A New Orleans private/nonprofit partnership is creating the next generation of energy entrepreneurs

(iStock) Gulf Offshore Research Institute saw an opportunity to repurpose dormant offshore rigs, much like a developer might revitalize a blighted neighborhood.

Kent Satterlee spent the better part of his 35 years at Shell working as an engineer in the Gulf of Mexico, and later as an environmental engineer and regulatory policy manager. Little did he know that his diverse background would prepare him for an epiphany that could literally transform the industry’s handling of abandoned offshore platforms.

Satterlee and the founders of the nonprofit Gulf Offshore Research Institute saw an opportunity to repurpose these dormant offshore rigs, much like a developer might revitalize a blighted neighborhood. The innovation is a three-pronged hybrid that encompasses real estate, recycling and research.

“There are literally thousands of offshore platforms in the Gulf of Mexico that have been installed over the last several decades,” says Satterlee, who now lives in Mandeville. “The law requires that they be removed when they’re no longer useful, but that’s not necessarily the right decision for the environment or the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico.”

Instead of seeing these rigs as eyesores to be relocated or dismantled, the nonprofit GORI views them as real estate opportunities in an offshore environment. “We want to make scientific and environmental use—and even economic use—of these structures.”

GORI’s goal is to acquire platforms in the Gulf, restore them and sell them to public or private entities. The benefits, Satterlee says, could outshine other initiatives—such as the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries’ “Rigs to Reefs” program—because the platforms stay in place and leave the existing ecosystem undisturbed.

In the beginning at least, the tenants would be universities and other public institutions looking for venues to perform research. The University of Southern Mississippi is a likely first tenant, given its attention to  “blue tech,” which focuses on water-related issues ranging from conservation to sanitation. The U.S. Navy at Stennis Space Center could be another, as offshore rigs could be transformed into charging stations for its fleet of underwater drones.

Nonetheless, despite the potential of its idea, Satterlee’s group faced a daunting problem not unfamiliar to many startups. GORI had no real plan for turning the idea into a marketable reality, and it needed help “connecting the dots” and overcoming the dire possibility of failure that befalls most startups.

Fortunately, a unique partnership forged between Shell’s GameChanger program and New Orleans’ The Idea Village is paving the way. Gamechanger was launched by Shell in 1996 to deliver innovative options that can potentially impact energy’s future, while The Idea Village, founded in 2000, is a nonprofit organization that provides direct service to high-impact entrepreneurs.

Read the full story in the latest edition of 10/12 Industry Report.