Patrick Lewis co-founded BBL Ventures that helps connect energy companies to startups that have innovative technology solutions for their pain points. Courtesy of Patrick Lewis

The energy industry is at an inflection point. In order to compete, oil and gas companies are really focusing on innovation and engaging startups. That's where Patrick Lewis comes in.

Lewis, co-founder of BBL Ventures, has been a tech investor in the Houston innovation ecosystem for about 25 years, and he started seeing an opportunity to help large companies identify their pain points and connect them with startups that have the technology to design solutions. He created BBL Ventures — and an accelerator for its portfolio companies, BBL Labs out of Station Houston — to become a matchmaker of sorts for big corporations and the startups that can help them stay competitive.

"At our core, we're an investment firm, but our mission statement is to be the innovation partner for the energy and natural resources industry," Lewis says on the fourth episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

The key element to BBL's model is the reverse-style pitch. Rather than hosting a pitch competition with a wide range of energy tech startups, BBL teamed up with ExxonMobil earlier this year and identified two specific robotics problems and called for startups to pitch solutions.

After the success of the reverse pitch, BBL hosted an Emerging Technology Symposium at The Cannon last month. The event brought together individuals on both sides of the table — the corporates and the startups — further bridging the gap between the two.

Lewis discusses BBL's past success and future plans, as well as what keeps him up at night as a tech investor in Houston on this week's podcast. Check it out below and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.


Houston-based Tracts, which makes it easier for mineral buyers and E&P companies to find leads in the industry, is geared for major growth. Courtesy of Tracts

Oil and gas SaaS platform based in Houston expands to Dallas amid major growth

Right on tracts

A Houston company has flipped the script on lead generation for mineral buying in the oil and gas industry. Tracts.co has developed a way to get its clients in front of mineral sellers they otherwise wouldn't know to approach.

"Right now, mineral buyers have one major bottleneck — it's consistent across companies except those using Tracts — and it's lead generation," says Ashley Gilmore, CEO and co-founder of the company.

Traditionally, mineral buyers or E&P companies would have to go through public records to source leads. But Tracts' customers have access to the company's title management platform, which uses a patented computation engine and an interpretation library. The process reduces the cost and time spent generating leads, as well as the risk associated with mineral ownership and exploration and production companies and mineral buyers, Gilmore says.

The company has been around since 2014, and began hitting its stride last year after beta testing and working out the structure of the technology. Now, the more customers Tracts has, the more data the system has, which translates to a more valuable platform.

"For some of our clients, Tracts is now existential for their business," Gilmore says. "In other words, they wouldn't be able to operate on their current business model without Tracts."

It's not only customer growth the company has seen. Tracts launched a land solutions group called TLS — Tracts Land Solutions — in the beginning of the year. That group is growing by a dollar amount of 30 percent month over month since January. Tracts also opened a Dallas office, which focused on this land solutions team, to keep up with clients.

"There were two people in Dallas working from home in January," Gilmore says. "Last month, we moved into a 12-person office, and now we've already outgrown it."

Tracts has a 16-person office it'll be moving into, and Gilmore says he expects to double that in the next month or so. Tract's Houston headquarters is around 10 people, and the company has its development team in Seattle. The technology, Gilmore adds, is able to be used throughout the country since it's cloud based.

All this growth is translating into some interesting developments for Tracts, but Gilmore isn't ready yet to announce anything.

"I think our clients are going to be very happy within the next three to six months," Gilmore says.

Tracts allows its clients to skip a few steps in the mineral buying process. Courtesy of Tracts

Today starts classes in San Jacinto College's new center. Photo via sanjac.edu

Houston college's $60 million energy tech center debuts in Pasadena

School is in session

San Jacinto College is gearing up to open the Center for Petrochemical, Energy, and Technology at its main campus in Pasadena — a $60 million project designed to bolster the Houston area's petrochemical workforce.

On August 21, the community college hosted media tours of the Center for Petrochemical, Energy, and Technology (CPET). The center will welcome more than 2,800 students August 26 and host a grand opening September 18. The college broke ground on the 151,000-square-foot center in September 2017.

At CPET, future and current petrochemical workers will learn about process operations, troubleshooting, nondestructive testing, instrumentation, and myriad other aspects of the industry. In all, CPET will offer 75 courses. The center's highlights include an 8,000-square-foot glycol distillation unit, 35 labs, and 19 classrooms. San Jacinto College bills the center as the largest petrochemical training site in the Gulf Coast region.

