If the last few weeks have shown us anything, it's how important the resilience of our digital infrastructure is, our reliance on data, and the power technology has to help us during challenging times. Getty Images

As the United States looks to reopen from an unprecedented shutdown caused by a global pandemic, conversations amongst government and policy bodies are slowly switching to how they will support the economy in the long term. There is a need to improve infrastructure, strengthen the supply chain, increase economic resiliency, etc.

Indeed, the speed of the economic shock caused by COVID-19 highlighted the fragility of many key systems and processes, impacting the ability of the federal and state governments to distribute economic relief funds, manage healthcare capacity, and support small businesses.

There is no better illustration of this fragility in the system than the sudden spike in demand for COBOL programmers. COBOL is a decades-old programming language that was used to write mainframe applications. Apparently over half of the states in the U.S., including California and New York, rely on applications written in a language first introduced in 1959 for their critical state systems.

There is clearly a need to modernize the public services technology infrastructure, not only in expectation of future pandemic-driven disruptions but to increase efficiency and reduce costs nationally. The private sector can and should play an important role in bringing modern technology into the critical parts of the economy.

But that requires a closer collaboration between state governments and technology firms to identify the best and most efficient way forward. Technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, and the Internet of Things can dramatically reshape and improve public sector technology infrastructure while providing broader benefits to the state economies.

The critical first step in building this public-private partnership is to educate and engage state officials and legislators on specific technologies that can be put to use.

On April 29, I attended a virtual meeting organized by Texas Blockchain Committee (TBC) and hosted by the office of State Representative Tan Parker. In attendance, there were individuals and organizations based in Texas that are involved in developing practical applications of blockchain technology. What was also encouraging was that there were quite a few members of the State Legislature in attendance.

Here are a few key points that are worth highlighting from the meeting:

  • There is growing recognition and acceptance that blockchain is a technology that has wide applications outside of the cryptocurrency world. In fact, during the meeting, no one mentioned Bitcoin or crypto-trading.
  • Texas is aiming to explore ways to be at the forefront of blockchain technology adoption and be the leader among the states in promoting Blockchain innovation. Back in 2018 at the height of ICO and cryptocurrency mania, The Brooking Institution labeled Texas as reactionary when it comes to blockchain. Since then the state attitude has changed, in many ways thanks to Representative Parker and his push to initiate a proper study of blockchain's applicability at the state level.
  • There are many Texas-based companies with deep technical expertise and know-how in the blockchain. Some even moved their operations from other parts of the country to Texas in order to scale their businesses.
  • Whether it is related to the distribution of relief funds for businesses or individuals impacted by COVID -19, improvements in the way the healthcare industry handles patient data or other areas that require secure and transparent record management, blockchain is gaining attention as a technology to modernize critical digital infrastructure.
  • Particular attention was given to the efforts in other countries to bring blockchain technology into mainstream adoption. For example, China launched its nationwide Blockchain Services Network (BSN) in April of this year and is looking to bring digital central bank currency online early next year. The Chinese BSN is a result of joint efforts by the government, regulators, and private sector companies – a model that could work very well in the U.S. and in Texas.
  • It is worth noting that at the federal level there are currently over 30 blockchain-related bills in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. While a majority of these bills are focusing on the regulation of cryptocurrencies, there are a few that aim to promote the study of blockchain usage more broadly.

As a Texas-based fintech company that has been using Blockchain for the past three years, we are very encouraged by the broad interest in this technology. The Texas Blockchain Committee, led by Lee Bratcher and Karen Kilroy, has managed to pull together many individuals and companies to participate in this exciting effort.

If the last few weeks have shown us anything, it's how important the resilience of our digital infrastructure is, our reliance on data, and the power technology has to help us during challenging times. However, in order for us to leverage technology during harder times, we need to invest in properly applying it during stable times.

