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Data Gumbo CEO discusses Houston's startup ecosystem and goals for his company

Andrew Bruce had the idea for Data Gumbo when he realized how difficult it was to share data in upstream oil and gas. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

For Andrew Bruce, an oil and gas professional and entrepreneur, there's nothing like Houston.

"I've lived in Boston, New York, and London, and I've spent a lot of time in Norway," Bruce says. "They are all wonderful places, but I've never experienced anything quite like Houston."

After a long career in oil and gas, Bruce found himself a victim of the oil downturn. Once laid off, he decided to focus on a new idea for a way to provide access to upstream oil and gas data to companies. He founded Data Gumbo Corp., a blockchain-as-a-service company based in Houston, in 2016. The company closed its seed round last year and is moving toward a series A.

While Bruce credits his trajectory from laid off to startup CEO to a lot of hard work and a bit of blind luck, he says that Houston's people and the help they are willing to provide has been extremely beneficial to the growth of Data Gumbo.

"I'm just brainstorming, but I think a lot of [what makes Houston great for startups] comes from the fact that we all recognize the cyclical nature of the oil and gas industry, we are obligated to look out for each other even when people are laid off," Bruce says. "Maybe it comes from that kind of recognition that we're all in this together and we have to try to work through it."

InnovationMap: Tell me a little bit about your background.

Andrew Bruce: Started out as a programmer, and was transferred from New York City to Houston to build a consulting practice for financial systems. My background originally in London was building systems for the deregulation of banking industry that was happening in the mid 80s.

When I came to houston, I got involved in energy trading systems. I built a small software startup, and eventually got involved in National Oilwell Varco and the drilling business. As part of that, I kicked off a program called NOVOS to build an autonomous drilling rig. Came across the challenge of not having access to data for that rig. Data Gumbo was a direct result of that.

I started Data Gumbo to solve the problem of not being able to get data from industrial installations. Along the way, I came across the opportunity for blockchain because the real problem people were trying to solve was mistrust and inefficiency of the process. I stumbled into blockchain kind of backwards.

IM: How does Data Gumbo work?

AB: The whole idea is to build out the blockchain network, and provide a network that they can subscribe to and start doing business on that network. It's a service, so there's a subscription fee. It gives them access to the savings they already have available within their organizations.

IM: Who are the type of customers you're looking for?

AB: Midstream and upstream oil and gas companies, and the service companies that serve them.

IM: What was the reception like at first?

AB: Difficult. We got a lot of questions and concerns about what blockchain is, why they need it, and whether or not they can trust it. We were introducing a completely new concept to a conservative industry.

IM: What were some challenges and opportunities?

AB: No. 1 is the Operators Blockchain Consortium, which was 19 different oil companies coming together to understand blockchain and its opportunities. That's helped. And 75 percent of our early calls were sort of evangelism of explaining blockchain and how it's different from cryptocurrency. So, it was an educational process. The industry was independently going down the road of understanding the technology. And, to be perfectly honest, it was a bit of blind luck that we chose this technology that the industry was getting behind anyways.

IM: What doors does your recently closed seed round open?

AB: Now we're pursuing a series A equity round. Seed was a bridge to equity funding. It was primarily individuals in town who got behind the company and believed in what we were trying to do. They helped open some doors, but primarily it was financing to get us to series A and prove the concepts from a sales and product market fit perspective.

IM: What are you long-term goals for Data Gumbo?

AB: To take the company public and to remain independent. We believe that we want to provide a service to the customers that is independent from any other offers. We want to stay true to our roots and be a blockchain network infrastructure people can trust and rely on for not just upstream oil and gas, but also getting into trucking and shipping and other adjacent industries so we can satisfy the whole supply chain.

IM: How is it being located in Houston?

AB: Houston's startup community has been amazing. When we started this journey, it had been a while since we had any entrepreneurial contacts, so it was basically like starting from scratch. Organizations like Station Houston and, later on, The Cannon helped provided great contacts. People from those organizations — and the business community as a whole — has been really generous with their time. Houston is probably second to none when it comes to people's willingness to help.

IM: What does Houston still need to work on as an innovation ecosystem?

