When it comes to getting a good return on investment, businesses should be equally focused on mitigating risks as they are on earning a profit. Getty Images

Consider for a moment the race to build the next super computer. Google, Alibaba and other U.S. and China companies are racing to build a machine — called quantum computing — far more powerful than anything the world has ever seen. In this race, China reportedly has the lead.

Given that this kind of technology can protect trillions of dollars in corporate and even national secrets, why do American companies lag behind? If such research and development represents an unknown and is a potential business risk, should U.S. companies be interested in assuming such a task? Rice Business professors Vikas Mittal, Yan Anthea Zhang and a Rice Business Ph.D. student Kyuhong Han, may have answers.

They researched the various ways companies create strategic advantages for themselves. What is the relationship between these strategies and the risks involved? Companies create value through innovation-based activities such as research and development or else via branding and advertisement. As there's no set formula for success, each company has its own approach — which could affect the risk associated with the company's stock price (called idiosyncratic risk).

Typically, the two strategic pillars are examined separately, rather than jointly. But when they compared the two approaches, they found that one presented far more risk than the other.

To reach their conclusions, the Rice team looked at a data set of 13,880 firm-year observations that included 2,403 firms operating in 59 industries over 15 years (2000–2014). The data sets were from the firms' annual operational and financial information from Standard & Poor's Compustat, the University of Chicago's Center for Research in Security Prices and from the Kenneth French Data Library. What the data revealed was the stock price of companies that placed a higher strategic emphasis on marketing and branding (called value appropriation) than companies that focused research and development (called value creation).

If it is less risky for a firm to emphasize branding and marketing over research and development it stands to reason that firms would want to exercise caution in big new research and development efforts. What's the payoff for making a quantum computer or even Space X, after all, if the research and development risks associated with the endeavor are extraordinarily high? In some instances, it may be much safer to rebrand and market. Closer to home, many companies in the oil and gas industry bet big on innovative ventures — costly product features, digitization initiatives and so on that may only increase the risk to their stock price than meet customer needs.

The researchers found that firms that plunge big efforts into research and development have more to worry about than whether their innovations will work. They have to weather the fluctuations of industry demand. When industry demand is volatile, the downside of excessive research and development, at the cost of customer-relevant strategies is even worse.

For the Rice Business researchers, the lessons for managers are clear. The return on investment is intimately linked not only with optimizing potential profits but also minimizing potential risks. Research and development heavy endeavors like Space X and quantum computers may be flashy, but in the event of an unexpected drop in demand, they're also more likely to plummet to earth, creating stock-price volatility.

Managers need to think about the elements that create risk — like demand instability. The more companies create a stable and predictable client base, the less risk that they have to face in the stock market. There is still a tendency among many firms to see advertising and research and development as preceding and guiding customer perceptions, preferences and behaviors. But perhaps the relationship is just the opposite.

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This article originally appeared on Rice Business Wisdom. Vikas Mittal is the J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. Yan Anthea Zhang is a Fayez Sarofim Vanguard Professor of Management at the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. Kyuhong Han is a marketing Ph.D. student at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Houston SaaS startup closes $12M series A funding round with support from local VC

money moves

A Houston startup with a software-as-a-service platform for the energy transition has announced it closed a funding round with participation from a local venture capital.

Molecule closed its $12 million series A, and Houston-based Mercury Fund was among the company's investors. The company has a cloud-based energy trading and risk management solution for the energy industry and supports power, natural gas, crude/refined products, chemicals, agricultural commodities, softs, metals, cryptocurrencies, and more.

"We led the seed round of Molecule upon their formation and are excited to participate in their series A," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release. "Molecule's success in the ETRM/CTRM industry, especially in relation to electricity and renewables, positions them as the company to beat for the energy transition in the 2020s."

The company will use its new funds to further build out its product as well as introduce offerings to manage renewables credits, according to the release.

"In 2020, we realized that electricity — the growth commodity of the 2020s — represented over half of Molecule's customer base, and we decided to double down," says Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule, in the release. "We were also rated the No. 1 SaaS ETRM/CTRM vendor. With this fundraise, we have the fuel to become No. 1 SaaS platform for power and renewables, and then the market leader overall.

"Molecule is ready to power the energy transition," Soleja continues.

Molecule's last round of funding closed in November 2014. The $1.1 million seed round was supported by Mercury Fund and the Houston Angel Network.

Houston-based afterlife planning startup launches new app

there's an app for that

The passing of a loved one is followed with grief — and paperwork. A Houston company that's simplifying the process of afterlife planning and decision making is making things even easier with a new smartphone app.

The Postage, a digital platform meant to ease with affair planning, recently launched a mobile app to make the service more accessible following a particularly deadly year. The United States recorded 3.2 million fatalities — the most deaths in its history, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After losing three family members back-to-back, Emily Cisek dealt first hand with the difficulty of wrapping up a loved one's life. She saw how afterlife planning interrupted her family's grieving and caused deep frustration. Soon, she began to envision a solution to help people have a plan and walk through the process of losing someone.

The Postage, which launched in September, provides a platform for people to plan their affairs and leave behind wishes for loved ones. The website includes document storage and organization, password management, funeral and last wishes planning, and the option to create afterlife messages to posthumously share with loved ones.

"Right now, as it stands ahead of this app, end-of-life planning is really challenging. It's this daunting thing you have to sit down and do at your computer," says Cisek. Not only is it "daunting," but it's time-consuming. According to The Postage, families can expect to spend nearly 500 hours on completing end-of-life details if there is no planning done in advance.

With more than 74 percent of The Postage's web traffic coming from mobile users, an app was a natural progression. In fact, Entrepreneur reports the average person will spend nine years on their mobile device. Cisek wanted to meet users where they are at with a user-friendly app that includes the same features as the desktop website.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple," she continued.

Cisek and her team focused on providing a "seamless experience" within the app, which took approximately four months to build, which mirrors the desktop platform.

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app.

After snapping a picture, "the next step inherently is sharing it with your loved ones," says Cisek. Photos, family recipes and videos can easily be shared securely with loved ones who accept your invitation to The Postage so "that legacy continues on," she says.

Since The Postage's fall launch, the company has grown a steady base of paid subscribers with plans to expand.

"We're really starting to change the way people plan for the future," says Cisek.