The 2020 election results will take the energy industry one of two paths — toward the energy transition or continuing the status quo. In this guest column, an energy investor assesses the situation ahead of election day. Photo via Getty Images

The United States Presidential election is at our doorstep. The fossil fuel industry is under significant pressure and the outcome of the election could impact the speed at which exploration and production is impacted. This pressure is financial in nature, but also is operational, technological and all wrapped in physics. A mere 12 to 18 months ago, environmental, social and governance influences and overlays on E&P began and are only accelerating.

My company, Riverbend Oil and Gas, is beginning to see the industry rebound from a significant downturn in revenues, activity, and confidence in 2020 due to the impacts of COVID-19 and the OPEC price war earlier this year. The industry is battling with headwinds, including, lack of access to debt/equity capital, transaction valuations, commodity prices, shale well spacing, and other issues, all impairing market conditions.

At present, there is little to no lubrication in the system. With most talking about an oil and gas market cycle that is driven by supply and demand fundamentals over previous decades, now there is more discussion of a contrarian view of those confident of a demand recovery for oil and gas.

Since the start of energy private equity, funds were raised by general partners to support the small cap E&P space, in the late '80s, private equity became a significant participant in the oil and gas upstream space. Private equity firms became great in number as institutions desired exposure to a growing segment of the market outside of merely investing in the oil and gas public equities. This role, 30 to 35 years later, remains essential, but is currently stifled with thoughts of a declining fossil fuel world and with energy representing only about 2 percent of the S&P 500.

Hydrocarbon outlook

Looming headwinds in the fossil fuel industry include The Green New Deal, an accelerating consciousness of the carbon footprint, the Paris Climate Accord, ESG importance, and the growth of renewables. Additionally, the advent of electric vehicles presents a significant new entrant that is causing a substantial threat to oil's monopoly on the transportation sector. A collision of possible futures exists. Currently, around 1 billion vehicles today are using around 30 percent of the world's oil supply with an estimate of 4 million electric vehicles on the roads globally. Some forecasters predict around 400 million electric vehicles in 2040, decreasing oil supply demand by an estimated 6 percent.

These forecasts of human mobility are driven by the nature of human ambition and worldwide population growth. Africa, China, and India are expected to grow significantly through 2100. Moreover, all persons worldwide strive for a better life for themselves and their families — energy drives these ambitions.

Meanwhile, the capital markets for public fossil fuel companies has declined by over 90 percent from 2016 to 2019 with a continued dismal outcome year-to-date in 2020. The lack of cash flow and capital markets will likely drive less U.S. and non-nationalized produced oil and gas volumes and fewer sustainable companies. Many confident analysts predict a looming oil supply shortage in 2021 driven by these factors along with a federal lands development ban and the possible slowdown of fracking. However, others predict that peak oil demand is now and the need for fossil fuels has already reached a peak.

Assessing the candidates

The results of the election are anticipated to have significantly differing implications (should campaigning be a real signal) for the oil and gas industry. While a Donald Trump win would largely represent a status quo for the environment, a Joe Biden triumph could drive towards changes. Implications are wide ranging across the equity, credit and commodities market energy value chain.

It is important to evaluate who will have control of the House and Senate to pass said legislation. The House is expected to remain with the Democrats, comfortably winning at least 224 of the 435 seats. Recent polls have pointed toward a competitive Senate election cycle. The Republicans currently have a 53-47 Senate majority, but a Democrat favored majority of 51-49 is currently predicted.

The next question is whether the filibuster would be eliminated to push legislation through without a super majority needed; meaning Democrats could drive approvals with a 50-50 tie and Kamala Harris's vote. Although polls are pointing toward a "blue wave" for the Democrats, certain moderate democrats in oil and gas states such as Colorado, New Mexico and Pennsylvania may be swayed against major regulatory or legislative threats to oil and gas exploration and production. Additionally, elected authorities in anticipated Republican states such as Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Utah, and Ohio who are home to industry trade groups and fossil fuel companies will play a significant role.

