Energy Innovation Brief
Issue 31 | June 28, 2023
In Western Canada and around the world, the energy sector is rapidly transforming to one that promises to be cleaner, greener and more efficient. Each month, the Canada West Foundation’s Energy Innovation Brief brings you stories about technology innovations happening across the industry – in oil and gas, renewables, energy storage and transmission. If you have an idea for a story, email us at:
The EIB Interviews: Avatar Innovations
It’s an innovation lab. It’s a corporate venture studio. It launched Avatar Ignite, started Calgary’s Energy Transition Centre and is a partner in Elon Musk’s $100M Carbon Removal XPRIZE. Its CEO, Kevin Krausert, holds a similarly large vision to make a difference in the world. In this issue, we bring you an interview with Kevin about Avatar Innovations and hope you walk away with an understanding of the organization, its ambitious approach to technology development and the massive role it is sure to play in transforming the oil and gas industry.
So, Kevin, what is Avatar?
Avatar is a unique community of like-minded people who want to make a difference. Think of it as a place where people come together to try and solve the complex problems of climate change and energy transition. We’re building a new way of thinking for the future of our planet.
Ok, but really, what is Avatar?
Avatar is a corporate venture studio that works inside heavy industry and oil and gas to unlock new leaders and rapidly move decarbonization technologies from ideation through to commercialization.
The Avatar model is unique and doesn’t exist anywhere else. Large industrial emitters place their bright minds into our program, where they work collaboratively and have the chance to build out new technologies and bring them to market. Because the solutions are built inside the companies capable of scaling them, they can reach market at record pace.
There’s a good reason for us to take this approach. To reach a net zero future—and for it to not cost an absolute fortune—we need to look at ways to leverage existing assets and advantages, both infrastructure and expertise. And when it comes to decarbonization technologies such as carbon capture, hydrogen and renewable fuels, the oil and gas sector already has a lot of experience. Working with innovators from inside major oil and gas companies means we gain some major advantages: from an investment perspective, a technology adoption perspective and from a leadership perspective.
Tell me how Avatar works.
The best way to think about our model is as three legs of a stool: Avatar Ignite, Avatar Studio and Avatar Ventures.
Ignite is the first phase of the Avatar program. Hundreds of emerging industry professionals come together and are guided through a 14-week curriculum by university researchers and some of the world’s most senior business leaders. In addition to attending sessions on topics critical to the energy transition, participants work in semi-autonomous, multi-functional teams under an industry coach to generate an idea that solves a real challenge in the energy sector. At the end of the 14 weeks, teams have the opportunity to pitch their concept to executives from our corporate sponsors in a series of Shark Tank Panels.
From here the most promising ideas are selected and sponsored by an organization to advance to Avatar Studio–the second leg of the stool.
In Avatar Studio teams prototype their idea and begin building a start-up. They receive paid work time each week as well as pre-seed capital to help built it, access to University of Calgary and SAIT resources including paid interns and laboratories, and mentorship from the sponsoring company. This is where participants get to really experience the process of creating a start-up company.
And finally, after months of work with sponsors to hone their idea, the teams from Avatar Studio get a chance to present to a panel of investors at “Demo Day.” The best of those solutions receive investment from the third leg of the Avatar program: Avatar Ventures and its venture capital fund. Then the start-ups begin a rapid process of scaling the technology with the support of a robust team of industry experts to maximize success. And they keep full ownership of the intellectual property they created in the program.
Kevin, was this your brainchild? Did you come up with a new approach, or did you adapt it from things you had seen elsewhere?
It was a bit of both. In my previous role, I ran Beaver Drilling, the largest Canadian private oil and gas drilling company. When the market crashed in 2015-2016, it became apparent to me that the industry had changed structurally instead of cyclically; we were never going back to an 800-rig market, while at the same time we were being asked by our operators to roll out advanced drilling automation technology.
I realized we needed two things to succeed in the future: a way to foster skills around innovation for new technologies and a sandbox for industry to try out breakthrough technologies. That became the crux of Avatar: not just technology innovation, but customer access, innovation on new business models and new pathways.
