Pipeliners Podcast

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This week’s Pipeliners Podcast episode features the second of several episodes with Jay Almlie of the EERC and iPIPE consortium hosted by Russel Treat.

In this episode, you will learn about what technologies iPIPE chooses to invest their time, energy, money, and effort into proving out. You will also learn what a tech pitch is (like Shark Tank) and what the process entails for a technology provider to work with iPIPE.

iPIPE Tech Pitch: Show Notes, Links, and Insider Terms

  • Jay Almlie is a Principal Engineer at the EERC and a leader of the iPIPE consortium. Connect with Jay on LinkedIn.
    • EERC (Energy & Environmental Research Center) is a research, development, demonstration, and commercialization facility for energy and environment technologies development located in Grand Forks, North Dakota. EERC is a leading developer of cleaner, more efficient energy to power the world and environmental technologies to protect and clean our air, water, and soil.
    • iPIPE (the intelligent Pipeline Integrity Program) is an industry-led consortium whose focus is to contribute to the advancement of near-commercial, emerging technologies to prevent and detect gathering pipeline leaks as the industry advances toward the goal of zero incidents.
    • Find more information on iPIPE members (Gas, NGL, Water, Interstate Crude Oil, and more).
  • North Dakota Industrial Commission Oil and Gas Division regulates the drilling and production of oil and gas in North Dakota.
  • EHS Manager (Environmental Health and Safety Manager) helps a company to realize risks and to prevent them from coming to realization. The manager will take objective evaluations of the various departments within the company to make sure that employees are adhering to safety standards.

iPIPE Tech Pitch: Full Episode Transcript

Russel Treat:  Welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast, episode 111, sponsored by iPIPE, an industry-led consortium advancing leak detection and leak prevention technologies to eliminate spills as pipeliners move towards zero incidents. To learn more about iPIPE or to become a partner, please visit ipipepartnership.com.

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Announcer:  The Pipeliners Podcast, where professionals, Bubba geeks, and industry insiders share their knowledge and experience about technology, projects, and pipeline operations. Now, your host, Russel Treat.

Russel:  Thanks for listening to the Pipeliners Podcast. I appreciate you taking the time. To show that appreciation, we give away a customized YETI tumbler to one listener each episode. This week, our winner is Jackie Smith. Special note: Jackie Smith is with Williams. Jackie is also the president of PODS. We’ve done episodes on which Jackie has been a guest. Just for the record, Jackie, just like everybody else, submitted a form to win. 

If you’d like to learn how you can win a cool Pipeliners Podcast YETI tumbler, just like Jackie, stick around until the end of the episode.

This week, Jay Almlie returns for the second in a six-part series on the iPIPE Partnership. He’s going to talk to us this week about how they make decisions about what technologies to invest their time, energy, money, and effort in proving out.

Jay, welcome back to the Pipeliners Podcast.

Jay Almlie:  Thanks, Russel. Fun to be back.

Russel:  This is the second in our six-part series about iPIPE. This is about “inside the tech pitch.” Maybe we should talk about, what is the tech pitch?

Jay:  The tech pitch. Well, lots of people can come up with great proposals on paper. I think what history shows us is, it takes a special kind of person to convey that verbally and convincingly to a panel of experts.

The tech pitch really becomes about both sides of that coin. One, can you convey what your technology is and why it is the most promising thing since sliced bread on paper?

That’s a very technical and plodding approach, but I have to admit that not everyone within iPIPE panels are going to read every word in a full proposal, so it becomes equally about the presentation. How do you convince and excite people about your technology?

If you look at that TV show that we talked about during the last episode — the TV show is “Shark Tank,” very popular TV show on ABC TV — same process holds there. They might have a great product. It might be an exciting product on paper.

Can they pitch it? Can they present it? I often find myself wishing as an engineer…You and I are kind of square people, Russel. We like squared off right…

Russel:  [laughs]

Jay:  …angles, and we like to have formulas. There is no formula for this. I wish I could give contestants a formula, but really, it’s, how do you convince someone that your technology is really going to solve their problem? It’s equal parts body language, verbal, and written communication.

Russel:  How long is a typical pitch? How long does somebody have to stand up and make their pitch?

Jay:  Let me rephrase your question, if you don’t mind. I hate to take control like that, but if I can say, let’s include in the pitch the whole proposal as well.

