In Episode 17 of the Oil and Gas Elevate Podcast, hosts Sean McCoy and Eric Johnson interviewed Emily Hazelwood and Amber Sparks, cofounders of Blue Latitudes, on transforming decommissioned oil and gas platforms into artificial reefs. In this article, OGGN contributing writer Stephen Forrester got a chance to talk with Emily and Amber about their lives and careers. In Part II of the article, Emily and Amber discuss being inducted into the Forbes 30 under 30 program, their vision for the future of Blue Latitudes, and how their quest to showcase the marine environments and life around reefed platforms is driving a rethinking of Rigs-to-Reefs programs in different waters around the world.
What exactly does it mean when discussing turning rigs into artificial reefs, though? In a document jointly developed by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), and the California State Lands Commission, the three agencies lay out what they call “A Citizen’s Guide to Offshore Oil and Gas Decommissioning in Federal Waters Off California.” In the report, the agencies provide an overview of decommissioning of oil and gas facilities in the Pacific and potential use cases for the platforms once decommissioning is completed. The report provides an excellent definition of the rigs-to-reefs program, as well as the methods whereby a platform can be transformed into an artificial reef:
“Rigs-to-Reefs is a process where operators choose to donate – rather than scrap – decommissioned oil and gas platforms to coastal states to serve as artificial reefs under the National Artificial Reef Plan.
Decommissioned structures are typically toppled in place, partially removed near the surface, or towed to existing reef sites or reef planning areas. Decommissioning platforms attract various encrusting organisms such as barnacles and bivalves, which colonize on them and produce fish and other marine life as found on natural reefs. Studies conducted in California and elsewhere suggest a positive relationship between fishing, fish, and oil and gas structures in the marine environment.”
Though the projects Amber and Emily pursue are varied in scope and purpose, helping accelerate the development and adoption of the rigs-to-reefs program offshore California is their passion—and their greatest challenge. “There have been other efforts in the past in California,” Emily says, “to make rigs-to-reefs a reality, but they went about it in a way that was not transparent at all. But people are smart; they do their homework.” For these reasons, Amber and Emily have a section on their website that is dedicated to some of the arguments against the very thing that they’re trying to do. They feel, however, that the science will speak for itself, and that intelligent people will be able to make a clear, rational decision based on the facts.
Early success saw Amber and Emily gaining more and more traction, with people reaching out for media appearances and promotional marketing. As the positive press piled up—from the likes of The New York Times, Buzzfeed, and NPR, among others—and the two entrepreneurs felt that the issues their company was combatting were coming into sharper focus, they decided to apply for the well-known Forbes 30 Under 30 program in the “Energy” category. The rest, as they say, is history, with Blue Latitudes being a winner and Amber and Emily inducted into the growing list of visionaries and changemakers who had also won the award. The accolades from winning go way beyond a virtual gold star, with Amber saying,
“It’s been a great way to connect with other young, like-minded leaders and entrepreneurs in the energy space.”
Emily emphasizes that this wasn’t your average networking, like growing a followership on LinkedIn or going to a happy hour event to hand out business cards; rather, this was a golden opportunity to make inroads with some of the best and brightest minds in the world.
In the United States, oil companies are responsible for all decommissioning costs. When a structure is reefed, there are often significant cost savings associated with the partial removal of the platform jacket.
In actively working on the rigs-to-reefs program, oil companies can reaffirm their commitment to the often lofty, but equally as often unquantified, environmental and social goals outlined in their sustainability reports and investor relations decks. It’s about making a tangible impact on the world, using an old asset to provide a place where life will flourish and grow—an oil company’s legacy, you might say, rising from the remains, the cycle beginning anew. You can’t really put a price on that.
There’s some pretty amazing stuff going on out there in the ocean, Amber says, things that most people never get the chance to see or learn about. For her, the most fascinating marine life is found not on traditional fixed-platform jackets being repurposed but in the deep sea, on subsea equipment and on the seafloor, for example.
“I’m interested in seeing how marine life can colonize and grow in these really intense environments that you find in the super deep sea,” Amber says. “No light, extreme pressure, extremely cold, yet we see marine life colonizing and growing down there; not the kind you see above on the platforms, something entirely different. We’ve seen some crazy creatures down there, and even made some new discoveries.”
By working with the oil companies to deploy an ROV to these deepwater subsea installations, Amber and Emily also gain access to sites that many researchers only dream of being able to study, locations too deep and too unknown to be reached by anyone without the most cutting-edge equipment. By bringing these environments to life with 4K photography and video taken by the ROV, they say, they can open a world for people so that they can better understand why Blue Latitudes does the work it does.
Amber and Emily are not only doing meaningful work via their technical projects with Blue Latitudes but also through the charity arm of their company, the Blue Latitudes Foundation. The future of ocean conservation, Amber and Emily agree, is no longer an us-versus-them scenario; rather, what needs to be done is to align and find opportunities to work together to conserve oceans and marine life. The foundation enjoys granting relationships with several organizations, one of them Patagonia, who many in the oil industry know for its fervently anti-oil stance and refusing to put logos of oil and finance companies on their clothing. It’s an interesting departure, and one that Emily attributes to the nature of the work that they do. “Amber and I weren’t going around and preaching, ‘keep drilling for offshore oil,’ because don’t worry, you can reef them!” Emily says. “We’re trying to walk an even path by saying, we’re dealing with the end of life for these structures. What’s the best option for them?”
Amber and Emily have seen major successes so far through their work, including preserving more than 24 acres of habitat on repurposed oil rigs and saving more than 56,000 fish. They’re doing their part in the fight to advance a rigs-to-reefs program in California by petitioning the State Senate to make the program an option, as it is in the Gulf of Mexico. Education and outreach are also critical components of the foundation’s mission, with the two women giving dozens of speeches and presentations across more than 10 countries to improve knowledge and understanding of marine science and biology, the opportunities and constraints of reefing, and how such a program can be developed for oceans around the world. Donations and grants to the charity arm of the business fund these important initiatives and help tell the story of what Amber and Emily do.
Of course, the water-loving duo don’t just talk the talk when it comes to diving—they also walk the walk. Amber is an advanced diver, while Emily is a dive master, and both are scientific divers, as well. Significant experience diving for both business and pleasure has seen them in locations dotted from one side of the planet to the other, sometimes well-known, sometimes exotic. The two will sometimes dive with small, handheld ROVs, which are attached to a tether, to allow them to see further down than their equipment will take them yet still get the diving experience of themselves being underwater. And, as you’d expect, they most certainly dive in the artificial reefs born of decommissioned platforms. When passion and purpose align, the possibilities truly are limitless.
In Episode 17 of the Oil and Gas Elevate Podcast, hosts Sean McCoy and Eric Johnson interviewed Emily Hazelwood and Amber Sparks, cofounders of Blue Latitudes, on transforming decommissioned oil and gas platforms into artificial reefs. In this article, OGGN contributing writer Stephen Forrester got a chance to talk with Emily and Amber about their lives and careers. In Part I, they explore their passion for the marine world, their meeting and the genesis of Blue Latitudes, and what the company is doing to change how we look at offshore platforms at the end of their life.
Blue Latitudes is a federally certified women-owned small business and marine environmental consulting firm. Recognized as leaders in the energy sector by Forbes and Entrepreneur magazine, cofounders Emily Hazelwood and Amber Sparks develop sustainable, creative, and cost-effective solutions for the environmental issues that surround the offshore energy industry. As marine scientists working in the offshore energy space, fueled by a passion for marine conservation, these women have aimed to disrupt the way the industry views decommissioning by reimagining Rigs as Reefs.
Emily comes from New Castle Island, a small island connected to the mainland of New Hampshire via a bridge. Growing up in a family of divers—her father was a dive master—Emily and her brother were certified as soon as they were of age.
At Connecticut College, Emily studied environmental sciences, as the university didn’t have a marine science major, but she says that through this time, she maintained her passion and curiosity for the underwater world.
Between her junior and senior year, Emily made her way to the Marine Biological Laboratory, an international center for research and education in biological and environmental science in Woods Hole, Massachusetts affiliated with the University of Chicago. “That was a great opportunity because it exposed me to so many interesting and fascinating scientists.” One scientist, Dr. Stephen Highstein, she says, was working on a project with NASA involving toadfish to help astronauts fight space sickness —they [toadfish] have a similar inner ear structure as humans, so understanding how their balance was affected could help understand how humans would be affected in the same environment.
