Artificial intelligence is changing Houston — one industry at a time. Photo via Getty Images

Artificial intelligence is the buzzword of the decade. From grocery shopping assistance to personal therapy apps, AI has sunk its teeth into every single industry. Houston is no exception to the AI boom. Enterprise-level companies and startups are already flocking to H-town to make their mark in AI and machine learning.

Since the world is generating more data every minute — 1,736 terabytes to be exact — Houston-based companies are already thinking ahead about how to make sense of all of that information in real-time. That's where AI comes in. By 2021, 80 percent of emerging technologies will have AI foundations — Houston is already ninth on the list of AI-ready cities in the world.

AI and machine learning can process large amounts of data quickly and use that data to inform decisions much like a human would. Here are three ways Houston-based companies are using these emerging technologies to revolutionize the city's future.

Health care

The health care industry is primed for AI's personalization capabilities. Each patient that doctors and nurses encounter has different symptoms, health backgrounds, and prescriptions they have to remember. Managing that amount of information can be dangerous if done incorrectly. With AI, diseases are diagnosed quicker, medications are administered more accurately, and nurses have help monitoring patients.

Decisio Health Inc., a Houston-based health tech startup has already made its mark in the healthcare industry with its AI software helping to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. Their software, in collaboration with GE Healthcare Inc, allows health care providers to remotely monitor patients. By looking at data from ventilators, patient monitoring systems, health records, and other data sources, doctors can make better decisions about patients from a safe distance.

Climate change

Climate change isn't solved overnight. It's an issue that covers water salinity, deforestation, and even declining bee populations. With a problem as large as climate change, huge amounts of data are collected and need to be analyzed. AI can interpret all of that information, show possible future outcomes, track current weather patterns, and find solutions to environmental destruction.

One Houston-based company in the energy tech industry, Enovate Upstream, has created a new AI platform that will help digitize the oil and gas sector. Their AI-powered platform looks at data from digital drilling, digital completions, and digital production, to give oil companies real-time production forecasting. Their work will hopefully make their oil production more efficient and reduce their carbon emission output. Since oil drilling and fracking are a major cause for concern around climate change, their work will make a difference in slowing climate change and make their industry as a whole more climate-conscious.

Energy

Energy is an industry rich with data opportunities—and as Houston's energy sector grows, AI has become a core part of their work. Houston's large influence in the energy sector has primed it for AI integration from startups like Adapt2 Solutions Inc. By using AI and machine learning in their software, they hope to help energy companies make strategic predictions on how to serve energy to the public efficiently. Their work has become especially important in the wake of COVID-19 and the resulting changing energy needs.

Another Houston-based company using AI to influence the energy industry is the retail energy startup Evolve Energy. Their AI and machine learning system help customers find better prices on fluctuating renewable resource—helping them save money on electricity and reducing emissions. The positive feedback from the public on their AI model has shown how energy companies are using emerging technologies like AI in a positive way in their communities.

The bottom line

Houston is more primed than most cities to integrate AI and machine learning into every industry. While there are valid concerns as to how much we should lean on technology for necessary daily tasks, it's clear that AI isn't going anywhere. And it's clear that Houston is currently taking the right steps to continue its lead in this emerging AI market.

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Natasha Ramirez is a Utah-based tech writer.

James Yockey is a co-founder of Landdox, which recently integrated with ThoughtTrace. Courtesy of Landdox

These two Houston software companies are making contracts less cumbersome for oil and gas companies

Team work

The biggest asset of most oil and gas companies is their leasehold: the contracts or deeds that give the company the right to either drill wells and produce oil and gas on someone else's land, or give them title to that land outright. A typical oil and gas company is involved in thousands of these uniquely negotiated leases, and the software to keep these documents organized hasn't been updated in more than a decade, says James Yockey, founder of Houston-based Landdox.

Landdox does just that: provides an organizational framework for companies' contracts and leaseholds. The company recently entered into an integration with Houston-based ThoughtTrace, an artificial intelligence program that can scan and pull out key words and provisions from cumbersome, complicated contracts and leaseholds.

With this integration, companies can use ThoughtTrace to easily identify key provisions of their contracts, and then sync up those provisions with their Landdox account. From there, Landdox will organize those provisions into easy-to-use tools like calendars, reminders and more.

