As a graduate MBA student at Rice University, Allison Lami Sawyer was feeling the all too familiar desire of wanting to start her own business. Initially, she simply wasn’t hooked by the ideas she was finding in and around the Houston area but it was only a matter of time. Then she met Robert Kester. Robert was involved in creating technology based on fluorescent light imaging for use inside research labs. It felt like too specific a context, she thought. She was, however, intrigued by its potential.
That’s when she began to do her own research into the technology and patents involved in what Robert was working on. She followed her instincts and asked Robert a poignant question, “Can you just put the technology on a regular camera and image outside?” His response, “Yes.”
The two founded Rebellion Photonics, a company that implements real-time chemical imaging technology to detect chemicals throughout the whole scope of vision of a camera or a microscope. The cameras the company produces are not only able to see colors but they “see” chemicals.
“I always wanted to start my own business and I’ve always loved physics and technology. I received a B. Sc. In Engineering Physics and a M. Sc. In Nanoscale Physics, then went to business school so I could learn how to bring cutting-edge technology from the lab to the marketplace. I named the company Rebellion Photonics because I believe that every startup is a rebellion,” says Allison.
The base of the technology has existed since the 1980’s but at the time researchers had to wait hours for the results. Now, it’s just a matter of milliseconds and the result has been that Sawyer and Roberts have mixed entrepreneurship to provide real time chemical imaging to a much broader market.
Historically, this technology has been used for medical research and today it’s still being used in Houston based cancer research. Knowing this, Sawyer and Roberts wanted to expand the technology to a larger audience.
Within the two years since its founding, Sawyer’s company has created seven jobs and raised 1.1 million in venture capital funding. In addition, Rebellion Photonics secured a 1.6 million dollar grant as part of the Whitehouse Startup America initiative. The SBIR.gov site allows cutting-edge companies to compete for funds across the many existing federal agencies.
“If you’re looking to start and you’re not an inventor, get in touch with local organizations and give [your] time for free. Make a name for yourself in that community.”
This is wise advice coming from the person who started her search for an inventor at Rice University by offering free business assistance to the Houston Technology Center while also getting involved with the Rice Alliance for Technology Entrepreneurship. It wasn’t long before the community got word of her interest and enthusiasm which is how she connected with her co-founder and chief technology officer, Robert Kester.
Sawyer and Kester have recently expanded the use of their technology into the market of oil rig safety where high concentrations of hydrocarbons can leak and accumulate into explosive clouds that can cost a company both the lives of its workers and billions of dollars.
At one time, her investors had encouraged her to move the company headquarters to Austin or California but she says she’s simply not interested.
Sawyer isn’t in it for the money nor are the entrepreneurs with the most ability, she says. Rather, she’s lead by a passion. She believes in her products which in turn strengthens her sense that her products can change the world.