Startups and small businesses are accumulating data daily — here's how to use that to your advantage. Photo via Getty Images

Starting a business in a digital era brings entrepreneurs unprecedented advantages with technology and tools designed to optimize a business' operation. Whether it is a B2C or B2B, business owners can gather almost any data and metrics to improve their performance.

Being able to interpret data and making data-driven decisions becomes the key to the success of a business. It is not just a privilege for big companies anymore. Small businesses need it more than ever to make sustainable growth in the digital era.

The challenge? There are countless analytic tools and resources available that can generate data, but you need people who can extract insights from the massive amount of data.

Hire a data science team vs. outsourcing

Many companies go to campus recruitment and scout bright data science talent who also identify with their business value. Hiring people with data science and analytic skills is optimal, but for startups that are not ready to hire an in-house team or have a short-term question, outsourcing is a better option.

Data science consulting

Many online resources can help you extract data, but you are probably wondering: where do I begin? Which tool should I use? Which exact metric should I track?

The Rice University's Data Science Consulting Clinic provides free, open to the public assistance to help clients with all of those questions. It can be for various business sectors, such as research and product development, cost predictions, analytic tools, acquisition decisions, and talent management.

Here are some of the data science aspects we specialize in:

Research & Development - Obtain data to inform a decision on what products to develop.
Data analysis of who your customers are, what they are interested in, and what product to develop is crucial for B2C and B2B. A recent example of how Rice's Data Science Consulting Clinic is making a difference is a client needed assistance with market research to help inform a startup on what kind of product they should create next. The client was able to use the data resources suggested by the student and faculty consultants to gauge consumer sentiment and examples of successful products. With the data collected, the client was able to identify the features that drive customers to purchase similar products.

Cost Predictions - A case study for an energy company
Businesses need to make crucial decisions to achieve business intelligence. CEOs and managers need to base their decisions on predictions and analysis. Another client from the Data Science Consulting Clinic was interested in predicting cost and analysis of the factors contributing to the most expense for the coming year. The client's main problem was to transform the data into a statistical model that could predict the cost. With the prediction model suggested by the student consultants, the client was able to reduce the cost by controlling factors that were likely to cause higher costs.

Acquisition Decision Making for Business Professionals
Clients from the Rice MBA program were interested in investigating the causes and effects of private equity (PE) acquisition. Specifically, the clients wanted to analyze the difference in practice habits before and after acquisitions. As a result of the consultation, the clients were able to determine what factors influenced the PE's decision to acquire new equity.

Longer term projects

It would be helpful to have a dedicated data science team who can work over a semester or year long to find the solution.

Higher education has placed a prominent focus on data science programs, especially capstone projects that provide students with real-world experience. As a business owner, you might not even think about working with an esteemed university to help you with data challenges.

The Center for Transforming Data to Knowledge, informally known as the D2K Lab at Rice University, is founded based on the mission to seek real-world data challenges for passionate data science students. Student teams have worked on over 50 sponsored data science projects with partners from a wide variety of businesses, organizations, and community partners.

Advance data science and security

The perk of working with Rice University is that it provides the most advanced data science research tools and an interdisciplinary pool of student and faculty talent who are passionate about data science. Working with Rice University also guarantees a strong data security system and a comprehensive confidentiality agreement.

  • A cloud-based financial company sponsored a series of capstone projects on applying deep learning to reduce documentation errors and increase efficiency for businesses.
  • A fintech company sponsored multiple capstone projects on building statistical models to predict costs.
  • In the tech-med industry, the D2K Lab has partnered with the Medical Informational Corps, and researchers from Texas Children's Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine to build algorithms to predict cardiac events.

The future of data-driven decision making

The digital era has become the norm for all businesses (large or small), and there's no way to avoid the power of transforming data into actionable insights. So start gathering data even before you build out a business and incorporate the culture of data-driven decision making into every sector of your business.

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Shanna Jin is the communications and marketing specialist of the Data to Knowledge Lab at Rice University.

Mercury Data Science has taken a tool it originally developed for COVID-19 research and applied it into new areas of research and innovation. Photo via Getty Images

Houston data science company expands pandemic-inspired research tool

by the numbers

Last fall, Houston-based Mercury Data Science released an AI-driven app designed to help researchers unlock COVID-19-related information tucked into biomedical literature. The app simplified access to data about subjects like genes, proteins, drugs, and diseases.

