What winter storm Uri ultimately demonstrated was the multitude of technology solutions that needs to scale up to provide us with the best energy reliability and availability. Photo by Lynn in Midtown via CultureMap

Texas has landed itself in the middle of a fierce debate following what's been considered one of the worst winter storm in recent history for the state.

Uri wreaked havoc as it rolled through regions that were wholly unprepared for the sudden temperature drops, single digit wind chills, and unusual precipitation (e.g. thundersnow in Galveston). Rolling power outages and water shortages affected more than 4.5 million Texans. Businesses like grocery stores and restaurants — unable to wash food or sanitize equipment or even turn on the lights, —closed throughout the ordeal, leaving many families without food, water, or power.

For most, this was an unprecedented experience. The majority of catastrophes in Texas are in the form of warm weather events like floods, hurricanes, or tornadoes, which means that even if power is lost, freezing is rarely an issue. Uri turned this upside down. ERCOT's failure to provide reliable energy for days on end led to families sleeping in devastatingly cold temperatures, further water shortage due to municipal water facilities failing, carbon monoxide deaths, disruption in vaccine rollouts, hospitals overrun with people needing to charge essential medical equipment, and much more. Uri highlighted in harrowing detail the domino effect that energy (and lack thereof) has on everything around it.

A single source of ERCOT's failure is hard to pinpoint. The cold led to production shut-ins, exacerbating the existing natural gas supply shortage and resulted in the RRC prioritizing "direct-to-consumer" natural gas delivery (i.e. to residences, hospitals, schools, etc.) over natural gas for the grid. Iced-over gas lines disrupted this flow even further. Freezing temperatures shut off some wind turbines and solar panels (if they were not already covered in snow). Coal and nuclear plants in Texas also shut down due to frozen instruments and equipment.

Thrown into sharp relief was the importance of consumer access to natural gas and other fossil fuels like propane. Most homes that had completely electrified (including my own) were ill-prepared to heat their homes without access to the grid or backup generators. Residential and community solar did little to alleviate this problem in many cases as lower technology configurations either froze, were not able to capture enough energy from a low-light environment, or were covered in snow. Having access to gas for heating or a propane stove was a lifeline for most folks.

But it's oversimplifying to say that the only solution to preventing another situation like this is continued or increased reliance on the oil and gas industry.

What last week ultimately demonstrated was the multitude of technology solutions that needs to scale up to provide us with the best energy reliability and availability.

It wasn't enough for our grid to have five potential generation sources – they all failed in different ways. But what if we incorporated more geothermal, which is more cold-weather resistant? What if we upgraded our solar panels to all have trackers or heating elements to prevent snow accumulation? What if our grid had access to larger scale energy storage? What if consumers had more access to off-grid distributed energy systems like generators, residential solar, geothermal pumps, or even just really large home batteries? What if we had predictive solutions that were able to detect when the non-winterized equipment would fail, days before they did? What if we could generate power from fossil fuels without dangerous emissions like carbon monoxide?

All of these technologies and more are being created and developed in our energy innovation ecosystem today, and many in Houston. What we're building towards is diversity of our energy system — but not just diversity of source — which is often the focus – but diversity of energy transportation, energy delivery, and energy consumption. Energy choice is about being able to, as a consumer, have a variety of options available to you such that in extenuating circumstances like winter storms or other catastrophes, there is no need to depend on any single configuration.

In a state like Texas, which is not only the largest oil and gas producer but also the largest wind energy producer and soon to be home to the largest solar project in the US, innovation should and will happen across all energy types and systems. Uri can teach us about the importance of the word all and how critical it is to encourage startups and technology development to develop stronger energy choice. Texas is the perfect home for all of this — and our state's rather embarrassing failure around Uri should be exactly the kind of reminder we need to keep encouraging this paradigm.

------

Deeana Zhang is the director of energy technology at Houston-based Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co.

