Sustainability investor addresses startup challenges, Houston's capital shortages, and more

Josh Posamentier, co-founder and managing partner at Congruent Ventures, will join Venture Houston as a speaker this year. Photo via congruentvc.com

It's been a challenging year for venture capital, but how are climatetech startups doing specifically? One Bay Area investor shares his point of view on this this topic ahead of Venture Houston next week.

Joshua Posamentier, co-founder and managing partner of Congruent Ventures, a San Francisco-based firm that invests in early-stage sustainable companies, is taking the stage at Venture Houston on September 7. Among others, Posamentier will be in conversation with the founder of one of his firm's portfolio companies, Fervo Energy, discussing seed and early-stage funding for sustainability-focused startups.

Venture Houston is presented by HX Venture Fund, a fund of funds that deploys capital into non-Houston firms to encourage investment in local startups. This year's theme is "Spotlighting the path for decarbonization in a digital world."

Posamentier, who has worked over a decade in this space, shares some of his thoughts on Houston as an energy transition leader, the challenges climate-tech startups face, and more in an interview with EnergyCapital.

EnergyCapital: How do you see Houston and its role in this energy transition, its challenges, its opportunities, etc.?

Josh Posamentier: I actually tend to disagree with the people that say Houston is too far down the oil and gas path. I mean, it's it's capitalism at the end of the day. There's money to be made in in climate mitigation technologies. People are going to go chase it, and I think Houston, of all places, is a pretty capitalistic city. And people are definitely not shy about chasing the next big opportunity. I mean, it was oil and natural gas before, and now it's now it's alternative energy. And so I think from that perspective, it's fine. There's a lot of money.

I think the biggest challenge is honestly, especially on a perception basis, a lot of the policy and social stuff that's endemic to Texas, which is a bummer. I mean, especially for younger talent. Austin had a shine, but I think that's largely gone and Houston never had it. So, I think it's something that needs to be overcome and needs to be thought about at a state level basis, especially if you're going to want to attract young entrepreneurial talent.

EC: What are some of the challenges energy transition startups are facing these days? How is your fund kind of supporting your portfolio companies through these challenges?

JP: There's some normalization that's had to happen over the last 9 to 12 months. As you know, corrections have come down the pipe in the venture ecosystem. By all accounts, it has been really frothy for the last few years, especially so in parts of climate. Some of that's due to the the proliferation of investment from non climate-specific firms. And it's, in many ways, decoupled from the ups and downs of different parts of the venture ecosystem, but it also has different timelines. I think not everyone always appreciates what that means and what that implies for for startups. So there's a lot of frustration and a lot of missed expectations in the early stage part of the ecosystem that are slowly getting fixed. I think getting expectations more in line with reality is going to help immensely.

The other thing is just figuring out how to talk more in a language that venture investors understand. I think that's a little bit of a challenge. There's there's actually a pretty big gap between if you're an oil and gas developer and thinking about how you fund that kind of a business versus how you fund a technology-enabling business. Fervo Energy is an interesting example. It's a tech company, but now it's really a tech enabled developer because they have no choice but to do that full stack. They went to school out here. They understand the ecosystem. They've really taken the effort to really understand all the capital players. And so we're waiting to see how that ultimately plays out.

But there's just different capital. I think it is a little challenging. And this is a good thing. There does need to be a way, I think, to just get people more exposure to to the market there — in the Houston market specifically. If you're spinning at Stanford, there are hundreds of VCs within walking distance. In Houston, the ones I know I can count on one hand.

EC: Has that pace of commercialization changed over the years or have founders found ways to survive that valley of death?

JP: I don't think anything's really changed fundamentally. I think people have gotten a little more clever about understanding how the adoption occurs, and figuring out how to phase into those processes that that comes with experience. But there's only so much acceleration you can do when you're dealing with critical infrastructure. You know, people are not going to want to just jump right in, rip out, and replace things that keep the lights on. And so you just have to figure out how to how to capitalize a business in such a way that you can you can live with those kinds of timelines. Venture capital is a fantastic tool, and it is far from the right tool for every problem. And so there are plenty of opportunities to deploy other tools that are more appropriate to different kinds of different kinds of challenges.

