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Here are five events you have to check out if you're interested in offshore innovation. Zukiman Mohamad/Pexels

It's the 50th year of the Houston Offshore Technology Conference — and a lot has changed about the program since 1969.

"In 1969 at OTC, you could see the suit we'd put humans in to go under water," Wafik Beydoun, chairman of the OTC board of directors tells InnovationMap. "Now, you can see the robots that explore the seafloor."

OTC, which takes place at NRG Park from May 6 to 9, is separated by a few different tracks. While there's no innovation track specifically, we've identified, with Beydoun's help, five different events to be sure to make if you're looking for startup involvement and innovative discussions.

May 5 — Data Gumbo's Pre-Party

Houston-based blockchain company, Data Gumbo, wants to help you start out OTC week right with a crawfish boil. Network outside of NRG Park — and with a beer in hand.

Details: The event is from 5 to 8 pm on Sunday, May 5, at The Cannon (1336 Brittmoore Rd). Learn more.

May 6 — The Rice Alliance Startup Roundup

Fifty promising energy technology companies will present to potential investors and OTC attendees. All of the startups have initial funding under their belts and are seeking their A, B, C, or later rounds with technology validation, field trial experience, and/or initial company revenue.

Details: The event is from 2 to 4:30 pm on Monday, May 6, at NRG Arena, level 2 in the Stockman's Club. Learn more.

May 6 — OTC Spotlight on New Technology® Award Program

Check out the latest and greatest from offshore tech at this awards presentation. Hey startups, here's the tech O&G companies care about.

Details: The event is from 4 to 5 pm on Monday, May 6, at NRG Center, level 1, Rotunda Area. Learn more.

May 6-8 — OTC University R&D Showcase 

The OTC University R&D Showcase provides universities the opportunity to share with attendees their current and planned R&D projects that are relevant to offshore technology and bend the ear of over 60,000 professionals.

Details: The event is from Monday, May 6, to Wednesday, May 8, at NRG Center, level 2, outside room 600. Learn more.

May 8 — Women in the Industry Sharing Experiences (WISE): Diversity Drives Innovation: Start the Conversation

Samina Farid leads the discussion on diversity, inclusion, and innovation.

Details: The event is from 7:30 to 9 am on Wednesday, May 8. Location not indicated. Learn more.

May 8 — Young Professionals: The Tech Young Professionals Need to Know About

This young professional event is inclusive, information-rich, and inspirational. The event consists of a panel discussion where you have the opportunity to learn from successful industry leaders about the future of oil and gas technology and networking where you can enjoy a game of networking Bingo and find your future business partner, new best friend, or both.

Details: The event is from 4 to 6 pm on Wednesday, May 8, in room 202. Learn more.

Bonus — Week-long exhibition 

Stop by the exhibit all week long to see examples of new offshore technology from leading companies. Learn more.

The Agora track of CERAWeek focuses on all things innovation in energy, from panels to pods and even "houses" like the one pictured. CERAWeek/Facebook

5 can't-miss innovation events at CERAWeek featuring Houston speakers

Agora track

Hundreds of energy experts, C-level executives, diplomats, members of royal families, and more are descending upon Houston for the 2019 CERAWeek by IHS Markit. For the second year, the conference will have its Agora track, focused on innovation within the energy sector. The Agora track's events — thought-provoking panels, intimate pods, and corporate-hosted "houses" — will take place in various locations in the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Undoubtedly, many of the panels will have Houston representatives considering Houston's dominance in the industry, but here are five innovation-focused events you can't miss during CERAWeek that feature Houstonians.

March 11: Oil & Gas: Realizing value from digital transformation

In oil and gas, money talks, but justifying the value of integrating new technology or devices can be tricky and hard to navigate. Houston-based Justin Rounce of TechnipFMC and Michelle Pfluger of Chevron Corp. are among the panelists who will attempt to shed light on best practices and new ways of thinking.

Catch the panel at 4:30 pm on Monday, March 11. Learn more.

March 12: Sea Change: Autonomy, automation, offshore & the ocean

Offshore oil and gas rigs are a hotbed for new innovations and technologies — especially when it comes to automation. Two Houstonians join the panel that will discuss emerging tech in offshore E&P — Diana Grauer, TechnipFMC director, External Technology Engagement – North America, and Nicolaus Radford, Houston Mechatronics chief technology officer.

