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From software and IoT to decarbonization and nanotech, here's what 10 energy tech startups you should look out for. Photo via Getty Images

This week, energy startups pitched virtually for venture capitalists — as well as over 1,000 attendees — as a part of Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship's 18th annual Energy and Clean Tech Venture Forum.

At the close of the three-day event, Rice Alliance announced its 10 most-promising energy tech companies. Here's which companies stood out from the rest.

W7energy

Based in Delaware, W7energy has created a zero-emission fuel cell electric vehicle technology supported by PiperION polymers. The startup's founders aim to provide a more reliable green energy that is 33 percent cheaper to make.

"With ion exchange polymer, we can achieve high ionic conductivity while maintaining mechanical strength," the company's website reads. "Because of the platform nature of the chemistry, the chemical and physical properties of the polymer membranes can be tuned to the desired application."

Modumetal

Modumetal, which has its HQ in Washington and an office locally as well, is a nanotechnology company focused on improving industrial materials. The company was founded in 2006 by Christina Lomasney and John Whitaker and developed a patented electrochemical process to produce nanolaminated metal alloys, according to Modumetal's website.

Tri-D Dynamics

San Francisco-based Tri-D Dynamics has developed a suite of smart metal products. The company's Bytepipe product claims to be the world's first smart casing that can collect key information — such as leak detection, temperatures, and diagnostic indicators — from underground and deliver it to workers.

SeekOps

A drone company based in Austin, SeekOps can quickly retrieve and deliver emissions data for its clients with its advance sensor technology. The company, founded in 2017, uses its drone and sensor pairing can help reduce emissions at a low cost.

Akselos

Switzerland-based Akselos has been using digital twin technology since its founding in 2012 to help energy companies analyze their optimization within their infrastructure.

Osperity

Osperity, based in Houston's Galleria area, is a software company that uses artificial intelligence to analyze and monitor industrial operations to translate the observations into strategic intelligence. The technology allows for cost-effective remote monitoring for its clients.

DroneDeploy

DroneDeploy — based in San Francisco and founded in 2013 — has raised over $92 million (according to Crunchbase) for its cloud-based drone mapping and analytics platform. According to the website, DroneDeploy has over 5,000 clients worldwide across oil and gas, construction, and other industries.

HEBI Robotics

Pittsburgh-based HEBI Robotics gives its clients the tools to build custom robotics. Founded 2014, HEBI has clients — such as NASA, Siemens, Ericsson — across industries.

CarbonFree Chemicals

CarbonFree Chemicals, based in San Antonio and founded in 2016, has created a technology to turn carbon emissions to useable solid carbonates.

SensorUp

Canadian Internet of Things company, SensorUp Inc. is a location intelligence platform founded in 2011. The technology specializes in real-time analysis of industrial operations.

"Whether you are working with legacy systems or new sensors, we provide an innovative platform that brings your IoT together for automated operations and processes," the company's website reads.

Calling all clean energy startups — Rice Alliance has announced a new accelerator launching in 2021. Photo via Getty Images

Rice Alliance to launch clean energy accelerator in Houston

New to Hou

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship has announced its new Clean Energy Accelerator — a 12-week program for early stage energy startups — at the close of the 18th annual Energy Tech Venture Forum.

"Houston truly is the hub of the global energy industry, and it is here where the next generation of energy leaders will create and scale innovations that will change the world," says Bob Harvey, president and CEO at the Greater Houston Partnership, in a press release. "The new Clean Energy Accelerator will build on that legacy and align with the work already taking place in Houston's robust energy innovation ecosystem."

The program joins Rice University's suite of business accelerating programs — including Owl Spark, the annual venture forums, and the Rice Business Plan Competition — and is being supported by Wells Fargo.

"The Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator is poised to increase the quality and quantity of clean-tech startups in the area, which benefits Houston but also has the potential to benefit the greater global economy," says Jenny Flores, head of small business growth philanthropy at Wells Fargo, in the release. "At Wells Fargo, we believe that climate change continues to be one of the most urgent environmental and social issues of our time."

