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.

------

Portions of this interview have been edited.

Houston's DataCon can help prepare business leaders for the digital revolution in AI and machine learning. Getty Images

Looming on the horizon is a data tsunami coming towards us at breakneck speed. Companies have worked hard to keep up, creating digital transformation, taking manual processes from desktops, clipboards, and the paper paradigm to the Cloud. We're now sitting on huge quantities of idle bits of information called dark data. It's over collected and unused data that has the potential power to create decision-making brilliance.

Business leaders are attempting to optimize siloed data – unrelated data collected in databases and spreadsheets or obsolete apps, to make critical decisions. We currently connect these siloes with other systems using a data processing step called ETL – Extract, Transform and Load. Take the data from one place, transform it so it can relate to another data resource and then load that data to another place for analysis. It's a big, time consuming, intermediary step we have figured out how to circumvent. "NoETL" technology is the next-generation magic wand of machine thinking and it's a game-changer.

As non-technical business leaders, we rely on our partners in IT to give us meaningful data that charts our course. They've been our faithful navigators. We've made the recommended investment in IT infrastructure and technology and counted on receiving analytics that will result in winning outcomes. It's now time to sit down at the table and have new conversations with IT leadership around AI.

A tectonic shift

We are now in a new place. AI has come upon us quickly and the promise of ROI is great. There are new technologies that give business leaders advantages never before realized. Data science is the new crystal ball to the future of business. Automation and machine learning are taking historical data to a look ahead using algorithms and mathematical modeling. It's a new predictive mindset. What business leader wouldn't want that crystal ball?

The real assets of your business exist not in better machines but in your current data stores which are like coal mines waiting for data science to turn those lumps of coal into data diamonds.

There are new vocabulary words associated with data analytics. Data science thought leaders are preparing the way for businesses to have learning opportunities and to know which resources to tap for direction in creating new competitive dynamics. Don't wait too long to be curious. The early adopters are already a step ahead and the competitive marketplace is changing in unexpected ways.

Leadership resources for the implementation of AI

Legacy businesses with data lakes are ripe for action. Who should lead the charge? It's up to the C-suite to have intentional conversations around data science. It's up to leadership to be ready to speak and understand new concepts and vocabulary combined with leaps of faith needed to join the new world order of information.

Learning resources 

Proactively look for learning opportunities. There are no excuses for not taking the initiative. No matter where you are in your career – this isn't something to linger about.

One upcoming seminar around AI and automation collaboration and education is DataCon Houston. It's an annual conference that brings important concepts around AI and Automation to business leaders. The target audience is not IT professionals, although there will be some in attendance; it's meant primarily to help the C-suite and non-technical leaders know where to begin and where to find that new vocabulary and translative resources. AI will affect every person in every business, and we must be ready for the cultural shifts that will come with the technological shifts.

Authors and thought leaders — George Danner, Dave McComb, and Gerald Kane will be speaking at DataCon October 10, 2019. In addition, Javier Fadul, director of innovation for HTX Labs will be speaking about XR and data visualization and its use in training employees and creating safer workplaces. Stefanos Damianakis will be teaching machine learning 101 and Juan Sequeda, principal scientist of data.world will present his UltraWrap NoETL patented technology.

Solving the unsolvable

The future of decision-making will render in blinks of an eye. Problems we thought unsolvable will suddenly have answers. Business leaders must get behind the leap of faith required for our own companies and push learning and understanding forward across the organization at all levels. AI and machine learning are the vortex of change. Are you ready for AI?

------

Suzette Cotto is CEO of Innovate Social Media, a digital marketing agency specializing marketing for startups in the medical, technology, and energy industries. For more information on DataCon Houston 2019, please visit: https://incitelogix.com/datacon-houston-2019/