According to Houston-based ENGlobal, the company "has more promising opportunities for significant new business than at any time in [the] company's history." Photo via Getty Images

Houston company focused on renewables sees high growth potential amid 'energy revolution'

seeing green

For Houston-based ENGlobal Corp., a provider of engineering and automation services geared toward the energy industry, renewable fuel facilities are a business pipeline gushing with opportunity.

ENGlobal's potential contracts for renewable fuels projects currently exceed $320 million, says Bill Coskey, the company's founder, president, and CEO. That's about six times the amount of ENGlobal's revenue through the first nine months of this year — $52.9 million.

During the company's third-quarter earnings call November 5, Coskey said publicly traded ENGlobal "has more promising opportunities for significant new business than at any time in our company's history."

Many of those opportunities stem from ENGlobal's shift a couple of years ago to a sharp focus on the renewable energy sector. This includes building utility-scale systems to store wind and solar power, and supplying modular engineered process plants for forms of energy like hydrogen and renewable diesel. Modular process plants consist of separately engineered and automated modules that are made off-site and assembled on-site.

"Manufacturing plants based on modular equipment are emerging as a viable and beneficial alternative to conventional stick-built processing plants. Modular equipment offers several benefits, including flexibility in plant siting, fewer safety concerns during construction, and ease of equipment modification," according to the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

ENGlobal is engineering and fabricating a modular hydrogen plant for a renewal diesel facility scheduled for completion in May. Incorporating proprietary technology from Denmark-based Haldor Topsoe (which has two offices and one plant in the Houston area), this hydrogen plant will consume about 20 percent less feed and fuel than conventional hydrogen plants, leading to lower operating costs and a smaller carbon footprint. It's the first facility of its kind in the U.S. This $25 million project falls into a bucket of modular process plants — valued at $10 million to $200 million each — that ENGlobal typically pursues.

ENGlobal's emphasis on renewable energy is paying off, especially now. That's because this sector is less susceptible to economic harm caused by the coronavirus pandemic and to the downturn in the oil and gas industry, according to Coskey.

"To the contrary, the green and renewable energy sector is driven by a different set of project economics — the majority of which play directly to our core strengths and capabilities," Coskey said during the November 5 earnings call.

ENGlobal comprises two business units that are capitalizing on those core strengths and capabilities:

  • Engineering, procurement, and construction management
  • Automation

Through September 26, the automation segment of the business accounted for 63 percent of the company's revenue this year, with engineering, procurement, and construction at 37 percent. In the third quarter, the balance was roughly 50-50.

For the nine-month period ended September 26, ENGlobal posted a 33 percent increase in revenue compared with the same period a year earlier. Revenue for the period rose 37 percent in the automation segment of the business and 27 percent in the engineering, procurement, and construction management segment.

Looking ahead, Coskey says plants like the one employing the Haldor Topsoe technology are "a big area of growth for us."

"We've built a business which is really vertically integrated. We can engineer and design, we can mechanically fabricate the processing modules, we can automate them, we can go onto the site and start them up. So we have full-service capabilities," Coskey says in an interview.

Those capabilities are helping ENGlobal, which Coskey started in 1985, capitalize on what he dubs the "energy revolution" in the U.S.

"Oil and gas has a long runway and is sometimes not given enough credit," he says. "But I can tell you that the capital spending for traditional oil and gas projects pretty much dried up during the course of this year. And we had to look for other sources of work for our people, so we were fortunate to have these renewable energy projects to work on."

Evercore ESI predicts capital spending on energy exploration and production in the U.S. will fall 43 percent this year compared with 2019. Meanwhile, S&P Global Market Intelligence forecasts $14.26 billion in capital spending this year on renewable energy by major U.S. utilities, up more than 20 percent from an earlier projection for 2020. The share of U.S. electricity generation from renewable energy is expected to increase from 18 percent in 2019 to 20 percent this year and 21 percent in 2021, the U.S. Energy Information Administration says.

"There's a lot of money that used to flow into oil and gas projects that now seems to be flowing into renewable energy projects," Coskey says. "We were lucky to identify that early and be positioned to capture some of that."

