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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New Houston venture studio emerges to target early-stage hardtech, energy transition startups

funding the future

The way Doug Lee looks at it, there are two areas within the energy transition attracting capital. With his new venture studio, he hopes to target an often overlooked area that's critical for driving forward net-zero goals.

Lee describes investment activity taking place in the digital and software world — early stage technology that's looking to make the industry smarter. But, on the other end of the spectrum, investment activity can be found on massive infrastructure projects.

While both areas need funding, Lee has started his new venture studio, Flathead Forge, to target early-stage hardtech technologies.

“We are really getting at the early stage companies that are trying to develop technologies at the intersection of legacy industries that we believe can become more sustainable and the energy transition — where we are going. It’s not an ‘if’ or ‘or’ — we believe these things intersect,” he tells EnergyCapital.

Specifically, Lee's expertise is within the water and industrial gas space. For around 15 years, he's made investments in this area, which he describes as crucial to the energy transition.

“Almost every energy transition technology that you can point to has some critical dependency on water or gas,” he says. “We believe that if we don’t solve for those things, the other projects won’t survive.”

Lee, and his brother, Dave, are evolving their family office to adopt a venture studio model. They also sold off Azoto Energy, a Canadian oilfield nitrogen cryogenic services business, in December.

“We ourselves are going through a transition like our energy is going through a transition,” he says. “We are transitioning into a single family office into a venture studio. By doing so, we want to focus all of our access and resources into this focus.”

At this point, Flathead Forge has seven portfolio companies and around 15 corporations they are working with to identify their needs and potential opportunities. Lee says he's gearing up to secure a $100 million fund.

Flathead also has 40 advisers and mentors, which Lee calls sherpas — a nod to the Flathead Valley region in Montana, which inspired the firm's name.

“We’re going to help you carry up, we’re going to tie ourselves to the same rope as you, and if you fall off the mountain, we’re falling off with you,” Lee says of his hands-on approach, which he says sets Flathead apart from other studios.

Another thing that's differentiating Flathead Forge from its competition — it's dedication to giving back.

“We’ve set aside a quarter of our carried interest for scholarships and grants,” Lee says.

The funds will go to scholarships for future engineers interested in the energy transition, as well as grants for researchers studying high-potential technologies.

“We’re putting our own money where our mouth is,” Lee says of his thesis for Flathead Forge.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston-based lunar mission's rocky landing and what it means for America's return to the moon

houston, we have a problem

A private U.S. lunar lander tipped over at touchdown and ended up on its side near the moon’s south pole, hampering communications, company officials said Friday.

Intuitive Machines initially believed its six-footed lander, Odysseus, was upright after Thursday's touchdown. But CEO Steve Altemus said Friday the craft “caught a foot in the surface," falling onto its side and, quite possibly, leaning against a rock. He said it was coming in too fast and may have snapped a leg.

“So far, we have quite a bit of operational capability even though we’re tipped over," he told reporters.

But some antennas were pointed toward the surface, limiting flight controllers' ability to get data down, Altemus said. The antennas were stationed high on the 14-foot (4.3-meter) lander to facilitate communications at the hilly, cratered and shadowed south polar region.

Odysseus — the first U.S. lander in more than 50 years — is thought to be within a few miles (kilometers) of its intended landing site near the Malapert A crater, less than 200 miles (300 kilometers) from the south pole. NASA, the main customer, wanted to get as close as possible to the pole to scout out the area before astronauts show up later this decade.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will attempt to pinpoint the lander's location, as it flies overhead this weekend.

With Thursday’s touchdown, Intuitive Machines became the first private business to pull off a moon landing, a feat previously achieved by only five countries. Japan was the latest country to score a landing, but its lander also ended up on its side last month.

Odysseus' mission was sponsored in large part by NASA, whose experiments were on board. NASA paid $118 million for the delivery under a program meant to jump-start the lunar economy.

One of the NASA experiments was pressed into service when the lander's navigation system did not kick in. Intuitive Machines caught the problem in advance when it tried to use its lasers to improve the lander's orbit. Otherwise, flight controllers would not have discovered the failure until it was too late, just five minutes before touchdown.

“Serendipity is absolutely the right word,” mission director Tim Crain said.

It turns out that a switch was not flipped before flight, preventing the system's activation in space.

Launched last week from Florida, Odysseus took an extra lap around the moon Thursday to allow time for the last-minute switch to NASA's laser system, which saved the day, officials noted.

Another experiment, a cube with four cameras, was supposed to pop off 30 seconds before touchdown to capture pictures of Odysseus’ landing. But Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s EagleCam was deliberately powered off during the final descent because of the navigation switch and stayed attached to the lander.

Embry-Riddle's Troy Henderson said his team will try to release EagleCam in the coming days, so it can photograph the lander from roughly 26 feet (8 meters) away.

"Getting that final picture of the lander on the surface is still an incredibly important task for us,” Henderson told The Associated Press.

Intuitive Machines anticipates just another week of operations on the moon for the solar-powered lander — nine or 10 days at most — before lunar nightfall hits.

The company was the second business to aim for the moon under NASA's commercial lunar services program. Last month, Pittsburgh's Astrobotic Technology gave it a shot, but a fuel leak on the lander cut the mission short and the craft ended up crashing back to Earth.

Until Thursday, the U.S. had not landed on the moon since Apollo 17's Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closed out NASA's famed moon-landing program in December 1972. NASA's new effort to return astronauts to the moon is named Artemis after Apollo's mythological twin sister. The first Artemis crew landing is planned for 2026 at the earliest.

3 female Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

If the energy transition is going to be successful, the energy storage space needs to be equipped to support both the increased volume of energy needed and new energies. And Emma Konet and her software company, Tierra Climate, are targeting one part of the equation: the market.

"To me, it's very clear that we need to build a lot of energy storage in order to transition the grid," Konet says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The problems that I saw were really on the market side of things." Read more.

Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. Photo courtesy of Sage

A Houston geothermal startup has announced the close of its series A round of funding.

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. The proceeds aim to fund its first commercial geopressured geothermal system facility, which will be built in Texas in Q4 of 2024. According to the company, the facility will be the first of its kind.

“The first close of our Series A funding and our commercial facility are significant milestones in our mission to make geopressured geothermal system technologies a reality,” Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems, says. Read more.

Clemmie Martin, chief of staff at The Cannon

With seven locations across the Houston area, The Cannon's digital technology allows its members a streamlined connection. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

After collaborating over the years, The Cannon has acquired a Houston startup's digital platform technology to become a "physical-digital hybrid" community.

Village Insights, a Houston startup, worked with The Cannon to create and launch its digital community platform Cannon Connect. Now, The Cannon has officially acquired the business. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“The integration of a world-class onsite member experience and Cannon Connect’s superior virtual resource network creates a seamless, streamlined environment for member organizations,” Clemmie Martin, The Cannon’s newly appointed chief of staff, says in the release. “Cannon Connect and this acquisition have paved new pathways to access and success for all.” Read more.