Avatar really took off when I met my co-founder Bryan Trudel who was then running CIBC Capital Market’s energy desk on Bay Street. He brought the capital markets view, the venture capital expertise and the capital discipline to Avatar, which has allowed us to expand globally with a new model for industrial decarbonization.
How is what you do different than other clean tech accelerators?
The important differentiation is that we are a corporate venture studio, not an accelerator. An accelerator traditionally starts with an existing company and brings them to market in an accelerated fashion. We don’t work with pre-existing companies; we create new ones. Because the company is new, we have a pristine vessel to innovate within without concerns around existing intellectual property. And because it was developed with sponsorship from an existing major oil and gas company, it has a customer already in place.
Can’t the large oil and gas companies just do this themselves?
Oil and gas companies certainly do lots of innovation on their own. But in this case, there are some unique benefits to developing new tech outside of large organizations. First, it allows early-stage breakthrough technologies to run as fast and nimbly as a start-up, instead of the sometimes burdensome processes large organizations tend towards. Second, it increases motivation for the people developing the technology, as they get to keep what they make. This gets around the lack of incentive to develop new tech within a large company where the company, not the innovator, would own the intellectual property.
For the companies, they get the benefit of being the first adopters and gaining access to the new technology—without having to develop it in-house and in a much cheaper way. It’s also changing people’s perceptions of what it means to work in oil and gas. It shows that employment in our sector is just as innovative as anything in Silicon Valley and is making a bigger impact on a net zero future. And finally, big companies can be awash with good ideas but not ways to fund them. This is why the third leg, the venture funding, is so important.
How much appetite is there for this within Canada – or internationally?
Quite a lot. Our headquarters are here in Calgary at the Energy Transition Centre and our first international branch is in Houston. The decision to set up in Houston was driven by two of our big supporters, TC Energy and Enbridge, who have offices there and found that nothing like Avatar existed there yet. Another of our major supporters, Hitachi, is interested in supporting an Asian expansion. We are likewise evaluating a Middle Eastern expansion and are in talks with some major producers in the region. For now, our focus is on delivering value and new technologies to our Canadian and U.S. partners. We are cautiously optimistic that when the time is right, the Avatar model will provide value to many global energy geographies.
Oil and gas can be pretty political. How do you stay out of that?
We have made Avatar an explicitly non-partisan organization. That’s because we believe the only way innovation and big things can happen around the energy transition is if we can get past the political aspects of it. There are arguments that can be made to both the right and the left in terms of why a successful transition is needed and what that looks like. On the right, the value proposition might be an investment attraction angle. On the left, the conversation is about the social and environmental benefits of the energy transition. I speak with all political parties at the provincial and federal levels as I am adamant that we have to make a case for the energy transition that resonates with everyone.
Kevin, your star is definitely on the rise—you bring vision, passion, reach and effectiveness. How are you going to avoid letting success get to your head?
Humility would—I guess—be my answer to that. It’s important to recognize that while we might be on top now, it doesn’t take a whole lot to turn things around. I’ve experienced the ups and downs of the industry during my time working on drilling rigs. I know what it feels like to be on the bottom. It’s one of the reasons I started this journey to create Avatar; I don’t want anyone else to have to go through that. We need to make the energy transition an opportunity and help each other out along this tough and grueling path.
I never want to be the person who uses their success to exclude people. That really is something that keeps me up at night; thinking about how we can make sure we include more people in this journey. The only way this works is if we all do it together.
When we look at the goal of getting to net zero by 2050, it’s going to require investment and innovation at a scale this planet has never seen before. We do not have the luxury to say “we like this form of energy but not that form of energy.” And if we have only high-minded idealism then we’re not going to get there. It’s time for us to start looking at the energy transition from the perspective of what has the lowest cost and highest utility. And if we do that, we start to realize that the oil and gas industry can play a pretty meaningful role in getting us to net zero. We need to envision a future where we have applied our infinite creativity as a species to the task of living in a finite world. That’s how we are building the new energy future.
The Energy Innovation Brief is compiled by Brendan Cooke and Marla Orenstein. If you like what you see, subscribe to our mailing list and share with a friend. If you have any interesting stories for future editions, please send them to .