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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SLB to consolidate carbon capture business in partnership

M&A moves

SLB announced its plans to combine its carbon capture business with Norway company, Aker Carbon Capture.

Upon completion of the transaction, which is expected to close by the end of the second quarter of this year, SLB will own 80 percent of the combined business and ACC will own 20 percent.

According to a SLB news release, the combined technology portfolios will accelerate the introduction of promising early-stage decarbonization technology.

“For CCUS to have the expected impact on supporting global net-zero ambitions, it will need to scale up 100-200 times in less than three decades,” Olivier Le Peuch, CEO of SLB, says in the release. “Crucial to this scale-up is the ability to lower capture costs, which often represent as much as 50-70% of the total spend of a CCUS project.

The International Energy Agency estimates that over one gigaton of CO2 every year year will need to be captured by 2030 — a figure that scales up to over six gigatons by 2050.

"We are excited to create this business with ACC to accelerate the deployment of carbon capture technologies that will shift the economics of carbon capture across high-emitting industrial sectors,” Le Peuch continues.

SLB is slated to pay NOK 4.12 billion — around $379.4 million — to own 80 percent of Aker Carbon Capture Holding AS, which owns ACC, per the news release, and SLB may also pay up to NOK 1.36 billion over the next three years, depending on business performance.

3 top DOE researchers take professor positions at University of Houston

new hires

Three top researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory have accepted joint appointments at the University of Houston.

“This strategic collaboration leverages the combined strengths of Argonne and the [university] to further critical research efforts, public-private partnerships, and educational opportunities for students in the energy transition and lead to transformational advancement of commercial scale energy industries,” Ramanan Krishnamoorti, vice president for energy and innovation at UH, says in a news release.

These appointments are part of a memorandum of understanding that Argonne, located in the Chicago area, recently signed with the Greater Houston Partnership. The agreement seeks to accelerate decarbonization efforts in the Houston area.

The three scientists appointed to positions are UH are:

  • Zach Hood, whose appointment is in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the UH Cullen College of Engineering. He’ll be hosted by Yan Yao, a UH professor who is principal investigator at the Texas Center for Superconductivity.
  • Jianlin Li, whose appointment also is in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He plans to establish a dry room facility at UH and conduct research on energy storage technologies, electrode processing, and cell manufacturing.
  • Michael Wang, the inaugural Distinguished Senior Scholar at UH’s Energy Transition Institute. His objectives include advancing research in decarbonizing the oil and gas sector through carbon management and transitioning to renewable energy sources. Wang will conduct seminars and present lectures in environmental sustainability, lifecycle, and techno-economic analysis of energy technologies, while helping Argonne tap into the university’s talent pool.

“With more than 30 years of experience, Dr. Wang brings critical tools and expertise to the UH Energy Transition Institute, which is dedicated to unlocking the transformative potential within three critical domains: hydrogen, carbon management, and circular plastics,” says Joe Powell, founding executive director of the Energy Transition Institute. “These areas not only present opportunities for reshaping the energy sector but also stand as pillars for societal sustainable development and decarbonization.”

Clean energy founder shares key takeaways from CERAWeek 2024

guest column

Earlier this month, thousands converged on Houston for one of the world’s largest energy conferences – CERAWeek 2024. For five days global leaders, CEOs, oil and gas experts, and the industry’s top stakeholders gathered to provide insight, and discuss solutions, to some of the biggest questions on the future of energy.

Just this week, on the heels of the conference, it was hugely encouraging to see the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announce up to $6 billion for 33 projects across more than 20 states to decarbonize energy-intensive industries and reduce industrial greenhouse gas emissions. The announcement underscored the vitally important, and yet largely untapped role that industrial carbon capture must play in reaching the U.S.’s overall decarbonization goals. This must include significant point-source technology onsite at hard-to-abate industrial emitters like cement, metals and chemicals. The DOE announcement makes that priority clear, with the focus of the two largest grants for cement decarbonization projects going to carbon capture, each up to $500 million.

This was one of the major takeaways at this year’s CERAWeek: despite the success of the IRA, if we are to achieve the rapid scaling required to tackle emissions coming from hard-to-abate sectors, and now is the time to move rapidly into deployment, beginning with carbon capture demonstrations at industrial sites. Through our work with Chevron on the development of a carbon capture pilot for our CycloneCC technology on a gas turbine in San Joaquin Valley, California, we are proud to be doing exactly that.

While Carbon Clean has been active in the U.S. for several years, we chose to unveil our new Houston headquarters during last year’s CERAWeek, selecting the energy capital of the world for our U.S. home. With this increased focus on industrial decarbonization, the opportunities for carbon capture deployment in the U.S. – and more specifically Greater Houston – have significantly expanded. Since first opening the U.S. headquarters in Houston last year, we have grown our headcount by two-thirds and seen U.S. inquiries for our modular, point-source carbon capture solutions skyrocket by a further 59% (and this is after the initial leap in interest following the IRA’s passage).

Still, while a lot has been accomplished over the past year, we recognize that a lot more needs to be done to meet the country’s net zero targets, particularly in the space of industrial decarbonization. This was another takeaway at this year’s CERAWeek, a recognition that many industrial leaders have adopted ambitious net-zero goals but have no plans for implementation.

In conversations with many of this year’s conference attendees, one thing became abundantly clear: yes, the IRA was a breakthrough moment that provided key incentives for companies to enter the carbon capture space and develop the kinds of decarbonization technology that will reduce emissions. However, that only gets us half of the way there: we need to foster a market for the demand of clean industrial production, using the IRA as the vehicle to create that supply. Through the allocation of credits and increased pricing power, we can generate more demand from industrial emitters to embrace the kinds of technology that will enable them to reach net-zero.

Another critical next step: when it comes to adopting local industrial carbon capture projects, accelerate permitting by letting the states decide for themselves. The EPA’s recent decision to grant Louisiana the power to approve carbon capture projects could open the door to a wave of new project applications and additional states seeking the same authority.

If you want an example of a local economy poised to greatly benefit from expanded access to industrial carbon capture, look no further than Houston. With its energy expertise and local resources, Greater Houston is uniquely positioned to take full advantage of carbon capture’s promise, which will not only reduce the region’s emissions but grow jobs.

A recent study by the EFI Foundation, supported by Carbon Clean, identified Houston as an ideal location for a new coordinated regional approach to industrial carbon capture hubs. Previously, most studies on deployment focused on decarbonizing large emitters - the EFI report is focused on small-to-midsize emitters, as they account for 25 percent of America’s industrial emissions but are often overlooked given the cost and space barriers that have historically been barriers to the mass adoption of industrial carbon capture units.

Today, there are 311 facilities in the Houston cluster that fit the bill, representing 36.6 million metric tons of capturable CO2 emissions per year. Given that the region employs nearly a third of the nation’s jobs in oil and gas extraction alone, allowing multiple local emitters access to shared CO2 transport and storage would create a scalable solution at a lower cost. The business community should embrace the findings of this report, unlocking a key tool in combating local emissions, while also sustaining Houston’s workforce.

This year’s CERAWeek occurred during an inflexion point in the U.S.’s conversation around decarbonization. While a lot of progress is underway, it is imperative that energy leaders and the business community fully leverage industrial carbon capture technology if they are serious about reducing emissions at the source. Failure to do so recalls the aphorism by Benjamin Franklin: "Failing to plan is planning to fail.”

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Aniruddha Sharma is the co-founder and CEO of Carbon Clean.