Rice Business Professor Amit Pazgal found that in certain situations, gray markets can actually help manufacturers and retailers. Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

A camera store in Taiwan buys Nikon cameras from an electronics shop in the Philippines, where photo equipment is cheaper. Then the store sells them to consumers in Taiwan at a lower price. The camera comes without a warranty and instructions are in Filipino – the buyers in Taiwan are happy to have a real Nikon for a lower cost.

The sellers and customers are operating in the so-called gray market – where genuine products are sold through unauthorized channels. Gray marketers buy goods in markets with lower prices, then ship them to a market with higher prices, where they will likely sell for a profit. Though the products are identical, consumers typically see gray market goods as inferior since they often lack benefits like after-sale services or warranty coverage.

For years, gray markets have posed a significant threat to both manufacturers and retailers, depriving both of customers and profits. It's estimated that around $7 billion to $10 billion in goods enter the U.S. market through gray market channels every year. The IT industry, for one, loses approximately $5 billion a year due to gray market activities.

No specific laws in the U.S. ban this practice outright, however. As a result, in recent years, retailers are increasingly taking advantage of potentially cheaper prices abroad, personally importing or using third parties to buy original goods not meant for direct sale in the United States – and then selling them here for less. Alibaba, China's most extensive online shopping site, offers its hundreds of millions of shoppers a large array of gray market goods to peruse.

Manufacturers usually respond to gray markets with knee-jerk hostility, urging customers to avoid gray market goods and even filing lawsuits against gray market peddlers. Nikon, for example, includes a website section to educate consumers on how to identify gray market products, to shun the gray market.

But is gray market commerce always destructive? Rice Business Professor Amit Pazgal joined then-Rice Business Ph.D. student Xueying Liu (now an assistant professor at Nankai University) to explore scenarios in which gray markets could be good for both manufacturers and retailers. Testing the theory in recent research, Pazgal and Liu found that there are indeed situations in which both manufacturers and retailers can profit thanks to gray markets, while the associated product also improves in quality.

To reach these conclusions, the researchers started by recruiting 118 participants between the ages of 25 and 45 to complete a gray market product survey. They found the majority had no problem buying gray market goods. Only 3 percent of consumers wouldn't consider buying cosmetics from a gray marketer, while 6 to 7 percent wouldn't buy electronics. Despite this, more than 90 percent of participants who were willing to buy required a price discount of 20 to 30 percent, showing the goods were seen as slightly inferior.

The researchers then tested responses to a model of a manufacturer selling a single product to two markets – or countries – that differed in size and in customer willingness to pay for the product. Consumers in one market would pay more, on average, for quality. For example, the Nikon D500 camera is sold for a 7.5 percent premium in Taiwan versus Thailand and a 10 percent price premium in Taiwan versus the Philippines.

Pazgal and Liu found that when the manufacturer sells their product directly to consumers in both markets when there is also a gray market, both the manufacturer's profit and product quality decrease. But when the same manufacturer sells their product indirectly to a retailer in at least one of these markets, both the manufacturer's and the retailer's profits can increase. So can the product's quality.

This occurs for several reasons. First, gray marketers increase total demand and profit for the retailer in the lower-priced market, or in the market where the gray marketer buys their goods. The manufacturer can set a higher wholesale price for the better quality product in a market where consumers pay more, and increase sales in both markets as consumers compare the regular, high-quality product to the gray market one. In fact, by offering a lower-priced, lower quality (that is, gray market) alternative to its own high-quality product, the manufacturer can better segment consumers in the higher-priced market.

Finally, the retailer in the higher-priced market becomes more profitable even though they lose some customers to the gray market. This is because increased product quality and price more than make up for lost sales. Researchers found that the results hold regardless of whether the gray marketer buys from the manufacturer or a retailer.

The bottom line: in certain situations, gray markets can improve profitability for both manufacturers and retailers (and, of course, the gray marketers). Counterintuitive though it is, manufacturers that sell through retailers shouldn't automatically see gray markets as an obstacle to their profits, rushing to demand that governments and courts shut them down. Instead, in some cases, companies could do well to embrace these gray markets, because they lead to overall improved profits.

Manufacturers can use this information to their advantage, Pazgal noted. Nikon, for example, could introduce a higher quality camera to the market, allowing it to set even higher wholesale prices and increase sales in both markets, far exceeding the cost of the higher quality product.

For consumers, meanwhile, gray markets are always beneficial because of lower prices. If companies heed Pazgal's findings, however, customers could also benefit from more innovative and higher quality cameras and other merchandise, as manufacturers hurry to create better products to bump up their profits.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Amit Pazgal, the Friedkin Professor of Management – Marketing at the Jones Graduate School of Business.

