How is technology affecting the energy sector? These experts weigh in. Getty Images

Last week, Houston-based Pink Petro hosted its annual conference — but, quite like other events across the country, it took a very digital approach.

Energy 2.0, formerly called HerWorld, was always going to be streamed from two locations — Denver and Houston — but the conference, which took place from March 9 to 11, likely had more digital attendees than previous years thanks to the rising threat of COVID19, or the coronavirus.

The digital shift was pretty on par with the conversation of the "unconference," as its called. The last panel of March 10 was how tech was rattling the energy industry. Three panelists discussed the effect of technology on the industry, climate change, startups, and more. Here are some of the panelists best points made during this event.

“Technology isn’t new to the energy sector. The energy sector is used to adopting and adapting to new technologies. What we are talking about now is digital technology, and what’s happening there — we are not familiar with that.”

Geeta Thakorlal, president at Worley Digital. It's not innovation that's unfamiliar to energy companies, but the digital aspect, which includes introducing new tech from outside the industry. "When you talk about adoption and use of digital technology, it means different things to different people," she adds.

"We’re taking a look at technology, but also addressing the people [aspect] — looking at what people are doing with technology and how the social issues are impacted by technology."

Jennifer Hohman, CIO and vice president, at Seadrill. The conversation started with a broad scope on how the energy industry is approaching technology, and Hohman cites climate change and sex trafficking — two issues the industry has been affecting.

“As society is changing, we start to worry about people’s safety — that’s very natural in our industry, but moving that into what about social issues or even renewables."

David Reid, CMO of National Oilwell Varco. Reid adds that the energy industry is aware of its role in the world and has a people-centric approach to technology, including being aware of how it affects the people involved in the energy company's supply chain. "I think it all ties together."

“Technology is constantly going to move fast — we have to continue to face that.”

Hohman says on the energy industry adapting to technology, adding that tech allows for more collaboration — something energy companies should be doing, even if it means collaborating with a competitor.

"What the tech sector has done is actually helped energy industry because they challenged all these norms — diversity of thought, fail and fail fast — you don't use that language in the energy sector."

Thakorlal says, explaining that influences from the tech sector have been crucial. Ultimately, big tech companies are looking to small startups for innovation, and energy companies will be doing more of that as well. "The tech companies have had to learn it's not they who has got the solutions, and the energy sector has learned that too."

“We’ve got a world that wants a change, and does not know and understand what we’ve done.”

Reid says on the topic of the energy industry's role in the future of the sector. "What's missing is the potential of our industry to make a difference."

“The biggest barrier to advancing technology is fear — people not really understanding. Fear is a choice.”

Thakorlal says, adding that fear is a choice companies can make — but shouldn't. Instead, they should maintain their business while simultaneously adopting tech that will be key in the future. "We say in our organization that if you talk about energy transition or digital transformation in our sector, it's not an 'either/or' it's an 'and.' We have to keep doing what we are doing and transition that to what we want the future to be."

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Rice University research: Collaboration with the community can be key to success

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In Pittsburgh, a coalition of 100 community groups brokered a deal with developers of the Pittsburgh Penguins ice hockey team for $8.3 million in neighborhood improvements. In Oakland, California, developers of an $800 million high-tech complex promised local residents 50 percent of its construction jobs. And in Chicago, the Obama Presidential Center is working with residents to shield them from skyrocketing rents.

Community Benefits Agreements, or CBAS, as these agreements are called, are increasingly common between businesses and the places where they want to set up shop. But are they worth the money? To find out, Rice Business professor Kate Odziemkowska joined Sinziana Dorobantu of New York University to analyze market reactions to 148 CBA announcements between indigenous communities and mining firms in Canada. The financial value of these agreements, the researchers found, was real.

While it's easy to imagine that CBAs are just costly giveaways, they're more than goodwill gestures. Instead, they are legally enforceable contracts to distribute benefits from a new project and to govern the response to any potential social and environmental disruptions. For businesses, the researchers found, they are also good strategy, because they prevent costly, drawn-out conflict.

To conduct their research, Odziemkowska and Dorobantu analyzed a sample of 148 legally binding CBAs signed in Canada between mining firms and indigenous communities between 1999 and 2013. In Canada, mining companies and indigenous communities often hammer out agreements about extraction and use of local resources. Studying only the mining sector let the researches control for the economic variations that characterize different industries.

Since CBA negotiations cannot be disclosed, the announcement of such agreements represents new market information. To conduct their study, the researchers tracked the market reaction to these announcements, using a technique that measured short-term returns.

Creating CBAs from the start, they found, can head off catastrophic costs later. That's because even when a company has disproportionate economic strength, the public relations, legal and economic costs of community conflict can be draining. Consider the 1,900-kilometer Dakota Access oil pipeline, whose developers faced six months of round-the-clock protests that included nearly 15,000 volunteers from around the world. The drumbeat of litigation and negative news coverage still continues today.

In general, the researchers found, the more experience a community has with protests or blockades, the more firms gained from signing a CBA. Property rights protections also provide strong incentive for making a deal. Mining companies, for example, need access to land to do business. Communities with robust property rights to the resource or location sought by the firm have strong standing to stop that firm if they don't make a deal.

Because access to valuable resources like land or intellectual property can mean the difference between financial success or failure, Odziemkowska and Dorobantu said, the lesson from their findings extends far beyond Canadian mines. It's a lesson Disney learned the hard way when it failed to acknowledge the culture of Norway's Sami people in "Frozen." Assailed for cultural appropriation by using, but not crediting, traditional Sami music, Disney quickly made amends. After negotiating with the Sami people, Disney pledged to consult with them and portray them thoughtfully in the film's sequel.