We encourage technology providers to engage with us — my staff technology scout and myself — year-round. We want to coach them up, because frankly, as technology scouts, we look good when we bring only the best technologies forward and when they hit right on target for what the pipeline operators really need.

It’s a long process. It’s months of input from us. The technology providers absorb the input they feel is valuable to them and disregard what they don’t think is valuable. We’re not offended by that, but we’re trying to give them all the input we can so that they bring the best proposal forward.

That’s the first half. The second half happens very quickly. Once a year, we gather these presenters in a common location, one at a time. They don’t get to see each other. It’s run much like the TV show.

They come in and they give their best 40 minutes of sales pitch, “Here’s why my technology fits your needs,” and that becomes the verbal and body language piece. They do their best to convince this panel of experts they are worth investing in.

Russel:  Interesting. Is it 40 minutes in and out, or is it 40 minutes presentation and then Q&A?

Jay:  40 minutes in and out, simply because we…

Russel:  [laughs]

Jay:  Yeah, that’s a challenge for most people, as you can imagine.

Russel:  It reminds me of, I don’t know if this is true, but I have heard, I heard this a long time ago and it really resonated with me. You’re familiar with the Gettysburg Address, of course, right?

Jay:  Of course, I went to school.

Russel:  Yeah, so the Gettysburg Address, if you were to recite it, is only a few minutes long. But it’s a very, very powerful speech. In fact, Lincoln’s fairly famous for his second inaugural address. He came after somebody who talked for like an hour and 45 minutes, and he talked for 15. Nobody remembers what the other guy said.

Supposedly, after the Gettysburg Address, there was a reporter that asked Lincoln, “How long does it take you to write a speech?”

He said, “Well, son, takes me about 8 hours to write a 10-minute speech. About four hours to write a one-hour speech, and I can ramble on for hours and hours without any preparation whatsoever.”

Jay:  [laughs] That’s genius.

Russel:  One of the things that I find in this type of thing is that it’s really, really challenging to actually get your presentation down. Because if you’ve got 40 minutes, you don’t want to talk for more than 15 or 20, because you want the floor to have the opportunity to ask questions.

Jay:  That’s probably actually the more valuable part of that presentation is engaging with these experts on the panel. Anyone can spit out a monologue, but the convincing happens when you exchange with that panel.

Russel:  Right, right. Just like the show. Everybody comes in, they do their pitch, but it’s the interaction between the pitchers and the people on the panel that’s really interesting and engaging.

Jay:  Exactly, yeah. It looks much like that with us.

Russel:  I guess this whole Shark Tank process is required to be selected as a project and to get funding and access to the partners to run a project. When you come in and you’re making this pitch, are you just pitching the technology or do you already have a project defined?

Jay:  Well, when they come in, they need to have a firm proposal for how they’re going to develop their technology with our help. It can’t just be a product. We’re not asking for commercial-ready product.

We’re asking for technologies that are emerging and part of that definition is that they have to have some development work buried in there. They have to allow us to help them tune that product.

And that is a long-winded way of saying yes, they have to have a project defined that’s got some scientific method built in, and we’re going to help them with that. But they have to show that they’ve got a good enough handle on how they’ll go about those final development steps with us, hand in hand with us, so that we know it’s a partnership and not a sale.

Russel:  We were talking last time about, in our last episode, about some of the things that make iPIPE unique. I think that’s another way that you guys are unique is that this collaborative definition and the idea I’m not looking to prove a technology, I’m looking to have a technology happen and get proved.

Jay:  Right.

Russel:  It’s a little different. I mean, and you said this a couple times in our talk, is you’re trying to get over the horizon. I guess this is really your mechanism for getting over the horizon.

Jay:  Absolutely. While we’re discussing this, part of the assumption on technology providers’ part, when they hear investment, they assume we’re going to want something. We’re going to want a piece of the profits, we’re going to want reduced costs, we’re going to want a share of their intellectual property.

They’re surprised and, frankly, it takes a little bit of convincing to convince them that, no, we’re not interested in any of that. These pipeline operators, their bread and butter is transporting fluids across the countryside. They’re not interested in intellectual property arrangements. They’re not interested in profit sharing. That’s almost a distraction to their main business.