I believe this is a step in the right direction for Texas, and I hope we are able to expand the adoption of this technology, where relevant, at a national level. A coordinated national effort to study how technology, blockchain or otherwise, can help us be better prepared for our country's future.

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Rashad Kurbanov is the CEO and co-founder of Houston-based iownit capital and markets, a digital investment platform for private securities.

For newly named CEO of Topl, it's game on. Courtesy of Topl

Coronavirus has placed new focus on digitization and supply chain, says Houston blockchain startup leader

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 25

From a business perspective, Kim Raath, founder and CEO of Topl, sees the challenges and expected recession caused by COVID-19 as an opportunity — and a test.

"A bunch of companies — like Airbnb — were built in the 2008 recession," Raath says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I'm excited to see if we make it through here, I think we can survive anything."

Topl was founded by Rice University graduates — Raath, James Aman, and Chris Georgen — to track impact in various industries, such as carbon footprints in oil and gas or fair wages for farmers in agriculture, via a robust blockchain network. The company closed a $700,000 seed round last year and is looking toward another round of investment this year — yes, even amidst the current situation.

Raath just recently took over as CEO for the company following the completion of her Rice Ph.D in statistics and a Master's in economics, and it was a perfect time for the founders to sit down and realign their company. Aman will continue to focus on the tech, Georgen will focus on the customer, and Raath will steer the ship.

"It was definitely a cool experience for us as founders to go through together, but I'm glad that all three of us came out of this excited about what we're doing moving forward," says Raath.

And then, the coronavirus hit, which, to Raath, has proven to be an added obstacle and an exciting time to be in the track and trace world of blockchain.

"A lot of these COVID-19 trackers that everyone is watching, the data is being pulled into these trackers in the same way you could be tracking your chocolate, diamonds, anything," says Raath. "I'm excited to see the virtual and digital side of this — people are realizing you can use data to visualize things — and at the same time use that data for informed decision making."

She's observed that people are actually thinking of the effects on supply chain — in more than just the business sense.

"I don't think any of us thought this much about supply chain. Most of us just went to the grocery store, and we had all these options," Raath says.

Raath, like many startup founders, have had to make some tough calls and some huge cuts to her business, which has been scrappy and bootstrapped most of its existence anyways. In the episode, she offers her fellow startup leaders some advice about making these cuts as well as reminds them, as well as herself, that everyone is in the same boat right now — ask yourself what you can do to stand out and survive.

"Everyone is in the same place — including your competition right now," Raath says. "You don't have control of the uncertainty — but no one does. What do you have control over right now and how can you act on that control. That's what my focus has been."

Listen to the full episode below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Data Gumbo, led by founder and CEO, Andrew Bruce, has expanded into Indonesia with a new client. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

Houston-based blockchain company continues growth with expansion in Southeast Asia

making moves

A Houston startup that's created a global industrial blockchain network has announced a new application and expansion into a new market.

For the first time, Data Gumbo Corp.'s GumboNet will be used in geothermal energy drilling thanks to the startup's new Indonesia-based client, Air Drilling Associates, a drilling and project management service provider.

"Expansion into Southeast Asia with ADA's deployment signals GumboNet's global applicability and benefit to industry — in this case, geothermal energy development," says Andrew Bruce, CEO and founder of Data Gumbo, in a news release. "We are excited that Data Gumbo is entering yet another sector of the energy market for improvements across its supply chain."

ADA will use GumboNet to automate invoice payments of its contracts, including ADA's work on on major geothermal exploration drilling campaign for international power company. This project is part of the country's plan to develop infrastructure to meet national electrical energy needs.

"In geothermal energy, supply chain parties are sluggish to invoice and execute payments, remote operations exist all over the world, and it takes dozens of counterparties to get a well site up and running," says Diederik Zwager, CEO of Air Drilling Associates, in the release. "By implementing GumboNet, we will gain greater transparency into our operations, and experience billing and invoicing execution at a monumentally faster rate."

