Q&A

Chevron exec shares why the company is invested in the Houston innovation community

Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, discusses Chevron's deal with The Ion and its commitment to Houston. Courtesy of CTV

Chevron's innovation arm continues to be a leader among Houston's innovation ecosystem, and recently the energy company announced it is the first to lease space at a rising innovation hub.

Last week, Chevron was announced to be the first tenant at The Ion, and that includes opportunities for Chevron Technology Ventures as well as the whole company. Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, discussed with InnovationMap why this is a great opportunity for the company and what else she's excited about in terms of Houston innovation.

InnovationMap: Chevron has been announced as the first tenant in The Ion. Why are you and CTV excited about this new innovation hub?

Barbara Burger: Chevron is excited because the innovation of The Ion is really a great example of the burgeoning innovation ecosystem in Houston. The Ion actually is almost a model of the ecosystem. It is a physical space, it is a set of programs, and it is a community and Chevron wants to be a part of all of that. We're excited about being able to be the first tenant and encourage others to join in with us because the community will work when it is full, diverse, and active. If we can lead the charge or play a role in leading the charge, we will.

I also want to say we are excited because this isn't just for CTV. We also want to encourage Chevron Houston employees — some 8,000 of them — to be a part of this innovation ecosystem. And The Ion is one place where they can venture out and see what's happening — outside of our office buildings in town and outside of their daily responsibilities — and get a taste and a feel and let it go from there.

IM: What opportunity does the new space provide for you and your team?

BB: We need innovation from everyone. Our industry and our company, like any other industry or company is undergoing dramatic change. And the more you know about where the world is going and the more you can partner with all kinds of different players, the more solutions you have to navigate successfully in that transformation.

We're known as a company that partners. Partnership, I think, is going to be critical in the world going forward and we value the ability to partner with firms and people that are both like us and not like us. I view The Ion is one example where you're bringing together lots of different kinds of people, because if you only just bring the same kinds of people together, you're missing the element of diversity. So, this allows our employees to experience that on one more level.

IM: CTV has been an integral part of Houston innovation for 21 years now. What do you see you and CTV’s role in the ecosystem?

BB: I've told this story many times, but when I moved here and took the job as the head of CTV, I did some homework and found out that we had more portfolio companies from Stavanger, Norway, than from Houston, Texas. And, that was a data point that, to be honest, baffled me a little. And the more we've looked at that we've said we will invest around the globe. We will collaborate with all kinds of players, but how come there's no hometown advantage? And so that sort of thirst and quest for that coincided with the GHP and the mayor's initial work on innovation. It was like right place, right time. And then we saw a role as a longstanding player in corporate venture and that investing in the ecosystems will bear fruit for us and for the work we do.

We prioritized helping to grow this ecosystem — investing in it for the future. It is our home court. We had a lot of the relationships and we continued to build them. And we also knew, because of our longstanding experience in tech ventures and our large presence in Houston, that when Chevron did something people would notice, and they would want to get on board. And it's not a competitive thing. It's really a leadership thing because it will take a lot of us to make that happen.

IM: You also serve as board chair for Houston Exponential. Why are you passionate about serving on the board?

BB: Every single board member wears a hat associated with their role in the ecosystem. And everybody wears a hat that says Houston on it. Without their sort of self-interest hat, they would have no interest in being on this board. But without the Houston hat, they don't work together towards the goal.

IM: You recently spoke at the HTX TechList launch. What difference is the new platform going to make for corporate venture?

BB: Corporate venture is a diverse group. There are some of us who have been around for a really long time and new companies, just starting out. And it is all in our best interest to help each other be good corporate ventures. I think the tech list is one of the tools by which you do that so that you know who's out there — it's like the global address list except for external.

IM: How does Chevron’s Catalyst Program work with CTV’s investment arm?

BB: We think holistically about how to access external innovation and really do the integration play with Chevron. We have to look really broadly at a complete set of tools.

The catalyst program is early stage — some people call it seed stage. It's a milestone-based grant program. It is an early look and an early relationship with a company that has something that we're interested in and is aligned with some of the problem sets we're looking for. We want to take an early look and we want to support them there. There is a financial support in the form of a grant — so that's good for the startup. It's a chance for them to demonstrate their abilities — not just technical, they're a company, so also their ability to execute and get things done. It's a chance for us to see, "does this really align with the problem sets we want to do?" And then, their last milestone is a series A term sheet. So, we have plenty of chances to invest in them afterwards. We didn't have a tool in that space. And I think, you know, pre-series A or pre-institutional investment is an important area of support that's required for innovation.

