial cleaning company began procuring cresylate, which is a waste from the refineries treating gasoline, to recover spent cresylic acids, which are highly caustic, and refine them so they could be sold into the industrial chemicals market.

“When we were founded, we were a chemical company,” says Lee. “Today, we have morphed into a technology company.”

That transformation began in the 1970s. By 1997, when Merichem put the chemical end of their business into a joint venture with Sasol, the focus had transferred to Merichem Process Technology and Merichem Caustic Services, while Sasol took over the chemical branch.

Merichem Process Technology designs and fabricates equipment for sulfur removal, while Merichem Caustic Services works with companies to handle spent caustic for beneficial reuse rather than waste. The innovative company has more than 1,200 units licensed globally for operation in a myriad of applications. Those allow the 78-year-old company to further push sustainability as a priority.

Lee began her career with Merichem more than 20 years ago as an entry-level laboratory technician.

“I’ve never left, and I kept getting opportunities — now here I am,” she says.

Where she is is at the top of the ladder. Lee became chairman of the board in 2012 and CEO in 2014. But doesn’t think of Merichem as a family business. Lee is only the third member of the family to work at the company, including Files and the cousin who followed him as CEO.

Lee says that she seldom spoke to her grandfather about the business. He worked at Merichem until the day he died in 2002, but Lee recalls that, as a low-level employee, she didn’t have a single meeting with him before that time.

“Our interactions were very normal family dinners,” she explains.

Since her transition into leadership, Lee says, “My focus has really been on continuing the legacy my grandfather and cousin created. We’re very employee-focused and community-focused. Part of our role as part of our industry is to provide livelihoods and be good stewards in communities in which we operate.”

She adds that she’s also focused on innovation.

“That was a big part of who my grandfather was. That’s how we transitioned from being a chemical company to a technology company” she says. That means looking for new methods not only in the research facility, but in every segment of the company.

That eye toward the next big discovery will likely see a significant payoff in one to three years, when a new product, designed to improve on hydrogen sulfide removal — with a new catalyst that is regnerable — will be commercially available. But right now, customers can take advantage of the company’s new Standard LO-CAT® system. The product is the result of continuous improvements from the previous system and boasts low operating costs, no liquid waste streams, and significant turndown capability.

And what will follow for the Houston born-and-based company? Merichem has plans to push further into the renewables field, says Lee, adding that there is a continued need for Merichem’s technology as we transition into other types of energy, including geothermal. More than three quarters of a century after its founding, Merichem is still a company on the forefront.

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3 Houston sustainability startups score prizes at Rice University pitch competition

seeing green

A group of Rice University student-founded companies shared $100,000 of cash prizes at an annual startup competition — and three of those winning companies are focused on sustainable solutions.

Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship's H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge, hosted by Rice earlier this month, named its winners for 2024. HEXASpec, a company that's created a new material to improve heat management for the semiconductor industry, won the top prize and $50,000 cash.

Founded by Rice Ph.D. candidates Tianshu Zhai and Chen-Yang Lin, who are a part of Lilie’s 2024 Innovation Fellows program, HEXASpec is improving efficiency and sustainability within the semiconductor industry, which usually consumes millions of gallons of water used to cool data centers. According to Rice's news release, HEXASpec's "next-generation chip packaging offer 20 times higher thermal conductivity and improved protection performance, cooling the chips faster and reducing the operational surface temperature."

A few other sustainability-focused startups won prizes, too. CoFlux Purification, a company that has a technology that breaks down PFAS using a novel absorbent for chemical-free water, won second place and $25,000, as well as the Audience Choice Award, which came with an additional $2,000.

Solidec, a company that's working on a platform to produce chemicals from captured carbon, and HEXASpec won Outstanding Achievement in Climate Solutions Prizes, which came with $1,000.

The NRLC, open to Rice students, is Lilie's hallmark event. Last year's winner was fashion tech startup, Goldie.

“We are the home of everything entrepreneurship, innovation and research commercialization for the entire Rice student, faculty and alumni communities,” Kyle Judah, executive director at Lilie, says in a news release. “We’re a place for you to immerse yourself in a problem you care about, to experiment, to try and fail and keep trying and trying and trying again amongst a community of fellow rebels, coloring outside the lines of convention."

This year, the competition started with 100 student venture teams before being whittled down to the final five at the championship. The program is supported by Lilie’s mentor team, Frank Liu and the Liu Family Foundation, Rice Business, Rice’s Office of Innovation, and other donors

“The heart and soul of what we’re doing to really take it to the next level with entrepreneurship here at Rice is this fantastic team,” Peter Rodriguez, dean of Rice Business, adds. “And they’re doing an outstanding job every year, reaching further, bringing in more students. My understanding is we had more than 100 teams submit applications. It’s an extraordinarily high number. It tells you a lot about what we have at Rice and what this team has been cooking and making happen here at Rice for a long, long time.”

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

ExxonMobil's $60B acquisition gets FTC clearance — with one condition

M&A moves

ExxonMobil's $60 billion deal to buy Pioneer Natural Resources on Thursday received clearance from the Federal Trade Commission, but the former CEO of Pioneer was barred from joining the new company's board of directors.

The FTC said Thursday that Scott Sheffield, who founded Pioneer in 1997, colluded with OPEC and OPEC+ to potentially raise crude oil prices. Sheffield retired from the company in 2016, but he returned as president and CEO in 2019, served as CEO from 2021 to 2023, and continues to serve on the board. Since Jan. 1, he has served as special adviser to the company’s chief executive.

“Through public statements, text messages, in-person meetings, WhatsApp conversations and other communications while at Pioneer, Sheffield sought to align oil production across the Permian Basin in West Texas and New Mexico with OPEC+,” according to the FTC. It proposed a consent order that Exxon won't appoint any Pioneer employee, with a few exceptions, to its board.

Dallas-based Pioneer said in a statement it disagreed with the allegations but would not impede closing of the merger, which was announced in October 2023.

“Sheffield and Pioneer believe that the FTC’s complaint reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the U.S. and global oil markets and misreads the nature and intent of Mr. Sheffield’s actions,” the company said.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said it was “disappointing that FTC is making the same mistake they made 25 years ago when I warned about the Exxon and Mobil merger in 1999.”

Schumer and 22 other Democratic senators had urged the FTC to investigate the deal and a separate merger between Chevron and Hess, saying they could lead to higher prices, hurt competition and force families to pay more at the pump.

The deal with Pioneer vastly expands Exxon’s presence in the Permian Basin, a huge oilfield that straddles the border between Texas and New Mexico. Pioneer’s more than 850,000 net acres in the Midland Basin will be combined with Exxon’s 570,000 net acres in the Delaware and Midland Basin, nearly contiguous fields that will allow the combined company to trim costs.