The Clean Energy Accelerator — to be housed at The Ion when it opens — falls in line with the city of Houston's Climate Action Plan, which has a goal of making Houston carbon neutral by 2050.

"It's a very ambitious goal, and it's one the City of Houston, as a municipality, cannot do alone," Mayor Sylvester Turner says in the release. "Today's announcement of the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator is a great example of what we have been seeking to build in Houston, an innovation ecosystem that can develop creative solutions to address our toughest challenges."

More information is available online, and applications for startups will open in early 2021. The Rice Alliance announced several community supporters for the new accelerator, including BP, Chevron Technology Ventures, Equinor, ExxonMobil, NRG, Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures, Shell Ventures, Sunnova, Total, Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co., Halliburton Labs, Houston Exponential, the Center for Houston's Future, and Greentown Labs.

"Houston is our home, and we are strong believers in our city," says Brad Burke, managing director of the alliance, in the release. "It is here that some of the greatest minds in energy are innovating. New technologies, many driven by startup companies, have enabled the U.S. to become energy self sufficient for the first time in history, but global energy needs are growing and changing. We need to apply that same entrepreneurial spirit and technology innovation to meet these challenges."


Greentown Labs has announced its second location will be opened in Houston next spring. Getty Images

Cleantech startup incubator announces new location in Houston

seeing green

A Massachusetts-based startup incubator focused on clean energy technology has announced its plans to open a new location in Houston.

The Greater Houston Partnership and Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that Greentown Labs will open its Houston location in Spring 2021. Greentown Houston, according to a press release, falls in line with the city's Climate Action Plan.

"Opening Greentown Labs' second location in Houston — the energy capital of the world — is the best place to broaden our impact and help accelerate the energy transition through cleantech entrepreneurship, in partnership with the nation's fourth largest city and the world-leading energy organizations headquartered there," says Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, in the release.

Reichert adds that Houston's access to talent and corporate energy partners made the Bayou City especially alluring as a new market.

Greentown Labs launched in 2011 as community of climatetech and cleantech innovators bringing together startups, corporates, investors, policymakers, and more to focus on scaling climate solutions. Greentown Labs' first location is 100,000 square feet and located just outside of Boston in Somerville, Massachusetts. Currently, it's home to more than 100 startups and has supported more than 280 startups since the incubator's founding. According to the release, these startups have created more than 6,500 jobs and raised over $850 million in funding.

The organization will be establishing a 30,000-square-foot prototyping lab and office space that will be able to accomodate about 50 startups. More details of this office are forthcoming.

"Climate change cannot be solved from the coasts — we need all hands on deck at this time," Reichert continues. "Houston has the opportunity to be the energy transition capital of the world and we believe bringing Greentown Labs to Houston will accelerate the shift in this direction."

Along with the mayor's office and the GHP, Greentown Houston will bring together key stakeholders from entrepreneurs and educators to corporates and investors.

"Reducing Houston's emissions and leading a global transition is a community-wide effort and will require action from residents and the business community," says Mayor Turner in the release. "This is why it's more important than ever to have partners and organizations like Greentown Labs, whose mission is to solve the climate crisis through entrepreneurship and collaboration."

Greentown Houston's network of founding partners includes the likes of Chevron, Shell, NRG Energy Inc., Sunnova Energy, BHP, Vinson & Elkins, and more. Ahead of the spring 2021 launch, Greentown Houston is seeking more strategic partners and interested startups. More information can be found online.

"We are thrilled to welcome North America's largest cleantech incubator to Houston, which comes at a time of great momentum for Houston's innovation ecosystem and further positions the region to lead the transition to a cleaner, more efficient and more sustainable, lower carbon world," says Bob Harvey, president and CEO at GHP. "As the home to major corporate energy R&D centers, corporate venture arms, and VC-backed energy startups, Houston is already leading the way in digitization, renewable forms of energy, and the development of carbon capture management technology."

