Commercialising Geoscience Research

How easy is it to translate academic geoscience research into a commercial hydrocarbon business, and what are the main steps for success?
This article appeared in Vol. 15, No. 2 - 2018


How do you inform geomodels using analog observations in a consistent, auditable and repeatable fashion? Oil company sponsorship of applied geosciences research is undergoing a renaissance after the past few years of drought and doubt. Given the competitive drivers of sponsoring companies, however, is this really effective in generating innovative technologies which can become robust commercial products, readily accessible by industry professionals from mainstream modeling platforms? E&P has a reputation as a sluggish adopter of new technologies – but there are some barriers to change. There’s no lack of ideas, and anyone with professional geomodeling experience will admit to frustration with the status quo. The real challenge in translating good academic research into commercially viable offerings is that it requires sustained resource commitment and the skillful orchestration of multi-disciplinary teams with broad-ranging skills and expertise, including:

  • In-depth commercial understanding of the petrotechnical software market, particularly in view of disruptive changes caused by cloud-hosting and next-generation data sciences platforms;
  • Petrotechnical software R&D by teams with the experience and insight required to turn raw academic research into robust, affordable products;
  • Commercial leadership able to execute effective marketing strategies and complex enterprise sales; 
  • Organizational maturity and financial resources sufficient to engage and support the global market.

So, how to take the first steps? Read the experience of a couple of geologists taking theirs!

Applying Geologic Analogs

The laterally accreting macroform – a sedimentological feature on the architectural element scale. (a) Modern example – Rio Negro, Argentina; (b) Ancient example – Karoo Basin, South Africa. The geometries and statistics of the neighboring elements are stored within the University of Leeds databases. Map sources: Google Earth. Photo source: S. Cobain. Around the low point of the recent industry downturn, driven by a strong desire to improve the technologies used by geoscientists, especially in the reservoir modeling space, Viki O’Connor and Ben Meyer quit their day jobs and set about engaging with various groups looking to commercialize their R&D. To most of their colleagues (and a fairly large subset of their friends and families), their venture seemed foolhardy. But tapping into their network proved fruitful and they were surprised by the number of opportunities that presented themselves. One such opportunity was the chance to work with world-class researchers at the University of Leeds, who wanted to explore the commercial applications of the sedimentological databases they had developed, including the:

  • Fluvial Architecture Knowledge Transfer System (FAKTS);
  • Shallow Marine Knowledge Store (SMAKS) and;
  • Deep Marine Knowledge Store (DMAKS).

During their previous careers, Ben and Viki’s work had largely focused on identifying the weaknesses and limitations of existing geomodeling software and developing solutions, integrating them into existing mainstream platforms like Petrel™ (*Mark of Schlumberger). The opportunity to collaborate with the researchers was appealing because applied sedimentological research continues to have far-reaching implications for industries  undertaking subsurface geological modelling; in particular, the improved definition of the uncertainty space through more realistic representation of sedimentary bodies can support more robust exploration and development decisions. They saw the potential of these databases for tackling some of the known pain-points of existing geomodeling tools, primarily the structured application of databases of clastic sedimentary analogs to directly inform both existing and potentially new facies modeling algorithms and approaches.

The initial product vision would allow them to target these well-known bottlenecks; however, the pair needed a commercial partner to bring the product concept to life.

Finding the Right Research-Funding Partner

The team at the launch of Ava Clastics in Houston 2017. Photo credit: PDS Group. “When we sat down together and sketched out our initial ideas for the Leeds researchers, we could see the potential of the opportunity, but neededhelp to tackle the four key challenges of commercialization,” explains Ben, now Managing Director of PDS UK.

It was through their network that Ben and Viki were quickly able to find a suitable partner. PDS Group has a long-standing reputation for delivering software solutions for the oil and gas industry and their leadership team, headed up by Group Managing Director, Steve Daum, were supportive of their venture. The pair joined PDS in 2016 to work directly with their engineering, marketing and sales teams to turn the concept into a commercial product.

