Making Oil-Drilling Rigs Safer

by Tom Corrigan for The Wall Street Journal

Rebellion Photonics’ High-Tech Video Stream Can ‘See’ Dangerous Gas Leaks

Allison Lami Sawyer, chief executive of Houston-based Rebellion Photonics—one of three finalists for “WSJ Startup of the Year”—says U.S. Space Camp was her childhood mecca. The camp is located in Ms. Sawyer’s hometown of Huntsville, Ala., and promotes math, science and engineering.

“You can go and be really nerdy, and I loved it,” she says.

Ms. Sawyer, now 28 years old, says she fell in love with math at an early age. As a college undergraduate she decided that she was going to start her own tech company, she says, in part because, “I realized that I needed to do something that was like going to Space Camp every day.”

In 2010, she and Robert Kester founded Rebellion Photonics, which builds cameras that can spot poisonous and potentially explosive gas leaks on oil rigs and at refineries. The co-founders met and outlined their business plan in 2009 at a bar at Rice University, where he received a Ph.D. in Bioengineering and she got her M.B.A.

Rebellion, which has had $2 million in revenue since its founding, offers a monthly subscription service to oil and gas companies, based on the number of cameras needed to cover a particular rig or refinery. That subscription covers the entire cost of ownership: installation, calibration, data management, software upgrades and 24/7 customer service. The company began its first full-scale installation earlier this year.

“Every chemical reflects or absorbs light in a unique way, similar to a finger print or a bar code,” Ms. Sawyer says. “Essentially our cameras are glorified bar code readers.”

By capturing light outside of the visible spectrum and reading these unique signatures, Rebellion Photonics’ camera overlays a live video feed with a representation of any invisible gas clouds within the camera’s field of view. Various poisonous and explosive gasses are represented by different colors and appear in real time.

The cameras can detect at least 20 different gases simultaneously and are fully functional night and day, according to Mr. Kester, chief technology officer.

Mr. Kester, 32, developed a patented hardware innovation that allows for the real time, continuous monitoring of multiple kinds of gas clouds. He says this is what sets Rebellion Photonics apart from its competitors, whose systems he described as slower and less accurate.

Bertin Technologies’ Second Sight is one such competitor. Antonin Duval, the chief operating officer for Bertin’s U.S. subsidiary, says the company’s technology is similar, but that, like most of Rebellion’s competitors, it mostly serves the defense industry. Second Sight can’t depict multiple gases simultaneously.

The oil and gas industry is overdue for a modernization in the detection of poisonous and explosive gases, according to Maryanne Maldonado, the director of the energy division at the Houston Technology Center, a nonprofit business incubator affiliated with Rebellion.

“The solutions today are antiquated,” she says. “They require a human going out and detecting things with sniffers or hand-held devices that really puts the individual in harm’s way.”

Though detecting environmentally damaging emissions is an important feature of the technology, Ms. Sawyer and Ms. Maldonado say that the primary solution is safety.

Statistics from 2004 indicate that of 800,000 to 900,000 leaks investigated each year, 200 to 300 resulted in accidents. In 2010, a gas explosion at the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform, leased by BP PLC in the Gulf of Mexico, was responsible for 11 deaths and one of the largest oil spills in history.

Rebellion is currently raising $10 million and is looking to grow from seven employees to 20 by the end of 2013. A larger company can take the product to overseas markets more quickly, says Ms. Sawyer, who is open to Rebellion being acquired by a bigger company.

“The thing that keeps me up at night is that we need to grow faster. We need to be bigger,” Ms. Sawyer says. “We cannot go fast enough. It’s not possible. There are tens of thousands of sites in America” that could benefit from Rebellion’s technology, she adds.

One challenge: the difficulty of implementing a new product in the oil and gas industry. Ms. Sawyer says that raising awareness of her startup is “incredibly difficult,” given the size of many oil and gas companies.

“Our competition is really the worst competition of all; it’s the status quo,” she says.

The co-founders targeted the energy sector for its profit margins and its size, in addition to the opportunity to save lives. But, they say that their technology is applicable to many different industries: defense, food, quality control of all kinds, and forensics to name a few.

“Drilling productions and operations is the very tip of the iceberg for this type of imaging technology,” Ms. Maldonado says.

Read full article at The Wall Street Journal


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