The framework behind the integration
The concept behind Landdox isn't entirely new — there are other software platforms built to organize oil and gas company's assets — but it's the first company in this space that's completely cloud-based, Yockey says.

"Within these oil and gas leases and other contracts are really sticky provisions … if you don't understand them, and you're not managing them, it can cause you to forfeit a huge part of your asset base," Yockey says. "It can be a seven-, eight-, or nine-digit loss."

These contracts and leases can be as long as 70 or 80 pages, Yockey says, and have tricky provisions buried in them. Before the integration with ThoughtTrace, oil and gas companies would still have to manually pour over these contracts and identify key provisions that could then be sent over to Landdox, which would organize the data and documents in an easy-to-use platform. The ThoughtTrace integration removes a time-consuming aspect of the process for oil and gas companies.

"[ThoughtTrace] identifies the most needle moving provisions and obligations and terms that get embedded in these contracts by mineral owners," Yockey says. "It's a real source of leverage for the oil and gas companies. You can feed ThoughtTrace the PDF of the lease and their software will show you were these provisions are buried."

The origin story
Landdox was founded in 2015, and is backed by a small group of angel investors. Yockey says the investors provided a "little backing," and added that Landdox is a "very capital-efficient" software company.

Landdox and ThoughtTrace connected in 2017, when the companies were working with a large, private oil and gas company in Austin. The Austin-based oil and gas company opted to use Landdox and ThoughtTrace in parallel, which inspired the two companies to develop an integrated prototype.

"We built a prototype, but it was clear that there was a bigger opportunity to make this even easier," Yockey says. "To quote the CEO of ThoughtTrace, he called [the integration] an 'easy button.'"

The future of ERP software
Landdox's average customer is a private equity-backed E&P or mineral fund, Yockey says, thought the company also works with closely held, family-owned companies. Recently, though, Landdox has been adding a new kind of company to its client base.

"What's interesting is we're starting to add a new customer persona," Yockey says. "The bigger companies – the publicly traded oil and gas companies –have all kinds of different ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) software running their business, but leave a lot to be desired in terms of what their team really needs."

At a recent North American Prospect Expo summit, Yockey says that half a dozen large capitalization oil and gas producers invited Landdox to their offices, to discuss potentially supplementing the company's ERP software.

"Instead of trying to be all things to all people, we stay in our lane, but find cool ways to connect with other software (companies)," Yockey says.

Over half of Houston business leaders say their company has already enabled AI, blockchain, and extended reality technology. Getty Images

Business leaders in Houston have a surprisingly high tech adoption rate

Early bird gets the worm

When it comes to enabling new technologies to advance business practices, Houston business leaders are ahead of the curve. According to a new study, the majority of the companies surveyed are already using artificial intelligence, blockchain, and extended reality today.

The global study, Technology Vision 2019, was conducted by Accenture and included surveys from 6,600 business and IT executives around the world, including 100 in Houston. Dallas was the only other Texas market surveyed, along with nine other major United States metros — Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C.

Of the 100 respondents, 91 said that innovation efforts have accelerated within their organization over the past three years because of new technology, and 80 said that while they feel their employees are digitally savvy, they are "waiting" for the company's technology to catch up. However, when it comes to the need to reskill employees due to emerging tech in the workplace, 47 percent says that need will happen within the next two years.

The survey also focused on three distinct technologies — AI, blockchain, and extended reality, which includes augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality. XR responses indicate that 66 percent of business leaders have already used some sort of version of XR either in one or more of their business units (37 percent) or are piloting the technology (29 percent).

The numbers for adoption for AI is similar, with 65 percent of leaders saying they have introduced AI tech in the workplace already —nearly 2 in 5 have already adopted somewhere within the company, while over 1 in 4 say their company has an AI pilot program.

Blockchain, according to the study, falls further down the spectrum in Houston companies. Only 15 percent of the companies have a pilot program, but 42 percent have blockchain technology already in use in one or more business units — for a total of 57 percent adoption rate.

With 5G on the horizon, almost all respondents — 79 percent — say the technology is going to revolutionize their industry in terms of how they provide products or services to their clients. Almost half said that impact will happen and jobs will be altered within the next three years.

