How Texas Startups Are Spurring Innovation in the Most Entrenched Industries

Keith Cole, photo courtesy of Water Lens

Keith Cole, photo courtesy of Water Lens

By KEITH H. COLE
Founder and CEO of Water Lens in Austin
Special Editorial Contribution to Silicon Hills News

Being a startup isn’t easy to begin with, but working in a highly-regulated industry like oil and gas can be even harder, especially when it’s also slow to adopt new technologies. We all know the challenges—navigating bureaucratic red tape, getting your product in front of the right people in an extremely competitive industry, and making sure you have the financial runway needed to stay in business over the long-term. These kinds of deals don’t happen overnight, and being in a position to keep the lights on—let alone try to grow—is sometimes the biggest challenge.

When people hear the word “startup,” they typically think of the next social media, dating or food delivery app. But here in Texas, there’s a growing community of entrepreneurs focused on disrupting major industries, tackling big, previously intractable problems, and developing inventive solutions that can spur innovation for the 21st Century.

It wasn’t until the startup incubator 1776 partnered with Austin’s Capital Factory for last year’s Challenge Cup that I realized exactly how many of us there are—and how important it is for us to have resources like 1776 to help us navigate regulations and red tape.

As a veteran of the Texas oil and gas industry, I’ve always looked for opportunities to utilize the benefits of technology and work to make our efforts more efficient.

In 2011, as fracking became increasingly widespread—and yes, controversial—there was an opportunity in the market to develop a new technology that would help oil and gas companies operate more efficiently, improve their bottom line, reduce the amount of unnecessary chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, and begin to cost-effectively recycle the water used and produced in the oil and gas industry. In short, it was a win-win proposition.

In 2012, I started a company called Water Lens and developed a state-of-the-art, portable, and easy-to-use water testing system that provides accurate, immediate onsite testing results for drilling fluids and frac water in a matter of minutes. This helps oil and gas companies save costs and improve production, but it can also offer consumers additional peace of mind to know that the industry is doing its best to reduce the amount of chemicals used in the process, and is now able to cost-effectively recycle our most precious resource: water.

By 2014, Water Lens was ready to go to market, but in order to penetrate the various state markets, we needed to navigate complex thickets of regulation to grow and scale.

That’s when I heard about 1776, a global incubator and seed fund in Washington D.C. that gives problem-solving startups like mine—startups working to disrupt entrenched industries in sectors like energy, education, health, and transportation—the resources they need to succeed.

What makes 1776 different is that it’s not just about funding—though, like any other startup, we always need additional funding. It was about a special set of expertise and connections that can make the difference between a great idea and a successful one.

These connections proved invaluable as we sought to expand our reach, navigate regulation, cut red tape, and find new investors. Thanks to our relationship with 1776, we have been introduced to key mentors and regulators—including former White House officials, advisors to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and key oil and gas industry experts.

Every year, 1776 runs an international competition called the Challenge Cup, which spans 16 cities in 11 countries to identify and bring together the world’s most promising startups working to develop innovative solutions to really difficult challenges.

While Water Lens was honored to win top American honors in the energy category at last year’s Global Finals, we also gained significant exposure to mentors, policymakers, and potential investors just by participating in the Austin and D.C. events.

Last year, seven Austin startups across all four categories made it to the Global Finals of the Challenge Cup, proving that there’s clearly something special going on in Austin’s tech scene. This year, Challenge Cup 2015 is coming back to Austin on February 5th.

The competition is a great reminder that Austin and Texas are producing some of the world’s most promising, problem-solving entrepreneurs—and when we give startups the tools they need to cut red tape and succeed, we can solve really important problems. This year’s Challenge Cup could be the key that unlocks a host of opportunities for Texas’ next world-changing startup.

Keith Cole is founder and CEO of Water Lens, LLC

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