Hey, Nesh?

Houston startup creates the Alexa or Siri for oil and gas companies

Nesh's digital assistant technology wants to make industry information more easily accessible for energy professionals. Photo courtesy of Thomas Miller/Breitling Energy

When Sidd Gupta's friend lost his job and struggled to find a new position after the major oil downturn in 2014, Gupta noticed a systemic problem within the industry.

"A company rejected him because he was unfamiliar with the software they used in their operations," Gupta explains. "In our industry, companies will judge a potential hire's technical capabilities based on which software they know how to use rather than how good they would be at the job."

While software requirements for oilfield jobs are common, it made Gupta consider how we can make complex data and knowledge more accessible.

Gupta saw something else brewing in the energy industry that also piqued his interest.

"There was entrepreneurship in the oil and gas space and an interest in data science during the oil downturn. We saw startups created in Austin then Houston. There was an infectious entrepreneurial energy at that time," he says.

Last year, he took the entrepreneurial leap, quit his job and founded Nesh, a smart assistant like Alexa or Siri, but specifically for oil and gas companies. Nesh sources information from public data, vendor sources, technical papers, journal articles, news feeds and more to give answers to complex, technical questions related to energy.

Nesh explained
Because this tool is meant for businesses and not personal use, the software must be trustworthy, Gupta says, and he asked himself what he needs to do to make an engineer or a CEO of an energy company believe Nesh's response.

The answer: transparency. With Nesh, users can see how the smart assistant came to its answer. The software shows the data and workflow behind the answer as part of the user interface.

And Nesh learns from its users too. If an unfamiliar question is posed to Nesh, users can add new training phrases to teach Nesh what to do next time the question is posed.

"We created Nesh as something super-simple to use," Gupta says. "There's no learning curve, no technical knowledge required, you just need to speak plain English."

Gupta, who was raised in India, came to the United States to pursue his master's degree in petroleum engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. After working in oil and gas for over a decade, he started Nesh last year with co-founder and CTO Seth Anderson.

Gearing up for the future
This year, Nesh is in the process of fundraising, and, with the new funds, he plans to expand his workforce, which is currently five employees (including Gupta himself) based in Houston. Due to its size, Nesh currently can run only one pilot program at a time. With more employees, Nesh will be able to scale up its pilot programs and run multiple pilots in parallel. The larger user pool for these pilots will give Gupta and his team better insights into Nesh and allow them to continue refining the tool.

Right now, Gupta wants to commercialize in those operations where Nesh is already running pilot programs. He says he hopes for Nesh to have both internal and external growth, with the next surge of hiring and an expanded user pool for the product.

He plans to make Nesh available as a commercial product in fall of this year with a target market of small to mid-sized oil and gas companies.

Gupta says Nesh is different from anything in the market.

"With enterprise software in general, it can be very hard to get a demo version of software without talking to a sales representative—something that people dislike," he says. "I want to bring the B2C aspect of trying a software to the B2B world."

The business model goal for Nesh is for potential clients to be able to test the software themselves, Gupta says, and then contact the company if they're interested.

"I want transparent pricing to be visible on our website," he says. "I want potential customers to be able to experience the demo just by giving their information."

As Gupta sees it, one of the main advantages to being in Houston is the important support networks as well as the potential customer base. He's grateful to local organizations such as Station Houston and Capital Factory for connecting him with many resources.

"I'm seeing a lot of innovation here in Houston," Gupta says. "There's a lot of oil and gas companies, so as we begin looking for potential customers, that's a very important advantage of being here."

Houston-based Moleculin has three different oncology technologies currently in trials. Getty Images

Immunotherapy and personalized medicine get all the headlines lately, but in the fight against cancer, a natural compound created by bees could beat them in winning one battle.

In 2007, chairman and CEO Walter Klemp founded Moleculin Biotech Inc. as a private company. The former CPA had found success in life sciences with a company that sold devices for the treatment of acne. That introduction into the field of medical technology pushed him toward more profound issues than spotty skin.

"Coincidentally, the inventor of that technology had a brother who was a neuro-oncologist at MD Anderson," Klemp recalls.

The since-deceased Dr. Charles Conrad slowly lured Klemp into what he calls the "cancer ecosphere" of MD Anderson. In 2016, the company went public. And it looks like sooner rather than later, it could make major inroads against some of the toughest cancers to beat.

Klemp observed that while Houston has the world's largest medical center, "the tragic irony" is that other cities have far more biotech money ready to be invested.

"The Third Coast is really starved for capital," he says. "What drew me into this was I was one of the few entrepreneurs that lived here that knew the ropes in terms of tapping into East and West Coast capital structures and could make that connection for them."

The company has three core technologies currently being tested with some success, but the most promising is called WP1066, named for researcher Waldemar Priebe, "a rock star" in his native Poland, according to Klemp, who works at MD Anderson. Though Priebe came to the U.S. in the 1980s, he is still an adjunct professor at the University of Warsaw and conducts some of his trials in Poland because it's easier to get grant money there.

WP1066 uses propolis, a compound of beeswax, sap and saliva that bees produce to seal small areas of their hives, as a base. The molecular compound that Priebe discovered affects STAT3 (signal transducer and activator of transcription), a transcription factor that encourages tumor development. In short, the active compound in WP1066 both downregulates the STAT3, a long-time Holy Grail in the cancer research world, and directly attacking the tumor, but also quieting T Cells, which allows the body's own immune system to fight the cancer itself. Essentially, it works both as chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

WP1066 is demonstrating drug-like properties in trials at MD Anderson on glioblastoma, the aggressive brain cancer that recently took the life of the hospital's former president, John Mendelsohn, as well as John McCain and Beau Biden. It is also being tested against pancreatic cancer, one of the most virulent killers cancer doctors combat.

Priebe also created Annamycin, named for his oldest daughter, a first-line chemotherapy drug that fights Acute Myeloid Leukemia without the cardiotoxicity that can damage patients' hearts even as they beat their cancer.

WP1122 uses yet another mechanism to fight cancer.

"Most people don't know that morphine is essentially a modified version of heroin," Klemp explains.

The difference between the poppy-based drugs? Heroin can cross the blood-brain barrier. It's described as the dicetyl ester of morphine. WP1122 is the dicetyl ester of 2DG (2-Deoxyglucose), a glycolysis inhibitor, which works by overfilling tumor cells with fake glucose so that they can't consume the real glucose that makes them grow.

"The theory is, we could feed you so full of junk food that eventually you'd starve to death," Klemp elucidates. It can cross the blood-brain barrier and is metabolized slowly, meaning that it can be made into a drug in a way that 2DG cannot.

What's impressive about Moleculin is its diversity of drugs. Most companies have one drug that gets all or most of the attention. Moleculin has strong hopes for all three currently in trials.

"It's essentially multiple shots on the goal," says executive vice president and CFO Jonathan Foster.

Moleculin has 13 total employees, five of whom are based in Houston. An office in the Memorial Park area serves as a landing pad for employees and collaborators from around the world to get their work done when in Space City. The virtual office set-up works for the company because experts can stay in their home cities to get their work done. And that work is on its way to saving scores of lives.