seeing green

Shell commits $10M to UH for new Energy Transition Institute

The University of Houston Cougars are seeing green with this news. Photo via UH.edu

A new clean energy-focused institute emerging on the University of Houston campus has been buoyed by funding from an energy behemoth.

Shell USA Inc. and Shell Global Solutions (US) Inc. has granted UH a $10 million gift to establish the Energy Transition Institute. According to a news release, the institute — focused on three core areas: hydrogen, carbon management, and circular plastics — is expected to receive financial support that will likely exceed $52 million across donations from all parties.

With UH as one of the most ethnically diverse research universities in the country and its founding partner Shell, the initiative will focus on serving vulnerable communities and leading the energy transition in an equitable way.

“Houston is poised, like no other city, to lead the energy transition and the Energy Transition Institute will be essential in pursuit of that goal,” says UH Chancellor and President Renu Khator in the release. “Along with advancing energy equity and social impacts in our communities, Shell’s generous gift will help UH maintain its leadership role in the energy transition.”

Khator says this initiative will work in collaboration with Houston's energy industry and welcomes more partners like Shell to join in on the project.

“Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our lifetime — and it’s partnerships like this, along with other key drivers such as policy and technology, that together can help the US make progress on its net-zero goals,” says Shell USA President Gretchen Watkins in the release. “When you put brilliant minds together with the resources they need to do the work, amazing things can happen.”

Within the three clean tech verticals, the new institute will target four disciplines, according to the university:

  • Science, engineering, and technology: Recruit faculty energy transition research and technology expertise and drive new on-campus collaborations.
  • Policy and regulation: Develop new public-private partnerships and infrastructure for measuring success, as well as recruit new faculty in policy and regulation.
  • Equity, diversity, and justice: Drive stakeholder engagement across communities, including minority serving institutions universities, as well as research programs across disciplines focused on energy equity and environmental justice.
  • Workforce and talent: Upskill the existing workforce on topics related to sustainable energy development and work closely with Shell and other industrial partners

Shell is no stranger to UH and is founding member of the University of Houston’s Center for Carbon Management in Energy, which is expected to collaborate with the new Energy Transition Institute to innovate all things carbon capture, storage, and utilization — as well as hydrogen commercialization and circular plastics.

“These are important building blocks to transition society to a net zero future while still providing the products and services that people have come to expect and demand in their daily lives,” says Selda Gunsel, president of Shell Global Solutions, in the release. “The Shell technology community looks forward to working with the institute to co-develop crucial technology in these areas, as well as nurturing the diverse talent needed to drive the energy transition into the future.”

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Building Houston

 
 

Kerri Smith of the Rice Alliance joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Rice's Clean Energy Accelerator. Photo courtesy of Rice

Kerri Smith knows accelerators. Through her over 18 years at Rice Alliance, she's been responsible for overseeing several and was on the founding leadership team of Houston's first energy tech startup accelerator, SURGE. After years of focusing you accelerating Rice University's student-focused program, Owl Spark, she's transitioned back into the energy tech space.

"I've worked with many types of founders. There's not one unique characteristic that everyone has," Smith says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our goal is to help move them along and help them move the needle. At the end of the day, we want them to have a good experience and to meet their goals and objectives."

The Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator launched last summer with its inaugural cohort of 12 cleantech startups, which represented energy sectors from solar and wind innovations to hydrogen, geothermal, and more. Smith says the startups represented a wide range of stages and were from all over — only two companies were from Houston originally. The out-of-town companies were able to make critical partnerships in town and set up a presence and a home here.

"We were able to build a family-like culture among our group, and that was something that was wildly appreciative," Smith, who serves as executive director of the program, says.

Applications for Class 2 of CEA are open until May 31. While the program will offer the same access to mentorship and opportunities, the program will change slightly. CEA will focus on seed and series A-stage companies and will be a hybrid program. Throughout the 10 weeks, which begins in the fall instead of the summer this year, founders will visit Houston three times at the beginning, middle, and the end of the accelerator. Each startup will receive a grant to cover the expenses of the equity-free program.

CEA is just one part of a greater ecosystem of innovation under the umbrella of Rice University, which includes the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, The Ion Houston, Owl Spark, and more. All these entities also play into the greater Houston area's innovation ecosystem.

"Rice Alliance has a strong history of demonstrating collaboration with a number of organizations," Smith says. "I think one of the primary benefits that we have in these collaborative opportunities is to ensure that we are collectively building a capable and diverse pipeline of talent to solve for these problems and provide them with access to experiencing all of the benefits of our ecosystem."

With CEA specifically, some of these collaborations include working with Greentown Houston, which is just next door to the program's home at The Ion, and the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Initiative.

"We're a cog in the wheel. We do really well with that. We play well with others – in ways that the founder has a good experience and can benefit," Smith says.

Smith shares more about what she's looking for in the second cohort of CEA on the podcast episode, as well as what she sees as Houston's role in the energy transition. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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