Report: E-commerce soars in 2020 — in Houston and beyond

online shopping spree

Retail trends are affecting Houston's real estate growth, a report from Avison Young finds. Photo via Getty Images

This year's holiday shopping season is keeping online retailers hopping. Commercial real estate services provider CBRE predicts holiday e-commerce sales in 2020 will exceed last year's by a whopping 40 percent.

But even before Americans were focusing intently on buying holiday gifts, e-commerce had taken off amid pandemic-generated shopping constraints. In the second quarter of this year, online sales skyrocketed by 44.5 percent compared with the same period in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. E-commerce accounted for a record-high 15.1 percent of total retail sales from April through June.

A forecast from commercial real estate services provider Avison Young indicates the U.S. upswing in e-commerce sales will benefit one segment of Houston's real estate sector more than any other in 2021 — industrial. Riding this year's e-commerce wave, Houston's industrial market will "remain solid" next year, the forecast says.

"Industrial continues to outperform all other asset types," Avison Young's report reads, "but higher vacancies and larger rent concessions will continue in 2021 as the new supply outpaces immediate demand. Online shopping is strong, and national retailers are building large distribution centers and last-mile facilities throughout the metro."

The forecast cites several industrial projects underway or recently leased in the Houston area:

  • A 1 million-square-foot spec warehouse under construction in Baytown, near the Port of Houston. It's said to be one of the largest spec industrial facilities underway in the U.S. The developer is Hunt Southwest Industrial Real Estate. The warehouse is set to open in March.
  • A 1.5 million-square-foot distribution center under construction in New Caney for home improvement retailer Lowe's. The $65 million project, which will be the largest industrial facility in Montgomery County, is supposed to be ready for occupancy in July.
  • A newly completed 402,648-square-foot facility that online retailer Costway is occupying in Pasadena, near the Port of Houston.
  • Dunavant Distribution's expansion into a 784,000-square-foot leased property in Deer Park, near the Port of Houston.

Various e-commerce players are relying more and more on regional distribution centers, last-mile distribution facilities, and micro-fulfillment centers throughout the Houston area, according to Avison Young. E-commerce behemoth Amazon is driving a lot of this activity. For instance, the retailer is planning a 1 million-square-foot fulfillment center in Missouri City. That space is scheduled to open sometime in 2021. Meanwhile, an 850,000-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center is on tap for nearby Richmond.

In a third-quarter report, Avison Young noted that 15.1 million square feet of industrial space was under construction in the Houston area and 4.1 million square feet of industrial space had been completed, with net absorption of 1.1 million square feet.

The Port of Houston is helping propel many of the moves in Houston's industrial market. In October, the port notched its busiest month on record, with cargo activity sailing 15 percent above the same period in 2019. Operators of the port hope to begin work on widening of the Houston Ship Channel in 2021.

Nationally, this year's spike in online shopping rocked the retail boat. This surge has produced new generations of retailers and consumers, Avison Young says, and has put pressure on the entire supply chain. Furthermore, it has accelerated chatter about the road ahead for last-mile delivery and brick-and-mortar retail.

"Existing retail space, which was either redundant or surplus to requirements, is being repurposed to facilitate 'click and collect' models," per the report. "Retailers are adjusting the 'front end' consumer-facing component of the store for showroom or experiential space to complement traditional browse-and-buy activity. In-store staff, coupled with technology investments, are being channeled into order picking and back-of-house fulfillment activities."

"Traditional stores were always a combination of the retail and logistics functions; recent trends suggest a renewed recognition of this dual role," the firm adds. "As surplus retail space becomes cheaper and more available, innovations around hyperlocal delivery will be a key part of reimagining the future of retail."

For better or for worse, COVID-19 has increased the need for technology in real estate. Getty Images

Houston expert: How COVID-19 fast-tracked real estate technology

Guest column

COVID-19 has impacted every facet of our lives, and the housing market is no exception. The majority of real estate, for better or worse, relies on in-person interactions.

Things like wet signatures, home tours, inspections, and appraisals all require physical attendance — making it difficult to create digital alternatives.

Although many of these disruptions are a hindrance this unique time also presents an opportunity for the real estate industry to showcase its ability to grow and adapt to the digital age.

