As President of Chevron Technology Ventures, she has her thumb on the pulse of innovation in and around the energy space. As Vice Chair of Houston Exponential, she is a tremendous asset to the startup community.
Russ: Hi I’m Russ Capper and this is HXTV, championing Houston’s innovators and entrepreneurs. Brought to you by PKF Texas, CPA and advisors supporting Houston innovators for over 15 years. I’m very pleased to have as my guest today the President of Chevron Technology Ventures. She also happens to be the Vice Chair of Houston Exponential, Barbara Burger. Barbara, great to have you.
Barbara: Thank you very much.
Russ: Let’s start here, tell us about your day job. What’s this thing Chevron Technology Ventures?
Barbara: My day job – first of all, I’ve been with Chevron more than half my life, so that’s a long time. But since 2013 I’ve lived in Houston and I’m President of the Tech Ventures Company. We’ve been in existence for almost 20 years and I have to give credit to those who had the inspiration and the insight to form the organization. Our job is to look outside of Chevron and to bring in innovation that we see outside in for Chevron’s use today or in the future.
Russ: Real interesting. So, I am curious, do you get, at the beginning of the year, do they give you a ‘we want these’ technologies list? Or do you get to come up with what you look for?
Barbara: It’s a bit of all of that. So, first of all, very few of us could make a list of if we had all of these things, we would be able to take our business forward a certain way. Because things are constantly changing. So, we do have processes in Chevron where we think about where our gaps are, and we are really focusing on the gaps. And then it is up to us to find innovative ways whereby you can close that gap. But they are constantly changing, and Chevron is a large company. So, it spans from upstream, to midstream, to downstream, subsurface to surface, to IT to digital, you name it, there are lots of ways to improve the business.
Russ: So, I guess also from 2013 to almost 2019, everything’s changed quite a bit.
Barbara: So, I moved here in 2013, if you remember what was happening during that time, oil was over $100 a barrel. It was all about production. There were some warning signs that cost was an issue, but it was about production. So, if you looked at a lot of our investments and a lot of the technology we trialed there, it was all about getting more barrels. Fast forward, prices came down, tremendous competition, and it became all about cost and cost effectiveness. I come from the downstream, that is the world that we have lived in. That kind of intersected with the whole digital revolution, which has been an incredible enabler for cost efficiency and productivity across the corporation. And so, I like to think that the advances in that helped us even before the oil prices came down. But they certainly have made us a stronger competitor going forward.
Russ: What’s important today? Are we talking about renewables and that whole category?
Barbara: We have got several funds, and I think- look at it largely in a couple of areas. One is for our core oil and gas business; how do we make it absolutely as good as it can be? “Win in any environment,” is a statement that we use in Chevron. The second is, we have been around for 140 years, Chevron, and we have a long future ahead of us. And so, it’s all about what are those disruptive and innovative technologies, including other fuel sources, other value chains that are really going to impact energy and we make strategic bets around those.
Russ: When you talk about bets and you talk about investments, it seems to me that if you are a corporate venture capital firm, you might even do more acquisitions of things than you actually… but do you actually just sometimes make investments?
Barbara: We do. And so, first of all, for over 20 years we have been making investments. We are a corporate venture and we do it for a few reasons. One is we see something out there that looks really promising and we want to make sure that they are funded to the path of sustainability. The second is that we want to influence them to look at us and to look at us from an industry standpoint, look at us from Chevron’s perspective, and innovate to address the opportunity or the gap that we see. I think both of those are important for us. We’re not the part of Chevron that is going to look for buying things, we are going to take a strategic bet. It may inform acquisition opportunities, but frankly we just want to make sure that there are lots of suppliers in the future. We talk about creating the suppliers of the future through the work that we do.
Russ: Interesting. I am curious too how these deals come together. Are you usually out searching and you find a viable technology you want to promote and potentially invest in? Or are they always knocking on your door up here and say, “hey we want to show you something.”
Barbara: It is all the above. I want to share first a statistic that I have told a lot of people. When I moved here to Houston to run this organization, I realized we had more investments in Stavanger, Norway than Houston. So, I said, what we really want to do is to be present in innovation ecosystems so that, one, people understand our problems and our opportunities; two, we understand what is out there, whether it is Houston, Boston, the bay area, Stavanger, Norway, we want to make sure that we are well known there. If you have been around for 20 years, people find you. But the opportunities come from everywhere. They come from inside the company, because people see a potential technology and they ask us to look at it. They come from our employees being out and present. They come from investors that we work with. They come from the CEO of a startup that has got a new round of financing on his or her plans and wants us to be a part of it. We have to be open to those opportunities coming from everywhere.
Russ: If you look are what you are looking at today, what do you think is the most interesting?
Barbara: There is a whole bunch of digital opportunities and particularly at the edge. We are looking at digitally enabling our workflows across this vast enterprise at Chevron. There is a whole selection of technologies there. There are technologies that we would call novel pathways, ways to make products, fuels, polymers in a different way than we currently make them. There are materials that can somehow convince our refineries and our assets that they are not as old as they actually are. All of us can relate to how big that is. Let’s see, I’ll just give maybe one more. As we look to the future, the world is getting electrified. The expectations are around it getting decarbonized. Energy sources and uses are getting more distributed and decentralized. And the consumer is playing a big role. We want to understand how money gets made in that new world and so we are placing some strategic bets in that area.
