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Houston OTC chairman sees an increasing effect of digital tech ahead of the 50th anniversary

Wafik Beydoun has served on the board of OTC for almost a decade. Courtesy of Beydoun

Wafik Beydoun has been on the board of the Houston Offshore Technology Conference — and has served as chairman for the past two years. As he prepares to pass the baton after this year's event, he's reflected on how much the conference has changed — namely due to new innovation and technologies.

"The rising tide of the digital revolution is lifting us all — not only OTC or the industry — and it's lifting us at an exponential rate," Beydoun tells InnovationMap. "Digital is moving now exponentially, whether we want it to or not, we're benefitting from it."

OTC takes place at NRG Park from May 6 to 9. Beydoun shares his observations and advice on how innovation and startups have effected change at the 50-year-old conference.

InnovationMap: What's going to differentiate this year's conference from previous years?

Wafik Beydoun: This year is very special because we are celebrating the 50th birthday of OTC. The first event was held in May of 1969. Last year it was the 50th event, so these two years are very unique. Last year, we had an opening ceremony, and we will have that again this year — that's different from OTCs in the past.

The most important change you'll see is the amount of papers on offshore renewables — it's something the board wanted to test and show that the industry is being more aware in this area. What I mean when I say offshore renewables is mostly offshore wind, but there's also energy from waves and gas hydrates — another form of gas trapped under ice in the subsea. These are things we have had in the past few years, but this year we have 14 sessions on marine renewables.

IM: What sort of new technologies (machine learning, IOT, AI, etc.) are you excited about seeing grow its presence at OTC?

WB: The way the technologies are impacting is it can go from drilling to monitoring remotely. More and more platforms in difficult conditions are reducing the number of people involved. There are already talks about unmanned platforms offshore. On safety in general, digital and AI immersion are able to help train people faster and without injuring themselves.

IM: How have startups been represented at the conference?

WB: We recognize that startups are adding a lot of oxygen into OTC. We need that for different reasons. For one, they bring in innovation in energy. Also with this kind of digital area, we have a lot of startups coming from Silicon Valley that want to innovate in the energy domain, and OTC can be that space where we can invite them to help us in our challenges.

IM: How has innovation and technology affected the conference specifically over the years?

WB: The conference is the place where you have all the specialists come and talk about their projects — it attracts all those who have an exciting story to tell, and it could be in innovation. And they bring their tool or technology into the exhibition. In 1969 at OTC, you could see the suit we'd put humans in to go under water. Now, you can see the robots that explore the seafloor.

IM: How has innovation and technology affected the conference specifically over the years?

WB: Register for the Rice Alliance Startup Roundup event. You have the opportunity to invest or meet face-to-face these 50 startups on the rise. The second thing you should attend is the Spotlight on the New Technology Award. Based on these technologies, you can have a feel of what's the leading edge of technology for the industry as presented by exhibitors. If an entrepreneur wants to see what's new and bringing money, attending this will show him or her what companies want that new technology.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Self-driving pizza delivery goes live in Houston

Domino's and Nuro announced their partnership in 2019 — and now the robots are hitting the roads. Photo courtesy of Nuro

After announcing their partnership to work on pizza deliveries via self-driving robots in 2019, Dominos and Nuro have officially rolled out their technology to one part of town.

Beginning this week, if you place a prepaid order from Domino's in Woodland Heights (3209 Houston Ave.), you might have the option to have one of Nuro's R2 robot come to your door. This vehicle is the first do deliver completely autonomously without occupants with a regulatory approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to a news release.

"We're excited to continue innovating the delivery experience for Domino's customers by testing autonomous delivery with Nuro in Houston," says Dennis Maloney, Domino's senior vice president and chief innovation officer, in the release. "There is still so much for our brand to learn about the autonomous delivery space. This program will allow us to better understand how customers respond to the deliveries, how they interact with the robot and how it affects store operations."

Orders placed at select dates and times will have the option to be delivered autonomously. Photo courtesy of Nuro

The Nuro deliveries will be available on select days and times, and users will be able to opt for the autonomous deliveries when they make their prepaid orders online. They will then receive a code via text message to use on the robot to open the hatch to retrieve their order.

"Nuro's mission is to better everyday life through robotics. Now, for the first time, we're launching real world, autonomous deliveries with R2 and Domino's," says Dave Ferguson, Nuro co-founder and president, in the release. "We're excited to introduce our autonomous delivery bots to a select set of Domino's customers in Houston. We can't wait to see what they think."

California-based Nuro has launched a few delivery pilots in Houston over the past few years, including the first Nuro pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched last summer.

From being located in a state open to rolling out new AV regulations to Houston's diversity — both in its inhabitants to its roadways, the Bayou City stood out to Nuro, says Sola Lawal, product operations manager at Nuro.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Lawal says on an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Steam the episode here.

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