These five Houston startups are linking up industries and blockchain technology. Getty Images

Blockchain has really started to come into its own as more and more companies are applying the technology across industries — from oil and gas analytics and fundraising to even social media marketing.

Five Houston companies have made their mark on these different industries by incorporating this burgeoning technology.

Data Gumbo

Andrew Bruce had the idea for Data Gumbo when he realized how difficult it was to share data in upstream oil and gas. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

As the blockchain-as-a-service company's name suggests, Houston-based Data Gumbo is all about the data.

"The whole idea is to build out the blockchain network, and provide a network that they can subscribe to and start doing business on that network," Andrew Bruce, CEO of Data Gumbo, says. "It's a service, so there's a subscription fee. It gives them access to the savings they already have available within their organizations."

The company, which focuses on providing midstream and upstream oil and gas companies with timely decision-making information, was launched in 2016 and faced a big learning curve in the industry.

"We got a lot of questions and concerns about what blockchain is, why they need it, and whether or not they can trust it," Bruce says. "We were introducing a completely new concept to a conservative industry."

The industry is coming around as Data Gumbo grows its network and proves results.

Social Chains

Big companies are using your data to make a profit — but what if you got a kickback of that cash? That's what Houston-based Social Chains is trying to do. Pexels

When it comes to social media marketing, Houston-based Social Chains is putting the power back into the hands of users. Big social media companies, like Facebook, sell data about you to marketers and advertisers, and there's nothing you can do about it. Social Chains is a new platform where users own their own data and receive a cut of the payment.

"On our platform, the user is a stakeholder. Our platform distributes 50 percent of the profits to the users," Srini Katta, founder and CEO of the company, says.

Social Chains already has 5,000 users and, Katta says, that's with little to no marketing efforts. Currently, he's been working out a few kinks before launching into marketing for the platform, though he expects to do that beginning next month. Most of Social Chain's current users are high school to college students, so that will be the primary demographic for the marketing strategy.

Topl

Houston-based Topl can track almost anything using its blockchain technology. Courtesy of Topl

Blockchain, when applied to consumer products, can be used to complete the full picture of that product. A chocolate bar, for instance, can be traced from cacao farm to grocery store. Not only does the connected information keep each party accountable when it comes to prices, it tells a story.

"We are a generation that wants a story," says Kim Raath, CFO of Topl. "We want an origin, and don't want to be fooled. And, because you might be able to reduce the cost by having this transparency, you might be able to bring down the cost on both sides."

Topl, a Houston-based startup that was created by a few Rice University graduate and doctorate students, uses blockchain to connect the dots. One of the ways Topl's technology is being used is to track money. If an investor gives to a fund, and the fund gives to a startup, there's nothing to connect that first investor to the startup's success or to measure its impact. This is a tool used by investors or donors alike. For instance, if you were to create a scholarship, you can use Topl to track what student received that money and if they are meeting the required metrics for success.

Topl's 2019 focus is on growing its network and what it's able to provide its clients, like an app factory for companies trying to track specific things.

Iownit.us

The stock market has been using tech for years — why shouldn't the private sector have the same convenience? Getty Images

To Rashad Kurbanov, the private investment world was extremely backwards. While the stock market had been digitizing investment for years, private funds had a drawn out process of emails and meetings before moves were made. He thought introducing technology into the process could help simplify the investing for both sides of the equation.

"What we do, and where technology helps us, is we can take the entire process of receiving interest from investors, signing the transactions, issuing the subscription agreements, and processing the payments and put that all online," says Kurbanov, CEO and co-founder of Houston-based iownit.us.

The company is still seeking regulatory approval, but once that happens, the technology and platform will be ready to launch. The platform is a digital site that connects investors to companies seeking money. The investors can review the companies and contribute all online while being encrypted and protected by blockchain.

Houston Blockchain Alliance

blockchain

Here are some of the most common, misunderstood aspects about blockchain technology. Getty Images

The Houston Blockchain Alliance is a newly formed networking group for anyone working within or interested in the blockchain industry. Mahesh Sashital, co-founder of Smarterum, a blockchain news site, founded the organization late last year after realizing Houston was in need of an informative networking group.

