December 6, 2018
Transformative technology starts out with a great idea that needs financial backing and talented people to make it become a reality. From space-tested artificial intelligence to “greener” concrete, BP’s venture investments in the U.S. are as diverse as the wider business portfolio.
Meet BP’s managing director for U.S. Ventures, Meghan Sharp, who explains why America is a great place for innovation — and reveals the tech she believes will transform our lives.
Why is the U.S. a great place for venture capitalists?
San Francisco and Silicon Valley continue as a hotbed of venture capital activity, with seemingly endless innovation. That’s why our U.S. home for BP Ventures is located here.
We’ve always had a global team and, for a while, the majority of us were U.K.-based. But, after growing our portfolio, we realized that around 80% of our investment companies are in America — without even trying!
There’s a fair amount of interesting activity in Colorado and in New York, too. But, the majority of our team is in San Francisco because it’s the place to be.
One BP-backed company has sent missions to Mars. Why is that technology relevant in the energy industry?
That’s right; we invested in a spinout from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories, called Beyond Limits, in 2017. Their technology has been tested in deep space missions, including landing the rover on Mars. We consider this investment as our big artificial intelligence (AI) bet.
Beyond Limits is a very interesting, advanced AI company, and we’re helping them take that technology and make it fit for purpose in our industry. There are a number of different areas where automated solutions that think like humans could transform our business.
Will any of these venturing technologies make a difference to BP customers?
They’re already doing so on a small scale, especially in the mobility space. Electrification is big news now, so we’re in the mix. We want people to be able to drive up and fuel their vehicles however they need — whether that’s with liquid fuel or charging their battery.
That’s where our investment in FreeWire fits; they are a California-based manufacturer of rapid-charging electric vehicle (EV) units. Their technology is mobile, meaning there’s no need to put a lot of infrastructure in place but we can take a first step in testing customer patterns and behaviours. So, we’re already gauging drivers’ appetite on BP sites in the U.K.
Some of BP’s investments focus on making waste valuable again. Is this the way forward?
That’s the golden circle, both for sustainability and business. And, we’re always looking for investments around carbon that support BP’s role in advancing the energy transition.
Firstly, there’s Fulcrum. We’re big believers in this company — they’re converting household waste into jet fuel — and avoiding the need for landfill. This year, they’ve broken ground on a new facility in Nevada that will convert enough garbage each year to fuel more than 180 return flights between London and New York. That’s very exciting — for our Air BP business as well, since they’ve agreed rights to buy every drop of fuel Fulcrum can deliver.
Then, we’ve invested in Solidia, a New Jersey company that is reducing the carbon footprint of concrete by up to 70 percent. Their technologies cure concrete with carbon dioxide (CO₂) instead of water. It’s a fascinating proposition as it means taking two traditionally emissions-intensive manufacturing businesses — cement and concrete — and essentially creating a carbon sink. Within BP, we’re looking at opportunities to place this Solidia technology near our operating facilities where we can take any CO₂ generated and turn it into something material and productive.
Channel 5: BP’s focus areas for investment
- Bio- and low-carbon products
- Carbon management
- Power and storage
- Advanced mobility
- Digital transformation
What’s on your checklist when deciding where to inject BP dollars?
Most importantly, we are strategic investors — meaning we don’t just look for a great financial opportunity, but we look for technologies that BP can deploy within its businesses. We have five areas of interest and the two hottest right now are digital and mobility.
As well as strategic fit, we like to be able to make an impact with a start-up company. We need to be able to help them create something fit for purpose for our industry or assist them with a growth strategy through our global presence. So, it needs to be win-win for both parties; we want to bring more to the table than simply the finances.
Then, I think people matter, above all. We’re interested in the management team. The number-one technology will lose out every time to a second-tier contender, if we believe the second tech option has the better, winning team behind it.
Which technologies do you believe will change the world as we know it?
I have two! Artificial intelligence will transform us, absolutely no question. So much will be automated, it’s hard to fully appreciate today.
Then, the shared economy in general is just emerging — it’s different and disruptive. From clothes to cars, you name it, we’ll be sharing it. Think Rent the Runway and Zipcar — and so many more in future. We’ll own less “stuff” and therefore, in theory, have less waste to dispose — so that’s another really interesting concept.
On the spot: beyond business
Meghan has headed BP’s ventures portfolio in the U.S. for the past seven years. She was planning to pursue a career in academia but had a change of heart…
How has your professional path led you to today’s role?
I’m a technologist by background and was a post-doc at Stanford, applying for a faculty position, when I made a huge pivot and realized I wanted to do something else — I wanted to go into venture capital. This is my third VC position and my first in the corporate world.
When BP hired me, I was working in the VC community in Manhattan and finishing my MBA. My foundation in science is beneficial as I understand the technology; I speak the same language, which is hugely valuable.
What makes BP Ventures an exciting workplace?
We’re at the very forefront of technologies that are going to change the world. They will change all our lives and we’re part of creating them. There are nine of us here in the U.S. and another eight in the wider global team. Our gender balance is almost 50:50, which is virtually unheard of in venture capital. That’s something to be proud of, too.
Curiosity ‘self-portrait’ image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS