Rice Alliance Showcases Breadth of Cleantech Startups, Investors
The first misconception that needs to be banished is that cleantech and traditional energy are different.
So began Rice University’s latest Energy and Clean Technology Venture Forum last week, a pitch-day for energy startups as well as a forum for venture and angel investors to discuss trends in the industry.
“We need to get away from talking as if these are two different things,” said Greg Neichin, executive vice president of the Cleantech Group, an energy research and advisory firm based in San Francisco. “This is one community trying to find solutions. We need to find ways together to make sources of energy more efficient, safer, and better for the planet.”
Indeed, during the day-long summit, the 11th annual forum hosted on Thursday by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, consultants like Neichin shared the stage with those from Big Energy, all looking for ways to support innovation in a sector that has long been dominated by Big Oil.
While much of the venture investment from 2007 to 2009 focused on renewables, investments today have shifted to making traditional oil and gas processes more efficient, Neichin added. But opportunities within recycling, transportation, and logistics are emerging as submarkets where startups can thrive.
“We are seeing a blurring of the lines between IT and energy,” Neichin said.
That intersection is the foundation of Houston’s Surge Accelerator, which was founded in 2011 and is currently recruiting for its third class of startups.
Two Surge startups—GMEX and Braclet—made pitches at the Rice cleantech forum. GMEX, an online platform for buyers and sellers of semi-finished metals, was judged as a Top 10 winner out of 36 startups that presented innovations in solar, environmental mitigation, next-generation batteries, and operations efficiency from [downstream to upstream, from drilling beneath the earth’s surface to processing crude to more efficient delivery of gasoline to the consumer.
GMEX, which stands for the Global Metal Exchange, raised $350,000 last month and is looking to raise an additional $750,000 for technology improvements to the site and hiring salespeople, says Jeremy Chapman, its founder and CEO.
Another Surge startup, RunTitle, has also created an energy-related online marketplace, this time by digitizing mineral-rights records, a process that is still being done by hand in county courthouses and other repositories. Last month, RunTitle raised $4 million in a Series A funding round led by Austin Ventures. The startup, which has records in 13 states, launched last year and is relocating from Houston to Austin as part of its funding deal. It plans to use the money to expand its inventory, product development, and marketing.
These startups identified an existing problem and developed innovations to solve them—making them attractive investments, a panel of angel and venture investors said during the forum.
In fact, venture arms of international oil companies have recently set up shop in Houston to find similar? opportunities. Statoil, Norway’s state-owned oil company, a few weeks ago installed John Egil Johannessen as investment manager, the first executive to be placed outside of Norway. And last year, Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s national oil company, brought Cory Steffek to Houston to its office to tap into Houston’s emerging energy entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“We’re looking for startups that can find more oil in better ways,” said Alexander Rozenfeld, a venture principal at Shell Technology Ventures in Houston.
That can come through a variety of businesses such as those in sensor technologies, data analytics, or condensate transportation technologies. But startups should be prepared to offer specifics, said Mark Blackwell, investment advisor with Cenovus Energy Venture Group in Calgary. “Do your homework,” he said. “I often get pitches that have zero relevancy to our business.”
Issam Dairanieh, global director at BP Ventures, cautioned startup founders to use their pitch time wisely. For starters, skip the slides that illustrate rising energy consumption or other global statistics. “Don’t spend a lot of time educating us about our own business,” he said.