The deal may have cost Disney on the front end, but it was nothing compared to the advantage of freezing out years of bad press.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. It's based on research by Kate Odziemkowska, an assistant professor of Strategic Management at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business.

5 innovation-focused takeaways from the Greater Houston Partnership's annual report

BY THE NUMBERS

In an annual economic report from the Greater Houston Partnership, researchers and data scientists outlined the city's economy by the numbers, and Houston's industries such as technology, health care, energy, and more were all represented.

The 2020 Houston Facts was released in an virtual event hosted by GHP and its team of data specialists. Here's what you need to know from the event and the report, which can be found online.

The Texas Medical Center is focusing on five new institutes

Screenshot via Houston Facts 2020

The Texas Medical Center has established itself as a topic of its own in the Houston Facts report. The 61-member nonprofit that connects medical institutions across the city. The organization is working on a new campus, TMC3, that is expected to complete in 2022 and bring an annual economic impact of $5.2 billion to the state of Texas along with 30,000 jobs. From

According to the report, TMC is continuing to develop five institutes that compliment the organization's focus on innovation, regenerative medicine, health policy, and more:

  1. TMC Innovation Institute
  2. TMC Health Policy Institute
  3. TMC Clinical Research Institute
  4. TMC Regenerative Medicine Institute
  5. TMC Genomics Institute

Houston's port business continues to stay strong, with potential for growth following expansion

Screenshot via Houston Facts 2020

The Port of Houston has long been a key part of Houston's history and its economic impact. Across four seaports in the Houston area, the city moved 242.9 million metric tons of trade last year, and the district has been consistently named the busiest or one of the busiest by tonnage for over a decade.

With over 200 companies calling the port home and a busy port district, the Houston Ship Channel has been working on an expansion project, called Project 11. Construction on the project could begin as early as next year, per the report.

Venture capital is on the rise as tech jobs stays steady

Screenshot via Houston Facts 2020

Again, Houston Facts has called out the growth Houston has seen in venture capital investment. According to the report, top industries for VC funding include health tech, software, and energy. Houston Facts reports the ecosystem saw $600 million invested last year. While numbers vary based on sources, Houston Exponential recently reported over $466 million of venture capital invested in Houston between January and July of 2020.

Meanwhile, when it comes to tech jobs in Houston, the city has held its place as 12th in the nation for cities with the most tech jobs. Last year, Houston had 235,802 tech workers according to data from CompTIA, Cyberstates 2020. That count is slightly increased from 2018's 223,000 tech workers in Houston.

Houston's evolving demographics continues to shape the city

Screenshot via Houston Facts 2020

Houston is regularly touted as the most diverse city in the nation, and that diversity has affected the city's business sector. As of last year, largest ethnic population in Houston is hispanic. Houston now has the fourth largest hispanic population in the country, however, according to the report, Houston's percent of African-American citizens has remained consistent.

COVID-19's full effect on Houston is still to be determined, but business has taken a hit

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The 2020 edition of Houston Facts doesn't have much on the impact of COVID-19 — the 2021 issue should have more facts and figures from looking back on the pandemic. However, the GHP's team did address some of the economic impacts the coronavirus had on the city.

According to Yelp data based on listings, 3,518 businesses closed due to COVID-19 — of which, only 578 had reopened by mid-June.

Houston-area student creates new app to help businesses operate safely during COVID-19

there's an app for that

A 17-year-old high school student from the Houston area stepped up to help his local community, as the coronavirus continues to keep many customers from shopping the way they used to.

The Wayt app, created during the stay-at-home order in March, presents itself as an efficient and easy-to-use platform to streamline shopping during the times of the coronavirus. The app provides businesses and their customers with a platform to communicate making curbside pickup, booking appointments, and joining a virtual line a breeze.

"The platform provides a new set of tools for both the customers and the employees of businesses," says Ethan Saadia, app developer and Wayt creator. "With the use of this app, businesses can streamline the process and remove the hassle of shopping for customers."

The app offers a new way to open businesses by using technology that can manage capacity and keep them connected as many businesses move to curbside pickup. The platform allows customers to receive notifications about their order and tap a button to tell the business they're here, removing the hassle of calling customers to tell them their order is ready.

Wayt provides businesses with the customer name and car information, it even lets them know if the customer wants the order delivered directly to their trunk or other areas of their vehicle. This instant notification system keeps businesses and clients safe allowing them to practice strict social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"The use of this app will be able to remove a lot of the anxiousness that we have currently," says Saadia. "It will allow for a more convenient shopping experience as we continue to deal with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic in all of our lives."

The platform also allows businesses to offer shopping appointments to abide with reduced capacity mandates, letting customers pick when they can come in within the constraints customized by the business. The app also makes standing in line while keeping social distancing recommendations easy by having customers tap a button on the app to get in line.

According to Saadia, a lot of these changes — like curbside pickup and virtual lines — are here to stay.

"From my perspective and experiences from my friends and family," says Saadia. "Curbside pickup and virtual lines are definitely here to stay because even before the pandemic, popular places used to have long lines and that presented many new challenges. The pandemic is just accelerating technological change that will make our lives easier."

Saadia, a serial innovator and app developer, started his first company in 2013 called PCs for Me where he sells DIY computer kits that help kids learn computer science. While he expects to continue that venture and Wayt, Saadia says he's conscious that things can change unexpectedly as he enters his senior year.

"I know we live under a very uncertain time and I don't really know what's going to happen with school a month from now or a year from now," says Saadia. "My plan is to keep taking it day by day working on Wayt to improve the user experience and work on other apps that I have on the pipeline."

Ethan Saadia, a 17-year-old high school student, created an app to improve the user experience of shopping during a pandemic.