Turns out, timing is everything when launching a new tech product, this reacher found for Rice Business Wisdom. rawpixel.com /Pexels

Rice University researcher discovers what makes a tech product stand out in a crowd

Houston Voices

From smart phones to video games to virtual reality toys, new products roll forward as relentlessly as the tides. So what, and how, should you tell consumers about your product to avoid being swept away in a sea of similar wares?

To answer this question, Rice Business professor Amit Pazgal and colleague Yuanfang Lin of Conestoga College dove into the particulars of how companies differentiate their products by informing consumers about a new product's quality.

The rush of new products, they note, is particularly intense in technology, where innovations are constant — which means consumers constantly need information about them. Traditionally, tech companies make the case for their products using advertising, free sample, product trials and splashy product demonstrations. (See your local Apple Store).

But how does a consumer's wish for information interact with their ultimate buying decision?

Timing, Pazgal and Lin found, plays a powerful role in the type of information that best influences consumers. Suppose, for example, Firm 1 offers a new product, say a smartphone with innovative features. This makes Firm 1 a pioneer. For a certain golden period, Firm 1 might hold a monopoly in the market, since there's simply no other smartphone like theirs. This is the moment, the researchers say, to offer consumers information that reveals the product's true quality and uniqueness. Because no similar product is out there, Firm 1 has the power to establish the parameters for judging its invention.

Inevitably, of course, another company (call it Firm 2) will come up with something comparable. Thanks to the heavy lifting in innovation by Firm 1, Firm 2 has the luxury to create a phone of equal or greater quality. And this is when the tide starts to turn. One might assume Firm 2 would just inform consumers of the superior quality of its product. But, surprisingly, Pazgal and Lin found that in most cases Firm 2 will instead focus on educating consumers about their preference for quality — in effect, leaving it up to the buyer to decide which of the two phones they really wants.

However, if another firm emerges with a similar product of lesser quality, its marketing will likely take yet another turn. Instead of trying to claim better quality, late entry companies offering an inferior product typically admit outright that their product isn't as well made as other versions.

That's because such firms calculate that if customers discover this themselves, they'll react badly. By telling the truth and pricing appropriately, a firm can find a calm stretch of water elsewhere in the market, someplace where it's not clashing directly with the earlier, higher quality products.

Whether it's Alexa, a smart TV or a virtual reality game, Pazgal and Lin explain, when a product enters the market for the first time, consumers need to be shown how it works. When a second product in the same line is introduced by a different company, the marketing task changes: it's now more important to show consumers how to identify a quality product, and then let them choose for themselves.

Any time a company launches a device or service into the world, in other words, it needs to trust consumers' ability to learn — and not drown them with too much information. Informed what good quality looks like, Pazgal and Lin conclude, consumers will swim on their own to the item they truly want.

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This article originally appeared on Rice Business Wisdom.

Amit Pazgal is Friedkin Chair in Management and Professor of Marketing and Operations Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Houston cardiac health startup raises $43 million series B to grow AI-backed platform

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A Houston-based tech company that has a product line of software solutions for cardiac health has raised funding.

Octagos Health, the parent company of Atlas AI — a software platform for cardiac devices like pacemakers, defibrillators, ambulatory monitors and consumer wearables — has announced a $43 million series B raise that will bring their technology to many more hearts.

Morgan Stanley Investment Capital led the investment, which also included funds from Mucker Capital and other continuing strategic investors. The goal of the raise is to supply funds to accelerate Atlas AI’s growth across the United States and to expand into other areas of care, including ambulatory monitors, consumer wearables, and sleep.

"This investment will enable us to accelerate enhancements to our platform, in addition to scaling our commercial team and operations. We are currently the only company that helps cardiology practices migrate their historical data from legacy software providers and fully integrates with any EHR (exertion heart rate) system. We do this while enabling customized reporting supported by patient and practice decision-support analytics," says Eric Olsen, COO of Octagos Health, in a press release.

Octagos Health was founded by a team of healthcare pros including CEO Shanti Bansal, a cardiologist and founder of Houston Heart Rhythm, an atrial fibrillation center. The goal was to find a new way to deal with the massive amount of data that clinicians encounter each day in a way that combines software and the work of human doctors.

According to the Octagos Health website, “Our solution allows clinicians to focus on other ways of delivering meaningful healthcare and more efficiently manage their remotely monitored patients.”

It works thanks to customizable reporting features that allow patients’ healthcare teams to get help while monitoring them, but to do it precisely as they would if they were crunching numbers themselves.