The event takes place at 9:15 am on Tuesday, March 12. Learn more.

March 12: Digital Ledgers: Oil & gas supply chain

Let's talk blockchain integration in oil and gas. The technology has a lot of potential in several aspects of the supply chain, but this panel — which features Andrew Bruce of Houston-based Data Gumbo — will weigh the pros and cons of the technology as well as go over the initial results of early adaptors.

The discussion begins on Tuesday, March 12, at 2.45 pm. Learn more.

March 12: Models of Innovation: Today & tomorrow

Inarguably, the energy's innovation ecosystem differs from that of other industries, but to what end? A panel of professionals — including Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures President Barbara Burger — will debate the challenges within innovation in energy, innovative corporations, and the best strategies moving forward.

The panel is on Tuesday, March 12, at 2.45 pm. Learn more.

March 14: Urban Resilience in a Changing Climate

You can't have an energy-focused conference without addressing the elephant in the room that is climate change, and Houston-based Sunova CEO John Berger and City of Houston Chief Sustainability Officer Lara Cottingham are the right people to do it.

The panel will take place on Thursday, March 14, at 10:30 am. Learn more.

Can't-miss pods

While panels focus on a challenging topic of discussion, the Agora Pods are platforms for companies to showcase new tech or developments or present their successes. Here are some pods hosted by Houston companies you shouldn't miss.

Penrose's advance process control software can increase production by 10 to 15 percent in downstream oil and gas refineries. Pexels

Houston oil and gas software company is increasing downstream productivity while lowering emissions

Efficient energy

In the next 30 years, the world will need 30 percent more energy due to population growth. While energy production will increase to keep up with demand, there is an increasing concern with the impact on the environment.

"How do you produce more energy without emission increases or more air quality pollution?" asks Erdin Guma, CFO of Penrose Technologies.

According to Guma, Penrose is uniquely well-suited to solve these serious challenges with its advanced process control technology increases the productivity of a chemical plant or refinery by 10 to 15 percent. The increase in productivity means the plants use less fuel to produce the energy. The plant then releases fewer emissions while producing the same amount of energy.

The technology itself is an automation software — similar to autonomous software on a plane. The autonomous operation increases downstream productivity, which brings about the energy efficiency.

"Our autopilot software (like a human operator) can manage and foresee any unexpected disturbances in the plant," Guma explains. "The achievements that the Penrose technology has brought about seemed impossible to chemical and process engineers in the refinery space a few years ago."

Penrose recently signed its first project with one of the biggest downstream firms in the world. With a network of refineries and petrochemical plants around the world, this contract could lead to a global roll out of the Penrose technology.

A ground-breaking technology for O&G
The word "Penrose" is taken from a penrose triangle, an impossible geometrical object. Guma explained that the energy efficiency brought about from their software seemed impossible at first. Penrose has been able to reduce emissions inside plants and refineries by 15 to 20 percent while keeping production at the same level.

In 2007, a chief engineer working at a major oil and gas processing plant in Houston procured the technology for one of his plants. When the engineer saw how well the technology worked, he founded Penrose Technologies in 2017 with Tom Senyard, CTO at Penrose, who originally developed the technology.

After starting the company at the end of 2007, Penrose joined Station Houston. Guma said that by becoming a member, Penrose was able to plug into a large refining and petrochemical network.

"Penrose Technologies is completely self-financed. We worked with [Station Houston] as we finalized the software to find out what potential customers thought of the product. For us, Station Houston has been a great sounding board to potential investors in the company," Guma says.

Guma also explained that while there has been an uptick in innovation in the last few years, the refining and petrochemical business is traditional a slow mover in the uptake of innovation.

"I think more major oil and gas firms are becoming attune to startups and the innovation solutions they offer," Guma says.

He went on to explain that the biggest challenge Penrose faces is perception. Since the software allows plant operators and engineers at the plant to be hands off in the processes, there is a concern with reliability. For industry insiders, any viable product must be reliable even when process conditions at the plant change, which can happen often.