The 2020 election results will take the energy industry one of two paths — toward the energy transition or continuing the status quo. In this guest column, an energy investor assesses the situation ahead of election day. Photo via Getty Images

Energy and the election: What the 2020 outcome means for the future of oil and gas

guest column

The United States Presidential election is at our doorstep. The fossil fuel industry is under significant pressure and the outcome of the election could impact the speed at which exploration and production is impacted. This pressure is financial in nature, but also is operational, technological and all wrapped in physics. A mere 12 to 18 months ago, environmental, social and governance influences and overlays on E&P began and are only accelerating.

My company, Riverbend Oil and Gas, is beginning to see the industry rebound from a significant downturn in revenues, activity, and confidence in 2020 due to the impacts of COVID-19 and the OPEC price war earlier this year. The industry is battling with headwinds, including, lack of access to debt/equity capital, transaction valuations, commodity prices, shale well spacing, and other issues, all impairing market conditions.

At present, there is little to no lubrication in the system. With most talking about an oil and gas market cycle that is driven by supply and demand fundamentals over previous decades, now there is more discussion of a contrarian view of those confident of a demand recovery for oil and gas.

Since the start of energy private equity, funds were raised by general partners to support the small cap E&P space, in the late '80s, private equity became a significant participant in the oil and gas upstream space. Private equity firms became great in number as institutions desired exposure to a growing segment of the market outside of merely investing in the oil and gas public equities. This role, 30 to 35 years later, remains essential, but is currently stifled with thoughts of a declining fossil fuel world and with energy representing only about 2 percent of the S&P 500.

Hydrocarbon outlook

Looming headwinds in the fossil fuel industry include The Green New Deal, an accelerating consciousness of the carbon footprint, the Paris Climate Accord, ESG importance, and the growth of renewables. Additionally, the advent of electric vehicles presents a significant new entrant that is causing a substantial threat to oil's monopoly on the transportation sector. A collision of possible futures exists. Currently, around 1 billion vehicles today are using around 30 percent of the world's oil supply with an estimate of 4 million electric vehicles on the roads globally. Some forecasters predict around 400 million electric vehicles in 2040, decreasing oil supply demand by an estimated 6 percent.

These forecasts of human mobility are driven by the nature of human ambition and worldwide population growth. Africa, China, and India are expected to grow significantly through 2100. Moreover, all persons worldwide strive for a better life for themselves and their families — energy drives these ambitions.

Meanwhile, the capital markets for public fossil fuel companies has declined by over 90 percent from 2016 to 2019 with a continued dismal outcome year-to-date in 2020. The lack of cash flow and capital markets will likely drive less U.S. and non-nationalized produced oil and gas volumes and fewer sustainable companies. Many confident analysts predict a looming oil supply shortage in 2021 driven by these factors along with a federal lands development ban and the possible slowdown of fracking. However, others predict that peak oil demand is now and the need for fossil fuels has already reached a peak.

Assessing the candidates

The results of the election are anticipated to have significantly differing implications (should campaigning be a real signal) for the oil and gas industry. While a Donald Trump win would largely represent a status quo for the environment, a Joe Biden triumph could drive towards changes. Implications are wide ranging across the equity, credit and commodities market energy value chain.

It is important to evaluate who will have control of the House and Senate to pass said legislation. The House is expected to remain with the Democrats, comfortably winning at least 224 of the 435 seats. Recent polls have pointed toward a competitive Senate election cycle. The Republicans currently have a 53-47 Senate majority, but a Democrat favored majority of 51-49 is currently predicted.

The next question is whether the filibuster would be eliminated to push legislation through without a super majority needed; meaning Democrats could drive approvals with a 50-50 tie and Kamala Harris's vote. Although polls are pointing toward a "blue wave" for the Democrats, certain moderate democrats in oil and gas states such as Colorado, New Mexico and Pennsylvania may be swayed against major regulatory or legislative threats to oil and gas exploration and production. Additionally, elected authorities in anticipated Republican states such as Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Utah, and Ohio who are home to industry trade groups and fossil fuel companies will play a significant role.