The technology providers are shocked when they finally come to realize they really don’t want much. What they want is a new tool in their tool belt. They’re offering to help us develop it. They’re offering us cash to help us along that pathway, and really, don’t want anything else in return. That’s a unique aspect.

Russel:  I agree. I absolutely agree. How do you find these technologies? I know you mentioned you have a technology scout, but how are you finding these things? How do you get people enrolled and coming to you guys to make a tech pitch?

Jay:  I think there’s probably three primary pathways. One is yes, we’re paying our technology scout and his team actually to go scour, go to some conferences, go scour the web, make some phone calls, talk to your brother who knows an uncle, who knows someone else, who heard about a technology.

Just go reach out to the world and find out what technologies might have applicability to our challenges. That’s one way. Another way is these technology providers are often already knocking on the doors of the pipeline operators.

This mechanism provides a convenient route for those pipeline operators to point them somewhere productive. Go talk to iPIPE. Go talk to Jay. Go talk to his technology scout. We’re routing everything through them now.

Our pipeline operators are pointing some technologies our way. Sometimes, they’ll even say, “Hey, we have a sincere interest in this. Can you take a hard look at this?” Of course, we’re going to do that. The third way is almost blind calls.

Using our website, www.ipipepartnership.com. At the bottom of that website, technology providers can click a button that brings them to a form where they can tell us, “Hey, I think we’ve got a technology that might fit your mission. Can we have a chat?”

That form comes directly to me, and we engage them immediately. Three routes. We take any of the above, and we take all of the above. We’re just doing our best to find everything possible, thinking outside the box, reaching over the horizon, whatever euphemism you want to use. We’re trying to tackle all possible technologies and apply them to our needs.

Russel:  Maybe you could tell me a little bit about what a project would look like. I’m struggling. I’ll be honest with you, Jay. I’m struggling a little bit with what word to use to frame what this is, because it’s not really a project. It’s not really a development.

It’s a hybrid of a bunch of different things. I’m interested in how an engagement looks. How’s that formulated and what’s happening? That kind of thing.

Jay:  Russel, are you asking about how they engage us to offer a proposal, or are you asking about how they engage us in the project, if selected?

Russel:  In the project, if selected.

Jay:  In the project, if a technology provider is selected by the iPIPE panel, we engage them through our contract. iPIPE asks us here at the Energy and Environmental Research Center to contract on their behalf —  iPIPE’s behalf — so we become the contracting mechanism.

We define a scope of work jointly with the technology provider. And, because we are a research institution, we’re a contract-for-fee applied research institute, we have some expertise and a lot of experience in applying scientific method to develop a cogent scope of work that really advances the ball forward.

We work with those technology providers that are selected to develop that pretty robust scope of work and put some scientific method into it. We want to be able to independently evaluate, is this technology promising? Is it working? Is it doing what they said?

We think that provides double benefit. One, it allows an independent evaluator to possibly verify what the technology provider says. Of course, every technology provider is going to say we’ve got the greatest thing since sliced bread, but if someone independent stands behind them and says, “Yea, verily, this was a success for these reasons,” now they’ve got even more fodder.

On the other hand, sometimes, people are a little skeptical that industry pipeline operators aren’t taking on enough new technologies, possibly because of cost. This process also allows us to stand up and say, “This technology worked, and this technology didn’t.”

Now, the pipeline operators have something to stand behind. During that development of the scope of work, we’re trying to wrap in all of those factors. Then we walk hand-in-hand with the technology provider through the project.

Typically, they last about a year, but we walk hand-in-hand with them, helping them address the real-time needs of the pipeline operators. The pipeline operators, remember, are giving feedback every day on is this product working?

Is it fitting our needs? What could be done better? What are you focused too much on? What are you focused too little on? We help communicate those needs back and forth. It’s really a hand in hand in hand process.

We’re holding the hand of the technology providers, who truthfully don’t always know all the ins and outs of the needs of the pipeline operators. The three of us together are developing this new technology.

Russel:  I guess what’s clarifying for me as we talk is that iPIPE actually formulates the scope, the proposal, and the plan of work, and all of that is what’s presented at the Shark Tank. Then how is the decision made?

I guess the nature of the engagement is predefined before a decision’s made. Then how’s the decision made?

Jay:  The decision is made strictly by the panel. That is, one representative of each member company sits on the panel, and they each have one vote. It doesn’t matter whether the member is a multi-billion dollar company, a multi-million dollar company, or a startup company, a small pipeline operator.

