Digital upgrade

Growing Houston company makes pipeline data more accessible for natural gas trading

Jay Bhatty looked at how pipeline data reached traders and thought of a better way. Getty Images

In the energy capital of the world, Houston entrepreneur Jay Bhatty has established a rapidly growing technology hub for the natural gas industry.

Bhatty, a veteran of the natural-gas-trading business, founded Houston-based NatGasHub.com in October 2016 to streamline the traditionally complicated processes of moving natural gas from one point to another, and of unearthing data about natural gas pipelines. After only a little over two years in business, NatGasHub.com already is profitable — a rare feat in the startup world.

The NatGasHub.com platform, which runs on cloud-based software, launched in late 2017. The startup participated in the final accelerator class of the Houston Technology Center; the accelerator program shut down in early 2018.

Bhatty hatched the idea for NatGasHub.com while he was vice president of energy trading at JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s investment-banking arm, where for more than eight years he felt frustrated by the sluggish nature of natural-gas-trading activities.

First off, data about natural gas pipelines — such as whether a pipeline has capacity issues that could trigger a spike in prices — has, for years, been scattered across the web. Now, NatGasHub.com aggregates pipeline data from dozens upon dozens of websites.

Secondly, transferring natural gas from Point A to Point B has historically involved the tedious task of manually typing a "nomination" to enable the sale of natural gas. NatGasHub.com automates that job, freeing up workers' time so they can tackle meatier projects.

Bhatty compares the now-streamlined nomination process to buying an airline ticket on Expedia or booking a hotel room on Hotels.com. Like those travel websites, NatGasHub.com also serves as a one-stop shop, only in this case it offers a single dashboard for selling natural gas. Until NatGasHub.com came along, U.S. companies had relied on cadres of employees to enter natural gas nominations by hand into about 100 gas pipeline websites, and to track gas flow around the clock via spreadsheets and phone calls, Bhatty says.

In a nutshell, NatGasHub.com serves as both a data supplier and a logistics provider for the natural gas industry.

"Software automation has led to reduced costs for our clients," Bhatty says.

As of early December 2018, NatGasHub.com's customer roster featured 32 companies. Bhatty declines to identify the startup's clients, but he says they're well-known names in energy circles. Bhatty says energy producers, utilities, banks, and hedge funds are among the types of clients that benefit from NatGasHub.com.

"We're adding customers at a pretty fast rate," Bhatty says. "We're definitely in growth mode right now."

NatGasHub.com also is adding revenue at a pretty fast rate. From October 2017 to October 2018, revenue soared by 300 percent, while profit skyrocketed by 5,500 percent, according to Bhatty.

NatGasHub.com has accomplished all of that without taking one penny from outside investors, Bhatty says.

The energy industry has taken notice of NatGasHub.com's success. In August, Energy CIO Insights named it one of North America's 10 best energy technology startups for 2018.

Today, NatGasHub.com employs 18 people in Houston. Bhatty envisions the workforce growing to 30 to 35 employees by the end of 2019. Planned expansions into other segments of the energy industry, such as crude oil, and into the Canadian market could bump up that projection. Currently, NatGasHub.com operates only in the U.S.

Among the kinds of workers NatGasHub.com will be hiring over the next year are software programmers, database administrators, and sales representatives.

"It's hard to find any kind of qualified people in this economy with the unemployment rate so low," Bhatty says. "But the good part has been that there's a lot of qualified people who want to work in a startup environment — they want to leave the bigger companies and try something different."

Using APIs, organizations can more easily combine their own internal data. Getty Images

Houston, home to one of Cognite's U.S. headquarters, is the energy capital of the world. But while many oil and gas industry players and partners come together here, much of the data they use — or want to employ — remains siloed.

There's no lack of data. Connected devices are a wellspring of enterprise resource planning data, depth-based trajectories, piping and instrumentation diagrams, and sensor values. But incompatible operational data systems, poor data infrastructure, and restricted data access prevent organizations from easily combining data to solve problems and create solutions.

We understand these challenges because we work alongside some of the biggest operators, OEMs and engineering companies in the oil and gas business. Lundin Petroleum, Aker Energy OMV, and Aker BP are among our customers, for example.

Flexible, open application programming interfaces can address the challenges noted above. APIs enable users to search, filter and do computations on data without downloading full data sets. And they abstract the complexity of underlying storage formats.

As a result, data scientists and process engineers can access data in an efficient manner, spending more time on their use cases and less effort contending with technical details. Using APIs, organizations can more easily combine their own internal data. APIs also simplify the process of using data from industry partners and other sources.

Most companies have slightly different work processes. But common API standards can help a company combine software services and platforms from others in a way that matches its own business logic and internal processes. That can allow the company to differentiate itself from competitors by employing services from the best suppliers to create innovative solutions.

Standardizing APIs across the oil and gas industry would open the door to a community of developers, which could create custom applications and connect existing market solutions. Then more new and exciting applications and services would reach the market faster.

To ensure adoption and success of such a standardization effort, the APIs would need to be well crafted and intuitive to use. These APIs would have to include the business logic required to perform the operations to empower users. In addition, APIs would need to define and allow for the sharing of desired information objects in a consistent way.

Best practices in defining common APIs for sharing data within the industry include:

  • Introducing APIs iteratively, driven by concrete use cases with business value
  • Ensuring all services using the API provide relevant output and insights in a structured machine-readable format, enabling ingestion into the API to ensure continuous enrichment of the data set
  • Making all data searchable
  • Preventing underlying technology from being exposed through the APIs to ensure continuous optimization and allow companies to implement their technology of choice
  • Supporting all external data sharing through an open, well-documented and well-versioned API, using the OpenAPI standard

If oil and gas industry operators define APIs, suppliers will embrace them. That will "grease" the value chain, allowing it to move with less friction and waste.

Operations and maintenance are a natural place for API harmonization to start. Standardized APIs also can enable operators to aggregate and use environmental, equipment and systems, health and safety, and other data. That will accelerate digital transformation in oil and gas and enable companies to leverage innovative solutions coming from the ecosystem, reduce waste, and improve operations, making production more sustainable.

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Francois Laborie is the general manager of Cognite North Americas.