The Biden Administration has discussed several energy-related policies. These include support for climate-friendly legislation, a ban on federal lands and water permits that represented 21 percent of U.S. oil output in 2019, and an increased investment of $2 trillion over four years in clean energy technologies. To put this investment into perspective, total global energy investment from 2017 to 2019 averaged $2 trillion, and Biden's plan would add $500 billion per year. Biden would target roughly two thirds of U.S. carbon emissions focusing on transportation (40 percent) and electricity production (31 percent).

Broadly, the goal is a nationwide carbon reduction to achieve net-zero emission no later than 2050 and transition to a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035. In order to achieve the 2050 net zero emissions goal, the world requires 2020 COVID-19 sized reductions (8 percent) every other year for the next 25 years. Throughout this energy transition, energy prices are likely to increase, and as a result, the pace of the energy transition will likely reflect the balance of societal demand to reduce fossil fuel usage and the costs (economic, convenience, speed, satisfaction) of doing so.

Renewables and hydrocarbons

In 2019, the U.S. accounted for 15 percent of global CO2 emissions (5,130 MM metric tons of CO2), down 873 MM metric tons since the U.S. peaked in 2007. The large decrease can be attributed to coal-to-gas switching, while wind generation and solar power installations also aided the decline. From 2018 to 2019 alone, coal-to-gas switching decreased U.S. emissions by 140 MM metric tons, driving the largest decrease for the year. While shifting from one end of the carbon-emitting energy spectrum to another, it is imperative to balance costs, plausibility and expectations.

Hydrocarbons can be stored for less than $1 per barrel of oil equivalent, or BOE, while renewables cost $200 per BOE. Total U.S. renewable storage capabilities can provide two hours of national electricity demand which is stored in the utility-scale batteries on the grid and in the about 1 million electric vehicles on U.S. roads. Storage, physics and costs are major drivers for a hydrocarbon partnership as the U.S. transitions to a less carbon-heavy source of fuel. While costs of wind and solar have been driven down by around 70 percent and 89 percent, respectively since 2009, the Betz Limit and Shockley-Queisser Limit do have a governor on further improvements of the current technology and materials. Similarly, subsurface oil and gas reservoirs have similar boundary conditions of physics involving ultimate recovery of resources through natural production, fracking and/or enhanced recovery techniques.

The goal of providing low cost, reliable energy to consumers, enhancing lives and providing better futures can be reached through utilizing hydrocarbon technologies in tandem with renewable sources. A vast amount of investment, research and development is still required in the renewable world, including battery storage, solar/wind efficiency, electric grid expansion and electric vehicle technology/charging stations.

According to the 2020 IEA Energy Outlook, oil and gas represented 55 percent of global energy demand in 2019 and the agency predicts that oil and gas will comprise 46 percent to 54 percent of the energy stack in 2040. This is a relatively flat market share. Coal, on the other hand, cedes market share to renewables and nuclear power, decreasing from 30 percent to 10 percent. While renewables are vital to reaching the U.S. goals of net-zero emissions, hydrocarbons are essential in backstopping U.S. energy needs and ambitions throughout this energy transition. Additionally, on a global scale, cheaply sourced and stored hydrocarbons are essential for emerging economies to advance through existing carbon-emitting infrastructure, eventually leading to renewable alternatives and global carbon reduction.

We remain encouraged for the next decade of growth and performance as we look to identify unique opportunities in the space. In a dynamic oil and gas market, Riverbend has a high degree of confidence to sustain and thrive due to our culture, performance-based team and systems. Riverbend is anchored by vigorous technical subsurface reserve assessments as well as land, accounting and commercial diligence. Additionally, Riverbend, as an energy company, is investing in the alternatives segment, concentrating on materials and services in the wind, solar and battery portions of the value chain. In a world full of human ambition, we see a need for all energy to support undeveloped nations and economies to access the opportunity of the American Dream, pursuing elimination of a "have" and "have not" world.

------

Randy Newcomer is president and CEO of Houston-based Riverbend Oil and Gas, a private equity investment group specializing in the energy industry.