"The Penrose software is maximum hand off control from operators, and the reliability of our software gives us a huge edge in other competing products that can be unreliable," Guma says.

Future growth on a global market
Given the pressing need for more environmentally sustainable energy production, new technology will be adopted in the oil and gas energy. As Guma explains it, there will be no way to continue producing energy as it's been produced for decades because the negative effects of air pollution and emissions will be too severe — particularly in the areas where refineries operate.

"We see the global market for this type of technology as severely underserved," Guma says. "It's a big and sizable market, and I think we can reach a $2 to $3 billion valuation in the next five years."

With a core team of six employees in Houston, Penrose's software is now commercially available, and the company is in full growth mode at this point. The software can be distributed directly to customers, but they are working to develop distribution with major engineering companies as well.

Guma is grateful to be in an environment conducive to energy start-ups. He sees Houston as a major advantage given its proximity to the energy sector.

"No technology rises up in a vacuum. Any new technology needs a good ecosystem to come from," says Guma. "Houston was that ecosystem for Penrose."

The Oil and Gas Startups Podcast talks to local entrepreneurs who are shaking up the industry. Pexels

Growing Houston podcast is bridging the gap between energy and tech

On air

Collin McLelland and Jacob Corley want you to know that Houston has a whole lot of innovation in the oil and gas industry, and they want to tell you about it.

The two energy professionals launched the Oil and Gas Startups Podcast a few months ago to talk to energy entrepreneurs about oil and gas technology, leadership, and innovation.

"Jake and I really had a mission to shine a light on the oil and gas industry and what was happening in the technology and startup space," McLelland says. "There's a lot of exciting things going on, but not really a medium of content to see it."

The duo interviews a leader or founder of an energy startup — notable ones include Data Gumbo, Blue Bear Capital, and OAG Analytics — on an almost-weekly basis. Corley says he can tell the podcasts are helpful to listeners, because he and McLelland are learning a lot themselves.

"The conversations we have are genuine and authentic. The questions we ask are real," Corley says. "When we schedule something with someone, we purposely try to find out just enough about them to find out if we'll have a good episode with them."

Along with their sincere questioning, the hosts also bring a diversity in industry to the table.

"Collin is the guy who grew up in the field, and I have more of the tech background," Corley says. "From that standpoint, we really compliment each other."

While still new, the podcast has seen a lot of growth — about 1,000 new listeners each week over the past couple weeks — which is surprising to the two hosts since the topic is niche and professional.

"You think thing not many people would listen to a podcast that's so focused on something they do for their job, but that's completely wrong," Corley says.

McLelland says they've seen a shift in the industry. What's been known as a siloed, traditional field is being upended by new technology being introduced into oil and gas companies. A downturn resulted in a need for efficiency and a younger senior-level leadership — that's what's changed in the business, McLelland says, and that's why the podcast is here to document.

"To see the amount of traction the podcast has gotten within oil and gas really validates where the industry is going," McLelland says.

The two want to keep doing what they're doing when it comes to the podcast, while expanding into other media. They've launched a YouTube channel, and are working on regular content for a blog.

"We kind of wanted to bridge the gap between Silicon Valley and oil and gas and show the world what was going on in the industry — and specifically in Houston," McLelland says.


Collin McLelland (right) and Jacob Corley are the hosts of Oil and Gas Startups Podcast.

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Houston coffee startup pivots to hand sanitizing product amid pandemic

Houstonians' workday routines look much different today than they did seven months ago. With a large percentage of people working from home, office rituals have come to a halt and few habits have been immune to change — including our coffee consumption.

In early March, Constantine Zotos and Mitchell Webber already knew this didn't mean good things for their local nitro coffee company, Recharge Brewing Co. Though the brand had grown steadily over the better course of two years, the duo had focused their business on installing and supplying their nitro coffee taps to two of the most taboo markets at the time: office spaces and restaurants.The duo aptly predicted that the demand for their product would soon dry up and quickly shifted their operations to focus on a product that was considered a necessity: hand sanitizer.

To get started, the young entrepreneurs and their small team of six began cold calling down a list of Purell distributors they found online. They soon found that many businesses could hardly keep the product in stock.

