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High-tech video camera “sees” gas leaks as they happen

by U-Jin Lee for CBS News


Methane leaks are bad for the environment. They’re also bad for business — unless your job is to find them.

“Reducing methane emissions is extremely important,” optical engineer Robert Kester told CBS News. “Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas. But on the other hand, methane is also a valuable resource that can be used for energy as well as feedstock for chemicals, plastics, etc., so it’s not good business to waste it.”

Kester is cofounder and chief technology officer of Rebellion Photonics, which leverages a technology he developed to detect gas leaks in the air using a special hyperspectral video camera. The camera can immediately spot leaks in oilfields and refineries, and even determine the type of gas that’s being emitted. That includes methane, a powerful greenhouse gas with 25 times the climate-warming potential as carbon dioxide.

“I never expected an oil and gas service company to be so rewarding,” said Rebellion CEO and cofounder Allison Lami Sawyer. “If we can come in and help our customers lower their methane emissions even by 10 percent, that would have a really big impact in the world and our future.”

While studying cancer in pursuit of a Ph.D. in bioengineering at Rice University, Kester invented a hyperspectral camera that attached to a microscope and could take pictures of cells at 30 frames per second. The device could “see” chemicals, allowing researchers to shoot live video of cancer cells to determine whether they were malignant or benign.

“Once I developed a new way to do hyperspectral imaging, I knew I wanted to start my own company based on this invention,” Kester said. “But I needed help.”

He reached out to a local startup incubator called Houston Technology Center, where he met Sawyer, who was getting her MBA at Rice. They formed Rebellion Photonics in 2010 to sell systems for biomedical applications.

But one day, Sawyer suggested another idea.

“Allison came to me and asked if it was possible to detect gases using our technology,” Kester said.

Hyperspectral imaging is a way to visualize wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum that are outside the range of what the human eye can see. Different minerals and gasses each have their own spectral fingerprint, what Kester likened to a barcode. Hyperspectral cameras are able to read these unique bar codes and represent each one as a color. Typically these colors would appear in a static image, but Kester’s camera could do the same thing in video, and in real time.

After months of research and experimentation, he figured out how to harness the technology for wide-field imaging, like across oilfields. Ultimately he came up with the Gas Cloud Imaging camera that could sense a cloud of gas in the air and show it on a live video feed.

“The first time we detected methane with our camera was so cool because no one had ever done it like this before and it validated the initial hunch I had,” he said.

The standard detectors the petroleum industry uses for gas monitoring and detection only cover a small fraction of a rig or refinery, according to Kester. The gas fumes must touch the sensors before operators are alerted to their presence. His hyperspectral imaging camera represents a huge leap, seeing gas a it escapes from the source, long before it spreads far enough to reach a remote sensor.

The camera automatically notifies operators when an invisible (to the naked eye) and dangerous gas plume is present.

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Rebellion Photonics: Thriving on Fumes

by Christopher Helman for Forbes

By creating a better tool for spotting gas leaks from oilfields and pipelines, tiny Rebellion Photonics got the jump on a global market no one else could see.

You’d think she’d be happy. When the Environmental Protection Agency announced in January its intention to clamp down on emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that traps 25 times more heat than does carbon dioxide, it was great news for Allison Sawyer. Her company, Rebellion Photonics, is the world’s first (and only) maker of hyperspectral video cameras–the best way to detect fugitive emissions of methane and other volatile gases escaping from oil-and gas fields and petrochemical refineries.

The invisible, odorless gas is the primary constituent of the natural gas burned to generate 30% of America’s electricity. Among other objectives, the EPA has a goal of reducing methane emissions from oil and gas operations to 60% of 2012 levels in the next decade. Houston-based Rebellion is already working for giants like Chevron CVX -0.05%, BP and the natural gas driller Southwestern Energy SWN -0.49% to detect and stop such emissions. Despite the downturn in oil and gas prices, business is brisk in states that require regular monitoring of wells and storage tanks, like Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Colorado (where Rebellion was the first service provider officially approved by state regulators). New federal rules should be a boon for Rebellion.

But happy she is not. “I’d prefer not to be used because we’re required,” says Sawyer, 30, who founded the company five years ago. “Also, it’s not necessary. What we’re catching is product lost, revenue lost. It makes economic sense to use us, regulation or no regulation.”