Emily’s first job was as a field technician working on the Deepwater Horizon/Mississippi Canyon 252 oil spill about one year after the blowout.
“At that point,” she explains, “bp was trying to understand what the full extent of the spill was, and what they were going to have to pay in damages. So, we were doing biota sampling, sediment sampling, water sampling, and it was a crazy schedule.”
Working a hectic rotational schedule and living out of hotels, Emily feels that despite the challenges, the exposure to the industry and its busy lifestyle was very beneficial. She reminisces about the fisherman who drove their sampling boats—most of them unable to commercially fish due to the oil spill, and hence employed by bp in various capacities in the meantime—and how they would talk about how much they enjoyed fishing from decommissioned platforms on the weekends. “It was so strange,” Emily continues, “because here we are, working on this oil spill, caused by one of these platforms, yet they’re saying that they’re unbelievable hotspots for life—and not only are they hotspots for life, but they like to eat the fish that come from these platforms.”
Exposed to the rigs-to-reefs program directly by people who fished from the platforms, Emily quickly came to understand the cultural significance of the program, as well as just how ingrained oil and gas was in the identity and lifeblood of the Gulf Coast region. She continued to work in contaminated site management and environmental consulting for another year before applying to Scripps, where she met Amber. Emily learned from Amber that offshore California, there was a rigs-to-reefs law that was never acted on—a stark contrast to the Gulf of Mexico’s program, which was embraced by the general populace in the area. “That sparked our mutual interest,” she says, “coming from these two different backgrounds, but this collision of two different areas of the country where these programs that are so different; and, expanding that out even further, realizing that there are oil platforms on every single ocean of the planet. What’s going to happen to those platforms?” It was this mutual interest in rigs-to-reefs programs that was not only the seed of their master’s thesis but of their company, Blue Latitudes.
Amber and Emily work on projects around the world, like designing, developing, and executing ROV-based marine life surveys on PETRONAS’s platforms in the South China Sea to validate platform suitability for reefing; providing Anadarko (now part of Occidental Petroleum) with technical studies to support the designation of a reefing location for a spar hull facility in the Gulf of Mexico; developing a biological assessment to ensure that the Catalina Underwater Pavilions, an offshore installation by artist Doug Aitken, would not interfere with the habitat and marine life in the area; and providing environmental and permitting support to Malibu Oyster Company as they pursued a California lease for growing premium oysters and fresh kelp.
Growing up on the other side of the country, in southern California, Amber Sparks was drawn to the ocean from an early age, a natural curiosity fueled, in some part, by proximity. Funneling that passion into her academic pursuits at the University of California, Berkeley, she majored in marine science. For the uninitiated, marine science focuses on understanding the interactions between the biosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and atmosphere, looking at topics like the role of the ocean in climate change, the ocean’s role in climate phenomena and their effect on modern marine ecosystems, the history of climatic/oceanographic events recorded in marine sediments and corals, coastal pollution and its effect on coastal marine ecosystems, and coastal erosion.
After graduating, Amber felt called to do more. “I wanted to take everything I learned,” she explains, “and apply it to the bigger picture. How do I communicate the value of a healthy ocean to everyone around the globe—even those who can’t access it?” As she started working with Google Earth and the Sylvia Earle Alliance—whose objective was “igniting public support for a global network of marine protected areas”—her primary focus was on disseminating research and science to communicate more effectively with the public via Google Earth and Google Maps.
Amber met Emily Hazelwood at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, part of the University of California, San Diego, when the two were pursuing their master’s degrees. As Emily told Amber more about her work in the Gulf of Mexico, including as a field technician after the oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon blowout, the conversation eventually transitioned into the Gulf’s active Rigs-to-Reefs program. The initiative aims to facilitate the transformation of decommissioned oil and gas platforms into artificial reefs, which can host environments for tens of thousands of fish and hundreds of species of marine life springing up from the skeletons of abandoned offshore assets.
“Growing up in California, I was aware of the platforms offshore,” says Amber. “And it was hard to believe that reefs could be thriving beneath the surface?”
Amber and Emily’s passion aligned on the topic of reefing decommissioned platforms, and both women were curious if the success seen in the Gulf of Mexico could be replicated offshore California. They ended up writing their master’s thesis on just this topic.
Be sure to check out Part II of the article, where Emily and Amber discuss being inducted into the Forbes 30 under 30 program, their vision for the future of Blue Latitudes and the company’s charity arm, and how their quest to showcase the marine environments and life around reefed platforms is driving a rethinking of Rigs-to-Reefs programs in different waters around the world.
Thank you to our sponsor, Appian for supporting this Perspective article.
In Episode 14 of the Oil and Gas Elevate Podcast, hosts Sean McCoy and Eric Johnson interviewed Troy Tittlemier, CEO of the MagmaChem Research Institute, on serpentinization and the need for disruption and innovation in how we look at the current earth model. In this article, OGGN contributing writer Stephen Forrester got a chance to talk with Troy about his early life in motocross, his transitioning into geoscience and research with MagmaChem, the founding of the Permian Basin Experience Podcast, and his latest venture—actually operating his own small oil and gas company.
“There’s an earth science revolution happening,” declares Troy Tittlemier, “much like the plate tectonics revolution of the 1970s.” This is a completely new way of thinking about the natural processes of our planet, he says—a shift in how we look at the origin of life and oil, how we build renewable energy that’s truly sustainable, and how we approach climate change. What is it about carbon that we’re all so worried about? How is it interacting with the planet? Why are we measuring it? “We’re reevaluating the fundamentals of our understanding of the natural world,” he exclaims, “and that’s fascinating.”
Troy’s journey into the world of geology was one that took quite a winding path. From an early age, Troy experienced a natural disconnect from formal education, as he felt that sitting in a class with 30 other students and being taught how to think wasn’t the right way of doing things. The idea that life followed a set process, an arbitrary set of points down a linear path, caused additional friction.
“So, I became the class clown,” he admits, “and I felt like classes were ultimately in the way of my enjoyment.”
Making it through high school, Troy went straight into the motocross industry, as he’d had friends that he’d grown up with who’d turned pro.
Initially enamored with the life of a motocross racer, Troy barely scraped by for a time, bouncing from couch to couch as the bank account remained dry. It was fun, a fitting path for a rebellious youth with limitless energy and drive who wanted to escape the confines of the system. Several people, however, attempted to direct his attention elsewhere. His father, a lifelong mechanic, insisted that Troy do something else instead of following what he called a “dead-end job,” begging him not to take the same path. An early mentor, motocross icon and mechanic Mike Gosselaar, later asked Troy a question that stopped him in his tracks: “Why would you want to do this for the rest of your life?” These two key figures in his life coming to him with this advice caused Troy to deeply reflect on what he wanted out of life—was motocross his dream, or a passing hobby?
“I wanted to use my brain for money, not my body,” he explains, “and do something that wouldn’t physically wear me out for a career.” Deciding to go back to school, Troy started a journey of what he calls “re-learning,” which was based in questioning the assumptions and assumed truths of classic education and, more broadly, the world around him. Then, a devastating accident near the end of his motocross career provided any clarity Troy still needed at that point. His jaw cracked in two places, an elbow broken and ligament damage to a knee, and even a blood clot that passed through his heart and to his lung—which a cardiologist told him 11 years later had caused a heart attack that night—Troy was a mess for a while, but the trauma of the incident truly gave him a new sense of purpose. He likens it to experiencing an adrenaline rush, but this rush didn’t end after the accident, or after he left the hospital.
“I was lucky,” he says, “and after the accident, man, it was like I was reborn.” Reinvigorated, the advice of his father and mentor also on his mind, Troy knew he had to make a change.
He was drawn to medicine, thinking about becoming a doctor of osteopathy so that he could practice spinal manipulation while also prescribing medicine. With the cost and time making that path virtually impossible, Troy looked for something else, settling on geology due to his fascination with the inner workings of the world. Crossing paths with a biology professor by the name of Barbara Collins—who wrote one of Troy’s favorite books, You Lead a Mean Trail—Troy became friends with her husband, a geologist. He gave Troy what seemed an odd bit of advice at the time, but one that ultimately inspired him: “Pay attention to the hydrocarbon generation model.”
