A Houston real estate expert suggests that the icon that is the Astrodome should be restored to be used for energy conferences and other business needs. Photo courtesy of the city of Houston

Over the past several years, there's been a continuous conversation about the iconic Astrodome and what should be done with it. Dubbed the "Eighth Wonder of the World," Houstonians certainly don't want to see the Astrodome go, as it is a landmark deeply embedded into the hearts and minds of our beloved city.

Ideas have been thrown around, yet none of them seem to stick. The $105 million county-approved plan to renovate and build a multi-story parking garage that was approved under Judge Ed Emmett's court in 2018 has been placed on hold until further notice.

For the betterment of business

Houston is famously known as the world capital of the international energy industry, petroleum exploration, space exploration, medical communities and vast port systems across the Gulf. Our city hosts the annual Offshore Technology Conference, one of the largest oil and gas trade shows in the world, which features the industry's latest technology, products, networking opportunities, and more.

On average, more than 59,000 people attend OTC annually, with more than 15,000 attendees visiting from outside the U.S. In addition, Houston is also headquarters to more than 500 oil and gas exploration and production companies and has 10 refineries producing over 2.6 million barrels of crude oil daily.

Houston is a prime location to become a candidate for a new commodity exchange center housed inside the Astrodome. The current New York Mercantile Exchange, a commodity futures exchange owned and operated by CME Group of Chicago, is located in Manhattan, New York City. There are additional offices located in Boston, Washington, Atlanta, San Francisco, Dubai, London, and Tokyo. Surprisingly, Houston is not on that list. The NYMEX division handles billions of dollars' worth of futures and options contracts for energy products such as oil and natural gas.

Renovating and repurposing

Scalability is important to consider when discussing the repurposing of the Astrodome. Oil and gas is the only industry that could support the Astrodome's expenses and generate a profit. Other options such as turning it into a parking garage or a hike and bike trail would not be sufficient. Moving something as significant as the oil and gas futures exchange to Houston would provide NRG with the necessary monthly residual income to sustain the beloved Astrodome.

Another viable option would be to host the annual Offshore Technology Conference at the Astrodome. Oil and gas companies would set-up year-round exhibits on the floor of the Astrodome for convenience, providing an opportunity to showcase their equipment and product to potential clients.

To further capitalize on this concept, the Astrodome would offer corporate suite rentals for oil and gas companies to lease in order to provide a meeting space for people flying in and out of town. While the equipment and product would be on the floor for people to look at, NRG could bring in additional rental income from the suites.

To maintain the iconic nature of the building, signage would hang on the outside of the Astrodome, featuring the top oil and gas company's logos and placing a pump jack on top of it to emulate an oil rig.

The beauty of all of this is the simplicity of it. The hard part is done. Houston has become the oil and gas capital of the world over the last 100 years. The easy part is ahead; filling the Astrodome with oil and gas companies that want to do business.

Your move, Houston.

The first step toward making an endeavor like this possible is simply suggesting that it is. There's no need to fix what's already working in New York. We can use the same business model, bring it down to our great city, put the Astrodome back to good use, and truly become the petrochemical exchange capital of the world.

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Frank Blackwood is the senior director of Lee & Associates - Houston.

A top story this week was Station Houston launching a partnership with Houston universities to combine forces for a summer program. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

5 most popular innovation stories in Houston this week

What's trending

This week's top news includes a few stories highlighting the people behind innovation — from overheard at OTC to a Q&A with a private equity CEO. Plus, Station Houston launches a new program combining forces with Houston universities.

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Overheard: Here's the future of oil and gas tech, according to this panel at OTC

Three young professionals took the stage to discuss the future tech of offshore operations in oil and gas. Courtesy photos

The oil and gas industry has a reputation for being a slow adapter when it comes to technology advances, but that's changing — as is the workforce. In the next few years, half of the United States workforce will be millennials, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Continue reading the story.

Finding lab space for startups and independent researchers in Houston needs to be easier, according to this expert

Rentable lab space is hard to come by. Getty Images

Finding coworking space is getting easier and easier for startups, but the same can't be said for startups looking for lab space. If Houston wants to continue to grow and develop its innovation ecosystem — specifically within research and development in the health sciences industry — the city needs more opportunities for small lab space real estate. Continue reading the story.

Station Houston partners with universities to launch new accelerator program

This summer, Station Houston is connecting the dots for student and alumni entrepreneurs within Houston's innovation ecosystem. Station Houston/Facebook

Houston universities — namely the University of Houston and Rice University — have been providing student and alumni entrepreneurs with acceleration programming for some time now through RED Labs and OwlSpark, respectively. But nonprofit acceleration hub Station Houston is connecting the dots with these programs — and inviting more schools to join in — through a new summer acceleration program.

