The top 25: Geert Van de Wouw, Shell Ventures

What is in a name? For Geert Van de Wouw, vice-president of Shell Ventures, the corporate venturing unit of the Anglo-Dutch oil major, quite a lot.

While Shell Technology Ventures (STV) had existed in one form or another since 1996, making it the longest running energy industry corporate venture organisation in existence, the “Technology” part of the name has been dropped at the end of last month to leave Shell Ventures.

Mark Gainsborough, executive vice-president of new energies at Shell, said: “2017 has been an incredible year for Shell Ventures with investments in 22 unique startups that are developing a wide range of innovations across the energy domain, ranging from renewable energy and connected mobility to digital and oil and gas. Through Shell Ventures, our New Energies business obtains early insights into disruptive trends in our industry and creates options for future business growth. This allows Shell to anticipate the change that is happening as a result of the energy transition.

“Furthermore, to signify its expanded scope, we have changed the name from Shell Technology Ventures to Shell Ventures. Technology will continue to remain one of our focus areas, but the new name reflects an evolving reality in the energy industry, where – besides technologies – innovative and potentially disruptive business models are being introduced by startups that have highly disruptive qualities and are therefore of interest to Shell. Often underpinned by a unique digital capability, these business model innovators are making us rethink the way we, for example, interact with our motorist customers in retail, or develop new solar projects, conduct maintenance at our petrochemical sites or offer more ‘connected’ energy offerings to our commercial, industrial and residential customers.”

As Van de Wouw said at the start of the month, “two weeks ago we just closed another technology investment in HyET Hydrogen, the hydrogen membrane compressor company from the Netherlands.

“However, as the energy transition is progressing in full force, new and innovative business models are being introduced through the startups ecosystem that have highly disruptive qualities which are of interest to Shell. Often underpinned by a unique digital capability, these business model innovators are making us rethink the way we, for example, interact with our motorist customers in retail, or develop new solar projects, conduct maintenance at our petrochemical sites or offer more ‘connected’ energy offerings to our commercial, industrial and residential customers. To recognise our expanded focus, we have therefore decided to make our name more ‘inclusive’ and recognise that technology innovation is not the only type of innovation we are looking for.”

Besides technology, Shell Ventures has invested in various business model innovators over the last few years, including Sunseap, a clean energy solutions provider from Singapore, Innowatts, an integrated retail energy platform that uses smart meter data and weather data for retail energy providers, and Tiramizoo, a Germany-based startup for same-day, last-mile delivery optimisation.

Beyond the name change, Shell Ventures had an active year. Van de Wouw said: “2017 was been an extremely active [year] for Shell Technology Ventures, closing 20 investments in 12 months, including five follow-ons.

“Meanwhile I doubled the size of our team (from 12 to 24) and we established a new office and hub in San Francisco. With the establishment of a new hub in Shanghai in 2018, we will have a presence at six locations across the globe: Boston, San Francisco, Houston, London, Netherlands and Shanghai.

One of his hires was Steve McGrath, now head of Shell Ventures – Silicon Valley & China since last year having previously been the CEO of emerging technologies group of Spencer Trask, the legacy of the eponymous financier who backed Thomas Edison and invested in the light bulb, the first electric grid, and the phonograph.

He replaced Neal Dikeman, who this year is running for the US Senate.

However, building a diversified team has been a challenge and so Van de Wouw has “herewith wholeheartedly and passionately support Intel Capital’s Wendell Brooks call out for more diversity in our corporate venture capital industry”.

He added: “In 2017, we have doubled the size of our Shell Ventures team, but found it particularly tough in that process to find female VC talent, as the VC industry is – unfortunately – still very male-dominated.

“I am a firm believer of diversity in teams, as this drives diversity of views and perspectives in our teams, which is key to the decision making quality of any venture firm. It is for this reason that Shell Ventures have embarked on a conscious initiative – as part of our Shell Ventures 2.0 Improvement Plan – to hire more female and underrepresented minorities in our team. I am leading this effort together with Ashley Smith in my team, who is equally passionate about this initiative.

“We have come to the realisation that, besides our continued efforts to hire external female and minority talent into Shell Ventures, for example for our growth plans in China, we also have to be very deliberate in growing our own talent through hiring female and minority talent into more junior positions at Shell Ventures. These roles can be Investment associates or interns.”

But the search for the right people has yet to prevent its ongoing work of increased relevance to Shell.

Shell led the acquisition of venture-backed startup The New Motion, one of the leading charge-point providers for electric mobility in Europe. But Van de Wouw, who is on the board of Airborne Oil and Gas, pointed to Shell Ventures’ “ability to forge strategic partnerships between our portfolio companies and our (Shell) businesses”.

More than 90% of its investments are being deployed within Shell, including data analytics platform Maana, which is being deployed at 12 different occasions in Shell, and concentrated solar for industrial heat and enhanced oil recovery Glasspoint.

He said: “Glasspoint is a perfect example of a very successful startup that wouldn’t be around today without STV’s and Shell help. In parallel with our minority investment in 2012, Shell funded the construction of a 50 tonnes-per-day steam pilot at Jamal in Oman. We subsequently led the next round, $50m, with SGRF (the sovereign wealth fund of Oman), who we got interested to co-invest with us. Glasspoint is now busy completing the largest solar steam project in the world in Oman with through our JV [joint venture] partner PDO: a 1 GigaWatt and 6000 tonnes-per-day steam plant at our heavy oil fields in Miraah (Oman). More recently, Glasspoint was awarded a similar steam delivery contract by the Shell-Exxon joint venture ERA in California!”

More broadly, Shell Ventures has expanded its focus from oil and gas technologies only to renewable energy (power value chain), connected energy (smart homes and smart businesses), digital (data analytics) to smart or connected mobility and freight.

He said: “Besides our traditional focus to support our upstream and integrated gas businesses, we now cover all Shell businesses, including new energies, retail, global commercial (lubes) and trading.”

Shell Ventures also supports and funds several incubator programs like Greentown Labs in Boston.

And so while chemicals company DuPont was the largest corporate venturing group of the 1960s and before, oil major Exxon was probably the largest CVC in the 1970s, having been founded the decade before. Exxon Enterprises’ subsequent fall and sale for $1m in the 1980s has proved an academic case study of CVC management techniques but its closure has also allowed peer Shell to claim the mantle of long-running corporate venturing unit. It is a title Van de Wouw, who after nine years at Fluor joined Shell in 2004 and held a number of senior roles before taking on Ventures in 2012, is proud of and it making all efforts to build an even longer-term, more sustainable one in more ways than one.