What did it mean? The geologist argued that the idea of how oil was made on the planet was shaky, that people should really focus on where oil and gas is coming from. How do we truly identify the pathways of migration from the source rock? Can we even do such a thing? All the assumptions about reservoir location and how oil moves within formations and source rock have made understanding the true nature of hydrocarbons fraught with error and mystery—and in the world of business, money and truth don’t always align. “You have many scientists more concerned with developing a business instead of advancing a truthful model,” he notes. “A model is just an approximation of reality, and a good model should be built on hard truths, be predictable, and be repeatable. The approximation of reality based on the existing model for figuring out why oil is there, and exactly how much you’re going to get out of the ground once you spend the money to do so…well, it isn’t very good.”
Creativity and truth, argues Troy, have fallen by the wayside as business has necessitated a working earth model—not a great one, he says, not the best one, but one that works. Due to implementation of more and more technology, processes and models are becoming more automatic, more machine- and algorithm-driven, but at what cost?
“There aren’t a lot of creative, smart truth-seekers who are working on these problems,” he exclaims, and, laughing, “because they’ve been beaten down. The textbooks have beaten it out of them!”
Fortunately, Troy found the sort of creative-minded visionaries he needed in Stan Keith and Monte Swan, who had degrees in philosophy, engineering, and geology. Stan had started his career as an economics geologist at the Arizona Geological Survey, later doing research that led to the co-founding of MagmaChem and its branches into exploration and research.
The idea behind MagmaChem was that it would be built to achieve results—not for academia, not simply to get rich, but to provide the industry with a truthful way of thinking about geology and the natural world. Troy admits that part of the company’s success, as well as what drew him to it, was their ability to explore their curiosity. While not every bit of research that the company did was adopted or endorsed by the industry, much of it was, with operators like Exxon paying for information on plate tectonics and layered earth models. Through the years, the company built a solution to identify and address anomalies in how the industry looked at established geological concepts. The MagmaChem magma-metal series approach to magmatism and related mineral and energy resource deposits, for example, is an empirically based, rock-resource classification system that has predictive power for discovering and understanding mineral and energy deposits. By understanding magmatism, the industry can overcome the limitations of a traditional model that has erroneously classified many mineral deposits, building a model that integrates every data point available in the universe to make the best decision.
Troy heads up the MagmaChem Research Institute, the non-profit arm of MagmaChem that provides free education and access to the latest and most accurate earth model the company has. The goal of the institute, Troy explains, is to disseminate knowledge.
“When they asked me to come on to help share this information,” he says, “it was about giving back. We wanted to make sure the industry knew about the earth model and its potential. So, with my experience with podcasting and communication technology, they knew I could have engaging conversations about these topics and try and keep them at the front of peoples’ minds.”
Taking a leap of faith, Troy left his job and poured 6 years of savings into the MagmaChem Research Institute to help build it to what it is now, allowing the research institute to be talked about, explained, and best understood by the public. With its visibility significantly increased, interest in the institute’s research is growing, Troy says, and so far, the feedback on what they’re doing has been overwhelmingly positive, with everyone from scientists and geologists to entrepreneurs and tech companies getting involved. “They’re all just going, ‘Whoa, this is amazing,’” he says, proudly. “And that’s what it’s all about.”
Apart from the MagmaChem Research Institute, Troy also started a podcast, which he calls the “Permian Basin Experience Podcast,” or PBE Podcast. A passion project turned into a legitimate business venture, the podcast unites the typical audio format with recorded videos and interviews. “MagmaChem is the message,” Troy explains, “and the PBE Podcast is the media. PBE allows us to drink some whiskey with some colleagues and friends and have candid discussions; it helps educate people on what energy is at its core, how we build a sustainable future.” The PBE Podcast also provides a platform for exploring things going on at MagmaChem, with the message that there’s a new way of thinking about old problems. “As we’re going through this earth science revolution, we can ask, what is serpentinization?” Troy says. “What is this process that’s happening at the boundary of the mantle and the crust on our planet? How does that process influence the way we live our lives; the way we understand medicine; the way we understand agriculture and science? It’s all right there, and that’s how our questions come up.” It’s also a learning process for Troy as he works closely with the founders of MagmaChem, and it’s being documented every step of the way. He envisions a PBE hybrid virtual/in-person conference in Midland, where they’ll be able to show a complete reevaluation of a Permian formation using the MagmaChem science. He wants to get involved in events, with other companies, and with experts at the forefront of geology and earth science. “We’re excited for 2021,” he says. “It’s going to be a great year for us.”
Troy’s latest venture is his very own oil and gas company, a dream finally given form.
“I started a small oil and gas company,” he notes. “I’m going to focus on enhanced oil recovery (EOR) technology, how you take what’s happening on the lease and make it significantly more profitable, decrease the carbon footprint, and increase/stabilize production.”
The project brings Troy back to the advice he received so many years ago on the hydrocarbon generation model, as it will allow him to focus on how the oil is made. “It’s going to allow me to mess with the interface between the brine, the oil, and the rock,” he explains. “My approach might be controversial, in the sense that I’m not thinking about why oil is in the reservoir the same as everyone else; I’m thinking that the oil was made there, that it wasn’t migrated from some mystical place far, far, away that took millions of years to happen. I think something is going on chemically in the rock between the rock, the brine, and the oil.” Troy intends to use the project to study a pocket of rock, the elemental makeup of it, everything he can possibly get in the reservoir, so that he’ll know exactly what it’s out made of—gases, chemicals, elements, fluid, rock, physical state—and make sense of how it’s changing under certain circumstances.
Despite being so busy with three jobs, Troy has seemingly limitless ideas, his optimism and passion infectious.
“What we’re doing at MagmaChem isn’t a fix, it isn’t a tweak,” he says at the end of our conversation. “It’s a complete rebuild of our understanding and motivation to figure things out. We have to question everything we knew. We have to rebuild this from the ground up, and I’m excited to be at the front of it.”
Sometimes, you have to break something to truly move forward. From Troy’s discussion of MagmaChem science, it seems like the industry might be in for some major changes in the future. We at OGGN are excited to see Troy’s continued progress and additional earth science innovation by MagmaChem; to find out more about what they’re doing, listen in to some of their previous webinars here:
Thank you to our sponsor, Appian for supporting this Perspective article.
In Episode 13 of the Oil and Gas Elevate Podcast, hosts Sean McCoy and Eric Johnson interviewed Sean Huang, Cofounder and Head of Business Development for Matidor, on the company’s innovative location visualization and data collaboration geospatial software. In this article, OGGN contributing writer Stephen Forrester got a chance to talk with Sean about his career and life. In Part II of the article, Sean discusses how his first failed startup drove him to reach higher when cofounding his newest venture, Matidor, his various successes in well-known startup competitions like Tech Crunch and SXSW, and his vision for the company as it achieves success and moves forward with new projects and partners.
At this point, the understandably devastated Sean returned to Vancouver from Shanghai, using the unfortunate circumstances to take a breath of air, reorient himself, and plan his next move. “I think it’s very hard for founders who have failed the first time to admit that failure and then still try to find a foothold in the startup space,” he says. “I wondered if I should just take a job, as money was running out. That cloud of uncertainty was just looming over me. I haven’t felt that way since I almost dropped out of college, and this experience brought me back to those feelings of helplessness.” Fortunately, the optimistic Sean took this as a learning experience, saying that moving forward, he now knows to be far more careful when making assumptions about what he thinks people do and don’t need.
In addition, Sean advises any other young entrepreneurs to avoid what he calls the “startup trap,” which is when you get awards from various competitions for your ideas and feel good about yourself but ultimately don’t have a viable business model. “You go on stage, you talk, you pitch to investors, you look impressive…but at the end of the day, it’s about what’s coming into your bank account,” he notes. “We ended up building a problem to a solution that didn’t exist. We assumed that mobile VR would be valuable to the architectural community when dealing with clients, but we didn’t account for the tradeoff between detail, like with Oculus or VIVE, and accessibility, which was what we were pushing.” Listen to the market, and listen to your customers, he concludes.
