Q&A

Houston investor launches fund to fuel early-stage energy transition startups

Ahmad Atwan founded VC Fuel in Houston to fund the future of the energy transition. Photo courtesy of VC Fuel

When Ahmad Atwan decided he was going to launch a venture capital fund focused on early-stage energy transition startups, Houston was a no brainer. But while there are similar funds on each of the coasts, Atwan learned that VC Fuel's concept was going to be kind of niche for Houston.

"We're the only early stage climate tech or energy transition firm in Houston right now, which is really surprising," Atwan tells InnovationMap, explaining that the Bay Area is home to dozens of these funds and there are even more on the East Coast. "I'm hoping there'll be more (similar funds in Houston), but it's also kind of a nice position to be in."

Atwan shares more about VC Fuel and the $100 million fund, which he's still raising for while also investing in a few startups at the same time, in an interview with InnovationMap. He also discusses how his expertise as a former founder and former private equity investor with Morgan Stanley and BlackRock makes him an opportune value-add investor.

InnovationMap: Why did you decide to start VC fuel?

AhmadAtwan: I decided to start VC fuel because I've been in the energy industry my entire career. I've been both an entrepreneur — I started two companies in the 2000s that I sold. One was a energy technology firm and one was a Brazilian ethanol company.

After that I was on the buy side buying pretty large private energy companies — anywhere from the size of $500 million to $2 billion. And over that whole time, energy was a very exciting industry and was growing very fast.

But as I saw climate change happening more rapidly and becoming more of a reality, and as I started looking and investing in some renewable energy sources, like wind and solar, I realized that's really where my passion was and what I wanted to do. And at the same time, the world was moving towards that as well, and investors really wanted to have exposure to new energy or energy transition areas.

IM: What are you looking for in potential investment opportunities?

AA: The areas that we focus on are all decarbonized and kind of all across the board, ranging from clean agriculture, hydrogen, carbon capture and storage or carbon capture and usage, to energy efficiency, clean industrial processes, and more. And I think these are areas that they right now comprise less than 2 percent of the global energy mix, but they're going to be north of 10, 15, 20 percent over time. So, these are high growth areas, and they are either lower, zero, or even negative emissions.

We're looking specifically for companies that we call seed stage or series A, generally, sometimes series B. So, they're companies that are relatively early in their development, but have some sort of commercial traction. And ones that are looking for not only a venture capital firm, but someone that can be their partner and help guide them and help them in certain areas, like raising their next round of funding, helping them get introduced to customers.

IM: With your experience, what do you feel like you bring to the table as a hands-on investor?

AA: I think in my decade-plus in private equity, when I was an investor on the boards of a company, I always tended to be one of the most involved in helping guide operations and working with senior management. And I think that's probably because I was a founder in the past, so I really identify with founders and I try to figure out with them what's the gap in their skillset or knowledge base that needs to be filled. Sometimes it's one that I can naturally help fill, which might be on the financial side or on the commercial side. And sometimes it's just bringing in other experts to help the company out.

But I think having been both on the founder and the private equity side, I think I empathize with the founder usually. And I would give this advice to all founders out there: the most important relationship they're going to have is with their lead venture capitalist, because that's going to be the defining relationship that helps them get to legitimacy in terms of the next round of funding. It's something that I kind of learned from friends in Silicon Valley. It's not only building the relationship for VC fuel — it's building a relationship with one of the individuals in our firm, whether it's me or one of my partners, and having them be really invested in the company.

IM: Why did you decide on Houston for VC Fuel's HQ?

AA: First of all, Houston is the undisputed energy capital of the world. So to me, especially when you're looking at energy transition sectors that have to work with the energy industry, it was a no brainer. For a lot of the technologies we deal with — like carbon capture — and the businesses we deal with, it's going to be essential for them to connect with the energy world.

I think a second reason, frankly, and I didn't realize this until we really got deep into the idea is that we're a little bit unique and we have a little bit of a competitive advantage. There are over 30 climate tech firms in the Bay Area, and there are a large number as well in New York and Boston. We're the only early stage climate tech or energy transition firm in Houston right now, which is really surprising. And I'm hoping there'll be more of those, but that's also kind of a nice position to be in because, as we see opportunities come out of the energy companies, and as we try to attract talent and grow, we think we have a pretty unique offering.

IM: What has being located in Greentown Houston meant for you?

AA: It's been fantastic. I think Houston did a great job of attracting Greentown here as the second location. Working out of here, we're able to interact in real time with everything from startup companies to major corporations. You get such a diverse set of people who are passionate about energy transition. It's actually already led to some opportunities to invest in, as well as to connect with some of the bigger companies that want to invest with us. It's been just a great coincidence that we launched here when Greentown opened. We'd much rather be here than any other type of working space. So, we're very excited.

