From a supercomputer making its debut in West Houston to a behind-the-scenes look at Amazon's artificial intelligence-enabled fulfillment center, these were Houston's top stories in tech. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Editor's note: Houston had some big stories in technology this year, from a peek inside Amazon's artificial intelligence-enabled Houston facility and the opening of a new supercomputer to space-focused Houston startups and the future of virtual reality.

Massive data center officially opens just west of Houston

Matthew Lamont is managing director at DownUnder GeoSolutions' which just opened its new, powerful data center west of Houston. Courtesy of DUG

DownUnder GeoSolutions has officially opened its new data centre in Skybox Houston in Katy, Texas. It's being billed as one of the most powerful supercomputers on earth.

The center, which houses DUG's geophysical cloud service, DUG McCloud, celebrated its grand opening on Thursday, May 16. The company's data hall has 15 megawatts of power and resides in a building designed to withstand hurricane-force winds up to 190 mph.

A second, identical hall is already planned to be built out later this year. Together, the two machines will have a capacity of 650 petaflop, which is a measurement of computing speed that's equal to one thousand million million floating-point operations per second. Continue reading.

5 startups keeping Houston known as the Space City

Houston celebrated 50 years since the Apollo moon landing on July 20. Here are some startups that are going to be a part of the next 50 years of space tech in Houston. Photo via NASA.gov

This month, for the most part, has been looking back on the history Houston has as the Space City in honor of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing on July 20. While it's great to recognize the men and women who made this city the major player in space exploration that it is, there are still entrepreneurs today with space applications and experience that represent the future of the Space City. Continue reading.

How Amazon's Houston fulfillment center uses AI technology and robotics to move millions of products

From robotics to artificial intelligence, here's how Amazon gets its products to Houstonians in record time. Photo by Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Last summer, Amazon opened the doors to its North Houston distribution center — one of the company's 50 centers worldwide that uses automation and robotics to fulfill online orders.

The Pinto Business Park facility has millions of products in inventory across four floors. Products that are 25 pounds or less (nothing heavier is stocked at this location) pass through 20 miles of conveyor belts, 1,500 employees, and hundreds of robots.

The center also has daily tours open to the public. We recently visited to see for ourselves the process a product goes through at this Houston plant. From stowing to shipping, here's how packages go from your shopping cart to your front porch. Continue reading.

Developments in virtual reality technology are changing the workforce, say Houston experts

The solution to Houston's workforce problem might be right in front of our eyes. Getty Images

Everyone's job has training associated with it — from surgeons to construction crane operators — and there's a growing market need for faster, more thorough training of our workforce.

"The best way to learn how to do something, is to just get out and do it," says Eric Liga, co-founder of HoustonVR. "But there are a lot of reasons why you can't do that in certain types of training."

Augmented and virtual reality training programs are on the rise, and Liga cites safety, cost, and unpredictable work environments as some of these most obvious reasons reasons to pivot to training employees through extended reality. This type of training also provides portability and has proven higher retention, Liga says in his keynote speech at Station Houston's AR/VR discuss on April 25.

"You get a much higher retention rate when you actually go out and do something — physically going through the motions — than you do sitting in a classroom or reading a book," he says. Continue reading.

Recently renovated Downtown Houston office space snags leases from 2 tech companies

Main&Co's office space is now 100 percent leased. Courtesy of Main&Co

Two tech-focused companies moved into a newly developed office space in downtown Houston at the intersection of Main Street and Commerce Street. One company relocated its Houston office, and the other company has expanded to the city for the first time.

Oil and gas AI-enabled analytics platform, Ruths.ai relocated its downtown office to Main&Co, located at 114 Main St. The company has 8,457 square feet of office space in the recently renovated historic building.

Meanwhile, global robotics process automation company UiPath has expanded to build a Houston team. The computer software company is based in New York, but has a presence in 18 countries. The company's office has 5,187 square feet of Main&Co's office space. Continue reading.

