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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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Houston-based Melax Tech has developed multiple Natural language processing tools that are used by more than 650 health care and life science organizations. Photo via MelaxTech.com

Melax Tech Partners, a leader in natural language technology processing, announced a new partnership with the University of California at Irvine that will help researchers derive insights from the UCI Health Data Science Platform’s electronic health records system and improve patient care.

Melax will implement its signature text annotation tool LANN to pull information from clinical notes, and its CLAMP product to develop natural language processing customizations through the use of AI, according to a statement from the company.

“There has been a strong desire among UCI researchers to have the capability to analyze free-text clinical narrative data using cutting-edge NLP technologies," Kai Zheng, chief research information officer at UCI Health Affairs, says in a statement. "We are delighted to have this opportunity to work with Melax Tech to deploy their AI-driven annotation and analytics tools to help our researchers advance their research agenda by leveraging the vast amount of free-text data that our health system has accumulated in the past two decades.”

Natural language processing, or NLP, allows organizations and healthcare groups to sift through and analyze massive amounts of data at a rapid rate through the use of machine learning and AI. Houston-based Melax Tech, founded in 2017, has developed multiple NLP tools that are used by more than 650 health care and life science organizations, according to its website.

In addition to the recent partnership with UC Irvine, Melax has also recently partnered with Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the University of Western Pennsylvania on similar clinical projects.

Melax has also used its platforms to pull vital information from datasets relating to COVID-19, in both medical and social settings.

In March 2022, it was awarded a Phase 1 NIH Award, valued at $300,000, to develop informatics tools based on COVID-19 datasets with the San Diego Supercomputer Center at UC San Diego. The tool aims to help researchers better understand vast amounts of virus-related data and connect findings with other similar results.

In August, Melax also received another $300,000 grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to develop NLP-based algorithms that will "model, extract and synthesize vaccine misinformation from multiple popular social media sources," according to a statement. Melax will also develop a visualization that presents its findings on the misinformation into a compressible format.

"This is a very real topic affecting culture at present," Andre Pontin, CEO at Melax Tech, says in a statement. "And shows that we as a collective business and group of experts continue to be on the cutting-edge of science in the NLP and AI domain."

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