Google in the lime­light, but lo­cal star­tups ad­vance tech

Google al­ways makes for good head­lines. What’s next for the com­pany that has fun­da­men­tally changed the way we learn, work and com­mu­ni­cate?

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - FUELFIX - KATHER­INE BLUNT kather­ine.blunt@chron.com twit­ter.com/kather­ineblunt

In many ways, the surg­ing in­ter­est in en­erg y tech­nolog y is a di­rect re­sult of the oil bust.

This week, it made news in Hous­ton. Oil and gas is squarely on its radar.

The com­pany’s new oil, gas and en­ergy unit — part of its broader Google Cloud di­vi­sion — has part­nered with Hous­ton en­ergy in­vest­ment bank Tu­dor, Pick­er­ing, Holt & Co. as the re­gion’s en­ergy sec­tor un­der­goes its most sig­nif­i­cant trans­for­ma­tion since the shale revo­lu­tion. Slow at first to the dig­i­tal game, oil and gas pro­duc­ers are now adopt­ing new tech­nolo­gies faster than ever.

Google wants in on that. It’s look­ing to sell its cloud com­put­ing and data an­a­lyt­ics ser­vices to both es­tab­lished oil and gas com­pa­nies and star­tups de­vel­op­ing novel ways to make en­ergy pro­duc­tion cleaner and more ef­fi­cient.

The part­ner­ship is yet another in­di­ca­tion that oil and gas com­pa­nies, un­der pres­sure to make im­me­di­ate gains in prof­its and longert­erm in­vest­ments in re­new­ables, are tak­ing emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies more se­ri­ously. It’s also an in­di­ca­tion that Hous­ton, which has had difficulty shak­ing its rep­u­ta­tion as a home base for stodgy in­dus­tries, is more tech-friendly than the rest of the world might rec­og­nize.

Ev­i­dence of that be­gan mount­ing well be­fore Google and other tech gi­ants, in­clud­ing Mi­crosoft and Ama­zon, be­gan court­ing cus­tomers here. The city has a bud­ding net­work of en­ergy tech com­pa­nies op­er­at­ing out­side of that lime­light.

For ex­am­ple, Ag­ile Up­stream, head­quar­tered in Hous­ton, is de­vel­op­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence to read com­plex oil and gas leases and help com­pa­nies bet­ter un­der­stand the nu­ances of those agree­ments. The soft­ware com­pany, which has roughly 40 em­ploy­ees, counts BP, No­ble En­ergy and Anadarko Petroleum Corp. among its cus­tomers.

Cemvita Fac­tory, also based in Hous­ton, is de­vel­op­ing a means of pro­cess­ing of car­bon diox­ide into oxy­gen — es­sen­tially mim­ick­ing the pho­to­syn­the­sis process. The com­pany hopes the tech­nol­ogy could be used to re­move car­bon diox­ide from the at­mos­phere, among other ap­pli­ca­tions.

And Biota, a biotech­nol­ogy startup with of­fices in Cal­i­for­nia and Hous­ton, plans to build out its pres­ence here as it adds to its grow­ing list of oil and gas cus­tomers. The com­pany is de­vel­op­ing tech­nol­ogy to as­sess and im­prove oil field pro­duc­tion by an­a­lyz­ing bac­te­ria that emerge from the well­head.

In many ways, the surg­ing in­ter­est in en­ergy tech­nol­ogy is a di­rect re­sult of the oil bust that dec­i­mated crude prices and forced thou­sands of lay­offs. Pro­duc­ers needed to be­come more ef­fi­cient, and the en­gi­neers, sci­en­tists and ge­ol­o­gists who lost their jobs in some cases chan­neled their skills to build new, cut­ting-edge com­pa­nies.

That dy­namic has sig­nif­i­cant im­pli­ca­tions for Hous­ton, as well as the Sil­i­con Val­ley com­pa­nies who see en­ergy as an emerg­ing fron­tier. It’s no longer a ques­tion of whether oil and gas com­pa­nies want to in­no­vate. It’s a ques­tion of how they’re go­ing to do it.

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