Incubation and Adoption of Small Things

Article published by the Journal of Petroleum Technology, written by Darcy Spady, SPE President – 01/03/18

One of my stated goals during my presidency is to support small producers and technical providers. One of my most unexpected experiences has been the pleasant surprise of finding a hotbed of startups … in France.

While being escorted through the WAI—We Are Innovation—center in Massy, France, I was struck by the thought that this is a place where great thoughts turn into great companies. Administered by BNP Paribas, this facility was packed with hard-working innovators, but not too many suits.

In the midst of this group, led by a guy wearing a suit and tennis shoes, was Habib Al Khatib, a geophysicist. He and his two colleagues are working with groundbreaking, yet painfully simple, technology. If Habib fails, he starves. I’m pretty sure Habib won’t fail. We had an excellent discussion about the place for small tech providers in SPE, and the critical need for innovation in our industry. That innovation is generated by companies large and small. I kind of sympathize with the small.

For the past decade, I have been on the board or acted as an advisor to startups. It’s much more comfortable at the board level for me. I get to come and go when there are lots of people around, and they are usually pretty happy. I’ve been a small producer, seeking financing while competing with hundreds of others like myself. You get well practiced at the “elevator pitch,” yet the process can be daunting, frustrating, and tiring.

Why do I bring this up? I discuss this concept of startups and incubation because we have a lot of SPE members in this space, and I want to support you. Maybe you once worked for a large corporation and were placed into transition by an external force. Maybe you started in a big organization and have been chomping at the bit to be freed from the constraints there. Whatever your reason, there is a home for you in SPE.

Actually, more than just a home, a place to thrive. has a massive database of materials that you can draw from. Conferences, workshops, and forums are excellent collaboration venues. SPE Connect lets you join online forums and discuss things, whether you are sitting on a rig in Angola or in a shiny tower in Moscow. These SPE tools for members are also great exposure when the time is right to tell the world about your innovation.

A visionary SPE member, David Reid of NOV, was instrumental in putting together a startup village last year at ATCE in San Antonio. I was amazed by the energy in the room, and the helpfulness and dialogue among those in the room. A lot of people in the same boat.

What is the exit plan for these startups? Adoption. Yes, adoption. The goal is for the technology to be used in a paying environment. Celebrations? You bet. Little guys celebrate the first working test, the first sale, the first contract, the first new employee, the first breakeven year, and so on. We tend to make a tombstone (usually acrylic with something stuck in it), or label a coffee mug or bottle with something to celebrate. They line our offices as mementos of our success.

This is the point where we take a pause and think of how many little technologies or widgets were started by one person having a better idea. Think about it: A type of casing patch, a better fluid, a safety device in harsh weather, a stabilization method, a connection that works when the waves are active, a high-pressure pump, or float, or shoe, or collar, a technique of stimulation, a bit, a production measure that actually works, a software that lets you look at something differently, or something that wiggles, pings, or vibrates. I’m pretty sure with this general mental stimulation you have thought of all kinds of innovations that have come from one or two people who struck out on their own and staved off starvation through adoption of their idea or product.

Adoption ultimately means cash or equivalent, and that’s OK too. Some careers take the “roulette of adoption” route, some take the “faithful service for 35 years” route. SPE comprises both, and that is what makes us rich and diverse. SPE spans more than 143 countries and more than 60,000 oil and gas fields. We are in hot places, cold places, nice places—and then some a little less nice.

This year at ATCE in Dallas, there will again be a startup village. I really appreciate the hard work of staff who pulled together the initial event and are working to make this year’s event even better. I hope we fill the room to standing room only. In that room, we want those people looking to adopt as well as those seeking adoption.

Innovation and tiny innovators are a great way to bring outsiders into our industry. I remember well 11 years ago when I was invited to invest in this little University of New Brunswick spinoff called Green Imaging, run by a couple of people named Green. I even was asked to join their board. They had no idea what our industry was about. I went to a couple of meetings where the sales manager talked about “digging wells,” kind of like a dog digging a hole for a bone. I may have blushed because he did not know the lingo.

Within a year or two, they were featured in JPT as a result of excellent technical papers and within 5 years were the pre-eminent core analysis group on the globe (OK—I have a conflict of interest here, so I might be a little over the top on that statement). I think that 100% of the company comprises industry outsiders. It is very refreshing.

So, this year when you are at ATCE, or reading a technical paper with a new technology from a startup, give them a little extra room to make their point. They are a key part of our world, and they don’t get much love.

Kudos to BNP Paribas in France (and probably many ­others worldwide) for providing industrial incubation and free rent. Sometimes incubation comes from within large organizations. Sometimes incubation is just a crazy guy with a good idea. Sometimes he wears tennis shoes instead of wing tips.

Now for the group hug … thank goodness for the diversity that is SPE. We are all needed, we are all part of the flavor that daily provides the world with its energy. The world should be more thankful for this diverse bunch, but sometimes they aren’t.

Let’s be the best that we can be, and from this president at least, I give all of you a big journalistic hug. To my fellow SPE members: Thanks for all innovators, big and small.

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