In October, the head of OPEC predicted global oil demand would top 100 million barrels a day by 2020—the consequence of both steady economic growth and hydraulic fracturing, which has kept prices well below their historic peaks. A few weeks earlier, however, the International Energy Agency had forecast renewable electricity capacity would increase 43% by 2022—a growth rate far surpassing all other sources of energy.
This dynamic shift in global energy presents a wealth of business opportunities, which is why Shell is investing up to $1 billion a year in R&D across oil and gas and emerging energy, as well as up to another $1 billion a year by 2020 in their New Energies business. Through its Shell Technology Ventures (corporate venture capital group) and Shell TechWorks divisions, the company is bridging its expertise in oil and gas developed over the past 100 years and today’s pioneers in clean-tech energy. Shell TechWorks embodies the organizational shift that’s happening. Rather than operating out of Shell’s U.S. headquarters in Houston, the group is based in the tech hotbed of Greater Boston, and 90% of the team come from fields such as robotics and consumer products, not energy.
At the recent Fast Company Innovation Festival in New York, Julie Ferland, general manager of Shell TechWorks, shared how the division works with startups and industrial titans alike to accelerate and expand the use of promising new technologies and deploy proven technology for new applications. She was joined on stage by GE Ventures Energy Practice managing director Daniel Hullah and Greentown Labs CEO Emily Reichert. Together, the three discussed the biggest challenges for partnerships between corporations and innovators—namely, solving mismatches in agility, financing, and opportunity that alternately threaten to strand startups and cause companies to overlook a multi-billion-dollar idea.
“We help companies building physical products,” ranging from wind turbines to smart appliances, explained Reichert. “They not only need investors, but also help getting their products to market and to scale—and for that, they’re going to need a corporate partner.” Which is where Shell and GE come in. Greentown Labs bills itself as the largest clean-tech incubator in the country, with 55 startups under one roof (soon to be 100). Shell is a founding sponsor and the underwriter of its new prototyping lab, while GE Ventures and Shell Technology Ventures are regular visitors and investors.
An example of this pipeline in action is Sense, a Greentown Labs graduate selling a home energy monitor that tracks every gadget’s or appliance’s electricity use in real-time and conveys this information via an app. “It deciphers the electrical signals in your home and helps you understand where your energy use is coming from,” said Reichert. “Which appliances are inefficient? What’s old and needs replacing? Who’s microwaving popcorn every afternoon? If you know what your energy usage is, you can make better decisions.”
As Sense developed its prototype, Shell Technology Ventures led the Series A financing, and also invited the startup to deploy its platform in a small, voluntary smart home pilot this year. Not only does Sense eliminate the need for multiple sensors in the home, Ferland said, but it could enable new lines of business in metering and usage—an opportunity to shape both energy supply and demand.
This information has implications that go far beyond electric bills. GE’s Hullah shared a joke about an electric company executive who was asked how many customers he had. “I have one and a half million,” he replied. Asked what he knew about them, he drolly replied, “I have one and a half million of them.” Thanks to startups like Sense, this is no longer true—and may one day eliminate the need to invest billions of dollars in new power generation capacity.
There are few eureka moments in forging these partnerships, Reichert said. Sponsorships help, as does a full calendar of expert panel discussions, mentoring sessions, and startup pitch competitions. “But when you’re working with large companies, the decision-making process takes time,” she said. “Whenever you’re trying to connect startups and corporations, you have to be mindful of that and provide lots of opportunities to build relationships.”
It’s one thing to build a pipeline from the startup world into Shell; it’s another to convince one of the world’s largest, most profitable, and most technically proficient companies to accept ideas that weren’t invented there. The key, said Ferland, is to bring ideas to the table that have been proven elsewhere, “and might not be an exact fit, but it’s close enough.” With additional tinkering, she says, “you can leverage that work to demonstrate how you can move more quickly than if you developed it in-house.”
Sometimes these ideas come from far afield. Electric vehicles, Hullah noted, are built around lithium ion batteries originally developed for consumer electronics. And Sense’s platform is built around the smartphone. “You have to ensure the organization’s eyes and ears are open to these new ideas,” he said.
Ultimately, that openness starts with a commitment to working and thinking differently. “Shell TechWorks was created to see how a group of people inside Shell who came from other industries can innovate in the energy sector,” said Ferland. “You leverage the power of that brain trust and bring in a set of new ideas. It’s been very successful.”