Now, a year into the coronavirus pandemic, Mercury Data Science is applying this technology to areas like agricultural biotech, cancer therapeutics, and neuroscience. It's an innovation that arose from the pandemic but that promises broader, long-lasting benefits.

Angela Holmes, chief operating officer of Mercury Data Science, says the platform relies on an AI concept known as natural language processing (NLP) to mine scientific literature and deliver real-time results to researchers.

"We developed this NLP platform as a publicly available app to enable scientists to efficiently discover biological relationships contained in COVID research publications," Holmes says.

The platform:

  • Contains dictionaries with synonyms to identify things like genes and proteins that may go by various names in scientific literature.
  • Produces data visualizations of relationships among various biological functions.
  • Summarizes the most important data points on a given topic from an array of publications.
  • Depends on data architecture to automate how data is retrieved and processed.

In agricultural biotech, the platform enables researchers to sift through literature to dig up data about plant genetics, Holmes says. The lack of gene-naming standards in the world of plants complicates efforts to search data about plant genetics, she says.


Angela Holmes is the COO of MDS. Photo via mercuryds.com


The platform's ability to easily ferret out information about plant genetics "allows companies seeking gene-editing targets to make crops more nutritious and more sustainable as the climate changes to have a rapid way to de-risk their genomic analyses by quickly assessing what is already known versus what is unknown," Holmes says.

The platform allowed one of Mercury Data Science's agricultural biotech customers to comb through scientific literature about plant genetics to support targeted gene editing in a bid to improve crop yields.

In the field of cancer therapeutics and other areas of pharmaceuticals, the platform helps prioritize drug candidates, Holmes says. One of Mercury Data Science's customers used the platform to extract data from about 2 terabytes (or 2 trillion bytes) of information to evaluate drug candidates. The information included drug studies, clinical trials, and patents. Armed with that data, Mercury Data Science's cancer therapy client signed agreements with new pharmaceutical partners.

The platform also applies to the hunt for biomarkers in neuroscience, including disorders such as depression, anxiety, autism and multiple sclerosis. Data delivered through the platform helps bring new neurobehavioral therapeutics to market, Holmes says.

"An NLP platform to automatically process newly published literature for more insight on the search for digital biomarkers represents a great opportunity to accelerate research in this area," she says.

Mercury Data Science has experience in the field of digital biomarkers, including work for one customer to develop a voice and video platform to improve insights into patients with depression and anxiety in order to improve treatment of those conditions.

The new platform — initially developed as a tool to combat COVID-19 — falls under the startup's vast umbrella of artificial intelligence and data science. Founded in 2017, Mercury Data Science emerged because portfolio companies of the Houston-based Mercury Fund were seeking to get a better handle on AI and data science.

Last April, Angela Wilkins, founder, co-CEO and chief technology officer of Mercury Data Science, left the company to lead Rice University's Ken Kennedy Institute. Dan Watkins, co-founder and managing director of the Mercury Fund, remains at Mercury Data Science as CEO.

The Ken Kennedy Institute fosters collaborations in computing and data. Wilkins replaced Jan Odegard as executive director of the institute. Odegard now is senior director of industry and academic partnerships at The Ion, the Rice-led innovation hub.

Wilkins "is an academic at heart with considerable experience working with faculty and students, and an entrepreneur who has helped build a successful technology company," Lydia Kavraki, director of the Ken Kennedy Institute, said in a news release announcing Wilkins' new role. "Over her career, Angela has worked on data and computing problems in a number of disciplines, including engineering, life sciences, health care, agriculture, policy, technology, and energy."

It's all a numbers game, and Mercury Data Science is about setting up startups for success. Getty Images

Data-focused Houston company arms startups with the AI tools they need to grow

numbers game

While some say a picture is worth a thousand words, having the right data can be make or break. Houston-based Mercury Data Science is using data and artificial intelligence to paint some really specific pictures for its clients.

MDS was born out of a need for Houston-based Mercury Fund's portfolio companies that wanted a firmer handle on artificial intelligence and data science.