"Superteams," or workforces optimized by artificial intelligence, may shape the energy sector. Getty Images

AI-optimized teams are a game changer for energy companies, this Houston expert says

guest column

The speed and scale of change in the business world had been on a fast track, with technology enabling bigger and bolder advances within shorter time frames.

Enter 2020: a global pandemic struck, and here in the Gulf Coast region, we were also hit by an energy industry downturn. The effects of both these crises have touched nearly every sector and revealed the factors that are essential to effectively managing through economic recovery. In a time of extreme challenges, two areas — human talent and technology — are now more important and intertwined than ever.

Earlier this year, Deloitte released its 2020 Global Human Capital Trends report, "The social enterprise at work: Paradox as a path forward," which addresses the intricacies of this issue. The survey was conducted before the pandemic took hold only to see its findings on the future of work play out in real time as companies respond to COVID-19 and the economic toll it's taking.

The rise of the superteam

Despite some dramatic predictions about machines replacing humans, many organizations, including oil and gas companies, are looking to integrate artificial intelligence into teams of people. These "superteams" of human talent and AI may enable organizations to reinvent themselves to create new value and meaning. For organizations that still view AI mainly as an automation tool to reduce costs, connecting AI initiatives with efforts to craft more effective teams is a first step toward enabling humans and machines to work together in new, more productive ways.

In the report, 60 percent of respondents said their organizations are currently using AI to assist, rather than to replace, workers. An additional 58 percent explained that they are using it to improve consistency and quality because superteams can allow organizations to both transform the nature of their output and create worker capacity. Furthermore, 66 percent of respondents believed that the number of jobs would either stay the same or increase as a result of AI's use in the next three years.

Drilling down on the energy sector

As the oil and gas industry reels from the dual effects of a global health crisis and oil price shocks, most organizations are focused on recovery, but forward-looking companies are devising strategies for better integrating technology into their operations.

The value of superteams is clear: they offer the promise of enabling organizations to reinvent themselves while giving employees the potential to further their careers by learning sought-after skills. It's no surprise, then, that many oil and gas companies are rethinking how the future of work may play out within their operations. For example, as outlined in Deloitte's Tech Trends 2020 report, a growing cohort of AI-powered solutions is increasing the need for technology that understands and responds to humans. This might take shape via a field worker being equipped with digital tools to provide real-time support for maintenance and upgrades. Augmented reality applications could offer the employee context-based instructions and the ability to connect with remote workers for live support.

This is just one example of how superteams can transform the sector; there are many other ways that humans and technology can work together to drive organizational value.

Working together to shape the new normal

As the future of work rapidly evolves amidst the world's "new normal," business leaders are wrestling with an increasing range of challenges. These challenges are especially pronounced at the intersection between humans and technology, where new questions have risen about the impact of emerging technologies on workers and society. Organizations that tackle these issues head-on – changing their perspectives to consider not only "could we" but also "how should we" – will be well-positioned to make the bold choices that drive organizational value.


------

Amy Chronis is the Houston managing partner at Deloitte.

Travis Parigi, founder and CEO of LiquidFrameworks, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how he's navigating both a global pandemic and an oil downturn. Photo courtesy of LiquidFrameworks

Houston entrepreneur is helping his oil and gas clients get 'out of the paper world'

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 36

Travis Parigi isn't afraid of an oil downturn. His company, LiquidFrameworks, provides cloud-based, mobile field operations management solutions to oil and gas, environmental, and industrial service companies, and he usually expects drilling numbers to slow every five to seven years or so. In fact, he plans on it and prepares accordingly.

"We've seen these types of challenges in the past within the oil and gas space — it is cyclical based on commodities," Parigi explains on thi week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We're well positioned to weather these storms."

But Parigi couldn't have foreseen the effect on demand a global pandemic could cause the oil and gas industry, and while he says he's keeping a close eye on the market, he also is trying to communicate with customers and potential customers how his software is even more important in times like these.