A new report indicates the Lone Star State lost 4,246 clean energy jobs — a 1.7 percent decline in the state's clean energy workforce. Getty Images

Texas sees decline in clean energy jobs — and more losses are expected due to coronavirus

not-so-happy earth day

The dangerous duo of the global oil glut and the coronavirus-spawned economic shutdown already has whacked Houston's oil and gas sector. The crippling of the American economy has taken its toll on the region's clean energy industry as well.

In a report released April 15, a coalition of clean energy groups tallied the loss of 106,472 U.S. clean energy jobs in March. Texas accounted for 4,246 of the lost jobs, a 1.7 percent decline in the state's clean energy workforce. A metro-by-metro breakdown wasn't available.

The nationwide loss erased all of last year's gains in clean energy jobs in the renewable energy, energy efficiency, clean vehicles, energy storage and clean fuels segments, the report states.

While that's a troubling development, the report predicts more than 500,000 clean energy jobs could at least temporarily be wiped out in the coming months. That would represent about 15 percent of the country's clean energy workforce.

"The economic fallout from COVID-19 is historic in both size and speed," Phil Jordan, vice president and principal of BW Research Partnership, says in a release. "Activities across the entire range of clean energy activities, from manufacturing electric vehicles to installing solar panels, are being impacted. And the data pretty clearly indicate that this is just the beginning."

Based on an analysis of U.S. Department of Labor data, the report found those who lost jobs included electricians, HVAC and mechanical technicians, construction workers, solar power installers, wind power engineers and technicians, and manufacturing workers.

The report was produced by E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs), the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE), E4TheFuture and BW Research Partnership.

Gregory Wetstone, CEO of ACORE, tells InnovationMap that the country's clean energy sector has been hobbled by supply chain disruptions, shelter-in-place orders and other pandemic-related interruptions.

"It is impossible to know the long-term trajectory of this pandemic, but it clearly threatens the trajectory of an industry that has led the nation in job creation for five consecutive years and is securing annual investment numbers in the range of $50 billion," Wetstone says. "With smart federal policies, we can continue that upward trajectory."

Ed Hirs, an energy fellow and economics lecturer at the University of Houston, says he thinks the hit being taken by the clean energy sector is a short-lived setback. He cites the long-term strength of the clean energy industry — strength demonstrated by recent high-profile investments in the sector.

In December, Private Equity News reported that investment manager BlackRock Inc. raised a record $1 billion for its latest renewable energy fund. A month later, Altus Power America Inc., a solar energy provider based in Connecticut, said private equity powerhouse Blackstone Group Inc. had pumped $850 million into the company.

Hirs says he expects post-coronavirus growth in the clean energy sector to be "pretty robust." As of April 2019, the Houston area was home to more than 100 wind-related companies and more than 30 solar-related companies, according to the Greater Austin Partnership.

At the end of 2019, Texas boasted 683 solar companies and 10,261 solar jobs, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Solar investment in the state exceeds $6 billion. The association says the Lone Star State "is poised to become a nationwide leader in solar energy … ."

As for wind, it essentially tied with coal as the top source of power for Texas homes and businesses in 2019. This year in Texas, wind is projected to grab the No. 1 spot from coal. The state generates about one-fourth of the country's wind power, and the wind industry employs more than 25,000 Texans.

Hirs anticipates solar and wind installations in Texas will continue to escalate, although some companies might put off capital expenditures for about two to four months. "I don't see the economics changing on them anytime soon," he says.

The groundswell of interest in solar and wind power will be a boon to Texas and the rest of the country, Hirs says. A 2019 poll by the Insider website found that Americans prefer solar and wind over all other power sources.

"I don't think the loss of employment and loss of progress on clean energy … projects right now is anything but a temporary challenge," he says.