"Three years ago, a number of Mercury Fund portfolio companies and potential investments began to have increasingly important data science and AI components," says Dan Watkins, co-founder and managing director of Mercury Fund. "Mercury's partners wanted a deeper understanding of AI, to understand how the cutting edge meets industry use cases."

Mercury Fund's first move was to tap data scientist Angela Wilkins to lead some training, which then turned into even more workshops and advising. The companies ranged from early seed stage startups to companies that had raised over $100 million — and they wanted Wilkins' help, either with the basics of data science or execution of analytics.

"In fact, many of the more established companies were sitting on data assets with plans to build AI-enabled products but didn't have the time or people to really start that process," Wilkins says. "After helping a few companies, we realized the need was pretty deep, and bigger than the Mercury Fund portfolio."

Wilkins, who serves the company as CTO and co-CEO with Watkins, has seen her efforts grow MDS client base. InnovationMap sat down with Wilkins to see how far MDS has come — and where it's going.

InnovationMap: What sort of problems and data solutions are you providing clients?

Angela Wilkins: We love projects that have a direct impact on human health. In health, we build machine learning driven products to create new forms of digital diagnostics to help improve diagnosis in areas like cognitive functioning and depression. We have helped several therapeutics companies accelerate drug discovery and development by extracting insights from biological and imaging data. We have internal tools that use natural language processing to extract knowledge from millions of scientific publications and patents.

We have also worked quite a bit in consumer behavior and some of our physics-oriented data scientists are now working on noise reduction in geophysics technologies.

IM: What feedback do you get from clients?

AW: Company leaders in every sector are feeling the pressure to gain the advantages of AI or risk falling behind. There are many expert level teams available to Fortune 500 organizations. We are one of the very few teams that is entrepreneurial and agile enough to work with earlier stage, high growth organizations.

IM: How does MDS work with Mercury Fund? Has that relationship evolved over the years?

AW: We continue to work with the Mercury Fund portfolio companies but that is a smaller part of what we do. We are venture backed ourselves, and have now become a Mercury Fund portfolio company, with the same growth ambitions as all venture backed companies.

IM: Recently, MDS has seen some growth. How many employees have you added and are you still hiring?

AW: We are up to 20 employees, mostly data scientists, many with 5 to 8 years of experience working in AI, bioinformatics, and data science to provide insights and build products. We are always looking for great data scientists and data engineers to join our team. We also started a fellowship position for recent graduates, and so we can identify and train the next generation of data scientists

IM: What's been the biggest surprise for you as MDS has grown?

AW: We have been able to create this unique culture that thrives on diversity of thought and background. Half of our team is women. We are solving hard problems that benefit from the creativity you get from a wide variety of views.

IM: Where are MDS clients based?

AW: We have clients from San Francisco to Basel. We have learned how to build an integrated, high communication team with the client, so location is not critical.

That being said, we are active in and committed contributors to the Houston innovation ecosystem. Many of us are from a computational biology and bioinformatics background with deep roots in the Texas Medical Center institutions. Houston has amazing talent and we want to show the data scientists that they don't have to leave Houston to work on interesting problems and continue to build skills at the cutting edge while working for companies all over the world.

IM: What sort of trends are you seeing in venture capital? Are these trends happening in Houston?

We are seeing increasing investments in health AI. Fierce Healthcare reports that health AI topped all other sectors last year with $4B invested into AI startups. Andreesen Horowitz has announced their third and largest biotech and health care fund with $750 million to invest: "Machine learning and artificial intelligence [will] have an outsize impact on how we discover drugs and diagnose disease."

We see similar trends in other areas from industrial software to financial services. The upshot is that the adoption of AI creates significant opportunities for startups and significant challenges for larger companies that are not entrepreneurial and able to build their own data science skill set.

As far as Houston goes, the same trends are there but we tend to lag the major technology hubs in adoption. Efforts like TMC Innovation, Station, Rice University/The Ion and Houston Exponential are having a big impact on both the number and pace of startups and, increasingly, those have AI as a key part of their technology stack.

IM: We've talked about how MDS flies under the radar — why do you think that is? Do you think that'll change as you grow?