"One of the things we haven't historically had in Houston that other cities have are broad collaborations between our universities to help build on one another's resources and really demonstrate for our young people — the talent that we want to keep here — exactly how deep and strong the opportunity to be in Houston is," Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station, tells InnovationMap. Continue reading the story.

Private equity executive talks diversifying and Houston's investment ecosystem

Taseer Badar is in the business of making money. Courtesy of ZT Corporate

It's Taseer Badar's job to keep 1,000 investors happy. As CEO and founder of ZT Corporate, that's just a day in the life for him.

Badar has been in the business for over 20 years, and before that, he was on Wall Street as a financial adviser for Morgan Stanley. He realized the dollar went further in his hometown of Houston, so he came back. He started advising on business plans for people he knew, and earned a lot of loyalty from these early entrepreneurs, and grew ZT from there. He found his way into health care, which made up a good majority of his holdings, until about four years ago when he diversified his company and got into the automotive industry. Continue reading the story.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

From rethinking dry cleaning or marketing to flipping the script on pop culture events, here's who to know this week in Houston innovation. Courtesy Photos

This week's batch of Houston innovators to know are all rethinking the way things are being done, from dry cleaning and marketing to pop culture events. Continue reading the story.


Three young professionals took the stage to discuss the future tech of offshore operations in oil and gas. Courtesy photos

Overheard: Here's the future of oil and gas tech, according to this panel at OTC

Eavesdropping in Houston

The oil and gas industry has a reputation for being a slow adapter when it comes to technology advances, but that's changing — as is the workforce. In the next few years, half of the United States workforce will be millennials, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A panel at the 2019 Offshore Technology Conference discussed the future of oil and gas technology — and the young professionals who are taking over the industry.

"It is just exhausting to be continuously interrupted in meetings — day in and day out — for your full career. What makes it worse, is no one seems to notice but you, unless you're lucky and have another woman in the year." 

— Allison Lami Sawyer, partner at the League of Worthwhile Ventures, when asked about being a young, female leader in industry. She adds that what's even worse is when you internalize it yourself and stop noticing.

“There’s a whole population of frustrated visionaries in oil and gas who are really excited to work with new tech.”

— Sawyer says the challenge is less getting a foot in the door at large companies and more going from pilot to mid- to widespread use.

“Oil and gas is essentially banking. Did you know you’re all bankers?”

— There's more labor to it, Sawyer says, but the C-suite at oil and gas companies are approaching it like banking. And in banking, there's a lot of AI-based fintech that goes into that decision making process and that might, down the road, come to oil and gas when the data is there.

“It’s happening. New technologies are being added, but it’s about finding the right value proposition for the company. That needs to resonate.”

— Sidd Gupta, founder and CEO of Nesh, says, adding that maybe it's not happening at as fast a rate as people wished.

“There’s been an increased demand for people internally who can take 3D models and put them into an AR environment. … Maybe four years ago, I would never have said that oil and gas companies would have internal AR/VR experts.”

— Lori-Lee Emshey, co-founder of Future Sight AR, on the rising need for professionals with augmented and virtual reality skills.

“Anything that can positively impact safety has been a big winner — especially on the contractor side.”

— Emshey, when asked about what sort of technology is attractive to big oil and gas companies.

From the real estate needs of the innovation ecosystem to the most promising OTC startups, here are this week's trending stories. Shobeir Ansari/Getty Images

5 most popular innovation stories in Houston this week

What's trending

The annual Offshore Technology Conference has wrapped up, but not before the Rice Alliance named 10 promising startups — most of which have headquarters or operations in Houston. Now, Comicpalooza is taking over for what is expected to be a record year. These stories and more all trended on InnovationMap — here's what else trended.

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Rice Alliance names the 10 most promising startups at Houston's Offshore Technology Conference

Startups from across the world pitched at the Rice Alliance Startup Roundup at the Offshore Technology Conference. Getty Images

Over 50 different startups from across the globe gathered at the Offshore Technology Conference for the fifth annual Rice Alliance Startup Roundup event. The full day of speed pitching and presentations, hosted by Rice Alliance Managing Director Brad Burke, took place at NRG Arena on Monday, May 6.

After interacting with all the various startups, the Rice Alliance's panel of experts voted on the 10 most promising startups. Half of the companies that were recognized are based in Houston — and even more have an office or some sort of operations in town. Here's which technologies the offshore oil and gas industry has its eye on. Read the full story here.

