From a lab in Rice University to a potential shelf life in stores, the innovation of food coating is just beginning. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Hunger impacts over 800 million people worldwide, leaving nearly 10 percent of the population suffering from chronic undernourishment. The distressing reality of food shortages co-exists in a world where 1.3 billion tons of food — nearly a third of what's produced — is wasted each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rice University's scientific research team's latest discovery takes a crack at ending food shortages and improving sustainability with a common kitchen necessity: eggs.

The discovery of egg-based coating is promising to researchers, as it manages to both prolong produce shelf-life by double while impacting the environment.

"We are reducing the cost, and at the same time we are reducing the waste," says Muhammad M. Rahman, a research scientist at Rice University. "One in every eight people are hungry...on the other side, 33 percent of food is wasted."

It's no secret that overflowing landfills contribute to the climate crisis, piling high with food waste each year. While the United States produces more than seven billion eggs a year, manufacturers reject 3 percent of them. The Rice University researchers estimate that more than 200 million eggs end up in U.S. landfills annually.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, half of all landfill gas is methane, a hazardous greenhouse gas that contributes to detrimental climate change. Landfills are the third-largest contributor to methane emissions in the country, riding the coattails of agriculture and the energy industry.

COVID-19 has upended supply chains across the nation, and in recent months food waste has become an even more pressing issue. The disruptions of consumer purchasing habits and the indefinite closures of theme parks and select restaurants put a burden on farmers who planned for larger harvests and restaurants unsure of how to adjust. With more Americans cooking at home, panic-buying from grocery stores is also playing a role in accumulating waste.

To understand the challenges of the food industry, it's important to acknowledge the biggest menace to the supply chain: perishability. Fruits and vegetables only last a few days once arriving in grocery stores due to culprits like dehydration, texture deterioration, respiration and microbial growth. Rice University researchers sought to create a coating that addresses each of these issues in a natural, cost-effective way.

Brown School of Engineering materials scientist, Pulickei Ajayan, and his colleagues, were looking for a protein to fight issues like food waste. Rahman, a researcher in Ajayan's lab, received his Ph.D. from Cornell University studying the structure-property relationship in green nanocomposites. He and his fellow researchers found that egg whites were a suitable protein that wouldn't alter the biological and physiological properties of fruit. The study published in Advanced Materials took one year and three months to complete.

According to Rahman, the egg-based coating is non-toxic, biodegradable and healthier than other alternatives on the market. Wax is one common method of fruit preservation that can result in adverse effects on gut cells and the body over time.

"Long-term consumption of wax is not actually good and is very bad for your health," says Dr. Rahman. After wax is consumed, gut cells fragment the preservatives in wax to ions. This process can have a negative impact on "membrane disruption, essential metabolite inhibition, energy drainage to restore homeostasis, and reductions in body-weight gain," according to the research abstract.

Preservation efforts like wax, modified atmospheric packaging and paraffin-based active coatings are not only more expensive and less healthy, but they also alter the taste and look of fruits.

"Reducing food shortages in ways that don't involve genetic modification, inedible coatings or chemical additives is important for sustainable living," Ajayan states in a press release.

The magic of preservation is all in the ingredients. Rice University's edible coating is mostly made from household items. Seventy percent of the egg coating is made from egg whites and yolk. Cellulose nanocrystals, a biopolymer from wood, are mixed with the egg to create a gas barrier and keep the produce from shriveling. To add elasticity to the brittle poly-albumen (egg), glycerol helps make the coating flexible. Finally, curcumin—an extract found in turmeric—works as an antibacterial to reduce the microbial growth and preserve the fruit's freshness.

The experiment was done by dipping strawberries, avocados, papayas and bananas in the multifunctional coating and comparing them with uncoated fruits. Observation during the decaying process showed that the coated fruits had about double the shelf-life of their non-coated counterparts.

For people with egg allergies, the coating can be removed simply by rinsing the produce in water. Rice University researchers are also beginning to test plant-based proteins for vegan consumers.

For its first iteration, Rahman finds that the coating shows "optimistic results" and "potential" for the future of food preservation.

"These are already very green materials. In the next phase, we are trying to optimize this coating and extend the samples from fruits to vegetables and eggs," says Rahman.

Researchers will also work to test a spray protein, making it easier for both commercial providers as well as consumers looking for an at-home coating option. From a lab in Rice University to a potential shelf life in stores, the innovation of food coating is just beginning.

