These five Houston startups are linking up industries and blockchain technology. Getty Images

Blockchain has really started to come into its own as more and more companies are applying the technology across industries — from oil and gas analytics and fundraising to even social media marketing.

Five Houston companies have made their mark on these different industries by incorporating this burgeoning technology.

Data Gumbo

Andrew Bruce had the idea for Data Gumbo when he realized how difficult it was to share data in upstream oil and gas. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

As the blockchain-as-a-service company's name suggests, Houston-based Data Gumbo is all about the data.

"The whole idea is to build out the blockchain network, and provide a network that they can subscribe to and start doing business on that network," Andrew Bruce, CEO of Data Gumbo, says. "It's a service, so there's a subscription fee. It gives them access to the savings they already have available within their organizations."

The company, which focuses on providing midstream and upstream oil and gas companies with timely decision-making information, was launched in 2016 and faced a big learning curve in the industry.

"We got a lot of questions and concerns about what blockchain is, why they need it, and whether or not they can trust it," Bruce says. "We were introducing a completely new concept to a conservative industry."

The industry is coming around as Data Gumbo grows its network and proves results.

Social Chains

Big companies are using your data to make a profit — but what if you got a kickback of that cash? That's what Houston-based Social Chains is trying to do. Pexels

When it comes to social media marketing, Houston-based Social Chains is putting the power back into the hands of users. Big social media companies, like Facebook, sell data about you to marketers and advertisers, and there's nothing you can do about it. Social Chains is a new platform where users own their own data and receive a cut of the payment.

"On our platform, the user is a stakeholder. Our platform distributes 50 percent of the profits to the users," Srini Katta, founder and CEO of the company, says.

Social Chains already has 5,000 users and, Katta says, that's with little to no marketing efforts. Currently, he's been working out a few kinks before launching into marketing for the platform, though he expects to do that beginning next month. Most of Social Chain's current users are high school to college students, so that will be the primary demographic for the marketing strategy.

Topl

Houston-based Topl can track almost anything using its blockchain technology. Courtesy of Topl

Blockchain, when applied to consumer products, can be used to complete the full picture of that product. A chocolate bar, for instance, can be traced from cacao farm to grocery store. Not only does the connected information keep each party accountable when it comes to prices, it tells a story.

"We are a generation that wants a story," says Kim Raath, CFO of Topl. "We want an origin, and don't want to be fooled. And, because you might be able to reduce the cost by having this transparency, you might be able to bring down the cost on both sides."

Topl, a Houston-based startup that was created by a few Rice University graduate and doctorate students, uses blockchain to connect the dots. One of the ways Topl's technology is being used is to track money. If an investor gives to a fund, and the fund gives to a startup, there's nothing to connect that first investor to the startup's success or to measure its impact. This is a tool used by investors or donors alike. For instance, if you were to create a scholarship, you can use Topl to track what student received that money and if they are meeting the required metrics for success.

Topl's 2019 focus is on growing its network and what it's able to provide its clients, like an app factory for companies trying to track specific things.

Iownit.us

The stock market has been using tech for years — why shouldn't the private sector have the same convenience? Getty Images

To Rashad Kurbanov, the private investment world was extremely backwards. While the stock market had been digitizing investment for years, private funds had a drawn out process of emails and meetings before moves were made. He thought introducing technology into the process could help simplify the investing for both sides of the equation.

"What we do, and where technology helps us, is we can take the entire process of receiving interest from investors, signing the transactions, issuing the subscription agreements, and processing the payments and put that all online," says Kurbanov, CEO and co-founder of Houston-based iownit.us.

The company is still seeking regulatory approval, but once that happens, the technology and platform will be ready to launch. The platform is a digital site that connects investors to companies seeking money. The investors can review the companies and contribute all online while being encrypted and protected by blockchain.

Houston Blockchain Alliance

blockchain

Here are some of the most common, misunderstood aspects about blockchain technology. Getty Images

The Houston Blockchain Alliance is a newly formed networking group for anyone working within or interested in the blockchain industry. Mahesh Sashital, co-founder of Smarterum, a blockchain news site, founded the organization late last year after realizing Houston was in need of an informative networking group.