When Vincent Lam reached out to him about starting a new company, the entrepreneurial flame was lit in Sean once again. The two had met at a startup event in 2016 and had been in touch ever since. For Sean, Vincent was the perfect person with which to begin his next adventure, as Vincent had worked at Google in the Google Earth group and Dassault Systèmes. He also saw in the experienced Vincent a potential mentor, someone who had more experience with startups and could help guide him in areas where he wasn’t an expert. At lunch, Vincent asked Sean if he wanted to join him in a new venture he was working on, to which Sean readily accepted. “We both shared that passion for entrepreneurship,” he says. “Vincent was coming from a geospatial background, and I was coming from VR/AR [augmented reality] visualization background. So, we figured, why not combine those skill sets into a product?”
After early work on a VR/AR product revealed that the market just wasn’t there—which Sean laughingly says he’s thankful didn’t take him 2 years this time around—the two hunkered down to identify and solve a real problem. What they discovered was that the upstream oil and gas industry needed a better way to keep track of their assets, as even though there was no shortage of software solutions in the space, they were largely siloed, spread out among various platforms and often requiring specialized knowledge to even use them. “We wanted to build a platform that addressed the needs of not only the technical users, but the nontechnical users, as well—the businesspeople,” he explains.
The result was Matidor, a location visualization and data collaboration tool for businesses designed to unite geospatial data with team collaboration. Matidor, Sean says, was developed to address the needs of those in field services industries, primarily in the energy and environmental spaces. The platform is built on three pillars: powerful GIS visualization and integration, streamlined team management and collaboration, and simplified data management and reporting. With all these capabilities now at the user’s fingertips in one easy-to-access, intuitive platform, the days of needing to pull data from five different sources and consolidate it into various reports are over.
The geospatial component, in particular, is impressive, as sites are shown in real time and assets of interest—pipelines, facilities, lease lines, and so on—can be tagged and annotated. Managing your portfolio this way while keeping track of various reports and financial performance objectives in one location has never been done before, something Sean is especially proud of. This, he says, is one of the reasons why the company got so far in the 2020 Tech Crunch Startup Battlefield competition, coming in as a runner-up.
“I was always really fascinated by Tech Crunch,” Sean says. “A lot of investors and top venture capital funds often go to the Startup Battlefield to scout for startups. Being able to make the final 20 was an amazing experience, even though we were doing everything virtually.” Though Matidor was the first company to present at the first-ever virtual Startup Battlefield—and though many of their competitors in the group were already venture capital-backed by the likes of Y Combinator—Sean and Vincent weren’t intimidated; rather, they were humbled to be among such top talent and high-caliber companies. Though making it that far in the competition and getting the recognition were surely worthwhile, Sean says that networking was another huge benefit, allowing them to meet and build relationships with fellow entrepreneurs and visionaries—like the founders of Firehawk Aerospace, for example, who are developing hybrid rocket fuel that employs industrial-scale 3D printing.
Sean was also present at the SXSW Pitch competition, once again as a finalist. “The difference is that at SXSW, there really isn’t the same amount of attention from the tech industry,” he says. “It was a great event and a good experience overall, but the focus and the audience were a bit different. Still, going through SXSW got us a lot of publicity.” Though Matidor didn’t win in either of the two competitions—and, as Sean says wryly, you don’t win the $100,000 for getting second place—the positive PR brought new interest in the company, driving Sean and Vincent to expand the team with new sales people. They’ve been adding smart hires to the company for a while, including developers, sales, marketing, and the like, to make sure that they’re positioned for increases in business and properly scaling the company to meet demand. It makes sense, and Sean is happy to have watched the company grow.
Matidor’s latest success is to have signed on as a channel partner with Unity. Though any good gamer would recognize Unity as a gaming engine, the platform is actually used in many other industries and applications. “The reason we signed on with Unity was because we were working alongside them and MNP on a government-backed project that allows businesses to track COVID-19,” Sean explains. “So, what we did was we offered our geospatial back-end support to build a map interface where they could see, through color-coded heatmaps, where infection areas are. By pulling in publicly available data, we built a model that would then display on the map based on that data.”
As one of the smallest companies among some big-name players involved with the Digital Technology Supercluster—think Microsoft, Boeing, and Roche—the COVID-19 tracking project positioned Matidor well with Unity, who saw in the startup the potential to help its own clients that needed geospatial support. The collaboration brings Sean and Vincent full circle, as Unity can help them figure out ways to incorporate 3D visualization into their site and asset management projects. “We wanted to make it so that in the future, if you want to see any subsurface infrastructure—for example, checking a pipeline for pipeline integrity—you can see a digital twin superimposed onto the area where the pipe is supposed to be underground,” Sean explains.
Sean wants to erode the barrier between 2D map-based data and 3D visualization, and he’s excited for the opportunity to truly change the industry. We at OGGN wish him well on the never-ending journey of an entrepreneur!
Thank you to our sponsor, Appian for supporting this Perspective article.
In Episode 13 of the Oil and Gas Elevate Podcast, hosts Sean McCoy and Eric Johnson interviewed Sean Huang, Cofounder and Head of Business Development for Matidor, on the company’s innovative location visualization and data collaboration geospatial software. In this article, OGGN contributing writer Stephen Forrester got a chance to talk with Sean about his career and life. In Part I, Sean talks about immigrating from Taiwan to Canada, his first job in the lab and early career in sales, and his foray into the entrepreneurial world with his startup, Morfus.
Sean Huang and his family left Taiwan and immigrated to Vancouver, Canada when he was just 8 years old, largely to allow his two older sisters to further their pursuit of music. A former French horn tutor advised the family to move to North America because the music industry there was more reputable and opportunities would be more available; this, combined with the general idea of Canada having a more open society and focus on individualism, sealed the deal, and the Huang family packed their bags. Fortunately, the move paid off, as one of his sisters ended up doing her PhD dissertation in musical studies before going on to work in the orchestra, accomplishing her childhood dream.
At the University of British Columbia, Sean was somewhat torn between the structured world of higher education and the chaos of entrepreneurism, the latter inspired by his father. “My dad used to sell computer parts—semiconductors—with his brothers, but then later he branched out and ended up distributing roller coaster rides for theme parks,” Sean says. “So, when I was a kid and going to school, and people would ask what my dad did for a living, I would say that he sold roller coasters. It was like that video game, Roller Coaster Tycoon.” With his mother a more traditional figure demanding good grades and his father encouraging him to pursue his passion, Sean was conflicted, which manifested in his relative lack of interest and almost dropping out of college as he pursued a degree in chemistry. Getting a degree, he admits, felt more like recognizing what he didn’t like to do and then picking the thing that seemed the best from the remaining choices.
Graduating in 2014, Sean’s first job in a lab environment affirmed for him that chemistry wouldn’t be his path in the future. “All we would do, day in and day out, would be to perform quantitative analysis on drug samples,” he says. “I did that for about 6 months, but I found it incredibly boring—just doing the same thing over and over again. I wanted something outside of my wheelhouse, something that would challenge me.” Going into a sales position with a third-party marketing company, Sean started in business-to-business role calling on TELUS, one of Canada’s largest telecommunications providers. The work was grueling, he admits, and the ambiguous pay system made it so that only the company’s highest performing individuals were able to make a comfortable living.
Quickly promoted to sales manager due to his performance, Sean reflects on walking around in the heat in a full suit, going door to door at small businesses to try and get them to sign up. “I think the hard thing in the beginning was that I couldn’t handle rejection,” he says. “Business owners would give me ridiculous excuses—I remember going into an empty clothing store and the owner telling me he was too busy to speak to me—and I would just take that as a ‘no’ and leave.” Learning as he went, Sean became more confident and aggressive in his approach, with his script even becoming a part of the company’s training procedures for new recruits. After 2 years, though, Sean faced a familiar problem: the repetitive nature of the business had caused him to become stagnant, performing the same actions and speaking the same lines, like a well-trained robot.
It was at this point that Sean took his father’s advice, ventured out into the world of entrepreneurship, and started Morfus, a mobile virtual reality (VR) company specializing in property technology for the architecture industry. The company was centered around the idea that there was no real way for people to effectively understand what property would look like in 3D based off a blueprint or schematic. Morfus was to be that bridge—the platform would convert any 2D or 3D design and model into a fully interactive VR walkthrough, all on a cell phone, for spatial awareness and design purposes. “Before this,” Sean says, “the only real way to get a true 3D experience was on Oculus or VIVE, and you had to plug them into a PC. We wanted to pioneer a full 3D walkthrough that could be done on mobile.”