Technology's grand entrance into real estate

As a people-first business, real estate has always been based on relationships and face to face interactions which make transactions amid a pandemic excruciatingly difficult. Although technology and real estate are not completely foreign with companies such as Zillow and OpenDoor having established their niche, many of the more traditional real estate companies had yet to fully embrace the reality of technology's arrival. The thought was a real estate transaction must be sealed with a handshake, a wet signature, and a bottle of champagne.

Upon the onset of COVID-19, many quickly realized that technology was no longer an option but in order to endure this crisis adoption of disruptive innovations was a necessity. Moreover, with millennial homebuyers being the most active clientele the industry needed to meet them where they are — online.

Although there is nothing like the personal touch of a guided tour, home showings had to adjust to adapt to COVID-19 by embracing and utilizing 21st century technology. This was achieved through videos, high quality images, and innovative staging posted online for potential buyers to take 360-degree tours. Rather than sacrificing nuances such as a well-staged home, which has shown to have the potential to increase a home's sale price by up to 6 percent, real estate agents crafted innovative ways to digitally put a home's possibilities on display for buyers to see.

Another impediment created by COVID-19 was the way people close. Many documents require wet signatures. Fortunately, remote closing technology has improved over the last decade and COVID-19 increased the adoption rate of these platforms by individual states and lending institutions at a much quicker rate than would have been otherwise.

Some examples of these useful tools are remote online notarizations (RONS), mobile closings, and electronic signatures. While these tools are extremely helpful there is still much in the way of mass adoption before the industry can be as nimble and adaptive to not experience large stalls in the face of this sort of unprecedented pandemic. In time, as we dive deeper into the digital age, it would seem that these options would become more widely accepted throughout the industry.

The dangers of tech and real estate

As new digital adaptations increase, so do the risks. Although the introduction of new technology has enabled the industry to continue operating, it also increases the already prevalent risk of cyber security threats.

Phishing attempts and cyber-attacks are on the rise. Hackers are trying to capitalize on increased exposure from employees connecting on home devices. Simply educating employees and clients of the dangers associated is the first line of defense. Internally and throughout the industry, we have seen companies who are committed to ensuring each transaction is done safely and securely through VPNs, and other programs that guarantee the protected transfer of funds.

As a company, we have made cyber security a top priority by requiring multi-factor authentications, third party wire verification services through a company named CertifID and implementing consistent training on how to spot malicious phishing attempts.

What's next for the Houston housing market?

Consumer confidence is key to the success of the housing market. As Houston's economy begins to reopen, we have seen a substantial increase in transactions being finalized and consummated through closings. Both refinances and purchase transactions are on the uptick at the moment and that is encouraging. However, as new waves of the virus roll in there is always the chance that business slows, and the idea of buying a house fades.

As we wait for consumer behaviors to stabilize to the new normal, savvy buyers and borrowers have the opportunity to capitalize on a unique opportunity by taking advantage of low mortgage rates for increased buying power or to lower payments on existing mortgages. Transactions beget transactions and the more movement there is the better for the industry.

Lastly, as with all disruption comes opportunity and opportunity abounds because of COVID-19. With so many companies being forced to adopt new ways of operating due to the pandemic the real estate industry has a chance to adopt a more advanced foundation based on available technology which will help insulate it from future disruptions. With some innovation, a simpler, more efficient overall experience can be created for customers.

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Eric Fontanot is president of Patten Title a full-service closing company with locations in Houston, Austin, and Dallas. Patten Title's technology-enabled team of title and escrow professionals continue to provide real title solutions for customers in Texas.

Both commercial and residential real estate businesses have been greatly affected by social distancing mandate. These two Houston companies are using technology to help grow their business. Photo courtesy of Cameron Management

Houston real estate sector adapts new tech to stay competitive during coronavirus outbreak

virtual tools

As the coronavirus impacts foot traffic throughout businesses in Houston, the real estate world is ushering in digital resources to adapt to a socially distanced city.

Mike Miller, vice president of Ashlar Development, saw the growing threat of COVID-19 in early March and knew he and his team had to find new ways to engage prospective home buyers safely. By the time Houston County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced the stay-at-home order, Ashlar Development had started the process of drafting a 360-degree interactive map for its northeast Houston community, The Groves, that would allow homebuyers to virtually tour the property.

