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.

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Building Houston

 
 

Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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