A Rice University course on fostering innovation at your company, investor Q&As, a summit for drone and robotics within the energy industry, and more online events not to miss this month. Getty Images

10+ can't-miss virtual business and innovation events in Houston for July

where to be online

Virtual events at this point has become the new normal for Houston's innovation ecosystem. From interactive Q&As and virtual pitches to online courses and panels, here's what's in store for Houston entrepreneurs this month.

July 1 — The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator Cohort 2 Demo Day

The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator Cohort 2's Demo Day will be filled with sessions that speak to Cohort 2's themes of air quality, water purification, and cleantech efforts in Houston. These sessions will feature the work that is currently being done, and highlight the work that needs to be done.

Details: This event takes place Wednesday, July 1, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Learn more.

July 8 — HXTV'S HouTech Talks ft. AvidXchange

Tyler Gill and Chris Elmore of AvidXchange join HXTV for a live Q&A that will tackle the big questions on everyone's mind, like how founders should adjust in the face of the pandemic and what fundraising will look like once the pandemic loosens its grip.

Details: This event takes place Wednesday, July 8, from 1 to 2 pm. Learn more.

July 9 — Intro to Investing & Ask Me Anything with Dumb Money and Joshua Baer

Join Capital Factory as they walk you through the ins and outs of investing in startups, stocks, and more with guest speakers from Dumb Money.


Details: This event takes place Thursday, July 9, from 2 to 3:30 pm. Learn more.

July 11 — Enventure Basecamp: Business Building Workshop

Enventure's community-driven business building basecamp series returns this June to support a local innovator construct their healthcare venture. This month, BioVentures team DiaPacer is featured.

Details: This event takes place Saturday, July 11, from 9 a.m. to noon. Learn more.

July 14 — HXTV's VC Ask Me Anything Virtual Event featuring Plug and Play

In this virtual event, Neda Amidi, Milad Malek, and Payal Patel will share information about Plug and Play's investment activities and other plans in Houston.

Details: This event takes place Tuesday, July 14, from 5 to 6 p.m. Learn more.

July 14-16 — Energy Drone & Robotics Virtual Summer Summit

Ahead of its fall summit, Energy Drone & Robotics is bringing live industry keynotes, asset owner panels, moderated discussion groups, 1:1 meetings, demos and use cases with hardware, software and service solution providers virtually.

Details: This event takes place Tuesday, July 14, to Thursday, July 16. Learn more.

July 15 — Maintaining an Ecosystem in a Time of Uncertainty

At this event, General Assembly is hosting local leaders to discuss how they are coping with the COVID-19 devastation and what they're doing to maintain community and interaction within their groups.

Details: This event takes place Wednesday, July 15, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Learn more.

July 16 — HXTV's VC Ask Me Anything Virtual Event featuring Bowery Capital

Bowery Capital is an early-stage venture capital investor focused exclusively on founders looking to modernize business through technology. The live Q&A that will tackle the big questions on everyone's mind, like how founders should adjust in the face of the pandemic and what fundraising will look like once the pandemic loosens its grip.

Details: This event takes place Thursday, July 16, from 3 to 4 pm. Learn more.

July 16-17 — MassChallenge's Virtual Showcase

Hear from all 56 startups in the Houston cohort as well as the Boston, Austin, and Rhode Island cohorts. The showcase environment is a premier opportunity for hear directly from the founding teams and get a sneak peek at the future of business and technology. At the center of the event will be the startup demo booths where each company will actively pitch their mission and business to event guests.

Details: This event takes place Thursday, July 16, to Friday, July 17, from noon to 3 p.m. Learn more.

July 17 — Open Innovation and Problem-Solving in an Organization

Open innovation enables firms to leverage data, talent and expertise to rapidly generate new ideas, solve problems and find efficiencies. This Rice University course will help business leaders identify urgent and critical problems amenable to open innovation solutions and develop creative strategies and implementation through open innovation.

Details: This event takes place Friday, July 17, from 9 to 11 a.m. Learn more.

July 29 — Transition into Tech (For Oil and Gas Professionals)

What happens when you've realized it's time for a change? For many, it can be as simple as a new look, a new restaurant, or a trip out of town. But what about when it's your career and livelihood that needs to be revamped? This can happen for any number of reasons, but the challenges and questions remain the same - what's next and how do I get there?

Details: This event takes place Wednesday, July 29, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Learn more.

Supporting the LGBTQ+ community is crucial to Houston business success. Ylanite Koppens/Pexels

Rice research on why fighting workplace discrimination of LGBTQ+ employees boosts business

Houston voices

Being gay, lesbian or bisexual in the workplace often means facing choices that are deeply unfair. Choose to come out and risk being stigmatized or hide your orientation and prepare for a career weighted with the immense stress of secrecy. Theoretically, there are good reasons for businesses to embrace a workforce with diverse sexual orientations.

