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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

 
 

Juliana Garaizar is now the chief development and investment officer at Greentown Labs, as well as continuing to be head of the Houston incubator. Image courtesy of Greentown

The new year has brought some big news from Greentown Labs.

The Somerville, Massachusetts-based climatetech incubator with its second location at Greentown Houston named a new member to its C-suite, is seeking new Houston team members, and has officially finished its transition into a nonprofit.

Juliana Garaizar, who originally joined Greentown as launch director ahead of the Houston opening in 2021, has been promoted from vice president of innovation to chief development and investment officer.

"I'm refocusing on the Greentown Labs level in a development role, which means fundraising for both locations and potentially new ones," Garaizar tells InnovationMap. "My role is not only development, but also investment. That's something I'm very glad to be pursuing with my investment hat. Access to capital is key for all our members, and I'm going to be in charge of refining and upgrading our investment program."

While she will also maintain her role as head of the Houston incubator, Greentown Houston is also hiring a general manager position to oversee day-to-day and internal operations of the hub. Garaizar says this role will take some of the internal-facing responsibilities off of her plate.

"Now that we are more than 80 members, we need more internal coordination," she explains. "Considering that the goal for Greentown is to grow to more locations, there's going to be more coordination and, I'd say, more autonomy for the Houston campus."

The promotion follows a recent announcement that Emily Reichert, who served as CEO for the company for a decade, has stepped back to become CEO emeritus. Greentown is searching for its next leader and CFO Kevin Taylor is currently serving as interim CEO. Garaizar says the transition is representative of Greentown's future as it grows to more locations and a larger organization.

"Emily's transition was planned — but, of course, in stealth mode," Garaizar says, adding that Reichert is on the committee that's finding the new CEO. "She thinks scaling is a different animal from putting (Greentown) together, which she did really beautifully."

Garaizar says her new role will include overseeing Greentown's new nonprofit status. She tells InnovationMap that the organization originally was founded as a nonprofit, but converted to a for-profit in order to receive a loan at its first location. Now, with the mission focus Greentown has and the opportunities for grants and funding, it was time to convert back to a nonprofit, Garaizar says.

"When we started fundraising for Houston, everyone was asking why we weren't a nonprofit. That opened the discussion again," she says. "The past year we have been going through that process and we can finally say it has been completed.

"I think it's going to open the door to a lot more collaboration and potential grants," she adds.

Greentown is continuing to grow its team ahead of planned expansion. The organization hasn't yet announced its next location — Garaizar says the primary focus is filling the CEO position first. In Houston, the hub is also looking for an events manager to ensure the incubator is providing key programming for its members, as well as the Houston innovation community as a whole.

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