The Top 25: Geert van de Wouw, Shell Ventures

Geert van de Wouw has been vice-president of Shell Ventures, the corporate venturing unit of the Anglo-Dutch oil major, since April 2012.

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 was dropped in 2017 to leave Shell Ventures.

Mark Gainsborough, executive vice-president at Shell New Energies since its launch in mid-2016, said last year: “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.”

Van de Wouw told GCV last year: “The rebranding is quite easy to explain. We have been doing investing in business model innovation rather than strictly technologies, as the old name implied. People would just get very confused as our mandate expanded, and the name implied a focus on technology only.”

Besides technology, Shell Ventures has invested in various business model innovators over the past 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. As van de Wouw put it: “We relaunched Shell Ventures back in 2012 as concentrated primarily on core oil and gas technologies. Two years later we began looking at renewable energy technologies and in 2016 we started to include novel business models in the renewable power domain. In 2017, we further expanded our scope to include business models and technologies in the Future of Mobility space. A good example of that is our recent investment in Ample, a rapidly deployable EV battery charging solution proposition from California for operators of electric fleets, allowing slow charging and 24/7 availability of battery-powered vehicles. To achieve this, Ample uses autonomous robotics and smart-battery technology.”

The size of his team has also increased. “In terms of finding talent for our venturing unit, we doubled the size of the team since the beginning of 2017 and there has been no shortage of excellent professionals applying to work at Shell Ventures. Many of them come from outside the company [Shell], from corporate venturing units, financial VC’s or private equity firms, bringing their unique external perspectives to Shell Ventures.

“I believe this is thanks to our reputation as a professional and faithful co-investor, which we have been building over the years. The combination between these seasoned VC professionals and the people in my team that know Shell from the inside has proven to be very effective.”

One of his hires was Steve McGrath, now head of Shell Ventures – Silicon Valley & China since February 2017, 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 oversaw the Ample deal and took a board seat in July 2018.

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: “Diversity of thought is very important to any professional venture capital unit. Through challenging each other’s deals, we avoid deal-bias and sharpen our decision making. While at Shell Ventures we already have diversity in terms of geographic and cultural backgrounds, we would like to do better in terms of gender diversity.

“However, what we found quite difficult in the recruitment process was finding experienced female talent in the venture capital ecosystem, which is – unfortunately – still very male-dominated. So, I would like to use your magazine as a platform and say that if there are women working in venture capital interested in working for Shell, they should contact me. With closing 22 deals last year, we are one of the most active and diversified corporate investors in the Energy industry and otherwise a very diverse and fun team to work in.”

Most of the top 50 corporate venture units have women in their senior ranks, but there is still much to be done to boost diversity in the community. Van de Wouw recognised it and added: “I therefore fully embraced and supported the initiative taken by Wendell Brooks, President of Intel Capital during the 2018 GCVI Summit when he called us out to hire and mentor the best and the brightest women and underrepresented minorities as part of our growth plans.”

Van der Wouw also said for his profile last year: “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 on 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 continuous 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!”

This year, Shell acquired its portfolio company Germany-based energy storage technology provider Sonnen in February for an undisclosed amount. The company had received about $168m in funding, including $70m in a May 2018 round led by Shell’s corporate venturing unit, Shell Ventures, that included all its existing investors.

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 the 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 made all efforts to build an even longer-term, more sustainable one in more ways than one.