AB: I don't think it's Houston specifically, but a generalization is that large corporations are set up to buy from large corporations. As a small company or startup to sell to a super major is difficult because the sales cycle is so long and the requirements are set up to buy from other large companies. If there was a way for creating an entrepreneurial division of these companies so that they can experiment with and support startups, that would be tremendous. If you're a startup, you should be focused on sales, but cracking that nut within a large company is really hard.

IM: What keeps you up at night as it pertains to business?

AB: People. I've viewed my roles with a huge responsibility. There are people who make a bet on a company, whether they be investors or employees, and you've got to be able to fund the company. So, whether it be through sales revenue or fundraising, making payroll and building a company that people can get a return on their investment is a huge responsibility. So, that's what keeps me up at night — making sure that I'm repaying people's faith in what we're doing.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Building Houston

 
 

Here's what companies are in the latest cohort for gBETA. Photo courtesy of gBETA

An early-stage accelerator has picked its latest cohort of five Houston companies.

The Fall 2020 cohort of gBETA Houston includes:

  • AllIDoIsCook is founded by Tobi Smith and focused on exposing the world to Africa's cuisine by manufacturing gourmet food products delivered directly to customer doors and available at grocers. Since launching, AllIDoIsCook has built out a manufacturing facility, shipped over 8,000 boxes and generated $1.1 million in revenue all without outside funding.
  • Chasing Watts makes it easy for cyclists to coordinate or find rides with fellow riders in their area with its web-based and native application. The company has over 3,000 users and grew 135 percent from Q2 to Q3 in new ride views.
  • DanceKard, founded by Erica Sinner, is a new dating platform that connects individuals and groups with one another by bringing the date to the forefront of the conversation and making scheduling faster and easier with special promotions featuring local establishments. Since launching in August of 2021, DanceKard has over 170 users on the platform.
  • Dollarito is a digital lending platform that helps the low-income Hispanic population with no credit history or low FICO score access fair credit. Founded by Carmen Roman, Dollarito applies AI into banking, transactional and behavioral data to evaluate the repayment capability more accurately than using FICO scores. The company has1,000 users on their waitlist and plans to beta test with 100 or more customers in early 2022.
  • SeekerPitch, founded by Samantha Hepler, operates with the idea that jobseekers' past job titles and resumes are not always indicative of their true capabilities. Launched last month, SeekerPitch empowers companies to see who jobseekers are as people, and get to know them through comprehensive profiles and virtual speed interviews, and the company already has 215 jobseekers and 20 companies on the platform, with one pilot at University of Houston and three more in the pipeline.

The companies kicked off their cohort in person on October 18, and the program concludes on December 14 with the gBETA Houston Fall 2021 Pitch Night. At this event, each company will present their five-minute pitch to an audience of mentors, investors, and community members.

"The five founding teams selected for our gBETA Houston Fall 2021 cohort are tackling unique problems they have each experienced personally, from finding access to cultural foods, fitness communities and authentic dating experiences to challenges with non-inclusive financing and hiring practices," says Kate Evinger, director of gBETA Houston, in the release. "The grit and passion these individuals bring to their roles as founders will undoubtedly have a tremendous impact in the Houston community and beyond."

The accelerator has supported 15 Houston startups since it launched in Houston in early 2020. The program, which is free and hosted out of the Downtown Launchpad, is under the umbrella of Madison, Wisconsin-based international accelerator, gener8tor.

"Downtown Launchpad is an innovation hub like no other, and I am so proud of what it is already and what it will become," says Robert Pieroni, director of economic development at Central Houston Inc., in the release. "The five startups selected for the gBETA Houston Fall 2021 cohort are exploring new challenges that can become high-impact Houston businesses."

gBETA announced its plan to launch in Houston in September 2019. The program's inaugural cohort premiered in May and conducted the first program this summer completely virtually. The second cohort took place last fall, and the third ran earlier this year.

"These founders are building their companies and benefiting from the resources Downtown Launchpad provides," Pieroni continues, "and the proof is in the data – companies in these programs are creating jobs, growing their revenues and exponentially increasing their funding, which means these small starts up of today, working in Downtown Launchpad, are growing into the successful companies of tomorrow."

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