Deadly explosions on offshore oil platforms. Collapsing bridges. Gaping potholes large enough to swallow a car.
Cement is the most widely used construction material in the world, but there hasn’t been an easy-to-use and reliable way to ensure its structural integrity. A revolutionary technology from a lab at the University of Houston is changing that and could help to lower the risks.
Five years after he first learned about so-called “smart” cement, Ody De La Paz remains a believer. “I can talk cement all day,” he said.
And most days, he does. De La Paz is co-founder and CEO of Sensytec, a startup based at the UH Technology Bridge and dedicated to the idea that real-time monitoring and analysis can make the world’s infrastructure safer.
Eight years after an engineering professor at UH began work on a “smart cement” capable of monitoring itself for structural integrity and wirelessly reporting what it found, Sensytec is on the move, running pilot projects and recruiting customers with an innovative technology that could dramatically reduce the risk of catastrophic accidents.
When the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 people and spilled almost 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, was attributed to deficient cementing, Dr. Cumaraswamy Vipulanandan clearly saw the need for a better product.
“We addressed a universal need,” said Vipulanandan, professor of civil engineering at UH, when he first described his work. “We figured out a way to make our research applicable to the real world.”
The resulting smart cement was a new material, incorporating sensors into the mixture, enhanced through nanotechnology and surfactant technology and capable of reporting changes within the cement. That allows people monitoring the cement to determine if it has properly set or is weakening or cracking, among other performance variables.
That combination — a cement with sensing capabilities, a hardware system to transmit data about the cement’s performance and a software interface allowing users to analyze that data — can save lives, De La Paz said, likening it to a check engine light that alerts you to potential auto problems in real time.
He and Sensytec’s chief technology officer, Anudeep Maddi, have been with the company since the beginning, when De La Paz and a group of fellow students from the Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship were assigned Vipulanandan’s promising technology as a class project. The Wolff Center, part of the C. T. Bauer College of Business at UH, emphasizes real-world experience, requiring students to take a real technology and determine if commercialization is viable. If it is, they consider the most likely customer base and develop a business plan.
Maddi was the team’s technical lead, stemming from his work with Vipulanandan and the technology as he earned a Ph.D. in civil engineering. He and De La Paz are the only original members still with the company; they recently hired a business development specialist, a recent Wolff Center graduate, with plans for more staff on tap.
By 2016, they knew they had something special, launching a tour of business plan competitions to make their pitch. Ultimately, they entered eight competitions, winning money in five and licensing the technology to launch Sensytec. Vipulanandan remains on the company’s advisory board.
Although they have won more lucrative prizes, along with funding from venture capitalists, that first $10,000 win at San Diego State University was perhaps the sweetest.
“We really didn’t know what to do with it,” De La Paz recalled.
Now, of course, they have plenty of ideas for investment capital, and they continue to seek investors and refine the technology.
Their 10-second elevator speech goes something like this: Sensytec is revolutionizing the oil, gas and construction industries by bringing smart cement technologies and real-time data collection to the forefront of every job site. Sensytec is leading the change in conservative industries by addressing current challenges in cement/concrete testing, analysis, design and production.
Smart cement, they say, could play an integral role in the $450 billion global cement industry, but the path hasn’t been straightforward. De La Paz and Maddi have participated in programs ranging from the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program and a Norway-based energy accelerator hosted by Equinor to the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator hosted by Station Houston, refining their plans with each experience.
Looking to the Future
That project and others underway are based in Sensytec’s hometown of Houston, but De La Paz and Maddi are thinking globally.
“Our technology is not just for Houston,” De La Paz said. “We can expand all over the world. Everyone needs concrete, right?”
To that end, he sees 2020 as the year for a major push to expand while continuing to raise capital and enhance the technology, including extending remote monitoring of any concrete or cement structure, allowing engineers to monitor structures in real time from anywhere in the world. Ultimately, he said, the company will need salespeople across the country; he also envisions expanding services to include data analysis.
And while he’s not yet ready to call the company a success, De La Paz does see substantial progress. “What gets us going is that we are really solving a problem. Customers are committing to using the product.”
In the meantime, De La Paz has garnered some wisdom to share with entrepreneurs who are just starting out.
“Be patient,” he said. “Be persistent. And work your tail off. Think about what problem you are solving. What benefit are you offering your customer?”
Once an entrepreneur knows that, De La Paz said, the business is ready for takeoff.
- 2012: Cumaraswamy Vipulanandan, professor of civil engineering at UH, receives a $2.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, through a partnership with the non-profit Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America, to develop a “smart” cement, a material that would monitor the structural integrity of the cement used during drilling and operation of offshore wells.
- 2015: A team of students from the Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship in the C. T. Bauer College of Business is assigned the resulting technology and asked to research its commercial potential as their entrepreneurship program capstone project.
- 2016: Convinced the technology is viable, the student team develops a business plan for the company they name Sensytec and begins competing against other startups in business plan competitions around the country. Their first win was $10,000 at San Diego State University in 2016.
- 2018: CEO Ody De La Paz and Chief Technology Officer Anudeep Maddi, who earned a Ph.D. in civil engineering under Vipulanandan, spend three months in Oslo after being chosen for the Techstars Energy Accelerator run by Norwegian energy giant Equinor.
- 2019: Sensytec is one of three winners of MassChallenge Texas, winning the big $40,000 investment prize from the Houston Angel Network. The company also is chosen for the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator, hosted by Station Houston, ending Phase 1 with an agreement for a pilot project with the city of Houston’s Public Works Department.
- 2020: Sensytec, based at the UH Technology Bridge, is focusing on building its customer base.