That sentiment–part straight-talking scientist, part free-market idealist–pretty much sums up Sawyer. In 2009 she was at Rice University working toward her M.B.A. She already had a master’s degree in applied physics and was interning at the Houston Technology Center, a startup incubator. Inspired by a family of entrepreneurs, Sawyer knew she wanted to be her own boss. One day, Robert Kester walked in. He was a Ph.D. candidate in bioengineering and had just published his breakthrough research in the field of hyperspectral imaging, the kind of technology that astronomers use to find seas of liquid methane on the moons of Saturn. Hyperspectral imaging works on the premise that every type of gas absorbs and reflects light in a unique way. Until Kester’s work this imaging could be done only in snapshots; he patented the first hyperspectral video camera.

But Kester was using it to examine things through a microscope. Sawyer wondered if you could turn it around. “I asked if it could be used for wide-field imaging,” she recalls. “He said, ‘Yeah,’ and my brain exploded.” Myriad applications sprang to mind: Farmers could determine the health of crops. Police could monitor for chemical or biological attacks. And, of course, the oil, gas and chemical industries could detect leaks invisible to the naked eye. “Holy Mother, do you know what you’ve invented?” she asked the nonplussed Kester.

The existing standard for image-based gas detection was unreliable: single-frame cameras or handheld infrared cameras that required the user to climb all over equipment and storage tanks in order to pinpoint leaks. The biggest competitor was $4.3 billion Flir Systems, a maker of light-intensifying and infrared cameras. Even then infrared discerns only hot from cold. A plume of gas seen that way might be methane–or harmless steam. “Until Rebellion, emissions monitoring was really expensive, really complicated and totally inaccurate,” says Sawyer. “You would get a lot of false positives.”

It didn’t take her long to write a business plan and get Kester on board. In June 2010 they started working on Rebellion full-time. They won $125,000 from business plan competitions and scored a $1 million U.S. Air Force contract to mount the camera on drones. (Sawyer also won a spot on the 2014 FORBES 30 Under 30 list.)


That all helped them bootstrap the company while developing what’s come to be their primary offering: a 50-pound, foot-tall, truck-mounted, wide-field, hyperspectral video camera. Rebellion mounts its cameras on 35-foot extendable arms, so they can drive to refineries and oil-and gas fields and survey with bird’s-eye views for about $250 a visit. With 487,000 gas wells and 1.6 million miles of natural gas pipelines in the U.S., the size of the potential market is staggering. Since even small leaks can cost thousands of dollars in annual revenue, customers have been quick to line up.

A year ago, to make the leap from one truck to an entire fleet, Rebellion took $10.4 million in funding from San Francisco-based Tinicum Capital Partners, a deal that valued the company–still unprofitable but clocking some $4 million a year in revenues–at more than $30 million. Wasn’t the $1.3 billion private equity group nervous about the young age of the founders? “No,” says Tinicum partner Trip Zedlitz, “because they had done such a good job building something that had never been done before.”

So where does Rebellion go from here? In December it received a $4.3 million grant from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency to build a portable miniature spectrometer. It’s starting to market services to oil companies overseas. Of course, there’s always the chance an oilfield service giant like Schlumberger or Halliburton will make them the proverbial offer they can’t refuse. When a potential new customer in North Dakota’s Bakken oilfields recently delayed a contract because of plunging oil prices, Sawyer was unconcerned. The inexorable trend toward more state and federal regulations on methane monitoring will help Rebellion for years to come–whether she likes it or not.

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Houston, TX, January 14, 2015– The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today announced details of its new plan to reduce methane emissions from the U.S. oil and gas sector. Below is a statement from Rebellion Photonics responding EPA’s announcement:

“Rebellion Photonics welcomes today’s announcement from the EPA regarding its methane plan. It is a positive step towards ensuring we minimize emissions of methane, a short-term climate forcer, from the US oil and gas value chain. America’s shale revolution holds vast potential to both power our economy and drive environmental gains. Limiting the amount of methane that leaks from natural gas equipment ensures that we will maximize the environmental benefits of America’s plentiful natural gas resources.

Rebellion Photonics has developed cutting-edge camera technology to enable companies to quickly find and repair leaks, one of the largest sources of methane emissions. Our U.S.-manufactured products help companies cost-effectively prevent unnecessary waste of a valuable natural and national resource. Rebellion Photonics stands ready to work with the EPA and industry to find ways to intelligently and cost effectively reduce the environmental and health impacts of natural gas development.”

– Allison Lami Sawyer, Chief Executive Officer, Rebellion Photonics

Rebellion Photonics is an award-winning technology company based in Houston, TX servicing the oil & gas industry with a suite of products for gas protection. Most recently, the company was awarded a $4.25 million grant from ARPA-E for the MONITOR program which focuses on reducing methane emissions associated with energy production to build a more sustainable energy future.