“Collaboration between academia and industry partners is vital for the acceleration of technology application in upstream E&P workflows, and we are very excited to represent Leeds’ world-class clastic databases,” explains Steve. “Augmenting and enhancing them with intuitive workflows will help E&P operators improve their ability to predict what lies between their wells, reducing uncertainty through geologically-grounded facies modeling.”

Generating realistic sedimentary architectures within reservoir models. A result from Ava Clastics, shown in Petrel™ (Registered trademark of Schlumberger). Image source: PDS Ava Clastics (PDS Group). Following an initial agreement with the University of Leeds researchers for the FAKTS database in 2016, PDS Group launched the product in April 2017 as Ava Clastics: a technology that facilitates the effective application of analog databases to reservoir models. “Users of Ava Clastics will have seamless access to a rich set of analogs, delivered via user-friendly, commercial software. This will enable them to interrogate the data intelligently, asking contingent ‘what if’ questions to improve geomodeling accuracy,” says Professor Bill McCaffrey, Director of the Turbidites Research Group at the University of Leeds.

The University scientists then signed an extended agreement with PDS Group to commercialize the other two databases, which enabled the inclusion of SMAKS into Ava Clastics in late 2017, which will be followed later in 2018 by the addition of DMAKS, thus completing the original vision for the product. 

“It is an exceptional achievement on the part of the academics that they’ve been able to align the interests of different research groups to deliver these databases,” says Viki, who is now Director – Geoscience International for PDS. “It also shows that a commercial company like PDS can work successfully with universities to incorporate their academically developed products into a compelling commercial business.”

Successful Collaboration

Structured incorporation of available log data can support efficient saturation modeling workflows. Image source: PDS Ava Saturation (PDS Group). “The joint-venture between researchers from the University of Leeds and PDS Group shows how a carefully balanced collaboration can result in the successful commercialization of worldclass research,” says Bill.

In the long term, the PDS team see many opportunities emerging from their ongoing partnership with the University of Leeds. Ben believes that “the next step should be to try and move beyond making representations of facies assemblages and make data-supported representations of depositional systems at different scales to inform many workflows, including intelligent upscaling and processmodeling. With their source-to-sink approach, the researchers will continue to produce an understanding of these systems in the rock record, which we can then tie into E&P workflows.” From the university’s perspective, Rachael Spraggs, Executive Director, Petroleum Leeds, says “we’re excited about Ava in its own right, because its success will confirm Leeds as a place where world class research, innovation and impact coincide.”

Bridging the Gap

Following the launch of Ava Clastics in early 2017, PDS were approached by a number of groups and individuals interested in their ability to deliver high quality solutions to market quickly. One of these individuals, Matt Bowyer, had developed an idea for a product based around an underserved but critical reservoir modeling workflow, namely water saturation modeling. The derivation and application of saturation height functions is often left to the production geologist, with no clear audit trail linking the hard work done by the petrophysicist to the final results utilized by the reservoir engineer. Matt identified a gap in the market for a technology that would address this problem from the perspective of the geologist.

As a result, in May 2018 PDS will be launching Ava Saturation, realizing Matt’s ambition to provide geologists with direct support for this critical part of the E&P workflow. Building on the experiences of the Ava Clastics team taking their product to market, Matt and his team are looking forward to the market response to their new technology.

“As a geologist who has worked for many years for operators of all sizes, I became frustrated by the ad hoc and repetitive nature of saturation modeling workflows. I often asked myself if there was a better way than working with laborious spreadsheets or trying to use other software applications designed for users from other disciplines,” Matt explains. “PDS has enabled me to develop my initial ideas and work with people with different skillsets to create an elegant solution which will appeal to geologists like me. I’m excited by thenimpending product launch!”

Future Progress

“We hope to continue broadening our footprint in the geomodeling space,” adds Viki. “We really think that now is the perfect time to embrace emerging technologies, both within the domain and externally, blending these with expert geological insight to impact the bottom line. There are so many groups out there with great ideas and we look forward to collaborating with them in the years to come.”


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