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.

Houston-based iownit.us got the green light from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. Getty Images

Houston blockchain-enabled investment platform gets regulatory approval

green light

For Rashad Kurbanov, this day has been a long time coming. The founder of iownit.us has been building his digital investment platform for two years, and now the company has been approved for membership by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

As a FIRA member, IOI Capital and Markets LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of iownit.us, the company can be placement agent for digital private securities that are issued on the iownit.us platform.

The iownit.us' blockchain-backed technology allows for a more simplified and streamlined process for securities investment, making it easier on both the investors and the companies seeking investment.

"We believe our platform will reduce friction in the market and reduce costs for all market participants, while importantly providing appropriate investor protections," Kurbanov says in the release.

Kurbanov indicates in the release that the length of the approval process wasn't that surprising.

"As any new technology being introduced in financial markets, blockchain had to be thoroughly evaluated by the regulators to ensure its application in compliance with regulations that made the U.S. capital markets envy of the world," he says. "We spent a significant amount of time with FINRA and SEC Staff on productive discussions working through the use of distributed ledger technology and how it can be implemented to provide convenient yet secure platform."

Iownit.us represents a more modern approach to traditional investing processes in an increasingly digitized world.

"We are not here to 'revolutionize' investing, but we do intend to make it vastly more modern and less complicated for both issuers and investors to engage and transact," he says in the release.

In June, the company closed a $4.5 million Seed round of investment. Kurbanov said that those funds would be use to wrap up this approval process. Now that it's all squared away, the remaining funds will go toward business development and marketing initiatives and technological advancements.

Houston-based iownit.us secured $4.5 million to grow its platform. Getty Images

Houston investment platform completes a $4.5 million Series A round

Money moves

A Houston-based digital investor infrastructure platform closed an investment round of its own. Iownit Capital and Markets Inc. announced that it has closed a $4.5 million Seed round of funding.

The round was lead by a group of private investors who were not identified in the June 26 release. While iownit.us CEO Rashad Kurbanov has been working on the platform for two years, he still awaits regulatory approval.

"This funding shows the demand for a platform like this in the marketplace, and will be crucial in making sure our platform meets regulatory requirements," Kurbanov says in the release. "We're doing everything we can to get this correct from the very start — unlike many firms who say, 'better to ask for forgiveness than permission,' we ask permission first because we don't want to ever be in a position where we're asking for forgiveness."

The primary function of the funds will go to wrapping up this approval process to insure the company has all of its required licenses. After that's all squared away, the remaining funds will go toward business development and marketing initiatives and technological advancements.

Iownit.us uses private blockchain and ledger technology to transact traditional investment deals securely on its digital platform.

"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 tells InnovationMap in a previous interview.

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, enabled by the JOBS Act, plans to simplify this process, which then allows for a diversity of investments in the ecosystem that's in the past been dominated by huge VCs.

"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.

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

5 Houston companies using blockchain to unlock new opportunities across industries

Linked in

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.


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Houston makes play to score soccer innovation

new goal

Houston is kicking up its 2026 FIFA World Cup bid by a notch or two with a new innovative initiative.

The Houston 2026 World Cup Bid Committee on October 14 committed to establishing the nonprofit Soccer Innovation Institute if Houston becomes a host city for the FIFA World Cup.

"The institute will rely on Houston's spirit of innovation to create a united community investment in building a legacy that goes well beyond the city," according to a news release announcing the potential formation of the nonprofit.

The soccer institute, made up of a network of experts and leaders from various global organizations, would conduct specialized think tanks and would support a series of community programs.

"As the energy capital of the world, the global leader in medicine, the universal headquarters for NASA, and the home to numerous sports tech companies, Houston has an abundance of resources that are unmatched by other cities," Houston billionaire John Arnold, chairman of the 2026 bid committee, says in a news release. "By bringing these organizations together under one umbrella, the Soccer Innovation Institute presents the ultimate opportunity to redefine the player and fan experience, and develop a lasting legacy for the long-term benefit of the FIFA World Cup."

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says the institute would align with the city's efforts to build a strong ecosystem for innovation, along with its passion for soccer.

"Houston is recognized as a leader in technology and innovation. We have many innovation hubs around the city that bring bright minds into collaborative spaces where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts," the mayor says.

Held every four years, the World Cup assembles national men's soccer teams from around the world in one of the most planet's most watched sporting events. The traditional 32-team tournament will expand to 48 teams in 2026. After 2026, the World Cup might be staged every two years.

Among those collaborating on the Houston 2026 bid are NRG, the Texas Medical Center, Shell, Chevron, the U.S. Soccer Foundation, the Council for Responsible Sport, the Houston Dynamo, the Houston Dash, the City of Houston, Harris County, and Houston First.

The FIFA World Cup 2026 will be played in 16 cities across the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. Houston and Dallas are among the 17 cities vying to become a U.S. host. A final decision is expected in the first half of 2022. If Houston is selected, it will host six World Cup games at NRG Stadium.