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If you would like more information about this topic, please contact Sarah Ward at 713.805.5024 or email You can also call Rebellion Photonics at 713.218.0101.


Engineering Technician

What you’ll do:

You’ll help with all aspects of product development and manufacturing. This individual will be a critical part of the Engineering team. Creativity, independent thinking, and vision are required.

Rebellion Photonics offers interesting work, dynamic, friendly and informal environment with excellent prospects to grow with the company. It’s a challenge like no other, and dealing with it is what makes our instrument, and our team, unique.

Your direct responsibilities include but aren’t limited to: run/maintain our nano-optical-fabrication facility, collect and analyze test results, assist in product installations and customer support, construct prototypes and test fixtures, assemble and test products, electronics assembly and soldering, delivery and pickup of locally machined items, supplies, and equipment, and to assist with demo testing: organization, setup, and breakdown. Phew!
Before we set out to build our instruments, many people told us that what we’re aiming to do is impossible. We plan to prove them wrong. And we’re looking for recruits to join our rebellion against the status quo!

Who you’ll work with:

Our current team of engineers is small but growing. The team lead is Chris, who is the VP of Engineering at Rebellion Photonics. Grady is our Senior Mechanical Engineer.

We are looking for someone with two years of college in a technical discipline (two years’ experience can be substituted in place of a degree), some CNC/CAM programming experience and experience working with optics and/or infrared imaging is a plus, and with excellent written and verbal communication skills & collaboration skills to round out our team.

How to apply:

Email Rebellion Photonics at with the following:

  • – Cover letter

  • – Resume



Houston, TX, December 22, 2014 – Houston-based technology company, Rebellion Photonics, is one of eleven project teams chosen to receive funding as part of the Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) MONITOR program. The MONITOR program focuses on reducing methane emissions associated with energy production to build a more sustainable energy future.

Of the $30 Million allocated to the MONITOR program, Rebellion Photonics will receive $4.25 million to develop a Portable Imaging Spectrometer for Methane Leak Detection. The company will miniaturize a long wavelength infrared imaging spectrometer that is lightweight and highly portable. The image will contain multiple bands of spectral data for detection and characterization of methane leaks. The data will be processed using a cloud-based computing architecture that will stream results to mobile devices. The imager’s low cost and high portability will allow for widespread deployment while mobile integration will provide increased awareness of leaks for faster leak repair.

The ARPA-E funded project will use similar technology as Rebellion’s unique Gas Cloud Imaging (GCI) camera currently being used for safety and emissions monitoring on oil rigs and refineries. The GCI uses hyperspectral technology to identify and quantify chemical releases in real-time.

Rebellion Photonics is an award-winning technology company based in Houston, TX servicing the oil & gas industry with a suite of products for gas protection. Rebellion Photonics was named Wall Street Journal’s Start-up of the Year in 2013.

If you would like more information about this topic, please contact Amy Allen at 817.883.2022 or email


Rebellion Photonics, Inc. Closes on $10.4 Million Series A Financing

Houston, TX, January 8, 2014 – Rebellion Photonics, Inc. (“Rebellion”) announced today that it has closed on a $10.4 million Series A financing round with Tinicum L.P. and certain other private investment partnerships advised by Tinicum Incorporated (“Tinicum”) to help accelerate the market expansion of its Gas Cloud Imaging cameras (“GCI”). The revolutionary GCI is a new generation of gas leak detection technology for oil rigs & refineries that can identify and quantify dangerous gas leaks within the digital image in true real-time (30Hz) video. With full scene coverage, the GCI enhances safety and operations, lowers the risk of explosions, and improves facility downtime by continuously monitoring for leaks and improving distinctions between actual events and false alarms.

Robert Kester, CTO/co-founder of Rebellion, said, “We are excited to grow Rebellion so that we can continue to make oil rigs and refineries safer places to work.”  Trip Zedlitz, a partner at Tinicum, said, “We believe that Rebellion has developed a unique and compelling solution offering real-time operational, safety, and regulatory benefits to its customers. We are excited to partner with the Rebellion management team and provide support for the company’s significant growth initiatives.”


Rebellion Photonics, Inc. is a start-up spun out of Rice University in 2010, commercializing their unique snap-shot hyperspectral video platform. The company, headquartered in Houston, Texas and with Allison Lami Sawyer as CEO/co-founder, is expanding operations and marketing their new Gas Cloud Imaging camera for oil rig and refinery safety. More information about Rebellion is available at

Rebellion Photonics was named Wall Street Journal’s ‘Start-up of the Year’ in 2013 and was awarded a R&D100 in 2012.


