Comedian Robin Williams once said that words and ideas can change the world. Today, more than ever, ideas are the currency of our so-called “innovation economy.” And a lot of those ideas are coming out of Silicon Valley.

The search for new ideas is what’s driving ExxonMobil’s relationship with Silicon Valley startups. Coordination between one of the world’s largest corporations and the Bay Area hipsters may raise some eyebrows. However, for both ExxonMobil and startup companies, it makes perfect sense.

“Innovation is increasingly important. It drives us to stay a step ahead of consumers and provide them with products that will improve their lives,” explains ExxonMobil’s Michael Lacey. For nearly a year now, Lacey, a chemist by training, has worked as a detective of sorts, scouting promising leads. “We are a curious company with a long history of exploration. Teaming with startups helps us keep up with new approaches and products our customers expect,” he says.

One conduit connecting ExxonMobil with these new startups and their early-stage ideas is Plug and Play, a Silicon Valley outfit that brings together startups, corporate partners and venture capitalists. The program has an admirable track record and has worked with some notable Silicon Valley stalwarts, such as PayPal and Dropbox.

ExxonMobil, however, is not just interested in digital plays, but also in searching for startups that are developing truly novel solutions for its business. While most people think of ExxonMobil purely as an energy company, it has a robust business producing chemicals from byproducts of oil and gas production. These products are used in a variety of everyday applications ranging from food packaging to medical equipment.

As such, a little more than a year ago ExxonMobil and Plug and Play launched a “vertical” supporting startups that are developing new material and packaging solutions. ExxonMobil’s own chemicals business makes polymers that go into packaging solutions that can use less material and energy, reduce waste, and offer opportunities for recycling.

With Plug and Play, ExxonMobil enjoys a front-row seat to ideas and disruptive technologies with the potential to strengthen and even expand beyond its existing business.

Plug and Play founder Saeed Amidi speaking at the incubator’s most recent New Materials and Packaging expo.Plug and Play founder Saeed Amidi speaking at the incubator’s most recent New Materials and Packaging expo.

But what about startups participating in Plug and Play—what do they get out of this relationship? Some of the tangible benefits include the ability to work closely on transformative products with ExxonMobil engineers, innovators and marketing professionals who have unparalleled experience developing new products but also unique insight selling products globally.

“Plug and Play entrepreneurs receive ongoing feedback on whether their products can succeed in the marketplace,” highlights Amidi. That reality provides these startups with a roadmap on how to successfully scale their products from promising prototype to commercial success.

Innovation and disruption are big buzzwords these days. But actually embracing new ways of doing things is not easy, and it starts with an open mind: seeking new ideas and working to transform them into reality.

Images: Plug and Play Technology Center


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