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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Gwyneth Paltrow, VCs to headline exciting upcoming Houston summit

coming soon

A Houston-based fund of funds is bringing back its venture-focused event — and this year, you might recognize the keynote speaker.

Venture Houston hosted by the HX Venture Fund will take place on Monday, September 12, at The Ion. The day will kick off with a conversation with Goop founder and Academy Award-winning actress Gwyneth Paltrow in conversation with Dana Settle, co-founder and managing partner of New York-based Greycroft. Goop is among Greycroft's portfolio companies, and HXVF, which deploys capital in to out-of-town VCs they have an interest and intention in investing into Houston startups, invested in Greycroft in 2020.

Some of the event's other speakers — from outside Texas as well as home grown —include LeadEdge Capital's Mitchell Green, Cart.com's Omair Tariq, Solugen's Gaurab Chakrabati, and many more. The full event agenda and list of speakers are both available online.

The program of the event is centered around key topics directly affecting Houston's innovation ecosystem, such as energy transition, sustainability, startup scaling, the future of health care, entrepreneurship, talent acquisition, and more.

“Venture Houston will bring together some of the most proven venture capitalists from the nation to the Houston stage, alongside Houston’s corporate leaders and most innovative entrepreneurs," says Sandy Guitar, managing director of the HX Venture Fund. "We are delighted to bring conversations around lessons learned and best practices to The Ion so that we can continue to nurture the incredible growth we are experiencing in the innovation ecosystem in Houston.”

Venture Houston is supported and sponsored by organizations including Insperity, Rice University, Greater Houston Partnership, Silicon Valley Bank, and Halliburton Labs.

"Houston's innovation ecosystem is experiencing a compelling transformation," says Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the GHP. "Venture Houston 2022 is the premier event for corporate leaders, venture capital investors, and entrepreneurs to plug into what is happening in the city. We are proud to sponsor and share the stage with leaders helping to illuminate the power of venture capital for Houston’s innovation ecosystem."

Registration is open online for the September 12 event.

Local startup to upgrade EV charging in Houston and beyond

seeing green

At 3 a.m. one night, just as he had many nights before, Tarun Girish found himself leaving his Houston apartment in search of an EV charger.

Once he located one, he would sit in his car for an hour and a half while his vehicle charged — with not much to do but wait.

But it was on this night he wondered if there was a way to use his previous hospitality experience to build a new kind of experience for EV drivers. He then developed his first iteration of a business plan — all while sitting in his driver’s seat.

His idea became Sparks Spaces, a startup formed in 2021 looking to shake up the EV charging game — the company aims to elevate the experience of charging electric vehicles by focusing on the space between car and charger by creating an airport lounge-type space for drivers. These EV lounges would include luxury waiting areas, clean restrooms, high-end food options, and availability to utilize them 24/7.

“We’ve seen a huge issue in the EV charging space where the experience side has been neglected,” says Girish, founder and CEO of Sparks Spaces.

Currently, Sparks Spaces is operating out of The Ion and installed a charging point outside of the building to help collect insights into what drivers are needing and are wanting to learn more about their customer base.

Eventually, the company’s goal is to take forgotten buildings and transition them into becoming EV charging hubs.

“The Ion is giving us a lot of resources to make sure that we are tailoring the solution to the right problem,” he says. “We’ve learned how to build a frictionless experience where the driver scans a QR code, pays for the duration of the charging session and then plugs in.”

When Sparks Spaces scales out, the team is eyeing two locations inside The Loop — one in Montrose and one on Shepherd Drive. The design would focus on natural lighting, safety and security.

The startup went through the Smart City Ion Accelerator but will be applying to a couple more accelerators that have more exposure into the EV construction space.

“We’re trying to provide a brand consistent experience from the time a driver drives into a lot to the time they leave,” he says. “We’ll be providing all fast-charging and level 2 charging services for drivers and will be completely universal so that any EV can utilize us.”

Sparks Spaces is looking to raise a $1.1 million seed round that will focus on research and development, the case studies and the architectural designs for a prototype that can be implemented in its locations.

“We want to be the definition of charging and lounges and experiences should be the forefront of EV charging,” he says. “The average household who owns an EV expects a certain level of luxury and expectations on experience. They are used to airport lounges when traveling. We want to reflect that in the EV charging space.”

Tarun Girish is on a mission to make EV charging easier and more comfortable. Photo courtesy

Houston expert weighs in on the trustworthiness of cryptocurrency

houston voices

Interest in cryptocurrencies reignited during the pandemic, driven in part by trillions of dollars in stimulus money that left many investors with “free money” to put to work. And while bitcoin recently tumbled nearly 55 percent from its peak, it remains the most valuable crypto asset in the world, with a market capitalization of around $589 billion. Its investors argue that it’s still a safer bet than stocks during this period of economic upheaval.