As things started ramping up, Morfus was accepted into an accelerator program in China after attending a conference in New Orleans, Louisiana called “Collision,” an offshoot of the larger “Web Summit” event. At Collision, Sean met an analyst from the Chinaccelerator program who was connected to key VR players in China and decided to shift his attention overseas due to unfavorable conditions in the Canadian market. “We figured that the VR market in Vancouver just really wasn’t going to take off,” he says. “This was 2017, and the real estate market was almost a bubble—80% of properties were sold before people even saw the floor plans. So, there wasn’t much need for our solution unless you were trying to attract international buyers.”
Moving to Shanghai, the future seemed bright. In China, the tech industry was booming, and the environment was very hospitable for new companies—or so Sean thought. In reality, he says, the country was very difficult to work in, a closed ecosystem where many venture capitalists wouldn’t even look at your company unless you had a joint venture establishing an in-country presence. “That’s how they trap companies inside China,” he says. “And now, everyone knows how hard it is to get money out of the country.” Sean admits that even though he was born in Taiwan, he was still considered an outsider—and this permeated every business interaction, with investors wanting to give money to companies with founders who attended prestigious Chinese universities, for example, or only investing in Chinese companies with Chinese currency.
Another challenge was that in China, Sean found what felt like hundreds of other companies trying to build a similar solution to that of Morfus but backed by much larger, much better funded teams. Even as they progressed through the accelerator program, by 2018 burnout loomed large—eventually driving Sean’s cofounder and the company’s CTO to leave Morfus, and the VR space, entirely. Without a technical person to deal with product development and that side of the business, there really wasn’t much that Sean could do, even as he desperately tried to salvage what he could of the company. “We had some investors’ interest, but it was just bad timing. Everything bad happened at once.” Though Morfus still existed in name, the project was largely dead.
Be sure to check out Part II of the article, where Sean discusses how his first failed startup drove him to reach higher when cofounding his newest venture, Matidor, his various successes in well-known startup competitions like Tech Crunch and SXSW, and his vision for the company as they achieve success and move forward with new projects and partners.
In Episode 7 of the Oil and Gas Elevate Podcast, hosts Sean McCoy and Eric Johnson interviewed the host of The Energy Talk podcast, Olubunmi Olajide, in their Talking Points section. In this article, OGGN contributing writer Stephen Forrester spoke more with Olu about his childhood growing up in Africa and his thoughts on the energy transition and energy access in the developing world.
Imagine, if you would, that you’re a young, soon-to-be mother living in Nigeria in the late 1990s. You live a good life; certainly not without its challenges, but overall, you’re happy. You made the decision to start a family, and you’ve successfully carried to term the miracle of life—a baby boy. One fateful evening, you go into labor and are rushed to the hospital, as one would expect. As the minutes turn into hours, however, you cannot naturally deliver the baby. Frantic, the doctors decide to do an emergency caesarean section to save you and the child’s life. The problem? The hospital doesn’t have power, so the doctors will need to do the operation by candlelight.
Does this sound like something out of a horror film, or perhaps, something from a century ago, before the advent of industrialized power via low-cost, abundant energy resources? Unfortunately, this is the reality for millions of people in what are commonly called “developing countries”—those with a less developed industrial base and a lower Human Development Index—and Nigeria is one such country. The story above has a happy ending, as the mother was able to give birth naturally to a healthy baby boy, Olubunmi Olajide, or Olu, as friends call him. For many others, the ending was far grislier.
The circumstances of his birth, as well as the natural conditions in his home country, informed Olu’s worldview from a young age. Olu recognized that there was something fundamentally broken about the way the system worked, with power outages—or a lack of power altogether—common. Comforts and technologies that are so engrained in Western life, like air conditioning and heat, laptops and cell phones, certainly existed, but they were by no means in every home. This segues nicely into the concept of Western privilege, the fact that most of us enjoy an incredible standard of living without fully comprehending how fortunate we really are. Think about your life: can you walk into your home and turn on the air conditioning and the television without so much as a second thought? Does a robot vacuum keep your floors clean with the press of a button on your cell phone? Do you get in a vehicle and drive wherever you want to go on streets and highways?
The answer is almost surely “yes,” though it wouldn’t be in many places in the world. Seeing the discrepancy and wanting to act, Olu endeavored to be part of the energy conversation. With oil and gas being a critical industry in Nigeria and an enormous driver of the country’s growth, Olu decided he would follow a path of study that would allow him to be more than a spectator. Attending Near East University in 2014 to get his Bachelor of Science degree in Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering, he found ways to get involved that would not only allow him to advance his career but to gain knowledge critical to understanding energy politics, economics, and the environment. With ESG concerns on the rise, Olu knew that to stay relevant, simply learning about technical topics wouldn’t be enough, complementing field internships with WorleyParsons (now Worley) and Boaz Integrated Energy with continuing study around climate change and environmental stewardship, including time with the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative. The result? A phenomenally well-rounded individual who can articulate the need for different types of energy while acknowledging the fundamental and long-term role that hydrocarbon exploration and production has in powering the world—especially in developing countries where implementing renewable energy at scale is virtually impossible.
A topic Olu speaks on frequently is energy access, the lack of which is all too real for the roughly 789 million people without access to electricity and 2.8 billion people without access to clean cooking. The International Energy Agency (IEA) notes that “Modern energy services are crucial to human well-being and to a country’s economic development. Access to modern energy is essential for the provision of clean water, sanitation, and healthcare and for the provision of reliable and efficient lighting, heating, cooking, mechanical power, transport, and telecommunications services.” For many people reading this article, energy access isn’t a topic they’ve ever had to deeply consider, but take a country like Nigeria, for example—would anyone argue that having a child in a hospital room lit only by a candle is having proper access to energy? Of course not. Defining and reinforcing what we would broadly call “modern energy access,” the IEA provides several core criteria for consideration:
- Household access to a minimum level of electricity.
- Household access to safer and more sustainable (i.e. minimum harmful effects on health and the environment as possible) cooking and heating fuels and stoves.
- Access to modern energy that enables productive economic activity, e.g. mechanical power for agriculture, textile, and other industries.
- Access to modern energy for public services, e.g. electricity for health facilities, schools, and street lighting.
The purpose of this article isn’t to call out Nigeria, or any other developing country, for lacking the infrastructure to broadly support modern energy access; rather, it is to focus on the discrepancy between perceived energy access via renewables, particularly as portrayed in the popular media, and what’s really taking place across the world. One thing that Olu notes is that while he is in favor of approaching the energy transition and climate change respectfully and intelligently, there is simply no way that renewables as an energy source can supplant the energy provided by the oil and gas industry in a country like Nigeria. “Renewable energy,” when implemented without scale, might mean a tiny solar panel that could power several household appliances, or a couple of light bulbs. It might mean a solar-powered water pump that helps get water out of a single well in a rural village. The chance for this to change dramatically in the near term is low, as only 12% of an estimated $21.4 billion in international financial flows to developing countries in support of clean and renewable energy reach the least-developed countries. Wanting to do good and drive positive change in the world is noble; denying reality, however, is meaningless.
It is perplexing that the topic of energy access is underdiscussed on both sides of the aisle. Olu seeks, via his work on a podcast that he founded in 2019 called The Energy Talk, to rectify the issue, providing clearer perspective on how the oil and gas and renewable energy industries can work together to effectively meet climate goals while improving the quality of life for people around the world. He tells the stories of the men and women at work across industries, sharing candid interviews about who they are, what they do, and why they do it. He starts dialogues to bring together people in collaboration and knowledge sharing, not confrontation and hostility. Olu often appears as a guest host on another podcast, The Titans of Nuclear, to explore the role of nuclear energy as another viable power source. And, at the end of the day, Olu knows the undeniable criticality of hydrocarbons to life as we know it—and is thankful for the quality-of-life improvements throughout the past century, made possible by the oil and gas industry, that would have been unfathomable to our ancestors.
One might hope that via his podcast Olu will, to borrow a line from Zbigniew Herbert, “cast into the garish light of obviousness” the ongoing need for hydrocarbons, even in a world that regularly takes great pains to demonize them. In the developing world, there is simply no alternative that is even remotely comparable from a cost or scaling perspective, at least with where the world is now—and that’s the thing: it’s where we are now. The possibilities for the future are limitless, and Olu would be the first to tell you that he wholeheartedly believes that renewable energy is an important part of the solution. We are stronger together, and people like Olu are doing their best to make sure that all sides are represented, and viewpoints respected, as we navigate the increasingly complex topics that are ESG and the energy transition.
