Digital upgrade

Growing Houston company makes pipeline data more accessible for natural gas trading

Jay Bhatty looked at how pipeline data reached traders and thought of a better way. Getty Images

In the energy capital of the world, Houston entrepreneur Jay Bhatty has established a rapidly growing technology hub for the natural gas industry.

Bhatty, a veteran of the natural-gas-trading business, founded Houston-based NatGasHub.com in October 2016 to streamline the traditionally complicated processes of moving natural gas from one point to another, and of unearthing data about natural gas pipelines. After only a little over two years in business, NatGasHub.com already is profitable — a rare feat in the startup world.

The NatGasHub.com platform, which runs on cloud-based software, launched in late 2017. The startup participated in the final accelerator class of the Houston Technology Center; the accelerator program shut down in early 2018.

Bhatty hatched the idea for NatGasHub.com while he was vice president of energy trading at JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s investment-banking arm, where for more than eight years he felt frustrated by the sluggish nature of natural-gas-trading activities.

First off, data about natural gas pipelines — such as whether a pipeline has capacity issues that could trigger a spike in prices — has, for years, been scattered across the web. Now, NatGasHub.com aggregates pipeline data from dozens upon dozens of websites.

Secondly, transferring natural gas from Point A to Point B has historically involved the tedious task of manually typing a "nomination" to enable the sale of natural gas. NatGasHub.com automates that job, freeing up workers' time so they can tackle meatier projects.

Bhatty compares the now-streamlined nomination process to buying an airline ticket on Expedia or booking a hotel room on Hotels.com. Like those travel websites, NatGasHub.com also serves as a one-stop shop, only in this case it offers a single dashboard for selling natural gas. Until NatGasHub.com came along, U.S. companies had relied on cadres of employees to enter natural gas nominations by hand into about 100 gas pipeline websites, and to track gas flow around the clock via spreadsheets and phone calls, Bhatty says.

In a nutshell, NatGasHub.com serves as both a data supplier and a logistics provider for the natural gas industry.

"Software automation has led to reduced costs for our clients," Bhatty says.

As of early December 2018, NatGasHub.com's customer roster featured 32 companies. Bhatty declines to identify the startup's clients, but he says they're well-known names in energy circles. Bhatty says energy producers, utilities, banks, and hedge funds are among the types of clients that benefit from NatGasHub.com.

"We're adding customers at a pretty fast rate," Bhatty says. "We're definitely in growth mode right now."

NatGasHub.com also is adding revenue at a pretty fast rate. From October 2017 to October 2018, revenue soared by 300 percent, while profit skyrocketed by 5,500 percent, according to Bhatty.

NatGasHub.com has accomplished all of that without taking one penny from outside investors, Bhatty says.

The energy industry has taken notice of NatGasHub.com's success. In August, Energy CIO Insights named it one of North America's 10 best energy technology startups for 2018.

Today, NatGasHub.com employs 18 people in Houston. Bhatty envisions the workforce growing to 30 to 35 employees by the end of 2019. Planned expansions into other segments of the energy industry, such as crude oil, and into the Canadian market could bump up that projection. Currently, NatGasHub.com operates only in the U.S.

Among the kinds of workers NatGasHub.com will be hiring over the next year are software programmers, database administrators, and sales representatives.

"It's hard to find any kind of qualified people in this economy with the unemployment rate so low," Bhatty says. "But the good part has been that there's a lot of qualified people who want to work in a startup environment — they want to leave the bigger companies and try something different."

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Building Houston

 
 

Houston-based Sportlo is shooting for a one-stop-shop platform for sporting programs in Houston. Cade Martin/Getty Images

In virtually no time at all, Sportlo has built its reputation on the simplest of foundations: community.

Thilo Borgmann and Sebastian Henke founded the local hub for sports parents earlier this year as a tool for sports moms and dads to stay connected with local leagues, sports clubs, coaches, and other parents with children involved in youth sports in the greater Houston area.

"We make it easy for sports parents to keep up with what's happening in their local youth sports community," says Henke. "With our platform, they can discover tryouts, camps, and sports clubs. They can also join and create groups, find private coaches for their kids, and more."

Borgmann and Henke are both former NCAA Division 1 soccer players who starred while they were student athletes at Houston Baptist University, then went on to become well-known private coaches.

The sports-loving duo saw a dearth of useful information for sports parents on popular social media sites, so they created the platform to give users a central place to communicate with each other, join and create groups, discover tryouts and camps for their children and find private coaches across the city to help their young athletes reach their goals.

"We were both involved in sports for most of our lives and then got into private coaching," says Henke. "Overall, what we saw was that there is an entire ecosystem of youth sports and it was very much unorganized."

Henke says sports clubs weren't able to reach potential members and their parents. He says they envisioned a one-stop-shop approach to the sports ecosystem.

"So, Sportlo is focused on sports parents, but within the community, we try to connect persons with coaches, with clubs, with colleges and so on," Henke says. "That's the vision behind it, so people will have a place to have a community, to get advice and tips and then they will have access to certain services and information."

The plan for Sportlo has already evolved in its short life. Originally the platform was going to support just private coaching.

"After we got more feedback from parents and first users, we started to adapt the product and rebuilt the product," Henke says. "Based on the surveys we collected online, parents wanted us to find ways how to connect them with each other, so that's why we started building it as a new page and that's how we realized where it needed to go."

The biggest lesson in listening to their users was understanding that any initial vision to help a community must also be focused on or include what's intrinsically valuable to the users.

"Too often, people get focused on their own ideas and forget that feedback offers surprising moments," says Henke. "Users gave us a whole new path, which kept us from going in the direction where users wouldn't want the product to go."

Feedback from users is key, Henke says, and he recommends startup founders prioritize user experience and constructive criticism.

"All of the ideas that we had in our head, at some point we had to stop and reevaluate them and then focus on the most important thing first and then go from there," he says.

Still, the launch of Sportlo was not without its own unique challenges. Its March go-live date coincided in point of time with the spread of COVID-19, which ultimately turned into a worldwide pandemic.

"We haven't had to make any major changes," says Henke. "But groups on the platform have focused on that topic because there are no sports happening at the moment and they are eager to get them back. But other than that, it's not something we've had to focus on. But for parents, they've focused on related topics, like how to keep their kids busy at home doing exercises, things like that, or when discussing when their kids' clubs are starting back up and how to keep kids safe."

In addition to forming groups and sharing a variety of sports-related topics, parents can post pictures and videos of their child's latest tournament or game, get access to useful articles shared by fellow parents and find recommended sports products for themselves or their child.

"The main reason we added that social component was because we wanted to have a user timeline so when they log in, all the users can see something sports related," says Borgmann. "There's so much noise, with politics and posts that are only about the coronavirus and all that, so we wanted to focus on sports and have parents be able to show how their kid is doing, see other kids in action and support each other with a focus on sports without seeing all the other distractions that might be on other platforms."

For now, Sportlo is focused solely on keeping Houston informed, but it will look to expand to other cities and states when the time comes.

"We are focused right now only on Houston, because we know Houston and Texas and we've experienced different levels of sports in this area, so we want to stay local," says Henke. "Then, the next step is we intend to take it to other cities within Texas. And at some point, our vision is to have the entire youth ecosystem of the United States."

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