BP May Be Letting Best Solutions Slip By

WALTHAM, Mass. ( TheStreet) -- BP ( BP), the energy company struggling to contain the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico for the past three weeks, may be letting the best solutions fall through the cracks.

As the Deepwater Horizon Response Unified Command -- which includes BP; Transocean ( RIG), which built the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded April 20 and sank; and government agencies -- has received 50,000 calls on its help line, no ideas have stuck. About 30% of callers were looking to submit ideas and others were seeking jobs, says Bryan Ferguson, a BP representative who has been manning phones at the U.S. Coast Guard Joint Information Center in Robert, La.

Photos: The Gulf Oil Spill

Meanwhile, Innocentive has been fielding oil-spill cleanup ideas from its network of engineers, scientists and biologists. Innocentive is a so-called open-innovation intermediary, a company employed to help define problems for large companies such as Colgate-Palmolive ( CL), and post the problems as challenges for entrepreneurs to solve. Usually, the problem solvers receive cash awards, with corporate clients footing the bill. But earlier this month, the firm issued its first pro bono challenge, asking for solutions to the oil spill, with plans to send the best ideas to BP.

BP's own system to vet ideas isn't efficient, especially considering the time-sensitive nature of the spill, which is creeping toward shore. BP is trying to contain oil and natural gas leaking from a well on the ocean floor. Shutting the well may take months.

Gulf Oil Drilling Is Worth the Risk (Forbes)

The Unified Command's hotline for submitting solutions (281-366-5511) is the same as the phone number for job inquiries. The Unified Command's Web site notes that "all proposals are reviewed for technical feasibility and application. Given the volume of proposals, this may take some time."

A Unified Command hotline volunteer who answered a call from TheStreet said she hadn't yet received any worthy or novel ideas from callers, and that most of her callers were looking for work.

In the meantime, "we have not been able to get BP to respond yet," says Dwayne Spradlin, chief executive officer of Innocentive in Waltham, Mass., the city where many of the state's high-tech companies are based. "As a citizen and a consumer and a human being, the fact that BP isn't seriously inviting all the help they can get is concerning to me."

So far, Innocentive has collected more than 900 oil-cleanup ideas from expert problem-solvers. Many of the proposals comprise new uses for existing technology, Spradlin says, and some come from scientists with experience in the oil industry.

Curtis Gonzales, an engineer at Smoke Guard Systems in Boise, Idaho, has experience assembling blowout preventers. (A faulty blowout preventer is what sank the Deepwater Horizon.) His suggestion, called "explosive hydroforming," involves a controlled explosion that would create a force imbalance, causing water pressure to pinch the pipe shut.

"Benjamin Franklin gave away his lightning rod because it was so important," Gonzales said. "This might be my lightning rod."

Another Innocentive submitter is a former Department of Environmental Protection scientist who noted that the Los Alamos National Laboratory once dropped an explosive through a drill well in order to seal it. The same might work to stem the oil leak, he suggested. Another, who designed a hinged wall to contain the flow, is a finalist in a $10 million challenge to devise a way to extract silver from silica for Barrick Gold ( ABX).

BP's latest effort is to use a robot to place one end of a mile-long tube into the broken oil pipe on the ocean floor. That would help to siphon some of the oil. A previous attempt that failed was putting a dome over the leaking oil well. As BP tries to head off an environmental catastrophe, oil and natural gas are leaking unchecked into the Gulf.

Smoke Guard Systems' Gonzales says Innocentive seemed like a better way to reach BP than the Unified Command hotline, which "seems kind of chaotic."

"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," Innocentive's Spradlin says. "BP needs to look to credible channels. We've got hundreds and thousands of solvers all over the world. They've already answered the call."

As the Gulf cleanup effort slogs on, other innovators are joining the fray. Innovation Exchange, an open-innovation intermediary in Toronto, plans to launch a similar pro bono challenge later this week.

"Asking the people who created the mess to fix the mess obviously has not proven successful to date," Innovation Exchange CEO Stephen Benson says.

-- Reported by Carmen Nobel in Boston.

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