Houston has proven to be resilient time and time again. In a guest column, Amy Chronis explores if 2020 has the potential to be Clutch City's breaking point. Photo via Pexels

"Clutch City" may be Houston's most befitting nickname — and it has proven to stand the test of time. Whoever coined the term likely had no idea in how many ways this moniker would be tested and upheld over the next 20-plus years.

Time and time again the fourth largest city in America has proven to be resilient, whether it be a natural catastrophe, tough economic times or the global pandemic. But, will the multi-dimensional stresses of 2020 break the city's winning streak?

Houston is also well known for being The Energy Capital of the World, a qualifier that has meant record revenue and jobs growth, as well as weathering several oil and gas economic down cycles. While the city has taken many hits from previous downturns, it has always been able to recover. The oil, gas and chemicals downturn of 2020, however, is unlike anything we've ever seen before — and could fundamentally transform the energy industry, as well as Houston's economy.

This year, the industry has been grappling with the energy transition while it is also is facing the "Great Compression," sustained low oil prices on top of diminished oil demand from the global pandemic, and the "Great Crew Change." The confluence of these simultaneous challenges could have profound impacts on the workforce and future of work in the oil, gas and chemicals industry. According to Deloitte's latest report, 70 percent of jobs in the industry lost during the pandemic may not return by the end of 2021.

The silver lining "clutch" play may be that Houston already has been on the path and is continuing to diversify its businesses, even within the energy and industrial sectors. The Greater Houston Partnership touts Houston's key industries beyond energy, including advanced manufacturing, aerospace and aviation, life sciences and biotechnology, digital technology and transportation and logistics. Notably, the common thread linking these industries is the need for greater digitalization of and within business models.

The encouraging news is that Houston has anticipated this need and factored it into its future planning. For example, the development of Ion Houston is designed to be the anchor of a 16-plus acre Innovation District in Houston dedicated to innovation, entrepreneurship and technology. This could be the type of investment the city needs to focus on as we grapple with a hard-hit economy. At this point, it is beyond choosing to prioritize moving to what's been called Industry 4.0 — digitalization should be a priority for companies wanting to survive and stay competitive.

According to an analysis conducted by the Greater Houston Partnership of the largest Texas cities, the following sectors had the most VC deals in technology over the last 20 years: life science, oil and gas, oncology, B2B payments, infrastructure and FemTech. The analysis also showcased the top niche tech specialties outside of oil and gas spanned multiple industries including life sciences, legal, space, environmental and FinTech. Houston's dual effort of industry diversification and focus on digitalization has been prescient.

COVID-19 has further accelerated the importance for companies across sectors to get on the fast track to Industry 4.0. The time for transformation is now. The oil, gas and chemicals sector, as well as all sectors, should start building a workforce for the future in order to survive and break the barriers to entry to Industry 4.0. This effort typically includes attracting people across generations by promoting sustainability, offering new digital ways of working, making flexible/remote working a permanent reality while building a sense of pride amongst the workforce toward the work product and organization itself.

Organizational agility is one way through this downturn. Challenging traditional ways of thinking and functioning will likely be required for companies to remain competitive.

The advance work and planning Houston has undertaken to diversify its economy by expanding its industries and focusing on digitalization and the future of workforce, together may ensure that we keep Houston strong and that the "Clutch City" lives up to its name.

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Amy Chronis is the Houston managing partner at Deloitte.

The energy industry is finally prioritizing new technology and greener energy — both in light of and in spite of a global pandemic. Photo via Getty Images

Overheard: Here’s what these energy VCs think of the pandemic’s effect on the energy transition

eavesdropping online

In a lot of ways, venture capital firms are tasked with predicting the future. They put money into tech and business services that are going to disrupt the status quo, and energy VCs are tasked with taking bets on the energy transition.

At a virtual event as a part of the 18th annual Rice Alliance Energy Tech Venture Forum, which is taking place online this week, a group of panelists moderated by Sandy Guitar, managing partner at the HX Venture Fund, discussed how the pandemic has affected the energy transition. The group of experts talked about the future of work, decarbonization, and more.

If you missed the event, here are a few key moments from the discussion.

“The role of digitization is going to be huge. The pandemic really exacerbated just how far oil and gas had been behind in that.”

Sean Ebert, partner at Altira. Ebert explains that when times are good for energy companies, it's hard to get the attention of executives to introduce new technologies. Now, corporations are having to invest in tech that allows their employees to be mobile and remote.

“There’s never been a better time to invest in energy technology. … We are at a point where we can get the type of returns [we look for.]”

George Coyle, managing partner at Energy Innovation Capital. Coyle adds that he's seen the pandemic effect major growth opportunities in energy startups in his portfolio.

“What we have is a sense of urgency that didn’t exist 15 years ago. Public companies virtually all have a sustainability report and need to show some sort of progress."

Cory Steffek, managing director at Ara Partners. He adds, "I really think the opportunity in the near term is de-risking software or hardware technologies and showing people that you can construct assets where they can deploy substantial amounts of capital profitably. If you have that, from a returns standpoint, you have something that should generate significant yield."