Texas has been deemed inefficient when it comes to energy. Photo courtesy of Thomas Miller/Breitling Energy

Texas again ranks poorly for its energy efficiency

It's not easy being green

Despite some growth in the industry's regional job market, Texas fails to rise through the ranks of a national report on energy efficiency.

For the second year in a row, the Lone Star State has made the list of the states with the worst energy efficiency, according to a report for personal finance website, WalletHub. Last year, the state ranked No. 42 in the country; however, this year's study had Texas at No. 41 of the 48 states evaluated. Hawaii and Alaska were left out due to data restrictions.

The report, which was released just in time for National Energy Awareness Month, looked at consumer usage of home electricity, as well as oil and fuel for cars and trucks. According to the report, a United States family will spend around $2,000 annually on utilities — and heating and cooling makes up about half of that bill. On average in 2018, consumers spent another $2,109 on oil and fuel for their vehicles.

Adopting energy-efficient tools and practices could help reduce consumer cost by 25 percent for utilities and around $638 on the roads. Texas has seen a growth in the job market for positions relating to energy efficiency, according to a recent report. The number of energy-efficiency-oriented jobs across Texas rose by 5.3 percent last year to 162,816, according to the report, and energy-efficiency workers account for 17 percent of all energy workers in Texas, the report says.

Texas, with its hot climate and underdeveloped public transportation systems, scored only 36.48 total points on the WalletHub report, which is up slightly from last year's 33.34 points. The state ranked No. 36 on home energy efficiency and No. 45 for auto energy efficiency.

Texans drove over 270 billion miles last year and used over 20 billion gallons of gas, the second worst and worst rankings, respectively, among the states considered for this study.

While maybe the state isn't rising on this list of consumer energy efficiency yet, the state has seen great economic growth specifically in the wind energy industry. The American Wind Energy Association's annual report for 2018 shows the wind energy sector employs between 25,000 and 26,000 people in Houston and elsewhere in Texas, up from 24,000 to 25,000 in 2017, with the total investment in Texas wind energy projects sitting at a whopping $46.5 billion. More than one-fifth of wind energy jobs in the U.S. are located in Texas.

"Houston is actively working to grow this sector, so we hope people will seriously think of Houston when they think of renewables in this new era of energy," Davenport says at an April 9 news conference in Houston where the American Wind Energy Association released its 2018 state-of-the-industry report.

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Houston coffee startup pivots to hand sanitizing product amid pandemic

Houstonians' workday routines look much different today than they did seven months ago. With a large percentage of people working from home, office rituals have come to a halt and few habits have been immune to change — including our coffee consumption.

In early March, Constantine Zotos and Mitchell Webber already knew this didn't mean good things for their local nitro coffee company, Recharge Brewing Co. Though the brand had grown steadily over the better course of two years, the duo had focused their business on installing and supplying their nitro coffee taps to two of the most taboo markets at the time: office spaces and restaurants.The duo aptly predicted that the demand for their product would soon dry up and quickly shifted their operations to focus on a product that was considered a necessity: hand sanitizer.

To get started, the young entrepreneurs and their small team of six began cold calling down a list of Purell distributors they found online. They soon found that many businesses could hardly keep the product in stock.

"They asked us if they could fly a jet down to pick up the hand sanitizer themselves," Zottos says of one distributor. "I told them not to get ahead of themselves, but it just speaks to the sense of urgency everyone had."

The team studied up on the basic ingredients of hand sanitizer to make the liquid, alcohol-based form that infiltrated the market in the first few weeks of the pandemic. At the time there was such a rush for the product, and such a low supply of the material needed to make it, that the team resorted to selling the product without traditional pump tops or plastic caps. Instead they used the slow release plastic pourers that are often used on liquor bottles.

Still, they were focused on doing it right. In addition to the long hours spend to get the product out the door, Zotos and Webber took special care to ensure that their sanitizer met all FDA and EPA requirements by working with consultants and lawyers, as well as reading up on all the pertinent documents and literature between sleeping shifts and time on the shop floor.