They all have one vote, because they all have different needs, and we need to address the needs of the whole consortium, not just some dominant members. One vote each, and we walk through that after everyone has given their pitch during our technology selection process.

We walk through the scoring. Who liked this one? Who liked this one? We bubble sort, of sorts. Bubble sort the presentations made. What does the group like? What doesn’t it like? There’s a pretty simple scoring mechanism.

We might take four or five iterations to really hone down the field to just those contestants that most of the members are really in favor of.

Then at the end, we decide how much of our resources available are we willing to spend this year. Then from there, they decide which ones to invest in. It’s really an organic process, and it’s really driven entirely by the members.

Russel:  Interesting. I’m trying to formulate a follow-up question to that, but it’s one of these things. Sometimes, when I’m having these conversations, instead of there being one question in my mind, there’s 20.

This is more one of those places where I think there’s 20 questions instead of one. I can see that being just the process that the members go through to determine which of the technologies they want to actually execute as projects. I could see that conversation in and of itself being really interesting.

Jay:  And really challenging.

Russel:  Yes, exactly.

Jay:  Consider our members. If you go to our website, you’ll see who the members are. Some are primarily gas and NGL handlers. Some are produced water handlers. Some are interstate crude oil transporters.

Some are simply in-state, gathering pipeline crude oil handlers. Some are producers themselves. Some are third party pipeline operators only. It’s a mixed bag of needs and desires, and it’s really a credit to this consortium that thus far, through three technology selection rounds, they’ve been able to resolve their differences.

Everyone has been able to get something out of the process every time. Everyone comes away happy with at least one selection.

Russel:  Interesting. I would assume that there’s a lot of learning that occurs as these projects are executed and that that’s one of the key values of the program. Not just can we get to a viable solution at the end of the day, but the learning that occurs as we’re going through the project.

Jay:  Absolutely. I think we have that scoped for another episode, and we’ll dive deep on that then, but you are absolutely correct.

One of the ways in which the members have surprised themselves is, as they discuss their needs, their challenges, and frankly, their successes and failures to date in addressing those challenges, they’ve really surprised themselves in how much they can share freely without endangering anti-competition rules and things like that.

They share with each other. They learn from each other. We often have this mantra, a high tide floats all boats. That’s really core to how iPIPE operates. We’re all trying to do a better job with pipeline operations.

We learn from each other. We’re looking for new technologies. In that search for new technologies, we’re helping each other learn what’s been successful and not so successful in the past.

Russel:  Exactly. What is the size in dollars and nature of the investment that’s made in these projects?

Jay:  That’s a timely question. I just finished presenting to the North Dakota Industrial Commission yesterday, who gave us another million dollars to fund the program. The overall program now is valued at about a little over $7 million.

Typically, what we field in the way of projects at our technology selection event, anywhere between $50,000 and $1 million plus. We won’t fund many $2 million or $3 million investments, because simply put, we don’t have that level of resources right now.

We are right now considering some investments close to $1 million each. We’ve funded one company to date in excess of $1 million. That ballpark range is about where we’re targeted. We often tell these technology providers when they ask us what should we target in our budget, we’ll say, “We don’t want to give you a target.”

For the right golden unicorn, the golden ticket, we might invest $2 million, but it better be the right technology. It better answer a lot of questions for that level of investment.

Russel:  It better be the right unicorn.

Jay:  That’s right. [laughs] We’ve funded $100,000 project in the past, and that’s also been successful. It varies widely by technology. It varies widely by scope of work. It varies ultimately based on what can they promise. What can they deliver in their promise to us?

Russel:  Cool. For the pipeline operator, what are some of the benefits of working these projects?

Jay:  First and foremost, we’ve said many times they’re getting a new tool in their toolbelt if that technology is successful. That’s the simple, first order level of analysis.

Beyond that, if that pipeline operator engages heavily with the project —  that is, volunteers some pipelines, puts some field people on the development effort  — that pipeline operator is now getting a real-time education on the ins and outs, the pluses and minuses of that technology.

Then if the technology is successful, they hit the ground running. That’s happened in at least one of our cases thus far, one of our successful technology developments. The members invested immediately following the project commercially in that technology.

Immediately, their field teams knew how they wanted to use it. That is tremendously beneficial to the pipeline operators.