First, much workplace discrimination is illegal, and litigation is pricey. More importantly, disdaining 5 to 15 percent of your workforce (the estimated percentage of the workforce population who are gay, lesbian or bisexual) means lagging behind the competition in the ability to recruit and retain top talent. But in reality, the legal protections prohibiting discrimination against employee's sexual orientation is often limited and what should be the rational business choice isn't always made.

In an article published in The Encyclopedia of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Rice Business professor Michelle "Mikki" Hebl explores the gamut of workplace challenges for gay, lesbian and bisexual workers. Misconceptions about these employees, she found, are still widespread. First of all, employers and coworkers who stigmatize homosexual or bisexual employees often misunderstand their orientation as a choice. The subsequent treatment based on this misinformation can be viciously destructive.

A common misperception is that sexual orientation can be easily concealed. To the contrary, many gay, lesbian or bisexual workers are actually outed by coworkers, Hebl notes. Because of this possibility, gay, lesbian and bisexual employees often spend an inordinate amount of their work time and energy simply managing their coworkers' response to their sexual orientation.

And while some people characterize sexual orientation as just a political issue, those who are gay, lesbian and bisexual employed in a toxic workplace are often not seen simply as undesirables. They can be considered actual threats, their sexual orientation capable of somehow altering the identities of fellow workers. In some cases, associations with HIV and AIDS can lead to gay, lesbian and bisexual workers being treated as physical risks.

Because of these obstacles, many workers are forced into painful choices at work. Do I put my partner's photo on my desk? Do I mention my weekend plans?

To reduce this burden on productive workers, Hebl writes, businesses should codify their formal rules about managing harassment. Informally, companies need to create a culture in which people of different sexual orientations are supported rather than punished for their sexual orientation.

But companies should know this road won't always be easy. Some workers will balk at a more diverse environment. The existence of clear policies, moreover, doesn't guarantee that subtle forms of discrimination won't take place. But the consequences of not establishing policies are considerable, including litigation and high turnover rates.

In the best of all worlds, the burden of change should not be on the gay, lesbian and bisexual workers themselves. But it's not a perfect world, so Hebl also proposes strategies to help employees maximize workplace acceptance.

These days, evidence suggests that in some cases, disclosing one's sexual orientation has benefits. Especially in supportive organizations, it often makes sense for people to reveal their sexual orientation after a period of time and with the support of other employees.

At the same time, Hebl notes, employees may be likely to bully gay, lesbian and bisexual employees whose orientation is the only thing that's is known about them. Thus, gay, lesbian and bisexual workers face a challenge well-known to other minority employees: delivering exceptional work and displaying exceptional character in order to attempt to allay discrimination.

From an institutional perspective, employers can support their individual gay, lesbian and bisexual employees in myriad ways. Companies can create a welcoming culture by offering same-sex partner benefits. Anti-discrimination policies, frequently voiced, send a message of safety to gay, lesbian and bisexual employees. Such measures require both awareness and real commitment, but the extra efforts pay off well beyond the day-to-day business of hiring and retention. They also encourage open-mindedness, creativity and commitment — and in the end, a more competitive work product.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom in 2018. It's based on research by Michelle "Mikki" Hebl, Eden B. King, and Charles L. Law. Hebl is the Martha and Henry Malcolm Lovett Chair of Psychology at Rice University and a professor of management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Customer satisfaction directly influences a company's sales, margins, and earnings, and companies that track and measure customer satisfaction have a leg up on competition. Getty Images

Tracking customer satisfaction is essential to business success, Rice University research finds

Houston voices

Back when people flew nonchalantly for business, an unabashed fan of Great Reputation Airline took a flight where almost everything went wrong. First there was a weather delay. Then there was a mechanical issue. The crew was surly, the pretzels stale. Finally, after landing, when she finally made it to baggage claim, her suitcase was MIA.

But instead of complaining on social media, Great Reputation's passenger wrote off the problems to a rare bad day for the airline – which showered her with drink coupons and later delivered her luggage to her hotel.

GRA's response exemplifies customer satisfaction principles outlined in a paper by Rice Business professor Vikas Mittal and former Rice Business doctoral student Carly Frennea. Summarizing the major research about customer satisfaction, the coauthors codified their findings into a checklist for managers.