Tinicum is a private investment firm with more than 25 years of experience investing in public and private companies. For more information, please visit



2013 Wall Street Journal Startup of the Year

CEO Allison Sawyer and CTO Robert Kester discuss life after being named WSJ Startup of the Year and why they never expected to win. “I talked to my old high school back in Alabama, and I always say science is cool… Read More


It’s nice to be No. 1: Houston’s Rebellion Photonics wins WSJ’s ‘Startup of the Year’ Competition

by Molly Ryan for Houston Business Journal

The votes are in: Houston officially has a hot, nationally recognized startup.

Rebellion Photonics Inc., which has commercialized a video camera technology that can detect gas leaks in real time, captured a major victory Nov. 4 when the Wall Street Journal named it as the winner of its inaugural “Startup of the Year” competition. But the victory isn’t just for Rebellion — it’s also being hailed as a win for Houston’s emerging technology startup scene.

Both the Houston Technology Center and the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, two local technology incubation groups, are touting Rebellion’s win as one of their own. This makes sense since Rebellion is both a product of the HTC and the Rice Alliance. Also, Rebellion’s win on the national stage that the WSJ set up will put these organizations, and the local technology scene as a whole, in the spotlight.

I got to talk to Allison Sawyer, Rebellion’s CEO, both before and after the 20-week competition, which pitted 24 startups from around the country against each other and measured each company on its scalability, long-term vitality, originality, utility and its ability to perform designated tasks.

At the beginning of the competition in June, Sawyer said she was looking forward to getting advice from mentors the WSJ provided to startups. The mentors included big-name celebrities and business tycoons.

After the competition Sawyer said two of her favorite mentors were Kate Mitchell, a co-founder and partner at Scale Venture Partners, and Lynn Tilton, CEO of Patriarch Partners LLC. Part of the reason Sawyer was drawn to these mentors was because she had never met such powerful female investors, she said.

Besides the winning the recognition of “Startup of the Year” and receiving mentorship from business bigshots, Rebellion’s two co-founders also got to ring the New York Stock Exchange bell this morning and received two hand-drawn WSJ-style portraits.

These portraits were the highlight of the competition for Sawyer, who said it was one of her life goals to see her portrait in the signature WSJ ink-dot style.

Despite the win, Sawyer said she believes Houston’s technology startup scene needs more recognition.

“I don’t think people outside of Texas understand how big the market is,” she said.

Still, the win is one step in the right direction for the local startup scene, and Sawyer gushed about the support she has received from the existing community in Houston.

“As I said on Twitter, it takes a village to raise a startup and we have the best village in the world,” she said.


Rebellion Photonics Named ‘WSJ Startup of the Year’

by Tom Corrigan for Wall Street Journal

Maker of Cameras for Gas-Leak Detection Selected from 24 Companies

Rebellion Photonics was named “WSJ Startup of the Year” Monday night, beating two dozen other young companies during the five-month-long documentary.

The Houston-based startup, founded by Allison Lami Sawyer, 28 years old, and Robert Kester, 32, builds cameras that can spot poisonous and potentially explosive gas leaks on oil rigs and at refineries. The cameras can detect at least 20 different gases simultaneously and in real time.

Rebellion was one of 24 startups chosen by editors of The Wall Street Journal to participate in the “WSJ Startup of the Year” documentary, which premiered in June. Founded in 2010, Rebellion began its first full-scale installation earlier this year, offering a monthly subscription service to oil and gas companies based on the number of cameras needed to cover a particular rig or refinery.

The companies picked for the documentary—from more than 500 applications—spanned a wide range of industries. The finalists for the top spot included SwipeSense Inc. of Evanston, Ill., which makes portable, trackable hand-sanitation devices; and Daily Muse Inc. of New York, which collects online job listings, career content and profiles from a range of retail, tech and media companies, to help people find jobs.

During the course of the documentary, the Journal editors paired the participating startups with more than 40 business leaders, experienced entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and angel investors. Richard Branson , founder of Virgin Group Ltd., Steve Case , co-founder and former chief executive of AOL Inc., and Tory Burch, CEO and designer of Tory Burch LLC, were among the mentors and advisers providing guidance to the participating startups and editors.

The CEOs and their teams performed tasks and challenges over the course of the project, including an elevator pitch and a debate. The Journal editors periodically decided which startups to eliminate, after evaluating the startups’ scalability, long-term viability, distinctiveness and social good.

