Upstart Osprey Informatics eyes a surveillance niche

Two entrepreneurs pitch a reclusive industry on remote camera installations

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November 14, 2011

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Eye Spy: Michael Von Hauff of Osprey Informatics
Photograph by Wilkosz & Way

Michael von Hauff admits he’s never had much hands-on experience in Alberta’s oil and gas sector. The only time the 32-year-old ever spent on site was during a four-month summer job with Encana Corp. while attending computer engineering classes at the University of Calgary.

But that isn’t keeping the president of Calgary-based Osprey Informatics from making a spirited business pitch to a notoriously risk averse industry. “I don’t think there’s shyness toward new technologies, but from what I understand there’s a shyness in engaging with new companies, because there’s always the chance the company will fold before its revenue is really stabilized,” von Hauff says.

Along with his 27-year-old partner Lukasz Skalka, von Hauff spent the better part of a year creating a video surveillance system, engineered specifically for remote oil and gas wells in Alberta. The surveillance cameras allow operators to monitor these sites for leaks or intruders on mobile devices, rather than in person.

The question is whether companies need this technology in the first place. A spate of unsolved bombings that hit pipeline installations in northwest Alberta and British Columbia nearly three years ago might suggest that they do. Even if only a handful of operators decide that remote-site monitoring is worthwhile, Osprey stands to benefit. Alberta alone has more than 160,000 wells in operation across the province.

The company works out of a small and cluttered lab in Calgary. Cables of different sizes run along the floor, and hardware, computers and cameras sit in crowded heaps on the desks. “Right now, it looks like a mad scientist’s office,” von Hauff says.

New digs could be in the works, though, provided a pilot project for the firm’s new surveillance technology is successful. A junior drilling company has agreed to let the duo test their product at two of its well sites near Red Deer. Osprey plans to invite interested companies to both sites for a first-hand glimpse of the system in operation.

The cameras, protected by weather-proof casing and powered by solar energy, are equipped with sensor technology that can detect movements and send snapshots to an operator’s mobile device, giving an instant view of the landscape. That allows those operators to “prioritize which well site they go to, by looking at the visual information that they get back,” von Hauff says.

The idea for the gadgets is loosely based on a surveillance system piloted by Calgary police and von Hauff thought there was an application for the technology in the oil and gas industry. “The idea was percolating in the back of my head for quite a long time,” he says.

Design work on a prototype camera began in October 2010. “We totally bootstrapped,” von Hauff says of the company’s short evolution. “We used revenue that was brought in by doing consulting to pay rent and pay our own cost of living.”

Despite the technology’s complexity, von Hauff says it is user-friendly. “The key was that it has to be very friendly to the work flow of a typical field operator. They have to be comfortable using it.” It would also cut the amount of labor needed on-site, as operators could scan for vandals, intruders or leaks using a single device.

Business has so far been slow. The upstart company has yet to secure firm contracts, yet von Hauff isn’t troubled by the response. It’s early days, he says, and there’s a demonstrated need for site-specific monitoring. “Although people have said oil and gas is really hard to break into – and I don’t have any proof to say that it isn’t – what I’m seeing so far is such strong interest in our product that we’re not going to have that issue.”

Not that Osprey’s first year of business was all smooth sailing. There were times when the project seemed it wouldn’t get off the ground. “Sometimes there are the slower months when you’re not getting the kind of feedback you’re looking for, whether it’s from vendors who are supplying you with critical equipment or you’re expecting a call from a potential client.”

But he says that’s all part of being an entrepreneur, whether it’s in the oil and gas industry or not. “I would say that in general, starting up a company just by itself is very painful. It’s exciting and fun and everything, but there are a lot of challenges.”

Those challenges have proved difficult for the fledgling company, especially during the final stages of production. “When we were trying to secure the pilot site, we didn’t know for a while whether it would go through, so that was kind of nerve-racking,” von Hauff says.

A training program run by the Prairie information, communications and technology incubator, TRLabs, provided the two entrepreneurs with the office space to work, as well as access to most of the equipment they needed to design the system. Without that funding support, von Hauff says the project would have taken far longer to manufacture. Osprey has time on its side to lure potential buyers. The question now is whether or not those companies are hungry enough to bite.

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