Featured Innovator

Former NASA astronaut is investing in the future of the oil and gas industry

Tim Kopra spent over 244 days in space, and now he's using his tech background to invest in emerging energy companies. Courtesy of Tim Kopra

When Tim Kopra returned from space in 2009 after he served as flight engineer on NASA's Expedition 20, he was ready to transition into civilian life. The Army vet went to business school, received his MBA in 2013, and started thinking about his next steps here on earth.

That is, until he was called back by NASA to serve as flight engineer then commander of the ISS in Expedition 46/47. He landed in June of 2016 after spending a career total of 244 days in space.

The timing was right this time around for Kopra. A former classmate of his, Ernst Theodor Sack, had worked at a Riverstone Holdings for a decade and had realized the potential for funding smaller, more niche startups. Sack was ready to branch out on his own, and Kopra was looking for his next career opportunity too.

That's how the two partnered up to create Blue Bear Capital, an investment fund that invests in data-driven technology companies in the energy supply chain.

"You can think of it as Silicon Valley tech, IoT, analytics, machine learning, SaaS business models applied to oil and gas, wind, solar, and energy storage," Kopra says.

The energy industry has been known to be slow to adopt new technology, like analytics, machine learning, and the Internet of Things, Kopra says, but Blue Bear's goal is to find the startups creating cutting edge technology and help them gain a footing in the industry.

"In order to adopt new technology, our view is that it has to be able to demonstrate clear value proposition upfront — not something that promises to improve operations down the line. It needs to happen relatively quickly."

Blue Bear capital closed its fund in the fourth quarter of 2018 with a total of eight investments. Kopra spoke with InnovationMap on how he's merged his space career into a tech investment guru.

InnovationMap: What sort of experience do you bring in to your investment responsibilities from your Army and NASA days?

Tim Kopra: On face value, it may sound like an odd match, taking someone with a tech and operational background and putting them in venture, but quite frankly it feels very familiar to me because my career has really been focused on working on complex technology and operations with very small teams. It's not just a theoretical understanding of the technology, but understanding how to use the technology and how it works.

It's something that over time, when you work with different kinds of aircraft or experiments on the Space Station or the space suits we use on space walks or the robotics system we used, you really develop a strong sense of how we as humans are able to work with technology and improve the functions we have in our jobs. That's a valuable aspect I bring to the table.

There's the operational component too. You can have great technology, but if it's not well matched to its job and implementation, it's not going to have the ability to solve the problems it was intended for. Third component is with small teams. I've worked with teams of two to 10 to 30 to several hundred — you recognize the need for people to work more effectively together.

I was on the last couple of astronaut selection committees. Our most recent one was going through 18,300 and select 12. Our job during the last portion of the selection is interviewing the last 50 or so. Those people competing for those spots are rock solid when it comes to their technical background and operational experience. The one thing we were asking ourselves as the interview committee was, "Who'd you want to go camping with?" It's the matter of the kind of people you can spend time with and be effective with. When we look at companies to invest in, we are looking for good small teams like that.

IM: How has Houston's tech ecosystem changed throughout your career?

TK: When we started in January of 2017, we saw one conference every few months that was involved in innovation and new technology and its application in oil and gas. Whereas now, it's pretty much every month that there's a major event about applying new technology in the industry.

IM: So, how has the city been for you as an investor?

TK: Obviously, Houston is the center for traditional energy and oil and gas. One thing that has been notable over our journey is the increased involvement in corporate venture funds. And, then the number of startups — it's a growing number and there's plenty of room for growth when it comes to energy startups. We've definitely seen an improvement in the types of technology provided and the number of startups emerging.

IM: Do you feel like the relationship you have with corporate VCs is competitive or collaborative?

TK: I think that the environment for venture capital in Houston in particular is very collaborative. When it comes to the corporate VCs, we're aligned because often times they are looking for companies farther along and then secondly, we're happy to co-invest with corporate teams. There are plenty of deals to go around, and we think working together we can definitely succeed.

IM: What types of companies are you looking for?

TK: We consider companies that are early revenue companies. We focus on data-driven technology companies, but they need to have recurring commercial revenue, so not just pilots.

IM: What's next for Blue Bear?

TK: We recently closed the fund, and what that means is we need to deploy the capital. We've invested in eight companies and had one exit, which we are excited about.

What we try to do is find the absolute best in class within a sector in which we invest.

IM: What keeps you up at night, as it pertains to your business?

TK: It's a very dynamic world. We have to keep track of macro trends and understand where the market is going. That has everything to do from the price of oil to government incentives to what large companies are investing in. I wouldn't say that it keeps us awake at night, but there's so many facets of the business that can impact what we do — positively and negatively. But we are constantly keeping track of what's going on in the world and what's going on in our sector.

The one thing we are most focused on right now is maintaining deal flow that we've been able to achieve. Going through the thousand or so companies we have over the past couple of years has been an extremely arduous task, but it's necessary for us to be able to understand the market.

We need to be as diligent as we have been over the past couple years. It's a really exciting space to work in, and we just need to maintain that level of excitement.

------

Portions of this interview have been edited.

From oil and gas to space technology, these leaders are pushing forward innovation in Houston. Courtesy photos

One thing this week's movers and shakers in the Houston innovation ecosystem have in common is their intention to disrupt an industry using technology. Here are this week's innovators you need to know in Houston.

Francois Laborie, general manager of Cognite North Americas

Courtesy of Cognite

When it comes to data, most energy companies are squandering valuable information by not properly using their data. Cognite, which has its US headquarters in Texas, has solutions, says general manager of the company, Francois Laborie.

"Standardizing APIs across the oil and gas industry would open the door to a community of developers, which could create custom applications and connect existing market solutions," he writes in a guest column for InnovationMap. "Then more new and exciting applications and services would reach the market faster."

Click here to read Laborie's article on the importance of APIs and data management.

Steven Gonzalez, technology transfer strategist at NASA

Courtesy of NASA

Houston is the Space City — present tense. While the city has a rich history as a major player in aerospace exploration and engineering, Houston is far from done, Steven Gonzales, NASA technology transfer strategist, tells InnovationMap.

We've always been the Space City, but for a while there, it was taken for granted. It's part of our history, but it's nice to see it brought back into the foreground to realize that it's not just history, it's who we are today.

Click here to read our Space City Month feature on Gonzalez in which he explains Houston's future in space and how NASA wants to work with startups.

Christine Galib, program director of The Ion Smart Cities Accelerator

Courtesy of Station Houston

Christine Galib has a new gig in town. The former Rice University and St. Thomas University educator is now the program director of the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator, a program that will find and grow startups with solutions to Houston's biggest problems.

"When we look at The Ion being created as a center for entrepreneurship and innovation in Houston, there's no other city in the world has this type of level of collaboration and transparency of major players in the innovation space coming together to create, not only the physical space, but also the programming and mindset and the environment and the culture to sustain it," she tells InnovationMap.

Click here to read more about Galib and what she's excited to bring to town.