Like many Rice University alumni, Jeff Bishop ’04 landed an internship that shifted his career focus.
The electrical and computer engineering alumnus said, “It was 2002, and I joined the Leadership Rice Mentoring Experience. Only one international opportunity was listed: Andy Karsner, a Rice alumnus, needed someone to work on wind farm development in Morocco. That summer experience made a huge difference in my life.”
Before his internship, Bishop had completed two years at Rice and felt drawn to multiple areas. The wind farm experience and his interactions with Karsner helped him realize that careers in renewable energy would lie at the intersection of all his interests: technology, business, finance, policy, commercial and regulatory.
“I fell in love with clean energy that summer, but there were few post-graduation opportunities in those areas back in 2004,” he said.
Instead of pursuing a different career direction upon graduation, he successfully secured a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to explore renewable energy failures in Uganda and Botswana, and spent a year after college in those two countries. In 2006, he moved into a company focused primarily on wind energy.
“I’ve rode the clean energy wave for about 20 years,” said Bishop. “I love how full-circle things have gone. Now all the major oil and gas companies have figured out they have to get into clean energy. Andy Karsner, my first renewable energy boss, is now on the board at Exxon. Seeing how quickly the energy industry has changed in the last 20 years is very encouraging.”
Bishop is the CEO and a co-founder of Key Capture Energy, a utility-scale battery storage independent power producer. While Jeff’s home is in Salt Lake City, he spends most of his work week between the company’s growing offices in Houston and Albany, NY.
He said, “We had to have an office in Houston, where I’d worked in wind and solar while they were still niche markets. Now, the convergence of power, heating, and transportation to clean energy is just amazing.
“The big challenge 15 years ago was getting a seat at the energy table, because being able to participate in the broader conversation would help move everything forward. Compare that to now, where clean energy not only has a seat at the table but is often at the head of the table. Every energy company has to be positioned for relevance in ten years, and that has changed the entire dynamic.”
Houston: the ‘Everything Energy’ Capital
Although Houston was still primarily an oil and gas town in 2007, Bishop kept studying the cost curve showing a continued decrease in the price of wind and solar energy. Petroleum and natural gas remained popular, but he was seeing a clear and accelerating flow of capital to renewables.
“I knew change was coming and that clean energy would be much bigger in the future,” said Bishop.
“The community in Houston was small, but there was a contingent of passionate people making real changes. I made it my mission to identify those people and companies on the massive growth trajectory; and once you get involved in a startup, you get to be a generalist and have the ability move quickly up the ladder as the company grows —more so than in established industries.”
Bishop had identified the swell and positioned himself to catch the wave. He said it is now a lot easier to find the right capital, partners, and mentors these days, as well as the appropriate talent needed to get clean energy suppliers off the ground.
“Houston knows energy,” said Bishop. “Clean energy providers deploy similar large infrastructure projects to the traditional oil and gas projects, running to the hundreds of millions of dollars. Oil and gas people have transferable skill sets and we need their experience, their processes, their lessons learned. Some of my best team members are those with really heavy oil and gas backgrounds.”
Talking with potential employees and investors about the exciting growth of his company feels second-nature to Bishop these days although he is the first to admit he is always striving to improve. He started learning his communication skills as an undergraduate.
“I was at Rice in the early 2000s, when several engineering courses began working with Tracy Volz in the communications lab to integrate presentations into each syllabus. The first time you speak about something technical, it is not going to go well. It takes a lot of practice in order to achieve a smooth delivery. Embedding presentations in the engineering classes was immensely helpful because it forced us students to become more comfortable explaining complex ideas to varied audiences.
SpoCo: Improv Comedy = Speaker Training
“In addition to the required course presentations, I was in Spontaneous Combustion, Rice’s best (only) improvisational comedy group. That really helped develop my communications skills and has helped make me a popular panel speaker at conferences. Improv training teaches you to say, ‘Yes, and…’ to build off of current contributions and create these really dynamic conversations.”
His greatest communication challenge today is staying out of the weeds. As an engineer, he longs to dive into the technical aspects but most of his audiences require him to succinctly tell a story about where the company is going. When he avoids going too deeply into the technical details, then both external audiences and all the internal team members – not just the engineers – can follow along and get caught up in his excitement.
At the end of 2021, Bishop faced one of his greatest communication challenges yet. Key Capture Energy had been purchased by a strategic investor and it was time to start pivoting the company direction.
Bishop said, “When we created the company in 2016, we were focused on developing, constructing, and operating large scale battery storage projects. Now we still do that, but we also focus on using AI- driven software to integrate those batteries and other forms of clean energy on the electric grid. We had to explain the pivot in ways that would both reassure existing stakeholders and inspire internal teams to step into the unknown.
“No other companies are doing exactly this kind of work today, and I could not plan a road map without seeking input from our 55 team members. So I met with everyone in small group whiteboard sessions and said, ‘Here is where we need to be in 2025, this is what we are going to look like. The path may be unclear, but here are the building blocks. Now what steps do we need to take to get there?’”
Those key conversations helped shape the road map, but it also revealed the importance of each team member. Being completely transparent, Bishop said they would be dealing with a lot of unknowns but he was confident they had what it took to figure it out.
Internal Communications Pave the Way for a Pivot
“Strong internal communications don’t begin with a perfect Powerpoint presentation. They begin with conversations and sketches. . Through an iterative process, we changed the road map based on feedback from people at every level of the company. Everyone bought into the plan and the major blocks were defined. The team leads are taking the individual pieces and running with them.”
Bishop advises new STEM graduates to spend several years working in technical fields, even if their interests align more with leadership or the business side of their industry.
“Use the engineering degree you earned and build your industry street cred, then you can branch out,” he said. “You will also learn a lot more, and more quickly, if you join a startup. Even if it doesn’t pan out, your transferable skills from that experience will be amazing.
“And don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t at the top of your class at Rice. I was definitely in the bottom half in all my engineering classes. It took me about 10 years after graduation to recognize that I am a really good engineer, but Rice is really hard. You need to know that even engineers in the bottom half of their Rice classes will still be in the top percentage of all U.S. engineers.”
This story is part of a series of profiles for the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program.