Tim Kopra spent over 244 days in space, and now he's using his tech background to invest in emerging energy companies. Courtesy of Tim Kopra

When Tim Kopra returned from space in 2009 after he served as flight engineer on NASA's Expedition 20, he was ready to transition into civilian life. The Army vet went to business school, received his MBA in 2013, and started thinking about his next steps here on earth.

That is, until he was called back by NASA to serve as flight engineer then commander of the ISS in Expedition 46/47. He landed in June of 2016 after spending a career total of 244 days in space.

The timing was right this time around for Kopra. A former classmate of his, Ernst Theodor Sack, had worked at a Riverstone Holdings for a decade and had realized the potential for funding smaller, more niche startups. Sack was ready to branch out on his own, and Kopra was looking for his next career opportunity too.

That's how the two partnered up to create Blue Bear Capital, an investment fund that invests in data-driven technology companies in the energy supply chain.

"You can think of it as Silicon Valley tech, IoT, analytics, machine learning, SaaS business models applied to oil and gas, wind, solar, and energy storage," Kopra says.

The energy industry has been known to be slow to adopt new technology, like analytics, machine learning, and the Internet of Things, Kopra says, but Blue Bear's goal is to find the startups creating cutting edge technology and help them gain a footing in the industry.

"In order to adopt new technology, our view is that it has to be able to demonstrate clear value proposition upfront — not something that promises to improve operations down the line. It needs to happen relatively quickly."

Blue Bear capital closed its fund in the fourth quarter of 2018 with a total of eight investments. Kopra spoke with InnovationMap on how he's merged his space career into a tech investment guru.

InnovationMap: What sort of experience do you bring in to your investment responsibilities from your Army and NASA days?

Tim Kopra: On face value, it may sound like an odd match, taking someone with a tech and operational background and putting them in venture, but quite frankly it feels very familiar to me because my career has really been focused on working on complex technology and operations with very small teams. It's not just a theoretical understanding of the technology, but understanding how to use the technology and how it works.

It's something that over time, when you work with different kinds of aircraft or experiments on the Space Station or the space suits we use on space walks or the robotics system we used, you really develop a strong sense of how we as humans are able to work with technology and improve the functions we have in our jobs. That's a valuable aspect I bring to the table.

There's the operational component too. You can have great technology, but if it's not well matched to its job and implementation, it's not going to have the ability to solve the problems it was intended for. Third component is with small teams. I've worked with teams of two to 10 to 30 to several hundred — you recognize the need for people to work more effectively together.

I was on the last couple of astronaut selection committees. Our most recent one was going through 18,300 and select 12. Our job during the last portion of the selection is interviewing the last 50 or so. Those people competing for those spots are rock solid when it comes to their technical background and operational experience. The one thing we were asking ourselves as the interview committee was, "Who'd you want to go camping with?" It's the matter of the kind of people you can spend time with and be effective with. When we look at companies to invest in, we are looking for good small teams like that.

IM: How has Houston's tech ecosystem changed throughout your career?

TK: When we started in January of 2017, we saw one conference every few months that was involved in innovation and new technology and its application in oil and gas. Whereas now, it's pretty much every month that there's a major event about applying new technology in the industry.

IM: So, how has the city been for you as an investor?

TK: Obviously, Houston is the center for traditional energy and oil and gas. One thing that has been notable over our journey is the increased involvement in corporate venture funds. And, then the number of startups — it's a growing number and there's plenty of room for growth when it comes to energy startups. We've definitely seen an improvement in the types of technology provided and the number of startups emerging.

IM: Do you feel like the relationship you have with corporate VCs is competitive or collaborative?

TK: I think that the environment for venture capital in Houston in particular is very collaborative. When it comes to the corporate VCs, we're aligned because often times they are looking for companies farther along and then secondly, we're happy to co-invest with corporate teams. There are plenty of deals to go around, and we think working together we can definitely succeed.

IM: What types of companies are you looking for?

TK: We consider companies that are early revenue companies. We focus on data-driven technology companies, but they need to have recurring commercial revenue, so not just pilots.

IM: What's next for Blue Bear?

TK: We recently closed the fund, and what that means is we need to deploy the capital. We've invested in eight companies and had one exit, which we are excited about.

What we try to do is find the absolute best in class within a sector in which we invest.

IM: What keeps you up at night, as it pertains to your business?

TK: It's a very dynamic world. We have to keep track of macro trends and understand where the market is going. That has everything to do from the price of oil to government incentives to what large companies are investing in. I wouldn't say that it keeps us awake at night, but there's so many facets of the business that can impact what we do — positively and negatively. But we are constantly keeping track of what's going on in the world and what's going on in our sector.

The one thing we are most focused on right now is maintaining deal flow that we've been able to achieve. Going through the thousand or so companies we have over the past couple of years has been an extremely arduous task, but it's necessary for us to be able to understand the market.

We need to be as diligent as we have been over the past couple years. It's a really exciting space to work in, and we just need to maintain that level of excitement.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston startups raise funding, secure partnerships across space, health, and sports tech

short stories

It's been a new month and a few Houston startup wrapped up November with news you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, three Houston startups across health care, space, and sports tech have some news they announced recently.