Zwager will also become an adviser for Data Gumbo and is eager "to implement the network at ADA to pass along the benefits to customers, vendors and suppliers," he says in the release. The company has a presence in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, the Asia-Pacific region, and North and South America.

Since its inception in 2016, Data Gumbo has raised a total of $9.3 million — recently closing a $6 million series A led by Saudi Aramco's venture arm. While that recent pop of investment means expanding to new industries — the company announced its entrance into the construction industry — Bruce preciously commented that these funds would go toward taking Data Gumbo to new global markets.

"The whole thing for us is building this blockchain network of interconnected companies," Bruce says on a recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The more companies that are a part of that network, the more value that network has."

Cryptocurrency doesn't have to be a big, confusing risk with this Houston startup's technology. Courtesy of CryptoEQ

Entrepreneur feels called to demystify cryptocurrency with his Houston startup

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 16

Spencer Randall, an engineer by trade, developed a fascination with cryptocurrency, and he wasn't able to shake it.

"Once I understood the technology, it wasn't really a choice. I felt compelled and driven to learn as much as I possibly could," he says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I'd say it was more of a calling."

His interest lead him to frequent cryptocurrency and blockchain meetups, and, when those started to feel all over the place, he started to host his own meetups, focused on key issues within the technology.

It was through these meetups that Randall met who would meet Brooks Vaughan, Norman Hamilton, Michael Thoma, and Joseph Romero, who would then become the co-founders of CryptoEQ.

"There really wasn't a go-to resource (for cryptocurrency," Randall says. "What we wanted to do and what our mission today is to be the most trusted and intuitive analysis for cryptocurrencies."

So, the group of entrepreneurs created CryptoEQ, which gives cryptocurrency investors a community to interact with and learn from. The company, which works out of The Cannon, launched its version 2 for the site this month and saw a 500 percent growth among users. CryptoEQ is also planning to grow its site and resources and is hiring a new full-time employee this year.

Randall discusses trends he's seen in the industry, plans for 2020, and more in the podcast episode. Listen to the full episode below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


The music industry has adapted to the digital age — so should financial securities. Getty Images

The financial industry needs to digitize not tokenize, says this Houston expert

Guest column

One of my favorite movies growing up was Empire Records. It was the mid-1990s, and the closest we got to Instagram feeds was who had the best mixtapes. If you're not familiar with Empire Records (or what a mixtape is), I recommend watching the movie, but you don't have to worry too much about mixtapes any more.

Since Empire Records was released in 1995, the way we purchase and consume music has fundamentally changed. The physical music store was displaced by iTunes, and then the music industry evolved even further into a streaming economy. It took 24 years, but music evolved and it now operates in a fundamentally different way. Digitization of music was initially viewed as an existential threat to the industry, but in the end, music was digitized globally and the music industry very much survived.

The music industry has evolved and adapted to the digital age. The same happened across countless other industries, including financial services. Today we can invest in publicly traded stocks through a mobile app for free. However, a critical segment of capital markets has not evolved yet. The private securities space.

Transactions in private securities are still done on paper (no, DocuSign does not count as securities digitization.) Administrative costs are kept high due to the amount of paper that is processed and pushed through this system. As long as the foundation of private securities is paper, there is no amount of administrative technology out there to create an efficient market.

Public markets took the plunge into digital long before music did, and digitization of public markets enabled exponential growth globally. Trading volume, access to capital, and liquidity have all increased, and a large part of that can be attributed to the efficient and transparent nature of most public exchanges.

Efficient markets rely on price transparency and information equality. Currently, the private securities markets do not offer either of these characteristics. This is nothing new to people in the alternatives space, but how to reach these lofty goals, to create liquidity and reduce costs, is what I am excited about.

The reduction of cost does not relate only to commissions. There are administrative costs associated with private securities. Information distribution is slow and unilateral, forcing investors to depend on antiquated systems in order to track their investments. Nearly all of these costs are absorbed by the investor, and most efforts to date have not helped address the core issue, analog private security transactions.

