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Allison Lami Sawyer, co-founder and former CEO of Rebellion Photonics in Houston, started early.
Named to both Forbes and Inc. Magazine’s “30 Under 30” lists in 2014 and 2012, Allison helped to manufacture and commercialize hyperspectral video technology and advanced detection algorithms for the real-time monitoring of gas leaks on oil rigs, refineries and pipelines.
“Our cameras see and quantify gas leaks before they explode,” Allison says.
Now, at the ripe age of 33, she is excited to try new ways to make a difference.
“I am running for office in the Texas House of Representatives,” Allison says.
Raised by a single mother in Alabama, Allison has been living in Houston for more than a decade after obtaining her bachelor of science in engineering physics from the University of Colorado-Boulder and her master of science in nanotechnology from the University of Leeds in the U.K.
Allison traveled to Houston with the intention of starting a company in nanoscale physics while earning her master of business administration in finance and entrepreneurship at Rice University.
That is when she met Dr. Robert Kester.
“We were both graduate students at Rice,” Allison says. “He had invented a camera using biofluorescence imaging to study chemical reactions inside the body. While that was handy for research, there was only a market for maybe 50 cameras or so a year. So I said there is a bigger market for this: Oil and gas companies could use this technology to help stop explosions from happening.”
Allison recognized that oil and gas companies had been using antiquated technology to detect and address gas leaks.
“But old timers who worked in the field knew there were leaks because they could smell them and see the fireballs,” she says. “Corporations went on stating that because there were no alarms, there were no leaks.”
Allison and Robert created Rebellion Photonics in 2009 to, as Allison puts it, “turn the lights on and see all the little monsters.”
“We essentially show companies what they don’t want to see,” she explains. “When we go into a facility with our cameras, it is not surprising to get 1,000 high alarms within a week.”
Still, some of the biggest oil and gas companies in the world — most notably in North America and Asia — hire Rebellion Photonics, now a more than $5 million company with nearly 40 employees, to bring leak rates down nearly 90 percent within one quarter.
Rebellion Photonics, #671 on the 2017 Inc. 5,000 list of fastest-growing companies, was also able to raise $10.4 million in private equity funding and more than $5.5. million in government grants in an industry where just 1.5 percent of funding goes to companies with female CEOs.
However, in November of last year, Allison passed the reins to Kester to serve as CEO so she could work full-time on her political campaign.
After having volunteered with Child Advocates, fighting for foster kids in the Houston system, Allison says it was just too shameful to see kids in Houston living in third-world conditions.
“We also are the only top 10 economy in the bottom half for school funding,” she adds.
Allison says she would like to help modernize textbooks and curricula, especially in science and mathematics.
“I got to where I am purely based on education,” she says. “We, in Texas, expect people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But without an education, you don’t have bootstraps to begin with.”
If she wins the Democratic primary in March, she will be running against Sarah Davis, the Republican incumbent for District 134, in November’s general election.
“If you think about it, running for office is somewhat similar to being a CEO,” Allison says.
“A CEO’s job is to go and get the message out, especially for a startup, when you are essentially saying the status quo does not work and it is time to take a chance on something new,” she adds. “It’s no different running as a Democrat in Texas.”
The mother of a 3-month old son with her husband of 13 years still also makes the time to serve on the board of Rebellion Photonics.
“I find women especially have very small dreams, dreams that they could most definitely accomplish,” Allison says. “That means they are not dreaming big enough. Why not go and try something that you will probably fail at?”
“In Alabama, we were raised to be perfect little girls who were never sent to the corner. But it’s just not possible to be perfect and unsullied and do anything big,” she continues. “I think women will surprise themselves if we can just teach our girls to be courageous enough to dream big.”