"I thought that I'd start the Houston Blockchain Alliance so that someone like me, who's already in the industry, can find other people working in the industry," he says. "And for other people interested in blockchain can learn more and get up to speed with the technology."

The alliance aims to host regular events — its launch event is Feb. 20 — and educate people on blockchain. Click here to read Sashital's guest column about common blockchain misunderstandings.


Tech startups are popping up across industries from real estate to oil and gas, and these three founders are among the leaders in technology. Courtesy images

3 Houston tech innovators to know this week

Who's who

Often, technology and innovation are mistaken for each other. While not mutually exclusive, both tech and innovation work well together in Houston across all industries — from oil and gas to real estate and social media. These three founders engaged technology for their individual startups.

Srini Katta, founder and CEO of Social Chains

Courtesy of Social Chains

As a social media user, your data is already out there and being used for marketing purposes. But, rather than the Facebooks or Googles of the world making a profit, Srini Katta wanted to create a platform where users made a profit off their own data.

"On our platform, the user is a stakeholder. Our platform distributes 50 percent of the profits to the users," he says.

Social Chains already has 5,000 users and, Katta says, that's with little to no marketing efforts, which Katta is about to launch.

Martin Kay, founder and CEO of Entera Technology

Courtesy of Entera

Martin Kay, who splits his time between Houston and the Bay Area for his startup Entera Technologies, knew there had to be a better way for people searching for a home to buy. He drew a comparison between homebuyers and Netflix viewers to create Entera's software.

"We're a little bit like Netflix," he says. "They go out and get content from everyone, and they begin to watch your behavior. So, Netflix has 2,000 profiles and you probably fit five or six of those. We have almost 100 profiles and what we do is say, we're going to understand what you want, watch your behavior and instead of giving you 40,000 properties on a big map, we actually match you based on your preferences, to the five or six houses that are best for you."

Houston-based Entera has grown as the platform loads more and more data for its users to engage with.

Luther Birdzell, CEO and founder of OAG Analytics

Courtesy of OAG Analytics

Luther Birdzell always knew he wanted to run his own company, but the software and analytics professional worked in various industries before realizing that oil and gas had a huge opportunity for savings using analytics. He founded OAG Analytics in 2013 to help provide a solution for these companies.

"When I founded OAG Analytics, our mission then — and still is today — was to build a platform for the upstream oil and gas industry that enables them to manage their data, introduces world-class machine learning in minutes without having to write a single line of code, and allow them to run simulations on the resulting analysis," Birdzell says.

The company has grown to 25 employees and tripled its revenue last year. The team is forecasting another year of high grow for 2019.


Big companies are using your data to make a profit — but what if you got a kickback of that cash? That's what Houston-based Social Chains is trying to do. Pexels

Houston startup aims to flip the script on social media marketing

anti social media

Social media companies are using user data for their own financial gain, but what if users had a cut in the profits? That's the business model for Houston-based Social Chains.

"Social Chains is a social media platform of real people, real privacy, and real rewards," says Srini Katta, founder and CEO of the company. "We're fixing three problems in the social media industry."

The first problem is that user data has market value, but only the Facebook, Google, and other platforms are reaping the rewards, not the user, who's the backbone of the platform. User privacy and a growing number of fake accounts are the other issues Social Chains addresses. Katta says he realized that most importantly, users should own their data

"On our platform, the user is a stakeholder. Our platform distributes 50 percent of the profits to the users," he says.

User privacy is protected and encrypted on this new platform, and users must register with a government-issued identification. Social Chains prevents fake accounts by using facial recognition.

The biggest differentiating factor of this platform is that users make real money, but it's kept track by the site's token system, which uses blockchain technology, and users receive some of the so-called "S tokens" just for signing up. And, businesses only pay for the ads that users engage with. For instance, for a marketing email, businesses will only pay for the emails that were actually opened. It's a win-win situation, as the user receives a kickback whenever they open a marketing email or engage with ads.

