What kinds of new automated tools are needed in control rooms so large pipeline systems can operate faster and more efficiently? That’s something Vicki Knott has done a lot of thinking about. To find answers, three years ago she teamed up with Robert Shirt, a recognized process control expert, to establish Calgary-based startup Crux OCM.
“We’d both spent a lot of time in control rooms. We knew that operators, much like pilots in an airplane, are operating extremely large systems with many complex procedures. We thought how can we improve this through new automated control software?” says Knott who worked previously as a process control engineer at TC Energy (formerly TransCanada).
Innovation based on automation
Their expertise, with Knott as CEO and Shirt as chief technology officer, would set the stage for Crux OCM’s innovative technology. By combining the best of machine learning, real-time optimization and traditional control methods, they began to create a powerful new control software. (The OCM in their name stands for “operations control management.”)
“The methodology we’re using is based on robotic industrial process automation — automating how people execute procedures that affect machinery in the field,” Knott explains.
Their software would be designed to work seamlessly in the background, helping operators at pipelines and other large oil and natural gas facilities execute process commands significantly faster, all the while supporting safer, reliable system performance. As a result, pipelines could execute flow-rate transitions and facility re-starts faster than ever before and increase volume throughput by up to four percent.
Support to grow the company
To advance their solution, Crux OCM joined the GE Zone Startups program in Calgary for early-stage tech companies. Through Alberta Innovates’ Technology Development Advisor program, they received business guidance and funding to develop a user interface for their software. Another Alberta Innovates’ grant supported work to meet pipeline integration requirements.
In 2018 Crux OCM was one of a handful of companies selected globally to attend the Techstars Energy Program in Norway, where they expanded their industry network and promoted their software. A year later, in 2019, the company received the Innovation in Process Controls Award at the June Global Petroleum Show in Calgary.
Crux OCM’s technology was attracting increasing attention. To get ready to meet demand, Crux OCM would need to scale up.
Executive business advice
In spring 2019 the team joined Alberta Innovates’ Executive Business Advisor (EBA) program. Over the next few months Juan Benitez, a former EBA and now venture partner at BDC Venture Capital, worked with Knott and Shirt to discuss strategic plans and build their company’s financial and pricing models. In addition, he introduced them to investor contacts in Calgary and the United States.
“The EBA program was amazing. Juan was continually coaching us to get our forecasting and pricing models to a level where they were easily understood by investors,” Knott says.
Investment spurs further growth
This preparation paid off. In October 2019, Crux OCM secured US$2.66 million in its initial round of equity financing. This involved Root Ventures, Angular Ventures, Golden Ventures, Techstars Ventures and Angel Invest Ventures, a group of venture capital funds backing early-stage technology companies. With this capital, the team was well positioned to start to grow its business.
Today Crux OCM has grown to nine employees. It’s working closely with two customers in North America. Last fall it opened a second office in Houston. And while low oil commodity prices and COVID-19 have added unexpected challenges, the team, working from home offices, continues to push forward on business plans.
“Current oil and gas prices are very challenging. But today’s industry environment makes an efficiency technology and business continuity like ours even more important,” Knott says.
Read part one of our five-part series on how Alberta Innovates helps Alberta companies bridge the gap to growth and success: Helping companies grow and succeed