From oil and gas to space technology, these leaders are pushing forward innovation in Houston. Courtesy photos

One thing this week's movers and shakers in the Houston innovation ecosystem have in common is their intention to disrupt an industry using technology. Here are this week's innovators you need to know in Houston.

Francois Laborie, general manager of Cognite North Americas

Courtesy of Cognite

When it comes to data, most energy companies are squandering valuable information by not properly using their data. Cognite, which has its US headquarters in Texas, has solutions, says general manager of the company, Francois Laborie.

"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," he writes in a guest column for InnovationMap. "Then more new and exciting applications and services would reach the market faster."

Click here to read Laborie's article on the importance of APIs and data management.

Steven Gonzalez, technology transfer strategist at NASA

Courtesy of NASA

Houston is the Space City — present tense. While the city has a rich history as a major player in aerospace exploration and engineering, Houston is far from done, Steven Gonzales, NASA technology transfer strategist, tells InnovationMap.

We've always been the Space City, but for a while there, it was taken for granted. It's part of our history, but it's nice to see it brought back into the foreground to realize that it's not just history, it's who we are today.

Click here to read our Space City Month feature on Gonzalez in which he explains Houston's future in space and how NASA wants to work with startups.

Christine Galib, program director of The Ion Smart Cities Accelerator

Courtesy of Station Houston

Christine Galib has a new gig in town. The former Rice University and St. Thomas University educator is now the program director of the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator, a program that will find and grow startups with solutions to Houston's biggest problems.

"When we look at The Ion being created as a center for entrepreneurship and innovation in Houston, there's no other city in the world has this type of level of collaboration and transparency of major players in the innovation space coming together to create, not only the physical space, but also the programming and mindset and the environment and the culture to sustain it," she tells InnovationMap.

Click here to read more about Galib and what she's excited to bring to town.

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.

Cognite is opening two offices in Texas. Getty Images

European software company plans first U.S. office in Houston

New to town

When considering entering the United States market, Francois Laborie, general manager of Cognite North Americas, of course considered some of the obvious cities for a regional headquarters.

"Initially, when we talked about the US, people assumed Silicon Valley or Boston, because we are a traditional software company," Laborie says. "But we really didn't consider too long because the customers we work with require a pretty deep understanding of industry."

The Norway-based company decided to bet on the energy capital of the world and has announced future offices in Houston as well as Austin — both to open by this summer. This will be Cognite's first expansion outside of Northern Europe. The company makes data software for industrial businesses — oil and gas being a huge focus, as is engineering, equipment manufacturing, shipping, and more.

"The industrial world is very siloed and closed, and we are changing a lot of things in that world," Laborie says. "In the digital world, data and information only becomes valuable as you share it. We are all about liberating data, contextualizing it, and then drawing value out of it."

Laborie says the Houston office will be the company's energy hub — both current and prospective clients of Cognite have pressences in town. Meanwhile, Austin will be the tech hub, since the city has a large tech talent pool. Currently, Austin is on the path to be the U.S. headquarters, but nothing is set in stone at the moment, Laborie says.

Cognite, which expects around 50 employees (both new hires and relocations) split between the two locations, already has strategic Houston partnerships in place. Cognite will operate out of Station Houston and even has an internship program and partnership with Rice University. Overall, Laborie says the reception of the city has been positive.

"Houston went above and beyond," Laborie says. "The relationship with Rice has been very interesting because they are working closely with the Houston municipality to transform this image of Houston to get a stronger driver on innovation with the Innovation District, which spoke very loudly to us."

These partnerships are a crucial party of the company, Laborie says, and Cognite plans to work within Houston's innovation ecosystem to continue to push the envelope on innovative technologies.

"We have partnerships with large corporations, but we also see the importance to work with smaller companies to drive innovation — even if they aren't directly related," Laborie says.

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Gow Media's media platform launches to report on Houston energy transition news

it's go time

Houston's newest media platform has officially gone live.

EnergyCapitalHTX.com, originally announced in March, is now up and running. Houston-based Gow Media, a multi-platform media company and the parent company of InnovationMap, CultureMap, SportsMap, and ESPN Radio 97.5FM and 92.5FM, launched the site tonight at an event at Gow Media's office.