"People were scared to come out of their homes, to touch model home door knobs, and walk-in and see a sales agent," says Miller, who noted the initial decline in foot traffic.

The interactive map debuted on The Groves' website on March 30, allowing users to experience the community through 35 different touchpoints. Website visitors can peruse nearby trails, the playground, pool, community amenities, and the local elementary school to immerse yourself in the community.

"One of our mantras at The Groves is to get outside. We encourage our residents to get outside and enjoy the community, enjoy the trails, and enjoy everything. What this [interactive map] does is it allows you to safely get outside from the safety of your home," he says.

Ashlar Development launched a virtual tour tool for its northeast Houston community. Image courtesy of Ashlar Development

Commercial real estate is also paving the way for innovation amid the pandemic. Houston-based real estate group, Cameron Management, unveiled its virtual 3D office tour on Monday. Partnering with Austin-based Swivel, a digital leasing platform for office space, the real estate group's latest venture will allow tenants and brokers the ability to take a 3-D virtual tour of suites.

The SaaS-based leasing application, AgileView, will feature 50,000 square feet comprised of 12 Cameron Management suites.

"We were looking to provide a tour to a broker, [or] to a broker's client, without anybody having to put themselves at any risk," says Jano Nixon Kelley, Cameron Management's director of marketing.

Kelley had built a strong relationship with the Swivel team prior to the coronavirus outbreak. When she learned of the capabilities of AgileView, "we jumped on it," she says.

"We were so pleased that they actually got the feeling for the building," Kelley says, "It doesn't look cookie cutter."

Another way both companies are getting creative is through digital marketing. Ashlar Development pivoted to digital advertising through paid media ads, email campaigns, and social media marketing. Rather than cutting its marketing budget, the community reallocated funds to building out the 360-degree interactive map and transitioning from print ads to digital display ads.

The response equated to what Miller deems an "incredible success." In the first week of launching the 360-degree interactive map, Ashlar Development saw a 3,000 percent increase in page views. The traffic resulted in a 1,200 percent increase in views to its "Meet the Builder" page, which features various home builders partnered with The Groves community. Since the tour launch, the company has seen a 220 percent increase in first-time visitors to its website.

Ashlar Development's significant web traffic isn't just a vanity number; Miller states that the Groves has seen a 116 percent increase in April sales as compared to last year. To date, the community is seeing approximately 30 percent in year-over-year sales since the stay-at-home order took effect.

Similar to Ashlar Development's approach, Kelley says Cameron Management utilized email marketing to launch her campaign. Cameron Management is also incentivizing brokers to use the application by hosting a two-week-long scavenger hunt for a chance to win an Amegy Bank debit card in an effort to support local business. "They can choose how to use their money, but hopefully they use it locally," says Kelley.

"Even if you're at home, [AgileView] gives you something visual to look at. Maybe you've got kids at home and can say, 'look, here's a game we can play together.' It's something to get people engaged," says Kelley.

"Office space needs for organizations of all sizes are modifying quickly, and likely will be changed for the long term. As the commercial real estate community adjusts to this new normal, there are still many unknowns," Kelley says. "At Cameron Management, we believe our differentiator is the ability to be nimble and pragmatic across all areas of our business—now and well beyond COVID-19," she continues.

For Ashlar Development, foot traffic has returned "almost back to normal," according to Miller, who attributes the rise to "pent up demand" once the stay-at-home order lifted.

"We're all kind of stuck in our houses, and our only outlet is to get outside and enjoy where you live," he says. "Our residents don't have to get in the car to enjoy a nearby county park, they can enjoy the community and the great outdoors right outside of their home," he says.

Miller himself recently bought a house from the comfort of his residence, electronically depositing his earnest money and signing for his future home.

"I think we're on the verge of a digital revolution in our industry," Miller says confidently. "Real estate has been slow to get into the digital realm, but I think this is going to force us to embrace technology."