The three Houston innovators to know this week represent new, exciting things for the innovation ecosystem. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

The movers and shakers within the Houston innovation ecosystem come from all kinds of industries — from private equity to supercomputing. This week's innovators to know reflect that industry diversity and are bringing something new to the table.

Jon Nordby, managing director of Houston's MassChallenge Texas chapter

Jon Nordby, former exec at Houston Exponential, will lead the inaugural Houston MassChallenge cohort. Courtesy of MassChallenge

Jon Nordby, who recently served as Houston Exponential's director of strategy since its launch, was named as the managing director of MassChallenge Texas in Houston, a zero-equity startup accelerator.

"MassChallenge's not-for-profit, no equity model is uniquely suited to accelerate the development of Houston's innovation ecosystem and is the foundation early-stage startups need to get to the point of disruption or pivot as fast as possible," says Nordby in a release.

Before HX, Nordby served as vice president of talent and innovation at the Greater Houston Partnership, and was essential in creating the organization's Innovation Initiative. Click here to learn more about the appointment.

Matthew Lamont, managing director at DownUnder GeoSolutions

Matthew Lamont is managing director at DownUnder GeoSolutions which just opened its new, powerful data center west of Houston. Courtesy of DUG

Matthew Lamont isn't technically a Houstonian, but the managing director of Perth, Australia-based DownUnder GeoSolutions gets the honorary title for bringing one of the world's most powerful supercomputers, nicknamed Bubba, to the Houston area. In fact, perhaps Lamont accepts the recognition on behalf of Bubba, who — while inanimate — is definitely a Houstonian.

DUG is heavily investing in Houston, and Bubba is just the start. The company plans to start on a friend for Bubba later this year and bring an even more powerful supercomputer to the market by 2021. Read more about Lamont, Bubba, and all that DUG is doing in Houston here.

Taseer Badar, founder and CEO of ZT Corporate

Taseer Badar is in the business of making money. Courtesy of ZT Corporate

Taseer Badar will shoot it to you straight: Houston startups struggling to find capital might need to look nationally or globally.

"Investors in Houston want positive earnings before interest, tax, and amortization," he says. "But that doesn't mean it's not possible in New York, Dallas, Austin, or other cities. There are technology conferences everywhere, that's a great way to get known as a startup."

As CEO and founder of ZT Corporate with 1,000 investors to manage, he knows private equity, and what it takes to invest. Read more about Badar here.

Matthew Lamont is managing director at DownUnder GeoSolutions' which just opened its new, powerful data center west of Houston. Courtesy of DUG

Massive data center officially opens just west of Houston

Now online

DownUnder GeoSolutions has officially opened its new data centre in Skybox Houston in Katy, Texas. It's being billed as one of the most powerful supercomputers on earth.

The center, which houses DUG's geophysical cloud service, DUG McCloud, celebrated its grand opening on Thursday, May 16. The company's data hall has 15 megawatts of power and resides in a building designed to withstand hurricane-force winds up to 190 mph.

A second, identical hall is already planned to be built out later this year. Together, the two machines will have a capacity of 650 petaflop, which is a measurement of computing speed that's equal to one thousand million million floating-point operations per second.

In addition to the second hall, DUG is working to build another giant computing system with exaflop capacity — a billion billion calculations per second — by 2021.

"We are in a race to build the first exascale supercomputing system," says Phil Schwan, CTO for DUG, in a news release.

Australia-based DUG first started construction on Bubba, the nickname for the machine, last year and chose Skybox Datacenters as the facility to put Bubba in after a global search. The supercomputer landing in Houston represented the largest data center transaction in the Houston area's history. Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio have long overshadowed Houston as hotspots for data center activity in Texas.

An differentiating asset of Bubba is the cooling process, which reduces energy usage and costs. Thirteen miles of pipes connect the hard drives to 20-foot cooling towers. Bubba uses "its own patented immersion system that submerges the computer nodes in more than 700 specially-designed tanks filled with polyalphaolefin dielectric fluid," according to the release.