Between October 21 and November 1, World Cup delegates will visit eight cities in the running to be North American hosts: Houston, Dallas, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Denver, San Francisco, Seattle, and Monterrey, Mexico.

Why small businesses are a big deal in Pearland

Small Business, Big Success

Here's a fun fact: 82 percent of businesses in Pearland are locally owned.

Besides providing a warm, fuzzy feeling, that fact actually has a big impact on what the the Lower Kirby city has to offer other companies that are looking to relocate.

Understanding that small businesses are vital to the local economy, the Pearland Economic Development Corporation does all it can to support the formation and growth of new businesses.

To gain a better understanding of the needs of local businesses, PEDC recently conducted a survey of all businesses in the community. The survey found that 92 percent of business owners felt that Pearland is a great place to live, work, and operate a business, and more than 80 percent of survey respondents gave excellent or good marks to Pearland as a place to do business — higher than the national comparison.

The city recently launched an online permitting portal that helps emerging businesses navigate the business registration process with a streamlined, easy-to-use interface that can be accessed anywhere, any time.

By answering just a few questions, potential new business owners can see all the necessary requirements and fees. And commercial permits are reviewed and approved within 20 days, on average.

Additionally, PEDC and community partners are creating an Entrepreneurship Hub, which will enhance Pearland's innovation entrepreneurship culture by creating events, programs, and activities for entrepreneurs and small business owners to inspire ideation and entrepreneurship.

The Hub will connect the city to local and regional entrepreneurship assistance programs, service providers, and funding sources to help businesses maximize their growth potential and overall success. Offerings of the Hub will include business plan competitions, proactive coaching, networking events, and student programs.

In addition to the resources offered, many small businesses that have relocated to Pearland cite the safety of the community and ease of access via multiple thoroughfares as top reasons that led them to the community.

Brask Neela, a small business founded in Louisiana, constructed a new manufacturing facility in Pearland to custom fabricate heat transfer equipment on 9.45 acres in Pearland's Industrial Drive Business Park. After its move to the Pearland area, the company can better service petrochemical and chemical customers in Texas City, Freeport, and Baytown, as well as global clients.

In addition to PEDC's assistance with land acquisition and attractive incentives, Brask Neela was drawn to the location's proximity to the workforce, the area's infrastructure, and open communications with the City of Pearland.

"Pearland provided incentives, proximity to workforce both for shop and office, infrastructure, and clear communication to address any needs with city officials," says Kevin Sareen, Brask Neela's business development manager.

Rollac Shutters manufactures exterior rolling shutters, solar zip shades, and awnings, and opened a 105,000-square-foot headquarters and manufacturing facility that allowed the company to engage in environmentally responsible manufacturing practices and integrate sustainability principles in its day-to-day operations.

"As a family-owned business, location and incentives were most important to us," says Eva Konrad, vice president at Rollac Shutters. "Pearland offered both and we love it here."

Houston-area school scores top 10 status in Texas

star pupils

A Houston-area school earned top honors in Texas in U.S. News & World Report's first-ever ranking of the state's best elementary schools.

Creekside Forest Elementary School comes in at No. 10. Creekside is nestled in the bustling Woodlands and in the Tomball Independent School District.

A public school, Creekside Forest Elementary boasts student population of 571, serving serves kindergarten through fifth grade. Impressively, according to the report, 93 percent of students here scored at or above the proficient level for math, and 87 percent scored at or above that level for reading.

Notably, the student-teacher ratio is at Creekside is 16:1, which is better than that of the district. The school employs 36 equivalent full-time teachers and one full-time school counselor.

The student population at Creekside is made up of 49 percent female students and 51 percent male students, with minority student enrollment at 43 percent. One percent of students here at economically disadvantaged.

According to the school's website, Creekside "is a learning community where all continuously strive for excellence."

Unlike its annual list of the country's best high schools, U.S. News & World Report didn't come up with a national ranking of elementary schools. Rather, it published a ranking for each state.

Myriad other Houston-area schools land later on the list, including West University Elementary at No. 17. According to U.S. News, the 10 best elementary schools in Texas are:

  1. William B. Travis Academy/Vanguard for the Academically Talented and Gifted, Dallas ISD.
  2. Windsor Park G/T Elementary School, Corpus Christi ISD.
  3. Old Union Elementary School, Carroll ISD.
  4. Carroll Elementary School, Carroll ISD.
  5. Hudson Elementary School, Longview ISD.
  6. Sudie L. Williams Talented and Gifted Academy, Dallas ISD.
  7. Canyon Creek Elementary School, Round Rock ISD.
  8. Carver Center, Midland ISD.
  9. Cactus Ranch Elementary School, Round Rock ISD.
  10. Creekside Forest Elementary School, Tomball ISD.
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This article originally ran on CultureMap.