Featured Innovator

Houston entrepreneur is using his analytics company to change the oil and gas industry

Luther Birdzell, founder and CEO of Houston-based OAG Analytics is on a mission to democratize data for his upstream oil and gas clients. Courtesy of OAG Analytics

Luther Birdzell has been on a mission to democratize data for the upstream oil and gas industry since he started his company, OAG Analytics, in 2013.

For him, there's just not enough data scientists for hire to do the same thing internally for different companies. He thought of a way where he can give clients an easy-to-use platform to have access to data that could save oil and gas companies millions of dollars. So, that's exactly what he did.

"Over the past five and a half years, we've built that platform," Birdzell says. "We are currently helping to optimize over $1 billion in capital deployment around drilling and completions."

The company has grown to 25 employees and tripled its revenue last year. The team is forecasting another year of high grow for 2019.

Birdzell spoke with InnovationMap to talk about his start in software, the company's growth, and why nonprofit work has been important to him as a business leader.

InnovationMap: Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

Luther Birdzell: When I was about two years old, my grandfather ran a meat business in New York City — in the meatpacking district, back when that area actually had meat packers. It just was in my bones from a really young age that I wanted to start a business.

IM: How did you get into software development?

LB: I studied electrical engineering in college. For my first seven years, I worked within consulting, implementing systems that made data more valuable to subject matter experts. I was primarily supporting management teams and mostly tech teams.

Then, I met the founders of iTKO, who were doing software testing for clients, and I helped them figure out a way that was complementary to what they were doing. We took a capability that can enable software developers that can help companies reduce their data center costs by a lot. It was a capability that was really restricted to specialized programing. Together we figured out how to make that a capability that anyone in an IT company used. That resulted in companies being able to higher fewer people to maintain servers, as well as reduce other costs. Companies were saving of millions of dollars per year per project.

IM: When did the idea for OAG come to you?

LB: Computer Associates bought iTKO from us in 2011. When I resigned from CA in 2013, it was very clear to me that artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning, and the cloud, were all tech ingredients for adding more value to data. Then the oil and gas business came into focus.

When I founded OAG Analytics, our mission then — and still is today — was to build a platform for the upstream oil and gas industry that enables them to manage their data, introduces world-class machine learning in minutes without having to write a single line of code, and allow them to run simulations on the resulting analysis.

IM: What makes OAG successful?

LB: My vision was to create a platform that could be trusted to support billions of dollars of capital optimization through transparency and control. A black box doesn't work for the kind of problems we're helping our customers optimize. They need something that's easy to use, simple, powerful, and also gives them complete control.

IM: What's the barrier of success for your clients?

LB: We have customers who have increased their capital efficiency on drilling programs that are about $500 million by over 25 percent, while still getting the same amount of oil out of the ground.

IM: What was the early reception like?

LB: We found a lot of interest in talking about how it works. In 2013, 2014, 2015, well over half the industry knew enough about this technology from other industries to have high confidence that it would affect the oil and gas industry one day. They were willing to spend an hour or two on what it is and how it works. But the number of companies who were really willing to invest in a meaningful way was really small.

There were companies, like EOG Resources, for example started spending millions of dollars developing this technology in house. Other companies seeing EOG and Anadarko success, raised the bar on the level of proof.

There's an increasing number of companies in the industry who realize that AI isn't a futuristic thing anymore. There are companies using it today, and the companies using it right are making more money. But, they're learning it's hard to do right. It could take years and millions of dollars to develop this yourself, but we're helping companies get up to speed in a matter of months, and our total cost for the first year is well under a million bucks to do this. They want us to train them how to use it, then act as support, rather than run it all for them.

IM: Do you plan to stay in just upstream oil and gas?

LB: We're 100 percent focused on upstream oil and gas, and always have been, but as we continue to grow, we're going to follow the market and what customers want. Repurposing our platform for other applications in oil and gas, energy, and even beyond that. We're evaluating. The vision has always been to democratize AI, and oil and gas is where we started.

IM: Do you have an exit strategy?

LB: As far as exits, I get asked this a lot. I don't believe in exit strategies. I believe in building a great company. I've seen a lot of founders make a lot of mistakes trying to cut corners to get to early exits. Our goal is to be a great company, and that starts with the right vision and then getting the right people and hires.