"I thought that I'd start the Houston Blockchain Alliance so that someone like me, who's already in the industry, can find other people working in the industry," he says. "And for other people interested in blockchain can learn more and get up to speed with the technology."

The alliance aims to host regular events — its launch event is Feb. 20 — and educate people on blockchain. Click here to read Sashital's guest column about common blockchain misunderstandings.


Here are some of the most common, misunderstood aspects about blockchain technology. Getty Images

Fact or fiction? Houston blockchain expert addresses common misconceptions

Myth busting

Blockchain has become one of the most talked about emerging technologies, often mentioned in the same breath as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, Internet of Things, and big data technologies. But as a relatively new technology, it's totally expected that people will not fully comprehend aspects of the technology.

Here are some of the most common, misunderstood aspects about blockchain technology.

1. Blockchain is the same as Bitcoin (and other cryptocurrencies)

Source of misconception: The first and probably the most common misconception about blockchain is that it is the same as Bitcoin or cryptocurrency in general — and it is not hard to spot where this comes from. Blockchain as a technology became popular almost a decade after the release of the Bitcoin whitepaper. It is very common for people to refer to it as the technology that powers Bitcoin, and while this is totally correct, people forget one important fact — blockchain does a lot more than just enabling Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

The truth about blockchain: A blockchain is basically a decentralized ledger of transactions. It follows therefore that a Bitcoin blockchain will record Bitcoin transactions. However, blockchain can record virtually anything of value, not just cryptocurrency transactions, provided that the data can be represented on the chain. For instance, J.P. Morgan announced last year that it was tokenizing Gold bars via its enterprise blockchain known as Quorum. Blockchain has found applications in healthcare, supply chain, oil and gas, in addition to finance.

2. Cryptocurrencies (and by association blockchain) are used for illegal activities

Source of misconception: Cryptocurrency has a reputation (earned or otherwise) of being closely associated with crimes like ransomware attacks, money laundering, drug trafficking, and dark web activities. This is because cryptocurrency transactions are relatively harder to track, and criminals have used cryptocurrency in the past to perpetuate these activities. This has been blown out of proportion by law enforcement agencies and notable figures like Bill Gates and Jamie Dimon.

The truth about blockchain: Truth is, regular fiat currencies (the US dollar and Euro specifically), and not Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies, remain the main medium of sponsoring criminal activities. A Europol report last year confirmed that Bitcoin and other crypto were not used to sponsor terrorism in the region, contrary to widely held opinions. Furthermore, the ratio of illegal to legal activity in Bitcoin has dropped since it became more popular and widely used. Special agent Lilita Infante at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates a drop from 90 percent to 10 percent in the last five years. Actually, banks and other legitimate institutions are adopting blockchain technology for cross-border payment settlements.

3. Blockchain transactions are anonymous

Source of misconception: Again, this comes from a widely held belief that blockchain (actually cryptocurrency) is unregulated. It has been positioned as the antithesis of data-collating centralized systems, and therefore has to be anonymous.

The truth about blockchain: On the contrary, blockchain — especially public blockchains — are open and transparent ledgers that show transactions between different addresses. It's fairly easy to track transactions on a public blockchain using block explorers like Etherscan. Also, KYC requirements at many crypto exchanges make it possible to associate these address with real people. That said, there are privacy-focused blockchains like Z-Cash and Monero which use special cryptographic techniques to shield certain details of transactions.

4. Blockchain will solve all the world’s problems

Source of misconception: Hype. As blockchain technology gained in popularity, so came individuals seeking to apply it to every sector of human endeavor. Likening it to the internet, they created an impression that blockchain can and will address pain points in businesses across all industries. As impressive as it is, blockchain, like every technology before it, has its applications and its limitations.

The truth about blockchain: The extent of blockchain's impact has not yet been fully exploited but it will be preposterous to say that blockchain will solve all the world's woes. Through decentralization, blockchain provides trust, and security thereby removing the need for third parties; this is where its realistic use cases arise. At the moment, issues like scalability need to be addressed for blockchain to become commercially viable.