"Four years ago, a team came together from San Jacinto College and the East Harris County Manufacturers Association to put together a long-term plan for workforce development," says Jim Griffin, associate vice chancellor at San Jacinto College and senior vice president of petrochemical, energy, and technology. "The Center for Petrochemical, Energy, and Technology was part of that plan and is now a reality."

Griffin says the curriculum, classrooms, and labs were "designed and influenced" by the petrochemical industry.

Among CPET's more than 20 partners are:

  • Emerson, which donated more than $1.3 million worth of services and equipment.
  • INEOS Olefins & Polymers USA, which contributed $250,000 in cash.
  • Dow Chemical, which donated $250,000 in cash.

All three of those employers — and many others in the region — depend on schools like San Jacinto College to contribute to the pool of highly trained workers in the petrochemical sector.

"We expect to see a higher-than-normal level of retirements over the next five plus years; rebuilding our workforce is critical at this time," Jeff Garry, Dow Chemical's operations director in the Houston area, said when his company's CPET donation was announced. "The need to train and adequately staff our assets will continue to be a pressing concern. As the labor market becomes more competitive for talent, we understand the importance to attract and retain highly skilled and educated workers."

With four campuses in Harris County, San Jacinto College promotes itself as a training hub for the country's largest petrochemical manufacturing complex, featuring 130 plants and employing about 100,000 people. CPET will serve as the centerpiece of that hub. Overall, the community college says it "plays a vital role in helping the region maintain its status as the 'Energy Capital of the World.'"

PetrochemWorks.com — a petrochemical career initiative whose backers include JPMorgan Chase & Co., the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, and the East Harris County Manufacturing Association — says the local petrochemical industry will need 19,000 more skilled workers annually over the next three to five years.

"Chronic shortages of skilled labor are increasing costs and schedules and resulting in declining productivity, lower quality, more accidents, and missed objectives," according to Petrochemical Update, a news website.

Although robots are on the rise in many industries, Mark Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who's an energy and technology expert, believes that as petrochemical companies increasingly turn to automation, productivity will go up, ultimately creating more jobs — not fewer.

"In large part," Mills writes, "it's desperation, not an infatuation with tech or cost savings, that drives employers to deploy technologies that amplify the capabilities of the employees they have and can find. It is a common misconception to think that automation is always cheaper than using labor."

Using APIs, organizations can more easily combine their own internal data. Getty Images

Energy companies need to integrate new functions in order to better utilize data, says this expert

Houston, home to one of Cognite's U.S. headquarters, is the energy capital of the world. But while many oil and gas industry players and partners come together here, much of the data they use — or want to employ — remains siloed.

There's no lack of data. Connected devices are a wellspring of enterprise resource planning data, depth-based trajectories, piping and instrumentation diagrams, and sensor values. But incompatible operational data systems, poor data infrastructure, and restricted data access prevent organizations from easily combining data to solve problems and create solutions.

We understand these challenges because we work alongside some of the biggest operators, OEMs and engineering companies in the oil and gas business. Lundin Petroleum, Aker Energy OMV, and Aker BP are among our customers, for example.

Flexible, open application programming interfaces can address the challenges noted above. APIs enable users to search, filter and do computations on data without downloading full data sets. And they abstract the complexity of underlying storage formats.

As a result, data scientists and process engineers can access data in an efficient manner, spending more time on their use cases and less effort contending with technical details. Using APIs, organizations can more easily combine their own internal data. APIs also simplify the process of using data from industry partners and other sources.

Most companies have slightly different work processes. But common API standards can help a company combine software services and platforms from others in a way that matches its own business logic and internal processes. That can allow the company to differentiate itself from competitors by employing services from the best suppliers to create innovative solutions.

Standardizing APIs across the oil and gas industry would open the door to a community of developers, which could create custom applications and connect existing market solutions. Then more new and exciting applications and services would reach the market faster.

To ensure adoption and success of such a standardization effort, the APIs would need to be well crafted and intuitive to use. These APIs would have to include the business logic required to perform the operations to empower users. In addition, APIs would need to define and allow for the sharing of desired information objects in a consistent way.

