Houston’s Rebellion Photonics Helps Spot Dangerous Leaks

It’s not every startup that gets a Twitter endorsement from MC Hammer.

But that’s the sort of year it’s been for Houston-based Rebellion Photonics, which makes a real-time hyperspectral camera that can detect poisonous or potentially explosive gas leaks from oil refineries or rigs.

While the startup has been selling its camera since its founding in 2010, its profile was recently elevated when it won The Wall Street Journal’s “Startup of the Year” competition. Mentors included Hammer, the former rap star, along with entrepreneurs such as Virgin Atlantic CEO Richard Branson and designer Tory Burch.

“We went from a really quiet company in Houston to getting calls from all over the world,” says Allison Lami Sawyer, Rebellion’s CEO and co-founder. “We had to call on people to help us answer the phones.”

The founders are hoping to use that momentum to close on a $10 million Series A equity round this month.

Sawyer, who has a master’s degree in nanoscale physics, was completing her MBA at Rice University when she met co-founder and chief technical officer Robert Kester, a physicist who specializes in optics.

The two paired up to commercialize the technology, winning a few competitions—including second place at Rice’s prestigious Business Plan Competition—and getting grant money, all of which provided both needed capital and a vote of confidence that helped to bring in $100,000 in angel investment.

Initially, the founders did not immediately see the potential for their product in the oil and gas market and instead looked to uses in the life sciences. Its first camera, named the Arrow, was sold primarily to research laboratories. Rebellion also had an $800,000 contract with the U.S. Air Force.

But as Sawyer and Kester began to research the camera’s applications during their work at Rice, and also at the Houston Technology Center, they began to see its use across a range of industries.

“We saw a need for capturing hyperspectral images really, really fast without scanning,” Kester says. “In the biology area, this is important for imaging the life processes within cells, as things are moving within a cell very, very fast. For oil and gas, we saw a lot of similarities, especially for leak detections, because these gas fumes leak so quickly. You need to capture that as fast as you can.”

The fact that its camera has no moving parts is especially attractive for the energy industry since much of its equipment is installed outside—think of the beating from wind and rain a camera could get perched on a rig out in the Gulf of Mexico.

The potential market for such imaging to detect refinery leaks is about $3.3 billion, Rebellion says. Its Glass Cloud Imaging camera can spot gas leaks within 15 microseconds with a technology that uses real-time chemical detection video.

The startup also says its camera takes and processes images faster than its nearest competitor, Bertin Technologies, a French company that has partnered with California-based General Monitors.

Rebellion, which has seven employees, manufactures the cameras in Houston. It installs the devices for customers and charges the companies a monthly monitoring fee per camera.

Energy companies didn’t immediately catch on to what Rebellion was offering, Sawyer says.

“Some people in the industry are a little resistant to change; they were a little skeptical that a 25-year-old and a 28-year-old could make a difference in this industry,” Sawyer says. “But when you show them this new technology, they start thinking differently.”

For Sawyer, Rebellion’s success has also had a side benefit: Giving her a bigger platform to champion girls getting involved in science and technology.

“That’s probably the reason we did the (startup competition),” Sawyer says. “I really hate really being the only women on the panel at tech conferences. I want it to be more normal to see women in entrepreneurship and hard tech.”

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