"We took the stance that we would rather rush toward compliance rather than run from it," Zotos says.

It didn't seem to slow down the demand. One week in they formed Modern Chemical, and by the middle of the month the company was fulfilling substantial orders with a team of 40 employees. By the summer, Modern Chemical released a gel-based, FDA-registered sanitizer that got them in with giant B2B clients, such as the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, Jefferson Parish School District, and recently the City of Austin.

The pair agrees that their background with Recharge gave them a leg up in the beginning.

"Knowing the pumps and hoses and all the stuff you really need to run a bottle facility and a hand sanitizer facility, we already had," Webber says. "On top of that when all this started, there were some long days and long nights, but being in the nitro coffee business, we were used to long hours. It prepared us for this huge push for the drastic demand that needed to be filled."

Location and timing also played a huge role in their success, Zotos adds. "When the pandemic struck we were able to bring on a lot of people who are extraordinarily talented throughout the company. If we weren't hiring in the pandemic environment like this I think we would be hard pressed to find people as talented as we did as quickly as we did," he says. "And Houston really played a big part in that."

Today, the company of about 60 employees is producing about 15,000 gallons of hand sanitizer per day and is in the process of launching disinfectant wipes and spray. They recently moved all of the Modern Chemical operations into a new and improved facility off Air Tec and Interstate 45 that will allow for more efficient packaging and loading of products and — in another pivot — are even offering custom labeling, scenting and color dyes, plus specialty dispensing stands for their product.

"Neither of us have a chemical background and we are not ignorant to that. But we know how the equipment works from an operational side of things and if we can make the packaging look the best. If we can package the most for the best price then people are going to want to buy it," Zotos says. "Instead of taking the let's do everything route, we found our niche in the chemical supply chain, which is packaging."

And as Modern Chemical continues to settle into its new space and eventually a post-pandemic market, Zotos and Webber plan to revisit and revamp Recharge Brewing with the lessons they've learned. The duo plans to use their original facilities to help other small business owners launch and produce beverage brands of their own by early 2021.

UT system funds Houston researchers in new collaboration to cure cancer

collaborate for a cure

In a renewed effort to move the needle on finding a cure for cancer, the University of Texas system has launched a new collaboration in oncological data and computational science across three programs.

Houston-based University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center has teamed up with two UT Austin schools — the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences and the Texas Advanced Computing Center. The collaboration was announced this summer to tap into mathematical modeling and advanced computing along with oncology expertise to inspire new methods of cancer treatment.

"Integrating and learning from the massive amount of largely unstructured data in cancer care and research is a formidable challenge," says David Jaffray, Ph.D., chief technology and digital officer at MD Anderson, in a news release. "We need to bring together teams that can place quantitative data in context and inform state-of-the-art computational models of the disease and accelerate progress in our mission to end cancer."

Now, the first five projects to be funded under this new initiative have been announced.

  • Angela Jarrett of the Oden Institute and Maia Rauch of MD Anderson will develop a patient-specific mathematical model for forecasting treatment response and designing optimal therapy strategies for patients with triple-negative breast cancer.
  • Caroline Chung of MD Anderson and David Hormuth of the Oden Institute are using computational models of the underlying biology to fundamentally change how radiotherapy and chemotherapy are personalized to improve survival rates for brain cancer patients.
  • Ken-Pin Hwang of MD Anderson and Jon Tamir of UT Austin's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Oden Institute will use mathematical modeling and massively parallel distributed computing to make prostate MR imaging faster and more accurate to reduce the incidence of unnecessary or inaccurate biopsies.
  • Xiaodong Zhang of MD Anderson and Hang Liu of TACC will advance both the planning and delivery of proton therapy via a platform that combines mathematical algorithms and high-performance computing to further personalize these already highly tailored treatments.
  • Tinsley Oden and Prashant Jha of the Oden Institute and David Fuentes of MD Anderson will integrate a new mechanistic model of tumor growth with an advanced form of MRI to reveal underlying metabolic alterations in tumors and lead to new treatments for patients.