Brian Richards, managing director at Accenture, oversees the company's Houston Innovation Hub. The hub welcomes in business leaders who are utilizing Accenture's services to ideate and then implicate innovative technologies. At a recent panel in the Accenture office, Richards spoke to emerging tech in Houston and said there's been no shortage of leaders wanting to move the needle on new tech.

"I've never seen [corporations] more motivated than they are right now to be able to think differently on how they are able to engage Houston," he said.

This entrepreneur says the future of driving is using smart tech on a subscription-based business model. Pexels

This company’s machine learning programs are making driving in Houston safer — and cheaper

Vroom, Vroom

Two thousand years ago, in ancient Rome, the primary mode of transportation was an intelligent one: the horse. The Latin word "currus" was the inspiration for Alex Colosivschi when it came to naming his business, Currux.

"We chose this name because we believe in a future where cars and actually most modes of transportation will be intelligent, like horses," he explains. "And so it's a great name considering our focus on the future of mobility and machine learning."

The change from "s" to "x" at the end of the word allowed Colosivschi to trademark the name.

The entrepreneur, whose career was focused on energy finance until starting the new company in 2017, came up with the idea for Currux while walking in his Rice Village neighborhood. He realized that despite the green surroundings, he was choked by the smell of engine exhaust.

"I started with thinking about the future of energy and how the industry will adapt to a world of electric, autonomous and shared mobility, and the need to reduce CO2 emissions," he says.

His goal is an ambitious one: With Currux, Colosivschi hopes to not only reduce the cost and carbon footprint of owning a car, but also the accident rates. How? Currux itself is a long-term automobile subscription service. Colosivschi says to think of it as a long-term rental or a more flexible version of a lease. The car is delivered through an app and there is no commitment at the end of the subscription. Regular maintenance is included and the company is on the way to providing insurance, too.

It's also possible to share a car or fleet of cars with friends, assuring that your vehicle is only touched by people you know. This will be even more true when autonomous driving technology allows the car to go from subscriber to subscriber without a human in between.

"With the advent of digital shopping, we believe subscriptions will become the primary way that people get a car," Colosivschi predicts.

This will save clients money, but the ultimate goal is much bigger. Colosivschi wants to reduce air pollution. This will happen naturally with having fewer, mostly electric, cars on the road thanks to vehicle sharing, but another technology will also aid in the fight.

Currux Vision, which closely followed Currux in development, is a smartphone-based driver assistance program. It will help lower fuel consumption and reduce accident rates by "proactively coaching the driver on best driving practices," says Colosivschi.

"Just by slowing down and driving in a less aggressive manner, we can significantly reduce fuel consumption and more importantly prevent accidents from happening."

If you've driven or ridden in a Tesla, you've seen similar technology in action. Computer vision creates accident warnings and tracks how you handle your vehicle on the road. Yep, it's AI for your phone, which also incorporates GPS tracking, navigation and driver profile scoring.

"This set of functionalities normally require three or four different types of hardware and software systems and many thousands of dollars in expense per each car," explains Colosivschi.

But Currux Vision only requires that the user install the app, have a car-mounted phone holder with an unobstructed view of the road, and pay $4.99 each month for the technology.

Both these apps were created by Currux's own technical team, based mostly in Ukraine. As the company expands, Colosivschi has plans to significantly grow the Galleria-area Houston team, which is currently just a few employees strong.

But Colosivschi is ready for big growth. Currently, Currux is available only in Houston, but other U.S. cities will follow soon. As an energy industry lifer, the entrepreneur is also primed for significant changes not only to how we drive, but how we consume energy.

"The age of the internal combustion engine and automobile ushered in the age of oil. The age of lithium ion batteries, machine learning and digitization of transaction mediums similarly will have profound effects for both transportation and energy sectors," he predicts. He's confident that Currux can grow with those sea changes. And he's ready to help transform the world, starting with Houston.

These energy startup leaders are the reason Houston will keep its "energy capital of the world" title. Courtesy images

3 Houston energy innovators to know this week

Who's Who

Houston's known as the energy capital of the world, but it won't stay that way if the city as a whole doesn't work toward innovation. These three professionals started their own companies to improve efficiency and promote ingenuity in their fields. From drones and AI to quicker pipeline data access, this week's three innovators to know are the future of the energy industry.