Usually, Ashlar Development's selling point for The Groves is its access to "get outside." But, in a time of COVID-19, the company has optimized its technology to let home buying and touring stay inside for the time being. Photo courtesy of Ashlar Development

SquareFoot — a real estate tech company with Houston roots — is entering the Houston market. Getty Images

Real estate tech company founded by Houstonian launches locally, looks for office space

Homecoming

A New York-based company that uses technology to optimize the commercial real estate leasing process is expanding into Houston — and it's a bit of a homecoming for the company's CEO.

SquareFoot, which was founded by Houston native Jonathan Wasserstrum in 2011, has launched in Houston following the closing of a $16 million series B funding round led by Chicago-based DRW VC. The company uses tech tools — like a space calculator and online listings to help users find the right office space quicker and easier than traditional methods.

The Bayou City's growth in small businesses and startups makes for a great market for SquareFoot.

"Houston, in addition to being a leading market for business, is a city in transition," Wasserstrum says. "We've witnessed a growing trend of smaller companies cropping up, with startups showing that they're here to stay. I want SquareFoot to be a major part of the city's growth and evolution."

The idea for a company, Wasserstrum says, came from a friend in Houston who was struggling to find office space for his small company. Years later, that problem's solution would be SquareFoot.

SquareFoot's Houston operations are up and running online, and the listings and resources will continue to grow. Wasserstrum says the team will also open a physical office in Houston, and the team is currently looking for its own office space in a "highly-desirable" area, Wasserstrum says.

"That will not only make it easier for us to show office spaces to prospective clients, but it also sends the message that we understand these clients better than anyone," he explains. "Where you choose to open your offices is part of the story you're shaping for candidates and clients."

In regards to Houston-based employees, Wasserstrum says he will start with tapping a few Houston real estate experts. He will take the business model that was successful in New York and adapt it for Houston

"It's not only the East and West Coasts where innovation is taking place," Wasserstrum says. "We want to help Houston continue to grow as a stellar place to launch and grow a company."

National expansion is Wasserstrum's big goal, he says, and after settling in Houston, he plans to next enter into Washington, D.C., and a few other major markets.

Wasserstrum explains what the Houston expansion means to him, how tech is changing real estate, and trends he's keeping an eye on.

IM: What does it mean to be expanding in your hometown?

Jonathan Wasserstrum: Houston is where I grew up. My whole life has been shaped by what I saw and learned in Houston. I moved away for college, and have built my career on the East Coast, but Houston will always be a big part of me. My parents still live there so I have good reasons to fly home and to come home again.

As I've built out my company, SquareFoot, since 2012 at our NYC headquarters, I have dreamed of being able to expand our services nationally. We have helped over 1,200 companies find and secure office spaces in major cities. As our executive team considered where to invest in and to expand to next, Houston emerged at the top of the list. We made this decision for professional growth reasons, but that choice has an emotional element for me as well.

Going forward, I should have additional good reasons to fly home and to see my parents more often than I have had the occasion to over recent years. Plus, we save on hotel costs!

IM: What makes Houston a great place to expand into?

JW: From an office space perspective, Houston is an under tapped market. There are countless companies looking for the services we provide, but nobody has yet figured out how to build a company to serve them specifically.

We acquire many of our clients through online search — people looking for office space are literally searching online for solutions. We've seen in recent months and years a surge in searches from Houston, which indicated to us that there was a gap that had developed there. We've long had a digital presence there, thanks to these searches, but now we're increasing our physical presence on the ground. We'll hire a broker and put an office there in the coming months.

IM: What sort of trends are you seeing in office real estate? Are these trends happening in Houston already?

JW: Over the past years, we've seen a sharp increase in demand for flexible solutions. Traditional coworking spaces have worked out for many companies, but it's not for everyone.

At the same time, the long-term leases that are usually required upon signing on for an office space of your own has largely kept growing companies out of the market; it has scared them off. We realized there had to be a middle option so we launched FLEX by SquareFoot last year. Now, for the first time, all companies can find the spaces they want with the terms they want.

We are excited to introduce FLEX to the Houston market and to show companies there that there's more lease flexibility and opportunity available than they might think. Change in commercial real estate happens slowly over a long period of time. Houston has the chance now to be a part of their changing wave.

IM: How is technology changing the industry?

JW: For many decades, commercial real estate operated the exact same way. And it intended to stay that way because nobody had reason to believe anything was broken or wrong. However, there were several inefficiencies that clients just had to deal with because that was the industry standard.