"These five research teams, made up of a cross section of expertise from all three stakeholders, represent the beginning of something truly special," says Jaffray in a release. "Our experts are advancing cancer research and care, and we are committed to working with our colleagues at the Oden Institute and TACC to bring together their computational expertise with our data and insights."

Later this month, the five teams will log on to a virtual retreat along with academic and government thought leaders to further collaborate and intertwine their research and expertise.

"Texas is globally recognized for its excellence in computing and in cancer research. This collaboration forges a new path to international leadership through the combination of its strengths in both," says Karen Willcox, director of the Oden Institute. "We are thrilled that leaders in government, industry and academia see the potential of this unique Texan partnership. We're looking forward to a virtual retreat on October 29 to continue to build upon this realization."

To office or not to office? Heading toward post-pandemic, that is the question for Houston workplace strategy

guest column

Since the advent of the modern office over a century ago, its design has continually evolved, adapting to new needs driven by changes in the ways people work.

COVID-19 introduced massive disruption to this steady evolution, displacing millions of office workers to fulfill their job roles from their homes. The question everyone is asking now is what happens after the pandemic — if we can all work from home, is the office irrelevant?

A mass remote work experiment

While many companies had tried some degree of remote work before the pandemic, the mass relocation to home during COVID was new territory for most. And the experiment has offered up something of an epiphany: work-from-home worked. People were able to carry out their job responsibilities, saving thousands of companies from having to shut down and sparing millions of people from job loss.

Now, based on the perceived success of WFH, many organizations are planning to greatly expand remote work, even after the pandemic has passed. Twitter was at the front of the pack in announcing they would allow some employees to work from home forever, and the list has continued to grow well beyond the tech sector.

Success depends on criteria

The lens through which we view this work-from-home period is important. Looked at as an emergency response, WFH can be deemed successful: it helped to flatten the transmission curve of the virus and protected employee lives.

But as we enter one of the most complex and challenging business climates in a century, survival will be about being competitive. And that fundamentally changes the criteria to judge working from home during COVID-19 and whether it should be expanded as a post-pandemic strategy. It raises the bar from "did work-from-home work?" to "did it work better?"; will increasing remote work help to deliver competitive advantage better than having people together in the workplace? That requires a deeper exploration.

Digital breadcrumbs

Work-from-home during COVID is, at heart, a technology story — from the platforms that virtually connected employees to networks and each other, to the embrace of video conferencing and the overnight ubiquity of the Zoom call. While they all existed before COVID, the pandemic acted as a catalyst for their widespread adoption.

Technology use leaves trails of data, like digital breadcrumbs, and many of the collaborative platforms and software providers are generously sharing their data comparing use patterns before and during COVID. So while not too long ago our evaluative methods for this unprecedented period of remote work would have relied largely on subjective or anecdotal measures, today we're able to follow the breadcrumbs and arrive at a more objective understanding of how work changed in this shift from office to home.

What becomes abundantly clear is that it wasn't simply a location swap; we didn't just go about our jobs in the same way at home as we did in the office. There were fundamental and very impactful shifts in the way we worked, with significant implications for business performance.

For instance:

The number of meetings increased. While there is a wide range of percentage increases being reported, even just taking a more conservative estimate, from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the number of meetings went up by 13 percent as compared to pre-COVID patterns.

Meetings turned inward. Since people weren't together physically, they needed to check-in a lot more often. Internal meetings—those with people within the same company — increased to over 60 percent of overall weekly meetings during work-from-home, while meetings with people external to the organization decreased to just below 40 percent, according to analysis by a leading meeting software platform.

Meeting purpose changed. Meetings can largely be grouped into three categories: evaluative — considering options, making decisions; generative — brainstorming, creating new ideas; or organizational — coordinating tasks, reporting. Organizational meetings increased by nearly a third during the peak COVID lockdown.Put another way, during WFH, people had more meetings to talk about doing work and fewer meetings to actually do work.