“We are excited to roll out our new outlet, EnergyCapitalHTX.com. We have been very impressed by Houston’s efforts to lead the global transition of energy and to address the 'dual challenge' of meeting the world’s growing demand for energy while at the same time reducing carbon emissions,” says David Gow, CEO of Gow Media.

“On our new site, we plan to provide informative, unbiased coverage of the Houston-based initiatives, spanning big corporations and startups," he continues. "We hope that a site dedicated to the transition will bring visibility to the city’s substantive progress and to the path forward.”

The site will cover Houston's energy transition ecosystem — the people, companies, capital sources, and numerous initiatives in Houston. Lindsey Ferrell serves as the inaugural editor of the site.

The site’s inaugural sponsor is HETI, which launched in 2021. Led by Executive Director Jane Stricker, HETI was founded to drive economic growth in the Houston area within the energy transition toward a lower carbon future.

“We are excited to support Gow Media with the launch EnergyCapitalHTX.com,” Stricker says in an earlier news release. "There is so much innovative and exciting activity in our ecosystem. Houston is the Energy Capital of the World, and this platform will amplify the energy leadership that is already happening here.”

Houston wealth management adviser weighs in on benefit options as key for small business success

guest column

While Small Business Appreciation month has come to an end, my work in aiding small businesses achieve financial success is continuous.

In 2009, I began my career as a financial adviser recently co-founded Volante Integrated Planning, a Houston-based office of Northwestern Mutual focused on comprehensive financial planning and helping clients achieve financial freedom.

After years of working with business owners, and as a small business owner myself, I have learned the importance of offering benefits that help attract and retain talent, foster improved work habits and provide a foundation for growth. According to the annual SHRM employee benefit survey, health-related benefits and retirement plans were ranked the two most important benefits for employees. Whether you are a new small business owner or an established one, it is important to be aware of the benefit options available to you and the considerations that go into mapping out a benefits strategy.

1. Retirement plan options

The most common retirement plans available to small business owners are 401(k), simplified employee pension (SEP) IRA and savings incentive match plan for employees (SIMPLE) IRA. The SEP IRA and SIMPLE IRA provide employers the ability to save on a pre-tax basis. While there are some required contributions on behalf of any full-time employees, the SEP and SIMPLE IRA’s are often recommended for the self-employed or businesses with part-time or contract employees. The 401(k) also provides employers with a pre-tax savings opportunity and the ability to save on a Roth basis. Because a 401(k) requires additional administration and ongoing requirements, it is often a valuable tool for business owners who have more full-time employees.

2. Health care benefit options

According to the Affordable Care Act, companies with fewer than 50 employees are not required to provide health insurance. However, offering a competitive health insurance benefits package is an increasingly important strategy to help boost both new employee acquisition and retention. Following the global pandemic, health benefits have become increasingly important. According to a study by McKinsey & Company, 51 percent of employers now offer health care benefits to attract new employees with dental, vision, and short-term disability as the most important for job-seekers.

Not only are these benefits of importance to employees, they provide protection for business owners by ensuring good health and protection from illness-related lost productivity. Some health care benefits available to small business owners include health reimbursement accounts, where you make contributions to an account that can be used by employees to pay for individual health insurance policies acquired on their own. Consider hiring a broker, benefits consultant or financial adviser to help compare your options.

3. Life and disability insurance options

As a small business owner, you have a duty to your family, employees and business partners. It is often the unexpected that can derail the success of a business. To that extent, taking the steps to ensure you and your business are protected if you are unable to work is important. Disability insurance is a versatile product that can be used to protect you, as the owner, and your employees against loss of income due to the inability to work. Additionally, disability overhead coverage and disability buy-out insurance can protect the business and any business partners from an owner’s disability, ensuring that the business can still run smoothly. Life insurance is also important, and often required if seeking a business-related loan, to provide income replacement for your family and any business partners in the event of an owner’s death.

