Omaha Public Power District President and Chief Executive Tim Burke says he wants the 99-year-old utility to think like a startup.

Too often, he says, potentially innovative ideas get bogged down in the bureaucracy of a big organization. That’s why he tapped Omaha’s Straight Shot accelerator to help develop an internal team to help bring those ideas to life.

The U.S. utilities industry is at a crossroads, say industry watchers, meaning now’s the time for new ideas in an old industry.

Wild cards like renewable energy and third-party energy storage systems abound, which means that critical business decisions are increasingly fraught with uncertainty.

And Straight Shot is changing, too, now adding corporate consulting services to its established role as an accelerator that aims to help people with ideas turn them into businesses.

The utility seems an unlikely candidate for Straight Shot’s typical 14-week program, what with more than 2,200 employees, 360,000 customers and more than $1.1 billion in revenue in 2014.

By contrast, Straight Shot’s stereotypical participant generally consists of a small team of founders, a skeleton of a business plan and a need for capital to elevate an idea to a going concern.

Still, Burke sees value in bringing the startup attitude inside the organization, where a small team will spend the next year pushing innovative ideas through red tape.

As Kansas City-area consultant Black & Veatch wrote in its 2015 “Strategic Directions” report: “Utilities will innovate and deploy new technology on both sides of the meter to not only stay relevant but also to help cement their brand as the vehicle for reliable power systems.”

Burke is just fine with that.

He says the utility has already been innovating through so-called “smart-grid” technology that uses new technology and computer processing to help remotely manage and automate power distribution. OPPD’s energy portfolio also boasts a considerable portion of renewables.

“The piece that was really missing was around our whole corporate innovation initiative,” Burke said. “I’ve done 15 roundtables across the organization since June and I’ve learned that people have ideas, but they get caught on snags as they try to make their way up through the clay layers of the organization.”

That’s where Straight Shot comes in.

Says the accelerator’s managing director, David Arnold: “The crux of what we do is turn business concepts into revenue generators, whether that’s in the very incipient phase of a company or if it already has a few customers.”

Normally, startups in the accelerator’s summer program give up a 6 percent equity stake in exchange for $25,000 in capital; in three years, Straight Shot and affiliated investors have invested $400,000 in 20 companies.

The OPPD arrangement has the utility paying Straight Shot a consulting fee of $1,000 for its help in getting the program started.

Skeptics need look no further than Omaha-based Election Systems & Software, which committed a pair of its own employees to the accelerator’s 2015 cohort.

Over the course of 14 weeks, the ES&S team took an idea that had been toyed with for years, developed it into a working product offering, and built the framework for a completely new division around it.

To be sure, the organization did have reservations about committing two full-time employees to the Straight Shot effort last year.

“We were a little bit hesitant about the value of having (ES&S employees) focus on a single idea,” said ES&S’s Adam Carbullido, supervisor of the new Election Insights division.

But things have gone so well that the market share leader for voting systems and software is batting 1.000 when it comes to pitching and selling the new Election Insights platform.

The New York City Board of Elections recently signed on to a two-year subscription, which means all voting precincts in the largest city in the country will be using the product.

Meanwhile, just as OPPD and ES&S work to innovate within their own organizations and as Straight Shot prepares to sift through applications for its incoming cohort, the accelerator is turning its innovative approach inward in a bid to evolve beyond being just an accelerator.

Arnold is conjuring plans for even more customized offerings that he thinks will appeal to a broader swath of corporate clients, including more on-site engagements, for example.

“There is value in what we can provide to new customers outside of focusing only on the traditional accelerator model,” Arnold said. “Frankly, we’re taking our own medicine and being exploratory about our own business model.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1534, cole.epley@owh.com

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