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.

For newly named CEO of Topl, it's game on. Courtesy of Topl

From a business perspective, Kim Raath, founder and CEO of Topl, sees the challenges and expected recession caused by COVID-19 as an opportunity — and a test.

"A bunch of companies — like Airbnb — were built in the 2008 recession," Raath says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I'm excited to see if we make it through here, I think we can survive anything."

Topl was founded by Rice University graduates — Raath, James Aman, and Chris Georgen — to track impact in various industries, such as carbon footprints in oil and gas or fair wages for farmers in agriculture, via a robust blockchain network. The company closed a $700,000 seed round last year and is looking toward another round of investment this year — yes, even amidst the current situation.

Raath just recently took over as CEO for the company following the completion of her Rice Ph.D in statistics and a Master's in economics, and it was a perfect time for the founders to sit down and realign their company. Aman will continue to focus on the tech, Georgen will focus on the customer, and Raath will steer the ship.

"It was definitely a cool experience for us as founders to go through together, but I'm glad that all three of us came out of this excited about what we're doing moving forward," says Raath.

And then, the coronavirus hit, which, to Raath, has proven to be an added obstacle and an exciting time to be in the track and trace world of blockchain.

"A lot of these COVID-19 trackers that everyone is watching, the data is being pulled into these trackers in the same way you could be tracking your chocolate, diamonds, anything," says Raath. "I'm excited to see the virtual and digital side of this — people are realizing you can use data to visualize things — and at the same time use that data for informed decision making."

She's observed that people are actually thinking of the effects on supply chain — in more than just the business sense.

"I don't think any of us thought this much about supply chain. Most of us just went to the grocery store, and we had all these options," Raath says.

Raath, like many startup founders, have had to make some tough calls and some huge cuts to her business, which has been scrappy and bootstrapped most of its existence anyways. In the episode, she offers her fellow startup leaders some advice about making these cuts as well as reminds them, as well as herself, that everyone is in the same boat right now — ask yourself what you can do to stand out and survive.

"Everyone is in the same place — including your competition right now," Raath says. "You don't have control of the uncertainty — but no one does. What do you have control over right now and how can you act on that control. That's what my focus has been."

Listen to the full episode below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.