Tulsa Innovation Labs partners to transform America’s heartland into a hub for energy technology startups
Tulsa Innovation Labs (TIL) began with a mission to build a tech hub that leverages Tulsa’s strengths and to create inclusive opportunities in tech and sticky, long-term, high-wage jobs in the region. In a new initiative, TIL hopes to attract energy tech startups to the region with a $50 million fund that will offer early-stage capital, access to office space and custom startup support services, and a program to pilot new technologies with regional energy leaders.
Flyover Future spoke with Kastle Jones, managing director of Rose Rock Bridge, an energy tech incubator and startup recruitment program supported by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, about the plans.
TIL took a very proactive approach from its beginning three years ago. Walk us through the genesis of the focus on energy tech.
Jones: We are very intentional about how we’re creating inclusive opportunities and good sticky, long-term, high-wage jobs in our region. The key part of that was recognizing that we can’t boil the ocean and we’re not going to be Silicon Valley overnight, but there are some things that we can do really well. And we wanted to be smart about where we placed those bets.
We did an industry analysis and, unsurprisingly, energy was the area that bubbled to the top, given our really strong local assets. Tulsa is historically the oil capital of the world. We have Fortune 500 energy companies in our state and a lot of really smart energy leaders in our region. But we also had some gaps. Our job was to figure out how to leverage those assets to drive technological innovation and create a tech hub in the energy space. The way we looked at the problem was that we do have these assets and there’s not as much innovation as we would like. So how can we bring all the partners together to catalyze that innovation?
What were the gaps?
Jones: We have fewer startups than on the coasts. We have less funding and there is less movement between our biggest corporates and entrepreneurship than there would be on the coasts. So we looked at that problem and devised how we could provide the resources and create partnerships that could create programs to create opportunities. We knew we wanted to bring in and help develop more energy tech startups. And so that is the incubator piece here.
What were the first steps?
Jones: Given the fact that our strongest assets were our companies, we proactively reached out and gave them the overall picture of where we want to go. We got strong support from Devon Energy, ONEOK, and Williams, which are three fortune 500 companies in Oklahoma. They really bought into this vision and joined us in crafting what exactly these programs are going to look like.
How did you approach the problem of capital?
Jones: We knew that access to capital was a big gap. We knew that we were going to need to be able to identify the right kinds of startups and technologies that would have the most impact in our city and in our state, and ones that our corporate partners would be interested in. So we did a lot of canvassing trying to find who the best operator for that fund and for these programs would be. We had many conversations with many different prospective operators, and Energy Innovation Capital, with their track record and their ability to also bring partners to the table and understand the space, was a really good fit for our program.
You got some VC help from Silicon Valley.
Jones: Yes, Energy Innovation Capital (EIC) is located in Silicon Valley but with a large office presence in Houston. They will be opening and operating a seed-stage venture fund called EIC Rose Rock fund. They will be collaborating with the Rose Rock Bridge program, which is our incubator program. EIC is a big part of this and they have a lot of expertise in making good energy investments and being able to identify what the most impactful energy technologies are so that we can try to bring those in, connect them with our corporate partners, and give them a place in the state to stay and grow.
What kinds of energy tech will you be focused on?
Jones: We’re focusing on three areas. Energy transition is a big one–the movement toward a lower carbon economy and technologies that will help advance that. Another one is sustainability of conventional energy–innovations that will allow sustainable delivery of our conventional energies and beyond. The final piece of that would be digital transformation of energy–technologies and solutions that enable the digital industrial and energy revolution effectively. There are really powerful technologies and innovations happening across those three. Our work will address the global problems of rising energy demand and the need to transition to a lower carbon economy.