"The complete DUG Insight software suite is available, and is fully-optimised to run on the cloud," says DUG's managing director, Matthew Lamont.

DUG's device is based on Intel® Xeon® processors, and the company uses Intel's technology to enhance its services, and there are more than 40,000 Intel Xeon processor nodes within the DUG McCloud network.

"The close collaboration between our two companies ensures DUG customers have access to the compute resources needed to obtain more meaningful insights from the geophysical landscapes they are exploring," says Trish Damkroger, vice president and general manager of Intel's Extreme Computing Organization, in a release.

"The Bubba supercomputer is a tremendous addition to the DUG McCloud network, and we look forward to our continued collaboration to build even more powerful systems to help accelerate this research and development."

Super-sized supercomputer

Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Bubba, as the machine is called, has 15 megawatts of power and resides in a building designed to withstand hurricane-force winds up to 190 mph.

DownUnder GeoSolutions, which has its U.S. headquarters in Houston, is getting ready to flip the switch on what is being billed as the world's fastest supercomputer. Photo via DUG.com

World's fastest supercomputer is getting ready to power on in Houston

Booting up

An Australian company that provides geoscience and tech services to the oil and gas industry is gearing up to flip the switch in Katy on what's being billed as the world's fastest supercomputer.

At the 20-acre Skybox Houston data center campus in the Energy Corridor, DownUnder GeoSolutions is assembling a 15-megawatt data center that will house more than 40,000 servers to create the world's fastest supercomputer. Houston is the U.S. headquarters for DUG.

The data center will power a cloud computing service, known as DUG McCloud, that's tailored to the geosciences sector. The company says DUG McCloud will supply "enormous" computing capacity and high-performance storage for DUG's cloud business.

Construction on DUG McCloud — which has been delayed due to recent heavy rains — is set to be completed in April, according to the company's blog.

"DUG McCloud will be available to external companies to expand their computational resources on demand," the company says on its blog. "In addition, the cloud service will give clients access to DUG's proprietary software, with the option of source code, to accelerate their research, development, and production."

DUG McCloud is being touted as the world's biggest cloud computing service for the oil and gas industry. Among its prospective clients are global oil companies, government-owned oil producers, seismic contractors, and data companies.

"DUG McCloud is offering a wide range of companies the opportunity to significantly accelerate their oil and gas projects with cutting-edge geophysical software, stacked with extraordinary supercomputer power and services," Mick Lambert, the newly hired manager of DUG McCloud, said in December.

So, just how extraordinary will DUG's new supercomputer be?

DUG's equipment — contained in a building designed to withstand hurricane-force winds up to 190 mph — will offer more than 250 single-precision petaflops of computing speed, or 250,000 trillion calculations per second.

For now, the world's fastest supercomputer is Summit, a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Energy and IBM. Its top speed is 200 petaflops. Summit operates at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Over the long term, DUG envisions its data center being able to handle exascale computing, capable of generating at least 1 quintillion calculations per second. A quintillion has twice as many zeroes as a billion does. China is set to debut the world's first exascale supercomputer in 2020 — a year ahead of the first one to be established in the U.S., a $500 million public-private project called Aurora being developed by the Department of Energy and Intel.

DUG's deal for its data center in Katy represents the largest data center transaction in the Houston area's history. Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio have long overshadowed Houston as hotspots for data center activity in Texas.

Matthew Lamont, co-founder of DUG, said in October that the company conducted an "exhaustive" search for the data center. "Houston was a natural choice," he said, "given the low cost of power and the fact that Skybox had the available infrastructure ready to go."

A unique feature of DUG's data center is how the servers will be cooled. The company's patent-pending DUG Cool system will immerse all of the servers in custom-designed tanks filled with an environmentally friendly cooling fluid.

