Patrick Lewis co-founded BBL Ventures that helps connect energy companies to startups that have innovative technology solutions for their pain points. Courtesy of Patrick Lewis

The energy industry is at an inflection point. In order to compete, oil and gas companies are really focusing on innovation and engaging startups. That's where Patrick Lewis comes in.

Lewis, co-founder of BBL Ventures, has been a tech investor in the Houston innovation ecosystem for about 25 years, and he started seeing an opportunity to help large companies identify their pain points and connect them with startups that have the technology to design solutions. He created BBL Ventures — and an accelerator for its portfolio companies, BBL Labs out of Station Houston — to become a matchmaker of sorts for big corporations and the startups that can help them stay competitive.

"At our core, we're an investment firm, but our mission statement is to be the innovation partner for the energy and natural resources industry," Lewis says on the fourth episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

The key element to BBL's model is the reverse-style pitch. Rather than hosting a pitch competition with a wide range of energy tech startups, BBL teamed up with ExxonMobil earlier this year and identified two specific robotics problems and called for startups to pitch solutions.

After the success of the reverse pitch, BBL hosted an Emerging Technology Symposium at The Cannon last month. The event brought together individuals on both sides of the table — the corporates and the startups — further bridging the gap between the two.

Lewis discusses BBL's past success and future plans, as well as what keeps him up at night as a tech investor in Houston on this week's podcast. Check it out below and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.


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

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

Reverse pitch

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.

From a new energy tech accelerator to an oil and gas podcasts, these three entrepreneurs have some names to remember. Courtesy photos

3 Houston energy tech innovators to know this week

Who's who

While Houston has historically been known as an oil and gas town, it's been slow on the uptake for being known for its energy tech — something these three entrepreneurs are looking to change. From a new energy startup accelerator to an oil and gas podcast, these three energy tech innovators are ones to know this week.

Jacob Corley and Collin McClelland, co-hosts of the Oil and Gas Startups Podcast

Courtesy of Oil and Gas Startups Podcast

Despite having experience in the oil and gas field and in entrepreneurship, Jacob Corley and Collin McClelland learn something new each episode of the Oil and Gas Startups Podcast. The show has seen surprising success to the duo and has been attracting around a thousand new listeners each week.

"You think thing not many people would listen to a podcast that's so focused on something they do for their job, but that's completely wrong," Corley says.

The primary goal for the pair is to share the stories of entrepreneurs who are revolutionizing an industry that tends to be known as a slow adaptor or conservative. Great startups exist here in Houston, and McClelland and Corley want to tell you about them.

"We kind of wanted to bridge the gap between Silicon Valley and oil and gas and show the world what was going on in the industry — and specifically in Houston," McLelland says. Click here to read more.

Patrick Lewis, managing partner of BBL Ventures

Patrick Lewis has worked for years trying to rethink how energy companies and private equity interact with startups. Startups have trouble proving themselves to big oil and gas companies and private equity things energy tech is more trouble than its worth.

"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.

But Lewis, managing partner of BBL Ventures, has created a software that tracks oil companies' pain points and then allows him to tap startups that are solving those issues. Now, with BBL Labs, Lewis and his team will help to accelerate these energy tech startups into the market. Click here to read more.

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

Houston venture capital fund launches energy-focused startup accelerator program

hi, tech

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."

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Houston rodeo prepares for 2020 season with new technology on the grounds

rodeo ready

When the 2018 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo opened the gates to its first show of the season with headliner Garth Brooks, the nearly 90-year-old organization had just switched to digital ticketing. Around the time to enter the stadium, the BHP Billiton entrance, which welcomes in 51 percent of rodeo goers each night, was backed up with impatient rodeo fans.

For whatever reason, the roll out of the technology didn't go as planned, says Joel Cowley, CEO of the rodeo. But, after some damage control, the rodeo made some adjustments to the gate and ensured that those inefficient lines never happened again.

It was a lesson to learn for the rodeo, which isn't shying away from any other technology upgrades that will benefit rodeo goers and the organizations staff and volunteers.