"They asked us if they could fly a jet down to pick up the hand sanitizer themselves," Zottos says of one distributor. "I told them not to get ahead of themselves, but it just speaks to the sense of urgency everyone had."

The team studied up on the basic ingredients of hand sanitizer to make the liquid, alcohol-based form that infiltrated the market in the first few weeks of the pandemic. At the time there was such a rush for the product, and such a low supply of the material needed to make it, that the team resorted to selling the product without traditional pump tops or plastic caps. Instead they used the slow release plastic pourers that are often used on liquor bottles.

Still, they were focused on doing it right. In addition to the long hours spend to get the product out the door, Zotos and Webber took special care to ensure that their sanitizer met all FDA and EPA requirements by working with consultants and lawyers, as well as reading up on all the pertinent documents and literature between sleeping shifts and time on the shop floor.

"We took the stance that we would rather rush toward compliance rather than run from it," Zotos says.

It didn't seem to slow down the demand. One week in they formed Modern Chemical, and by the middle of the month the company was fulfilling substantial orders with a team of 40 employees. By the summer, Modern Chemical released a gel-based, FDA-registered sanitizer that got them in with giant B2B clients, such as the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, Jefferson Parish School District, and recently the City of Austin.

The pair agrees that their background with Recharge gave them a leg up in the beginning.

"Knowing the pumps and hoses and all the stuff you really need to run a bottle facility and a hand sanitizer facility, we already had," Webber says. "On top of that when all this started, there were some long days and long nights, but being in the nitro coffee business, we were used to long hours. It prepared us for this huge push for the drastic demand that needed to be filled."

Location and timing also played a huge role in their success, Zotos adds. "When the pandemic struck we were able to bring on a lot of people who are extraordinarily talented throughout the company. If we weren't hiring in the pandemic environment like this I think we would be hard pressed to find people as talented as we did as quickly as we did," he says. "And Houston really played a big part in that."

Today, the company of about 60 employees is producing about 15,000 gallons of hand sanitizer per day and is in the process of launching disinfectant wipes and spray. They recently moved all of the Modern Chemical operations into a new and improved facility off Air Tec and Interstate 45 that will allow for more efficient packaging and loading of products and — in another pivot — are even offering custom labeling, scenting and color dyes, plus specialty dispensing stands for their product.

"Neither of us have a chemical background and we are not ignorant to that. But we know how the equipment works from an operational side of things and if we can make the packaging look the best. If we can package the most for the best price then people are going to want to buy it," Zotos says. "Instead of taking the let's do everything route, we found our niche in the chemical supply chain, which is packaging."

And as Modern Chemical continues to settle into its new space and eventually a post-pandemic market, Zotos and Webber plan to revisit and revamp Recharge Brewing with the lessons they've learned. The duo plans to use their original facilities to help other small business owners launch and produce beverage brands of their own by early 2021.

UT system funds Houston researchers in new collaboration to cure cancer

collaborate for a cure

In a renewed effort to move the needle on finding a cure for cancer, the University of Texas system has launched a new collaboration in oncological data and computational science across three programs.

Houston-based University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center has teamed up with two UT Austin schools — the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences and the Texas Advanced Computing Center. The collaboration was announced this summer to tap into mathematical modeling and advanced computing along with oncology expertise to inspire new methods of cancer treatment.

"Integrating and learning from the massive amount of largely unstructured data in cancer care and research is a formidable challenge," says David Jaffray, Ph.D., chief technology and digital officer at MD Anderson, in a news release. "We need to bring together teams that can place quantitative data in context and inform state-of-the-art computational models of the disease and accelerate progress in our mission to end cancer."

Now, the first five projects to be funded under this new initiative have been announced.

