A new, data-intensive technique can create a better profile of a firm and its profit forecast. Photo via Pexels

Earnings summaries are the corporate version of a Magic 8 Ball, something used to forecast future performance and profit. But Rice Business professor Brian Rountree has found that magic has its limits, and that by delving into a few additional areas of interest, investors can get a more accurate prediction of a company's future earnings than current techniques allow.

Plenty of studies analyze how to use performance summaries to calculate a firm's potential and future profits. Building on the abundant literature around this approach, Rountree, working with colleagues Andrew B. Jackson of the UNSW Australia Business School and Marlene Plumlee of the University of Utah, devised a new, additional technique for forecasting profits. By dissecting an assortment of operating details, the researchers discovered, it's possible to create a more precise forecast of a company's financial future.

Rather than replacing prior work on the subject, Rountree's team delved deeper into the significance of details within existing data. Their focus: whether including a firm's market, its overall industry and any unique activity specific to the firm makes for a more reliable profit forecast. Their conclusion: Firms can indeed improve their predictions if they separate returns on net operating assets (RNOA) into separate components and use those figures in their projections.

Normally, firms use market and industry related data to create future profit predictions. For example, a major oil company might use data on market conditions and the overall state of the oil industry to build its profits prediction. The resulting financial literature might be peppered with statements such as, "Like the rest of big oil…" or "The overall market for oil remains soft."

While this type of data is typically used to make projections, Rountree and his colleagues used the market and industry information more formally by creating the equivalent of stock return betas — a statistical measure of risk — for corporate earnings. In addition, they allowed for adding firm-specific information to market and industry information to help forecast earnings.

To conduct their study, Rountree's team used Compustat quarterly data to calculate firm, industry and market RNOAs from 1976 to 2014. Next, they broke these figures down and separated the results into different categories.

Their resulting formula differs from the conventional approach because it doesn't rely on one average set of market and industry-related data for each firm. Instead, it assumes varying factors for each company. The devil is in these details: Calculating specific market, industry and firm-idiosyncratic components improves the chances of forecasting profits correctly.

Correctly breaking down and separating profitability details to plug into the new formula is no small task. Separating company data into just three components requires up to 20 quarters of figures about prior profitability.

Once the information is processed, a researcher must then be vigilant for "noise" — incidental, irrelevant data that can lead to errors. Finally, Rountree warns, the breakdown process may not work as well for forecasting bankruptcy as it does for profits.

Used correctly, however, the technique is a practical new tool. By breaking down profitability into market, industry and firm-specific idiosyncrasies, researchers can improve forecasts strikingly compared to conventional calculations of total RNOAs.

The most accurate profit forecasts in other words, demand more than just a figurative shake of an industry Magic 8 Ball. To find the most reliable information about future earnings, a company instead has to flawlessly juggle years' worth of specific details about their particular firm. But the reward of planning based on a correct forecast can pay for itself.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. It's based on research by Brian Rountree, an associate professor of accounting at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

InformAI can use its data technology to help doctors with preventative care and diagnoses. Courtesy of InformAI

Houston artificial intelligence startup aims to impact medical field

Data driven

A Houston-based startup has a new technology that allows hospitals and medical establishments better access to its own data – which translates into more effective diagnoses and preventative care.

InformAI — founded by Jim Havelka, CEO, in 2017 — is introducing the technology to the Texas Medical Center. Havelka saw a need within the medical industry for this type of service.

"There were several things missing," says Havelka. "One was access to very large data sets, because it wasn't really until the last five or 10 years that digitalization of data, especially in the healthcare vertical became more widespread and available in a format that's usable. The second convergence was the technology, the ability to process very large data sets."

InformAI currently offers four unique solutions using artificial intelligence and deep learning algorithms: Paranasal Sinus Classifier; Brain Cancer Classifier; Patient Outcome Predictors; and Surgical Risk Predictors.

According to the website, both medical image classifiers assist physicians in detecting the presence of medical conditions. The Paranasal Sinus Classifier detects and distinguishes medical conditions prevalent in the paranasal sinuses. The classifier assists physicians by evaluating sinus medical conditions at the point of care, speeding up radiologist workflow by flagging medical conditions for further review, and providing a triage of pending sinus patient study reviews. The Brain Cancer Classifier focuses on several tumor types and has the potential to provide radiologists and surgeons with additional insights to inform their diagnoses and treatment plans.

In addition to the classifier solutions, the predictors are also key to patient care, as InformAI patient outcome predictors evaluate the risk of adverse outcomes from a surgical procedure.

"Our data set has 275,000 surgical procedures that we can use to look for patterns, and then use that to understand how a patient may react to going through that surgical procedure and that's a very valuable input to surgeons," Havelka tells InnovationMap. Patient outcome risks include mortality, stroke, prolonged ventilation, infection, re-operation, and prolonged hospitalization.

