Ian Burgess of Validere: “Don’t fall in love with your technology. Fall in love with your customer​”

Don’t fall in love with your technology. Fall in love with your customer​. ​When an academic starts looking to commercialize the result of scientific experiments in their lab that were not optimized around a commercial application to begin with, the odds of this thing being the perfect solution for any business problem is analogous to […]

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Don’t fall in love with your technology. Fall in love with your customer. ​When an academic starts looking to commercialize the result of scientific experiments in their lab that were not optimized around a commercial application to begin with, the odds of this thing being the perfect solution for any business problem is analogous to the odds of a random configuration of 1,000 2x4s being a designer house.

As a part of our series about cutting edge technological breakthroughs I had the pleasure of interviewing​ ​Ian Burgess.

Ian is a co-founder of ​Validere​, and serves as President and Chief Technology Officer. Validere is a data intelligence platform that is transforming the energy industry by making critical product quality data available, accessible, and actionable. Ian is the technical and innovation lead at Validere and has become one of the foremost industry experts, driving innovations through analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Over 50 of North America’s leading energy companies rely on Validere’s insights to enhance operational and trading margins, and reduce waste and emissions. Ian sits on the Board of Directors of ​NEXT Canada​ — non-profit that provides education, mentorship and funding to entrepreneurs, and was a Senior Venture Partner at ​Pioneer Fund​, a leading seed-stage VC funded and run by Y Combinator alumni to help the next generation of startups get off the ground. Ian completed his Ph.D. in Applied Physics at Harvard in 2012.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I first got introduced to the energy industry in the aftermath of the Lac Megantic rail disaster. Back in 2013 a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in the middle of a town and killed 47 people. One of the learnings from the post-accident investigation was that dissolved gas content in crude transported by rail at the time varied widely and could sometimes be dangerously high for standard tank cars. The lab I worked in at the time was approached by the Federal Railroad Administration and funded to look into ways to improve rapid testing of crude at rail terminals. It was through working on this project that I learned that the world’s largest supply chain operated with little visibility into the composition or quality of many commodities. My co-founder, Nouman Ahmad, and I set out to tackle this large fundamental gap. Some of the brightest minds in the energy industry, data science, and physical science have since joined our mission to help the industry track product quality in real time and unlock operational and environmental efficiencies.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

It is hard to come up with the definitive answer to this question because a lot of interesting things have happened over the past 6 years. For some reason the first stories that this question brings to mind are all about my experiences traveling to remote field sites. As someone who has spent my whole life living in big cities, there is something just captivating about the vastness of the wilderness up in northern Alberta and BC. It feels like traveling back in time to before human civilization spread across the globe. I remember one evening driving back to my hotel from a site in central Alberta in the middle of October, it being -20C (-4F), and nearly hitting a huge moose that was sauntering down the middle of the icy road I was driving on. I had seen moose before, but never that close and my first thought was ‘I can’t believe how enormous these animals are’ (this moose was much bigger than my SUV). My second thought was, ‘wow, my life has officially become a US sitcom’s caricature of life in Canada’.

Can you tell us about the Cutting edge technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?

Essentially, we build a database that companies across the energy industry can use as a single system of record for all data on volume and composition of commodities. We then help clients improve operations and drive efficiency by:

  1. Making this validated data accessible and actionable. This is accomplished through a combination of UI, search/suggestion analytics, and monitoring analytics and maintenance workflow tools to ensure instruments are working properly
  2. Using predictive analytics to derive the maximum scope of useful information from the data. We build virtual analyzers that predict full compositions in real time across operations and predict the root causes of plant and system imbalances. Our analytics attach other important attributes to a molecule (e.g. carbon intensity) and then accurately track these attributes throughout the supply chain.
  3. Enabling clients to use this data to make better decisions operationally, logistically, and environmentally.

We’re building machine learning models that are helping the energy industry to be far more agile, lean, and capital-efficient. Front line workers and management alike are able to now use one source of truth for all the data that matters. This not only makes their lives much easier, it also helps organizations make smarter decisions, faster — helping usher one of our most important legacy industries into the digital age.

How do you think this might change the world?

