How do you find the next big idea? What might the billion-dollar business of tomorrow look like? Who are the entrepreneurs of the future? These are just some of the questions that bp’s business-building unit, Launchpad, was set up to explore.
Now, five bp people are hoping they might have the answers after they were chosen from more than 100 internal applicants around the world to run their idea through Launchpad’s new internal incubation programme.
Each founder, as they’re known, has spent the past 12 weeks working with Launchpad coaches to put their ideas to the test, conducting market research, developing business cases and assessing technology options.
But they’ve just faced their toughest trial yet – a formal presentation to Launchpad’s pitch committee, who will decide whether to take them forward to the second stage of the programme. Success would mean more funding, more coaching and the chance to begin developing what’s known in the start-up business as a ‘minimum viable product’.
Val Nefyodova, the incubation programme’s leader
Siobhan Clarke is one of Launchpad’s operating partners and a member of the pitch team. “I’m looking for a handful of things,” she explains. “Do they truly believe in their idea? Have they applied critical thinking and been willing to really push through those difficult questions? Are they able to adapt and take coaching? You can spot these things in the way someone talks. It’s all about backing their passion and making sure they have the resilience.”
Tehsheena Shams was functional lead for bp’s upstream business. However, a personal experience of the impact that injury has on a family got her thinking about how data and technology could revolutionize worker safety.
THE BIG IDEA: I’m looking at combining smart, wearable technology with machine learning to generate real-time insights and alerts that can keep frontline workers out of harm’s way.
WHY I APPLIED: I was just two days back from maternity leave and didn’t have a specific role when I learned about the programme. Frontline health and safety is very personal for me because my dad had a fall in a plant in the 1980s that left him with fractured ribs. It took a couple of hours for anyone to find him. With this kind of technology, we could have prevented the fall or could have got him help right away.
THE BENEFITS: The idea is to create a system that can send the wearer real-time alerts to keep them out of harm’s way and generate data to help team leaders make better decisions. This business isn’t about the wearable, but rather a human analytics company that uses data as a force for good. This can save many lives and hundreds of billions of dollars annually in costs due to health and safety incidents.
ONE THING I’VE LEARNED: Grit. My parents taught us that it was an important skill. I never expected to be building a new business while working at home with a one and a six-year-old. The first few weeks were hard, but we got on with it. I hang on to that.
Arne Ljungmann is a finance manager for Air bp in the Nordics. He hopes his idea could break down historic barriers preventing the lower carbon hydrogen industry from becoming a viable business.
THE BIG IDEA: You can’t talk about hydrogen without mentioning the chicken and egg argument: producers say they are waiting for customers and customers say they are waiting for infrastructure. I wanted to identify a specific industry to try to address barriers to progress.
THE BENEFITS: Data centres around the world produce more carbon dioxide than the global aviation business, so there’s a real incentive to tackle this.
THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Hydrogen is more expensive to make and data centres only typically use diesel as a back-up fuel. So, the challenge is making volumes high enough to be financially viable. Long term, it will be to find other customers willing to pay a bit more so that we can kick-start this business.
HOW I’VE DEVELOPED THE IDEA: I’ve narrowed down my focus to Germany, since it has a lot of data centres. I’m also talking to colleagues at Lightsource bp to look at options where centres could switch from grid electricity to hydrogen during peak hours.
ONE THING I’VE LEARNED: To adapt. We all expected to be working in London during the 12-week programme, but COVID-19 stopped that. I’ve had to be an assistant teacher while trying to develop a business idea. Finding time has been a big challenge.
Sanjeev Saraf has spent his career analysing failure in industrial accidents for a number of organizations, including bp. Now, he wants to take that experience and create a new platform that could help predict equipment that could eliminate asset failure leading to sustained asset performance.
THE BIG IDEA: My idea is to reduce field failures by better understanding of past data and failure models you can trust. It’s a bit like the film Minority Report, only our ‘precogs’ use historic and existing data sets to predict failure rather than crime.
WHY I APPLIED: I had this idea following a visit to Amazon Web Services and have tried to raise it in different ways via different forums. Sometimes it resonated, sometimes it didn’t. Launchpad seemed like the perfect opportunity to test it internally and externally.
THE BENEFITS: Every failure tells us something, but as an industry we can do better at learning those lessons. I believe that by capturing past failures/operating knowledge, and developing ‘bottom-up’ asset models, gives us a better idea of system performance. Ultimately, this leads to reduced deferrals and process safety risks.
THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Data quality! Unlike the nuclear and aviation industries, failure data in oil and gas is not specific. To compensate for data quality, we need a super-easy way for frontline workers to report field failures. These issues are being addressed across bp but no one has ever put them together. What’s become clear is that to be successful we would need to develop a proof of concept that can slot into existing workflows.
ONE THING I’VE LEARNED: Work backwards from the problem; solutions may evolve. This experience has taught me the value of evaluating business opportunities in a more holistic manner.
Amr El Zanfally works in strategy and sustainability focused on portfolio analytics and low carbon hydrogen business development. He hopes his idea could transform the carbon-offsetting industry into one that is fit for a net zero world.
THE BIG IDEA: My idea is to leverage digital technologies to consolidate a fragmented industry and make it easier for all organizations to navigate and access credible carbon offset.
WHY I APPLIED: I’ve been trying to develop this idea on my own for a while, which is tough. Launchpad has given me access to a lot of resources and when you approach people with a big name like bp that is embracing the energy transition, it changes the conversation.
THE BENEFITS: Carbon offsetting is well established but there’s a lack of transparency and understanding in terms of project compliance. It’s also not very easy to track non-carbon benefits, such as community support or employment opportunities. My idea creates greater transparency within the entire value chain.
THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE: Getting other industry players to embrace new digital technologies and work together. Being agile and designing a solution that is consistently evolving with our customers' needs is the way to tackle that.
HOW I’VE DEVELOPED THE IDEA: I’ve had to do a lot of research and conceptual work to make sure the problem is clearly defined and that customers are willing to pay to solve it. One of the benefits of working with Launchpad is that it has connected me with some big names who might one day become clients. The reaction has been positive. Customers who invest in carbon credits through offsetting programmes are very interested in solutions that can drive transparency and credibility.
ONE THING I’VE LEARNED: What I think is clear in my head isn’t always for others, so I have had to work on my communication skills and learn not to ask too many leading questions when researching my idea with third parties and make sure that I effectively and objectively listen to the responses.
Today, Alessandro Antonioli is a strategy and portfolio manager for Castrol, but his links back to the nuclear industry could help him build a business that tackles the issue of plastic waste head on.
THE BIG IDEA: Global plastic waste is a big problem – only about 10% is recycled. I want to use technology developed in the nuclear industry that turns all types of plastic into zero-sulphur fuels. The final goal would be to reuse all types of unrecyclable waste to create emissions-free fuels, such as hydrogen, ammonia and green power.
WHY I APPLIED: The competition was timely – I’ve wanted to do something entrepreneurial and had access to an idea and technology. I’d already applied for funding via the UK Innovation Fund so I had a lot of the material ready to go.
THE BENEFITS: This technology uses its own power, which helps to keep down costs, and can recycle most of its water consumption. Also, emissions are 20 times lower than current European regulation levels. The other benefit is that this is technology available today, which could be attractive to non-specialized investors who don’t want to wait 20 years for a return.
THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE: We need to prove it at scale, which requires a pilot study. There’s also a lot of work to understand where an energy company like bp fits into the wider waste value chain. The two sides haven’t really worked together in the past but if we can bring them together we have the potential to trigger much faster adoption.
HOW I’VE DEVELOPED THE IDEA: It’s taken time to pin down the heart of the problem, the pain points for certain customers, but I believe I have a viable business case. Now, it’s a matter of presenting my findings as clearly as possible.
ONE THING I’VE LEARNED: You need to have focus and structure as an entrepreneur, which takes a lot of discipline. That means giving myself some small goals and to deliver at each stage.
Innovation through the building of new businesses will play a key role in delivering on bp’s new purpose to reimagine energy for people and the planet. One man set to strengthen bp’s muscle in this field is Justin Lewis, who takes up the newly created role of vice president of incubation for Launchpad and venturing.
Justin will lead, operate and develop a business incubation unit that will test and grow business models, and provide thought leadership on how to rapidly turn game-changing business ideas into commercial reality.
He brings with him innovation leadership and world-class digital skills, honed most recently at Tesla, but he also spent seven years at Google, where he became their most prolific inventor, filing more than 450 software patents. While completing a degree in computer science and game design, he founded two successful gaming companies, selling to some of the most well-known gaming houses.