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.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Building Houston

 
 

Chevron has doubled down on its commitment to The Cannon in West Houston, a new study finds Houston a top city for STEM, a Houston startup takes home a win from a digital pitch competition, and more. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and it's likely some might have fallen through the cracks.

For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, a startup snags a win at a pitch competition, Chevron announces a new makerspace, a software company makes an acquisition, and more.

Houston named a best city for STEM

Image via SmartAsset

For the fifth year, personal finance website, SmartAsset, analyzed data for the 35 cities in the county with the largest STEM workforces. The study looked at the racial diversity index as well as the gender diversity index. The data for both metrics comes from the Census Bureau's 2019 1-year American Community Survey.

Houston ranked No. 7 on the list, and according to the report, the total number of STEM workers in Houston, Texas exceeds 79,500. Around 70 percent of the total STEM workers there are men, and more than 30 percent are women. Additionally, Houston has the third-best race/ethnicity index score in the study with more than 19 percent of STEM workers are Hispanic or Latino, almost 20 percent are Asian, and more than 8 percent are Black.

Texas makes up about a third of the top 10 list with Dallas and Fort Worth coming in at No. 9 and No.10, respectively.

Chevron announces digital makerspace in The Cannon

Photo courtesy of The Cannon

The Cannon and its surrounding Founders District in West Houston has announced the addition of Chevron's digital makerspace, which will be dedicated to startup partnerships and community organizations.

"Chevron's support for The Founders District and The Cannon expands our commitment to Houston's growing innovation ecosystem," says Barbara Burger, Chevron vice president, Innovation and president of Chevron Technology Ventures, in a news release. "We look forward to utilizing this new space to collaborate with other Chevron organizations, such as our Wells group, as we work to deliver more reliable, affordable, ever-cleaner energy."

While Chevron has been a key partner for The Cannon since 2018 and even had branded office space within the hub, this new space represents a new lease agreement for a significantly larger footprint.

"We are thrilled to partner with Chevron Technology Ventures in developing this exciting makerspace at The Founders District," says Mark Toon, CEO of Puma Development, the company developing The Founders District and founder of Work America Capital, a venture capital firm dedicated to investing in Houston-based businesses. "CTV is the paradigm for meaningful innovation in Houston. By investing in emerging technologies in energy, they are paving the way for innovation to remain at the heart of Houston's most prominent industry."

Lazarus 3D wins The Ion's pitch competition

Photo via Laz3d.com

After months of pitching events, The Ion's Startup Demo Day for 2020 concluded on November 18 with four final pitches from Lazarus 3D, Skylark Wireless, HelloWoofy, and Swoovy.

After each of the four founders presented at the virtual event, which was powered by Dell Technologies, Lazarus 3D, a startup that produces 3D-printed organs and tissues for surgical practice, took home the win and the cash prize.

"I'm so grateful to Ion Houston — I've met so many people and made so many connections," says Smriti Zaneveld, co-founder and president. "All of the companies that present at these events are doing something so meaningful."

Applications are now open for the next series. Apply online by clicking here.

Houston tech co. acquires New Zealand business

Photo via Onit.com

Houston-based Onit Inc., a legal software provider, announced that the company has acquired McCarthyFinch and its artificial intelligence platform.

"Our vision is to build AI into our workflow platform and every product across the Onit and SimpleLegal product portfolios," says Eric M. Elfman, Onit CEO and co-founder, in a news release. "AI will have an active role in everything from enterprise legal management to legal spend management and contract lifecycle management, resulting in continuous efficiencies and cost savings for corporate legal departments.

"Historically, legal departments have been thought of as black boxes where requests go in and information, decisions or contracts come out with no real transparency," Elfman continues. "AI has the potential to enhance transparency and contribute to stronger enterprise-wide business collaboration in a way that conserves a lawyer's valuable time."

The newly acquired software has the capacity to accelerate contract processing by up to 70 percent and increase productivity by over 50 percent. With the acquisition, Onit is enhancing its new artificial intelligence platform Precedent and the company's first release on the platform will be ReviewAI.

New sustainability-focused app launches at Climathon

Photo courtesy of Footprint

Houston-based Footprint App Inc. launched its latest carbon footprint education and action software during the Houston Climathon that was hosted earlier this month by Impact Hub Houston.

By tracking the user's sustainable habits, the student-focused tool allows users to compete to reduce their environmental impact. Footprint has launched in over 50 classrooms across the nation and is also being used by several corporations.

"With the state of Texas recently receiving an 'F' in climate education from the National Science Foundation, we see Footprint as the perfect tool for K-12 and beyond to help Texas students engage with climate science in a fun, competitive way," says Dakota Stormer, Footprint App, Inc. CEO and co-founder, in a news release.

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