Guest column

Houston expert: How to use the power of data and analytics to inform ​small businesses​

Startups and small businesses are accumulating data daily — here's how to use that to your advantage. Photo via Getty Images

Starting a business in a digital era brings entrepreneurs unprecedented advantages with technology and tools designed to optimize a business' operation. Whether it is a B2C or B2B, business owners can gather almost any data and metrics to improve their performance.

Being able to interpret data and making data-driven decisions becomes the key to the success of a business. It is not just a privilege for big companies anymore. Small businesses need it more than ever to make sustainable growth in the digital era.

The challenge? There are countless analytic tools and resources available that can generate data, but you need people who can extract insights from the massive amount of data.

Hire a data science team vs. outsourcing

Many companies go to campus recruitment and scout bright data science talent who also identify with their business value. Hiring people with data science and analytic skills is optimal, but for startups that are not ready to hire an in-house team or have a short-term question, outsourcing is a better option.

Data science consulting

Many online resources can help you extract data, but you are probably wondering: where do I begin? Which tool should I use? Which exact metric should I track?

The Rice University's Data Science Consulting Clinic provides free, open to the public assistance to help clients with all of those questions. It can be for various business sectors, such as research and product development, cost predictions, analytic tools, acquisition decisions, and talent management.

Here are some of the data science aspects we specialize in:

Research & Development - Obtain data to inform a decision on what products to develop.
Data analysis of who your customers are, what they are interested in, and what product to develop is crucial for B2C and B2B. A recent example of how Rice's Data Science Consulting Clinic is making a difference is a client needed assistance with market research to help inform a startup on what kind of product they should create next. The client was able to use the data resources suggested by the student and faculty consultants to gauge consumer sentiment and examples of successful products. With the data collected, the client was able to identify the features that drive customers to purchase similar products.

Cost Predictions - A case study for an energy company
Businesses need to make crucial decisions to achieve business intelligence. CEOs and managers need to base their decisions on predictions and analysis. Another client from the Data Science Consulting Clinic was interested in predicting cost and analysis of the factors contributing to the most expense for the coming year. The client's main problem was to transform the data into a statistical model that could predict the cost. With the prediction model suggested by the student consultants, the client was able to reduce the cost by controlling factors that were likely to cause higher costs.

Acquisition Decision Making for Business Professionals
Clients from the Rice MBA program were interested in investigating the causes and effects of private equity (PE) acquisition. Specifically, the clients wanted to analyze the difference in practice habits before and after acquisitions. As a result of the consultation, the clients were able to determine what factors influenced the PE's decision to acquire new equity.

Longer term projects

It would be helpful to have a dedicated data science team who can work over a semester or year long to find the solution.

Higher education has placed a prominent focus on data science programs, especially capstone projects that provide students with real-world experience. As a business owner, you might not even think about working with an esteemed university to help you with data challenges.

The Center for Transforming Data to Knowledge, informally known as the D2K Lab at Rice University, is founded based on the mission to seek real-world data challenges for passionate data science students. Student teams have worked on over 50 sponsored data science projects with partners from a wide variety of businesses, organizations, and community partners.

Advance data science and security

The perk of working with Rice University is that it provides the most advanced data science research tools and an interdisciplinary pool of student and faculty talent who are passionate about data science. Working with Rice University also guarantees a strong data security system and a comprehensive confidentiality agreement.

  • A cloud-based financial company sponsored a series of capstone projects on applying deep learning to reduce documentation errors and increase efficiency for businesses.
  • A fintech company sponsored multiple capstone projects on building statistical models to predict costs.
  • In the tech-med industry, the D2K Lab has partnered with the Medical Informational Corps, and researchers from Texas Children's Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine to build algorithms to predict cardiac events.

The future of data-driven decision making

The digital era has become the norm for all businesses (large or small), and there's no way to avoid the power of transforming data into actionable insights. So start gathering data even before you build out a business and incorporate the culture of data-driven decision making into every sector of your business.

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Shanna Jin is the communications and marketing specialist of the Data to Knowledge Lab at Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

Just after announcing an investment from United, NEXT Renewable Fuels Inc. scored a SPAC-based IPO. Photo via nextrenewables.com

It’s been a momentous month for Houston-based NEXT Renewable Fuels Inc.

On November 15, United Airlines Ventures announced an investment of up to $37.5 million in the next-generation, low-carbon fuel producing company.

Just a week later, the company revealed it’s going public through a SPAC merger with Industrial Tech Acquisitions II Inc. The deal, expected to close in the second quarter of 2023, assigns a $666 million equity value to NEXT. The publicly traded company will be named NXTCLEAN Fuels Inc.

NEXT, founded in 2016, produces low-carbon fuels from organic feedstock. The company plans to open a biofuel refinery in Port Westward, Oregon, that’s set to start production in 2026. The refinery could produce up to 50,000 barrels per day of sustainable aviation fuel, renewable diesel, and other renewable fuels.

“West Coast states are demanding a clean fuels conversion of the transportation and aviation industries with aggressive targets necessitating rapid increases in clean fuel supplies,” Christopher Efird, executive chairman and CEO of NEXT, says in a news release. “[The company] is advancing toward becoming one of the largest U.S.-based suppliers of clean fuels for these markets, and is investigating and pursuing potential vertical expansion into other clean fuels.”

The proposed public listing of NEXT’s stock on the Nasdaq market and United’s investment are poised to help NEXT reach its goal of becoming a leader in the clean fuel sector. United’s investment appears to be the first equity funding for NEXT.

“Right now, one of the biggest barriers to increasing supply and lowering costs of sustainable fuel is that we don’t have the infrastructure in place to transport it efficiently, but NEXT’s strategic location and assets solve that problem and provide a blueprint for future facilities that need to be built,” Michael Leskinen, president of United Airline Ventures, says in a news release.

United’s investment arm, launched in 2021, targets ventures that will complement the airline’s goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

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