Social Chains already has 5,000 users and, Katta says, that's with little to no marketing efforts. Currently, he's been working out a few kinks before launching into marketing for the platform, though he expects to do that beginning next month. Most of Social Chain's current users are high school to college students, so that will be the primary demographic for the marketing strategy.

Katta says he first encountered some of the challenges using social media marketing at one of his former startups when attempting to use Facebook ads to grow the company. He says he saw increased engagement, but not as significant of an increase in sign ups on his company page.

"We looked back to see who are the people clicking on the ads," he says. "We looked at their profiles, and they were not from the United States, even though we had given geographic preferences."

He found out that third party ad management platforms were working with Facebook and click farms all around the world to increase engagement results. Katta starting thinking of a solution for this marketing problem.

"Then, in 2016, with the rise of 'fake news,' we realized this was a bigger problem," he says.

In addition to user growth, Katta hopes to grow his investors, and the company is seeking funds for its seed round in 2019.

"To be honest, we need $100 million to build this out, so we're trying to raise money," Katta says. "Personally, I've put in $3.5 million before I took any money from investors. I have a lot of skin in the game."

Currently, Social Chains has three team members, with a fourth joining soon. Diane Yoo, who is a founding member and director of the Rice Angel Network, leads growth and investor relations for the company. One obstacle for the team has been being spread out from Houston to The Woodlands and even Austin.

"I've lived in New York and San Francisco. I moved to Houston because I wanted a quiet place to raise my family," Katta says. "The biggest challenge for Houston, compared to other cities, is other cities are so dense. Houston is so sprawling. It's really hard to network, and meet potential employees."

One of the crucial connectors for Katta has been Station Houston. The team plans on meeting to work together two days a week at Station. In addition to being a great workspace, the area acts as a good hub for potential partnerships for Social Chains. Startups need marketing, of course.

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5 can't-miss innovation events at CERAWeek featuring Houston speakers

where to be online

While usually hundreds of energy experts, C-level executives, diplomats, members of royal families, and more descend upon Houston for the the annual CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference, this year will be a little different. Canceled last year due to COVID-19, CERAWeek is returning — completely virtually.

The Agora track is back and focused on innovation within the energy sector. The Agora track's events — thought-provoking panels, intimate pods, and corporate-hosted "houses" — can be accessed through a virtual atrium.

Undoubtedly, many of the panels will have Houston representatives considering Houston's dominance in the industry, but here are five innovation-focused events you can't miss during CERAWeek that feature Houstonians.

Monday — New Horizons for Energy & Climate Research

The COVID-19 pandemic has made vivid and real the risks of an uncontrolled virus. Risks posed by climate change are also becoming more palpable every day. At the forefront of understanding these risks, universities are developing solutions by connecting science, engineering, business, and public policy disciplines. Along with industry and governments, universities are critical to developing affordable and sustainable solutions to meet the world's energy needs and achieve net-zero emission goals. Can the dual challenge of more energy and lower emissions be met? What is some of the most promising energy and climate research at universities? Beyond research, what are the roles and responsibilities of universities in the energy transition?

Featuring: Kenneth B. Medlock, III, James A. Baker, III, and Susan G. Baker Fellow In Energy And Resource Economics, Baker Institute and Senior Director, Center For Energy Studies at Rice University

Catch the panel at 1 pm on Monday, March 1. Learn more.

Tuesday — Conversations in Cleantech: Powering the energy transition

With renewables investment outperforming oil and gas investment for the first time ever in the middle of a pandemic, 2020 was a tipping point in the Energy Transition. Low oil prices intensified energy majors' attention on diversification and expansion into mature and emerging clean technologies such as battery storage, low-carbon hydrogen, and carbon removal technologies. Yet, the magnitude of the Energy Transition challenge requires an acceleration of strategic decisions on the technologies needed to make it happen, policy frameworks to promote public-private partnerships, and innovative investment schemes.

