Oil patch startups speed date investors

Every 15 minutes, a new pitch began.

“For any given strength, we’re lighter,” Chris Coker told the audience. “For any given weight, we’re stronger.”

No one in this crowd had to be told that Coker’s product, ceramic proppant, is a man-made substitute for the sand commonly used in hydraulic fracturing.

Other speakers at Tuesday’s Emerging Technology Forum boosted their companies’ approach to microseismic monitoring, digital rock imaging and other oil field activities, a sign that high-tech and venture capital have moved beyond the coasts.

“Traditional venture capital has been Silicon Valley and New England,” said Trond Unneland, vice president of Chevron Technology Ventures. “But in the oil sector, I think you have to add Houston.”

Coker’s company, Oxane Materials, spun out of a lab at Rice University and now produces the proppant at a facility in Arkansas. He and representatives from 15 other companies spoke at the Emerging Technology Forum in Chevron’s downtown offices.

Chevron is one of the founding members of the Oiltech Investment Network, formed in 2010 to connect energy companies with new technologies.

Jessica Rouse works with the network, which holds forums across the U.S. and in Europe, and said she’s seen an increase in technology companies in Houston and in Texas.

“You really need to be here,” she said. “It’s one of the oil hubs.”

Most of the companies that made pitches Tuesday are based in Houston or have sales offices in town. But the audience – in the auditorium and listening online – was an international bunch, representing 30 companies and nine countries.

All 16 startups at the forum already had established at least some track record, but they are still looking for investors and customers.

And energy companies, even the big ones, are always looking for new ideas.

Unneland said Chevron’s venture capital group started in 1998; a number of major oil companies now have similar groups.

Chevron Technology Ventures, with offices in Houston and San Ramon, Calif., has assessed about 4,000 companies over the past 14 years and has invested in 70 companies, Unneland said. It currently has 36 tech companies in its portfolio.

Events like Tuesday’s are akin to “speed dating,” he said, a chance for suitors – in this case, the energy companies – to take a quick look at a number of hopeful candidates.

Each had just 10 minutes to make a pitch and a few more to answer questions before moving on.

Some speakers drew no questions.

Roy Kligfield, CEO of Sugar Land-based Wireless Seismic, got several about his company, which promises real-time seismic data transmission, without the hassles of cable or the lost time and other challenges of nodal transmission.

Nathan Clark, a vice president at GeoDynamics, a company based outside of Fort Worth focused on wellbore perforating-system development and manufacturing, said he appreciated the opportunity to tell people that with more planning, they can pull more oil from each well.

“Historically everyone looked at perforation as just punching a hole,” Clark said after his presentation. “They’re spending millions and millions of dollars drilling these wells, but if you’re not applying the right technology, you’re losing money.”

jeannie.kever@chron.com