4. Get creative with your benefit options

The small business world is ever changing, which is why it is essential — and sometimes difficult — to keep up with benefit options. I encourage small business owners to get creative with their benefit options by exploring a professional employer organization (PEO) and a multiple employer welfare arrangement (MEWA). PEO is designed to help small businesses manage their administrative overhead, benefits and compliance duties. Through MEWA, small businesses are able to collaborate on group insurance benefits for a low cost. Lastly, if your family members contribute to your small business, make sure they are on the payroll and eligible for various benefits. This may allow you to increase the benefits your household takes home.

While creating a small business employee benefits plan can be tedious, it will take your small business to the next level. Consult in a CPA, business attorney, and financial adviser to help navigate what benefits are a good fit for you and your small business.

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Jennifer Steil is principal and wealth management adviser at Volante Integrated Planning, a private client group at Northwestern Mutual.

Disgraced Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes begins prison sentence just 90 minutes from her hometown of Houston

coming holmes

A longtime Houstonian is coming home — by way of prison.

Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder of blood-testing startup Theranos, reported to F.P.C. Bryan, on Tuesday, May 30, per multiple news outlets. She is set to serve 11 years and three months in the women's minimum-security prison located some 90 minutes from Houston hometown.

According to the the New York Times, the onetime Tanglewood resident arrived at the prison in a Ford Expedition that appeared to be driven by her mother, Noel Holmes. Her father, Christian Holmes, appeared to be inside.

The Times adds that after some shuffling around, out of the view of the cameras gathered nearby, Holmes entered the facility wearing jeans, glasses and a sweater, and carrying some papers.

Prior to her arrival in Bryan, Holmes, 39, spent Memorial Day weekend with her family on the beach near her oceanfront San Diego home with her partner Billy Evans and their two children, according to the Daily Mail.

As CultureMap previously reported, Holmes was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison on November 18, 2002 in San Jose, California following her conviction in January that year for defrauding Theranos investors.

Actress Amanda Seyfried, who played Holmes in the Hulu series The Dropout, shared her thoughts on the woman she portrayed to great acclaim. “Life’s not fair,” Seyfried noted on Good Morning America on Tuesday, “but in a lot of ways, it’s fair. For her, in particular.”

Thrust into the spotlight as the new face of white-collar, Silicon Valley fraud, Holmes now serves as a warning to those who might consider a similar path, her sentencing judge made clear.

“I suppose we step back and ask what is the pathology of fraud? Is it the refusal to accept responsibility or express contrition in any way?" Judge Edward Davila said during the ruling, according to Yahoo! Finance. "Perhaps that is the cautionary tale that will go forward from this case."

Davila ordered Holmes to turn herself into custody on April 27, 2023.

Specifically, Holmes' sentence is 11 years and three months in prison, with another three years of supervision after release. Additionally, Holmes and her ex-boyfriend and former Theranos COO Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani have been ordered to pay $452 million to their fraud victims.

Once compared to disruptors and innovators Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Holmes rose to fame by enticing investors with the promise that her Theranos could run hundreds of blood tests via a simple pin prick. Buzz for Theranos grew to the point that Theranos was valued at $9 billion, which made Holmes the world’s first self-made female billionaire.

Yet, after securing more than $900 million in funding, Theranos was proven to be essentially bogus by the Wall Street Journal in 2015.

Facing up to 20 years in prison, a tearful Holmes, who is pregnant, addressed the court. "I stand before you taking responsibility for Theranos," she said, per Yahoo. "I loved Theranos. It was my life’s work. My team meant the world to me. They wanted to make a difference in the world. I am devastated by my failings," she said. "Every day for the past years, I have felt deep pain for the people…those people who believe in us and those patients. I worked so hard to serve. I gave everything I had to try to to build...Theranos. Looking back, there are so many things I would do differently. I tried to realize my dream too quickly."

Holmes is the subject of the aforementioned series, The Dropout, which centers on her early life in Houston, where she grew up in Tanglewood and attended St. John's School. Her father's layoff from Enron is presented as clearly an inciting incident in her life. As The Dropout depicts, Holmes would meet boyfriend/partner Ramesh "Sunny" Balwani, drop out of Stanford, and launch Theranos.

One of the most memorable lines in the miniseries comes when a young Holmes plainly states her goals at a family gathering. "I wanna be a billionaire," she said plainly — a memorable and clearly prophetic statement.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.