The first one was the lack of transparency of which office spaces were unoccupied or what they'd cost. Brokers would lock up this information and keep clients at a distance, unless they were willing to sign on to work with them. With SquareFoot's online listings platform, we have unlocked that information, have educated countless people, and have made for a more seamless and enjoyable process for our clients as partners in their searches.

The other technological breakthrough we've made is in our mobile app. Still, in 2020, too many clients are taking tours of these offices with pen and paper and occasionally snapping a photo or video to send back to their stakeholders. Our app solved those issues once and for all, enabling better communication back and forth and a better user experience for all. Regardless of which team member goes on the office tour with our broker, everyone is clued in and on the same page.

We want everyone on the greater team to buy into the vision, and to recognize the potential, not just one representative who happened to be on the office tour one afternoon.

Hines is getting into the coworking biz. Image courtesy of Hines

Houston-based real estate giant enters the coworking space with 2 locations and more in the works

Hines²

Houston-based real estate investor and developer Hines Interests LP is eyeing a piece of the burgeoning market for coworking space.

Hines just unveiled Hines², a platform for flexible office space at Hines-owned buildings. Hines² already is up and running at two locations: 717 Texas, a 33-story Class A office tower in Houston, and The Kearns Building, a 10-story office building in Salt Lake City.

Justin Boyar, director of market analytics at CoStar Group, a provider of commercial real estate data and analytics, points out that the two Hines buildings where Hines² has launched had vacancy rates of 48.6 percent (717 Texas in Houston) and 32.4 percent (Kearns Building in Salt Lake City) in the third quarter of this year.

Landlords like Hines increasingly are incorporating coworking into their office buildings "as a way to creatively entice tenants to buildings otherwise suffering high vacancy rates," Boyar says.

"Office landlords have been under siege this cycle by new space utilization trends — including increased density and efficiency, open floorplates, remote work, hoteling, and coworking," he says. "Office landlords now not only have to compete with structurally shrinking office demand but also with coworking providers who now offer hotel-like amenities and programming."

On the horizon are Hines² setups in markets such as Atlanta, Boston, Denver, New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Washington, D.C. Eventually, Hines plans to enter other markets in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia.

New York City-based Industrious, a provider of flexible workspace, is Hines' operating partner for the new venture. Industrious runs more than 80 flexible-workspace sites in more than 40 U.S. cities. Additionally, Hines has teamed up with New York City-based Convene to provide event management and meeting services.

"Hines' workplace services offering will serve as a complement to our existing office capabilities, strengthening our position as the preferred partner for tenants and investors around the world, without changing our risk profile or leasing strategy. It's a natural extension of our vertically integrated operating model," Charlie Kuntz, chief innovation officer at Hines, says in a release.

Inside Hines properties, Industrious will operate centers known as The Square, which will supply coworking and flexible-workspace options, meeting and event services, food, beverages, collaboration areas, and community programming.

"The Square is a direct response to the changing needs of our current and future building tenants — our core customers. Hines has a 60-plus-year track record of providing superior space and service, and flexible workspace and office hospitality are a logical progression for us," Kuntz says.

In the coworking sector, Hines goes up against established players like Regus and WeWork. Working to Hines' advantage in the increasingly competitive coworking field is that it already owns the office buildings where Hines² will operate.

Coworking ventures like Hines² continue to emerge, given that flexible workspace and shared-amenity spaces are projected to make up about 30 percent of the U.S. office market by 2030, according to a forecast from commercial real estate services company JLL. Today, coworking accounts for less than 1 percent of the U.S. office market, according to CoStar.

CoStar says Regus ranks first among U.S. providers of coworking space, with about 16.8 million square feet. At No. 2 is WeWork, with 14.8 million square feet. Boyar predicts WeWork might surpass Regus by the end of 2019 to claim the No. 1 spot.

Boyar says that Regus and WeWork still dwarf other coworking providers in terms of lease space, although he notes that Hines partner Industrious is one of the fastest-growing providers in the U.S.

Nearly 47 percent of coworking occupancy in the U.S. is spread among six major office markets, according to CoStar. They are New York City; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; Boston; and Chicago.

