High-Power Niche: How a Tech Billionaire is Backing Energy Research and More

Gianluca D.Muscelli/shutterstock

Gianluca D.Muscelli/shutterstock

A big piece of the puzzle that is our energy future is vastly upgrading the systems we use to store and distribute power. It’s a challenge critical to improving energy efficiency, integrating different forms of renewables, deploying electric vehicles, and ensuring resilience under different stresses. 

Software billionaire Tom Siebel has taken on this issue as a priority in both his for-profit endeavors and his philanthropy. On the latter side, in 2015, he launched a funding and convening initiative called the Siebel Energy Institute. Since it kicked off, the research funder has made close to $3 million in grants, primarily through small chunks of funding to seed proposals that might secure larger sums from government or other sources. 

Siebel came into vast wealth when he sold the CRM company bearing his name to his former employer Larry Ellison and Oracle for just under $6 billion in 2006. Today, he’s worth close to $3 billion, and he and wife Stacey Siebel support causes like stem cell research, scholarships, curbing methamphetamine use, and energy research. 

That interest in energy aligns with his business interests, as he currently runs a company, C3, that initially focused on software for energy companies, and later pivoted to data analysis and the Internet of Things. C3 serves oil and gas, utilities and transportation industries, among others.

These priorities dovetail with the work of SEI, a charitable entity that holds conferences, collaborates with an advisory board of industry partners, including utilities and Siebel’s own company C3, and makes grants to nine universities. 

The program has now made four rounds of seed grants. Along with facing the challenges listed above, energy systems are increasingly wired, loaded up with sensors in household appliances and transformers alike, ideally to collect information and improve performance. SEI focuses on research to improve data analysis in so-called smart grids. So it’s a combination of meeting new needs placed on energy infrastructure, and new capabilities from advances in technology.

Looking back at the 60-plus grants (mostly $50,000 each) since SEI launched reveals some main themes. They include using number crunching and even machine learning to improve how systems use collected data to distribute energy, often with the underlying goal of improving energy efficiency, and expanding low-carbon energy sources. Other grants involve improving the collection of data using aerial drones, cars or wearable tech. 

One big focus, especially in the 2018 round of grants just announced, is on security and privacy, and ensuring that increasingly connected and cloud-based electric grids don’t leave infrastructure or user data vulnerable. Around two-thirds of the latest grantees involve some sort of work on security. For example, as tracking consumer data becomes more important, so does protecting privacy. Other proposals look at how we can protect against cyber attacks that affect physical systems, with energy systems presenting a dangerous potential vulnerability. In 2015, Russian hackers succeeded in shutting down Ukraine’s power grid, and earlier this year, the U.S. government released a report describing a Russian hacking campaign to infiltrate America’s “critical infrastructure,” including power plants and water facilities. A related concern among SEI grantees is the vulnerability of grids to disasters—another timely topic, given that an earthquake in Japan this September knocked out power for 5.3 million residents and Puerto Rico struggled for nearly a year to restore power after Hurricane Maria.

Though it’s not quite as prevalent in this round of grants, another big theme in previous years has been work on smart cities, involving factors like building efficiency, traffic management, and electric vehicles. One such proposal involves the use of vehicles and aerial drones to monitor buildings, and others involve wearable sensors to inform energy use in buildings. 

Energy is a big and important topic, and one that not a lot of private donors are taking on. One valuable aspect of SEI is that it recognizes its small role in a very large issue, using modest donations to inform the public and private sectors as they take on a multi-trillion-dollar challenge. At the same time, with a sizable war chest, the Siebels could play an even bigger part, and it will be interesting to see how SEI develops.