-  https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/May/Tracking-SDG7-The-Energy-Progress-Report-2020
-  https://www.iea.org/articles/defining-energy-access-2020-methodology
-  https://www.iea.org/articles/defining-energy-access-2020-methodology
-  https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/May/Tracking-SDG7-The-Energy-Progress-Report-2020
-  https://poems.com/poem/five-men/
In a special bonus article for OGGN Perspective, contributing writer Stephen Forrester had a chance to speak with a long-time NOV welder and training instructor, Luis Medrano. In Part II of the article, Luis talks about continuing to grow with Quality Tubing, training people from around the world on welding procedures for different coiled tubing strings, his role assisting new product development with new ideas for better designs, and advice he gives to his son to make sure you’re always happy at your job.
As time went on, Luis stayed at Quality Tubing, continuing to grow personally and professionally. Wanting to better himself, he went back to school and got an associate degree from San Jacinto college in welding. “I really did learn a lot from the program,” he says. “It was really good for me.”
He also got married and had children, and through family life and his schooling, he kept working. Luis’ ability to continue pushing forward during these challenging times was not only due to his innate drive and tenacity, but because he had the support of a company and group of people he worked with that had become a family. The benefits he was getting from Quality Tubing, as well, were better than those usually given to people in his job category. Working for Quality Tubing and later NOV, he fondly notes, had been good for him, had given him chances that most people didn’t get.
“You really can go from the very bottom up to the top here,” he says with a smile. “You can go from a helper to leading an operation, to supervising people. And I’ve always been really proud of that.”
Companies often talk about career mobility, how desire and drive are enough to help you transition from one place to another, so this concept resonates with me. Seeing it put into practice with someone who transformed over such a long time is truly awesome, and it speaks to the culture Quality Tubing has built.
Luis didn’t go back into welding, instead becoming the de facto king of training at Quality Tubing. “I was training not only all of our internal people but also customers and outside welders on welding procedures,” he says, “and they came from all over. If they buy our product, they can come here, and we’ll train them.” Leading a 2-week course, Luis trains even inexperienced welders in Quality Tubing techniques, taking them from zero to hero in record time consistently each time. This way, customers don’t have to keep bringing back strings for repair or don’t have to hire third-party welding companies each time. It’s a value-add that gets baked into everything, starting right at the initial sale.
“It not only helps our internal people get trained up on the best way to do things,” Kevin chimes in, “but it really is a valuable sales tool for us. This isn’t the way things are normally done.”
People from across the world have come to Luis’ training classes, from virtually every continent and more countries than he can remember. “One guy,” Luis says, “came from Indonesia, and he didn’t speak any English. So, communicating was difficult, but we made it happen; we made it work, with sounds and this kind of sign language we developed. And at the end, he could make a really nice weld, and he left the training course happy.”
One thing I haven’t explored is the relationship between Luis and Kevin, so I dig a bit more. Turns out that though Luis functionally reports to Kevin, theirs is very much a relationship of partners, of collaborators. Luis ends up being included in virtually everything related to new product development and new procedures, from concept to final execution, as welding is at the core of all that Quality Tubing does. Having Luis involved also eliminates the need for retraining as procedures are implemented and revised. One great example is the recent development of procedures for NOV’s new advanced thermally processed (ATP) coiled tubing product, commonly referred to as “quench and temper” coiled tubing. While this product was still in the earliest stages, Luis started working on the welding procedures.
“It’s really one of the best things we’ve ever done,” Kevin proclaims, “making up the weld procedures before the materials even arrived.”
Luis adds, “With Kevin being in new product development, he’ll come to me at the beginning, and we’ll talk about it, discuss what we want to do, what we want to accomplish. And then we’ll do the welds, and we’ll test them, and if they work, they work.” The end goals of establishing these kinds of procedures are to achieve greater consistency and repeatability in manufacturing design, and to enable the welders to do their job the same day that Quality Tubing gets the steel in. This is now the gold standard for how products and procedures will be developed moving forward, minimizing downtime between the starting point and shipping something out to a customer as well as the necessary amount of training. Luis is the first stage gate in a very important process.
“The more you do something, the better you become,” Luis offers, “and you have to love what you do. So, we’ve kept getting better and better over the years.” Things have changed a lot since Luis started in 1989, like dramatic improvements in technology. This, combined with better training, has meant that what three people used to do on one bias line, three people can now do on two bias lines—a 100% increase in productivity. “It can be hard to adjust to that change,” Luis admits, “but we had to. And you know what? It benefitted us in the end.” Embracing change made the job more fun, with Luis explaining that the human element has become one of his greatest joys over the years. “Welders can be quite…” he says, looking around as though someone might overhear us, “…characters,” and, grinning, “yeah, quite characters.”
It’s that challenge of figuring people out—what makes them tick, how to motivate and inspire them—that’s helped Luis come to love training with the same passion that he originally loved welding all those years ago. That’s why he takes a selfie with his students at the end of every 2-week training session, making them feel human, valued. That’s why he started working on training manuals for Spanish speakers, helping those in his native language with technical translations. “It really is remarkable,” Kevin says proudly, “to have a technical translator that’s also a welder and a trainer. It’s unheard of.” Luis, humble, looks away in a bit of embarrassment. He deserves the praise, but he eschews it. “It’s a team effort,” he says, “it really is everyone coming together.”
After celebrating his 32-year milestone with the company this year, Luis ends the interview with a very poignant reflection.
“This is what I tell my son: that you need to go work every day like it’s your first day at work. If you can do that, if you can honestly do that, you’ll last a long time.”
It was so simple, yet so profound. I simply fell silent.
We must capture that nervous excitement, that joy, that positive energy and motivation and desire to succeed, and remember it, and make every day like our first. We can all get burned out in our jobs, feel underappreciated, become overburdened with too much or not challenged enough. But if we take Luis’ advice, we push past it all. We’re better than that. We’re thankful for what we have, the opportunities we’ve been given, and the chance to do more, to be more. I’m so grateful to have met Luis and been reminded of this very important fact.
All images are copyright of NOV and used with permission.
In a special bonus article for OGGN Perspective, contributing writer Stephen Forrester had a chance to speak with a long-time NOV welder and training instructor, Luis Medrano. In Part I of the article, Luis recalls his earliest days at the company, his excitement at striking his first arc, and how writing the company’s training manual for welding processes led him down an entirely new path.
On the journey along U.S. Route 90, the landscape begins to flatten out, and yards with tubulars from various manufacturing companies seem to be the only businesses. I’m going to visit NOV’s Quality Tubing facility on Sheldon Road, where the company manufactures coiled tubing strings and puts them on giant reels to ship out to customers. Today, I’ll have the pleasure of talking with a long-time welder, Luis Medrano.
Kevin Elliott, Product Line Director for Quality Tubing, greets me at the reception desk, and Luis, the Welding Specialist, is close behind. We set up shop in a conference room after navigating through the halls of the building and start chatting. I explain to Luis why I want to do this, why it’s important—that manufacturing people are the backbone of the business, and without them NOV would have no products to sell to customers, no innovation to discuss in papers and articles. For a company like NOV, such people really are at the very heart and soul of what the company does. It’s imperative that the industry captures that and remind these folks that what they do matters, that they’re critical to our success. Luis is on board, and he’s eager to tell his story.
“It was 1989,” Luis begins, “and I was 20 years old. I was already working, but a friend of mine told me about this company, talking about this shop that was opening soon. My brother, at the time he didn’t have a job. So, I got the address and decided to go over there and get him an application.”
It turned out that Luis got a little more than he bargained for when a passionate receptionist saw something in him and basically forced him to apply, as well. After some persuading, Luis ended up filling out an application—and no sooner than he got home, the phone rang with an interview request. “I came in the same day,” he continued, “and had an interview, and it went really well. And it turned out, I graduated from North Shore High School in 1987, and the guy that did the interview was also a North Shore graduate. He wanted to know who I was, and we had that connection.” No physical, no paperwork; Luis was hired on the spot. His brother, you might ask? Never even filled out the application.
Luis admits that when he started, he knew nothing.