Russ: All very fascinating.
Barbara: And I didn’t tell you about any of my favorite children.
Russ: You didn’t, but you do have a pretty good team that works with you on all of these too don’t you?
Barbara: It’s wonderful, as the head of an organization to have a great team. I would describe our team, first of all we have 50 people in the Tech Ventures Company. We have nine different functions. In Chevron, we define people by the functions that they came up through. You’re familiar with petroleum engineer or a facility engineer. So, we have a bit of a Noah’s Ark going on here because the opportunities and the needs span the enterprise. And so, nine different types of functions, it’s probably got a few extras in there, which as a leader is just great fun to have such a disparate group. They all are technically trained, many of them with business degrees as well. But they’ve got experience in the domain. They understand our needs, which is really important. They are not just looking for the deal, they are looking for the technology or the innovation that can make Chevron better. So, they really understand that piece.
We’re a leverage model for everything, so if you’ve got anything we can borrow, we will take it. But we leverage the people processes of Chevron and we bring in absolutely talented people through that people process. Then we immediately give them these really different opportunities to progress. I am very fortunate with the fact that they like what they do and that they work hard at it and they deliver great results.
Russ: I couldn’t help but think when you talked about when you first got here and there are all these investments in Norway and not here, that you talked about the ecosystem and so forth. I introduced you as the Vice Chair of Houston Exponential, it actually goes deeper than that. You were there very early on playing a role in the transition, Chevron has played a very active leader role in the whole fund of funds issue. Take us back to that, what motivated to you to get involved in that as deeply as you have?
Barbara: First of all, part of it is that I work for a company that is very involved. You have to remember that when I am out there, I am out there as both me and as Chevron. We have over 7,000 employees in Houston, so Houston is really important to us as a city and we are a downtown employer. It’s the capital of the energy industry and I want everybody to believe it is the capital of the industry and it’s the present tense and the future tense, so we don’t want it to be the past tense. As energy evolves, Houston needs to evolve. We do things beyond energy, but obviously energy is the focus for my company, and innovation is going to be one of those critical pieces of how this all unfolds.
My role in Chevron really lent itself to the external facing part of this. Chevron has placed tremendous importance on innovation, so that lent itself to me being involved. And frankly, we believe we need to be a key player in the community. So, it all kind of came together and I was just fortunate, I think, to be in the right place at the right time when the city, when the corporations, when the Greater Houston Partnership, when everybody came together and said, “So how come we don’t have as many startups and as much venture capital flow as other places?” I don’t think that they said Stavanger, Norway but they could have. And it was an interesting question. I came from the bay area, so I was used to a place where going out and striking it on your own and everything was kind of a right of passage in the bay area, and it wasn’t here. So, I guess I rolled up my sleeves and said, “For the good of my company and for my own interests, let me be involved.”
Russ: And thank you for doing that, definitely. I recently learned that you have been named one of the top 25 women in energy for 2019. Your success, in addition to leading the charge, being one of the highest-ranking women executives in business, it’s also not just business-business, although you have business education, but you also have this science and technology background which really puts you in a unique category. Number one, how did you make it here, how do you think you became successful? And what can we all do to have more women in your position?
Barbara: Good questions. I was good in school, so that was one of the key successes. And I’ve told this story many times to students that are about ready to graduate, is don’t think you’re making the 30-year decision. I tell them, why did I join the energy industry? I actually, I was a PhD chemist and I actually was joining the chemical side of a company. In those days, the big companies were the very attractive employers. I went for an interview, I liked what they told me, they described a career that sounded good. The energy industry was huge, and it was global, and that appealed to me. As my career has progressed, the energy industry has changed, my company has changed, and guess what? I have changed.
What I would say about success is that every move has kind of worked. I demonstrated a long time ago that; one, I can work hard; two, I can sort of figure out what the problems are and go after them. I’m a middle child, so I’ve demonstrated that I can get along with others because otherwise I wouldn’t have made it through those first 18 years. And I love learning curves. When I’ve been put in a new job, I sort of figure out what I need to learn, and with this job, I’ve never actually finished the learning because the opportunities and the innovation and the myriad of things we can do just grows exponentially.
It’s a combination of lots of things; talent, opportunities, and passion. You’ve got the talent, but you can have talent in something that there’s no opportunities, or that you really don’t like. It turns out that we all are good at things that we don’t like to do. Being able to find something that you have the talent, there are opportunities, somebody wants the skill sets you have, and then you have the passion to do it. I’ve been very fortunate to have several assignments where I can say that I was able to check all three of those boxes.
Russ: Barbara, thank you so much for sharing your story with us today.
Barbara: You’re welcome. It was fun.
Russ: You bet. And that wraps up my discussion with Barbara Burger, the President of Chevron Technology Ventures. And this is HXTV.
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