AW: Our initial focus was on the work for our clients and on building our team. We are ready to be noticed. Thank you for helping us tell the story with this article.

Houston-based Pandata Tech uses its machine learning technology to advance oil and gas operations. Thomas Miller/Breitling Energy

Houston data startup plans to expand its technology from oil and gas to include health care and defense industries

Data diversifying

There are about 40,000 sensors on an offshore drilling rig, and each collects information about how the rig's many machines are operating. But sensors can fail or be miscalibrated and, in the relay between the rig and data scientists, data can pick up errors. The scientists will first have to clean and validate the information to ensure its credible.

That's where Pandata Tech comes in. The Houston-based company can run a data quality check for its oil and gas clients. But Gustavo Sanchez, co-founder and CEO of the company, is speeding up that process by automating it. Pandata Tech uses machine learning to review data generated by drilling rigs — and the algorithms determine how likely that data can be trusted. And for Houston's 175,000 residents employed in oil and gas, that data needs to be trustworthy.

"If the data's bad, then you're going to have a lot of bad decisions," Sanchez says.

The legacy of machine learning began in the 1950s, when computer scientist Arthur Samuel wrote a program for a computer to play checkers and improve at the game the more it played. Since then, the complex algorithms written for computers to learn and develop without human intervention have been implemented in industries like finance, sales, surveillance, and more.

Sanchez and his business partner, Jessica Reitmeier, met in China during graduate school. They founded the company after a stint for Sanchez in finance data science. He realized that small service companies had no control over their equipment operated and put data analytics in the hands of small, independent service contractors. So they developed Pandata Tech in January 2016, and today their core team has three people who manage data science, marketing and operations, and staff development.

Pandata Tech's software reduces the amount of time data scientists have to spend validating their data — from 80 percent of their time down to just 20 percent, Sanchez says. It works by using models to generate a data quality score.

For example, a sensor that monitors pressure levels is paired with a computer model of what those levels should be — and the software checks for missing or incorrect data, then uses statistics to determine how likely that the sensors are picking up correct data. It creates a quality score for that data between 0 and 100 in the short and long term; if it compiles the data for a 24-hour window, then the score should be close to 100, but the software can also analyze data for 90-day streaks. In this case, the ideal might be above 60. It's a lot like a credit check, Sanchez says.

And while Pandata Tech began in the energy industry, the team is now expanding to fields like defense and healthcare, which also generate hundreds of thousands of data points that need it be checked. The unique challenges of working with large drilling rigs have translated well to working with aircrafts. And the healthcare field is similar — with the Texas Medical Center, Houston's medical research centers can benefit from hastening the process of data validation.

"There's so much data, and it's so noisy, that it's hard to know whether the data can be trusted or not," Sanchez says.

Pandata Tech is focusing on its current revenue sources in these three fields. Recently, they closed on a deal with one of the largest offshore drilling companies in the world, and Sanchez hopes to double his team size within the year. But he's staying cautious — and the move to healthcare and defense industries is not just a move to expand the use of his company's technology. It's also a way of reducing risk, by not investing in just one industry.

"It's hard to sell scale to a startup," Sanchez says. "We've gotta reduce our risk so we can continue to grow."

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These are the events to attend each day during the Houston Tech Rodeo 2021

where to be

For the second year, Houston Exponential has tapped into the Houston innovation ecosystem to coordinate a week of events to speak to the city's startups, investors, and startup development organizations.

Houston Tech Rodeo will feature over 160 events between May 16 to 23 both online and all across town. From panels and meetups to office hours and pitch events, there's a lot to navigate in the second annual week. For a complete list of Tech Rodeo events (most of which are free), head to the website.

Here are the events you should make sure not to miss. (InnovationMap is a partner for the event.)

Note: You must register for HTR to be able to register for each event. For that reason, the event pages aren't linked directly. Find the information for each event through the HTR event website under the agenda tab, then sort by the day to find the specific event.

Monday: Gettin' in the Game with Master P: A Fireside Chat

The second annual Houston Tech Rodeo kicks off with hip-hop mogul, actor, producer, entrepreneur, and philanthropist, Percy (Master P) Miller on Monday, May 17, at 8 pm. "Gettin' In the Game with Master P" will be an exclusive fireside chat with the legend himself, interviewed by A-List Angels author and former Forbes editor, Zack O'Malley Greenburg. Hear about Master P's journey going from an international rap artist to a CEO, avid investor, and founder of Nemesis RR-- adding diversity in the automotive industry and empowering a culture of dreamers.