The Biden Administration has discussed several energy-related policies. These include support for climate-friendly legislation, a ban on federal lands and water permits that represented 21 percent of U.S. oil output in 2019, and an increased investment of $2 trillion over four years in clean energy technologies. To put this investment into perspective, total global energy investment from 2017 to 2019 averaged $2 trillion, and Biden's plan would add $500 billion per year. Biden would target roughly two thirds of U.S. carbon emissions focusing on transportation (40 percent) and electricity production (31 percent).

Broadly, the goal is a nationwide carbon reduction to achieve net-zero emission no later than 2050 and transition to a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035. In order to achieve the 2050 net zero emissions goal, the world requires 2020 COVID-19 sized reductions (8 percent) every other year for the next 25 years. Throughout this energy transition, energy prices are likely to increase, and as a result, the pace of the energy transition will likely reflect the balance of societal demand to reduce fossil fuel usage and the costs (economic, convenience, speed, satisfaction) of doing so.

Renewables and hydrocarbons

In 2019, the U.S. accounted for 15 percent of global CO2 emissions (5,130 MM metric tons of CO2), down 873 MM metric tons since the U.S. peaked in 2007. The large decrease can be attributed to coal-to-gas switching, while wind generation and solar power installations also aided the decline. From 2018 to 2019 alone, coal-to-gas switching decreased U.S. emissions by 140 MM metric tons, driving the largest decrease for the year. While shifting from one end of the carbon-emitting energy spectrum to another, it is imperative to balance costs, plausibility and expectations.

Hydrocarbons can be stored for less than $1 per barrel of oil equivalent, or BOE, while renewables cost $200 per BOE. Total U.S. renewable storage capabilities can provide two hours of national electricity demand which is stored in the utility-scale batteries on the grid and in the about 1 million electric vehicles on U.S. roads. Storage, physics and costs are major drivers for a hydrocarbon partnership as the U.S. transitions to a less carbon-heavy source of fuel. While costs of wind and solar have been driven down by around 70 percent and 89 percent, respectively since 2009, the Betz Limit and Shockley-Queisser Limit do have a governor on further improvements of the current technology and materials. Similarly, subsurface oil and gas reservoirs have similar boundary conditions of physics involving ultimate recovery of resources through natural production, fracking and/or enhanced recovery techniques.

The goal of providing low cost, reliable energy to consumers, enhancing lives and providing better futures can be reached through utilizing hydrocarbon technologies in tandem with renewable sources. A vast amount of investment, research and development is still required in the renewable world, including battery storage, solar/wind efficiency, electric grid expansion and electric vehicle technology/charging stations.

According to the 2020 IEA Energy Outlook, oil and gas represented 55 percent of global energy demand in 2019 and the agency predicts that oil and gas will comprise 46 percent to 54 percent of the energy stack in 2040. This is a relatively flat market share. Coal, on the other hand, cedes market share to renewables and nuclear power, decreasing from 30 percent to 10 percent. While renewables are vital to reaching the U.S. goals of net-zero emissions, hydrocarbons are essential in backstopping U.S. energy needs and ambitions throughout this energy transition. Additionally, on a global scale, cheaply sourced and stored hydrocarbons are essential for emerging economies to advance through existing carbon-emitting infrastructure, eventually leading to renewable alternatives and global carbon reduction.

We remain encouraged for the next decade of growth and performance as we look to identify unique opportunities in the space. In a dynamic oil and gas market, Riverbend has a high degree of confidence to sustain and thrive due to our culture, performance-based team and systems. Riverbend is anchored by vigorous technical subsurface reserve assessments as well as land, accounting and commercial diligence. Additionally, Riverbend, as an energy company, is investing in the alternatives segment, concentrating on materials and services in the wind, solar and battery portions of the value chain. In a world full of human ambition, we see a need for all energy to support undeveloped nations and economies to access the opportunity of the American Dream, pursuing elimination of a "have" and "have not" world.

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Randy Newcomer is president and CEO of Houston-based Riverbend Oil and Gas, a private equity investment group specializing in the energy industry.

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Cancer-fighting company based in Houston emerges from stealth and snags $74M in its latest round

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A Houston-based clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company has raised millions in its latest round.

Tvardi Therapeutics Inc. closed its $74 million series B funding round led by new investors New York-based Slate Path Capital, Florida-based Palkon Capital, Denver-based ArrowMark Partners, and New York-based 683 Capital, with continued support and participation by existing investors, including Houston-based Sporos Bioventures.

