Engineer Alan Phillips recently had an idea which he thought could improve the efficiency of oil & gas well construction and ultimately enhance hydrocarbon recovery.
He formed a company, Steel Space Casing Drilling Ltd, protected his intellectual property and set out to develop the business. With limited experience of commercialising a concept, Alan had little idea what R&D funding and support he could access to help him on his way.
“I expected to come up against roadblocks, but to my surprise I’ve found there’s a refreshing attitude in Scotland towards innovation and start-ups in the oilfield. People have always got time and are willing to share advice with you at all levels,” says Alan, who has worked in oil and gas for over two decades.
“To support the technical thinking, we prepared an initial financial plan to test if the idea would work commercially. We made headline assumptions on potential sales volumes, unit profit margins and support overhead costs to come up with a five-year financial plan. These assumptions can now be tested and validated through the feasibility and prototype stages.”
Alan’s concept is a unique and potentially game-changing approach to Casing While Drilling (or CWD, a construction technique used to drill and case oil wells in one pass). Furthermore, multiple spin-off products are also being positioned in the market to disrupt conventional drilling practices.
When he presented the ideas to operators, investors and service companies, their response was extremely enthusiastic, and they suggested he back them up with additional technical modelling.
“I had completed preliminary calculations and drawings, but with oilfield technology, there’s a significant number of variable downhole factors such as temperature, fluid dynamics and vibration that are challenging to account for. More technical modelling was needed to establish whether the concept was viable, but this wasn’t something I could do myself.”
Alan was advised to contact the Oil & Gas Innovation Centre (OGIC) for guidance and support. “I spoke to OGIC Project manager Paul Robb and asked if he could help. He suggested that I work with university researchers to run advanced technical modelling, and said that I’d come to exactly the right place to make that happen. I was delighted!”
Paul Robb explained the various innovation funding options available, helped Alan to clarify what research support he needed, and put him in touch with universities that could provide it.
Alan opted to work with the School of Engineering at Robert Gordon University (RGU), whose mix of expertise and plain speaking impressed him from the start. Matias Garza (who was doing an MSc in Drilling and Well Engineering) was assigned to complete the design calculations and verifications while Dr Reza Sanaee (Course Leader, MSc Drilling and Well Engineering) provided guidance to the team. The calculations and modelling were verified by Dr Mamdud Hossain (Reader in Thermofluids).
With OGIC and RGU assistance, they successfully applied for an Innovation Voucher from the Scottish Funding Council. This programme, administered by Interface, provides funding for first-time partnerships between SMEs and universities or colleges in Scotland.
According to Alan, “When developing the designs initially, I hadn’t really considered that university researchers could help. However, OGIC said they would bring something different to the table and they were correct.”
“When I came to RGU, the amount of knowledge in the room was staggering. These are subject matter experts at the top of their field who can give you answers within seconds to something that might take months to figure out elsewhere.”
Not only did they bring technical expertise from within their fields but they also brought industry knowledge, which was a welcome additional bonus.
The research results from RGU are extremely positive and conclude that the design is viable to progress to prototyping in the New Year. This is vital information to take to future funders, investors and operators.
With a solid business plan in place and round two funding negotiations well underway, the next stage is to optimise the designs and progress to prototype modelling. OGIC will continue to signpost the new team towards funding sources – support that Alan describes as “exceptionally helpful” throughout his innovation journey.
As for anyone else looking to develop a great idea, Alan recommends, firstly, that they too seek a helping hand from an innovation organisation like OGIC.
“Secondly,” he says, “you have to be realistic and figure out if your plan is solid, from both an engineering and a business perspective. Not all ideas are going to succeed, which is fine but you need to find that out quickly so jump in at the deep end!
“In our first week, we presented to one of the biggest oil companies in the world which is as daunting as it is rewarding! Look around and talk to as many people as possible, making sure to take on board all the advice, even if you don’t like it!”
“Thirdly, do your homework. In some of our presentations, there were large audiences of ultra-sharp, seasoned engineers and investors. You have to go in there fully prepared.”
Based on OGIC’s own experience of supporting SMEs to innovate, his advice makes sense. Yes, the innovation landscape is complex, but there’s plenty of practical and often free assistance available – from OGIC if you’re involved in oil and gas or from other Innovation Centres or organisations in other sectors.
Even if they can’t help you, they can often direct you to someone who can.