We are trying to bring a level of efficiency to the world’s largest supply chain that many other industries, especially in the consumer space, now take for granted. I like to introduce the problem we are trying to solve by pointing out that I generally have more liquidity (easier to find sellers with the product specs I am looking for), more price transparency and a higher probability of receiving the specs that I ordered when I buy a 150 dollars used golf club on eBay than when I buy a >1M dollars physical shipment of oil from a public company. Having a system of record for inventories (volume and composition) across the industry and then driving operational and logistical efficiency with analytics will make the global supply chains for energy much more efficient, nimble, and resilient. It will also lay the groundwork for carbon intensity to be able to be actually measured and tracked through the supply chain, making it possible for companies to drive their carbon reduction systematically.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

I think the ease with which circular logic can embed itself into ML models that monitor plant processes with external controls is probably the potential flaw of this type of technology that worries me the most. It is easy for models to learn to predict the controller’s behaviour rather than the relationship between the control settings and the process outcome. As a result, it fails to detect precisely the sort of anomalies it may have been built to detect in the first place. I try to ensure we are extra cognizant of avoiding this flaw in our own designs, and we have internal tests that we run on new models to check for this.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?

Probably the closest thing I can think of to a tipping point came the first time we went to a field site to install earlier testing hardware that we were building at the time. It was there I realized that while the measurement hardware customers already had was not perfect, they had far greater issues with communication and data management. It became clear that solving problems of data management, data accessibility and analytics would add much more value than adding another widget to their instrument panel.

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

We are at the stage of our product lifecycle that I call ‘v1 feature complete’. We have recently arrived at the place where we can deliver a version of our entire vision to a company and have been able to do so for our early customers. In this process, one of the things we have learned along the way is that no matter how simple your UI is, it takes effort for users to learn a new daily routine, and it takes a lot of effort to roll that change across an entire organization and then an entire industry. This is why we are focused intensively on simplifying our UI and optimizing our training and support to make both using the product and change management really easy.

What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?

Our product and the value we deliver is our best marketing tool. I see the energy industry as a small village, and we aim to be good citizens of our community. We contribute by providing thought leadership and sharing our learnings. We have done so through a series of webinars and articles. We have also been fortunate to have some of the most notable energy and tech media outlets amplify our message. Just as with customers, our approach has been to nurture authentic relationships with the media where we can share our perspective and add value. We’ve also had success in going against the grain somewhat with events, and forgoing some of the larger conferences in favour of hosting or sponsoring smaller gatherings. Our Calgary team hosts a quarterly bike ride through the Rockies, which has been a great way to engage with our community outside of work. Our Houston team hosts regular golf outings and participates in industry charity events.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are a number of people who have been critical to helping us get to where we are now, but one who stands out is Chen Fong. He was our first angel investor. Despite thinking that our original business plan (centered around hardware at the time and spread between several industries) was bad, he saw potential in us. Chen made a lot of early introductions to energy executives to help us gain appreciation for the opportunity in the industry, while patiently coaching us toward a more focused and sound business plan. While he is a very humble and low-key guy, it is amazing the number of entrepreneurs that I know that owe their start to Chen.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I make an effort to be as generous with my time and share as much of the benefit of my experience as possible with other people trying to start new businesses. I owe so much of my own progression to the same generosity from other entrepreneurs who were further ahead of me when I was just starting out. I think that culture of paying it forward was a critical part of the reason why Silicon Valley has become such fertile ground for iconic technology companies to emerge, and I would like to see that dynamic spread out to more places. Recently, I joined the board of ​NEXT Canada​. ​It’s a non-profit that provides world-class business training and mentorship to early-stage entrepreneurs for free. Its programs are designed to get people to think bigger by showing them what is possible and to give essential business training in a way that can be managed while running a business. To date, over 600 entrepreneurs trained through its programs have raised more than 1B dollars collectively and created billions in value for Canada’s tech ecosystem.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each)

1.) Don’t fall in love with your technology. Fall in love with your customer. ​When an academic starts looking to commercialize the result of scientific experiments in their lab that were not optimized around a commercial application to begin with, the odds of this thing being the perfect solution for any business problem is analogous to the odds of a random configuration of 1,000 2x4s being a designer house.