IM: How has Houston been as a place to have a startup in energy?

LB: Houston is unparalleled in the oil patch or the ability to support day trips. There's two airports and tons of direct flights to other cities in the oil patch. It's the only city you can cover all the other cities from with day trips. The efficiency of being able to be on site with customers is such an advantage.

There are a lot of industry experts in and around Houston, but a startup software company works very differently from an oil company. I think we have a long road ahead of us before we have an ecosystem in place to support startups and give them the best chance of success. Some of that comes from advisers, some from the ecosystem, and some part of it just takes time. But once those pieces come into play, talent follows. I think Houston is a very natural hub for energy tech.

IM: Volunteering is an important part of your business. Why is that something you've focused on?

LB: Something in the DNA of our business is giving back. We do that through direct community action. We've volunteered as a company, and we're always on the lookout for ways we can engage with and make the most contribution to the community. We do this primarily for personal reasons, but the universe has been very generous over my career with reciprocating a professional upside.

You volunteer in high school to get into college, then maybe some in college. And you might think, "oh that's for philanthropists or retired people and I'll get back to that later." But the reality of that is it feels better doing some of that now, so we do.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

InformAI can use its data technology to help doctors with preventative care and diagnoses. Courtesy of InformAI

A Houston-based startup has a new technology that allows hospitals and medical establishments better access to its own data – which translates into more effective diagnoses and preventative care.

InformAI — founded by Jim Havelka, CEO, in 2017 — is introducing the technology to the Texas Medical Center. Havelka saw a need within the medical industry for this type of service.

"There were several things missing," says Havelka. "One was access to very large data sets, because it wasn't really until the last five or 10 years that digitalization of data, especially in the healthcare vertical became more widespread and available in a format that's usable. The second convergence was the technology, the ability to process very large data sets."

InformAI currently offers four unique solutions using artificial intelligence and deep learning algorithms: Paranasal Sinus Classifier; Brain Cancer Classifier; Patient Outcome Predictors; and Surgical Risk Predictors.

According to the website, both medical image classifiers assist physicians in detecting the presence of medical conditions. The Paranasal Sinus Classifier detects and distinguishes medical conditions prevalent in the paranasal sinuses. The classifier assists physicians by evaluating sinus medical conditions at the point of care, speeding up radiologist workflow by flagging medical conditions for further review, and providing a triage of pending sinus patient study reviews. The Brain Cancer Classifier focuses on several tumor types and has the potential to provide radiologists and surgeons with additional insights to inform their diagnoses and treatment plans.

In addition to the classifier solutions, the predictors are also key to patient care, as InformAI patient outcome predictors evaluate the risk of adverse outcomes from a surgical procedure.

"Our data set has 275,000 surgical procedures that we can use to look for patterns, and then use that to understand how a patient may react to going through that surgical procedure and that's a very valuable input to surgeons," Havelka tells InnovationMap. Patient outcome risks include mortality, stroke, prolonged ventilation, infection, re-operation, and prolonged hospitalization.

"The innovation is the ability to use artificial intelligence to augment the capabilities of the physician and flag diagnostics for them to consider," says Havelka. "For example, one of our image classifiers that reads three-dimensional CT head scans has the equivalent of thirty lifetimes of an ENT contained in the AI labeled training dataset. It would take thirty lifetimes of an ENT to see that same number of scans and associated disease state patterns. InformAI currently has 10 full-time employees and works with radiologists-in-residence in building solutions and conducting research. The startup partners with the Texas Medical Center, Nvidia, Amazon, and Microsoft.

"They're quite interested in what we've built because it's really cutting edge technology that we're doing," Havelka tells InnovationMap.

Havelka and his team also work with some of the largest physician groups and imaging companies in the country to build products. "At the end of the day our core competency is the ability to take data, medical images or patient data, and put it into a usable format to assist physicians in making better treatment decisions for patients," says Havelka. "We can flag and detect patterns, disease states, and risk profiles that can improve the decision making of the physicians for the patient.

InformAI has plans to fundraise this year, with a goal of raising $5 million to $6 million in a round.