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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

 
 

The second cohort of The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator hosted a day full of thought leadership and startup pitches. Photo by Shobeir Ansari, Getty Images

In light of COVID-19, it is more relevant than ever to discuss and support startups with sustainability and resiliency in mind. At the Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Cohort 2 Demo Day, a virtual audience was reminded of that.

"So, 2020 has certainly been a year of unprecedented uncertainty and change for Houston, for Texas, for our country, and for our world," says Christine Galib, director of the accelerator. "The past few months in particular have been especially difficult as the global pandemic and civil unrest continue to spotlight systemic and structural scars on the face of humanity."

The virtual event was streamed on July 1 and hosted several thought leaders and presenters before concluding with pitches from four of the cohort companies.

"Through it all, and in a virtual world, Cohort 2 startups, the mentors, and our Ion team have been the change we wish to see in the world," Galib continues. "For these startups, failure is simply not an option — and neither is going at it alone."

Earlier this year, Galib announced the second cohort would be focused on solutions for Houston's air quality, water purification, and other cleantech needs. The program, backed by Intel, Microsoft, and TX/RX, launched on Earth Day and commenced shortly after. Cohort 3 is expected later this year.

Here are the four companies that pitched and the problems they are trying to solve.

Re:3D

re:3D was founded just down the street from NASA's Johnson Space Center to address the need for a mid-market 3D printing solution. The Houston-based startup also wanted to create their 3D printer that operates on recycled plastics in order to prevent excess waste.

"Where some see trash, we see opportunity," Charlotte Craff, community liaison at Re:3D says in her presentation.

Re:3D's clients can get their hands on their own Gigabot for less than $10,000, and the printer uses pellets and flakes from recycled plastics —not filament — to print new designs. Clients are also supported by the company with design software and training.

"We can help the city of Houston help meet its climate action and resilient city goals by transforming the way people think about recycling," Craff says about Re:3D's future partnerships with the city.

Water Lens

While two-thirds of the world is covered in water, only 0.7 percent is drinkable. And of that fresh water, 92 percent of it is used in agricultural and industrial settings. This is how Keith Cole, CEO and founder of Water Lens, set the scene for his presentation.

Water Lens, which is based in Houston with a lab located in Austin, wants to solve the problem of cities and countries running out of fresh, drinkable water by equipping huge water-using companies with a water testing tool.

"We've developed a system to let anyone test any water literally anywhere in the world," Cole says, citing clients like ExxonMobil, Shell, and Halliburton.

S2G Energy

S2G Energy, based in Mexico, is focused on optimizing energy management in order to digitize, empower, and unlock potential for cost-saving efforts and technology.

In his pitch, Geronimo Martinez, founder of S2G Energy, points out that restaurants, commercial buildings, and other adjacent industries can save money by implementing energy management solutions that come out of S2G Energy's expertise. In Mexico, Martinez says, clients include the top two restaurant chains that — especially during COVID-19 — need optimization and cost saving now more than ever.

Eigen Control

A refinery's distillation columns are expensive — their fuel use accounts for 50 of operating costs, says Dean Guma, co-founder and CEO of Houston-based Eigen Control.

Guma explains in his pitch how Eigen Control's technology can plug into existing sensors, model networks based on data, and employ the startup's artificial intelligent technology to reduce carbon emissions and save money on operating costs.

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