"What we're really focused on doing is making sure that our customers charge for everything that they have contracted with their customer and make sure there are no mistakes or errors in the billings and invoices that they send out," Parigi says. "Ultimately it increases their cash flow and makes them more efficient — it gets them out of the paper world."

Parigi shares his biggest concerns about the oil and gas market and how he's looking into partnering with another Houston energy tech startup, Data Gumbo, on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


The energy industry needs to re-evaluate its priorities for the workplace. Photo courtesy of Thomas Miller/Breitling Energy

Why Houston’s oil and gas leaders need to prioritize becoming a modern energy workplace

Guest column

The oil and gas industry today is being shaped by truly unprecedented conditions. In the face of a global economic crisis, players in this space are grappling with how best to spend and save resources in a way that's smart, deliberate and centered on expanding a company's value.

But even when the price of oil was four times what it is today, only 13 percent of the oil and gas industry's leaders said they were moving fast enough from a tech investment perspective, according to data my company, Quorum Software, pulled back in October. This was the writing on the wall that the industry was unprepared for a crisis of this magnitude, let alone two.

At the same time, there are a number of critical labor challenges that could curb Houston's oil and gas sector's ability to rebound. In order to future proof the energy industry and attract and retain young and innovative talent, Houston's oil and gas leaders need to prioritize investments in technology and start creating specific business advantages through tech.

Create a place young talent will want to land

In the Houston area, millennials age 25 to 34 make up the largest percentage of the adult population, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Despite this, oil and gas has historically suffered a gap in talent for this employee subset.

As the Houston energy economy seeks to attract talent from Gen Z and millennial pools, they must invest in transformative technology and become a modern energy workplace.

In our recently released industry report, oil and gas decision makers made it clear that they understand having better technology generates more efficient workplaces. What's more, four out of five of these industry leaders think employees will leave without access to sound technology.

Technology will play as an essential part of crisis recovery, and Houston's business leaders in this sector must align their tech investments over the next two quarters in order to both drive business success and also retain and attract a rich talent pool.

Prepare for the long road ahead

Oil and gas leaders in this region are familiar with managing volatility. Prices rise and fall much more quickly than in other industries, with fluctuating regulations, border skirmishes, trade deals, weather and local and global politics all impacting an ever-changing market. We have entered a period when short-term stability and long-term success are both in jeopardy unless you innovate now – especially as the prognosis for long-term structural change in the industry indicates that things might get a lot tougher before they turn around.

In my 30-plus years in the software industry, I've heard thoughtful people talk a lot about disruption. The idea that companies use software and/or technology to disrupt both their internal operations or disrupt markets to make sure that markets don't disrupt them. In just a few months, the commodity pricing shifts have disrupted economic forces on our businesses. As much as we've talked about technology for transformation and modernization, we need to adopt strategies that allows for more agility and sustainability during big market swings.

Judging by the responses in our recent report, oil and gas decision-makers are realistic about the business challenges ahead of them and their inability to solve the problems using the technologies they have in place. Like their IT decision-maker counterparts, 95 percent of oil and gas industry leaders agree that in today's marketplace, a company that doesn't embrace technological advances will not succeed in terms of streamlining operations (land management, accounting, etc.). In fact, in oil and gas, 97 percent of respondents believe the industry will decline if it doesn't adapt to the changes around it.

The takeaway? To survive today — and thrive tomorrow — you don't need to disrupt your business, but you do need to modernize it to be agile and sustain revenue production. You need to bring new technologies into the fold to improve your efficiencies. You need to challenge the status quo, not only to help you endure today's conditions, but also get where you want to go.

This point is only unscored by recent reports that highlight how the Texas Workforce Commission is relying on tech from the 1980s as unemployment claims overwhelm the system. Across industries, and especially those experiencing the volatility that the oil and gas industry is, technology holds the key to attracting and retaining talent, streamlining operations, and staying afloat in these uncharted waters.

------

Gene Austin is the CEO of Houston-based Quorum Software.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Self-driving pizza delivery goes live in Houston

innovation delivered

After announcing their partnership to work on pizza deliveries via self-driving robots in 2019, Dominos and Nuro have officially rolled out their technology to one part of town.