5. Blockchain applications will work all by themselves, independent of existing technology

Source of misconception: Hype again. On the backs of No. 4, blockchain is sometimes looked at as a standalone, independent technology. Given the hype surrounding blockchain, folks could be forgiven for thinking that the technology will work all by itself, without having to deal with legacy applications and technologies.

The truth about blockchain: Blockchain applications most often must work side by side with other existing technologies and systems, as well as in some cases, with emerging technologies like IoT, AI and others. In the financial sector, for instance, blockchain is incorporated into existing payment systems to facilitate cross-border payment settlements.

6. Blockchain only has application in finance

Source of misconception: This stems from the misconception that blockchain is all about Bitcoin or a new order of currency that will replace fiat.

The truth about blockchain: The fintech sector, more than any other, has adopted blockchain technology since its early days. That said, blockchain applications are spreading across various industries. In addition to the ones mentioned previously, projects like MedRec, PowerLedger, and Vakt are adopting blockchain in healthcare, energy, and the oil and gas industries, respectively.

7. Blockchain is the same as Cloud

Source of misconception: Both are internet-based technologies and involves access to data from different devices, but that's as similar as they get. Cloud service providers like Amazon are introducing enterprise blockchain solutions to cloud-based services.

The truth about blockchain: As a shared ledger, blockchain data is not stored on a central set of servers as is the case with cloud services. Also unlike cloud storage, blockchain doesn't usually hold actual physical information like pdf files rather it makes a record of its existence.

8. Blockchain is a single technology

Source of misconception: This comes from the likening of blockchain to the internet. As there is one internet, some people erroneously believe that there is a single blockchain.

The truth about blockchain: There are several blockchain networks — both private and public. While Bitcoin blockchain is the biggest blockchain, there are other public blockchains like Ethereum and Litecoin as well as private blockchains based on Hyperledger.

While these misconceptions are still prevalent within and outside the blockchain community, efforts are underway to dispel these myths. Education and an open dialog is key in such cases. Those within the blockchain community need to make a concerted effort to truly listen to what those outside are saying. Solution providers also need to understand the business, its issues and pain points, and propose the correct solution, whether blockchain-based or not. Blockchain technology is still in its infancy. Remember when folks did not know what the internet was or when it was nothing but hype? In 20 years or so, we will have a few such stories to laugh at.

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Mahesh Sashital is the founder and chairman of the Houston Blockchain Alliance.

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

where to be online

While usually hundreds of energy experts, C-level executives, diplomats, members of royal families, and more descend upon Houston for the the annual CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference, this year will be a little different. Canceled last year due to COVID-19, CERAWeek is returning — completely virtually.

The Agora track is back and focused on innovation within the energy sector. The Agora track's events — thought-provoking panels, intimate pods, and corporate-hosted "houses" — can be accessed through a virtual atrium.

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.

Monday — New Horizons for Energy & Climate Research

The COVID-19 pandemic has made vivid and real the risks of an uncontrolled virus. Risks posed by climate change are also becoming more palpable every day. At the forefront of understanding these risks, universities are developing solutions by connecting science, engineering, business, and public policy disciplines. Along with industry and governments, universities are critical to developing affordable and sustainable solutions to meet the world's energy needs and achieve net-zero emission goals. Can the dual challenge of more energy and lower emissions be met? What is some of the most promising energy and climate research at universities? Beyond research, what are the roles and responsibilities of universities in the energy transition?

Featuring: Kenneth B. Medlock, III, James A. Baker, III, and Susan G. Baker Fellow In Energy And Resource Economics, Baker Institute and Senior Director, Center For Energy Studies at Rice University

Catch the panel at 1 pm on Monday, March 1. Learn more.

Tuesday — Conversations in Cleantech: Powering the energy transition

With renewables investment outperforming oil and gas investment for the first time ever in the middle of a pandemic, 2020 was a tipping point in the Energy Transition. Low oil prices intensified energy majors' attention on diversification and expansion into mature and emerging clean technologies such as battery storage, low-carbon hydrogen, and carbon removal technologies. Yet, the magnitude of the Energy Transition challenge requires an acceleration of strategic decisions on the technologies needed to make it happen, policy frameworks to promote public-private partnerships, and innovative investment schemes.

