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Houston venture capital fund launches energy-focused startup accelerator program

A new energy-focused startup accelerator hopes to better connect the dots between big companies and tech startups. Getty Images

While being renown as the energy capital of the world, Houston doesn't have an active oil and gas-focused accelerator program for the various startups rising in the energy industry. That is, until now.

Houston-based BBL Ventures, an early stage capital fund for energy startups, has announced BBL Labs, a new accelerator is based in Station Houston. BBLL is accepting applications for its inaugural cohort by February 22.

"BBLV looks forward to engaging in this partnership to drive entrepreneurial innovation focused on identified challenges and technology gaps in the global energy and natural resources industry," says Patrick Lewis, managing partner at BBLVentures, in a release.

BBLL will use BBLV's data on what the oil and gas industry needs from new tech startups as well as its connections to big energy companies to better connect the dots within the accelerator program.

Historically, tech startups focused on oil and gas solutions have a lot of trouble finding funding and validation in the industry — for a few reasons, Lewis says. On one hand, there's a disconnect between oil and gas companies and the startups that have solutions to industry problems, and on the other, the VC funds aren't there.

"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 says.

So what BBL's venture arm has done is flip the script on this way energy startups and big oil companies have traditionally functioned. Currently, it's up to the energy startups to tell large energy companies why their company or industry needs new technology to solve a problem. But what BBL has realized with it's venture arm is that it's much more efficient if the industry figures out its greatest technology needs and then looks for companies solving that problem. To do that, BBL's Innovation Navigator Software acts as a tool for energy employees to identify pain points.

"We've built software that's meant to be used pervasively across the organization — from the drilling engineer out in the field to the global office manager to the CTO," Lewis says.

These employees can log their daily pain points in the system, categorize them, and flag their priority. BBL takes that information, develop a reverse pitch, and market it to the startup ecosystem globally to identify companies that are addressing the problems of these energy employees.

BBL will use this proprietary pain point data to drive the new accelerator to produce a cohort of 10 startups creating technology that oil and gas companies have already indicated they need. Each cohort will go through six months of programing located in Station Houston. The two entities will collaborate on resources including lab space, investment, advisory services, mentorship, and more.

"Station Houston exists to support startups and with BBL Labs now inside our four walls, we can offer the Houston startup community access to even more resources and support," says Station CEO Gabriella Rowe. "At the same time, our 130 mentors are ready to roll up their sleeves and help these businesses get off the ground and start making an impact."

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.