"Anytime you do something new, you have to be on guard," Cowley tells InnovationMap. "You have to make sure you are stacked up on capacity — whether that be personnel, scanners, server capacity — because if you're not, it could create a situation from that."

A few months ago, the rodeo announced a slew of c-suite changes to its team following a reorganization led by McKinsey & Co. Among the changes was changing Andy Sloan's responsibilities from chief information officer to chief technology officer.

"As part of that reorganization, there was some focus on improving the technology that we utilize — and that's everything from our customer management system to what the consumer sees," Cowley says. "Andy is a great resource when we're trying to integrate those things."

The study prompted big ideas for new tech-driven initiatives for the rodeo, like a wristband that acts as your ticket but is also synced to your credit card for all purchases on rodeo grounds. But while that's an initiative for the future, 2020 rodeo attendees can expect to see new technologies this season.

Digital carnival packs

This year, the rodeo's carnival has began selling digital carnival ticket packs in an effort to transform the carnival experience to 100 percent digital. To prepare for this transition, the carnival volunteers have received extensive training — especially on how to communicate the process during the sales encounter.

Cowley says he expects to receive some negativity from longtime carnival ticket buyers, but also knows many people will appreciate the upgrade.

"The convenience for the users once they get used to it is going to be really great," Cowley says.

Gamification

Around two years ago, the rodeo conducted a study to understand its market. The study found that there are seven types of consumers for the rodeo. Cowley says they learned that there was a particular consumer type that they realized the rodeo could improve on attracting.

One of the ideas to attract this segment within the market was gamification. Cowley explains that according to the rodeo's survey data, rodeo goers' primary reason for attending is the show is the musical performer. The data also shows that when they get here, they enjoy their overall experience — not just the concert, Cowley says.

"Gamification is something that we are adding this year to engage the younger tech-savvy segment to give them something to do on the grounds," Cowley says.

The new tool, which is available on the rodeo's app, prompts users to check in around the grounds and complete tasks to earn buckles that can be redeemed for prizes.

"We think the more they see of the grounds, the better chance we have of making them lifelong fans," Cowley says.

There's also a new lounge called the Social Spur just north of the stadium where visitors can charge their devices and learn more about the app and the game.

Updated app

When it came to exploring gamification, Cowley says the rodeo looked into its app developer's capacity, as well as other app development companies. This process resulted in a new app provider and an overhaul of the rodeo's mobile app. The app, which syncs to the user's Facebook, is run by Canada-based Greencopper.

"It has been completely rebuilt from the ground up," Coweley says. "I think appearance-wise and functionality-wise — even though there was nothing wrong with the last one — this one is better."

Over the years, the rodeo's app has become more and more key in the rodeo experience. Users can find maps, buy tickets, view schedule information, and even receive up-to-date parking information.

Cowley says connectivity hasn't been a huge issue for the rodeo, but this year they've extended their WiFi service within NRG Stadium to cover just outside the gates so that users with digital tickets on the app can have that access.

In-seat food ordering

Also new for rodeo attendees is sEATz, a Houston-based startup that has developed an app that allows sporting event or concert attendees to order food to their seats. The app — through its partnership with the rodeo's food and beverage provider, Aramark —will be servicing the 100-level seats.

"It's really great to be able to be a part of the rodeo as far as a provider to help enhance that experience in the stadium," says Aaron Knape, CEO and co-founder of sEATz. "It goes back to our model of we want to serve a venue and the fans in that venue — not necessarily a specific sport or concert."

3 things Houston entrepreneurs need to keep in mind to run a lean startup and reduce risk

Houston voices

There are few things riskier than launching a new business. You could run through a mine field and have a better chance at living than launching a successful, long-lasting business. In fact, the Harvard Business School even reported that three out of every four startups fail. Fortunately, a new process has come to light that was designed precisely to reduce the risk of starting a business. Lean startups champion trial and error over detailed planning. Customer feedback over "gut feeling." Cyclic processes of design over traditional development.

Some lean startup ideas have already gone mainstream because they've proven to be so effective. The principles of "minimum viable product" and "startup pivot" have become so engrained in modern business that even university business colleges have begun to teach them.