“The part we have been focused on is how can you make the conventional more efficient, so energy-on-energy conversion is even better.”

Hossam Elbadawy, managing director at SCF Ventures and technology partner at SCF Partners. He's referring to the question of whether to prioritize new low-carbon innovations or to make conventional methods more sustainable. His observation is that the solution is going to be a hybrid of both.

“When we think about the future of work, we think about what are the capabilities going to be required in the future to be able to improve operations in the field today?”

Ricardo Angel, managing director and CEO of PIVA. Angel adds that, "a lot of activities might be replaced by AI," and he and his firm are thinking about how they can go about "developing the skills for the people who will be working with those tools."

On a panel for Houston Climate Week, three energy experts discussed the importance of Houston taking the right steps in the energy transition. Getty Images

Overheard: Experts call for Houston to become the 'energy transition capital of the world'

eavesdropping online

Before the inaugural Houston Climate Week was shutdown — ironically by a major climate event — event attendees heard from a panel of energy experts that spoke of certain challenges the city's economy faces as the energy transition continues.

One of the last events of the programmed week that took place ahead of cancelations due to the threat of Hurricane Laura, was a virtual panel entitled, ENERGY TRANSITION: Making Houston a Global Leader in Energy Innovation. The conversation centered around what Houston is currently doing — and what it still needs to focus on — when it comes to the need to prioritize sustainability in oil and gas and new green alternatives in the greater energy industry.

Here are some of the highlights from the discussion.

“Houston has a spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. We’ve all heard Houston be called the oil and gas capital of the world, but we’re the energy capital of the world — and we have the opportunity right now to become the energy transition capital of the world. We see that here — we want to be a part of that.”

— Kelsey Hultberg, vice president and chief of staff of Sunnova, a Houston-based residential solar energy company that went public last year.

“When you think about energy 2.0, it’s about what the energy industry look like in the future. In Houston, we are working hard to present ourselves not just as a current global energy leader, but the future energy leader of the world."

— Jose Beceiro, senior director of Energy 2.0 at the Greater Houston Partnership.

"The energy capital of the world has to be engaged and become the energy transition capital of the world."

— Juliana Garaizar, launch director of Greentown Labs - Houston.

“One of the thing we’re really focused on is energy resiliency and reliability. … After Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, really fundamentally as an organization as that there is a need for energy reliability.”

— Hultberg says, adding that around a third of the company's solar sales include a battery.

"The oil and gas industry knows it is going to have to hire a whole new workforce going forward that’s much more technical in terms of data analytics, cloud computing, and edge computing. One method you’re seeing these companies try is investing in new types of energy resources. … Another method you’re seeing is these companies forming closer alliances in the tech industry.”

— Beceiro says, adding that these tech companies — like Amazon and Google — have zoomed in on Houston and increased their local presence.

“I really believe that innovation happens at the intersection of things and for that you really need a convening space for that.”

Garaizar says, adding that she hopes Greentown Labs can help provide this convening space.

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Houston Black-owned beauty biz gets major holiday shout out from Oprah

favorite things

Every holiday season, Oprah Winfrey and her elves work hard to put together her namesake list of Favorite Things. The 2020 list of must-have gifts highlights Black-owned or led businesses, including a Houston-based beauty line, 54 Thrones.

For the past six years, Oprah's Favorite Things are available for purchase in the Oprah's Favorite Things storefront exclusively on Amazon, including the 54 Thrones African Beauty Body Butter Collection Gift Set.

The limited-edition Holiday Deluxe Tin contains five individually packaged African Beauty Butters. The Beauty Body Butters are infused with African-grown, pure, and organic plant botanicals which help protect, soothe, and nourish the skin. These Beauty Butters nourish and revitalize the skin; repair dry, tired, or cracked skin; and hydrate the body, hands, elbows, and feet.

Founder Christina Funke Tegbe was inspired by her Nigerian aunt and the tubs of shea butter she sent from Nigeria. In 2015, Tegbe left the corporate world of high-powered consulting and founded 54 Thrones, named after Africa's 54 countries.

This year, more than 50 of the 72 featured products on the Oprah list come from Black-owned businesses, according to Amazon.

"As so many continue to look for ways to support Black lives any way they can, we found dozens of absolutely gorgeous gifts from Black-owned businesses that we wanted to share and celebrate as part of this year's Favorite Things," said Winfrey, via Amazon.

Founder of 54 Thrones, Christina Funke Tegbe. Photo courtesy of 54 Thrones

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston expert: New technologies are improving lives of those living with type 1 diabetes

Guest column

Type 1 diabetes (T1D) is an autoimmune disease where insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas are mistakenly destroyed by the body's immune system. Insulin is vital in controlling blood-sugar or glucose levels. Not only do you need proper blood-sugar levels for day-to-day energy, but when blood-sugar levels get too high (hyperglycemia) or too low (hypoglycemia), it can cause serious problems and even death. Because of this, those with T1D are dependent on injections or pumps to survive.