2.) You ask for money, and you will get advice. You ask for advice, and you will get money. ​This is an old saying that you hear when raising money, but it applies equally to talking with customers.

Anchoring a first conversation on their pain points and what they are looking for is a much more efficient path to delivering lasting value than to anchor on why they should want what you already have.

3.) Success correlates to the time average of your successes and failures, not the number of successes and failures.​ The best outcomes we have achieved have always come from failing fast, recovering quickly from bad luck and getting as much out of good luck and good decisions for as long as possible. In contrast, our worst outcomes have come not from making many mistakes, but from getting stuck on one mistake for a very long time.

4.) Media is not your customer ​(at least for our business)​. ​Tech media coverage is optimized for stories that will catch people’s attention, which doesn’t necessarily correlate with what are the most useful gadgets in people’s lives. If viral content were a solid predictor to business value, then I suppose cat videos would have to be the solution to many of life’s problems. When I was still in grad school our original hardware technology got a ton of press, not because it was that useful for any application, but because it was interesting and could make really cool visuals (e.g. a shot glass in which the word ‘drink’ changed to ‘drunk’ when it contained more than 20% alcohol). The early highs of press validation definitely got in the way of spending more time with customers early.

5.) Being good to someone doesn’t mean being ‘nice’ to them all the time.​ Key to my learning in the early days were a handful of mentors who were willing to tell me they believed in me, but also that my current work was sh*t. It feels good giving people praise and validation and it can feel uncomfortable giving direct feedback about areas of improvement, but learning is impossible without feedback. Sometimes holding back on constructive criticism can be more damaging to a person’s development than anything someone could say to them, no matter how direct. Words can hurt, but so can silence.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’m not sure if I had the power to build anything that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people that a ‘movement’ is what I would want to build. If you look back through history, technological breakthroughs have delivered far more social benefit with fewer tradeoffs. So if I had the power to inspire people to devote themselves to something new, it would be to invent and think big. Some ideas that come to mind are:

  1. a cheap, portable, mass produced messenger RNA synthesis machine, so that vaccines could be instantly produced directly at doctor’s offices around the world the second they are discovered. Updates for new viruses or new variants could be uploaded to all these synthesizers over the internet and be injected the next day.
  2. an efficient carbon capture technology that could be attached to the exhaust of power plants, cars, etc, that could precipitate CO​2​ as a salt or mineral that could then be disposed of in conventional landfills.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favourite personal tagline is ‘I believe in the ​Second Law of Thermodynamics​’. One approximate way to explain the Second Law in layman’s terms as it applies to business is: you can’t do something very improbable reliably without expending a lot of effort. I think many of the biggest mistakes in strategy I have seen otherwise smart leaders make in business and government, result from a kind of wishful thinking that effectively requires suspending belief in the Second Law. The same would apply to some of our biggest mistakes, like Lesson #1 from the 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Validere is the first and only software that provides real-time visibility into the true composition (quality) of energy commodities and their associated carbon footprint. Our team is bringing much needed transparency and innovation to a legacy industry that has been underserved by tech advances, but is incredibly important to our daily lives. While you might have full transparency into a 150 dollars eBay or Amazon transaction, that is not currently the case for a 1M dollars + physical shipments of oil from public companies. Data is currently fragmented, opaque, and difficult to track due to costs and operational constraints. That is the fundamental gap that we are addressing. We are building a platform that acts as a system of record for oil and gas product quality and all the data that is critical in guiding operational, logistical, and environmental decisions. By attaching a trusted digital fingerprint to energy products, we are helping make a 40T dollars industry more transparent and efficient. As we transition to renewables, we believe that creating transparency around emissions and driving efficiency within the energy industry is one of the most impactful ways to help the world lower its carbon footprint. Validere’s platform is already powering over 50 of North America’s leading energy companies and we are looking forward to growing our impact in the coming years.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’m not a big social media user (I’m not on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, etc), but you can follow my updates through our company ​LinkedIn​ and ​Twitter​ (@​validere​).

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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