Beginning this week, if you place a prepaid order from Domino's in Woodland Heights (3209 Houston Ave.), you might have the option to have one of Nuro's R2 robot come to your door. This vehicle is the first do deliver completely autonomously without occupants with a regulatory approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to a news release.

"We're excited to continue innovating the delivery experience for Domino's customers by testing autonomous delivery with Nuro in Houston," says Dennis Maloney, Domino's senior vice president and chief innovation officer, in the release. "There is still so much for our brand to learn about the autonomous delivery space. This program will allow us to better understand how customers respond to the deliveries, how they interact with the robot and how it affects store operations."

Orders placed at select dates and times will have the option to be delivered autonomously. Photo courtesy of Nuro

The Nuro deliveries will be available on select days and times, and users will be able to opt for the autonomous deliveries when they make their prepaid orders online. They will then receive a code via text message to use on the robot to open the hatch to retrieve their order.

"Nuro's mission is to better everyday life through robotics. Now, for the first time, we're launching real world, autonomous deliveries with R2 and Domino's," says Dave Ferguson, Nuro co-founder and president, in the release. "We're excited to introduce our autonomous delivery bots to a select set of Domino's customers in Houston. We can't wait to see what they think."

California-based Nuro has launched a few delivery pilots in Houston over the past few years, including the first Nuro pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched last summer.

From being located in a state open to rolling out new AV regulations to Houston's diversity — both in its inhabitants to its roadways, the Bayou City stood out to Nuro, says Sola Lawal, product operations manager at Nuro.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Lawal says on an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Steam the episode here.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — startup development, fintech, and health care — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston

Impact Hub Houston has two new initiatives for female founders. Photo courtesy of Impact Hub Houston

Two accelerator programs were recently announced and they both are aimed at supporting female founders — and one Houston organization is behind them both. Impact Hub Houston announced that it has partnered up with Frost Bank to sponsor eight female founders to participate in Impact Hub's new Accelerate Membership Program.

Additionally, Impact Hub Houston has teamed up with MassChallenge for their own initiative supporting female founders in the Houston-Galveston region in partnership with Houston-based Workforce Solutions. The three organizations are collaborating to launch launch a bootcamp to support female founders in the greater Houston region.

"As a female founder myself, I'm incredibly excited about this opportunity to support and uplift more women entrepreneurs and women-led businesses in our region," says Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston, in a news release. "By now, it's no secret that women, and especially women of color, are under-invested in; and this is our chance to change that by helping more women strengthen their businesses and prepare to seek funding." Click here to read more.

Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed and COO of Republic

What does the future of investment look like? That's something Youngro Lee thinks about daily – and he shares his thoughts on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of NextSeed

The world of investing is changing — and the power shift is tilting from the rich elite to individuals. Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed and COO of Republic, has seen the change starting several years ago.

"Investing is traditionally seen as something you can't do unless you're rich," Lee says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There was a certain understanding of what anyone (looking to invest) should do. … But now the world is so different."

Lee shares more about the future of investing and how he's watched the Houston innovation ecosystem develop over the years on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Liz Youngblood, president of Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and senior vice president and COO of St. Luke's Health

As we enter year two of the pandemic, the way hospitals function now and in the future is forever changed. Photo courtesy

No industry has been unaffected by COVID-19, Liz Youngblood, president of Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and senior vice president and COO of St. Luke's Health, observes in a guest column for InnovationMap. But hospitals — they've had a spotlight shown on them and their technology adoption since day one of the pandemic.

"The pace of innovation for hospitals has been at breakneck speed — from the evolution of new treatment protocols to the need to reconfigure physical spaces to support an influx of patients while also promoting a healing environment during this unprecedented time," she writes.

Hospitals, she says, look and feel completely different now than they did last year and the year before that. Click here to read more.

Over $1.4M in prizes awarded at Rice University's student startup competition

RBPC 2021

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.