The event is free and available online. Register online.

Other Monday online events not to miss:

  • 11 am — HTX: Building a Thriving & Inclusive Innovation Ecosystem — join leaders from across the region's startup ecosystem, including Halliburton Labs, DivInc and The Ion, as they discuss how Houston has become a thriving hub for digital technology while fostering a culture of inclusive innovation.
  • 3 pm — All Roads Lead to Houston - Cross Industry Collaboration, the Intersection of Innovation — this event will focus on the "how" rather than "why", systemic barriers to collaboration, and available resources to analyze, de-risk and solve technology problems through meaningful collaboration.

Tuesday: Unleashing Innovation for Resilience in Disaster and Risk Mitigation

Tired of the hurricanes, snow and ice, COVID and just about every other disaster affecting Houstonian's businesses, homes, communities? Join risk mitigation experts for an in-person and virtual panel on May 18 at 2 pm. The panelists will address how Greater Houston becomes an innovation hub for pre-disaster and risk mitigation across droughts and floods, spills and leaks, fires and explosions, health and pandemics...and engages diverse populations for inclusion as entrepreneurs and mitigated locations.

The event is free and available online. Register online.

Other Tuesday online events not to miss:

  • 11:30 am — Demystifying Med Tech & Digital Health InvestmentsAttend this event to learn from the experts on what investors are seeking in digital health and med tech.
  • Noon — Made in Houston: Building Houston's Digital FutureHouston is on a mission to lead the way in digital transformation. How governments and corporations should accelerate the use of tech solutions and services while balancing the concerns of individuals on the adoption of such tools?
  • 5 pm (hybrid) — HTX Sports Tech: Panel & Happy Hour — HTX Sports Tech is hosting an in-person and online happy hour discussion between Houston's esports and sports industry leaders as we'll discuss the landscape of the esports and sports tech industry, share ideas on the role the industry can impact Houston's developing tech ecosystem, and opportunities to shape the future of the industry through innovative and collaborative efforts.

Wednesday: How Will Innovation Create a Diverse Rising Tide Within Houston's Ecosystem?

Houston is building a thriving innovation ecosystem, but innovation itself won't advance diverse economic prosperity given the status quo. So the question is…how will Houston leverage the city's biggest asset — its diversity — to maximize our potential? Panelists discuss at the online event on May 19 at 11 am.

The event is free and available online. Register online.

Other Wednesday online events not to miss:

  • 11 am — The Big Deal with EsportsDid an esports tournament really sell out the Staples Center? Did the winner of the Fortnite World Cup really make more than Tiger Woods in the Masters? Is esports really bigger than Major League Baseball? Join the discussion on how esports is transforming the business of competitive entertainment.
  • 3 pm — How 3D Printing Can Transform Houston's Manufacturing LandscapeJoin Houston 3D printing experts as they discuss the changing manufacturing landscape of the city and highlight the importance of innovation, economic impact, and sustainability through the adoption of industrial 3D printing technologies.
  • 4 pm — Rice Business Entrepreneurship Association Presents: Throw Your Wild Idea into the Arena First Pitch Competition Have you identified a problem space and a tech-enabled potential solution? The Rice Business Entrepreneurship Association wants to hear your early-stage wild idea. Come make your 90 second pitch and seek advisors, team members, and helpful feedback on your concept. Submit your info here.

Thursday: Female Founders' Tough Lessons Learned

Have an idea for a startup, already launched and building your startup, or just want to hear from those who've already been there? Join a powerhouse panel of female startup founders on May 20 at 9:30 am. Listen as the panelists share their journey and entrepreneurial struggles, and what it really takes to launch and run a startup.

The event is free and available online. Register online.

Other Thursday online events not to miss:

  • 11 am — BORN GLOBAL — Houston Tech Rodeo's International track will offer thoughtful discussions on the hour beginning at 11 am with a keynote.
  • 2 pm — Creating Space (and Tech) for DiversityA diverse panel of experts in space and technology will speak on their experience in these fields.

