money moves

Here's what corporate venture programs are looking for from startups within the energy industry

At the recent Global Corporate Venture conference, two corporate venture execs peeled back the curtain on what they look for from startups. Getty Images

One of the challenges for Houston energy startups is not knowing what potential big corporate partners want from them. At the recent Global Corporate Venture, two corporate venture execs shared what all they're looking for and the challenges they are facing.

Diana Grauer, director of external technology engagement and venture capital at Technip FMC, and Bradley Andrews, president of digital at Worley joined a panel with moderator Wade Bitaraf, founder of Plug and Play Energy & Sustainability. The panel, entitled "How globalization and diversification can boost a local innovation ecosystem," explored what each exec looks for in potential partnerships with startups.

At TechnipFMC, which has a newer corporate investment group, Grauer says her team looks for startup technologies within four key categories, industry 4.0, digitization, materials and processes, and energy transition. Within those categories, she says they aren't looking for startups that will provide a big return on investment, rather technologies that will advance the company's capabilities.

"We're focused on strategic returns, not necessarily your conventional financial returns," she says.

Andrews echoed this point, admitting that while a big exit for a portfolio company is never bad, but Worley would rather have technologies that benefit their business platform.

"As long as [a technology is] under core strategy and driving internal strategy, we're kind of in," he says. "Anything around data science, automation, new energy, sustainability, those are all kind of sweet spots for us."

A big challenge, Andrews says, is communicating companywide the importance of looking outward for innovative opportunities, rather than relying on the company's staff.

"The idea of corporate tech startups coming to fruition within our industry is kind of new. We used to build from within," Andrews says. "We're still as an industry trying to figure out how to do this."

Grauer says that, similarily, her biggest challenge is getting pushback from within TechnipFMC of people who just think their company should fund its current workforce to find solutions. But Grauer responds to them explaining that the company needs to move faster than that and the way to do that is through working with startups. That's why the company has created an Open Innovation Program. According to Grauer, the organization expects to make its first investment by the end of the year.

For Andrews, the state of Houston's innovation ecosystem is exciting, and he notes that he looks at emerging technologies across industries. A technical solution in medicine might have an application in energy, for example. And, considering the state of the energy industry, now is the time to be more collaborative within Houston as more and more global challenges emerge.

"I think Houston has everything it needs to make a stake in this," Andrews says. "We're not competing with each other in this industry. We're competing against what the world is going to demand from us. It's time for us in corporate land and set our egos aside."

Grauer says she's seen the city's innovation resources grow over the years, noting the emergence of The Cannon, Rice Alliance, and Plug and Play.

"I really think that the energy industry in Houston is really starting to catch up and blossom," she says.

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Houston-based imaware, which has an at-home COVID-19 testing process, is working with Texas A&M University on researching how the virus affects the human body. Getty Images

An ongoing medical phenomenon is determining how COVID-19 affects people differently — especially in terms of severity. A new partnership between a Houston-based digital health platform and Texas A&M University is looking into differences in individual risk factors for the virus.

Imaware, which launched its at-home coronavirus testing kit in April, is using its data and information collected from the testing process for this new study on how the virus affects patients differently.

"As patient advocates, we want to aid in the search to understand more about why some patients are more vulnerable than others to the deadly complications of COVID-19," says Jani Tuomi, co-founder of imaware, in a press release. "Our current sample collection process is an efficient way to provide longitudinal prospectively driven data for research and to our knowledge, is the only such approach that is collecting, assessing, and biobanking specimens in real time."

Imaware uses a third-party lab to conduct the tests at patients' homes following the Center for Disease Control's guidelines and protocol. During the test, the medical professional takes additional swabs for the study. The test is then conducted by Austin-based Wheel, a telemedicine group.

Should the patient receive positive COVID-19 results, they are contacted by a representative of Wheel with further instructions. They are also called by a member of a team led by Dr. Rebecca Fischer, an infectious disease expert and epidemiologist and laboratory scientist at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, to grant permission to be a part of the study.

Once a part of the study, the patient remains in contact with Fischer's team, which tracks the spread and conditions of the virus in the patient. One thing the researchers are looking for is the patients' responses to virus complications caused by an overabundance of cytokines, according to the press release. Cytokines are proteins in the body that fight viruses and infections, and, if not working properly, they can "trigger an over-exuberant inflammatory response" that can cause potentially deadly issues with lung and organ failure or worse, per the release.

"We believe strongly in supporting this research, as findings from the field can be implemented to improve clinical processes-- helping even more patients," says Wheel's executive medical director, Dr. Rafid Fadul.

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