While most people understand the general concept of customer satisfaction, in business it's a specific term summarizing a consumer's post-use evaluation of the extent to which a product or service met their expectations. Satisfied customers are more likely to buy again, buy more, recommend a business to others and cost less to serve in the future. A satisfied customer doesn't just cut customer-acquisition costs. She can also help a business attract the right customers through online recommendations.

But the most compelling reason to chase customer satisfaction, say Mittal and Frennea, comes from the University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index, which tracks customer satisfaction ratings of public companies. Decades of studies based on this data show that customer satisfaction and financial performance go hand-in-hand. While the strength of this association can vary, the link is indisputable. "Nowhere else in marketing has the impact of a customer-based metric on a firm's financial performance been so clearly and consistently established," Mittal and Frennea write.

To help make that satisfaction/revenue link a felicitous one, the researchers recommend the five kinds of data managers should collect.

  • Overall customer satisfaction: A summary evaluation of an overall experience.
  • Behavioral intentions: "Loyalty metrics" that measure the likelihood of buying again, recommending to others and intent to complain.
  • Attribute-level perceptions: Evaluating specific product or service features. For a doctor, this may include time spent waiting in the office, quality of care and explanation of diagnosis. For an oilfield services company, this may include product quality, safety, ongoing service and support, billing and pricing.
  • Contextual information: Comparisons to earlier experiences with a firm and against those with competitors.
  • Customer background variables: Includes gender, age and use of competitors' products and services.

Once these data are collected, the researchers say, managers should use statistical analysis that includes all relevant variables (a method known as multiple regression). This allows companies to figure out which variables have the largest association with overall satisfaction, and which have none. For example, a multiple regression might show that the bad effect of dashing customer expectations is stronger than the good effect of exceeding those expectations. The analysis may also reveal that this effect is stronger for ongoing service and support, say, than for pricing and billing. Conclusion: The company should fix problems with ongoing service and support before tinkering with its pricing and billing strategy.

Companies should also share such customer satisfaction insights with employees and incentivize them to make customer satisfaction a top priority, the researchers write.

To achieve this, executives need to see customer satisfaction as a strategic tool, not just a "good-to-have" afterthought. For this:

  • Treat customer satisfaction as a strategic investment and integrate it into the strategic planning process.
  • Don't skimp on the science. Use the most advanced multiple regression models, and now machine-learning technologies, to distinguish the important from the unimportant, and prioritize the important.
  • Using statistical science, link customer-loyalty patterns to actual behaviors such as repurchasing and repeat sales.
  • Remember that your front-line employees are vital and motivate them by linking their performance to the right customer satisfaction metrics.
  • Don't just maximize customer satisfaction. Balance decreasing and increasing returns on satisfaction initiatives. For this, don't rely on "voice-of-customer" based on casual interviews and discussions. Use rigorously designed customer studies that can be statistically linked to financial results.
  • Share! Summarize satisfaction findings in understandable terms and train employees to act on them. Smart companies use this approach to derive their customer-value proposition and focus the company's strategy.

The formula, after all, is a simple one. If customers are a primary source of your company's cash flow, the first variable in your strategy needs to be making them happy.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. It's based on research from Vikas Mittal, the J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University, and Carly Frennea, now an executive at Nike, who received her M.B.A. and Ph.D. at Jones Graduate School of Business.

The 20th annual Rice Business Plan Competition took place virtually from June 17 to 19 and awarded over $1.2 million in investment and cash prizes. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University student startup competition names 2020 winners and awards over $1.2M in prizes

big money

For the 20th year, the Rice Business Plan Competition has awarded prizes and investments to student-led startups from around the ward. While this year's competition was postponed and virtually held, the show went on with 42 startups pitching virtually June 17 to 19.

After whittling down the 42 startups to seven finalists, the RBPC judges named the winners. And, this year, all seven finalists walked away with a monetary prize. Here's how the finalists cleaned up.