Best practices in defining common APIs for sharing data within the industry include:

  • Introducing APIs iteratively, driven by concrete use cases with business value
  • Ensuring all services using the API provide relevant output and insights in a structured machine-readable format, enabling ingestion into the API to ensure continuous enrichment of the data set
  • Making all data searchable
  • Preventing underlying technology from being exposed through the APIs to ensure continuous optimization and allow companies to implement their technology of choice
  • Supporting all external data sharing through an open, well-documented and well-versioned API, using the OpenAPI standard

If oil and gas industry operators define APIs, suppliers will embrace them. That will "grease" the value chain, allowing it to move with less friction and waste.

Operations and maintenance are a natural place for API harmonization to start. Standardized APIs also can enable operators to aggregate and use environmental, equipment and systems, health and safety, and other data. That will accelerate digital transformation in oil and gas and enable companies to leverage innovative solutions coming from the ecosystem, reduce waste, and improve operations, making production more sustainable.

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Francois Laborie is the general manager of Cognite North Americas.

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."

The Bayou City knows energy. Silicon Valley knows tech. But each can't only invest in what they know. Getty Images

Houston and Silicon Valley experts advise investing outside the box

Diversify or die

There's an adage in investing that you should only invest in what you know. Generally speaking, this is a good rule — if you do not understand a company product or have no experience with its industry, then investing in a specific company could be risky. Yet, there are times when it's necessary to get out of your comfort zone and try something new and adventurous. The challenge is determining how to do that.

We are financial advisors from Houston and San Francisco, and we frequently do just that — encourage our clients to explore investments out of their comfort zones.

In Houston, we understand energy. As of 2017, Texas accounted for 37 percent of the nation's crude oil production and 24 percent of its natural gas production. And as of January 2018, Texan oil refineries accounted for 31 percent of the nation's refining capacity — and that is just oil. In 2017, Texas lead the country in wind-generated electricity and generated a quarter of all wind power in the US. It is safe to say, we feel comfortable talking the language and investing in the energy industry. Whether it is machinery fabrication for upstream, construction of pipes for midstream, or refining downstream, some Texans are comfortable investing in these areas.

In San Francisco, we understand tech, whether it involves social media, silicon, or apps. We have five of the top 10 most prominent tech companies in the world. In 2018, the technology industry accounted for around 62 percent of all office leasing activity in San Francisco. The Bay Area also dominates venture capital investment, accounting for 45 percent of all capital investment in the U.S, in large part because of tech startups in the area.

Naturally, we see that some investors in our hometowns feel comfortable investing extensively in these two industries. Sometimes, these investments take the form of venture capital, other times they are individual stocks.

For Houstonians, allocating all of their investments to the energy industry carries too much risk should the energy industry falter. The same is true for San Francisco with venture capital and technology.

Therefore, we encourage investors to diversify their portfolios by placing funds in multiple vehicles and equities with the knowledge that different industries will react differently to market ups and downs. While there is never a guarantee of the outcome, diversification is one of many factors critical to long-term investment success.

For Houstonians and San Franciscans, there are other industries we understand in which we can invest. For example, Houston boasts the largest medical center in the world with roughly 361,000 people employed in the healthcare industry. While San Francisco employs roughly 277,500 in tourism. If you're looking to diversify your portfolio, look around to see the opportunities in which other people are investing. You may be surprised about what you learn, and ultimately how comfortable you can become investing in industries you may be unfamiliar.

We do not recommend ever investing in a product or industry that you have no understanding of at all. However, if you have excitement about an investment opportunity and feel there is potential for growth to your portfolio, your investment may prove fruitful in the future. Still, please seek out a financial advisor to help.

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Joseph Radzwill is senior vice president and financial adviser with the Wealth Management Division of Morgan Stanley in Houston. Victoria Bailey is a financial adviser with the Wealth Management Division of Morgan Stanley in San Francisco.

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Houston in-seat ordering app gets rodeo ready, prepares for busy XFL season

dining delivered

A Houston startup isn't afraid to take on the 21-day Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo with its in-seat ordering technology.

Houston-based sEATz, through its partnership with Aramark and NRG Stadium, will be serving up stadium food to rodeo goers this year every single night of the show. Rather than be intimidated the size and scale of Rodeo Houston, sEATz, equipped with a recently upgraded app, is ready for the challenge.

"Twenty-one nights in a row for us is great — that just shows the flexibility and scalability of our model," says CEO and co-founder Aaron Knape.