Meetings got larger. The number of meeting attendees during WFH increased by 14 percent. When people are physically together in the office, more meetings are impromptu, typically involving two to four people. But when you plan meetings in advance, which people have to do when remote, there's a tendency to invite more people. Increasing participants changes meeting dynamics — the more people, the more formal, the more likely it's one-way communication.

Emails to coworkers increased. With the loss of a centralized office and face-to-face interactions, people increased both the number of internal emails they sent by 5.2 percent, as well as the number of people they included in emails by 2.9 percent.

Employees felt less informed. A smartsheet survey showed that despite the increase in virtual meetings and email communication, 60 percent of the workforce reported having a decreased sense of what's going on within their companies, revealing the isolating effect of remote work.

Productive time decreased. With the increase in number of meetings, large swaths of productive time were harder to come by. Calendar analysis revealed that fragmented time—short periods of unscheduled time between meetings—increased by 11 percent during COVID-19.While not ideal for anyone, fragmented time is especially problematic for non-managerial staff, whose job roles tend to entail more individual focus work; it only takes a few poorly spread out meetings to render a day largely unproductive. The result? The work day increased by as much as 3 hours at the height of WFH per Bloomberg report.

Video was a boon…and then quickly a bane. Video conference platforms saw exponential increase in use during COVID, and seemed at first to offer a close substitute for face-to-face meetings. But the way video is synthesized introduces distortions and lags, and even an undetectable misalignment of video and audio confuses the brain, making it work harder, as outlined in the New York Times.People found themselves exhausted after a day of video calls and the scientifically-verified phenomenon "Zoom Fatigue" was born.

Social capital decreased. Socializing has never been something people regularly schedule into their workday; it's very much an ad hoc work mode: a conversation on the elevator or chatting before and after meetings. Those types of unplanned interactions weren't possible working-from-home, and despite admirable attempts to interact virtually, 63 percent of workers reported spending less time socializing with colleagues, and already by April, 75 percent of people reported feeling less connected to coworkers.

Companies became more siloed. According to research by Ben Waber at Humanyze, during WFH we increased communication with our closest work colleagues — team members or close friends at work — by 33 percent. Communication with coworkers outside our inner circle, so-called "weak ties", dropped by nearly the same amount. The problem with that is interactions with weak ties are one of the most effective ways new ideas spread through an organization. When we talk to people we have don't know well or don't see often, it's just much more likely something new is shared.

Innovation is at risk

Taken individually, the changes to work patterns that occurred with WFH might not seem dire — work got done, if not ideally so. But layered on top of each other, the picture is more grim; we had more meetings and our days got more fragmented; we met less with people outside our company; internally, we met less to generate new ideas and more to just coordinate and organize tasks; we became more siloed, we socialized less and felt less connected to each other, and less aware of what was happening within our companies.

What that combination puts most at risk is innovation, arguably the thing companies are going to need most to face the challenges ahead. Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford and internationally recognized scholar on innovation, posits that while we were able to remain productive working-from-home, there may be a steep opportunity cost paid down the line: "I fear this collapse in office face time will lead to a slump in innovation. The new ideas we are losing today could show up as fewer new products in 2021 and beyond, lowering long-run growth."

The workplace advantage

The ways work changed when we tried to do it from home reaffirms why the workplace is even more relevant now, at a time when organizations are going to need to be firing on all cylinders. And it shows that we haven't just been working at the office to bide our time until technology allowed us to ditch it and work from home; we work at the office because doing so delivers higher performance.

Far from irrelevant, today's workplace has evolved to support and foster precisely the behaviors and interactions that are missing in remote work: bringing people together to work side-by-side, to be immersed in the culture of the organization, to socialize, to build trust, and to learn from each other.

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Erik Lucken is strategy director at San Francisco-based IA Interior Architects, which has projects and clients based in Houston.