New Disruptive Technology Helps Geophysicist Explore for More
Tom Smith helps oil companies find their next big field using a very advanced technology that has been successfully applied in financial, military, and other industries. Smith, along with partner Sven Treitel, are developing and applying what are called unsupervised neural networks. Smith and others are now convinced that analyzing multiple seismic attributes simultaneously reveals information about the potential location of hydrocarbons that may go unnoticed using conventional interpretation methods.
Smith began the investigation into using unsupervised neural networks for seismic interpretation after learning from Turhan Tanner, an award winning geophysicist who passed away in February 2010. Smith and Tanner became co-researchers in this area prior to his death. Treitel, who was Tanner's colleague, then paired with Smith to continue neural network research.
As Smith explains, neurons learn and adapt to the characteristics of the data with which they are presented. Today, seismic interpretation involves six to 100 attributes of seismic data. Every one of those attributes constitutes a 3-D image.
"We are using neural networks to understand unique properties of multiple attributes. We don't view neural network technology as a replacement for anyone, but we do use it to help reduce dimensionality of attributes and to understand seismic data," Smith explains.
While Smith admits that it may look like he's just doing research and having lots of fun in the process, seismic interpretation is a critical technology for today's oil explorers. At Geophysical Insights (www.geoinsights.com), he and several other geophysicists are developing advanced technologies for fundamental geophysical problems. Though the company is still in its youth, it is maturing rapidly. Today, Geophysical Insights, under Smith's leadership, is processing data on proprietary basis for several oil companies, ranging from small independents to the majors and some National Oil Companies (NOC's).
Smith is currently solving seismic interpretation problems, but he launched his professional career as a data processing geophysicist at Chevron Geophysical in 1971. With a master's degree in geology from Iowa State University, Smith thought an advanced degree in geophysics would be advantageous. So he took a leave of absence from Chevron to attend the University of Houston and earned his PhD in Geophysics in 1981.
He then left Chevron to launch his own businesses with his wife, Evonne. He started geophysical consulting, taught seminar courses, and started a software company called Seismic Micro-Technology.
"In 1981, when I was teaching and doing consulting work, I was intrigued by the desktop computers at the time. I was teaching three 5-day seminars -- Seismic Data Acquisition, Seismic Data Processing, and Seismic Interpretation. That third class was a computer workshop. With the experience in data processing I gained at Chevron, I found you can learn a lot by running software, and making a fool out of yourself by making mistakes along the way."
Smith then formed Seismic Micro–Technology (SMT) in 1984, where he developed software for his Seismic Interpretation seminar. Smith started on IBM AT (advanced technology) computers and was one of the earliest renters of computers.
"I taught classes in London, Calgary and Houston," Smith explained. "It was always a challenge to march down each row of PCs with floppies and load in the software. We'd hold our breath that our printer would actually print. It was challenging and fun. We were breaking new ground."
Smith surrounded himself with great staff and instilled a team mentality. In fact, he handpicked all 150 staff members. "The power of two is more than two," Smith says. "I was inspired by Southwest Airlines' Herb Keller. My favorite book to recommend is NUTS! By working together and cooperating, you can accomplish more than you as an individual can ever hope to accomplish." Smith believes that the Industry needs fewer MBAs and more master's in business leadership. He is concerned with the current direction of the oil and gas business today. "When I first joined the industry in 1971, the oil and gas industry was casting around for people in a variety of different backgrounds and made tremendous professional careers for them. Now you have to have a master's degree in geology before you get an interview. That is the opposite of the Southwest Airlines philosophy that gives strength and energy to a team."
Smith sees diversity of backgrounds, experience, and skills as necessary components when building a strong team. He believes whatever short-sightedness one person has, another will pick up. "Previously at SMT, and now at Geophysical Insights, we're less concerned about people's backgrounds. We're focused on developing 'disruptive' technology and new practices for identifying the presence of hydrocarbons in the earth, which defines the value of an oil and gas company."
According to Smith, his new company's focus on 'game-changing' technology is a key element in the software developer / geologist relationship. "They have similar compulsive personalities," Smith explains. "Geologists are explorers. When the great ones find a successful well that will one day be a great field, the next day they are out looking for another great well. Similarly, software developers can't rest until they figure out a problem and fix it. When they do, they immediately start looking for the next bug or the capability to add to the product. It is a wonderful marriage of similarly minded people."
After 23 years, Smith sold SMT in 2007. He and Evonne had put in countless hours learning to run a successful business and rarely saw each other during the workday. "We were tired," Smith says. "It was time for our staff to be professionally managed." Smith kept a small portion of the company and serves on the Board of Directors. IHS recently announced acquisition of Seismic Micro-Technology for a reported $500MM cash transaction. At this time, final business terms are being met and he will leave the Board. Smith is proud that he and his wife helped a good idea "grow up".
Smith advises new entrants in the oil and gas industry to work for a large integrated oil company right out of school, but then move to a service company where they'll be exposed to a wide variety of problems not necessarily given in large company.
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