Comicpalooza expects another record year, says Houston First Corp. executive

Michael Heckman shares about some exciting new aspects of Houston's 11th annual Comicpalooza. Courtesy of Houston First

Eleven years ago, Comicpalooza was a small event held out in Katy. Over the past few years, with the help of Houston First Corp., the three-day conference has grown to be so big, the 2019 programming will spill out of George R. Brown Convention Center and into Discovery Green, and attract over 50,000 attendees.

"These comic conventions used to just be for the hardcore pop culture fans. What we've attempted to do is make it so there's something for everyone," says Michael Heckman, Comicpalooza president and senior vice president at Houston First. "As a casual pop culture fan, there's a lot to see and do." Read the full story here.

Data Gumbo closes $6M round, Alice partners with accelerator, and more Houston innovation news

Blockchain-as-a-service company closes $6 million Series A round. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been busy, and the ongoing 50th anniversary of the Offshore Technology Conference has claimed a lot of attention in town lately. While I'm sure you've seen the big news pieces, like the Texas Medical Center's new details about TMC3 or WeWork's third Houston location, you may have missed some of these short stories. Read the full story here.

Houston expert shares her advice on how much startups should spend on marketing

When it comes to setting up a marketing budget for your startup, considering every angle is important. Getty Images

Industry research suggests spending 5 percent to 12 percent of total revenue on an annual marketing budget. At Integrate Agency, we believe marketing spend should be determined from key data points, versus current size. We shepherd our clients through a five-step process to calculate how much they should spend on marketing to maximize their ROI. Read the full story here.

Overheard: Panel of experts sums up the Houston innovation ecosystem's real estate needs

Houston's innovation ecosystem development is highly interconnected to the city's real estate industry. Shobeir Ansari/Getty Images

As the city and multiple entities strive to develop an innovation hub and ecosystem, real estate plays a huge role. Developing the physical space is one of the first steps to attracting companies, talent, and money to the Bayou City.

At Bisnow's annual Houston State of the Market event, five panelists heavily involved in the process of developing Houston's innovation ecosystem weighed in on the real estate needs of innovation development in Houston. Check out these powerful quotes said during the panel. Read the full story here.

Startups from across the world pitched at the Rice Alliance Startup Roundup at the Offshore Technology Conference. Getty Images

Rice Alliance names the 10 most promising startups at Houston's Offshore Technology Conference

Best of the rest

Over 50 different startups from across the globe gathered at the Offshore Technology Conference for the fifth annual Rice Alliance Startup Roundup event. The full day of speed pitching and presentations, hosted by Rice Alliance Managing Director Brad Burke, took place at NRG Arena on Monday, May 6.

After interacting with all the various startups, the Rice Alliance's panel of experts voted on the 10 most promising startups. Half of the companies that were recognized are based in Houston — and even more have an office or some sort of operations in town. Here's which technologies the offshore oil and gas industry has its eye on.

Oliasoft AS

Oliasoft provides solutions for digitizing well planning operations. Photo via oliasoft.com

Oslo, Norway-based Oliasoft kicked off the presentations at OTC and walked away with an award 2.5 hours later. The cloud-based technology allows for enhanced well planning, casing and other drilling engineering processes.

Syzygy Plasmonics

Syzygy Plasmonics is a chemicals company in Houston lead by Trevor Best. Best presented his company's hydrogen as a fuel alternative technology. According to best, Syzegy's technology is a lower cost solution to gasoline that doesn't put out any chemical waste.

Toku Systems Inc.

Canadian IIoT company, Toku Systems Inc., has a inexpensive monitoring device. Photo via tokuindustry.com

When it comes to monitoring operations, it can be pricey and inaccurate. Edmonton, Alberta-based Toku Systems Inc. has designed a solution. Toku's device is durable and uses IIoT technology to allow for oil and gas companies to monitor their operations remotely.

Ingu Solutions

Ingu Solutions' Pipers technology might look small — but it's able to save a whole lot of cash for oil companies and prevent leaks. Photo via ingu.co

Another Canadian company, Ingu Solutions from Calgary, Alberta, took home an award from Rice. The company's pipeline detection technology can access pipes' conditions and prevent leaks and damage from causing major, costly events. Ingu's Pipers technology works off a subscription model, so clients have access to support and supplies with their monthly fees to the company.

LaserStream

LaserStream uses its imaging technology to track the wear and tear on pipes. Photo via laserstreamlp.com

Humble-based LaserStream provides laser-based scans of pipeline. The technology can evaluate damage and corrosion as well as calculate measurements of various equipment. The company has inspected over 350,000 feet of materials , including tubing, casing, drilling risers, production risers, and more, according to the website.