IM: What keeps you up at night as it pertains to the energy transition?

AA: I would say the first thing is commercial adoption. All of our companies so far have great management teams — especially founders — and excellent technology, but there's that bridge to actually get the technology adopted by a customer. Sometimes you can have the best technology, and it just never happens. So, I'm keeping my eye on how much progress are we making with commercial customers. A lot of these are big companies — whether it's a waste management or a tech company, like a Microsoft — are getting into energy transition. Customer adoption in that area is a key metric for us.

The second big one — and this one's a little newer to me because I didn't face it as much in the past — is regulation. So many of the areas that we look at are going to have their economics determined by regulations that are literally being written right now. For example, the Cares Act the by the Biden administration is deciding things like what the level of tax credits will be for carbon capture. The carbon capture company we've invested in suddenly sees their projects become a lot more profitable if that figure is on the higher side. It's important to keep our ear to the ground on regulation and try to anticipate where it's going. That's why we have a couple people who are ex-Department of Energy on our advisory board because we like to have that skill set.

IM: What's next for VC Fuel?

AA: Our cadence of investing is that we invest in about one company every couple of months, which is pretty fast for a venture capital firm in energy transition. What's next is for our current companies to get to the next stage of evolution. There is one that I can't talk about specifically, but it might be getting sold to a really exciting buyer — and it's very good to have that kind of exit early on in a fund's life. And for the rest of our portfolio companies it's about continuing to get customers and next rounds of funding.

We've done a really good job of building a portfolio. That's not concentrated in any one area of energy transition. We will continue to look for a diverse set of companies that compliment each other, and that can help each other out. One area we continue to look at is not just the carbon capture, but also the carbon use space where you can turn carbon into something that's actually productive. Another area that we continue to look at is the electric vehicle space, but not just traditional EVs, but the next generation EV technology.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Building Houston

 
 

Activate is planting its roots in Houston with a plan to have its first set of fellows next year. Photo via Getty Images

An organization that directs support to scientists developing impactful technology has decided on Houston for its fifth program.

Activate was founded in Berkeley, California, in 2015 to bridge the gap between the federal and public sectors to deploy capital and resources into the innovators creating transformative products. The nonprofit expanded its programs to Boston and New York before launching a virtual fellowship program — Activate Anywhere, which is for scientists 50 or more miles outside one of the three hubs.

"Our mission is to empower scientists to reinvent the world by bringing their research to market," Aimee Rose, executive managing director of Activate, tells InnovationMap. "There's so much technical talent that we educate in this country every year and so many amazing inventions that happen, that combining the two, which is the sort of inventor/entrepreneur, and giving them the support mechanisms they need to get on their feet and be successful, has the potential to unlock an incredible amount of value for the country, for the environment, and to address other social problems."

This year, Activate is planting seeds in Houston to grow a presence locally and have its first set of fellows in 2024. While Activate is industry agnostic, Rose says a big draw from Houston is the ability to impact the future of energy.

"We're super excited about Houston as an emerging ecosystem for the clean energy transition as being the energy capital of the world, as well as all the other emerging players there are across the landscape in Houston," Rose says. "I think we can move the needle in Houston because of our national footprint."

The first order of business, Rose says, is hiring a managing director for Activate Houston. The job, which is posted online, is suited for an individual who has already developed a hardtech business and has experience and connections within Houston's innovation ecosystem.

"We want to customize the program so that it makes the most sense for the community," Rose says about the position. "So, somebody that has the relationships and the knowledge of the ecosystem to be able to do that and somebody that's kind of a mentor at heart."

The program is for early-stage founders — who have raised less than $2 million in funding — working on high-impact technology. Rose explains that Activate has seen a number of microelectronics and new materials companies go through the program, and, while medical innovation is impactful, Activate doesn't focus on pharmaceutical or therapeutic industries since there are existing pathways for those products.

Ultimately, Activate is seeking innovators whose technologies fall through the cracks of existing innovation infrastructure.

"Not every business fits into the venture capital model in terms of what investors would expect to be eventual outcomes, but these these types of businesses can still have significant impact and make the world a better place," Rose says, explaining how Activate is different from an incubator or accelerator. "As opposed as compared to a traditional incubator, this is a very high touch program. You get a living stipend so you can take a big business technical risk without a personal risk. We give you a lot of hands on support and mentoring."

Each of the programs selects 10 fellows that join the program for two years. The fellows receive a living stipend, connections from Activate's robust network of mentors, and access to a curriculum specific to the program.

Since its inception, Activate has supported 104 companies and around 146 entrepreneurs associated with those companies. With the addition of Houston, Activate will be able to back 50 individuals a year.

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