Lori-Lee Emshey, co-founder of Future Sight AR

Courtesy of Future Sight AR

Growing up the daughter of an oil and gas professional and traveling the world, Lori-Lee Emshey studied journalism and didn't necessarily intend to go into the family business, so to speak. However, that's where she ended up. She was surrounded by innovation and technology in New York working at The Daily Beast, but when she got her first job on an energy construction site, she returned to the antiquated process of pen and paper. The wheels started turning for her.

Future Sight AR is a company that is working on smart device technology for large oil and gas pants, where workers can see — in real time — how to fix a problem or log an issue. The company has done a proof of concept and is looking to do three pilot program as well as a round of funding in early 2019.

Jay Bhatty, CEO and founder of NatGasHub.com

Courtesy of Jay Bhatty

As vice president of energy trading at JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s investment-banking arm, Jay Bhatty felt frustrated by the sluggish nature of natural-gas-trading activities, and he decided to something about it. He 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.

Dyan Gibbens, founder and CEO of Trumbull Unmanned

Courtesy of Alice

Dyan Gibbens maybe have thought her true purpose was serving in the military, but it's lately it's leading her Houston-based drone technology company, Trumbull Unmanned, to great success. While in her doctorate program, the Air Force veteran started the idea using unmanned vehicles to patrol refineries and plants in the energy and utilities sector. The company took flight — her first clients were Chevron and ExxonMobil.

Gibbens juggles motherhood and engineering — among other responsibilities — as her company grows and technology evolves.


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Photos: Here's a sneak peek at The Ion Houston's construction progress

eye on the ion

The Ion Houston is expected to open its doors this year, and the building's exterior is close to completion. Now, the construction team is focusing on interiors and then tenant build outs.

The 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub owned and managed by Rice Management Co. is slated to be a convening building for startups, corporations, academic partners, investors, and more. The building is organized as follows:

  • The underground Lower Level will act as academic flex space with a few classrooms and open-concept desks for The Ion's accelerators, including: The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, DivInc, the Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator, and the Aerospace Innovation Hub and Accelerator. There will also be an event space and The Ion's own programming.
  • On the first, street-level floor, The Ion's restaurant tenants will reside with access from both the greenspace as well as into the building. The Ion's first three restaurant tenants include: Late August, Common Bond, and STUFF'd Wings.
  • Additionally, the first floor will be home to a venture studio and the prototyping lab. There is additional space available for other tenants.
  • On the second floor, there will be 58,000 square feet of coworking space managed by Common Desk. Note: For floors 2 and up of the Ion, tenants will have access cards that allow them entrance. The first and lower floors will not require access cards.
  • The third floor of the building will house eight to 10 tenants each with 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space. Chevron was announced as the first tenant and will reside on this floor.
  • On the fourth and fifth floors, The Ion will house one to two larger tenants on each level. These levels of the building were added on to the existing structure. The fourth floor features two balconies that tenants will have access to. Microsoft is signed on to have its space on half of the fifth floor.
The Ion is still planning on an open date in late spring or summer. For leasing information, click here. Scroll through the slideshow of construction images and renderings to see the progress of the building.

Exterior nears completion

Photo by Natalie Harms

The building's exterior is almost complete and kept much of the original building's facade. The new materials brought in match the existing color scheme.

Texas winery taps Houston tech company for innovative AR experience

cheers

The Lone Star State is home to a vibrant and innovative wine scene, but, just like most hospitality businesses, winemakers missed the opportunity to engage with their patrons amid the pandemic. With a new idea of how to engage its customers, Messina Hof, an award-winning Texas winery, rolled out a new tech-optimized, at-home experience.

The winery partnered with VISION, a Houston-based production group, to create an augmented reality app. Combining the efforts of Messina Hof's in-house label design team and the animation capabilities of VISION, the app took four months to design.

"It was a labor of love for both parties to be able to experiment with this; it was uncharted territory," says Karen Bonarrigo, owner and chief administrative officer of Messina Hof.

