- Shell is one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, with a market cap of nearly $165 billion.
- The company has invested heavily in clean-energy technologies, partly through an incubator program called GameChanger, which invests in early-stage startups.
- The program’s lead, Lene Hviid, told Business Insider that working with startups helps ensure the energy giant doesn’t miss breakthrough ideas that will drive the energy transition.
- She said Shell is placing bets on a handful of clean-energy technologies including hydrogen, electrification, and the circular economy.
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When Lene Hviid’s 17-year-old son wanted to go to a recent climate strike, he asked her: “What do you think if I go?”
Attending a climate strike today certainly isn’t out of the ordinary, especially for a teenager. But it was for him — because Hviid, who’s based in Amsterdam, has been working at the oil giant Shell for nearly seven years.
“I think it’s great,” she said of him attending the strike. “I think it’s really necessary that we have these voices. We have no interest in not making the energy transition happen.”
Shell is trying to be a part of it, she says. The challenge is that the company is a “supertanker,” and it’s hard for something so large to change course.
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That’s one reason why Shell has invested in so many startups, said Hviid, who runs an incubator program at Shell called GameChanger, which the company launched in 1996.
“If you look at the energy transition and you are a supertanker that has to change, you need help from a lot of companies around you to make it happen,” she said.
In the last five years, GameChanger has worked with more than 1,500 inventors, invested more than $44 million, and mentored dozens of startups. Right now, the majority of them are working on the energy transition, Hviid said.
GameChanger works alongside Shell’s venture arm, which has made 71 investments, according to PitchBook.
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The world is trying to wean itself off of fossil fuels, so how does a massive oil and gas company stay relevant — not to mention, profitable?
One way is to invest in internal R&D, which Shell is doing, to the tune of about $1 billion a year, according to the data site Statistica.
But it’s easy to “fall in love with your own technologies,” Hviid says, and be blind to breakthrough ideas. That’s another reason why Shell invests so heavily in early-stage startups.
“We want to make sure we don’t miss the opportunity to know what’s going on,” she said.
Plus, it’s a win-win, she says: While an old company like Shell secures a stake in new technologies, startups get a clearer picture of the challenges the industry is staring down.
Where Shell is placing its bets
Unlike Shell’s venture arm, Hviid’s program is largely unrestricted and focused on pre-seed or seed-stage ventures.
That gives her the flexibility to go after truly out-there ideas.
GameChanger has backed companies like Teratonix, which is developing a technology to harness the invisible electromagnetic waves in the air around us to power small devices, in addition to startups like GlassPoint, which uses mirrors inside a greenhouse to generate steam.
But Hviid says there are a few areas of clean energy on which Shell is placing its biggest bets.
One of those is hydrogen, an emerging industry worth an estimated $145 billion.
Shell has been invested in hydrogen gas — which can be used to heat homes and power cars — for years now, Hviid says.
In fact, it became the first “branded” fuel provider to sell hydrogen at a station in 2017, the company says. And last week, Shell announced that it’s planning to build the world’s largest “green” hydrogen plant (green hydrogen is made using renewable energy).
Read more: Shell just announced plans to build the world’s largest ‘green hydrogen’ plant. Here’s everything you need to know about the $145 billion industry, which is set to transform the energy sector.
The challenge is making hydrogen cost-competitive compared to other fuels, she said, and scaling it up.
“Here in our Amsterdam office we can fill a hydrogen car with hydrogen and use it for business trips,” she said. “But how do you scale it up, and how are you able to offer it to consumers?”
That’s where startups come in.
Shell’s GameChanger portfolio includes a number of early-stage hydrogen startups — from Alchemr, which makes low-cost electrolyzers that are used to generate hydrogen from water, to NanoSUN, a company that specializes in hydrogen transportation and storage.
Hviid says Shell is considering opening up an energy challenge in Europe to search for new ideas.
Like other oil giants, Shell is also investing in carbon-capture technologies
Hviid says Shell is also hunting down breakthrough ideas in what she calls the “circularity” industry.
That could include technologies that reduce the carbon emissions of products like concrete, or that turn the company’s waste — namely, carbon dioxide — into other products, such as fuels or chemicals used to make plastics.
Shell is among a handful of oil giants including Chevron and Occidental Petroleum that are backing emissions-to-product startups.
And it makes sense: Oil companies are under immense pressure to reduce their carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and startups like Opus12 and Dioxide Materials — both of which are in GameChanger’s portfolio — are developing solutions that can turn CO2 into products of value like fuel.
While the CO2-to-product industry has captured a lot of attention, it’s also been criticized by environmental advocates. They say it allows fossil-fuel emitters to continue with business as usual.
Preparing for a future when everything is electric
Shell is also betting on all kinds of technologies that will help bring stability to an electric grid that’s facing increasing pressure, as more and more electric cars, batteries, and solar panels are plugged in.
“If the future is going to be as electric as we think it could become,” she said, “what kind of technologies would you need?”
Shell isn’t exactly known for electric cars or grid technologies, which is one reason why it’s partnered with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Together, the pair runs an accelerator called GCxN, focused on long-duration storage and the more obscure industry surrounding distributed energy resources (DER) management.
“Shell is not making this investment just because it wants these companies to work for them,” Richard Adams, the director of the innovation and entrepreneurship center at NREL, told Business Insider. “Shell is making this investment to ensure that there’s a pipeline for the whole new energies sector.”
“I think what they’re trying to do is position themselves to try and take advantage of that transition, and be well-placed to take advantage of what the energy system of the future looks like,” he said.
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- Shell just announced plans to build the world’s largest ‘green hydrogen’ plant. Here’s everything you need to know about the $145 billion industry, which is set to transform the energy sector.
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