Three Cleantech leaders share their challenges, successes, and lessons learned at the forefront of the Energy Transition. What is their vision and strategy to accelerate lowering emissions and confronting climate change? Can companies develop clear strategies for cleantech investments that balance sustainability goals and corporate returns? What is the value of increasing leadership diversity for energy corporations? Can the Energy Transition be truly transformational without an inclusive workforce and a diverse leadership?

Featuring: Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, which is opening a location in Houston this year.

The event takes place at 11:30 am on Tuesday, March 2. Learn more.

Wednesday — Rice Alliance Venture Day at CERAWeek

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship pitch event will showcase 20 technology companies with new solutions for the energy industry. Each presentation will be followed by questions from a panel of industry experts.

Presenting Companies: Acoustic Wells, ALLY ENERGY, Bluefield Technologies, Cemvita Factory, Connectus Global, Damorphe, Ovopod Ltd., DrillDocs, GreenFire Energy, inerG, Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, Nesh, Pythias Analytics, REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, Revterra, ROCSOLE, Senslytics, Subsea Micropiles, Syzygy Plasmonics, Transitional Energy, and Universal Subsea.

The event takes place at 9 am on Wednesday, March 3. Learn more.

Thursday — How Will the Energy Innovation Ecosystem Evolve?

Although the cleantech innovation ecosystem—research institutions, entrepreneurs, financiers, and support institutions—is diverse and productive, converting cleantech discoveries and research breakthroughs into commercially viable, transformative energy systems has proven difficult. With incumbent energy systems economically efficient and deeply entrenched, cleantech innovation faces a fundamental dilemma—the scale economies necessary to compete require a large customer base that does not yet exist. How is our clean energy innovation ecosystem equipped to be transformative? What needs to be strengthened? Is it profitable to focus on individual elements, or should we consider the system holistically, and reframe our expectations?

Featuring: Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president at Chevron Technology Ventures

The event takes place at 7:30 am on Thursday, March 4. Learn more.

Friday — Cities: Managing crises & the future of energy

Houston is the capital of global energy and for the past four decades the home of CERAWeek. Mayor Sylvester Turner will share lessons from the city's experience with the pandemic, discuss leadership strategies during times of crisis, and explore Houston's evolving role in the new map of energy.

The event takes place at 8 am on Friday, March 5. Learn more.

Rice University develops 2 new innovative tools to detect COVID-19

pandemic tech

Rice University is once again spearheading research and solutions in the ongoing battle with COVID-19. The university announced two developing innovations: a "real-time sensor" to detect the virus and a cellphone tool that can detect the disease in less than an hour.

Sensing COVID
Researchers at Rice received funding for up to $1 million to develop the real-time sensor that promises to detect minute amounts of the airborne virus.

Teams at Rice and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston are working to develop a thin film electronic device that senses as few as eight SARS-CoV-2 viruses in 10 minutes of sampling air flowing at 8 liters per minute, per a press release.

Dubbed the Real-Time Amperometric Platform Using Molecular Imprinting for Selective Detection of SARS-CoV-2 (or, RAPID), the project has been funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Rice notes. Further funding will be contingent upon a successful demonstration of the technology.

Attacking with an app
Meanwhile, the university announced that its engineers have developed a plug-in tool that can diagnose COVID-19 in around 55 minutes. The tool utilizes programmed magnetic nanobeads and a tool that plugs into a basic cellphone.

First, a stamp-sized microfluidic chip measures the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein in blood serum from a standard finger prick.

Then, nanobeads bind to SARS-CoV-2 N protein, a biomarker for COVID-19, in the chip and transport it to an electrochemical sensor that detects minute amounts of the biomarker. Paired with a Google Pixel 2 phone and a plug-in tool, researchers quickly secured a positive diagnosis.

This, researchers argue, simplifies sample handling compared to swab-based PCR tests that must be analyzed in a laboratory.

"What's great about this device is that it doesn't require a laboratory," said Rice engineer Peter Lillehoj in a statement. "You can perform the entire test and generate the results at the collection site, health clinic or even a pharmacy. The entire system is easily transportable and easy to use."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.