"The innovation is the ability to use artificial intelligence to augment the capabilities of the physician and flag diagnostics for them to consider," says Havelka. "For example, one of our image classifiers that reads three-dimensional CT head scans has the equivalent of thirty lifetimes of an ENT contained in the AI labeled training dataset. It would take thirty lifetimes of an ENT to see that same number of scans and associated disease state patterns. InformAI currently has 10 full-time employees and works with radiologists-in-residence in building solutions and conducting research. The startup partners with the Texas Medical Center, Nvidia, Amazon, and Microsoft.

"They're quite interested in what we've built because it's really cutting edge technology that we're doing," Havelka tells InnovationMap.

Havelka and his team also work with some of the largest physician groups and imaging companies in the country to build products. "At the end of the day our core competency is the ability to take data, medical images or patient data, and put it into a usable format to assist physicians in making better treatment decisions for patients," says Havelka. "We can flag and detect patterns, disease states, and risk profiles that can improve the decision making of the physicians for the patient.

InformAI has plans to fundraise this year, with a goal of raising $5 million to $6 million in a round.

Luther Birdzell, founder and CEO of Houston-based OAG Analytics is on a mission to democratize data for his upstream oil and gas clients. Courtesy of OAG Analytics

Houston entrepreneur is using his analytics company to change the oil and gas industry

Featured Innovator

Luther Birdzell has been on a mission to democratize data for the upstream oil and gas industry since he started his company, OAG Analytics, in 2013.

For him, there's just not enough data scientists for hire to do the same thing internally for different companies. He thought of a way where he can give clients an easy-to-use platform to have access to data that could save oil and gas companies millions of dollars. So, that's exactly what he did.

"Over the past five and a half years, we've built that platform," Birdzell says. "We are currently helping to optimize over $1 billion in capital deployment around drilling and completions."

The company has grown to 25 employees and tripled its revenue last year. The team is forecasting another year of high grow for 2019.

Birdzell spoke with InnovationMap to talk about his start in software, the company's growth, and why nonprofit work has been important to him as a business leader.

InnovationMap: Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

Luther Birdzell: When I was about two years old, my grandfather ran a meat business in New York City — in the meatpacking district, back when that area actually had meat packers. It just was in my bones from a really young age that I wanted to start a business.

IM: How did you get into software development?

LB: I studied electrical engineering in college. For my first seven years, I worked within consulting, implementing systems that made data more valuable to subject matter experts. I was primarily supporting management teams and mostly tech teams.

Then, I met the founders of iTKO, who were doing software testing for clients, and I helped them figure out a way that was complementary to what they were doing. We took a capability that can enable software developers that can help companies reduce their data center costs by a lot. It was a capability that was really restricted to specialized programing. Together we figured out how to make that a capability that anyone in an IT company used. That resulted in companies being able to higher fewer people to maintain servers, as well as reduce other costs. Companies were saving of millions of dollars per year per project.

IM: When did the idea for OAG come to you?

LB: Computer Associates bought iTKO from us in 2011. When I resigned from CA in 2013, it was very clear to me that artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning, and the cloud, were all tech ingredients for adding more value to data. Then the oil and gas business came into focus.

When I founded OAG Analytics, our mission then — and still is today — was to build a platform for the upstream oil and gas industry that enables them to manage their data, introduces world-class machine learning in minutes without having to write a single line of code, and allow them to run simulations on the resulting analysis.

IM: What makes OAG successful?

LB: My vision was to create a platform that could be trusted to support billions of dollars of capital optimization through transparency and control. A black box doesn't work for the kind of problems we're helping our customers optimize. They need something that's easy to use, simple, powerful, and also gives them complete control.

IM: What's the barrier of success for your clients?

LB: We have customers who have increased their capital efficiency on drilling programs that are about $500 million by over 25 percent, while still getting the same amount of oil out of the ground.

IM: What was the early reception like?

LB: We found a lot of interest in talking about how it works. In 2013, 2014, 2015, well over half the industry knew enough about this technology from other industries to have high confidence that it would affect the oil and gas industry one day. They were willing to spend an hour or two on what it is and how it works. But the number of companies who were really willing to invest in a meaningful way was really small.

There were companies, like EOG Resources, for example started spending millions of dollars developing this technology in house. Other companies seeing EOG and Anadarko success, raised the bar on the level of proof.

There's an increasing number of companies in the industry who realize that AI isn't a futuristic thing anymore. There are companies using it today, and the companies using it right are making more money. But, they're learning it's hard to do right. It could take years and millions of dollars to develop this yourself, but we're helping companies get up to speed in a matter of months, and our total cost for the first year is well under a million bucks to do this. They want us to train them how to use it, then act as support, rather than run it all for them.

IM: Do you plan to stay in just upstream oil and gas?

LB: We're 100 percent focused on upstream oil and gas, and always have been, but as we continue to grow, we're going to follow the market and what customers want. Repurposing our platform for other applications in oil and gas, energy, and even beyond that. We're evaluating. The vision has always been to democratize AI, and oil and gas is where we started.

IM: Do you have an exit strategy?