The three wines released — Emblaze (Sweet Red), Vitality (Dry White), and Abounding (Dry Red) — each tells a story through the AR experience.

"We wanted to try not only and push the technology as far as we can push it, but also try to really incorporate some heavy storytelling," says Dan Pratt, VISION Creative Director.

The idea to incorporate technology felt like a natural one to Bonariggo.

"The earth, water, and sunshine all go into developing what the profile is for each wine," explains Bonarrigo.

Each of the three wines have scannable labels that bring up a VR experience for app users. Photo courtesy of Messina Hof

VISION, who worked alongside Messina Hof to develop the project, blended the winery's rich family ties with the Old World history of winemaking.

When customers download the app and hold their camera over the label, a trailing vine emerges onto the screen and wraps around the bottle. As vines grow around each bottle, the three each visually signify a different natural element of winemaking — earth, water and the sun. As a rustic sign emerges, it prompts users to then click for recipe pairing recommendations.

Rather than a single-use experience, Messina Hof and VISION wanted to create an app that users could both engage with and learn from. The AR app allows users to view recipes and browse wines in one place.

"We knew we wanted the app to be functional for people to be able to interact with both when they're doing the AR experience, but then also to be able to continue to come back to it later," shares Bonarrigo. While AR wine labels have emerged in some California vineyards, she says, "it's definitely uncharted territory for the Texas industry."

Overseeing the food and wine pairing at Messina Hof is one of Bonarrigo's passions, so it was a natural choice to include recipes in the app. Messina Hof offers a concept called Vineyard Cuisine, coined from the Bonarrigo family cookbook, and incorporates wine in every meal at the vineyard.

"The idea of tying [the wine] to a recipe gave us the opportunity to be able to share new ways [our customers] could use wines in their everyday cooking," she explains.

She hopes the app's recipe feature will help families connect together.

"So often we get used to sitting down at the table, eating really quickly, and then moving on to the next thing, but there's so much connection that can happen with each other when we can slow down a little bit and have a conversation," she continues.

To Pratt, AR was the perfect way to emphasize and expand on the shared experience of wine.

"We wanted this to be an extension of that experience for people. You know, based on the love of wine and laughter with friends," he says.

For those who can't currently gather in a room together, Bonarrigo has hopes that Messina Hof can bring people together from afar.

"I think now more than ever the ability for our regular customers, even within Texas, to then share those wines with family members or friends that are outside the state seems more intuitive," she explains.

"We are so used to being creatures of habit in sharing our wine face-to-face with people that when we had the unexpected opportunity to not do that, we realized that we still have ways to be able to connect with customers through technology," says Bonarrigo.

She finds the "ease of access of being able to connect with them through the online web store" has kept Messina Hof in touch with customers throughout the pandemic, as well as digital happy hours and tasting events.

Messina Hof Harvest Green Winery & Kitchen, the newest location, opened in February, becoming the Greater Houston-area's largest winery. The space features an expansive tasting room and 83-foot wine bar, full-service restaurant, covered patio, two private tasting rooms, a wine production, barrel room, and wine warehouse.

"We knew that when we launched that location that we wanted to be able to have a series of wines at that location that was special, but also out of the box," says Bonarrigo.

Bonarrigo and her husband Paul have ushered in the expansion of Messina Hof over the last nine years. The family business began in 1977 when Paul's parents, Paul Vincent and Merrill, started an experimental vineyard. Messina Hof has locations in Bryan, Grapevine, Fredericksburg, and Richmond.

"This is our largest winery expansion endeavor that we've done," she says. "We wanted the wines to be extra special."

Similar to Messina Hof, companies across industries are seeking to explore interactive technologies to reach their customer base. "A number of our clients, and also new clients that we may not have been able to reach before, have certainly reached out to us to figure out new ways to reach an audience," shares Pratt.

Winemaking may be an Old World skill, but Messina Hof is excited to bring Texas wine into the future.

"So much of winemaking is science, and so much of it is art. There's always this push and pull as to which is more of a majority in the end product," explains Bonarrigo, who notes that Messina Hof has been using technology to innovate and optimize the growing process. The new AR app is a push toward bringing the experience her family loves into the homes of customers.

"This definitely gives a new talking point to wine," she says.