Houston digital health company launches new collaboration

Koda Health has a new partner. Image via kodahealthcare.com

Houston-based Koda Health announced a new partnership with data analytics company, CareJourney.

"This collaboration will aim to develop benchmarking data for advance care planning and end-of-life metrics," the company wrote on LinkedIn. "Koda will provide clinical and practice-based expertise to guide the construction of toolkits, dashboards, and benchmarks that improve ACP programs and end-of-life outcomes."

Koda Health announced the partnership in November..

“Beyond the checkbox of a billing code or completed advance directive, it’s important to build and measure a process that promotes thoughtful planning among patients, their care team, and their loved ones,” says Desh Mohan, MD, Koda's chief medical officer, in the post.

CareJourney was founded in 2014 in Arlington, Virginia.

"I'm hopeful next-generation quality measures will honor the patient’s voice in defining what it means to deliver high quality care, and our commitment is to measure progress on that important endeavor," noted Aneesh Chopra, CareJourney's co-founder and president.

Sports tech startup raises $500,000 pre-seed investment

BeONE Sports has created a technology to enhance athletic training. Photo via beonesports.com

Houston-founded BeONE Sports, an athlete training technology company, announced last month that it closed an oversubscribed round of pre-seed funding. The company announced the raise on its social media pages that the round included $500,000 invested.

Earlier in November, BeONE Sports completed its participation in CodeLaunch DFW 2022. The company was one of six finalists in the program, which concluded with a pitch event on November 16.

Space tech company snags government contracts

Graphic via cognitive space.com

The U.S. Air Force has extended Houston-based Cognitive Space’s contract under a new TACFI, Tactical Funding Increase, award. According to the release, the contract "builds on Cognitive Space’s work to develop a tailored version of CNTIENT for AFRL to achieve ultimate responsiveness and optimized dynamic satellite scheduling via a cloud-based API.

The $1.2 million award follows a $1.5 million U.S. Air Force Small Business Innovation Research award that the company won in 2020 to integrate CNTIENT with commercial ground station providers in support of AFRL’s Hybrid Architecture Demonstration program.

“The TACFI award allows Cognitive Space to continue supporting AFRL’s vitally important HAD program to help deliver commercial space data to the warfighter,” says Guy de Carufel, the company’s founder and CEO, in the releasee. “CNTIENT’s tailored analytics platform will enable HAD and the GLUE platform to integrate modern statistical approaches to optimize mission planning, data collection, and latency estimation.”

Houston airport powers up new gaming lounge for bored and weary travelers

game on and wheels down

Local gamers now have a new option to while away those flight delays and passenger pickup waits at Hobby Airport.

Houston's William P. Hobby Airport is now one the first airports in the country to offer what's dubbed as the "ultimate gaming experience for travelers." The airport has launched a premium video game lounge inside the international terminal called Gameway.

That means weary, bored, or early travelers can chill in the lounge and plug into15 top-of-the-line, luxury gaming stations: six Xbox stations, five Playstation stations, four PC stations, all with the newest games on each platform. Aficionados will surely appreciate the Razer's Iskur Gaming Chairs and Kraken Headsets, along with dedicated high speed internet at each PC station.

The Gameway lounge pays homage to gaming characters, with wall accents that hark to motherboard circuits Crucial for any real gamer: plenty of sweet and savory snacks are available for purchase to fuel up on those fantasy, battle, or sporting endeavors. As for the gaming console stations, players can expect high definition screens, comfortable seating, and plenty of space for belongings.

Make video games a part of your pre-flight ritual. Photo courtesy of Gameway

This gaming addition comes just in time for the holiday rush, when travelers can expect long lines, delays, and are already planning for extended time for trips. As CultureMap previously reported, Hobby will see a big boost in travelers this season — the largest since 2019. Now, those on a long journey can plug in, decompress, and venture on virtual journeys of their own.

Texan travelers may be familiar with Gameway; the company opened its first two locations at Dallas Fort-Worth Airport. The buzzy lounge an industry wave of acclaim: Gameway was awarded Best Traveler Amenity in 2019 at the ACI-NA Awards and in 2020, voted “Most Innovative Customer Experience” at the Airport Experience Traveler Awards, per press materials.

Two new locations followed in 2021: LAX Terminal 6 and Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The first of Gameway's Ultra lounge brand opened in September at Delta's Terminal 3 in LAX.

Gaming culture is a way of life in the Bayou City , which hosts Comicpalooza, the largest pop culture festival in Texas, and is home to several e-sports teams, including the pro esports squad, the Houston Outlaws.

A delayed flight never seemed so ideal for gamers flying out of Hobby. Photo courtesy of Gameway

“Gameway is the real reason to get to the airport early,” said Co-Founder Jordan Walbridge in a statement. “Our mission is to upgrade the typical wait-at-the-gate experience with a new stimulating, entertaining option for travelers of all ages.”

Here's guessing Hobby might just see an increase in missed or late flight arrivals — as travelers simply must beat those big bosses, solve puzzles, or win sports matches in the lounge.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.