LB: As far as exits, I get asked this a lot. I don't believe in exit strategies. I believe in building a great company. I've seen a lot of founders make a lot of mistakes trying to cut corners to get to early exits. Our goal is to be a great company, and that starts with the right vision and then getting the right people and hires.

IM: How has Houston been as a place to have a startup in energy?

LB: Houston is unparalleled in the oil patch or the ability to support day trips. There's two airports and tons of direct flights to other cities in the oil patch. It's the only city you can cover all the other cities from with day trips. The efficiency of being able to be on site with customers is such an advantage.

There are a lot of industry experts in and around Houston, but a startup software company works very differently from an oil company. I think we have a long road ahead of us before we have an ecosystem in place to support startups and give them the best chance of success. Some of that comes from advisers, some from the ecosystem, and some part of it just takes time. But once those pieces come into play, talent follows. I think Houston is a very natural hub for energy tech.

IM: Volunteering is an important part of your business. Why is that something you've focused on?

LB: Something in the DNA of our business is giving back. We do that through direct community action. We've volunteered as a company, and we're always on the lookout for ways we can engage with and make the most contribution to the community. We do this primarily for personal reasons, but the universe has been very generous over my career with reciprocating a professional upside.

You volunteer in high school to get into college, then maybe some in college. And you might think, "oh that's for philanthropists or retired people and I'll get back to that later." But the reality of that is it feels better doing some of that now, so we do.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Comcast donates tech, funds to support diversity-focused nonprofit

gift of tech

A Houston organization focused on helping low-income communities by providing access to education, training, and employment has received a new donation.

Comcast’s Internet Essentials program announced the a donation of a $30,000 financial grant and 1,000 laptops to SERJobs. The gift is part of a new partnership with SERJobs that's aimed at educating and equipping adults with technical skills, including training on Microsoft Office and professional development.

“SERJobs is excited to celebrate 10 years of Comcast's Internet Essentials program,” says Sheroo Mukhtiar, CEO, SERJobs, in a news release. “The Workforce Development Rally highlights the importance of digital literacy in our increasingly virtual world—especially as technology and the needs of our economy evolve. We are grateful to Comcast for their ongoing partnership and support of SERJobs’ and our members.”

For 10 years Comcast's Internet Essentials program has connected more than 10 million people to the Internet at home — most for the first time. This particular donation is a part of Project UP, Comcast’s comprehensive initiative to advance digital equity.

“Ten years is a remarkable milestone, signifying an extraordinary amount of work and collaboration with our incredible community partners across Houston,” says Toni Beck, vice president of external affairs at Comcast Houston, in the release.

“Together, we have connected hundreds of thousands of people to the power of the Internet at home, and to the endless opportunity, education, growth, and discovery it provides," she continues. "Our work is not done, and we are excited to partner with SERJobs to ensure the next generation of leaders in Houston are equipped with the technical training they need to succeed in an increasingly digital world.”

It's not the first time the tech company has supported Houston's low-income families. This summer, Comcast's Internet Essentials program and Region 4 Education Service Center partnered with the Texas Education Agency's Connect Texas Program to make sure Texas students have access to internet services.

Additionally, Comcast set up an internet voucher program with the City of Houston last December, and earlier this year, the company announced 50 Houston-area community centers will have free Wi-Fi connections for three years. Earlier this year, the company also dedicated $1 million to small businesses struggling due to the pandemic that are owned by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.

President Joe Biden appoints Houston green space guru to lofty national post

new gig

Aprominent and nationally acclaimed Houston parks presence has just received a hefty national appointment. President Joe Biden has named Beth White, Houston Parks Board president and CEO, the chair of the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), the organization announced.

The NCPC, established by Congress in 1924, is the federal government’s central planning agency for the National Capital Region. The commission provides overall guidance related to federal land and buildings in the region. Functions include reviewing the design of federal and local projects, overseeing long-range planning for future development, and monitoring capital investment by federal agencies.

Fittingly, White was initially appointed to NCPC as the at-large presidential commissioner in January 2012, per a press release. She was reappointed for another six-year term in 2016. Most recently, White served as the commission’s vice-chair.

“I’m honored to chair the National Capital Planning Commission and work with my fellow commissioners to build and sustain a livable, resilient capital region and advance the Biden Administration’s critical priorities around sustainability, equity, and innovation,” White said in a statement.

Before joining Houston Parks Board in 2016, White served as the director of the Chicago Region Office of The Trust for Public Land, where she spearheaded development of The 606 public park and was instrumental in establishing Hackmatack Wildlife Refuge.

Renowned in the Windy City, she also was managing director of communications and policy for the Chicago Housing Authority; chief of staff for the Chicago Transit Authority’s Chicago Transit Board; and assistant commissioner for the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development. She was the founding executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, and currently serves on the Advisory Board for Urban Land Institute Houston.

The graduate of Northwestern and Loyola universities most recently received the Houston Business Journal’s 2021 Most Admired CEO award, per her bio.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.