Paul Leonard, managing consultant at CoStar Portfolio Strategy, says that although coworking is experiencing rapid growth, "it remains a small piece of the office universe and today is more of a collaborator with landlords than a competitor. That may change with time, but operators like WeWork have a far smaller share of office demand compared to other disruptors like Airbnb for hotels or Uber for rideshare and taxi services."

In Houston, coworking represents less than 0.5 percent of leased office space, or about 1.4 million square feet, according to Boyar. An estimated 190 buildings in the Houston area lease space to coworking tenants.

"Surprisingly, even this little amount of coworking space puts Houston in the conversation with the largest coworking markets in the U.S.," he says.

Boyar says it makes sense for Houston-based Hines to break into the coworking market in its hometown and elsewhere.

Hines is "seen by many industry insiders as the gold standard, so their foray into the coworking space represents an acceptance, of sorts, that coworking is here to stay," he says. "Subjectively, I think their partnership with Industrious and Convene represents formidable competition in the coworking space."

That being said, Boyar doubts Hines will embark on aggressive growth in coworking, as WeWork has. But he says Hines² "will allow them the ability to offer more flexible solutions to their tenants. If I were Hines, I would see this a risk worth taking."

Finding a new, larger office space is part of the startup growth process. Getty Images

When is it time to move? How Houston's small companies can find their next office space

Move it or lose it

There are a number of ways to measure the stage of growth a company is enjoying: funding, headcount, acquisitions, exit strategy, and more. But one telling indicator that often goes overlooked is the office space they call home.

In the early days of a startup, working out of someone's garage or at a nearby coffee shop, you dream of moving into a coworking space. Such a transition can mean a financial squeeze for some, especially when your prior solution was free. But paying for a space can mark a milestone — it signifies that you've made it to the next chapter. Houston has a number of great options for the many local early-stage startups undertaking this type of move.

Over time, though, as your company continues to grow, this solution may begin to cause strain. There's a big difference between a team of six sharing a room in a WeWork, and a team that's reached double-digits having to manage within a space that it has outgrown. Even external amenities like meeting rooms can become insufficient — as your team evolves, more meetings will be necessary, and the standards and needs at play will shift.

Finding your own private office space in Houston is not a challenge; it requires, however, acknowledging that the time has come to take this next step. Signals that it's time to move out and get your own space typically surface in two ways:

  1. What used to feel like an intimate setting has turned into an untenable situation. People are spending too much time talking about the coworking space and its limits.
  2. And, on the flip side, branding your company identity becomes a topic on your radar. If you find a great software engineer interested in joining your team, they might have some reservations about coming aboard with you if they discover you're sitting in a coworking space rather than your own space.

At SquareFoot, the commercial real estate company I founded in Houston in 2011, I have given special attention to companies looking for their first office space. It can be daunting at first, but our brokers know better than anyone how to be trusted advisors for small business owners searching for their first locations.

The most important question at this stage, we've found, is not which neighborhood they'd like to be in, what their budget is, or what amenities they want. Rather, it's a common growth question: Where do you see yourself in three to five years? By asking this question of CEOs in initial conversations, we can get a better idea of what type of growth they project, and how we can most efficiently find them the right space to accommodate their current needs and future goals.

We see office space as more than segments of larger office buildings. These spaces mean a great deal to the companies that inhabit them. It's our responsibility to fit the right team into the right space, and to advocate and negotiate on their behalf.

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SquareFoot Founder and CEO Jonathan Wasserstrum, who hails from Houston, has worked for over a decade in commercial real estate. Outside of work, Jonathan is interested in the three Bs — bourbon, buffalo wings, and brass bands.

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Houston startup secures big contract, coworking company acquired, and more local innovation news

short stories

Houston is starting 2022 strong in terms of innovation news, and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, the Bayou City is ranked based on its opportunities for STEM jobs, a Houston blockchain startup scores a major contract, Rice University opens applications for its veteran-owned busineess competition, and more.

Data Gumbo announces contract with Equinor

After a successful pilot, Equinor has signed off on a contract with Data Gumbo.. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

Houston-based Data Gumbo, an industrial blockchain-software-as-a-service company, announced that it has signed a contract with Equinor. The global energy company's venture arm, Equinor Ventures, supported the startup's $7.7 million series B round, which closed last year.

