How One Accelerator Program Pivoted to COVID-19 Solutions

By Kaitlin Milliken |  September 14, 2020

When leaving the house during a global pandemic, people often have hand sanitizer in tow. After opening a door, grabbing an item off the shelf, or holding onto a rail, it’s time to reapply. But what if there were a sanitizer that you could apply once that worked all day?  

Ryan Pletka, Black & Veatch

“We’ve got one of our companies making a persistent hand sanitizer. So you put it on, and it keeps killing anything that touches your hands. It’s like the Midas touch for pathogens,” says Ryan Pletka, Vice President of Innovation and Strategy at Black & Veatch, an engineering and construction company headquartered in Kansas City, Mo. 

Motega, the startup making this all-day hand sanitizer, is just one of 18 organizations working with Black & Veatch to produce solutions to new challenges sparked by COVID-19. 

However, Black & Veatch had not initially planned to focus on the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, the team had spent months planning an innovation week and accelerator program with a completely different focus. However,  when COVID-19 began spreading in the US, the engineering firm’s IgniteX Growth Accelerator program pivoted in a matter of weeks. 

“We sent a quick message to our CEO and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to drop everything we’re going to do for innovation this year. We’re going to 100 percent focus on this,'” Pletka recalls. “[The CEO said], ‘Sounds great — go for it’ [on the] same day.”

Three days later, the team published an announcement on the IgniteX website officially kicking off the COVID-19 Response Accelerator. 

“It was very easy for us to make that switch, because the innovation infrastructure was in place, [as was] the support — everything from the basics of what should be in an application, to the CEO trusting us,” Pletka says. 

In a recent conversation with InnoLead, Pletka delved into how they made the last-minute pivot and chose the right startups. Sarah Ruhl, a project manager at the Growth Accelerator, also shared her perspective. 

Sarah Ruhl, Black & Veatch

Pivoting to a COVID-19 Accelerator 

Black & Veatch ran its first accelerator program in 2019. Focused on environmentally-friendly technology, the new program worked with seven startups to prepare for a demo day at the end of the program. After a successful first run, Pletka says, the team had planned to focus on cleantech and sustainability again in 2020. 

However, in March of this year, with the launch days away, COVID-19 cases (and lockdowns) began emerging around the US.

“There’s a lot of people who have a feeling of helplessness… You can’t necessarily do anything, and you feel bad for nurses and doctors and other people in the frontlines,” Pletka recalls. “Then, we came to the realization… ‘Why don’t we just see what happens if we focus [the accelerator] on COVID?” 

According to Pletka, part of Black & Veatch already works on biothreat protection for the federal government — a change spurred by increased security concerns after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. That experience, coupled with ensuring the safety of essential workers in construction, gave the company sufficient reason to focus on COVID.  

“We have…the ability to build things and deploy them around the world,”  Pletka says. “We also have 12,000 professionals we want to keep safe, including about 4,000 in the construction field.” 

In addition to altering the topic of the accelerator, the team at Black & Veatch also shifted their funding model. In their 2019 accelerator, the team made investments in projects. This year, funding can come in the form of a grant, or a purchase agreement for pre-commercial products. 

“Our engagement with the companies could be as simple as identifying and sharing best practices and promoting their product and services, to providing $50,000 or more to help advance testing, validation, or implementation at a pilot project,” says Ruhl. 

“[Giving grants] probably saved us six weeks of time. We spent a long time [in the past] negotiating all these little tiny investments,” Pletka says. “[People ask,] ‘Why would you give up the opportunity to invest?’ But in terms of speed, it’s very helpful.”

The program is also completely virtual, allowing for applicants to apply from anywhere in the world.

According to Pletka, the company has committed to doubling funding for the program to $500,000 dollars. A demo event from the program will be held on October 21-22. 

Choosing the Right Startups 

According to Ruhl, applications were accepted over a two-month period. In the first two weeks, 300 startups applied. 

“The first week or two around late March and early April, we were getting a lot of applications like, ‘Hey, I can make a ventilator,'” Pletka says. “We don’t have manufacturing plants, so we’re not going to retool anything to build ventilators.”

To narrow the number of participants, the team looked for solutions that could scale quickly, and that could be applied on construction sites. For example, Pletka says, contact tracing and testing has the potential to save millions of dollars in construction. 

“If you have somebody who comes to the job site with COVID, and you have to shut down a 150-person job site for two weeks, that’s…maybe $5 million in lost productivity, as well as potential delays to that project,” he explains. “Let’s say somebody comes to the site, and now we’ve got this temperature scanner… We also have an app that basically says, ‘Yeah, I have the symptoms.’ So we know there’s potentially a COVID case the second somebody arrives on the site.” 

Pletka says they also looked for startups that would benefit from partnering. “Can we really help them? And not just with cash… [Is there] a fit to our capabilities?”

NEXT Coalition 

With a slew of applications and a limited number of spots, Black & Veatch could not pursue every idea. According to Ruhl, the team began to note which ideas were not a good fit, put them in a database, and share them with partners who might be interested in those solutions.

During this process, Pletka says that his team realized that many of Black & Veatch’s competitors had a shared goal: improving safety at construction sites during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Black & Veatch partnered with four other companies, including Haskell and McCarthy, to launch the NEXT Coalition. This group then set up its own challenge, inviting companies and startups with near-market-ready solutions to submit for possible deployments.

“That’s taking open innovation to a whole other level, where it’s open innovation, but jointly with people who we compete with,” Pletka says. “[COVID] is such a massive problem. We all need to work together on it.”