Kevin Costner is quickly becoming a spokesman for entrepreneurs who claim their products could do wonders to clean up oil spills. The actor testified in front of the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship yesterday about a centrifuge technology from his company Ocean Therapy Solutions that separates oil from water, and he joined fellow witnesses to urge the government to figure out ways to quickly greenlight technologies that promise to clean up oil spills effectively. Costner gave a similar testimony in front of the House Committee on Science and Technology last week.
“You should know that negotiating your way as a small business through the bureaucratic maze that presently exists is like playing a video game that no one can master. It’s like trying to get to the next level that doesn’t exist,” Costner told the Senate committee (here is a link to the testimony).
There is no doubt that the Deepwater Horizon explosion has exposed how unprepared everyone is at dealing with a disaster of this scope. We’ve all heard reports about some companies who say their technologies could make a huge dent in the cleanup effort. But how do you evaluate technologies – especially newer and even unproven ones – fast enough for this type of deployment? As folks here in Silicon Valley know, a good concept could take more than a dozen years and hundreds of millions of dollars before reaching the commercial stage.
When it comes to cleaning up a damaged environment, where people’s livelihood and the health of a huge number of wildlife are at stake, hurrying the approval process might not be such a good idea. But creating a better mechanism for evaluating these ideas is a sound one.
Because it turns out that BP and the federal government have received thousands of proposals through different channels, and they all have different criteria for evaluating the technologies. Out of the 1,920 first received by the Coast Guard and reviewed jointly with other federal agencies, only one has advanced to the final step of approval, said the Rear Admiral Ronald Rabago of the Coast Guard. BP has gotten over 94,000 submissions through its website, but many are comments and ideas instead of full proposals, Rabago said.
At the Senate hearing, Eric Smith, associate director of Tulane University’s Energy Institute, suggested the creation of a national clearinghouse for doing just that. He’s proposing to have Tulane hosting this effort, arguing that the university is private and therefore could respond quicker to emergencies.
In the testimony Costner and others recounted the vast bureaucracy they have encountered as they tried to pitch their products to government agencies and BP. The main obstacle seems to involve finding the right people who could actually make purchasing decisions amid this giant and chaotic effort to clean up the worse environmental disaster in the American history.
Heather Baird, a vice president for Microsorb Environmental Products, told the senators that her company has demonstrated the ability of its oil-eating microbes. In fact, BP used the microbes for a spill in Lake Michigan. But Microsorb hasn’t managed to convince the right people to give the bugs a try for this disaster.
Costner’s own trial and error to improve his company’s technology and attract buyers is a familiar one for startups trying to bring eco-friendly devices to the market. Costner’s company has spent 17 years trying to commercialize the technology, which came from DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory. Costner has sunk more than $20 million of his own money into the venture. He attempted to grab the attention of oil companies long before BP oil spill but couldn’t spark the interest. But that was partly because he couldn’t get a federal approval for the technology without testing the device in a real oil spill, and the agencies in charge of the approval also couldn’t allow untested equipment in an oil spill.
After the Deepwater Horizon exploded, he still spent “well over a million dollars” to promote his technology before BP ordered 32 devices.
“Am I’m proud that this tech can be part of the solution for the gulf? Yes. To be completely honest I feel vindicated. Perhaps I’ll call my mother. But this is not a Hollywood ending for me. The path to arrive at this moment has been steep and formidable,” Costner said.