For those headed out to the rodeo with tickets in the 100s — the lower section — sEATz will have in-seat delivery and pickup lanes. Users can download the app, plug in their seat information, order, pay, and hang tight for a delivery. SEATz will be available every night of the rodeo — from the start of the show to the concert.

The sEATz app has been freshly updated and is ready to rodeo. Photo courtesy of sEATz

Knape and co-founder and COO Marshall Law founded sEATz in 2018 after an idea Law had when he missed a key play at an Astros 2017 World Series game. Now, SEATz is active in 10 different venues and plans to roll out in 15 more this year, Knape says. The app has served fans at football and soccer games — and even delivered during the Rolling Stones concert at NRG Stadium last year.

"It's really great to be able to be a part of the rodeo as far as a provider to help enhance that experience in the stadium," Knape says. "It goes back to our model of we want to serve a venue and the fans in that venue — not necessarily a specific sport or concert."

SEATz had a busy football season, servicing the likes of The Texans, the University of Houston Cougars, and more, but turns out, football is not over. Through its partnership with Delaware North, the food and beverage provider for UH's TDECU Stadium, sEATz has added the XFL's Houston Roughnecks fans to its roster of users.

The team's first game on February 8 had over 17,000 in attendance, according to news reports. The team won 37 to 17 against the Los Angeles Wildcats. The second game for the Roughnecks is on Sunday, February 16, and the league recently announced the final championship game will be hosted in Houston.

"I think those fans came to have a really good time," Knape says of last weekend's game. "We're actually going to be quadrupling staff for Sunday's game."

SEATz, which closed is seed round last fall with $1.3 million raised, plans to raise another round early this year. The company is also actively recruiting teams and venues ahead of the baseball season, Knape says.

New energy tech startup accelerator has its eyes on Houston

calling all energy entrepreneurs

Houston is on the radar of a newly formed startup accelerator that concentrates on companies in the energy sector and other commodities markets.

The Stamford, Connecticut-based accelerator, PointForward LLC, is seeking startups for its inaugural 12-week accelerator program, which kicks off in June. While the program will take place in Stamford, PointForward hopes to attract applicants from Houston. Each team accepted by the program will receive up to $100,000 in funding, along with mentoring and access to business resources, in exchange for a 7 percent equity stake.

"We are looking for early stage companies focused on a range of offerings — such as trading, logistics, and technology — related to the energy and commodity markets that can achieve high growth and scale," says Greg Schindler, founder of PointForward. "In particular, we are seeking companies where our network of industry contacts, including potential investors and customers, can provide key leverage."

In April, PointForward plans to choose three to six teams for its first accelerator program. Schindler says PointForward is willing to accommodate logistical challenges posed by a startup's critical people being located in, say, Houston but being asked to spend 12 weeks in Stamford.

"We understand that some companies may be working on physical products and may find it difficult to bring all the founders up to Stamford. That's OK," he says. "However, key members of each team should plan to be on site in Stamford for the full 12 weeks. This helps establish a vibrant founder community. We also understand if founders need to travel between Houston and Stamford."

PointForward plans to host demo days this September in Houston and New York City where startup teams will make pitches to potential investors.

Freepoint Commodities LLC, a commodities merchant based in Stamford, launched PointForward. Freepoint employs about 50 people in Houston, which is the headquarters of its retail energy business, Freepoint Energy Solutions LLC. Freepoint Commodities started that subsidiary in 2017.

"Houston is at the heart of the energy world," Schindler says, "and is extremely important to our efforts."

Freepoint Energy Solutions currently operates in Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Texas. The company entered Texas' commercial and industrial electricity market in July 2018.

Freepoint Commodities recently signed a deal with the Texas GulfLink LLC subsidiary of Sentinel Midstream LLC, based in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Richardson, for construction and operation of a deepwater crude oil export facility near the Brazoria County town of Freeport. Texas GulfLink has an office in Houston.

The Texas GulfLink facility will include an onshore oil storage terminal connected by a 42-inch pipeline to a manned platform about 37 miles off the Texas Gulf Coast. From the platform, crude oil will be transported to two buoys, enabling large vessels to load as many as 85,000 barrels of oil per hour.

The Houston metro area is projected to see a $751.8 million economic lift from construction of Texas GulfLink and related facilities.