"We are excited to partner with Octagos Health and support their vision of transforming cardiac care," says Melissa Daniels, managing director of Morgan Stanley Expansion Capital. "Octagos Health has demonstrated exceptional growth and innovation in a critical area of healthcare. We believe their platform and vertically integrated software and services significantly improve patient care and streamline cardiac monitoring processes for healthcare providers."

Will Hsu, co-founder and partner of Mucker Capital, agrees. “Octagos Health is poised for scale – industry leading gross margins, a very sticky product that doctors and clinical staff love, and a market ready for disruption with artificial intelligence. This is the new wave for diagnostic care,” he says. And with this raise, it will be available to even more clinicians and patients across the country.

Houston biotech company expands leadership as it commercializes sustainable products

joining the team

Houston-based biotech company Cemvita recently tapped two executives to help commercialize its sustainable fuel made from carbon waste.

Nádia Skorupa Parachin came aboard as vice president of industrial biotechnology, and Phil Garcia was promoted to vice president of commercialization.

Parachin most recently oversaw several projects at Boston-based biotech company Ginkjo Bioworks. She previously co-founded Brazilian biotech startup Integra Bioprocessos.

Parachin will lead the Cemvita team that’s developing technology for production of bio-manufactured oil.

“It’s a fantastic moment, as we’re poised to take our prototyping to the next level, and all under the innovative direction of our co-founder Tara Karimi,” Parachin says in a news release. “We will be bringing something truly remarkable to market and ensuring it’s cost-effective.”

Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita, says the hiring of Parachin represents “the natural next step” toward commercializing the startup’s carbon-to-oil process.

“Her background prepared her to bring the best out of the scientists at the inflection point of commercialization — really bringing things to life,” says Moji Karimi, Tara’s brother.

Parachin joins Garcia on Cemvita’s executive team.

Before being promoted to vice president of commercialization, Garcia was the startup’s commercial director and business development manager. He has a background in engineering and business development.

Founded in 2017, Cemvita recently announced a breakthrough that enables production of large quantities of oil derived from carbon waste.

In 2023, United Airlines agreed to buy up to one billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel from Cemvita’s first full-scale plant over the course of 20 years.

Cemvita’s investors include the UAV Sustainable Flight Fund, an investment arm of Chicago-based United; Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, an investment arm of Houston-based energy company Occidental Petroleum; and Japanese equipment and machinery manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a logistics startup founder, a marketing expert, and a solar energy innovator.

Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager Portal

Houston logistics SaaS innovator is making waves with its expanded maritime shipping platform. Photo courtesy of Voyager

For several years now, Matthew Costello has been navigating the maritime shipping industry looking for problems to solve for customers with his company, Voyager Portal.

Initially, that meant designing a software platform to enhance communications and organization of the many massive and intricate global shipments happening every day. Founded in 2018 by Costello and COO Bret Smart, Voyager Portal became a integral tool for the industry that helps users manage the full lifecycle of their voyages — from planning to delivery.

"The software landscape has changed tremendously in the maritime space. Back in 2018, we were one of a small handful of technology startups in this space," Costello, who serves as CEO of Voyager, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Now that's changed. ... There's really a huge wave of innovation happening in maritime right now." Read more.

Arielle Rogg, principal and founder of Rogg Enterprises

Arielle Rogg writes in a guest column for InnovationMap about AI in the workforce. Photo via LinkedIn

Arielle Rogg isn't worried about artificial intelligence coming for her job. In fact, she has three reasons why, and she outlines them in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"The advent of AI pushes us humans to acquire new skills and hone our existing abilities so we can work alongside these evolving technologies in a collaborative fashion. AI augments human capabilities rather than replacing us. I believe it will help our society embrace lifelong learning, creating new industries and jobs that have never existed before," she writes in the piece. Read more.

Nathan Childress, founder of Solar Slice

Solar Slice Founder Nathan Childress says his new venture offers a fulfilling way to encourage and promote solar energy and a greener planet. Photo via LinkedIn

Nuclear engineer and entrepreneur Nathan Childress wants consumers to capture their own ray of sunlight to brighten the prospect of making clean energy a bigger part of the power grid. That's why he founded Solar Slice. The new venture offers a fulfilling way to encourage and promote solar energy and a greener planet.

Although trained in nuclear power plant design, solar power drew his interest as a cheaper and more accessible alternative, and Childress tells InnovationMap that he thinks that the transition to cleaner energy, in Texas especially, needs to step up.

Recent studies show that 80 to 90 percent of the money invested into fighting climate change “aren’t going to things that people actually consider helpful,” Childress says, adding that “they’re more just projects that sound good, that are not actually taking any action." Read more.