  • Angela Jarrett of the Oden Institute and Maia Rauch of MD Anderson will develop a patient-specific mathematical model for forecasting treatment response and designing optimal therapy strategies for patients with triple-negative breast cancer.
  • Caroline Chung of MD Anderson and David Hormuth of the Oden Institute are using computational models of the underlying biology to fundamentally change how radiotherapy and chemotherapy are personalized to improve survival rates for brain cancer patients.
  • Ken-Pin Hwang of MD Anderson and Jon Tamir of UT Austin's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Oden Institute will use mathematical modeling and massively parallel distributed computing to make prostate MR imaging faster and more accurate to reduce the incidence of unnecessary or inaccurate biopsies.
  • Xiaodong Zhang of MD Anderson and Hang Liu of TACC will advance both the planning and delivery of proton therapy via a platform that combines mathematical algorithms and high-performance computing to further personalize these already highly tailored treatments.
  • Tinsley Oden and Prashant Jha of the Oden Institute and David Fuentes of MD Anderson will integrate a new mechanistic model of tumor growth with an advanced form of MRI to reveal underlying metabolic alterations in tumors and lead to new treatments for patients.

"These five research teams, made up of a cross section of expertise from all three stakeholders, represent the beginning of something truly special," says Jaffray in a release. "Our experts are advancing cancer research and care, and we are committed to working with our colleagues at the Oden Institute and TACC to bring together their computational expertise with our data and insights."

Later this month, the five teams will log on to a virtual retreat along with academic and government thought leaders to further collaborate and intertwine their research and expertise.

"Texas is globally recognized for its excellence in computing and in cancer research. This collaboration forges a new path to international leadership through the combination of its strengths in both," says Karen Willcox, director of the Oden Institute. "We are thrilled that leaders in government, industry and academia see the potential of this unique Texan partnership. We're looking forward to a virtual retreat on October 29 to continue to build upon this realization."

To office or not to office? Heading toward post-pandemic, that is the question for Houston workplace strategy

guest column

Since the advent of the modern office over a century ago, its design has continually evolved, adapting to new needs driven by changes in the ways people work.

COVID-19 introduced massive disruption to this steady evolution, displacing millions of office workers to fulfill their job roles from their homes. The question everyone is asking now is what happens after the pandemic — if we can all work from home, is the office irrelevant?

A mass remote work experiment

While many companies had tried some degree of remote work before the pandemic, the mass relocation to home during COVID was new territory for most. And the experiment has offered up something of an epiphany: work-from-home worked. People were able to carry out their job responsibilities, saving thousands of companies from having to shut down and sparing millions of people from job loss.

Now, based on the perceived success of WFH, many organizations are planning to greatly expand remote work, even after the pandemic has passed. Twitter was at the front of the pack in announcing they would allow some employees to work from home forever, and the list has continued to grow well beyond the tech sector.

Success depends on criteria

The lens through which we view this work-from-home period is important. Looked at as an emergency response, WFH can be deemed successful: it helped to flatten the transmission curve of the virus and protected employee lives.

But as we enter one of the most complex and challenging business climates in a century, survival will be about being competitive. And that fundamentally changes the criteria to judge working from home during COVID-19 and whether it should be expanded as a post-pandemic strategy. It raises the bar from "did work-from-home work?" to "did it work better?"; will increasing remote work help to deliver competitive advantage better than having people together in the workplace? That requires a deeper exploration.

Digital breadcrumbs

Work-from-home during COVID is, at heart, a technology story — from the platforms that virtually connected employees to networks and each other, to the embrace of video conferencing and the overnight ubiquity of the Zoom call. While they all existed before COVID, the pandemic acted as a catalyst for their widespread adoption.

Technology use leaves trails of data, like digital breadcrumbs, and many of the collaborative platforms and software providers are generously sharing their data comparing use patterns before and during COVID. So while not too long ago our evaluative methods for this unprecedented period of remote work would have relied largely on subjective or anecdotal measures, today we're able to follow the breadcrumbs and arrive at a more objective understanding of how work changed in this shift from office to home.

What becomes abundantly clear is that it wasn't simply a location swap; we didn't just go about our jobs in the same way at home as we did in the office. There were fundamental and very impactful shifts in the way we worked, with significant implications for business performance.

For instance:

The number of meetings increased. While there is a wide range of percentage increases being reported, even just taking a more conservative estimate, from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the number of meetings went up by 13 percent as compared to pre-COVID patterns.

Meetings turned inward. Since people weren't together physically, they needed to check-in a lot more often. Internal meetings—those with people within the same company — increased to over 60 percent of overall weekly meetings during work-from-home, while meetings with people external to the organization decreased to just below 40 percent, according to analysis by a leading meeting software platform.

