Fueling the Future of Energy
Energy giant Shell is tapping an unlikely resource to develop clean power solutions: small, innovative startups.
AAs one of the world’s largest energy providers, it’s no surprise that Shell is investing heavily to future-proof for changing and rising energy demands. In fact, the company intends to invest up to $1 billion a year in new solutions by 2020 in three main areas: new fuels for transport, renewable power, and ways to connect customers with new business models for mobility and energy services. What’s surprising is that its approach is entrepreneurial, including collaborating with startups to unlock innovation. Some of these partnerships can be seen in the award-winning #makethefuture campaign, which supports six “bright energy” inventors whose creations are impacting communities around the world, such as taking safe, clean lights to Kenya. Last year, the inventions went viral in a music video featuring Jennifer Hudson. This year, they’re going mobile as part of the Shell Synergy truck, a futuristic food truck created with U.S. college students and featured at Fast Company’s annual Innovation Festival in October. Fastco.works spoke with MALENA CUTULI, who leads the #makethefuture campaign as group head of integrated brand communications and capability, and GEERT VAN DE WOUW, managing director of Shell Technology Ventures (STV). As a pioneering corporate venture fund in the oil and gas industry, STV is both investor and partner for startups speeding up the deployment of innovative energy technologies. FCW: Of all the ways to showcase new technologies, why a food truck? Malena Cutuli: Food is a universal passion we all love talking about. By combining these technologies in a food truck, we can spark a wider conversation about energy that’s more engaging than us talking in very scientific and technical terms. It surprises people because often they are unaware that Shell is doing anything other than traditional hydrocarbon solutions, when actually, we’re continuously collaborating with innovators and have a division dedicated to driving new energy solutions as well as our investment fund, STV. FCW: What are some of the innovations in the truck? MC: One is Gravitylight [in which a falling weight powers an LED light for up to 20 minutes], which last year we helped launch in Kenya, where people use kerosene lamps that are very harmful to their health. And the walkway in front of the truck, where people “dance for their food,” is made by Pavegen, which helped us build a footstep-powered soccer pitch in Rio de Janeiro; people play all day and light it up at night with their footsteps. FCW: What does Shell Technology Ventures look for in a startup? Geert van de Wouw: We look for innovators in the oil and gas, new energies, and digital domains that will help us address the challenges within our business and with the potential to shift the energy ecosystem. The management team is critical—it’s better to invest in great people than in great tech with a poor team behind it. Not least because we’re more than investors, we’re also customers of every startup we’ve invested in. FCW: What technologies are you excited about right now? GVW: From 25 investments, we’ve pulled out of just two— beating the VC average—because we offer not just funding but the weight of our R&D and scientific expertise as well as a global customer base and network to help our partners develop their concepts. Sense is an exciting one—it’s a platform that gives homeowners real-time data on the power usage of every appliance in the home—and Kite Powered Systems, which is a long-term partner. We’ve recently joined forces with two other energy firms to help bring their plan for the world’s first kite power station to reality. FCW: Some might wonder if this is all window dressing to distract from your responsibility to tackle climate change and address the energy transition? GVW: As a business full of engineers, our first question is always “does it actually work?” Engineers are problem solvers and we’re excited about finding and developing future energy solutions for a rapidly changing world. STV is not a social investment fund; we deliver returns and help our partners succeed, but we do look for opportunities to create shared value for society. Our latest venture fund in Nigeria, for example, is creating new entrepreneurs in a country where we have a major presence and want to help diversify the economy and help society electrify its energy system.
In Brazil, Shell partner Pavegen converts the energy from soccer players’ footsteps into electricity for the field.
Shell’s Geert van de Wouw and Malena Cutuli