  • Aurign, which provides publishing services for recording artists and record labels, from Georgia State University, won first place and the $350,000 grand prize from GOOSE Capital. Aurign also won RG Advisory Partners' prize of $25,000, bringing the company's total to $375,000 won.
  • Coming in second place with a $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce) was Dartmouth College's nanopathdx, which is creating diagnostic tools for chronic and infectious diseases. Nanopathdx won two other monetary prizes — the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from Pearland Economic Development and Ncourage's $25,000 award focused on female entrepreneurs — for a total of $150,000 won. The company also won the Palo Alto Software Live Plan award and an award from SheSpace.
  • Harvard University's Fractal — a cloud computing tech company that enables powerful remote work tools — won third place and a $50,000 investment from Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce. The company also won an $100,000 investment from the Houston Angel Network, bringing their total prize to $150,000.
  • In fourth place was RefresherBoxx from RWTH Aachen University in Germany. The company has created disinfecting devices for clothing and recently pivoted to create a COVID-19 application. The startup won a $5,000 prize sponsored by Norton Rose Fulbright for placing in the finals, but also walked away with a $100,000 investment from TiE Houston Angels, bringing the startup's total prize money to $105,000.
  • The University of Chicago's Beltech, which has created a safer, longer lasting battery, won fifth place and a $5,000 award sponsored by EY. The company also won an $100,000 investment from the Houston Angel Network, bringing the total amount won to to $105,000.
  • Cardiosense from Northwestern University, which has created a wearable heart monitor device, took sixth place in the competition and won a $5,000 award sponsored by Chevron Technology Ventures. Cardiosense also won two other monetary prizes — TMC Innovation's $100K TMC Healthcare Innovation investment and NASA's $25,000 Human Health and Performance Award — bringing the total amount won to $130,000. The company also won OFW Law's prize.
  • Relavo, a safer home dialysis treatment company from Johns Hopkins University, came in seventh place and won a $5,000 prize sponsored by Shell Ventures. Relavo also won three other monetary prizes — the $25,000 Pediatric Device Prize from the Southwest National Pediatric Device Consortium, Ncourage's $25,000 award focused on female entrepreneurs, and Polsinelli's $15,000 technology prize — bringing the startup's total prize money to $70,000.
Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary prizes. Here's a list of those.
  • BIOMILQ, a female-founded startup out of Duke University that can cultivate breast milk outside of the body, won The Artemis Fund's $100,000 prize.
  • The University of Maryland's Algen Air — a natural air purifier that uses algae to filter air — won NASA's $25,000 Space Exploration Award.
  • SlumberFlow — a sleep apnea treatment device from the University of Michigan — won the the $25,000 Pediatric Device Prize from the Southwest National Pediatric Device Consortium.
  • Rice University's own EVA, which streamlines vascular access for medical professionals, won the Texas Business Hall of Fame's $25,000 prize.
  • Contraire — a predictive analysis control system for aeration process within municipal wastewater treatment plants — from Oklahoma State University won Polsinelli's $15,000 Energy Innovation prize.
While not ready to name investment recipients at the virtual event, the Owl Investment Group announced they will be inviting some companies to pitch to them directly.
Additional non-monetary prizes included:
  • Capital Factory's Golden Ticket prize to EVA from Rice University, NanoCare from Texas State University, and SeebeckCell Technologies from the University of Texas at Arlington.
  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch winners included: KnoNap from Georgetown University (first place), Steeroflex from the University of California San Diego (second place), Encapsulate from the University of Connecticut (third place), RefresherBoxx (fourth place), and NanoCare from Texas State University (fifth place).
The virtual event wrapped up with the announcement of the 21st annual RBPC, which is set for April 8 to 10 next year.
Can corporations be compassionate? Rice University researchers are figuring that out. Pexels

Rice University research looks into corporate responsibility for compassion

Houston voices

Since the early 2000s, the business of doing business has changed its looks markedly. As corporations gain power and reach, many in the public are subjecting them to increasingly insistent questions about their impact on the lives of workers, the environment and society at large.

At the same time, academics have focused more attention on compassion in management and business organizations. Today, considerable research parses the way corporate conduct affects employees, laid-off workers and the well-being of society as a whole. A considerable segment of this academic literature advocates for what once seemed like an oxymoron: compassion in corporate management.

Most of the recent research on compassion focuses on individuals and the group. Most management research, meanwhile, centers on economic performance and efficiency. In an editorial for Journal of Management, though, Rice Business Mary Gibbs Jones Professor Emeritus of Management Jennifer George argues that compassion research can actually be a jumping-off point for focus on social problems, well-being and identifying the conditions under which organizations do the least harm.

But what is compassion in business, exactly? According to George, it's the practice of setting up organizations so that they respond to the vulnerable groups in their orbit. To do this, George says, companies should reconsider the concept of "American Corporate Capitalism (ACC)," which operates when corporations, workers and consumers pursue self-interest. ACC follows the laws of supply and demand, and is founded on the bedrock principles of respect for private property, an emphasis on economic growth and using profits as the measuring stick for making business decision.

Make no mistake, George adds: "ACC is an ideology." A host of institutions provide the underpinnings that allow ACC to flourish, among them the legal system, governmental agencies, stock markets, media and advertising and trade organizations.

