Right on track

Houston company uses blockchain to follow the money

Houston-based Topl can track almost anything using its blockchain technology. Getty Images

When you pick out an engagement ring at the jewelry store, you don't usually know where that jewel came from. You don't know how much the miner was paid for finding it or where it was polished up. However, a Houston company has the blockchain technology that can track every step of the way for that diamond — and for anything else really.

"Everything is already being reported — the location of where it was found, its distributor — but all that information is getting lost," says Kim Raath, CFO of Topl.

Topl, a Houston-based startup that was created by a few Rice University graduate and doctorate students, uses blockchain to connect the dots. It can track anything from jewels to cacao as it goes from the farm to being turned into chocolate bars.

One of the ways Topl's technology is being used is to track money. If an investor gives to a fund, and the fund gives to a startup, there's nothing to connect that first investor to the startup's success or to measure its impact. This is a tool used by investors or donors alike. For instance, if you were to create a scholarship, you can use Topl to track what student received that money and if they are meeting the required metrics for success.

"You can see where your money goes, how it's being spent, and if there's impact being reported," Raath says.

Topl's mission originated out of the fact that 60 percent of the world lives on $10 a day — and it's in the poorest regions of the world where it's the hardest to get funding for a new business. Raath says that in her experience backpacking and volunteering all around the world she learned that banks are too overwhelmed to evaluate these potential businesses. Topl has created a technology where banks can easily generate a report on these entrepreneurs that evaluates and makes a loan or investment recommendation on the business.

The company's capabilities have expanded to include different metrics and industries. The technology is able to be so flexible because it keeps the blockchain simple. Topl's team works with companies wanting to use its services, but doesn't dictate or have a say in the matter of how or why it's used. Topl provides the tools, and companies can take them and scale or customize them.

Raath says that's going to slightly change in 2019. The company, which plans to raise seed funding this year, will expand its team and services to include an app factory. Through that, companies can have Topl customize its software for different uses.

"If we build this network on the three pillars of the triple bottom line — economic, environmental, and social pieces — and if the network can move all three of those types of value, then the potential applications become infinite."

Raath says Topl has a lot of different uses, especially within impact investment, but there's also value in the marketplace for both consumers and retailers — like with diamonds.

"We are a generation that wants a story," she says. "We want an origin, and don't want to be fooled. And, because you might be able to reduce the cost by having this transparency, you might be able to bring down the cost on both sides."

Syzygy Plasmonics, which is creating a cleaner energy source that runs on hydrogen, closed a $5.8 million round. Photo via plasmonics.tech

A Houston technology company is doing something that, for many decades, wasn't thought to be possible. Syzygy Plasmonics is creating a hydrogen fuel cell technology that produces a cheaper source of energy that releases fewer carbon emissions.

The hydrogen-fueled technology originated out of research done over two decades by two Rice University professors, Naomi Halas and Peter Nordlander.

"There are rules in chemical engineering, and you can't break them, but we follow them in a different way," CEO Trevor Best tells InnovationMap. "What we're doing is fundamentally different. We're using light instead of heat to drive chemical reactions."

Syzygy's technology is structured more like a battery than that of a combustion engine. Inside the technology, there are cells, lights, and mirrors making as bright as possible, which then spurs a reaction that creates energy. It has the potential to be cheaper — it's made with cheaper materials — and, of course, cleaner than traditional fueling technology with fewer carbon emissions released.

This new photocatalytic chemical reactor has the potential to shake up the industrial gas, chemical, and energy industries — something that hasn't gone unnoticed by investors. Syzygy just closed a $5.8 million Series A round led by MIT's The Engine and Houston-based The GOOSE Society of Texas. Evok Innovations, a previous investor in the company, and angel investors from the Creative Destruction Lab also contributed to the round.

The funds will allow for Syzygy to continue to develop its technology and grow its team. Best tells InnovationMap that he expects to launch a full-size pilot by the end of 2020 and is already in talks with potential clients who are interested in the technology for industrial purposes.

"We're starting to solidify relationships and get customers ready," Best says.

Earlier this year, the company also received funding from the Department of Energy and from the National Science Foundation SBIR Program. The DOE tasked Syzygy with creating a reactor that transforms ammonia into hydrogen for fueling purposes. For the SBIR Program, the company is creating a reactor that processes carbon dioxide.