Rebellion received a full-page advertisement in the Journal as well as two of the Journal’s iconic stipple drawings, one for each of the co-founders. Ms. Sawyer, who regularly speaks at high schools and mentors girls interested in technology, says she applied to the documentary project in part to increase the exposure of women-led startups.

Read full article on The Wall Street Journal


Making Oil-Drilling Rigs Safer

by Tom Corrigan for The Wall Street Journal

Rebellion Photonics’ High-Tech Video Stream Can ‘See’ Dangerous Gas Leaks

Allison Lami Sawyer, chief executive of Houston-based Rebellion Photonics—one of three finalists for “WSJ Startup of the Year”—says U.S. Space Camp was her childhood mecca. The camp is located in Ms. Sawyer’s hometown of Huntsville, Ala., and promotes math, science and engineering.

“You can go and be really nerdy, and I loved it,” she says.

Ms. Sawyer, now 28 years old, says she fell in love with math at an early age. As a college undergraduate she decided that she was going to start her own tech company, she says, in part because, “I realized that I needed to do something that was like going to Space Camp every day.”

In 2010, she and Robert Kester founded Rebellion Photonics, which builds cameras that can spot poisonous and potentially explosive gas leaks on oil rigs and at refineries. The co-founders met and outlined their business plan in 2009 at a bar at Rice University, where he received a Ph.D. in Bioengineering and she got her M.B.A.

Rebellion, which has had $2 million in revenue since its founding, offers a monthly subscription service to oil and gas companies, based on the number of cameras needed to cover a particular rig or refinery. That subscription covers the entire cost of ownership: installation, calibration, data management, software upgrades and 24/7 customer service. The company began its first full-scale installation earlier this year.

“Every chemical reflects or absorbs light in a unique way, similar to a finger print or a bar code,” Ms. Sawyer says. “Essentially our cameras are glorified bar code readers.”

By capturing light outside of the visible spectrum and reading these unique signatures, Rebellion Photonics’ camera overlays a live video feed with a representation of any invisible gas clouds within the camera’s field of view. Various poisonous and explosive gasses are represented by different colors and appear in real time.

The cameras can detect at least 20 different gases simultaneously and are fully functional night and day, according to Mr. Kester, chief technology officer.

Mr. Kester, 32, developed a patented hardware innovation that allows for the real time, continuous monitoring of multiple kinds of gas clouds. He says this is what sets Rebellion Photonics apart from its competitors, whose systems he described as slower and less accurate.

Bertin Technologies’ Second Sight is one such competitor. Antonin Duval, the chief operating officer for Bertin’s U.S. subsidiary, says the company’s technology is similar, but that, like most of Rebellion’s competitors, it mostly serves the defense industry. Second Sight can’t depict multiple gases simultaneously.

The oil and gas industry is overdue for a modernization in the detection of poisonous and explosive gases, according to Maryanne Maldonado, the director of the energy division at the Houston Technology Center, a nonprofit business incubator affiliated with Rebellion.

“The solutions today are antiquated,” she says. “They require a human going out and detecting things with sniffers or hand-held devices that really puts the individual in harm’s way.”

Though detecting environmentally damaging emissions is an important feature of the technology, Ms. Sawyer and Ms. Maldonado say that the primary solution is safety.

Statistics from 2004 indicate that of 800,000 to 900,000 leaks investigated each year, 200 to 300 resulted in accidents. In 2010, a gas explosion at the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform, leased by BP PLC in the Gulf of Mexico, was responsible for 11 deaths and one of the largest oil spills in history.

Rebellion is currently raising $10 million and is looking to grow from seven employees to 20 by the end of 2013. A larger company can take the product to overseas markets more quickly, says Ms. Sawyer, who is open to Rebellion being acquired by a bigger company.

“The thing that keeps me up at night is that we need to grow faster. We need to be bigger,” Ms. Sawyer says. “We cannot go fast enough. It’s not possible. There are tens of thousands of sites in America” that could benefit from Rebellion’s technology, she adds.

One challenge: the difficulty of implementing a new product in the oil and gas industry. Ms. Sawyer says that raising awareness of her startup is “incredibly difficult,” given the size of many oil and gas companies.

“Our competition is really the worst competition of all; it’s the status quo,” she says.

The co-founders targeted the energy sector for its profit margins and its size, in addition to the opportunity to save lives. But, they say that their technology is applicable to many different industries: defense, food, quality control of all kinds, and forensics to name a few.

“Drilling productions and operations is the very tip of the iceberg for this type of imaging technology,” Ms. Maldonado says.

Read full article at The Wall Street Journal

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