Friday: $50k Houston Investment Challenge

The Capital Factory challenge will occur on May 21 at Houston Tech Rodeo in partnership with Houston Exponential and will feature five technology startup finalists from greater Houston that will be evaluated by a panel of successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. One will walk away with a $50,000 investment.

The event is free and available online. Register online.

Other Friday online events not to miss:

  • 11 am — FemTech Panel — Join a virtual discussion with femtech leaders brought to you by FemTech Focus.
  • 1 pm — Innovation at Scale: Boosting Climatetech and Clean Energy Startups — Join Greentown Labs Houston for a virtual panel on incubating and supporting clean energy startups. The panel, featuring leaders from the regional climatetech innovation ecosystem and moderated by Greentown Houston Launch Director Juliana Garaizar, will discuss how to best set up startups for success and scale.

4 Houston companies clock in among America’s best employers, says Inc.

happy workers

Houston has already been heralded as a hotbed for innovation. Now, a handful of local companies are in the spotlight as the best places to work.

Four Houston companies are among 429 businesses named May 12 to Inc. magazine's 2021 list of the country's best workplaces. They are:

  • Marketing and PR firm CKP, Houston.
  • Environmental restoration company Ecosystem Planning and Restoration, Tomball.
  • IT automation platform Liongard, Houston.
  • Online recruiting service WizeHire, Houston.

"We've taken steps, especially during the pandemic, to build an amazing team and inclusive culture that is rooted in collaboration," Liongard CEO Joe Alapat says in a news release. "I am proud every day of the work this team is doing and the positive impact we're having on the managed services industry, and thrilled that our employees share our excitement and enthusiasm."

Meanwhile, 11 Austin companies receiving kudos are:

  • 9Gauge Partners, a business management consulting firm.
  • AgileAssets, a provider of transportation management software.
  • AlertMedia, an emergency communication and monitoring platform.
  • Decent, a provider of health insurance.
  • Fourlane, a provider of QuickBooks support.
  • Made In Cookware, an e-commerce startup that sells pots, pans, and other cookware.
  • Mighty Citizen, a branding, marketing, and communications firm.
  • OJO Labs, a platform for buying and selling homes.
  • Ontic, a company whose software helps companies address physical threats.
  • Q1Media, a digital media company.
  • The Zebra, an insurance marketplace.

Nick Soman, founder and CEO of Decent, says his company seeks to trust, respect, and appreciate every employee.

"This year that has meant quickly helping employees who lost power during an unprecedented snowstorm find a warm place to stay and offering unlimited time off," Soman says in a news release. "Being recognized as a top workplace is a special honor for Decent. Our people are at the heart of our company. They foster our amazing culture and drive our consistently outstanding customer service."

Lukas Quanstrom, CEO of Ontic, says his company is committed to upholding the core values, standards, and practices that contributed to the Inc. honor.

"Over the past year, the Ontic team has experienced rapid growth reinforcing how important our supportive, entrepreneurial culture is to nurturing talent and prioritizing our employees' overall welfare," Quanstrom says in a news release.

Each nominated company took part in an employee survey, conducted by Quantum Workplace, on topics including management effectiveness, perks, and employee growth. Also, an organization's benefits were audited to help determine the employer's standing.

Elsewhere in Texas, seven Dallas-Fort Worth employers, four Houston-area employers, and one San Antonio employer made the Inc. list.

Dallas-Fort Worth area

  • Staffing and recruiting firm BridgeWork Partners, Dallas.
  • Commercial real estate services company esrp, Frisco.
  • Staffing agency Frontline Source Group, Dallas.
  • PR and marketing firm Idea Grove, Dallas.
  • HVAC and plumbing warranty company JB Warranties, Argyle.
  • Technical consulting firm Stratosphere Consulting, Dallas.
  • NetSuite consulting firm The Vested Group, Plano.

Inc. highlights esrp's employee emergency fund, which offers "a financial lifeline for a range of life events, including funerals, medical emergencies, and welcoming new grandchildren. The omnipresent resource is funded through anonymous employee donations."

San Antonio

The only San Antonio company to make the 2021 list was IT services provider Mobius Partners.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.