"We are thrilled to move out of stealth mode and partner with this lineup of long-term institutional investors," says Imran Alibhai, CEO at Tvardi. "With this financing we are positioned to advance the clinical development of our small molecule inhibitors of STAT3 into mid-stage trials as well as grow our team."

Through Slate Path Capital's investment, Jamie McNab, partner at the firm, will join Tvardi's board of directors.

"Tvardi is the leader in the field of STAT3 biology and has compelling proof of concept clinical data," McNab says in the release. "I look forward to partnering with the management team to advance Tvardi's mission to develop a new class of breakthrough medicines for cancer, chronic inflammation, and fibrosis."

Tvardi's latest fundraise will go toward supporting the company's products in their mid-stage trials for cancer and fibrosis. According to the release, Tvardi's lead product, TTI-101, is being studied in a Phase 1 trial of patients with advanced solid tumors who have failed all lines of therapy. So far, the drug has been well-received and shown multiple durable radiographic objective responses in the cancer patients treated.

Dr. Keith Flaherty, who is a member of Tvardi's scientific advisory board and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, offered his support of the company.

"STAT3 is a compelling and validated target. Beyond its clinical activity, Tvardi's lead molecule, TTI-101, has demonstrated direct downregulation of STAT3 in patients," he says in the release. "As a physician, I am eager to see the potential of Tvardi's molecules in diseases of high unmet medical need where STAT3 is a key driver."

Networking with high-status colleagues isn't successful across industries, per Rice University research

houston voices

In a timeless scene from the mockumentary "This Is Spinal Tap," an 80s metal band swaggers in for a performance only to find they're billed second to a puppet show. Though the film is farce, real musicians often come to question the value of playing second fiddle to anyone – even an A-lister.

Now research by Rice Business professor Alessandro Piazza and colleagues Damon J. Phillips and Fabrizio Castellucci confirms those musicians are right to wonder. In fact, they discovered, the only thing worse than performing after a puppet may be opening up for an idol. Bands that consistently open up for groups with higher status, the researchers found, earn less money – and are more likely to break up than those that don't.

"Three cheers," The Economist wrote about the researchers, for confirming "what many people in the music industry have long suspected – that being the opening band for a big star is not a first class ticket to success."

While the findings may be intuitive for seasoned musicians, they fly in the face of existing business research. Most research about affiliations concludes that hobnobbing with high-status colleagues gives lowly newcomers a boost. Because affiliations give access to resources and information, the reasoning goes, it's linked with individual- and firm-level successes such as landing jobs and starting new ventures.

Both individuals and organizations, one influential study notes, benefit from the "sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships."

That's largely because in many fields up and comers must fight to be taken seriously – or noticed at all. This problem is often called "the liability of newness:" In order to succeed, industry newcomers first need to be considered legitimate by the audience they're trying to woo.

Showing off shiny friends is a classic solution. In many fields, after all, linking oneself with a high-status partner is simply good branding: a shorthand signal to audiences or consumers that if a top dog has given their approval, the newcomer must surely have some of the same excellent qualities.

Unfortunately, this doesn't always hold true – especially in the creative world, Piazza's team found. In the frantic world of haute cuisine, for example, a faithful apprentice to a celebrity chef may actually suffer for all those burns and cuts in the star's hectic kitchen. Unless they can create meals that are not just spectacular, but show off a distinct style, consumers may sneer at the newcomer as a knockoff of the true master.

So what determines if reflected glory makes newcomers shine or merely eclipses them? It has to do with how much attention there is to go around, Piazza said. While partnering with a star helps in some fields, it can be a liability when success depends on interaction between audience and performer. That's because our attention – that is, ability to mentally focus on a specific subject – is finite. Consumers can only take in so much at a time.

Marketers are acutely aware of this scarcity. Much of their time, after all, is spent battling for consumer attention in an environment swamped by competitors. The more rivals for advertising attention, research shows, the less a consumer will recall of any one ad. In the world of finance, publicly traded companies also live and die on attention, in the form of analyst coverage of their stocks and angel investors' largesse.