But, notes George, the rewards from American Corporate Capitalism are narrowing sharply. ACC, she contends, now concentrates benefits upon fewer and fewer people. One article she cites suggests that outsized CEO salaries and compensation, coupled with large income inequality within a company, may result in organizations that do harm to their workers.

In fact, "the tenets of ACC seem to downplay the importance of compassionate organizing," says George. Harm done by corporations, such as laying off employees, may occur unintentionally, but those decisions still cause suffering. ACC, she says, "has the potential to create conditions under which compassion is much less likely to occur."

As a result, it's crucial to closely examine the tensions and contradictions between ACC and compassion. A focus on compassion would "identify the conditions under which organizations inflict the least harm and alleviate the most suffering," George writes.

She proposes a wide-ranging agenda to achieve this. First, researchers should look at organizational decision-making to track the influence of ACC values and whether criteria such as dominance or hierarchy override harmony and egalitarianism. Identifying the factors that spur organizations to favor only shareholders and customers over employees and neighboring communities could offer insights for management. Other research, George suggests, ought to examine a range of companies operating in the same sector, tracing which cause more damage and which are more successful at reducing suffering.

Finally, George says, academics should develop case studies of organizations that successfully pursue policies such as employing the disabled – policies designed to promote the well-being of vulnerable groups inside and outside the company.

Because corporations wield such vast influence, the harm they do can reach wide swaths of the population. It's time, George writes, for researchers to examine the disconnects between prevailing corporate culture and compassion. Effectively done, she says, such research could vault over the ivory battlements into the heart of everyday life.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom in 2019.

Based on research from Jennifer M. George, the Mary Gibbs Jones Professor Emeritus of Management in Organizational Behavior at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.
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Houston entrepreneur plans to revolutionize and digitize the energy industry

Q&A

A Houston energy tech company announced a new artificial intelligence platform that aims to digitize the oil and gas sector to provide the best efficiency and return on investment at every stage of the supply chain cycle — from drilling and production to completion.

Enovate Upstream's exponential growth, says Camilo Mejia, CEO and founder of the company, has already led to two new strategic partnerships in the works with European and Latin American companies.

"We see a better future in the oil and gas industry," Mejia shares in an interview with InnovationMap. "Our team worked in various roles in O&G, and we don't think the industry will end up as some people may think. The future will be different and digitized, we are just here to facilitate that transition to give back to the industry that gave us a lot."

The company's proprietary cloud-based ADA AI digital ecosystem is challenging the assumptions of the industry by using new technology powered artificial intelligence to provide historical data with AI to give real-time production forecasting. Thanks to the cloud, users can access the information anywhere in the world.

The new platform combines three models — digital drilling, digital completions, and digital production — that provide precise data that can be customized to the client's needs, integrating into an existing platform easily for a real-time view of their return on investment and carbon emission output.

Mejia shares more about his company's growth and what goals Enovate Upstream is setting to continue the course of digitization in the oil and gas industry in the Q&A with InnovationMap.

InnovationMap: What inspired Enovate Upstream’s focus on artificial intelligence technology for the upstream value chain?

Camilo Mejia: For the past five or six years, there's been talk of digitalization, and the value of data. The next level is not the value of the data, it's about the automation, how you can improve operations, and how you can help customers to make better decisions. Every single technology that we are developing here is about the return of investment.

Our AI concept is about the physics behind the data. We are accelerating digital adoption by properly showing the tangible value of the technology by speaking the same language and showing the value from the oil and gas perspective, which was one of the challenges other AI technology faced to break into the industry before. Our artificial intelligence component upgrades this technology to optimize the industry while integrating it with this digital ecosystem all in one place. The digital ecosystem we're building covers the entire value chain.

One of the challenges the industry faces is around capital allocation — how we can help customers to properly allocate capital into projects, which is a fundamental way we forecast new projects. Another challenge is the size of the organization that ranges from corporations to small businesses. They have many opportunities to improve cost but that varies across companies.

We are overcoming that challenge in order to develop a technology that can show the inefficiencies between the sizes. The third challenge is the adoption of digital technology. There are two different ways of deploying artificial intelligence. One is data-driven analysis, data-driven models, or data trading — this is the foundation.

IM: What fundamental changes do you think your cloud-based ADA technology can provide across every stage of the value chain?

CM: The biggest change we have in the platform is revising the workflow based on the production size. We use the data the customers already have, to develop a model that changes the way we forecast production in the industry. Before you deploy the capital and execute the project, you are going to have a better idea of the maximum potential profitability, so you can make better decisions at any stage from that point.