DUG says this fluid enables condensed water-cooling chillers to be used to cool the servers, rather than server fans and refrigeration units. This will reduce energy consumption by 45 percent compared with traditional air-cooled systems, according to DUG.

"We like to call it the greenest cloud service in the world," Lamont said on DUG's blog. "DUG McCloud certainly offers more than just a silver lining."

The DUG center represents about 65 percent of the 23 megawatts of data center space under construction in the Houston area, according to a new report from commercial real estate services company CBRE.

"As high-performance computing continues to grow in importance to the energy sector, it is likely that additional latency-sensitive deployments will grow in the Houston market," Haynes Strader, senior associate at CBRE, says in a news release.

"Latency-sensitive" refers to the need for technology to act quickly in response to various events.

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Houston SaaS startup closes $12M series A funding round with support from local VC

money moves

A Houston startup with a software-as-a-service platform for the energy transition has announced it closed a funding round with participation from a local venture capital.

Molecule closed its $12 million series A, and Houston-based Mercury Fund was among the company's investors. The company has a cloud-based energy trading and risk management solution for the energy industry and supports power, natural gas, crude/refined products, chemicals, agricultural commodities, softs, metals, cryptocurrencies, and more.

"We led the seed round of Molecule upon their formation and are excited to participate in their series A," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release. "Molecule's success in the ETRM/CTRM industry, especially in relation to electricity and renewables, positions them as the company to beat for the energy transition in the 2020s."

The company will use its new funds to further build out its product as well as introduce offerings to manage renewables credits, according to the release.

"In 2020, we realized that electricity — the growth commodity of the 2020s — represented over half of Molecule's customer base, and we decided to double down," says Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule, in the release. "We were also rated the No. 1 SaaS ETRM/CTRM vendor. With this fundraise, we have the fuel to become No. 1 SaaS platform for power and renewables, and then the market leader overall.

"Molecule is ready to power the energy transition," Soleja continues.

Molecule's last round of funding closed in November 2014. The $1.1 million seed round was supported by Mercury Fund and the Houston Angel Network.

Houston-based afterlife planning startup launches new app

there's an app for that

The passing of a loved one is followed with grief — and paperwork. A Houston company that's simplifying the process of afterlife planning and decision making is making things even easier with a new smartphone app.

The Postage, a digital platform meant to ease with affair planning, recently launched a mobile app to make the service more accessible following a particularly deadly year. The United States recorded 3.2 million fatalities — the most deaths in its history, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After losing three family members back-to-back, Emily Cisek dealt first hand with the difficulty of wrapping up a loved one's life. She saw how afterlife planning interrupted her family's grieving and caused deep frustration. Soon, she began to envision a solution to help people have a plan and walk through the process of losing someone.

The Postage, which launched in September, provides a platform for people to plan their affairs and leave behind wishes for loved ones. The website includes document storage and organization, password management, funeral and last wishes planning, and the option to create afterlife messages to posthumously share with loved ones.

"Right now, as it stands ahead of this app, end-of-life planning is really challenging. It's this daunting thing you have to sit down and do at your computer," says Cisek. Not only is it "daunting," but it's time-consuming. According to The Postage, families can expect to spend nearly 500 hours on completing end-of-life details if there is no planning done in advance.

With more than 74 percent of The Postage's web traffic coming from mobile users, an app was a natural progression. In fact, Entrepreneur reports the average person will spend nine years on their mobile device. Cisek wanted to meet users where they are at with a user-friendly app that includes the same features as the desktop website.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple," she continued.

Cisek and her team focused on providing a "seamless experience" within the app, which took approximately four months to build, which mirrors the desktop platform.

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app.

After snapping a picture, "the next step inherently is sharing it with your loved ones," says Cisek. Photos, family recipes and videos can easily be shared securely with loved ones who accept your invitation to The Postage so "that legacy continues on," she says.

Since The Postage's fall launch, the company has grown a steady base of paid subscribers with plans to expand.

"We're really starting to change the way people plan for the future," says Cisek.