The causes of T1D are not fully known, and there is currently no cure; however, advancing technologies are making it easier to live with T1D.

Monitoring

Those who have had T1D for decades might recall having to pee into a vial and test reagent strips in order to check their blood-sugar levels. Thankfully, this evolved into glucometers, or glucose meters. With a glucometer, those with T1D prick their finger and place a drop on the edge of the test strip, which is connected to the monitor that displays their results. Nowadays, glucometers, much like most T1D tech, can be Bluetooth enabled and sync with a smartphone.

From there, scientists have developed the continuous glucose monitor (CGM) so that those with T1D can monitor their blood sugar 24/7. All you need to do is insert a small sensor under the skin. The sensor then measures glucose levels every few minutes, and that information can then be transmitted to smartphones, computers and even smart watches.

Monitoring blood-sugar levels is vital for those with T1D, particularly because it helps them stay more aware of their body, know what to do and even what to expect, but they also have to actively control those levels by injecting insulin. Think of a monitor as the "check engine" light. It can tell you that there may be a problem, but it won't fix it for you. To fix it, you would need an injection or a pump.

Pumps and artificial pancreas

The development of insulin pumps has made a huge impact on the lives of those with T1D and parents of children with T1D by making it easier to manage their blood-sugar levels. 50 years ago, the prototype of the insulin pump was so large, it had to be a backpack, but with today's technology, it is about the size of a smartphone. The pump is worn on the outside of the body, and it delivers insulin through a tube which is placed under the skin. Insulin pumps mimic the way a pancreas works by sending out small doses of insulin that are short acting. A pump can also be manipulated depending on each person's needs. For example, you can press a button to deliver a dose with meals and snacks, you can remove it or reduce it when active and it can be programmed to deliver more at certain times or suspend delivery if necessary.

One of the most recent and trending developments in T1D research is the artificial pancreas, or more formally referred to as the automated insulin delivery (AID) systems. Essentially, the artificial pancreas is an insulin pump that works with a CGM. The CGM notifies the insulin pump of your blood-sugar reading, which acts accordingly to restore your blood sugar to the target level. The artificial pancreas allows those with T1D to be even more hands off, as it does essentially everything: It continuously monitors blood-sugar levels, calculates how much insulin you would need, which can be done through smart devices, and automatically delivers insulin through the pump.

Living with T1D is a 24/7/365 battle; however, the advances in technology make it easier and safer to live with the disease. Organizations like JDRF play a huge role in investing in research, advocating for government support and more.

November was National Diabetes Awareness Month, and this year is particularly special for JDRF, as it is the 50th year of the organization. JDRF was founded in 1970 by two moms. The community grew to include scientists, lobbyists, celebrities and children—all determined to improve lives and find cures.

Bound by a will stronger than the disease, this year during National Diabetes Awareness Month (NDAM), JDRF celebrates "The Power of Us." We are reflecting on the power of our community and reminding ourselves and the public of how far we've come in the fight against T1D.


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Rick Byrd is the executive director of the JDRF Southern Texas Chapter.

Houston startup closes $5M seed round led by Austin VC

Fresh funds

It's payday for a Houston startup that is housed out of the new Halliburton Labs. Nanotech Inc., which material science for fire-proofing and insulation, has announced the close of its $5 million seed round.

According to NanoTech's news release, Austin-based Ecliptic Capital led the investment round. Additionally, the deal also resulted in the conversion of a simple agreement for future equity, or SAFE, that was previously issued to Halliburton Labs.

"The investment from Ecliptic Capital will allow us to scale our business to achieve our mission of fireproofing the world and reducing global energy consumption. Additionally, our participation with Halliburton Labs provides us with the support of a Fortune 500 company." says NanoTech's CEO Mike Francis in the release.

Based in Austin, Ecliptic Capital is a fund focused on early-stage startups and supports a wide range of technologies across neglected geographies and industries.

"Ecliptic is proud to partner with NanoTech as the company's founding institutional investor," says Mike W. Erwin, founder of Ecliptic Capital, in the release. "We're excited to work with the company and leverage our operational expertise to rapidly scale this impactful, world-changing technology. We look forward to a new world where NanoTech accelerates the thermal management market from science-fiction to science-fact."

Halliburton Company chose NanoTech among a round of contenders to be the first participant of their 12-month program located at their Houston headquarters. Halliburton provides Nanotech with its own office space, access to Halliburton facilities, technical expertise, and an extensive network to accelerate their product to market.

'We are thrilled to see a Halliburton Labs participant secure their first round of financing, and congratulate the Ecliptic and NanoTech teams,' says Scott Gale, Halliburton Labs executive director, in the release. 'We are confident in the path forward as they work towards achieving a clean energy future.'

NanoTech's proprietary technology has the ability to be utilized for various industries — including commercial construction, chemical plants, oil and gas, aviation, utilities and much more — for eco-friendly spray-on insulation and fireproofing.

"As a company, we are just scratching the surface on where our technology will be used and can't wait to see the business scale." adds Mike Francis.