One of the inspirations for this was Tesla. The automotive industry was failing to provide a self-driving vehicle because it was using mathematical approaches, but Tesla overcame that challenge using data of millions of drivers to drive and park the cars efficiently, optimizing the process.

We are doing exactly the same, which is applying mathematical equations only for drilling forecasts, production forecasts, and using the data from the wells to see how the projects are behaving. We also integrate the modules so every single module is communicating with each other at every stage to correlate back to a production forecast to set your targets or operation based on that expected return of investment.

Our concept is about the return of investment, in order to develop the ROI concept, you got to plan the events right and the varying size production, that becomes the second component. The third component is about optimization of operations, which is about automation to improve operations and therefore decision-making. We are developing technology that has a very modern interface to automate operations in a more intuitive way so customers can be independent in the process and make the best decisions.

IM: At the moment, there is a need for virtual connections. How does your technology allow certain hands-on tasks to be handled remotely?

CM: In many ways, we have a big project in the Gulf of Mexico. We place technologies that we are using in today's market and deploy a platform that customers can use independently. We can also automate operations to the cloud by just deploying, trimming the data out of the field straight to the cloud so that people in the field can actually use the AI component to optimize operations. We don't require face to face interaction using the cloud environment.

Since the coronavirus these digital components have been on demand, we have grown about 500 percent from the end of Q1 and into the middle of Q2. We are experiencing an acceleration in the adoption of digital technology, but the ability to deploy the technology through the cloud has been instrumental in gaining more traction in the market. As a matter of fact, just as an indicator, we have been hiring people since the start of the coronavirus.

IM: Enovate Upstream started a year ago since then you’ve experienced exponential growth. What are a couple of goals that the company will achieve by the end of the year?

CM: Our strategy is focused on the next level for the company, which is securing funding round with investors in London. We are also aiming to facilitate the deployment of our technology globally. We are focusing on the United States and Latin America, but we hope to expand our funding round to Europe and the Middle East.

Our other goal lies with our partnerships, we are working through a distribution channel, through larger service companies that are facilitating the commercialization of the technology. The focus is on enabling these companies to properly support the customers by doing more technology integration and increasing the value creation.

The next goal is obviously to sustain the company, even though we have been growing, there is a lot of uncertainty in the market, and we are focusing on building the culture of the company, which is challenging in a virtual space.

IM: How has Enovate Upstream navigated an unstable market amid your rapid growth?

CM: That's a good question. I think the lesson is that you can always end up in a different direction. Coronavirus is having a big impact on many businesses, often negatively, but for us, it was instrumental to realize the full potential of the technology we were developing.

We saw that the activity was going from operations to the financial sector with companies selling assets to sustain their business. There were a lot of customers trying to decide what kind of wells they need to continue producing, so that was a market that we didn't capture before.

We grew the technology in that direction by starting a second company called Energy Partners. We created a joint venture with some producers in South Texas to make better decisions in asset acquisition. It was instrumental for us to realize the full potential on the finance side, as opposed to operations where the initial focus was.

We have assets in South Texas now and from a technology standpoint, it's the ideal way to test our analytic technology. We use our technology to properly evaluate the return of investment to make decisions about acquiring assets to optimize the operations and increase production. We have the opportunity to prove the technology with our investments, so we can actually build trust with customers. We are 100 percent sure that the technology works the way we say it works.

IM: There’s a huge emphasis on sustainability in the energy industry. How does your technology reduce carbon emissions?

CM: There are two kinds of components here. The first one is about optimizing operations — personnel transportation at the field level. We have studied calculations of what carbon dioxide output looks like to reduce it in terms of optimizing transportation, technology, and contributing to innovative ideas. We are currently initiating a feasibility study on a carbon capture technology, and working with customers to provide value in the technology in various aspects.

IM: I see several partnerships have already begun. Are you looking for more and what role do these partnerships play for your business?

CM: We have two partnerships about to close. One is with Telefonica, a Spanish telecommunications company, and another with Pluspetrol, an Argentinian production company. Telefonica provides cybersecurity services to oil and gas companies, we actually work with them to deploy our technology in Latin America and Europe. They provide the cloud and cybersecurity component while we provide the AI component.

In terms of our technology development, Pluspetrol has been one of our partners from the very beginning and we continue developing more technologies with this particular customer. They provide us with access to real data and real operational conditions that facilitate technological innovation.

