Allison Lami Sawyer still recalls the words of her entrepreneurship professor, who took her aside after she had completed her MBA and was beginning to launch her company, Rebellion Photonics. “He told me gently, ‘You know you aren’t good enough, right? You need to get a real CEO,’” says Sawyer, who was shocked speechless. Two years later, with $2.4 million in projected revenue from military and industrial contracts, she’s proving him wrong.
Sawyer, who also has a master’s degree in nanoscale physics, was studying entrepreneurship and volunteering at a local Houston incubator when she met her co-founder, Robert Kester. Kester, now 31, was working with a team of physicists at the incubator and had invented a fluorescent imaging camera that could “see” chemicals. The camera attached to a microscope and took pictures at 30 frames per second, enabling medical researchers to shoot live video through their microscopes. “It was a big leap forward,” says Sawyer. “They needed help writing an NIH grant, so I wrote the commercialization part.” She became fascinated with the technology, and suggested that Kester join her in starting a company to capitalize on it.
Sawyer wrote a business plan and in the spring of 2010 entered the company, Rebellion Photonics, in several competitions, including one at Rice University. A first-place win in an international contest and a second-place showing at Rice University earned the duo $50,000 in prize money, plus another $100,000 in angel investment. “By the end of 2010, we made our first sale,” says Sawyer.
The company’s first product, called the Arrow, was sold primarily to research laboratories. Unfortunately, the labs wreaked havoc on Rebellion’s cash flow. “We’ve sold about $500,000 worth of systems in that market,” Sawyer says. “But the selling cycle to research labs and hospitals is horrendous.”
That places the company at a crossroads. While Rebellion Photonics has also worked for the military--the company landed an $800,000 contract to put its cameras in Air Force drones--Sawyer has set her sights on oil and gas companies. “We created a new camera that can actually see a gas leak within fifteen microseconds of a leak,” she says. “We buy virtually all the parts off the shelf, and then make the ‘secret sauce’ part of the camera in-house on a very expensive piece of equipment.”
Projects with BP in Scotland and with Total, a French oil and gas company, are in the works. “We install the cameras on their rigs and they pay by the month to use them,” says Sawyer. “It’s a software-as-a-service model.” And not a hard sell. “Oil and gas is very focused on safety instrumentation,” she says. “So half of my work is done before I even get in front of people.”