numbers game

Data-focused Houston company arms startups with the AI tools they need to grow

It's all a numbers game, and Mercury Data Science is about setting up startups for success. Getty Images

While some say a picture is worth a thousand words, having the right data can be make or break. Houston-based Mercury Data Science is using data and artificial intelligence to paint some really specific pictures for its clients.

MDS was born out of a need for Houston-based Mercury Fund's portfolio companies that wanted a firmer handle on artificial intelligence and data science.

"Three years ago, a number of Mercury Fund portfolio companies and potential investments began to have increasingly important data science and AI components," says Dan Watkins, co-founder and managing director of Mercury Fund. "Mercury's partners wanted a deeper understanding of AI, to understand how the cutting edge meets industry use cases."

Mercury Fund's first move was to tap data scientist Angela Wilkins to lead some training, which then turned into even more workshops and advising. The companies ranged from early seed stage startups to companies that had raised over $100 million — and they wanted Wilkins' help, either with the basics of data science or execution of analytics.

"In fact, many of the more established companies were sitting on data assets with plans to build AI-enabled products but didn't have the time or people to really start that process," Wilkins says. "After helping a few companies, we realized the need was pretty deep, and bigger than the Mercury Fund portfolio."

Wilkins, who serves the company as CTO and co-CEO with Watkins, has seen her efforts grow MDS client base. InnovationMap sat down with Wilkins to see how far MDS has come — and where it's going.

InnovationMap: What sort of problems and data solutions are you providing clients?

Angela Wilkins: We love projects that have a direct impact on human health. In health, we build machine learning driven products to create new forms of digital diagnostics to help improve diagnosis in areas like cognitive functioning and depression. We have helped several therapeutics companies accelerate drug discovery and development by extracting insights from biological and imaging data. We have internal tools that use natural language processing to extract knowledge from millions of scientific publications and patents.

We have also worked quite a bit in consumer behavior and some of our physics-oriented data scientists are now working on noise reduction in geophysics technologies.

IM: What feedback do you get from clients?

AW: Company leaders in every sector are feeling the pressure to gain the advantages of AI or risk falling behind. There are many expert level teams available to Fortune 500 organizations. We are one of the very few teams that is entrepreneurial and agile enough to work with earlier stage, high growth organizations.

IM: How does MDS work with Mercury Fund? Has that relationship evolved over the years?

AW: We continue to work with the Mercury Fund portfolio companies but that is a smaller part of what we do. We are venture backed ourselves, and have now become a Mercury Fund portfolio company, with the same growth ambitions as all venture backed companies.

IM: Recently, MDS has seen some growth. How many employees have you added and are you still hiring?

AW: We are up to 20 employees, mostly data scientists, many with 5 to 8 years of experience working in AI, bioinformatics, and data science to provide insights and build products. We are always looking for great data scientists and data engineers to join our team. We also started a fellowship position for recent graduates, and so we can identify and train the next generation of data scientists

IM: What's been the biggest surprise for you as MDS has grown?

AW: We have been able to create this unique culture that thrives on diversity of thought and background. Half of our team is women. We are solving hard problems that benefit from the creativity you get from a wide variety of views.

IM: Where are MDS clients based?

AW: We have clients from San Francisco to Basel. We have learned how to build an integrated, high communication team with the client, so location is not critical.

That being said, we are active in and committed contributors to the Houston innovation ecosystem. Many of us are from a computational biology and bioinformatics background with deep roots in the Texas Medical Center institutions. Houston has amazing talent and we want to show the data scientists that they don't have to leave Houston to work on interesting problems and continue to build skills at the cutting edge while working for companies all over the world.

IM: What sort of trends are you seeing in venture capital? Are these trends happening in Houston?

We are seeing increasing investments in health AI. Fierce Healthcare reports that health AI topped all other sectors last year with $4B invested into AI startups. Andreesen Horowitz has announced their third and largest biotech and health care fund with $750 million to invest: "Machine learning and artificial intelligence [will] have an outsize impact on how we discover drugs and diagnose disease."

We see similar trends in other areas from industrial software to financial services. The upshot is that the adoption of AI creates significant opportunities for startups and significant challenges for larger companies that are not entrepreneurial and able to build their own data science skill set.

As far as Houston goes, the same trends are there but we tend to lag the major technology hubs in adoption. Efforts like TMC Innovation, Station, Rice University/The Ion and Houston Exponential are having a big impact on both the number and pace of startups and, increasingly, those have AI as a key part of their technology stack.

IM: We've talked about how MDS flies under the radar — why do you think that is? Do you think that'll change as you grow?

AW: Our initial focus was on the work for our clients and on building our team. We are ready to be noticed. Thank you for helping us tell the story with this article.

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Building Houston

 
 

This Houston staffing firm has tapped into tech to support the growing gig economy workforce. Photo via Getty Images

As the independent workforce continues to grow, a Houston-based company is aiming to connect these workers with companies that match their specific needs with a new digital platform.

FlexTek, a 14-year old recruiting and staffing company, launched a first gig site tailored to the needs of the individual worker. The platform, Workz360, is built to be able to manage projects, maintain quality control, and manage billing and year-end financial reporting.The company is also working to expanding the platform to provide infrastructure to assist independent workers with education, access to savings programs, tax compliance through vetted third-party CPA firms, and hopes in the future to assist with access to liability and medical insurance.

With a younger workforce and a shifting economy, the “gig economy,” which is another way to describe how people can earn a living as a 1099 worker, offers an alternative option to the corporate grind in a post-pandemic workscape. Chief Marketing Officer Bill Penczak of Workz360 calls this era “Gig 2.0,” and attributes the success of this type of workforce to how during the COVID-19 pandemic people learned how to work, and thrive in non-traditional work environments. The site also boasts the fact it won’t take a bite out of the worker’s pay, which could be an attractive sell for many since other sites can take up to 65 percent of profit.

“In the past few years, with the advent of gig job platforms, the Independent workers have been squeezed by gig work platforms taking a disproportionate amount of the workers’ income,” said FlexTek CEO and founder Stephen Morel in a news release. “As a result, there has been what we refer to as ‘pay padding,’ a phenomenon in which workers are raising their hourly or project rates to compensate for the bite taken by other platforms.

"Workz360 is designed to promote greater transparency, and we believe the net result will be for workers to thrive and companies to save money by using the platform,” he continues.

As the workforce has continued to change over the years, a third of the current U.S. workforce are independent workers according to FlexTek, workers have gained the ability to have more freedom where and how they work. Workz360 aims to cater to this workforce by believing in a simple mantra of treating your workers well.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about this, but we like the Southwest Airlines model,” Penczak tells InnovationMap. “Southwest Airlines treats their people very well, and as a result those employees treat the passengers really well. We believe the same thing holds true. If we can provide resources, and transparency, and not take a bite out of what the gig worker is charging, then we will get the best and the brightest people since they feel like they won’t be taken advantage of. We think there is an opportunity to be a little different and put the people first.”

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