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."

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Building Houston

 
 

AvidXchange executives explain why a crisis like the pandemic can provide opportunities for growth or realignment. Photo via Getty Images

From esports to telemedicine, some technologies are having a major moment during the COVID-19 crisis. As many businesses are operating remotely with work-from-home policies in place indefinitely, payments automation is another technology that's seen an opportunity amid the pandemic.

AvidXchange, which has invoice and payment processes automation software for mid-market businesses, is one of the companies in this payment automation space that's seen growth in spite of the economic downturn caused by the virus. The Charlotte, North Carolina-based company was founded in 2000 and went on to acquire Houston-founded Strongroom Solutions Inc. in 2015.

Since the acquisition, AvidXchange has quadrupled its presence in Houston and does a good deal of business locally. Equipping companies with tools for remote work is crucial — now and especially in light of Houston's propensity for challenges. Tyler Gill, vice president of sales for AvidXchange based in the Houston office and former CEO of Strongroom, joined Houston Exponential on a virtual panel to discuss this topic.

"We've had a history of disasters in Houston. Any time we can help businesses move to a more cloud-based infrastructure is going to be better," Gill says on the livestream. "I think working from home is maybe the new normal for a lot of employees — so how do we enable this?"

Gill and his colleague, Chris Elmore, senior sales performance director at AvidXchange, joined Joey Sanchez of HX for the talk about the acquisition, the pandemic, and growth for the company. If you missed it or don't have time to stream the whole conversation, here are some impactful moments of the chat.

“Economic downturns have a tendency to put a very bright light on a feature set or a product or a service that’s underperforming."

— Elmore says on how the pandemic affects innovation and startups. "My hope is that entrepreneurs will see this as a real time to get focused on their business — what's working well and what's not working well — and my hope is that they'll say, 'I need to fix that,' not 'I wish this was better,'" he says.

“For a young entrepreneur looking to build a business, make sure you’re looking for the people who are germane to your business.”

— Gill says about starting his business in Houston. At first, he was trying to find investors in oil and gas, but he found more success working with companies with a background in finance technology. "Houston has a history and density in fintech — I just had to find it."

“The fact that Strongroom owned the automated payment process in HOA that made them so attractive to AvidXchange because we didn’t.”

— Elmore says on the 2015 acquisition. He explains that AvidXchange had set up a presence in multifamily and commercial real estate, while Strongroom had a hold on homeowner's association, or HOA, business. The two companies competed for a while, and if Strongroom hadn't had their HOA specialty that made the company ideal for acquisition, Elmore says the two companies would still be competing today.

“When Strongroom was added to AvidXchange, our culture improved. By the way, we went from 40 employees to 1,000 within 14 months, and Strongroom was right at the beginning of that.”

— Elmore says on growth following the acquisition. The company now has 1,500 employees across seven offices and just closed a $128 million round of fundraising in April.

“Customers don’t care how big you get or how much money you raise from investors. They care about if your service is still doing the things they need to operate their business.”

— Gill says, reminding entrepreneurs to always prioritize and be focused on the client experience — through mergers or acquisitions, fundraising rounds, growth, etc.

“When you replace human interaction with technology, what you have to do, is to now move that person on to something more impactful and more important for the business. I don’t like tech for tech’s sake.”

— Elmore says on the importance of automation. "When you automate something, the output of automation is time," he adds.

“Houston couldn’t be a better place to build a business — I found great investors and employees here. It’s a city that’s used to risk. But it’s got to be you, the entrepreneur, that’s got something festering — that’s how you know it’s a great idea.”

— Gill says on inspiring future innovators. "What kept me motivated was I wanted to win. I felt like we had a great product, and we had a big market to serve. … I wanted to build something lasting and build a great team."

“We continue to be a great Houston story — some of my angel investors in Houston are still benefiting."

— Gill says on AvidXchange's presence in Houston. He adds that he's proud of how his former Strongroom team members have risen through the ranks of the company following the acquisition and that he sees the company, which is still privately held, moving toward IPO.

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