Taking an innovative idea, developing it and bringing it to fruition through an incubator/accelerator has proven to be the magic combination for Houston’s Rebellion Photonics. And it may totally change how leaks and explosive accidents are monitored on rigs and at refineries.
The company recently took top honors for its Gas Cloud Imaging Camera in the inaugural Wall Street Journal StartUp of the Year competition of early stage companies. The 2013 winners of the competition were chosen from more than 24 startup companies and from more than 500 applications to participate in a 20-week competition. Company entrepreneurs were assessed on the basis of their firms’ scalability, long-term viability, originality and distinctiveness of their products and services, utility and ability to perform tasks the competition set for them.
“We build cameras that don’t just see colors — they actually identify chemicals,” says Allison Lami Sawyer, CEO and co-founder of Rebellion Photonics. “Instead of seeing red or yellow, the camera sees a methane leak on an oil rig, or it sees a cancer cell instead of a normal cell.”
The core technology was invented at Rice University in Houston and was originally created for biomedical research. Biologists wanted to see live chemical reactions, something they could not do with old technology.
“With old technology, it could take up to two minutes for a camera to take a single image” Sawyer says. “You usually kill the cell in two minutes, and you are definitely not seeing it in real time.
“Our breakthrough product is our Gas Cloud Imaging Camera, which is used for rig and refinery safety. Essentially, the Gas Cloud Imaging Camera identifies gas leaks before there is a hazardous leak or explosion. We take real-time video while our competition may scan each frame line-by-line, and take eight seconds to take one frame. We are imaging at 30 frames per second.”
Sawyer says since reactions happen quickly, leaks need to be detected in less than a tenth of a second.
“We can do that, but — this is incredibly important — you need very high sensitivity. We are often measuring chemicals at parts per million sensitivity. That’s what you need for real world, out of the lab, applications.
“We get a lot of questions about camera range; essentially, our camera can see as far and precise as the lens you put on it,” she says. “For example, if you put our camera under a microscope, it can see at nanoscale precision. When you put the camera in a drone plane and put a spy lens on, it can see for miles. Or you could put a regular Nikon lens on it, and you are just going to see across the room. And even more exciting, you could put it in a satellite with an 18-foot lens and you can see your car from outer space.”
While the development may change the safety process at rigs and refineries, if offers other important applications.
“That is really exciting because it means we can get into all these different applications,” Sawyer says. “We are hoping to make cancer research more successful; we are hoping to make rigs and refineries safer places to work. We hope to help the U.S. defense program. We really believe in the products we are making, and I get to hang out with really cool people all day. This is basically my dream job.”
Dr. Robert Kester co-founder, CTO and inventor of the product, says Rebellion Photonic’s award is exciting.
“The first week or so after we won, our phones were ringing off the hook,” he says. “Several of our big customers sent us congratulations, and what was really exciting was that they were talking about new applications for our camera.”
Working with an accelerator
Rebellion Photonics was founded in 2009 at the Houston Technology Center. As a client company of the center, Rebellion Photonics and Sawyer receive strategic business guidance and direction as well as the opportunity to meet with energy industry mentors and business advisers.
The Houston Technology Center is integrated within the Houston community, not just with other startups, but with corporate America, often serving as an important bridge between the two.
“HTC was incredibly helpful in getting our name out there, with the publicity, and then also introducing us to companies that we would never be able to get into the door on our own,” Sawyer says.
She says that with the publicity over the Wall Street Journal award, website traffic went from a few hundred visitors a month to more than 20,000 visitors in the month they won the competition.
“We are booked solid for product demos until the first quarter of 2014,” Sawyer says. “On the customer front, I really think this has pushed us forward at least six months, maybe even a year. So it has been pretty priceless.”
Rebellion Photonics has been a notable company since its inception. Sawyer and Kester first met at the Houston Technology Center as a consequence of its “Commercialize It” program. The Houston Technology Center’s Innovation Pipeline and Commercialize It programs work closely with major regional universities and institutions to identify and encourage the best innovations to go the last mile to commercialization, whether it’s breakthroughs in energy, new therapies for patients or disruptive materials for consumers and industry.
Rebellion Photonics has won several awards including: the first Goradia Innovation Prize at the Houston Technology Center’s Innovation Conference & Showcase in 2010; a Texas Emerging Technology Fund investment; runner-up in the 2010 Rice University Business Plan Competition; and with the support of the Houston Technology Center and Jones Partners, it won the international King of Thailand prize.
The Houston Technology Center’s acceleration program aids its clients in formulating a compelling business proposition in order to prepare them to generate revenue or raise capital. Its clients work with an acceleration director who guides them in developing and executing their business strategy to achieve their individual goals.
The Houston Technology Center provides introductions to advisers, funders and customers through networking opportunities and events. Clients graduate with sustainable revenues, a credible team, a validated product and a compelling story.
Currently, the Houston Technology Center has 40 acceleration clients, as well as a growing number of incubation clients at its Johnson Space Center location. ●
Follow Rebellion Photonics on Twitter @RebellionPhoton