Problem solving

ExxonMobil taps two new technologies in a Houston reverse pitch program

ExxonMobil named two winners in its inaugural reverse pitch competition with BBL Ventures. Courtesy of OctoRD

ExxonMobil and BBL Ventures have teamed up to flip the script on pitch competitions. Rather than have startups pitch themselves, the two companies collaborated on a reverse pitch event where Exxon identifies a few problems and search for companies that can build a solution.

The purpose of the event, says Tim Westhoven, technology scouting and venturing at ExxonMobil at the Baytown refinery, was to get the company out of its day-to-day to spark new ideas and innovation.

"Typically, as an engineer, when we think about how we solve a problem, we start inside the organization," Westhoven says at the event, which took place on Wednesday, June 5, at Station Houston. "Then we think about what problems we want to solve. Sometimes, you don't even think at all about what's available on the outside. This reverse pitch is us thinking about the impact we want to have and what the outside can offer."

In his experience, once an organization goes outside itself for solutions, they can find more options to choose from.

"As we cycle through and innovate on these things and find more and more outside solutions to a particular problem, we find the impact scales very quickly," Westhoven says.

The reverse pitch contest, which launched in March, asked for solutions to two problems ExxonMobil employees actually encounter. The first is regarding the opening process equipment, with the goal being to "create a method to stop exposure to flow or residual material," according to the website. The company needs a device that works remotely, thus reducing the risk of exposure and contact with the material for technicians.

The other problem ExxonMobil is looking to solve has to do with reducing arc flash that result in exposure to electrical charges. The company has "identified the promotion of personal safety as a priority action in addressing and reducing negative events on campuses globally," the website says. All the specifics for these two issues are available online.

For both problems, ExxonMobil wants AI and automation involved — and that's deliberate to minimize human involvement, which can lead to error.

"Human error causes 40 to 70 percent of those issues," Westhoven says. "This is why we are looking to robotics and automation to solve this problem."

Seven companies pitched during the evening, and two — one for each solution — were named winners. Here's what solutions stood out to the judges, potentially took home $60,000, and are up for a pilot program at ExxonMobil.

Opening Process Equipment: OctoRD

Courtesy of OctoRD

OctoRD's OPE solution includes using materials that are already available on the market to create a safer solution to the current process. In fact, Kevin Larsen, founder of Phoenix, Arizona-based OctoRD, even brought an early prototype to his pitch to demonstrate for the judges.

"My whole background has been taking technology, applying it to problems, and getting it into production and real life," he says.

OctoRD's product would take 90 days to get to market. It would allow for employees to open and close the device from up to 15 feet away, and, should an emergency occur, would have an automatic shutting feature. While the current model satisfies the requirements for the category, Larsen's pitch even included future ways to advance the tool.

Reducing Arc Flash: CBS ArcSafe

Courtesy of CBS ArcSafe

CBS ArcSafe, based in Denton, Texas, has been around for a while and knows how to increase worker safety using technology, says Justin Gaull, marketing manager for CBS ArcSafe. The company has designed over 700 tools for safety purposes.

"Our business is the business of safety, and decreasing arc flash hazards is our priority," he says to the crowd at the pitch event.

The company's solution would take 10 weeks or less to get from discovery to production to market. The technology includes a switchgear box, the Elliot 230-PM, that syncs with a remote that allows workers to operate well out of the arc flash zone — even up to 300 feet away with the wireless option. There would also be a video camera able to capture a view of the gauges so the operator can see them in real time.

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Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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