IM: Chevron is also a launch partner for Greentown Labs. What are you excited about for that partnership?

BB: We've supported Greentown in Boston since the early days, and what we liked about Greentown as an incubator was that they're trying to solve tough problems. A lot of their innovation involves either hard tech or process tech. They provide physical space, a set of programs, and community — similar to the three prongs I talked about with The Ion. And, importantly, they provide a specialized facility that early companies can never afford to have on their own — lab space, machine shop type of things, etc.

As a city, we do want to be — and we can be — the leader in the energy transition. So, we need to have the pieces of the puzzle so that we can play a leading role in that. And we saw Greentown as one of the ingredients in that overall recipe.

IM: What is it that Houston needs to do to be a leader in the energy transition?

BB: We're doing a lot of things right — almost in spite of the world being crazy. I think commitment to that vision is important, including collaboration across the different parts of the city — at the city level, at the corporate level, at the investor level, at the universities. I think just like everybody in Houston is connected to the industry — even if you're not in the energy industry, you know a lot about it just by living in Houston. So, I think being able to rally around that as a city is going to be important.

Again, I think constancy of purpose is important. Despite the headwinds from COVID and despite the headwinds that industries are facing, we need to stay committed to that. That's what I think we need to do. All these pieces are like pieces of a puzzle. But innovation is not a straight path. We've got to plant a bunch of these seeds and see how they grow — we need to water them every day, and then I think we'll have a beautiful garden.

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Building Houston

 
 

"There's something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it." Photo via Getty Images

Houston's seen a growth in startup and venture investment — even amid the pandemic — and a group of Houston innovators sat down for a virtual event to discuss what's lead to this evolution.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted an installment of its Houston Industry Series focused on Digital Tech on Thursday, September 24. The panel of experts, moderated by Krisha Tracy of Google Cloud, discussed how they've observed the paradigm shift that's occurred in Houston over the past few years — and why.

Missed the discussion? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual event.

“I think there really is an interest for venture capital here, both locally and also welcoming it from outside of Houston. … There’s something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it. I think that magical piece is a renewed interest in collaborating.”

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of Houston Angel Network and co-founder of The Artemis Fund. "I think a lot [of this progress] is due to the GHP, Houston Exponential, and the founding of the HX Venture Fund to bring those venture funds to Houston to say, 'what's happening here?'" Campbell adds, saying that this connectivity and collaboration that's happening in Houston VC is unique.

“I think there’s a misconception around all we do is oil and gas and life science in Houston, but when you think about what VC-backable companies look like, they’re tech, they’re B2B SaaS, they’re highly scalable, and they don’t tend to be capital-intensive types of things we see corporate venture backing.”

Campbell says, adding "the connectivity and the interest in VC is really taking off. It's an exciting time to be in Houston and Texas in general."

“Plug and Play’s ventures team is based in Silicon Valley and one thing they enjoy about meeting Houston-based founders is valuations tend to be more reasonable than in the Bay Area."

Payal Patel, director of Plug and Play Tech Center in Houston. "There are gems to be found," she adds.

“I don’t know what it is — if it’s something in the water or just Texans being very friendly, but the investors here share deal flow. It takes a village, and I think we all understand a rising tide lifts all boats."

Patel says on the collaborative nature of Houston. "It's really magical."

“What you’re witnessing is a city that has been waiting for industrial innovation to reach the point where it can be adopted at a really high scale, and that happened around 2017.”

Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge Texas in Houston. Nordby adds that MassChallenge in Houston hasn't been keen on consumer tech, or the "grilled cheese delivery apps," as he describes. "We like companies that are in love with problems, not so much in love with solutions. … We build really meaningful tech."

“Over the last year or two, we’ve seen that sleeping giant get awoken. Open and external innovation is newly adopted by more legacy industries where it wasn’t before — and that’s just created a mountain of opportunities for startups and investors alike.”

Nordby says on the shift toward this meaningful, problem-solving technology, which Houston is full of, as he observes.

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