“Before that, I’d been working at the Port of Houston,” he says, “working on heavy equipment, stuff like that—a stevedore. But I didn’t know anything about coiled tubing.”
The first job Luis had at Quality Tubing actually wasn’t as a welder, but as a hydrotester. “The way we used to do it, there was no bias weld like now with continuous tubing—so we would run a strip into tube form, put it in a warehouse on the back side of the building. And whenever we had to do a string, we’d do the tube-to-tube welds until we completed the footage we wanted at the time.” Luis’ job: hydrotest the strings. “It was easy,” he laughs, “put the pressure, put the time, and if it doesn’t blow up, it’s good, and you go to the next one.” After transferring to a new building, he moved into the service department, where they were spooling and respooling the strings. He was fascinated by the mill, by welding, by all the processes, and eventually convinced George Adams, the plant supervisor, to bring him on to the welding team.
“I’d never struck an arc before in my life,” he chuckles, “and then, I ended up working as a splice welder, which is just a stick weld, putting two pieces together enough to hold. And with a little bit of training, I was able to do it pretty well.”
The bias line, though, which involved plasma arc welding, was something that really caught Luis’ eye. It was a big secret at the time, tucked away behind a huge fence, only authorized personnel allowed anywhere near it, as there was a pending patent on the process. Through his recognized skill and a stroke of luck with that welding line needing help, Luis ended up moving over to plasma arc welding. “After I went over there, I ended up staying. And then, I ended up learning more and more, because we were developing new things, working on automatic processing plasma welds.”
Luis was always driven by his passion, by a desire to do more and be more, and he was always genuinely interested in the work being done, the advancements in welding and coiled tubing. “I was hungry,” he says, proudly, “I was ready to do more. I wanted to keep learning, and I had so many opportunities on the job to do that. They took the time to train me—to help me learn while working, more like an apprenticeship.” In addition to welding, he also got some time to do nondestructive test inspections on welds, something Quality Tubing trained him in. Being an inspector might not have been his goal, but it helped him build up an already impressive skill set and knowledge base. To keep advancing in his career, that trust in him and desire to support him was what set Quality Tubing apart. But after a short time as an inspector, he went back to his original passion—welding—until he hit almost 17 years of experience with the craft.
One day, then-manager Danny Garcia came to Luis with a new proposition: help him create a training manual for all the welding processes from the ground up. “Danny came to me and said, ‘Luis, I’m gonna get you off the lines,’” Luis recalls, “‘and I’m gonna set you up in a new office, and I want you to write down everything you know, from A to Z, about the bias line. And then we’ll use that for training.” The task was daunting; given 8 months and little other direction, Luis had barely even used a computer in his previous job, much less taken the time to ever write down how he did what he did.
“My deal was that I worked with my hands all the time,” he notes, somewhat bashfully, “but not on a computer! I was a welder, and I wondered why he was having me do all this.”
One course on Microsoft Office later, Luis was blazing through the training manual at breakneck speed, and the result was a chronicle of every single step in the process: making a bias weld, loading the strip, and everything that came before, after, and in the middle. Each item was laid out in painstaking detail—“why we did this, why we did that,” Luis notes with a sigh, almost as though back in time, the monumental task before him—so that anyone could take the training document and use it to become something of an expert on the topic. Luis did all this with virtually no training himself, operating on instinct and memory to make sure everything was captured and correct. The final product was a resounding success, with training times being reduced by up to 66%.
Luis thought his creation of the training procedures was a one-off thing, that he was soon headed back to the line to continue welding. What he really wanted to do, however, was run the mill, learn yet another new process, another type of welding, the high-frequency induction weld. Danny had other plans for him, though. “Danny said he wanted me to train his people,” Luis remembers, “and I told him I didn’t want to do that.” Kevin bursts into laughter. “I wanted to run the mill.” A few conversations later, the training job stuck, and Luis saw a new path open before him. “I didn’t even know how to do tube-to-tube welds,” he notes, “so I insisted that I get training on them. How could I train people to do that type of weld when I couldn’t even do it myself?” A week later, Luis was certified on QT-900, NOV’s conventional coiled tubing with a minimum yield strength of 90,000 psi. He feared the worst; that being forced to do what he didn’t really want to do was the precursor to him being let go for some reason. A conversation with Dan Dennis, then the Quality Tubing Vice President of Manufacturing, changed his mind, with Dan telling him that this gift of teaching others was meant to be shared.
“Dan told me, ‘Luis, if you know the subject, you can teach it. You don’t have to be an expert—you become an expert. You’re the person I need for this.’ And I thought, thank God I had this opportunity.”
Be sure to check out Part II of the article, where Luis talks about continuing to grow with Quality Tubing, training people from around the world on welding procedures for different coiled tubing strings, his role assisting new product development with new ideas for better designs, and advice he gives to his son to make sure you’re always happy at your job.
All images are copyright of NOV and used with permission.
In Episode 5 of the Oil and Gas Elevate Podcast, hosts Sean McCoy and Eric Johnson interviewed Brady Neal, President and CEO of CORROSOURCE, on the company’s innovative WellSiteSentry solution. In this article, OGGN contributing writer Stephen Forrester got a chance to talk with Brady about his career and life. In Part II, Brady discusses how his passion for people and protecting human life led him to creating WellSiteSentry, a fundamental reimagining of wellsite safety, as well as his thoughts on co-founding a commercial insurance agency and piloting a full risk intelligence program.
Brady’s passion for safety and desire to do something truly different led to a deep dive into what such a service might look like and how to execute on full integration. It ended up being a combination of technology, emergency response systems, and professional first responders. Branded “WellSiteSentry,” the idea was that with this offering, you always had a vigilant third party watching over your site, keeping your people and assets safe. Brady and his partner got this idea off the ground while continuing to manage the other aspects of the business and while Brady was still working his full-time job in law enforcement.
Stretched thin, Brady hit his 10-year anniversary on the police force, resigned, and dedicated himself full time to CORROSOURCE and the mission of WellSiteSentry. He and his partner ended up deciding to divest the well servicing division to streamline their services and focus more closely on their truly differentiated offerings. Revenue increased significantly from one year to the next as interest in what they were doing peaked. Then, 2020 happened, and with commodity prices stagnating and the COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally changing short-term oil consumption and operator drilling and completion patterns, activity slowed to a crawl. There were times when Brady wanted to give up, when things seemed like they were on the brink of failure.
“But what we have is different,” he says, “because it’s not just a piece of equipment we send downhole to collect data. It’s about people. It’s about protecting those people. It’s rewarding to provide a service that has the potential to save someone’s life, to prevent a catastrophic incident.”
Brady’s seen enough instances of the value of what he’s doing to keep him going, even through the challenges and constant ups and downs of running a small business. In one instance, Brady left a wellsite and came across a car wreck on the side of the road. His law enforcement gene kicking in, he pulled over to help, but the driver was unconscious. A second driver pulled over to call 911. Five minutes passed. Ten minutes. Twelve minutes. The woman was coming around and bleeding profusely from her head. And finally, the ambulance came—but what if it had been too late? In remote areas, the possibility is all too real.
“Let’s say there’s an incident on the wellsite, and this guy or gal is bleeding out,” Brady comments, “well, to know that we have an EMT onsite who’s trained in tourniquets, trained in triage and first aid, trained to save lives—that always affirms for me that we’re going down the right path. We’ll have someone right there, not having to wait for someone to arrive. Imagine if that was a family member. Wouldn’t you want that for them?”
It just makes so much sense that one doesn’t really know what to say in response. Of course you’d want that for a family member. Shouldn’t companies invest in their people in the same way? Why isn’t this solution on every single wellsite in America?
The most impactful story Brady tells was of a consultant working on a KLX Energy Services frac site. When this burly gentleman made his way into the WellSiteSentry command center, Brady thought for sure that he’d be skeptical of what they were doing there. “I thought he’d get mad about having this thing out on his site, ask us what we were doing there, you know, try and run us off,” he laughs, “but then, I started showing him the thermal imaging, the triage unit back in the back, everything we had there. And he was taking it all in.” This man had worked across the world in practically every environment you can imagine, and he admitted that he’d never seen such a forward-thinking approach to first aid and emergency response on the wellsite. He sat down, and a pensive look came across his face. Those in the command center knew he was contemplating telling a story.