There are three key aspects of the lean methodology.

Educated guesses

Number one: Instead of spending a year conducting research and planning long-term, lean startup entrepreneurs go with the idea that all they have on the first day is a bunch of unproven ideas. Guesses, really. These entrepreneurs forego the traditional business plan and opt instead to give a Cliff Notes version of their big idea using a template dubbed "business model canvas." It's pretty much a diagram that shows how a business generates value not just for its consumers, but for itself.

Field work

Number two: Lean startups use an "out and about" method for testing their ideas. It's a kind of customer development. They go "out and about" and basically interview potential customers, interested people, and people on the fence about all aspects of their business. How's our pricing compared to others you've seen? Do you like our product features? What do you think of our strategy? Lean startup entrepreneurs amend their ideas based on the feedback they get from customers. That's the beauty of the lean method: it's based on your willingness to change directions based on new information. Sound familiar? Well, it should. I just described pivoting. A lean startup concept now adopted by major corporations.

Agility means stability not fragility

Number three: The software industry bore a method called agile development. Agile development cuts down on wasted time because it emphasizes the ability and willingness to change directions and adapt fast. That's what agile means. To move quickly. There's a company named RoofProtect Pro that created a chemical they thought would appeal to homeowners looking to reduce shingle rot. Turns out there wasn't really a demand for reducing shingle rot. It wasn't as big a deal as the RoofProtect Pro founders had hypothesized. However, after speaking with business owners they discovered there was a demand for something to help reduce rust and deterioration of signage. RoofProtect Pro went back to the drawing board to build and test a prototype for a chemical that reduces rust and staining on different material like concrete and metal. A year later RoofProtect Pro became SurfaceSustain and obtained over $2 million in venture capital funding.

Now that's agility!

It's no surprise, then, that in the high-stakes world of business, a methodology designed specifically to reduce risk would prove successful. Lean methods don't guarantee success, of course, but the principles it holds dear do help strip away a lot of wasted time and energy and have proven to be highly efficient. Now, if there's an antidote to riskiness, it's got to be efficiency. Efficiency tightens a business to bare bones so there is little room for big risks to hurt your venture.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Nissan selects Houston to debut its on-demand subscription service

driving innovation

Volvo and Porsche are already doing it. Now, Nissan is getting in on the vehicle subscription service model with a new program called Nissan Switch. The service will debut in Houston.

"Nissan Switch is another way that Nissan is testing alternatives to the notion of traditional mobility, without long-term financial commitments for our customers," said Andrew Tavi, vice president, Legal, External Affairs and Business Development, Nissan North America, Inc. "This program provides more choice, convenience, and flexibility. For those who want a sedan during the week and an SUV or sports car, like the GTR, on the weekends, Nissan Switch provides the solution."

By signing up for the Nissan Switch program, subcribers can test models including the Nissan Leaf Plus, Titan, and GT-R. Nissan has recently redesigned many of the vehicles in their lineup including the Versa, Sentra, and Altima. The Frontier got a new engine for the 2020 model year and Murano, Maxima, and Titan have gotten significant updates in the past 18 months.

The program works similar to how on-demand media programming works. The price tier of the service subscribed to dictates the vehicles that can be switched out. There is no long-term contract or commitment.

For $699 per month, subscribers have access to the Altima sedan, Rogue and Pathfinder SUVs, and Frontier truck. Spending $899 per month allows for testing of the Leaf Plus electric vehicle, Maxima sedan, Murano and Armada SUVs, Titan truck, and 370Z sports car. Those wishing to test out the GT-R must elect for the $899 per month Premium service level and pay an additional $100 per day with seven-day consecutive maximum use.

Subscribers won't be driving just rental car spec base models. Each vehicle will be featured in a well-equipped trim level, some with Nissan's ProPilot Assist driver-assist technology that has features including lane centering, lane keeping, and blind spot warning.

After a $495 membership activation fee, the monthly subscription includes the vehicle (unlimited switches, as often as a new vehicle each day), delivery, cleaning, insurance, roadside assistance, and regular maintenance.

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This article originally ran on AutomotiveMap.