WASHINGTON (TheStreet) -- Since the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig, which killed 11 workers and set off a devastating oil spill, small businesses and entrepreneurs have been frustrated by their inability to get novel oil-cleanup ideas in front of BP (BP) - Get Report.
Today, the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship held a hearing to address that issue.
Frustrated expert witnesses included Heather Baird, a communications vice president for
, which specializes in non-toxic microbial cleanups; Dan Parker, founder and chief executive of
C.I. Agent Solutions
, which works with solidifying and controlling fuel spills; and, somewhat incongruously, movie star Kevin Costner, who was there in his capacity as a partner of
, the firm that markets an oil/water separator that Costner has been trying to publicize for years after investing more than $20 million in its development.
"You've been a hero on the screen, and let me say you're being a hero in real life," Committee Chairwoman Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said.
Costner -- who described himself in the hearing as "a private entrepreneur, a dreamer, if you will" -- is one of the few who have managed to get BP to test out a new idea, let alone look at it. And even his idea didn't get the go-ahead until almost two months after the spill began. His attempts to pitch it to oil companies as a preemptive strike went unheeded for a decade, he said.
"My big idea has been sitting quietly for 10 years in a modest Nevada facility," said Costner, whose interest in oil cleanup grew after the 1989
Valdez spill. "For me, advancing the technology for oil-spill cleanup was a dream, not a business. It was not about improving my margins. I wasn't even trying to stain the black. It was about trying to do something more."
Regarding BP's decision to test his machine, "to be completely honest, I feel vindicated," he said. "I think perhaps I will call my mother."
MicroSorb's Baird said that in addition to snubs by BP, small businesses are stymied by governmental red tape. "The challenge we face is understanding which government officials we should be meeting with," she said. "Everyone feels as if their hands are tied, and nobody wants to spend constituent tax dollars, knowing that BP may not pay it back."
Small businesses also face the problem in which would-be customers tend to hire contractors based on who they know rather than how well they do it, which thwarts innovation, said Eric Smith, the associate director of the Energy Institute at Tulane University in New Orleans. "People trust certain suppliers," he said. "It's hard during normal experiences to bring a new supplier into the chain. During an emergency, it's virtually impossible."
To that end, multiple innovation intermediaries -- companies that help to define the problems of large companies and then post them as challenges for entrepreneurs to solve -- have been frustrated by BP continually snubbing their attempts to donate ideas from their networks of scientists and engineers.
"It has been difficult getting any face time with BP," says Stephen Benson, CEO of
, an innovation intermediary in Toronto. "They need a separate unit solely responsible for attracting and assessing ideas from the edges. We are trying to offer them the use of our community and platform for doing just that, but to no avail."
, another innovation intermediary trying to offer its services to BP, have been arguing that companies such as BP need an organized method of culling entrepreneurial ideas during time-sensitive crises like the oil spill. "We keep watching these disasters happen, and there's a pattern that repeats itself -- a lot of disarray and a lot of agencies trying to figure out how to work together," says Dwayne Spradlin, CEO of Innocentive in Waltham, Mass.
Costner preached this point in his hearing testimony.
"The oil industry does not have the time to evolve a plan," he said. "They have to act. We are in a fight to protect our jobs, our way of life, and an ecosystem that cannot protect itself. It's important to remember that when there is a spill anywhere, we suffer everywhere."
The committee members offered no immediate solutions, but they agreed with the sentiment.
"I find it stunning, especially after the Exxon Valdez, that we have failed to shape a contingency plan," said Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), a ranking member of the committee.
-- Reported by Carmen Nobel in Boston.
>>BP May Be Letting the Best Solutions Slip By
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