Russel:  Oh, wow, yeah. That’s a huge deal if they already understand how to get it all the way to boots on the ground. That’s a big deal.

Jay:  That’s key, Russel. It’s the boots on the ground. It’s not the management level. It’s not the C-Suite who needs to know the ins and outs. It’s the people on the ground, because whether or not the company makes an investment in those technologies, it’s the people on the ground who are going to make that happen or see that it fails one way or another.

Russel:  I would assume that those are the same people, or at least some subset of those people, that are involved in these projects. If I’m actually accessing the pipe, I’m going to be working with the boots on the ground.

Jay:  Absolutely. In our most engaged members and the members that derive most value from this membership in iPIPE are the ones who have, yes, their C-Suite is engaged steering strategy, steering direction.

Their middle-level managers or EHS managers are also engaged, because they’re ultimately held responsible for spills, and their field people are engaged, because they’re the ones that have to make it happen in the end.

They’re the ones actually installing the technology or utilizing it on a day to day basis. The members that derive the most value from iPIPE are the ones with all three levels engaged heavily.

Russel:  Right. What about the benefits to the vendors themselves?

Jay:  Before we leave the pipeline operators, let’s touch on one more benefit. That is that they’re actually accomplishing some education within their own company, then. Even within the companies, there’s not always perfect transmittal of knowledge.

The people in the field might understand the challenges on one level, and by the time that percolates up to the C-Suite people, some of the message is lost. By engaging them heavily in these development projects, there’s a common understanding now.

We’re finding that repeatedly, that there’s an education component for the pipeline operators themselves. Now, moving onto your question about the technology providers, again, the first order analysis is obviously they have customers waiting for them if they’re successful.

Second order analysis would be they’re getting real-time feedback from these potential future customers about what really works and what doesn’t. How can they make their product more appealing to the marketplace?

They’re getting that quietly. They’re getting that within the project. We don’t share that, and so they’re protected. Maybe third order would be just the amount of exposure they’re getting. A couple of our early technology selections have been our loudest advocates.

They are promoting the notion of iPIPE far and wide, because they’ve derived so much notoriety and publicity from it, and indeed, market share, once they enter that market there’s lots benefits for those technology providers.

Russel:  As a technology provider ourselves, the opportunity to do a project of this nature, get all that learning, work that closely with the people that are going to be using, and have that feedback, those kinds of things, all vendors are working to accomplish that.

To be able to do that in a more programmatic, deliberate, and project-centric way, I find it pretty compelling, personally.

Jay:  Thank you. Obviously, there are others who agree with you, because our membership is growing. That says the pipeline operators are getting something of real value. The number of technology providers applying each year is growing.

Obviously, they’re seeing the benefit. Yeah, I’ll come back to that hand in hand in hand approach. We’re all benefiting, and this high tide floats all boats. We’re all doing better. We’re all learning more. We’re all learning what new technologies could be applied, and we’re all learning how specifically to apply them.

That is at least a three-way partnership among pipeline operators, researchers, and technology providers, all having the same shared goal. You touched earlier on what are the unique aspects of this program? I think that’s got to be one of them.

Russel:  No doubt. Jay, I think that’s a great place to wind up this second episode here. For the listeners, as I mentioned earlier, this is the second in a six-part series. We’re going to be talking to some of the member companies.

We’re going to talk to some of the vendors that have executed projects with iPIPE. I just encourage you to be looking out for the episodes to come. With that, Jay, thanks for being on the Pipeliners Podcast. For those of you that are interested to get more information, we will put that in the show notes.

Jay:  Super. Thank you, Russel.

Russel:  I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode of the Pipeliners Podcast and our conversation with Jay Almlie. Just a reminder before you go. You should register to win our customized Pipeliners Podcast YETI tumbler. Simply visit pipelinerspodcast.com/win to enter yourself in the drawing.

If you’d like to support the Pipeliners Podcast, the best way to do that is to leave us a review. You can do that on iTunes/Apple Podcast, Google Play, Stitcher, whichever smart device podcast app you happen to use to listen. You can find instructions at pipelinerspodcast.com.

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Russel:  If you have ideas, questions, or topics you’d be interested in, please let me know on the contact us page at pipelinerspodcast.com or reach out to me directly on LinkedIn. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you next week.

Transcription by CastingWords

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