Digitization of private securities is fundamentally different than tokenization. Tokenized securities are considered bearer securities. A digitized security, on the other hand, maintains its original status as a registered security, as long as its digitization is implemented in a manner that fits current regulatory requirements. Until recently, that had not been possible in a scalable way. Blockchain changed all of that.

Initial attempts at utilizing blockchain for private markets applied tokenization. Essentially, this configuration took securities that had clearly defined ownership records, anonymized them and put them on a public blockchain such as Ethereum. While there are some benefits to this approach, it also opened doors to significant fraud and securities regulation violations. Tokenization may provide liquidity, but the long-term risk far outweighs the value of liquidity for any prudent investor.

Blockchain does provide a framework that supports compliant digitization of private investments, it's simply not tokenization. The solution lies in using private permissioned blockchains that allow an appropriate degree of technical security while also ensuring transparency and accountability.

Blockchain enables us to maintain a statement of record that is both compliant, and scalable. Across the financial services industry, and across most other industries, blockchain is being deployed to help solve problems that were previously unmanageable. The blockchain is even helping farmers track their crops through IBM's blockchain. iownit has integrated blockchain at the core of our technology, proving that compliant digitization of private securities is possible and scalable.

The United States has a free market economy, so in the end, winners are determined by the market. It is our belief that the digitization of private securities is the responsible way to help this industry evolve. If you're still skeptical, just look at how the public securities markets have evolved since the '70s when electronic stock trading was enabled and the first digital public security trade was placed. Now try and imagine how private security markets will look in four years.

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Yosef Levenstein is the head of marketing at iownit, a Houston-based financial technology firm that is democratizing how investors and private companies transact.

Andrew Bruce talks Data Gumbo expansion on the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

Houston blockchain company plans for huge growth — from new offices to new industries

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 9

Andrew Bruce saw that the oil and gas industry had a data problem. If energy companies were ever going to be able to set up autonomous drilling, they needed to integrate data and challenge the commercial model.

On this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Bruce, CEO of Data Gumbo Corp., shares how he created a solution to move the needle on streamlining data within industry.

"Data Gumbo was originally founded to solve that integration problem. Take data from different sources, standardize it, clean it up, and make sure only the people who have the authority to get access to the data, can get access to the data," Bruce says on the podcast. "That's why we're called Data Gumbo — take a bunch of data, put it in the pot, stir it up, and make it taste good."

Since its inception in 2016, Bruce has led the company to raise a total of $9.3 million — recently closing a $6 million series A led by Saudi Aramco's venture arm. While that recent pop of investment means expanding to new industries — the company announced its entrance into the construction industry — Bruce says the funds will also take Data Gumbo to new global markets, including the Middle East.

"The whole thing for us is building this blockchain network of interconnected companies," Bruce says. "The more companies that are a part of that network, the more value that network has."

Bruce discusses his planned growth, the origin story of Data Gumbo, and how the Houston innovation ecosystem has helped the company grow in the episode. Listen to it below and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

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Houston scores lofty ranking in new study of America’s best cities

h-town proud

Buoyed by diversity, fine food, and Fortune 500 companies, Houston ranks as the 11th best city in the country and the top city in Texas, according to a consulting firm's annual study.

"Smart, skilled, and soulful, Houston is the American city of the future," says the study, published by Vancouver, Canada-based Resonance Consultancy Ltd., which specializes in marketing, strategy, and research for the real estate, tourism, and economic development sectors.

In last year's study, Houston also held the No. 11 ranking.

The 2020 study praises Houston for its:

  • Ethnic diversity, with more than 145 languages spoken in Houston-area homes.
  • Highly regarded restaurants, rated fourth behind Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago.
  • Healthy concentration of Fortune 500 companies, representing the country's biggest businesses. Twenty-two companies based in the Houston area are listed on this year's Fortune 500.
  • Airport connectivity (No. 7 ranking).