Three Cleantech leaders share their challenges, successes, and lessons learned at the forefront of the Energy Transition. What is their vision and strategy to accelerate lowering emissions and confronting climate change? Can companies develop clear strategies for cleantech investments that balance sustainability goals and corporate returns? What is the value of increasing leadership diversity for energy corporations? Can the Energy Transition be truly transformational without an inclusive workforce and a diverse leadership?

Featuring: Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, which is opening a location in Houston this year.

The event takes place at 11:30 am on Tuesday, March 2. Learn more.

Wednesday — Rice Alliance Venture Day at CERAWeek

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship pitch event will showcase 20 technology companies with new solutions for the energy industry. Each presentation will be followed by questions from a panel of industry experts.

Presenting Companies: Acoustic Wells, ALLY ENERGY, Bluefield Technologies, Cemvita Factory, Connectus Global, Damorphe, Ovopod Ltd., DrillDocs, GreenFire Energy, inerG, Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, Nesh, Pythias Analytics, REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, Revterra, ROCSOLE, Senslytics, Subsea Micropiles, Syzygy Plasmonics, Transitional Energy, and Universal Subsea.

The event takes place at 9 am on Wednesday, March 3. Learn more.

Thursday — How Will the Energy Innovation Ecosystem Evolve?

Although the cleantech innovation ecosystem—research institutions, entrepreneurs, financiers, and support institutions—is diverse and productive, converting cleantech discoveries and research breakthroughs into commercially viable, transformative energy systems has proven difficult. With incumbent energy systems economically efficient and deeply entrenched, cleantech innovation faces a fundamental dilemma—the scale economies necessary to compete require a large customer base that does not yet exist. How is our clean energy innovation ecosystem equipped to be transformative? What needs to be strengthened? Is it profitable to focus on individual elements, or should we consider the system holistically, and reframe our expectations?

Featuring: Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president at Chevron Technology Ventures

The event takes place at 7:30 am on Thursday, March 4. Learn more.

Friday — Cities: Managing crises & the future of energy

Houston is the capital of global energy and for the past four decades the home of CERAWeek. Mayor Sylvester Turner will share lessons from the city's experience with the pandemic, discuss leadership strategies during times of crisis, and explore Houston's evolving role in the new map of energy.

The event takes place at 8 am on Friday, March 5. Learn more.

Rice University develops 2 new innovative tools to detect COVID-19

pandemic tech

Rice University is once again spearheading research and solutions in the ongoing battle with COVID-19. The university announced two developing innovations: a "real-time sensor" to detect the virus and a cellphone tool that can detect the disease in less than an hour.

Sensing COVID
Researchers at Rice received funding for up to $1 million to develop the real-time sensor that promises to detect minute amounts of the airborne virus.

Teams at Rice and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston are working to develop a thin film electronic device that senses as few as eight SARS-CoV-2 viruses in 10 minutes of sampling air flowing at 8 liters per minute, per a press release.

Dubbed the Real-Time Amperometric Platform Using Molecular Imprinting for Selective Detection of SARS-CoV-2 (or, RAPID), the project has been funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Rice notes. Further funding will be contingent upon a successful demonstration of the technology.

Attacking with an app
Meanwhile, the university announced that its engineers have developed a plug-in tool that can diagnose COVID-19 in around 55 minutes. The tool utilizes programmed magnetic nanobeads and a tool that plugs into a basic cellphone.

First, a stamp-sized microfluidic chip measures the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein in blood serum from a standard finger prick.

Then, nanobeads bind to SARS-CoV-2 N protein, a biomarker for COVID-19, in the chip and transport it to an electrochemical sensor that detects minute amounts of the biomarker. Paired with a Google Pixel 2 phone and a plug-in tool, researchers quickly secured a positive diagnosis.

This, researchers argue, simplifies sample handling compared to swab-based PCR tests that must be analyzed in a laboratory.

"What's great about this device is that it doesn't require a laboratory," said Rice engineer Peter Lillehoj in a statement. "You can perform the entire test and generate the results at the collection site, health clinic or even a pharmacy. The entire system is easily transportable and easy to use."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.