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.

------

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Trending News

Building Houston

 
 

Only time will tell, but this expert believes the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 will be a boon to energy tech startups in Texas. Photo via Getty Images

The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 includes $369 billion in investment in climate and energy policies, the largest investment in United States history to address climate change. The IRA could be a boon to Texas startups involved in clean energy, clean manufacturing and clean innovation.

Government policy and funding are critical to supporting the research and development for new technologies, which solve complex challenges and require significant upfront and long-term commitments of investment. Early government investment gives private investors more incentive to invest in the later commercialization and scaling of these businesses, and has a multiplier effect in accelerating the development, commercialization, and deployment of new technologies in the time needed in the market to capitalize on energy business opportunities and achieve climate goals.

The IRA’s biggest impact on climate tech businesses is through tax credits and direct investment. The IRA’s expanded tax credits will make it easier to fund and build projects, help reduce cost of construction, and help make renewable energy projects more competitive, encourage more funding and building of new projects, and bring new jobs and economic development. The IRA’s direct investments allow for companies developing new technologies to obtain grants and loans that help them develop their solutions while not diluting their investors, helping them build more value in their businesses and making them more attractive for later investment.

Texas is well positioned to be an energy transition and clean energy leader and beneficiary of the IRA. The state is home to major energy companies, and their technical expertise, know-how and experience in energy, and energy technology is unparalleled. There is huge momentum in innovation in energy transition and energy tech, and there is great research coming out of university and corporate R&D programs. For example, Texas is home to more than 20 energy-focused research and development centers and dozens of energy tech companies. And Texas is already the largest producer of wind power in the U.S.

Texas startups across industries were already attracting massive investment before the IRA became law. According to Pitchbook and the National Venture Capital Association, Texas startups overall raised a record-high $10.55 billion in venture capital in 2021, an increase of 123 percent from 2020’s $4.73 billion.

Early-stage investment in climate tech hit a record $53.7 billion in 2021. While the totals this year aren’t likely to reach 2021 levels, climate tech investors have said they aren’t seeing the size of pullbacks and slowdowns in other sectors. Despite the VC slowdown this year, clean tech and climate tech have remained attractive investments. This includes Texas. For example, the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator reported in August that 17 of its early- to mid-stage startups have already raised more than $54.5 million this year. Also in August, geothermal startup Fervo Energy, based in Houston, raised $138 million in new VC funding. Earlier in February, Houston’s Zeta Energy, which has developed a battery for the electric vehicle and energy storage markets, closed a $23 million financing round. We expect continued funding in this space.

Large corporates in Texas are building external innovation programs such as venture arms and accelerators. For instance, Houston’s Halliburton Company developed Halliburton Labs, an accelerator that has backed a number of startups in the carbon capture, clean hydrogen, and solar energy tech developers. Big energy companies are also joining Texas-based accelerator hubs such as The Ion in Houston. The Ion’s founding partners include Aramco Americas, Chevron Technology Ventures, and ExxonMobil.

It will require long term efforts to achieve results in climate tech and clean energy projects, but as the benefits of the IRA materialize, more startups in Texas will have the ability to obtain more long-term financial support and resources from all of the sources – government, universities, and research organizations, venture investors and corporations — that are required to develop solutions to the energy and climate challenges and capitalize on the business opportunities of today and tomorrow. Startups are creating transformative innovations that are key to the United States being a leader in clean energy and fighting climate change. And there’s no better place to do that than in Texas.

------

Michael Torosian is a partner in the corporate practice in the San Francisco office of Baker Botts. He is outside general counsel to emerging companies and their investors and advisors at all stages.

Trending News