The study further lauds the city for development of the Houston Spaceport, a hub for the region's space industry. However, the study notes that Houston ranks 47th for prosperity, 74th for employment, and 99th (next to last) for income equality.

"From medicine to space to energy, we are at the forefront of innovation. We are resilient problem-solvers who work together to find common solutions, no matter if we're facing Hurricane Harvey or a global pandemic," real estate developer David Mincberg, chairman of Houston First Corp., says in an August 6 release. "Houston continues to grow and get better, so we invite those who live here to rediscover our city and visitors to come as soon as it is safe and enjoy all that Houston has to offer."

Houston First promotes the city as a destination for leisure and business travelers.

Resonance Consultancy ranks large U.S. cities by relying on a mix of 26 performance and quality measures. This year, New York City tops the list, followed by Los Angeles; San Francisco; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; San Diego; Las Vegas; San Jose, California; Miami; and Boston.

Three spots behind Houston is Dallas, at No. 14. Austin comes in at No. 17 and San Antonio at No. 28. Fort Worth isn't included in the ranking.

Highlights for Dallas include:

  • No. 1 ranking for airport connectivity, thanks largely to the presence of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
  • Country's highest concentration of corporate headquarters (more than 10,000).
  • Country's third largest grouping of Fortune 500 companies (24 in Dallas-Fort Worth).
  • Sixth largest LGBTQ community in the U.S.
  • Dallas Arts District, the country's largest contiguous urban arts district.

"Dallas inspires big ideas. This big and bold approach has resulted in world-class arts, culture, architecture, dining, business, and more, which are changing the face of the city," VisitDallas, the city's convention and tourism arm, says on its website.

Sitting at No. 17, Austin boasts No. 8 rankings for educational attainment and nightlife, the study says, along with a vibrant cultural scene anchored by events such as SXSW and a flourishing tech landscape dotted by the likes of Apple, Dell, Facebook, Google, and Oracle.

Austin's showing in the Resonance Consultancy study comes on the heels of the city being hailed by U.S. News & World Report as the No. 1 place to live in the country, with particularly high marks for desirability, jobs, and quality of life.

"With a strong, continually growing tech-talent labor force and an overall lower cost of living and doing business, I think Austin could end up being a beneficiary market in the recovery of the pandemic as many tech users look to move out of more densely populated areas like New York City or San Francisco," Erin Morales, senior vice president of commercial real estate services company CBRE, said in a July news release.

At No. 28, San Antonio earns kudos from Resonance Consultancy for its plethora of attractions, including the River Walk, five colonial missions, San Antonio Zoo, San Antonio Museum of Art, and Texas Golf Hall of Fame. Alamo City shows up at No. 7 in the study's attractions category.

In addition, the study highlights San Antonio's popular mixed-use Pearl district, whose assets include a campus of the Culinary Institute of America. "Around the esteemed school, a host of grads and chefs have clustered, creating a smorgasbord of choices from Italian to 'cue to bakery to vegetarian cuisine," according to the study.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: All three of this week's Houston innovators to know started something new amid a global pandemic — a new job at a Texas-wide accelerator, a new app to help shops and businesses safely serve customers, and a new resilience-focused hub that launched just in time for hurricane season.

Richard Seline, managing director of ResilientH20

Richard Seline of ResilientH2O Partners explains how he's helping foster new hurricane and flood prevention technologies in the Bayou City. Photo courtesy of ResilientH20

Following Hurricane Harvey, Richard Seline saw several emerging startups focusing on flood tech. Meanwhile, he saw insurance companies very interested in finding new technologies in the same space. But, these two entities were not talking.

"It's two different languages," Seline says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There's a whole language and a whole mindset within the insurance industry that is not real well known."