The company's technology features smart contract automation and execution, which reduces contract leakage, frees up working capital, enables real-time cash and financial management, and delivers provenance with unprecedented speed, accuracy, visibility and transparency, per the release.

“Equinor is an industry trailblazer, demonstrating the true value of our international smart contract network to improve and automate manual processes, and bring trust to all parties,” says Andrew Bruce, founder and CEO of Data Gumbo, in a news release. “Smart contracts are playing a critical role in driving the energy industry forward. Our work with Equinor clearly demonstrates the benefits that supermajors and their supply chain customers, partners and vendors experience by automating commercial transactions. We are proud to continue our work with Equinor to help them realize the savings, efficiencies and new levels of transparency available through our smart contract network.”

Equinor opted into a pilot with the company a few years ago.

“Since piloting Data Gumbo’s smart contracts for offshore drilling services in 2019, we have worked with the company to continually refine and improve use cases. We now have the potential to expand Data Gumbo’s smart contract network to enable transactional certainty across our portfolio from the Norwegian Continental Shelf to our Brazilian operated assets and beyond,” says Erik Kirkemo, senior vice president at Equinor. “GumboNet reduces inefficiencies and processing time around contract execution in complex supply chains, which is a problem in the broader industry, and we look forward to realizing the streamlined process and cost savings of its rapidly expanding smart contract network.”

WeWork acquires Dallas coworking brand with 6 Houston locations

Common Desk, which has six locations in Houston including in The Ion, has been acquired. Photo courtesy of Common Desk

Dallas-based Common Desk, which has six locations in Houston, announced its acquisition by WeWork. The company's office spaces will be branded as “Common Desk, a WeWork Company,” according to a news release.

“Similar to WeWork, Common Desk is a company built on the concept of bringing people together to have their best day at work," says Nick Clark, CEO at Common Desk, in the release. "With the added support from WeWork, Common Desk will be able to not only leverage WeWork’s decade of experience in member services to improve the experience of our own members but also leverage WeWork’s impressive client roster to further build out our member base.”

Here are the six Common Desk spaces in Houston:

Here's how Houston ranks as a metro for STEM jobs

Source: WalletHub

When it comes to the best cities for jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math, Houston ranks in the middle of the pack. The greater Houston area ranked at No. 37 among the 100 largest metros across 19 key metrics on the list compiled by personal finance website, WalletHub. Here's how Houston fared on the report's metrics:

  • No. 36 – percent of Workforce in STEM
  • No. 74 – STEM Employment Growth
  • No. 43 – Math Performance
  • No. 16 – Quality of Engineering Universities
  • No. 2 – Annual Median Wage for STEM Workers (Adjusted for Cost of Living)
  • No. 90 – Median Wage Growth for STEM Workers
  • No. 75 – Job Openings for STEM Graduates per Capita
  • No. 88 – Unemployment Rate for Adults with at Least a Bachelor’s Degree

Elsewhere in Texas, Austin ranked at No. 2 overall, and Dallas just outranked Houston coming in at No. 34. San Antonio, El Paso, and McAllen ranked No. 51, No. 65, and No. 88, respectively.

Rice University calls for contestants for its 8th annual startup pitch competition for veterans

Calling all veteran and active duty startup founders and business owners. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University is now accepting applications from Houston veterans for its annual business competition. To apply for the 2022 Veterans Business Battle, honorably discharged veterans or active duty founders can head online to learn more and submit their business plan by Feb. 15.

“We’re looking forward to giving veterans the opportunity not just to share their ideas and get financing, but learn from other past winners the lessons about entrepreneurship they’ve lived through while growing their businesses,” event co-chair Reid Schrodel says in a news release.

Over the past few years, finalists have received more than $4 million of investments through the program. This year's monetary prizes add up to $30,000 — $15,000 prize for first place, $10,000 for second place, and $5,000 for third place.

Finalists will be invited to make their business pitch April 22 and 23 at Rice University. Click here to register for the event.

