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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

 
 

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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