University of Houston designs device that instantly kills COVID-19

ZAPPING COVID-19

While the world rushes to find a COVID-19 vaccine, scientists from the University of Houston have found a way to trap and kill the virus — instantly.

The team has designed a "catch and kill" air filter that can nullify the virus responsible for COVID-19. Researchers reported that tests at the Galveston National Laboratory found 99.8 percent of the novel SARS-CoV-2 — which causes COVID-19 — was killed in a single pass through the filter.

Zhifeng Ren, director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, collaborated with Monzer Hourani, CEO of Medistar, a Houston-based medical real estate development firm, plus other researchers to design the filter, which is described in a paper published in Materials Today Physics.

Researchers were aware the virus can remain in the air for about three hours, which required a filter that could quickly remove it. The added pressure of businesses reopening created an urgency in controlling the spread of the virus in air conditioned spaces, according to UH.

Meanwhile, to scorch the virus — which can't survive above around 158 degrees Fahrenheit — researchers instilled a heated filter. By blasting the temperature to around 392 F, they were able to kill the virus almost instantly.

The filter also killed 99.9 percent of the anthrax spores, according to researchers.

A prototype was built by a local workshop and first tested at Ren's lab for the relationship between voltage/current and temperature; it then went to the Galveston lab to be tested for its ability to kill the virus. Ren says it satisfies the requirements for conventional heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

"This filter could be useful in airports and in airplanes, in office buildings, schools and cruise ships to stop the spread of COVID-19," said Ren, MD Anderson Chair Professor of Physics at UH and co-corresponding author for the paper, in a statement. "Its ability to help control the spread of the virus could be very useful for society."

Medistar executives are also proposing a desk-top model, capable of purifying the air in an office worker's immediate surroundings, Ren added.

Developers have called for a phased roll-out of the device, with a priority on "high-priority venues, where essential workers are at elevated risk of exposure — particularly schools, hospitals and health care facilities, as well as public transit environs such as airplanes."

The hope, developers add, is that the filter will protect frontline workers in essential industries and allow nonessential workers to return to public work spaces.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Houston's innovation ecosystem continues to grow. Last week, a group of startup mentors formed a new program that's a masterclass for aspiring entrepreneurs. Plus, a Houston innovator is writing the book on inclusion while another has a new partnership with a medical device company.

Steve Jennis, co-founder of Founder's Compass

Steve Jennis, along with three other Houston entrepreneurs, have teamed up to create a program based on each of their expertise that provides a launch pad for aspiring startup founders. Photo courtesy of Steve Jennis

Steve Jennis, a founder and mentor within the Houston innovation ecosystem, was thinking about opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs. While there are several accelerators within the ecosystem, they tend to be months-long programs that might require equity.

"A few months ago it struck me that maybe there was a gap in the market between the aspiring entrepreneur," says Jennis, "and the accelerator or incubator program."

Jennis tapped a few of his fellow founder-mentors to create Founder's Compass, an online masterclass for people who have a business idea but don't know what to do next. Read more about the new program.

Denise Hamilton, founder and CEO of WatchHerWork

Denise Hamilton is publishing a book that helps guide Black Lives Matter allies to make changes that will help them change the world. Photo courtesy of WatchHerWork

After developing a long career as a corporate executive, Denise Hamilton was fielding tons of requests to lunch or coffee to "pick her brain." While she loved helping to mentor young businesswomen, it was starting to become exhausting. "Frankly, there weren't enough hours in the day," she says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

So, five years ago, she turned the cameras on and started a library of advice from female executives like herself and created WatchHerWork. The company evolved to more, and now she's focused on diversity and inclusion consulting and leadership — and, amid COVID-19 and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, she's particularly busy now. Stream the episode and read more.

Chris DuPont, CEO of Galen Data

Houston-based Galen Data, led by Chris Dupont, is collaborating with an Austin health device company on a cloud-based platform that monitors vital signs. Photo via galendata.com

Houston-based Galen Data Inc., which has developed a cloud platform for medical devices, and Austin-based Advanced TeleSensors Inc., the creator of the Cardi/o touchless monitor. Together, the two health tech companies are collaborating to take ATS's device and adding Galen Data's cloud technology.

Chris DuPont, co-founder and CEO, has led the company to meet compliance standards set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA), cybersecurity organizations, and others.

"We knew that our platform would be a great fit for Cardi/o," Chris DuPont, CEO of Galen Data, says. "Speed was critical, accentuated by the COVID-19 crisis. We were well positioned to address ATS' needs, and help those at-risk in the process." Read more about the innovative Texas partnership.