This energy tech startup is using tech to change the game within the exploration and production industry. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston area environmental and energy tech company offers a new pay-as-you-go SaaS application that uses chemistry, physics, artificial intelligence, and cloud technology to build simulation platforms for major exploration and production companies.

AquaNRG Consulting's new technology has already been used by major independent E&P companies, helping to increase energy production and optimization. With new products like aiRock™, it uses cloud-based technology to simulate the physical and chemical processes in natural and human-made porous media driven by data.

The company, founded in 2017 by Babak Shafei, a Ph.D. in Earth and Environmental Sciences, uses data chemistry-physics in a new scientific methodology that uses data-driven methods including machine learning to complement and enhance theoretical modeling on reactive transport modeling (RTM) principles.

"We have been working on the product while also thinking of new ways to provide services needed in the energy industry for a number of years," says Shafei.

Babak Shafei founded Houston-based AquaNRG. Photo courtesy of AquaNRG

AquaNRG has been awarded three prestigious Small Business Innovation Research grants totaling $1.4 million from the US Department of Energy and National Science Foundation.

Shafei says that his team of in the research lab continues to develop and improve the set of techniques that can optimize the oil and gas industry. The technology offers a number of solutions in the geology area, including geochemistry or petrophysical calculations, or even in the environmental area for biogeochemistry and remediation calculations.

"Our technology is oriented to big data and big computing," says Shafei. "The platform is armed machine learning and artificial intelligence that uses the chemistry-physics methodology while using a cloud-based application that is very popular and essential for the energy sector."

Shafei says that during the ongoing coronavirus crisis, the digitization of the energy industry has only increased, and helped AquaNRG grow their brand. They plan to use this upward push to their advantage, by expanding their business and thinking well into the future.

"Our team of researchers is focused on our product and our offerings," says Shafei. "There's a lot of exciting things on our mind, including different verticals in terms of new hiring and new facilities, we're looking forward to rolling forward with that."

Nicolaus Radford — CEO, CTO, and co-founder of Houston Mechatronics Inc. — joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his plans to take his cloud robotics company global. Photo courtesy of HMI

Houston robotics company founder plans to take his startup global

houston innovators podcast episode 45

What do space and the ocean have in common? Both have a lot left to explore — while also having environments that aren't so easy for human exploration. A former robotics expert at NASA, Nicolaus Radford founded his cloud robotics company six years ago to create a fleet of robots that can help better complete the tasks that offshore industries need.

Radford remembers his time at NASA and how the organization was looking for opportunities to incorporate more public-private partnerships. Through some meetings and tours, Radford began to see that there was an emerging interest in underwater robotics.

"It became evident that not only was there a huge desire and requirement for what people wanted to do under water, but Houston was likely an epicenter for it," Radford says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

With this in mind — and an entrepreneurial itch — Radford started Houston Mechatronics Inc. in 2014. He's grown the company through a few venture capital raises and across the energy biz and into new industries. Now, he's looking to take the company global with plans for opening new offices in the United Kingdom and in the Asia Pacific region.

"We're absolutely going to be a global company," Radford says, explaining that new clients in these areas are what's calling for the new offices. "The next 12 months of this company are going to be extremely vibrant and dynamic."

Radford also discusses how the pandemic has affected his business and his challenges raising a round in the episode of the podcast. You can listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes

Jay Bhatty looked at how pipeline data reached traders and thought of a better way. Getty Images

Growing Houston company makes pipeline data more accessible for natural gas trading

Digital upgrade

In the energy capital of the world, Houston entrepreneur Jay Bhatty has established a rapidly growing technology hub for the natural gas industry.

Bhatty, a veteran of the natural-gas-trading business, 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.

The NatGasHub.com platform, which runs on cloud-based software, launched in late 2017. The startup participated in the final accelerator class of the Houston Technology Center; the accelerator program shut down in early 2018.

Bhatty hatched the idea for NatGasHub.com while he was vice president of energy trading at JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s investment-banking arm, where for more than eight years he felt frustrated by the sluggish nature of natural-gas-trading activities.

First off, data about natural gas pipelines — such as whether a pipeline has capacity issues that could trigger a spike in prices — has, for years, been scattered across the web. Now, NatGasHub.com aggregates pipeline data from dozens upon dozens of websites.

Secondly, transferring natural gas from Point A to Point B has historically involved the tedious task of manually typing a "nomination" to enable the sale of natural gas. NatGasHub.com automates that job, freeing up workers' time so they can tackle meatier projects.

Bhatty compares the now-streamlined nomination process to buying an airline ticket on Expedia or booking a hotel room on Hotels.com. Like those travel websites, NatGasHub.com also serves as a one-stop shop, only in this case it offers a single dashboard for selling natural gas. Until NatGasHub.com came along, U.S. companies had relied on cadres of employees to enter natural gas nominations by hand into about 100 gas pipeline websites, and to track gas flow around the clock via spreadsheets and phone calls, Bhatty says.

In a nutshell, NatGasHub.com serves as both a data supplier and a logistics provider for the natural gas industry.

"Software automation has led to reduced costs for our clients," Bhatty says.

As of early December 2018, NatGasHub.com's customer roster featured 32 companies. Bhatty declines to identify the startup's clients, but he says they're well-known names in energy circles. Bhatty says energy producers, utilities, banks, and hedge funds are among the types of clients that benefit from NatGasHub.com.

"We're adding customers at a pretty fast rate," Bhatty says. "We're definitely in growth mode right now."

NatGasHub.com also is adding revenue at a pretty fast rate. From October 2017 to October 2018, revenue soared by 300 percent, while profit skyrocketed by 5,500 percent, according to Bhatty.

NatGasHub.com has accomplished all of that without taking one penny from outside investors, Bhatty says.

The energy industry has taken notice of NatGasHub.com's success. In August, Energy CIO Insights named it one of North America's 10 best energy technology startups for 2018.

Today, NatGasHub.com employs 18 people in Houston. Bhatty envisions the workforce growing to 30 to 35 employees by the end of 2019. Planned expansions into other segments of the energy industry, such as crude oil, and into the Canadian market could bump up that projection. Currently, NatGasHub.com operates only in the U.S.

Among the kinds of workers NatGasHub.com will be hiring over the next year are software programmers, database administrators, and sales representatives.

"It's hard to find any kind of qualified people in this economy with the unemployment rate so low," Bhatty says. "But the good part has been that there's a lot of qualified people who want to work in a startup environment — they want to leave the bigger companies and try something different."

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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.