EC: What attracted you to investing in Fervo Energy?

JP: So, it's how we think about portfolio construction. Fervo has an amazing team, which we will bend a lot of rules for, and we saw this opportunity as something they could build a ton of value by validating the tech, establishing a huge land position, and then raising different kinds of capital for the out years and for the project development. A bunch of our companies took venture capital to develop a technology, and then they know that venture is not the right class of capital to then scale that throughout the world and whatever. So they would basically raise other forms of capital in the out years to deploy the technologies.

EC: And one of those options is government funding. How do your portfolio companies utilize that?

JP: A big chunk of our portfolio has some government money, even if it's very early stage research grants or something like that. I see government money being the most effective in a couple of ways. One way obviously is to get the core research out of it versus just spin it into something more commercial that we can all then look at.

The other place that is really exciting is in is getting technologies to scale where they're then cost effective without further subsidies. When we underwrite companies, we are very explicitly underwriting them in the absence of subsidies at scale. The assumption is those are just there to basically bridge the gap between "this is totally uneconomic because it's a tiny, tiny little factory or something" versus "it would be plenty economic if it were a big factory." So, if they can just bridge that gap with a little bit of government money.

We've been through this this cycle a couple of times, and we can't in good faith underwrite anything assuming that government subsidies are going to continue. We very much believe it's a bridge — it's got to be a bridge to something. It can't be a bridge to nowhere. And I think there are a lot of companies out there today that are almost designed to just pump the government incentives, and that's not a recipe for a business that can grow on its own over time.


This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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A View From HETI

A Houston-based initiative has been selected by the DOE to receive funding to develop clean energy innovation programming for startups and entrepreneurs. Photo via Getty Images

Houston has been selected as one of the hubs backed by a new program from the United States Department of Energy that's developing communities for clean energy innovation.

The DOE's Office of Technology Transitions announced the the first phase of winners of the Energy Program for Innovation Clusters, or EPIC, Round 3. The local initiative is one of 23 incubators and accelerators that was awarded $150,000 to support programming for energy startups and entrepreneurs.

The Houston-based participant is called "Texas Innovates: Carbon and Hydrogen Innovation and Learning Incubator," or CHILI, and it's a program meant to feed startups into the DOE recognized HyVelocity program and other regional decarbonization efforts.

EPIC was launched to drive innovation at a local level and to inspire commercial success of energy startups. It's the third year of the competition that wraps up with a winning participant negotiating a three-year cooperative agreement with OTT worth up to $1 million.

“Incubators and Accelerators are uniquely positioned to provide startups things they can't get anywhere else -- mentorship, technology validation, and other critical business development support," DOE Chief Commercialization Officer and Director of OTT Vanessa Z. Chan says in a news release. “The EPIC program allows us to provide consistent funding to organizations who are developing robust programming, resources, and support for innovative energy startups and entrepreneurs.”

CHILI, the only participant in Texas, now moves on to the second phase of the competition, where they will design a project continuation plan and programming for the next seven months to be submitted in September.

where they’ll implement their programming and design a project continuation plan over the next 7 months. In September they will submit their plans with the hope of being selected to negotiate a three-year cooperative agreement with OTT, worth up to $1 million each.

Phase 2 also includes two national pitch competitions with a total of $165,000 in cash prizes up for grabs for startups. The first EPIC pitch event for 2024 will be in June at the 2024 Small Business Forum & Expo in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Last fall, the DOE selected the Gulf Coast's project, HyVelocity Hydrogen Hub, as one of the seven regions to receive a part of the $7 billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The hub was announced to receive up to $1.2 billion — the most any hub will get.

The DOE's OTT selections are nationwide. Photo via energy.gov

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