If the last few weeks have shown us anything, it's how important the resilience of our digital infrastructure is, our reliance on data, and the power technology has to help us during challenging times. Getty Images

As the United States looks to reopen from an unprecedented shutdown caused by a global pandemic, conversations amongst government and policy bodies are slowly switching to how they will support the economy in the long term. There is a need to improve infrastructure, strengthen the supply chain, increase economic resiliency, etc.

Indeed, the speed of the economic shock caused by COVID-19 highlighted the fragility of many key systems and processes, impacting the ability of the federal and state governments to distribute economic relief funds, manage healthcare capacity, and support small businesses.

There is no better illustration of this fragility in the system than the sudden spike in demand for COBOL programmers. COBOL is a decades-old programming language that was used to write mainframe applications. Apparently over half of the states in the U.S., including California and New York, rely on applications written in a language first introduced in 1959 for their critical state systems.

There is clearly a need to modernize the public services technology infrastructure, not only in expectation of future pandemic-driven disruptions but to increase efficiency and reduce costs nationally. The private sector can and should play an important role in bringing modern technology into the critical parts of the economy.

But that requires a closer collaboration between state governments and technology firms to identify the best and most efficient way forward. Technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, and the Internet of Things can dramatically reshape and improve public sector technology infrastructure while providing broader benefits to the state economies.

The critical first step in building this public-private partnership is to educate and engage state officials and legislators on specific technologies that can be put to use.

On April 29, I attended a virtual meeting organized by Texas Blockchain Committee (TBC) and hosted by the office of State Representative Tan Parker. In attendance, there were individuals and organizations based in Texas that are involved in developing practical applications of blockchain technology. What was also encouraging was that there were quite a few members of the State Legislature in attendance.

Here are a few key points that are worth highlighting from the meeting:

  • There is growing recognition and acceptance that blockchain is a technology that has wide applications outside of the cryptocurrency world. In fact, during the meeting, no one mentioned Bitcoin or crypto-trading.
  • Texas is aiming to explore ways to be at the forefront of blockchain technology adoption and be the leader among the states in promoting Blockchain innovation. Back in 2018 at the height of ICO and cryptocurrency mania, The Brooking Institution labeled Texas as reactionary when it comes to blockchain. Since then the state attitude has changed, in many ways thanks to Representative Parker and his push to initiate a proper study of blockchain's applicability at the state level.
  • There are many Texas-based companies with deep technical expertise and know-how in the blockchain. Some even moved their operations from other parts of the country to Texas in order to scale their businesses.
  • Whether it is related to the distribution of relief funds for businesses or individuals impacted by COVID -19, improvements in the way the healthcare industry handles patient data or other areas that require secure and transparent record management, blockchain is gaining attention as a technology to modernize critical digital infrastructure.
  • Particular attention was given to the efforts in other countries to bring blockchain technology into mainstream adoption. For example, China launched its nationwide Blockchain Services Network (BSN) in April of this year and is looking to bring digital central bank currency online early next year. The Chinese BSN is a result of joint efforts by the government, regulators, and private sector companies – a model that could work very well in the U.S. and in Texas.
  • It is worth noting that at the federal level there are currently over 30 blockchain-related bills in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. While a majority of these bills are focusing on the regulation of cryptocurrencies, there are a few that aim to promote the study of blockchain usage more broadly.

As a Texas-based fintech company that has been using Blockchain for the past three years, we are very encouraged by the broad interest in this technology. The Texas Blockchain Committee, led by Lee Bratcher and Karen Kilroy, has managed to pull together many individuals and companies to participate in this exciting effort.

If the last few weeks have shown us anything, it's how important the resilience of our digital infrastructure is, our reliance on data, and the power technology has to help us during challenging times. However, in order for us to leverage technology during harder times, we need to invest in properly applying it during stable times.

I believe this is a step in the right direction for Texas, and I hope we are able to expand the adoption of this technology, where relevant, at a national level. A coordinated national effort to study how technology, blockchain or otherwise, can help us be better prepared for our country's future.

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Rashad Kurbanov is the CEO and co-founder of Houston-based iownit capital and markets, a digital investment platform for private securities.

The music industry has adapted to the digital age — so should financial securities. Getty Images

The financial industry needs to digitize not tokenize, says this Houston expert

Guest column

One of my favorite movies growing up was Empire Records. It was the mid-1990s, and the closest we got to Instagram feeds was who had the best mixtapes. If you're not familiar with Empire Records (or what a mixtape is), I recommend watching the movie, but you don't have to worry too much about mixtapes any more.

Since Empire Records was released in 1995, the way we purchase and consume music has fundamentally changed. The physical music store was displaced by iTunes, and then the music industry evolved even further into a streaming economy. It took 24 years, but music evolved and it now operates in a fundamentally different way. Digitization of music was initially viewed as an existential threat to the industry, but in the end, music was digitized globally and the music industry very much survived.

The music industry has evolved and adapted to the digital age. The same happened across countless other industries, including financial services. Today we can invest in publicly traded stocks through a mobile app for free. However, a critical segment of capital markets has not evolved yet. The private securities space.

Transactions in private securities are still done on paper (no, DocuSign does not count as securities digitization.) Administrative costs are kept high due to the amount of paper that is processed and pushed through this system. As long as the foundation of private securities is paper, there is no amount of administrative technology out there to create an efficient market.

Public markets took the plunge into digital long before music did, and digitization of public markets enabled exponential growth globally. Trading volume, access to capital, and liquidity have all increased, and a large part of that can be attributed to the efficient and transparent nature of most public exchanges.

Efficient markets rely on price transparency and information equality. Currently, the private securities markets do not offer either of these characteristics. This is nothing new to people in the alternatives space, but how to reach these lofty goals, to create liquidity and reduce costs, is what I am excited about.

The reduction of cost does not relate only to commissions. There are administrative costs associated with private securities. Information distribution is slow and unilateral, forcing investors to depend on antiquated systems in order to track their investments. Nearly all of these costs are absorbed by the investor, and most efforts to date have not helped address the core issue, analog private security transactions.

Digitization of private securities is fundamentally different than tokenization. Tokenized securities are considered bearer securities. A digitized security, on the other hand, maintains its original status as a registered security, as long as its digitization is implemented in a manner that fits current regulatory requirements. Until recently, that had not been possible in a scalable way. Blockchain changed all of that.

Initial attempts at utilizing blockchain for private markets applied tokenization. Essentially, this configuration took securities that had clearly defined ownership records, anonymized them and put them on a public blockchain such as Ethereum. While there are some benefits to this approach, it also opened doors to significant fraud and securities regulation violations. Tokenization may provide liquidity, but the long-term risk far outweighs the value of liquidity for any prudent investor.

Blockchain does provide a framework that supports compliant digitization of private investments, it's simply not tokenization. The solution lies in using private permissioned blockchains that allow an appropriate degree of technical security while also ensuring transparency and accountability.

Blockchain enables us to maintain a statement of record that is both compliant, and scalable. Across the financial services industry, and across most other industries, blockchain is being deployed to help solve problems that were previously unmanageable. The blockchain is even helping farmers track their crops through IBM's blockchain. iownit has integrated blockchain at the core of our technology, proving that compliant digitization of private securities is possible and scalable.

The United States has a free market economy, so in the end, winners are determined by the market. It is our belief that the digitization of private securities is the responsible way to help this industry evolve. If you're still skeptical, just look at how the public securities markets have evolved since the '70s when electronic stock trading was enabled and the first digital public security trade was placed. Now try and imagine how private security markets will look in four years.

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Yosef Levenstein is the head of marketing at iownit, a Houston-based financial technology firm that is democratizing how investors and private companies transact.

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

Private securities investment company plans to use tech to simplify the process

Digital upgrade

When private companies are trying to raise capital, it's a pretty antiquated process. You take meeting after meeting, exchange dozens of emails, and then, when it's actually time to make an investment, there's a lot of paperwork to do. Seeing this over complicated way of handling things, Rashad Kurbanov 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.

Iownit has been in the works for about 18 months now, and has major growth plans, which includes hiring over a dozen new employees focused on tech and support.

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.

Diversifying the investment ecosystem
Kurbanov says the convoluted process of private securities investment has meant that startup companies are much more likely to focus on receiving funding venture firms, because they want to have a one-stop-shopping experience. When entrepreneurs add in multiple investors, they end up juggling too much of the logistics side of things, rather than running their company. Iownit's platform simplifies this process, which then allows for a diversity of investments in the ecosystem that's in the past been dominated by huge VCs.

Another way to look at it is that when it comes to investments, public investments has operated in a digital way for years — think of the stock market, for instance. But the private market has been limited to a small amount of accredited investors. The Jobs Act put into effect by Congress in 2012 changed the game a little bit, but the tech hasn't played a role yet.

"We realized there's a big section of the overall capital market that has not necessarily been touched by technology, and that's the space of private securities," Kurbanov says.

Reaching out to underserved communities
Kurbanov is based in New York, but he chose to start his company in Houston because, being focused on diversifying investments, he saw a huge opportunity when you move away from either coast. Houston has a strong corporate environment, access to capital, and great universities, says Kurbanov, but when it comes to the startup companies, it's not as proportional as it is on the East and West Coasts.

"Our goal is to put our technology and platform in use to support the capital formation in the entrepreneurial ecosystems that today don't have easy access to capital."

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.