Musicians who perform live, Piazza said, are battling for attention in a field that's gotten progressively more fierce, due to lower album sales and shorter career spans. Performing in the orbit of a major distraction such as Taylor Swift or Beyoncé, however, only reduces the attention the opening act gets, the researchers found. Though performances are just a few hours, the attention drain can do lasting harm both to revenue and career longevity.

To reach these conclusions, the researchers analyzed data about the live performances and careers of 1,385 new bands between 2000 and 2005. Supplementing this with biographical and genre information about each band along with musician interviews, the team then analyzed the concert revenue and artistic survival of each band.

They discovered that in live music, high status affiliation onstage clearly diluted audience attention to newcomers – translating into less revenue and lower chance of survival.

In part, the revenue loss also stems from the fact that even in big stadium performances, performing with superstars rarely enriches the underdogs. According to a 2014 Billboard magazine report, headliners in the U.S. typically absorb 30 to 40 percent of gross event revenues; intermediate acts garner 20 to 30 percent and opening acts for established artists bring as little as $15,000.

The findings were surprising, and perhaps dispiriting, enough for the researchers to carefully spell out their scope. Affiliation's positive effects, they said, are most often found in environments of collaboration and learning – for example academia. In these settings, a superstar not only can bestow a halo effect, but can share actual resources or information. In the music world, however, the fleeting nature of a shared performance makes it hard for a superstar band to share much with a lower-ranked band except, perhaps, some euphoric memories.

Interestingly, in many businesses it's easy for observers to quickly assume affiliations between disparate groups. In the investment banking industry, for instance, research shows that audiences infer status hierarchies among banks merely by reading "tombstone advertisements," the announcements of security offerings in major business publications. Readers assume underwriting banks to be affiliated with each other when they're listed as being part of the same syndicate – even if the banks actually have little to do with each other beyond pooling capital in the same deal.

In the music business, star affiliations mainly help an opening act a) if the audience understands there's an affiliation and b) if they believe the link is intentional. But that's not always the case because promoters and others in Big Music often line up opening bands. When possible, though, A-listers can do their opening acts a solid by making it clear that they've chosen them to perform there.

Otherwise, Piazza and his colleagues concluded, the light shed by musical supernovas typically gets lost in the darkened stadium. For the long term, business-minded bands may do best by working with peers in more modest venues – places where the attention they do get, like in Spinal Tap's classic metric, goes all the way up to 11.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Alessandro Piazza, an assistant professor of strategic management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Houston data management company closes $18M in fresh funding

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A Houston company that's created a centralized log management solution has closed a new round in funding.

Graylog closed its $18 million growth equity round led by Richmond, Virginia-based Harbert Growth Partners, a new investor, and Minneapolis, Minnesota-based Piper Sandler Merchant Banking, the company announced today. The round also received contribution from existing investors Houston-based Mercury Fund and Integr8d Capital, as well as Germany-based HTGF.

"This investment will enable us to accelerate our global go-to-market strategies and enhancements to the award-winning solutions we deliver for IT, DevOps, and Security teams," says Andy Grolnick, CEO of Graylog, in a press release. "We're excited to have the support of new and existing investor partners to help us realize our potential."

Andy Grolnick is CEO of Graylog. Photo courtesy

Per the release, the funds will go toward growing the company's platform that allows its users the ability to capture, store, and enable real-time analysis of terabytes of machine data.

"Graylog is well-positioned to be a long-term winner in the rapidly growing market for log management and analysis solutions," says Brian Carney, general partner of Harbert Growth Partners, in the release. "With its focus on delivering a superior analyst experience coupled with a vibrant Open Source community, the company provides customers a compelling alternative to other log management solutions plagued with high complexity and high total cost of ownership (TCO). We are thrilled to partner with the Graylog team to leverage the significant opportunity that lies ahead for the company."

Over the past year, despite the challenging business climate, the company saw growth in business and even expanded its European operations, according to the release.

"As a long-standing customer, Graylog is strategic to our success. We are excited to see new investment that will enable the company to accelerate innovation and continue to deliver excellent log management and SIEM solutions," says Rob Reiner, CTO of PROS, in the release.