Tahir Ahmad graduated from college five years ago, but still hasn’t finished his science project.
That project — for a senior engineering design class at Wichita State University — evolved into the technology that now underlies his company, PetroPower, which one customer called “a game changer” for small and medium sized oil and gas producers.
PetroPower, which is based in Wichita, makes systems that allow oil and gas producers to monitor their wells remotely using wireless technology.
The technology marks a big change from the oil industry’s age-old practice of sending workers out every day or so to visit producing wells to make sure the machinery is running OK and the tanks aren’t in danger of dumping oil or salt water on the ground.
Big companies have long had expensive remote monitoring, but technology has now advanced to the point where smaller producers can get about the same thing.
PetroPower, based at 3595 N. Webb Road, has 10 employees. It is growing and, at the moment has an annualized rate of sales of nearly $1 million a year, Tahir said.
He has more than 40 clients and the company is making a profit, he said.
The company sells the hardware, such as sensors, fluid level detection devices, and the wireless nodes and access points.
And the company charges for monthly use of the software. The client can go online to see metrics such as fluid levels, flow rates, fluid or gas pressure.
The company has had its bumps since it began in 2008, said David Mitchell, an accountant and one of four investors in the company.
It took a long time to perfect the technology and match it to the real world needs of local oil producers.
“Early in the company, we didn’t know what we didn’t know,” Mitchell said. “We would have developed faster if we had more of an oil background instead of a tech background.”
Those bumps seem to have been overcome, at least in some customers’ opinion.
Will Ellis, vice president of Oklahoma Oil and Gas Management, a midsize company in Oklahoma City that is owned by his father, was effusive in describing how useful the technology is.
Ellis, who has a long background in wireless technology and spent time as a pumper, immediately saw a place for technology to improve efficiency. After casting about with other companies, he connected with PetroPower, which has exceeded his expectations.
It’s not inexpensive, but he said he can recover his cost in 12 to 18 months from less fuel, liability and, eventually, more efficient use of personnel. He calls the system “a game changer.”
“I can run a major operation with five employees rather than 20 or 10,” Ellis said. “I can do it with complete accuracy and in real time and let my pumpers focus on their jobs, which is to fix equipment rather than pile up miles.”
Listening to customers is incredibly important, Ahmad said. They’ll tell you what they need. If it doesn’t address that, it’s not going to sell.
“Normally, I listen to my customer on what their problems are, to see if there is an opportunity there. Problems mean money.”
Ahmad, 33, a native of Pakistan, was a student at the University of Texas before switching to WSU to finish his degree. While at WSU, he got interested in the entrepreneur program.
“It was really exciting, and I was this engineering student and getting all this energy,” he said. “I wanted to figure out how to put the two together.”
He took the science project idea, wrote a business plan around it and won WSU’s 2008 business plan competition and its $10,000 prize. Mitchell was a judge at the competition and introduced him to other investors.
In 2008 Ahmad applied for a provisional patent on the wireless side of the technology.
They made their first sale in 2009 to Jon Callen of Edmiston Oil.
“We made a lot of mistakes, and he told us what to correct, and it was just like an assignment to us,” Ahmad said of Callen.
Today, Callen said, he still uses the system, although he can’t bring himself to not send a guy out to visit his wells routinely. Callen said he particularly likes the system for monitoring his water tanks to make sure salt water doesn’t overflow because it’s deadly to the soil and hard to clean up.
“It allows me to go to sleep at night,” he said.
Ahmad and his investors are still figuring out what the company can add and who it can sell it to.
It is venturing outside of its Kansas/Oklahoma core to Texas, Colorado and North Dakota, he said.
Mitchell said the company’s natural target are the mid-level companies, such as Ellis’ company — those that are large enough to appreciate the technology, but too small to already own a system.
They also hope to sell to larger oil companies, as well, by adapting their software so that it can be sold as separate applications to larger companies that already own monitoring systems.
“We are becoming more of an applications company and not just a complete solutions company,” Ahmad said.
Ahmad hopes that with the product working well, growth will take off in 2013.
“We are not there yet, but we will get there,” he said.
“Next year is our fifth year, and all of the investors are saying, let’s see where this company is: They finally selected the right product, the right dashboard, the right team. So they are looking at all of that stuff. We are getting close.”