Ondaka

Ondaka's technology allows you to visualize your infrastructure before you act. Photo via ondaka.com

Ondaka isn't your typical Bay Area startup. The company uses an alphabet soup of buzzword technologies — IoT, AI, VR — and allows oil and gas companies to really visualize their infrastructure. The Palo Alto-based startup is a StartX company and a member at Station Houston for its local office.

Dark Vision Technologies Inc.

Canada-based Dark Vision has created a tool that can take ultrasound images of wells. Photo via darkvisiontech.com

North Vancouver, British Columbia-based Dark Vision has spent years developing its ultrasound technology that can get a 360-degree view of oil wells. According to the website, Dark Vision can find a number of downhole issues, such as tubing defects, casing corrosion, obstructions, and more.

Cemvita Factory

The Karimi siblings have created a way to synthetically convert CO2 into glucose, and they are targeting the energy and aerospace industries for their technology. Courtesy of Cemvita Factory

Houston-based Cemvita Factory didn't present its CO2-to-glucose conversion technology at the roundup, but the company's presence earlier in the day was enough for the judges. Co-founder Moji Karimi tells InnovationMap in a previous story about how the technology has many applications in oil and gas, but also in space operations,

Lift Etc.

Even though Lift ETC didn't present in the roundup, the Houston-based company walked away with an award for its artificial lift technology that is more efficient and cheaper for companies to use. According to the website, Lift ETC has a technology that's proven to lower the surface compressor requirements up to 75 percent and increase production.

SensorField

Houston-based SensorField didn't present, but still walked away with recognition from Rice. Photo via sensorfield.com

When it comes to using IoT for remote oilfield site monitoring, Houston-based SensorField is ahead of the curve. The company's device — so small it can fit in the palm of your hand — is powerful enough to provide complete monitoring capabilities from fluid level and pressure to rotating machinery health and location security, according to the website.

Wafik Beydoun has served on the board of OTC for almost a decade. Courtesy of Beydoun

Houston OTC chairman sees an increasing effect of digital tech ahead of the 50th anniversary

Featured Innovator

Wafik Beydoun has been on the board of the Houston Offshore Technology Conference — and has served as chairman for the past two years. As he prepares to pass the baton after this year's event, he's reflected on how much the conference has changed — namely due to new innovation and technologies.

"The rising tide of the digital revolution is lifting us all — not only OTC or the industry — and it's lifting us at an exponential rate," Beydoun tells InnovationMap. "Digital is moving now exponentially, whether we want it to or not, we're benefitting from it."

OTC takes place at NRG Park from May 6 to 9. Beydoun shares his observations and advice on how innovation and startups have effected change at the 50-year-old conference.

InnovationMap: What's going to differentiate this year's conference from previous years?

Wafik Beydoun: This year is very special because we are celebrating the 50th birthday of OTC. The first event was held in May of 1969. Last year it was the 50th event, so these two years are very unique. Last year, we had an opening ceremony, and we will have that again this year — that's different from OTCs in the past.

The most important change you'll see is the amount of papers on offshore renewables — it's something the board wanted to test and show that the industry is being more aware in this area. What I mean when I say offshore renewables is mostly offshore wind, but there's also energy from waves and gas hydrates — another form of gas trapped under ice in the subsea. These are things we have had in the past few years, but this year we have 14 sessions on marine renewables.

IM: What sort of new technologies (machine learning, IOT, AI, etc.) are you excited about seeing grow its presence at OTC?

WB: The way the technologies are impacting is it can go from drilling to monitoring remotely. More and more platforms in difficult conditions are reducing the number of people involved. There are already talks about unmanned platforms offshore. On safety in general, digital and AI immersion are able to help train people faster and without injuring themselves.

IM: How have startups been represented at the conference?

WB: We recognize that startups are adding a lot of oxygen into OTC. We need that for different reasons. For one, they bring in innovation in energy. Also with this kind of digital area, we have a lot of startups coming from Silicon Valley that want to innovate in the energy domain, and OTC can be that space where we can invite them to help us in our challenges.

IM: How has innovation and technology affected the conference specifically over the years?

WB: The conference is the place where you have all the specialists come and talk about their projects — it attracts all those who have an exciting story to tell, and it could be in innovation. And they bring their tool or technology into the exhibition. In 1969 at OTC, you could see the suit we'd put humans in to go under water. Now, you can see the robots that explore the seafloor.

IM: How has innovation and technology affected the conference specifically over the years?