Seline, managing director of ResilientH20, along with the Insurance Information Institute and The Cannon, has launched the Gulf Coast & Southwest Resilience Innovation Hub to foster this type of technology and bring insuratech startups and the big insurance players to the table. Stream the podcast and read more.

Adrianne Stone, venture associate for Capital Factory

Adrianne Stone has joined Capital Factory's Houston operations as the company prioritizes digital startup interaction. Photo courtesy of Capital Factory

After spending a year and a half in Silicon Valley on the products team for 23andme, Adrianne Stone is back in Houston, filling the venture associate role for Capital Factory. Stone got her Ph.D from Baylor College of Medicine and replaces Brittany Barreto, another BCM Ph.D who left the position to pursue a new venture.

"The mindset in Silicon Valley is different from how it is here in Texas — in good ways and bad ways. It was interesting to be exposed to a very potent startup vibe," Stone tells InnovationMap. "I'm looking forward to being able to meet all the cool companies, founders, and investors we have here in the Houston area." Read more.

Ethan Saadia, app developer and creator of Wayt

Ethan Saadia, a 17-year-old high school student, created an app to improve the user experience of shopping during a pandemic. Photo courtesy of Wayt

Like most of the world, Ethan Saadia has seen small, local businesses suffer from the social distancing mandates amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Saadia, a rising high school senior, wanted to do something to help.

He created Wayt, a smartphone app that provides businesses and their customers with a platform to communicate making curbside pickup, booking appointments, and even join a virtual line. Ultimately, Wayt has a great opportunity to help businesses — even outside of a pandemic

"From my perspective and experiences from my friends and family," says Saadia, "curbside pickup and virtual lines are definitely here to stay because even before the pandemic, popular places used to have long lines and that presented many new challenges. The pandemic is just accelerating technological change that will make our lives easier." Read more.

Ventilator designed by Rice University team gets FDA approval

in the bag

A ventilator that was designed by a team at Rice University has received Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ApolloBVM was worked on March by students at Rice's Brown School of Engineering's Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, or OEDK. The open-source plans were shared online so that those in need could have access to the life-saving technology. Since its upload, the ApolloBVM design has been downloaded by almost 3,000 registered participants in 115 countries.

"The COVID-19 pandemic pushed staff, students and clinical partners to complete a novel design for the ApolloBVM in the weeks following the initial local cases," says Maria Oden, a teaching professor of bioengineering at Rice and director of the OEDK, in the press release. "We are thrilled that the device has received FDA Emergency Use Authorization."

While development began in 2018 with a Houston emergency physician, Rohith Malya, Houston manufacturer Stewart & Stevenson Healthcare Technologies LLC, a subsidiary of Kirby Corporation that licensed ApolloBVM in April, has worked with the team to further manufacture the device into what it is today.

An enhanced version of the bag valve mask-based ventilator designed by Rice University engineers has won federal approval as an emergency resuscitator for use during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Stewart & Stevenson

The Rice team worked out of OEDK throughout the spring and Stewart & Stevenson joined to support the effort along with manufacturing plants in Oklahoma City and Houston.

"The FDA authorization represents an important milestone achievement for the Apollo ABVM program," says Joe Reniers, president of Kirby Distribution and Services, in the release. "We can now commence manufacturing and distribution of this low-cost device to the front lines, providing health care professionals with a sturdy and portable ventilation device for patients during the COVID-19 pandemic."

Reniers continues, "It is a testimony to the flexibility of our people and our manufacturing facilities that we are able to readily utilize operations to support COVID-19 related need."

The device's name was selected as a tribute to Rice's history with NASA and President John F. Kennedy's now-famous speech kicking off the nation's efforts to go to the moon. It's meaningful to Matthew Wettergreen, one of the members of the design team.

"When a crisis hits, we use our skills to contribute solutions," Wettergreen previously told CultureMap. "If you can help, you should, and I'm proud that we're responding to the call."