City of Houston receives grant to stimulate STEM opportunities

Houston's youth population is getting a leg up on STEM opportunities. Photo via Getty Images

Thanks to a $150,000 grant from the National League of Cities, the city of Houston has been awarded a chance to provide quality education and career opportunities to at-risk young adults and students. The city is one of five cities also selected to receive specialized assistance from NLC’s staff and other national experts.

“This award is a big win for young people. They will benefit from significant career development opportunities made possible by this grant,” says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a news release. “These are children who would otherwise go without, now having experiences and connections they never thought possible. I commend the National League of Cities for their continued commitment to the future leaders of this country.”

According to the release, the grant money will support the Hire Houston Youth program by connecting diverse opportunity youth to the unique STEM and technology-focused workforce development.

"Our youth deserve educational opportunities that connect them to the local workforce and career exploration, so they can make informed choices about their future career path in Houston’s dynamic economy. Houston youth will only further the amazing things they will accomplish, thanks to this grant," says Olivera Jankovska, director of the Mayor's Office of Education.

Houston software startup raises $12.5M series B

money moves

Houston-based Codenotary, whose technology helps secure software supply chains, has raised $12.5 million in a series B round. Investors in the round include Swiss venture capital firm Bluwat and French venture capital firm Elaia.

The $12.5 million round follows a series A round that was announced in 2020, with total funding now at $18 million.

Codenotary, formely known as vChain, says the fresh round of money will be used to accelerate product development, and expand marketing and sales worldwide. Today, the startup has 100-plus customers, including some of the world’s largest banks.

Codenotary’s co-founders are CEO Moshe Bar and CTO Dennis Zimmer. They started the company in 2018.

Bar co-founded Qumranet, which developed the Linux KVM hypervisor. A hypervisor creates and runs virtual machines. Software provider Red Hat purchased Qumranet in 2008 for $127 million. Before that, he founded hypervisor company XenSource, which cloud computing company Citrix Systems bought in 2007 for $500 million.

“Codenotary offers a solution which allows organizations to quickly identify and track all components in their DevOps cycle and therefore restore trust and integrity in all their myriad applications,” Pascal Blum, senior partner at Bluwat, says in a news release.

The SolarWinds software supply chain hack in 2020 and the more recent emergence of Log4j vulnerabilities have brought the dangers of software lifecycle attacks to the forefront, Bar says. Now, he says, more and more companies are looking for ways to prove the legitimacy of the software that they produce.

Codenotary is the primary contributor to immudb, the an open-source, enterprise-class database with data immutability, or stability, designed to meet the demands of highly used applications.

Dallas-based ridesharing app gears up for expansion across Houston and beyond

HOUSTON INNOVATOR PODCAST EPISODE 118

Before he started his current job, Winston Wright would have thought a startup attempting to compete with the likes of Uber and Lyft was going to fight an uphill battle. Now, he sees how much opportunity there is in the rideshare market.

Wright is the Houston general manager for Alto, a Dallas-based company that's grown its driving service platform into five markets — first from Dallas into Houston and then to Los Angeles, Miami, and, most recently, Washington D.C. Alto's whole goal is to provide reliability and improve user experience.

"We're elevating ridesharing," Wright says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "With Alto, you get a consistent, safe experience with. a high level of hospitality. And that's a key differentiator for us in the market, and we're able to replicate that time and time again."

Wright, whose background is in sales and operations in hospitality, says his vision for alto in Houston is to expand the service — which operates in the central and western parts of the city — throughout the greater Houston area.

"The vision I have for this market is that, as we move forward and continue to expand, that we're covering all of Houston," he says.

This will mean expanding the company's physical presence too. Alto recently announced its larger space in Dallas, and now the Houston operations facility will grow its footprint too.

Wright says he's also focused on growing his team. Over the past two years, pandemic notwithstanding, the company has maintained hiring growth. Alto's drivers are hired as actual employees, not contractors, so they have access to benefits and paid time off.

The company, which raised $45 million in its last round of investment, is expanding next to the Silicon Valley area, followed by three to five more markets in 2022. Then, by the end of 2023, it's Alto's mission to have a completely electronic fleet of vehicles.

"Our goal is to have over 3,000 EV cars and be the first company with a 100 percent electric fleet by 2023," Wright says.

Wright shares more on Alto's future in Texas and beyond, as well as what's challenging him most as he grows the team locally. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.