Reverse pitch

ExxonMobil teams up with new Houston venture capital fund for a different type of pitch competition

A new pitch competition with ExxonMobil and BBL Ventures has officially launched. Getty Images

Most solutions start with identifying a problem, then creating a solution. So, why should a startup work any other way? ExxonMobil and BBL Ventures have teamed up to flip the script on a pitch competition. The ExxonMobil Spring Energy Challenge is asking startups to solve two specific problems for the chance to win $60,000.

The reverse pitch event is focused on robotics technology and will take place the week of April 17. The deadline for startups to enter is March 29. Houston-based BBL Ventures is an early stage venture capital firm based in Station Houston that focuses on startups that are solving the problems of major oil companies. It launched last month and is currently in its first cohort of startups.

"BBL Ventures is excited to be working with a forward-thinking partner like ExxonMobil, engaging the external innovation ecosystem is a key step in advancing the energy industry's continued success," says Patrick Lewis, managing partner of BBL Ventures, in a release.

Not only is the $60,000 prize on the line, but if Exxon likes a pitch, they could select it for a pilot program.

The reverse pitch contest is asking 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.

This type of reverse pitch process is exactly what BBL Labs and its venture arm seeks to do. Lewis works with a type of software that allows for energy company employees to flag their pain points on a daily basis. BBL uses this data to identify major problems and seek solutions. Another big part of the energy innovation sector is not having enough funds to cultivate good ideas and solutions.

"Energy tech is a grossly underfunded industry. Venture capitalists hate it — the hyper cyclical industry, extremely long sales cycles, slow adopters — but that creates opportunities," Lewis tells InnovationMap in a previous article.

The solution to Houston's workforce problem might be right in front of our eyes. Getty Images

Everyone's job has training associated with it — from surgeons to construction crane operators — and there's a growing market need for faster, more thorough training of our workforce.

"The best way to learn how to do something, is to just get out and do it," says Eric Liga, co-founder of HoustonVR. "But there are a lot of reasons why you can't do that in certain types of training."

Augmented and virtual reality training programs are on the rise, and Liga cites safety, cost, and unpredictable work environments as some of these most obvious reasons reasons to pivot to training employees through extended reality. This type of training also provides portability and has proven higher retention, Liga says in his keynote speech at Station Houston's AR/VR discuss on April 25.

"You get a much higher retention rate when you actually go out and do something — physically going through the motions — than you do sitting in a classroom or reading a book," he says.

As more companies are introducing this type of technology into the workforce, there's a growing need for developers and experts to design these programs. Currently, it's rare for a company to have employees with XR expertise.

"Working on commercial accounts, I see a lot of customers who have done enterprise software — web pages and forums — but it's a very different skill set from simulations," says Jared Bienz, senior software engineer at Microsoft.

So, companies are faced with hiring developers and designers to create these training programs. Ethan LeSueur, who oversees immersive technology at ExxonMobil, says his team benefitted from the cut-throat game design industry. So many developers want to go into video game creation, but there's not enough jobs. At Exxon, developers get to create games — but for training purposes. LeSueur says he looks for a diversity of programming experience when hiring for these types of jobs.

"It's important to not have one skill set," he says. "We're looking for the people who are sort of a swiss army knife. You don't have to know everything, but if they have more than one specific skill set, that's really important."

But hiring a team might not be the only option to AR/VR development. Working with startups has been an avenue for major companies seeking out XR programs.

"People talk about digital transformation all the time, but half the time we wouldn't know what that looked like if that slapped us in the face," LeSueur says. "That's what we're asking startups to do — help slap us in the face."

LeSueur says that proving cost effectiveness is extremely important for startups looking to win big companies as clients, but so is passion. The complexity of the process as well as all the red tap of business calls for passion from a startup.

"We're trying to take a complicated physical process and digitize it," LeSueur says. "That means there's going to be a lot of back and forth."

From the startup perspective, it's not always easy working with major corporations – especially within oil and gas. Amanda, who works with construction clients and larger companies as an instructor at ITI, recommends having someone on the inside to look out for you.

"I think it's really important to have an internal champion who really owns the product and wants to see it through to its last degree of integration."

On display

Courtesy of Station Houston

After the panel, Station Houston VR companies showed off their programming.