WB: Register for the Rice Alliance Startup Roundup event. You have the opportunity to invest or meet face-to-face these 50 startups on the rise. The second thing you should attend is the Spotlight on the New Technology Award. Based on these technologies, you can have a feel of what's the leading edge of technology for the industry as presented by exhibitors. If an entrepreneur wants to see what's new and bringing money, attending this will show him or her what companies want that new technology.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Houston Methodist tech hub focuses on telemedicine training amid COVID-19 outbreak

virtual care

Houston Methodist's recently opened its new Center for Innovation's Technology Hub in January, and the new wing has already been challenged by a global pandemic — one that's validating a real need for telemedicine.

The 3,500-square-foot tech testing ground was renovated from an 18-room patient wing and showcases new digital health technologies like virtual reality, ambient listening, wearables, voice control, and more. The hub was focused on giving tours to medical professionals and executives to get them excited about health tech, but in the middle of March, Josh Sol, administrative director of Innovation and Ambulatory Clinical Systems at Houston Methodist, says they saw a greater need for the space.

"We turned the technology hub into a training center where physicians could come on site and learn telemedicine," Sol says. "We had some foresight from our leadership who thought that telemedicine was going to be heavily utilized in order to protect our patients who might go into isolation based on the outbreak."

The hub has trained over 500 physicians — both onsite and digitally. Sol says that at the start of March, there were 66 providers offering virtual care, and by March 25, there were over 900 providers operating virtually. On March 12, Houston Methodist had 167 virtual visits, Sol says, and on March 25, they had 2,421. This new 2,000-plus number is now the daily average.

"Telemedicine is here to stay now with the rapid adoption that just happened," Sol says. "The landscape will change tremendously."

Another way new technology has affected doctors' day-to-day work has been through tele-rounding — especially when it comes to interacting with patients with COVID-19.

"We are putting iPads in those rooms with Vidyo as the video application, and our physicians can tele-visit into that room," Sol says.

It's all hands on deck for the tech hub so that physicians who need support have someone to turn to. Sol says the hub used to have a two-person support team and now there are eight people in that role.

Sol says the iPads are a key technology for tele-rounding and patient care — and they are working with Apple directly to secure inventory. But other tech tools, like an artificial intelligence-backed phone system, an online symptom checker, and chatbots are key to engaging with patients.

"We're looking at how we can get our patients in the right place at the right time," Sol says. "It's very confusing right now. We're hoping we can streamline that for our patients."

The hub was designed so that in case of emergency, the display hospital rooms could be transitioned to patient care rooms. Sol says that would be a call made by Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer of Houston Methodist Hospital.

Documentary featuring Houston Nobel Prize winner to air on PBS

to-watch list

Not all heroes wear capes. In fact, our current coronavirus heroes are donning face masks as they save lives. One local health care hero has a different disease as his enemy, and you'll soon be able to stream his story.

Dr. James "Jim" Allison won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in battling cancer by treating the immune system — rather than the tumor. Allison, who is the chair of Immunology and executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform at MD Anderson Cancer Center, has quietly and often, singularly, waged war with cancer utilizing this unique approach.

The soft-spoken trailblazer is the subject of an award-winning documentary, Jim Allison: Breakthrough, which will air on PBS and its streaming channels on Monday, April 27 at 9 pm (check local listings for channel information). Lauded as "the most cheering film of the year" by the Washington Post, the film follows Allison's personal journey to defeat cancer, inspired and driven by the disease killed his mother.

Breakthrough is narrated by Woody Harrelson and features music by Willie Nelson, adding a distinct hint of Texana. (The film was a star at 2019's South by Southwest film festival.) The documentary charts Alice, Texas native as he enrolls at the University of Texas, Austin and ultimately, cultivates an interest in T cells and the immune system — and begins to frequent Austin's legendary music scene. Fascinated by the immune system's power to protect the body from disease, Allison's research soon focuses on how it can be used to treat cancer.

Viewers will find Allison charming, humble, and entertaining: the venerable doctor is also an accomplished blues harmonica player. Director Bill Haney weaves Allison's personal story with the medical case of Sharon Belvin, a patient diagnosed with melanoma in 2004 who soon enrolled in Allison's clinical trials. Belvin has since been entirely cancer-free, according to press materials.

"We are facing a global health challenge that knows no boundaries or race or religion, and we are all relying on gifted and passionate scientists and healthcare workers to contain and ultimately beat this thing," said Haney, in a statement. "Jim Allison and the unrelenting scientists like him are my heroes – and I'll bet they become yours!"

Jim Allison: Breakthrough premieres on Independent Lens at 9 pm Monday, April 27, on PBS, PBS.org, and the PBS Video App.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.