A renewed interest in cryptocurrencies — digital currencies that rely on blockchain technology, in which transactions are verified and records maintained by a decentralized system that uses cryptography — is widespread. Large corporations like Tesla, Mass Mutual and KPMG Canada have announced plans to hold cryptocurrency assets in treasury or accept them as payment. Meanwhile, major financial institutions are offering customers more digital asset investment options. Twelve years after bitcoin’s birth, mainstream investors are honing in on the currency, too.

In the midst of this market fascination, a fundamental question still remains. What exactly is cryptocurrency, and why should we care? And what about other industry buzzwords, like blockchain, decentralized exchanges or non-fungible tokens (NFTs)? Are they all just fads that will fade away?

Some have called cryptocurrency a Ponzi scheme, a tool for illicit activities, or a short-term fascination that will be irrelevant in a few years. It’s an understandable mindset, since there’s no intrinsic value in cryptocurrencies — not unlike the U.S. dollar after it stopped being backed by gold in the 1970s. But it’s also a shortsighted one. Blockchain technology, which allows users to exchange information on a secure digital ledger, is extremely useful because it automates contractual arrangements through computer programming.

I’m a firm believer that cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology that underpins them are here to stay, and understanding how this technology has transformed our environment, and how it will continue to evolve, is critical to succeeding in business.

First steps

Bitcoin took the first major steps towards a truly electronic cash system in 2008, in the midst of one of the worst financial collapses of all time. Governments worldwide were bailing out financial institutions that had been deemed “too big to fail.” Perceptions of economic inequality spurred movements such as Occupy Wall Street, which was fueled by a distrust in banks.

Bitcoin, on the other hand, wasn’t created by a trusted source — in fact, no one knows exactly who invented it. In a 2008 white paper, “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” Satoshi Nakamoto — the pseudonymous individual presumed to have developed bitcoin — described the currency as a way to securely facilitate financial transactions between parties without having to involve a central intermediary. No longer would people have to put their trust in the large financial institutions that failed them during the financial crisis.

Detractors find the lack of a central authority with blockchain worrisome, but proponents say it’s exactly the point: You no longer have to trust the person or institution you’re dealing with. You only have to trust the algorithms that run the program — and presumably an algorithm will never run off with your money.

Instead, blockchain enables a cooperative of members to run the shared network ledger required to keep track of a currency’s credits and debits. No one can shut down the system so long as a group of computers anywhere in the world is able to connect to the internet and run bitcoin’s software.

Because of bitcoin, today we can uniquely own digital assets and transfer them with the certainty that people can’t spend the same cryptocurrency twice. The transactions that bitcoin-like applications make possible are registered in permanent and immutable digital records for all to see in a common ledger.

By enabling fast and easily verifiable transactions, blockchain technology is also streamlining business operations in banking, supply chains, sustainability, healthcare and even voting. Development in these sectors and others is continuing at an intense pace. Annual global funding of blockchain projects now runs in the billions of dollars. From 2020 to 2021 alone, it jumped from several billion to nearly $30 billion.

Second generation

Since bitcoin’s arrival, we’ve seen a second, more sophisticated generation of cryptocurrencies evolve, with Ethereum as their flagship. Ethereum has its own programming language, enabling users to write and automate self-executing smart contracts, allowing for the creation of tokens for a specific use. For example, imagine that when Uber was founded, it had created an Uber token, and only people who owned Uber tokens could use the rideshare service. Tokens currently power thousands of decentralized applications that give people more privacy and control in a variety of areas, such as internet browsing, financial services, gaming and data storage, among others.

Some critiques of cryptocurrency remain. One growing concern is that cryptocurrencies require a significant amount of energy to run their networks, leading to higher transaction costs, energy waste and limited scalability. Newer cryptocurrencies are attempting to find ways to verify transactions that require less energy.

Some people also worry about ongoing volatility in cryptocurrency markets. A third generation of cryptocurrencies has emerged to address this concern: so-called “stablecoins,” which are pegged to a government-issued currency, a commodity, assets, or basket of assets. For some, stablecoins are serving as an onramp into the world of crypto from the world of traditional finance.

Before a new technology becomes part of everyday life, we often see a long period of development, improvement and consumer adoption. Cryptocurrency and blockchain markets are still in this early development stage, but they’re also moving quickly into the mainstream. The total market capitalization of cryptocurrencies late last year briefly reached the $3 trillion mark, or roughly 15 percent of the U.S. GDP, and there’s been more than $100 billion locked into decentralized finance applications.

Large companies like IBM, Amazon and Bank of America are leading the way by tapping into blockchain technology in their daily business activities. It won’t be long until this market, previously characterized by speculation and wild volatility, will be transformed into a stable infrastructure framework. But companies need to get up to speed on the industry now. Those that commit to doing so will be the ones that thrive.


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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was written by Manolo Sánchez, an adjunct professor of operations management at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.