Chevron’s Burger On Energy Innovation, Houston’s Growing Tech Scene

Houston—Among innovation-focused efforts in Houston, Chevron Technology Ventures is among the longest standing.

Founded in 1999, Chevron Tech has launched seven funds up to $100 million each—the latest last month—in search of startups with technologies to hasten the ongoing digitization of the oil and gas industry. To date, the company’s corporate venture arm has made 100 investments.

“The availability of data in operations, through sensors, and the ability to actually mine that data, and to use it to inform decisions has tremendous potential to improve the day-to-day workflow” at Chevron, says Barbara Burger, Chevron Tech Ventures’s president since 2013.

Chevron (NYSE: CVX) launched its first innovation-focused fund of $60 million 20 years ago. Then, the group “steered clear of Internet startups” in favor of more hard science applications, according to a 2001 article by Reuters. Of course, two decades later, the energy giant’s interests, and the the idea of the Internet itself, has expanded to include data analytics, smart devices, cloud computing, and more.

We spoke to Burger recently about what sorts of innovation Chevron Technology Ventures is seeking and why she believes the company should be active in helping Houston build up its tech ecosystem. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:

Xconomy: This is your seventh fund. Looking over the arc of these investments, what are the trends that stand out?

Barbara Burger: We’re just celebrating our 20th birthday as a company. When I think about the trends, [I think] about the digital enablement of workflows across operations and across all our business segments. If I think about over the time I’ve been in the organization, we did hard tech, did software, of course, [we] have done renewables, a number of things in biofuels.

If you think about our asset classes, we’re looking for tools that help us better understand what’s going on in the reservoirs and so forth. Those are certainly fair game for us. Innovation is coming from more and more places. We’re big champions of the fact that we don’t want to go shopping in a just few geographic places; we want to increase our geographic range. There are interesting things coming out of Europe that we want to take advantage of. I’ll make a plug: We’re seeing more innovation coming from different parts of the US and Canada; it’s not just the typical coastal innovation. Of course, we’ll look at Houston and everything that comes out of cities here in Texas.

X: What do you believe are the key topics/areas that are coming up that will require innovation?

BB: There are all kinds of opportunity in optimizing our operations, from exploration through production through transportation. There is opportunity to integrate these innovations into our businesses now with digital enablement of our core businesses and the lowering of emissions of our operations upstream, midstream, and downstream. What is really needed is breakthrough technology in all of those areas. We see opportunities to invest and work with enterprises, and bring them into our operations or to bring them into our business lines.

X: What are the success stories from these funds?

BB: I don’t like to talk about specific companies. In Fund 5 we had a very strong production focus. Think about what was happening in the industry at that point [in 2013]. The technologies were around how to get more out of the ground, how to be able to transport and transfer that oil and gas out of the fields. We’ve had good success with a number of those technologies.

X: Chevron has been among the businesses that have taken a high-profile role in the various efforts to build Houston’s tech ecosystem. Beyond the business case for Chevron itself to be wanting new technology, why do you feel it’s important to support the landscape here from a broad perspective?

BB: We’re a large employer in town; we believe we have a commitment to Houston. In general, we have a commitment to the communities that we work and live in. Houston is the energy capital; we also want to ensure that Houston evolves as the energy industry evolves. A number of things we do are to play a lead role in that, to encourage innovation and to support entrepreneurs that are working to come up with solutions to address the opportunities and problems that we see in energy. We believe there’s a natural role for innovators that will end up being good for us because we’re always looking for more innovation to address our opportunities.

[Also,] if you look at energy and technology and investment, there aren’t a lot of women. I want to encourage and support the women that are there, do what I can to open the door for others to join.

We’re making tremendous strides in Houston. As an employer, I want to see innovation from anywhere, but we also want our home court to strengthen.

X: Which of the building blocks to a startup ecosystem do you think Houston should work on first? Workforce, venture investment, something else?

BB: If I had to bet on one, let’s make sure we have the talent here to envision the solutions to work with the corporations and match solution to opportunity. That’s about people on both sides of that, the entrepreneurs and the corporates. Money will flow if you’ve got good ideas that solve problem sets. I think the talent part is the one we have to get right in Houston.

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