Meeting purpose changed. Meetings can largely be grouped into three categories: evaluative — considering options, making decisions; generative — brainstorming, creating new ideas; or organizational — coordinating tasks, reporting. Organizational meetings increased by nearly a third during the peak COVID lockdown.Put another way, during WFH, people had more meetings to talk about doing work and fewer meetings to actually do work.

Meetings got larger. The number of meeting attendees during WFH increased by 14 percent. When people are physically together in the office, more meetings are impromptu, typically involving two to four people. But when you plan meetings in advance, which people have to do when remote, there's a tendency to invite more people. Increasing participants changes meeting dynamics — the more people, the more formal, the more likely it's one-way communication.

Emails to coworkers increased. With the loss of a centralized office and face-to-face interactions, people increased both the number of internal emails they sent by 5.2 percent, as well as the number of people they included in emails by 2.9 percent.

Employees felt less informed. A smartsheet survey showed that despite the increase in virtual meetings and email communication, 60 percent of the workforce reported having a decreased sense of what's going on within their companies, revealing the isolating effect of remote work.

Productive time decreased. With the increase in number of meetings, large swaths of productive time were harder to come by. Calendar analysis revealed that fragmented time—short periods of unscheduled time between meetings—increased by 11 percent during COVID-19.While not ideal for anyone, fragmented time is especially problematic for non-managerial staff, whose job roles tend to entail more individual focus work; it only takes a few poorly spread out meetings to render a day largely unproductive. The result? The work day increased by as much as 3 hours at the height of WFH per Bloomberg report.

Video was a boon…and then quickly a bane. Video conference platforms saw exponential increase in use during COVID, and seemed at first to offer a close substitute for face-to-face meetings. But the way video is synthesized introduces distortions and lags, and even an undetectable misalignment of video and audio confuses the brain, making it work harder, as outlined in the New York Times.People found themselves exhausted after a day of video calls and the scientifically-verified phenomenon "Zoom Fatigue" was born.

Social capital decreased. Socializing has never been something people regularly schedule into their workday; it's very much an ad hoc work mode: a conversation on the elevator or chatting before and after meetings. Those types of unplanned interactions weren't possible working-from-home, and despite admirable attempts to interact virtually, 63 percent of workers reported spending less time socializing with colleagues, and already by April, 75 percent of people reported feeling less connected to coworkers.

Companies became more siloed. According to research by Ben Waber at Humanyze, during WFH we increased communication with our closest work colleagues — team members or close friends at work — by 33 percent. Communication with coworkers outside our inner circle, so-called "weak ties", dropped by nearly the same amount. The problem with that is interactions with weak ties are one of the most effective ways new ideas spread through an organization. When we talk to people we have don't know well or don't see often, it's just much more likely something new is shared.

Innovation is at risk

Taken individually, the changes to work patterns that occurred with WFH might not seem dire — work got done, if not ideally so. But layered on top of each other, the picture is more grim; we had more meetings and our days got more fragmented; we met less with people outside our company; internally, we met less to generate new ideas and more to just coordinate and organize tasks; we became more siloed, we socialized less and felt less connected to each other, and less aware of what was happening within our companies.

What that combination puts most at risk is innovation, arguably the thing companies are going to need most to face the challenges ahead. Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford and internationally recognized scholar on innovation, posits that while we were able to remain productive working-from-home, there may be a steep opportunity cost paid down the line: "I fear this collapse in office face time will lead to a slump in innovation. The new ideas we are losing today could show up as fewer new products in 2021 and beyond, lowering long-run growth."

The workplace advantage

The ways work changed when we tried to do it from home reaffirms why the workplace is even more relevant now, at a time when organizations are going to need to be firing on all cylinders. And it shows that we haven't just been working at the office to bide our time until technology allowed us to ditch it and work from home; we work at the office because doing so delivers higher performance.

Far from irrelevant, today's workplace has evolved to support and foster precisely the behaviors and interactions that are missing in remote work: bringing people together to work side-by-side, to be immersed in the culture of the organization, to socialize, to build trust, and to learn from each other.

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Erik Lucken is strategy director at San Francisco-based IA Interior Architects, which has projects and clients based in Houston.