“And then he said,” Brady remembers, ‘Boy, I would have given anything to have had this on the site where my friend died.’”
It turned out that the man had been at an extremely remote site working a project when one of his best friends—also working on the site—went into cardiac arrest. Rushing to him, the consultant did compressions and CPR. Due to the location, the quickest help that could come would be an airlift via helicopter. It was already too late, however; he quite literally held his friend in his arms as he died. “I would have given anything,” he says, again, somber, “anything, to have had a service like this on that site.” It’s moments like that where it all just makes sense for Brady.
“If one life is saved because we’re on a site—and of course, we pray we don’t have to do that—but if we save one life, it’s all worth it,” he reflects. “How can you put a value on human life? You can’t. If one of our guys can step in and save someone’s life, all the heartache, all the sweat, blood, and tears we’ve put into this thing…it’s all worth it.”
At WellSiteSentry, people are at the core of everything. Minutes and seconds matter when human life is involved, and on land, the people on the site just aren’t trained in the same way as legitimate medical personnel. Furthermore, they don’t have the time or resources to do full pre-operational checks for local and regional emergency response options. Why force our people to shoulder a significant emotional burden and liability when there’s a solution waiting to be implemented?
The future for Brady is taking all of this and bringing it together with full risk intelligence. He has a vision to take the data from surface and turn it into an algorithm for underwriting and risk mitigation. Starting a commercial insurance agency with a friend, he’s seen impressive ways to use data and data analytics as part of a national pilot program with 13 agencies chosen to implement a new platform. The program informed his desire to build something that extends even further beyond what WellSiteSentry currently offers to fundamentally change how this part of the industry operates. “I get excited when I think about transforming what was once fire suppression and medical response to an ecosystem of risk intelligence feeding back to an underwriter or a stakeholder, an investor. It also has direct ESG implications.”
Think about your car insurance plan, for example, and the way the premium can change based on driving patterns and usage habits. Why couldn’t we theoretically do the same thing for the oil and gas industry? Risk intelligence brings together all that data in real time, so someone always knows how many people are on a site, what they’re doing, what equipment they’re operating, and so on, taking a holistic view of risk based on those changing factors. Then, this could directly impact a risk score—calculated by the algorithm continuously crunching the real-time data—which could cause certain premiums to go up or down based on the level of risk. It’s about being proactive, about understanding what’s going on with your site and your people at all times, and Brady thinks companies should be incentivized to implement such a program, with drilling contractors, operators, and service companies somehow working together to build a new model. “Should, say, a completions company that’s 10 times safer than another one be paying the same premium? Is that right?”
Brady admits it’s a kind of pie-in-the-sky idea at this point, as it requires a paradigm shift in how we think about safety. Still, he hopes we get there in the future, and he hopes he can continue to play a part in the journey. It is, after all, all about people.
In Episode 5 of the Oil and Gas Elevate Podcast, hosts Sean McCoy and Eric Johnson interviewed Brady Neal, President and CEO of CORROSOURCE, on the company’s innovative WellSiteSentry solution, which addresses the need for greater safety at the wellsite. In this article, OGGN contributing writer Stephen Forrester got a chance to talk with Brady about his career and life. In Part I, Brady talks about his early career revitalizing two failing franchises, how a servant mentality drove him to pursue a lengthy career in law enforcement, and how an itch to do more inspired him to co-found an oilfield service company focusing on corrosion control.
From a young age, CEO of CORROSOURCE, Brady Neal, had a mind for what he jokingly called “tinkering,” an entrepreneurial spirit that drove him to want to create. He liked building things as a child, working with electronics in his spare time. Brady always had a feeling that his career trajectory wouldn’t end up with him at a desk job, as he found that his passions always shifted when he was bored, an itch to do more. After graduating college with a finance degree, Brady thought that he’d take the normal path of working in the banking system and moving his way up into an investment banker position with a large company. Wanting to help others invest their money responsibly so that they could build a future and provide for their families, Brady started as a teller and quickly made his way into corporate banking. About 2 years in, Brady realized that he needed more.
“I didn’t want to be the guy,” he recalls, “sitting on the other side of the desk, listening to peoples’ dreams, and letting them live out that opportunity without going after my own dreams.”
He’d gotten married in 2006, and his wife’s mother and sister had franchises in the area that sold window coverings called Budget Blinds. When his mother-in-law recognized that two of the stores were failing, Brady was presented with a unique opportunity to take equity in the franchise to turn those faltering stores around. In a twist that any married person can likely chuckle at, Brady’s first venture with his wife, a year into their marriage, was to start a business with her, her mother, and her sister. Fortunately, the innate drive of both Brady and his wife—“She could sell anything,” he laughs—and their entrepreneurial spirits helped them transform the failing franchises into some of the top performing franchises in the nation, learning all the while about what it took to run and grow a business. It was near the end of 2007, however, and the writing was on the wall for the looming financial crisis. “We were getting worried about the crisis,” he admits, “so we put the franchises on the market, and we were blessed enough to sell them and get out from underneath them.”
The sale injected fresh capital into the family’s bank account, but it came with its own problem: Brady was back to square one. What to do with his passion now that he was effectively unemployed? Drawing on a servant mentality that he recognized manifested in his teenage years—“I wasn’t a party kid,” he declares, “I was a storm spotter, for crying out loud!”—Brady took a step no one saw coming: he decided to join law enforcement.
“I always had that desire to serve,” he says, “to serve my community, to give back.”
With the job market relatively slow, Brady confided in his wife his desire, and she was admittedly a bit taken aback by the sudden change. Applying for the role with the promise of getting back into banking should his application be rejected, Brady ultimately succeeded in joining the police force. After 3 years working standard duty on the streets, he transferred into the financial crime unit, building a reputation locally. A lot of incredible opportunities followed: chances to work with the United States Secret Service, FBI, and IRS in Oklahoma City on large cases, as well as a special protective detail for George W. Bush when he was in Norman, Oklahoma. The years as a detective in financial crime informed Brady’s next path.
“It was in those years,” he remembers, “where I noticed that companies’ approach to risk, their lack of due diligence, had them taking on an incredible amount of risk. While I enjoyed the investigative part of the job, what I really loved was understanding how they could prevent these things from happening in the first place.”
In the end, Brady felt that itch again, unsure if he would be happy doing what he was doing for 20 or more years, getting a pension, and retiring. It was 2014, and an interest in oil and gas, formed from long exposure to the sector in the state, had Brady trying to find a way into the industry. He and a friend went into business together to start a company with a single corrosion-control product line for pipelines in the midstream and downstream industries—coupon holders, low-, mid-, and high-pressure atomizers, and so forth. It wasn’t easy; Brady put a lot of his savings into the venture to get it off the ground and help it succeed.
“I didn’t even know what this tool really did,” he admits, “so I started doing all this research, and I found a machine shop in Oklahoma City that would machine the tools for us. And luckily, the owner of the shop agreed to spot us the money to use the shop, giving us 90 days. He took a chance on me.”
Brady was still in full-time law enforcement, working on this project as a side gig—late hours on the weekends and Mondays, which he had off. Working out of his garage, he fondly remembers listening to Mark LaCour’s earliest OGGN podcast while he planned out the company’s strategy. At this stage, all revenue flowed right back into the company, necessitating Brady’s continued double life as detective and entrepreneur.
In 2017, Brady wanted to expand into other parts of the industry, buying two swab rigs for well servicing. Swabbing, which is broadly considered part of well control, involves taking the rig and equipment and removing the pressurized fluids necessary to fracture the well from the production zone. As business improved, Brady started to think about his exit plan. “I needed something else,” he says, “but the business couldn’t quite support me fully at that point. So, I wondered what was next.” His partner came to him after visiting a completions site where he’d seen a company providing fire suppression response on the wellsite, asking Brady if he thought they should get into that business as an expanded service offering.
“As soon as he said that, a light went off,” Brady notes, “because I had that passion for risk mitigation, and being a first responder, and I wanted to bring that experience to the industry, to the wellsite. But I didn’t want to do it the same way—I wanted to take it to the next level.”
Be sure to check out Part II of the article, where Brady discusses how his passion for people and protecting human life led him to creating WellSiteSentry, a fundamental reimagining of wellsite safety, as well as his thoughts on founding a commercial insurance agency and piloting a full risk intelligence program.