Entrepreneurial ingenuity attracts major investment and creates jobs, with help from Alberta Innovates
Recipient: Intelligent Wellhead Systems
The Challenge: Improve safety in maintaining active oil or gas wells under high pressure.
Alberta Innovates Investment: Various grants totalling $829,300.
For years, Brad Martin and industry colleague Mitch Carlson had worked in oilfields around the world, supervising complex well operations. It was the kind of hands-on experience that would reinforce their determination to form a new company called Intelligent Wellhead Systems (IWS) offering powerful new technology solutions to make oilfield operations more efficient and safer.
“We’d spent almost two decades working in the industry, experiencing first-hand the stress and risks of maintaining active wells under high pressure. It was a real motivator,” says Martin, who co-founded the Calgary-based technology company in 2011 with himself as president and Carlson as CEO.
They turned their attention first to creating a new sensor called the Invision Spool. Mounted on the top of the well, the innovative hardware uses magnetism to provide a safe, non-invasive way to detect activities inside the blowout preventer stack, a large piece of equipment designed to prevent well releases.
Starting in 2013, the team reached out to Alberta Innovates for help. With funding from the provincial corporation, IWS hired engineers to build a prototype of the spool for field testing. Working with Michael Kerr, Alberta Innovates’ senior technology development advisor, and other experts, they grew their business network.
They also raised additional contributions for commercialization work from Western Economic Diversification Canada and the National Research Council of Canada.
Their business was starting to take off, through equipment rentals to unconventional oil and natural gas producers in the province as well as in Colorado and Texas.
New learnings, new product ideas
With this growth came learnings and new product ideas. By adding more sensors to their inVision spool, the IWS team soon realized they could build on their work to create a larger engineered control system for industry.
This led to the introduction of their Unconventional inVision System in 2018. By using the latest advances in digital technology, this breakthrough system enables producers to collect reliable information in real time to optimize operations as well as reduce well incidents, using engineered controls.
A year later, in 2019, they added an integrated dashboard, making it easy for operators to access inVision data remotely from on site or back at the office. “Through the inVision System, companies can get a holistic overview in real time of all the things happening on their well site,” Martin says of the technology that tracks everything from well pressures, fracturing rates and stages, wireline unit activity, water volumes, to even the position of valves on each wellhead.
Today the company’s inVision System is being deployed on a growing number of unconventional wells in Canada, the U.S., the Gulf of Mexico and Saudi Arabia.
In testament to their success, IWS has also established strategic partnerships with major producers and oilfield services companies domestically and internationally. “Most operators are trying to figure out ways to perform their operations safer, more efficiently, more cost effectively, just because of current market conditions.
There’s a significant need for our technology,” Martin says. This potential has attracted the attention of major investors. In 2019, for instance, Pason Systems, a global provider of specialized data management systems for drilling rigs, invested $25 million for a stake in the company. Along with this investment, Werklund Growth Fund, one of Canada’s largest privately owned investment funds, has acquired $10 million of equity in IWS.
Rapid growth story
Today the company’s workforce has grown to nearly 40. It’s added a satellite office in Denver as well as a joint venture in Houston with Trendsetter Engineering focused on subsea operations. And corporate revenues have been doubling nearly every year. “We’ve never stopped developing our technologies and growing,” says Martin who continues to lead the company as president. (In 2020, after the investment deal with Pason, Carlson stepped away from his role at IWS to focus on other ventures.)
In looking back over this journey, Martin says he is especially grateful for support from Alberta Innovates, which has included more than $800,000 to fund product development and hire additional expertise. “From the start, even when we were a small company with an unproven product, they believed in our potential. They’ve been a big supporter of IWS.”