Allison Lami Sawyer

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“It’s not going to be easy but that’s what makes in fantastic”

Allison Lami Sawyer is the CEO and Co-founder of Rebellion Photonics, an innovative organisation that has set its sights on making the oil & gas industry a much safer place to operate…

What is the most important factor being considered by energy companies every day? Is it profits, is it expansion, is it security, is it politics or maybe sustainability? It’s probably a combination of all of these things but one of the main considerations, perhaps the overriding concern, for today’s energy giants has to be safety.

A report from science and technology research company, Lux Research in 2013 suggested that spending on HSE from major oil and gas companies will balloon 60% to $56 billion in 2030 up from $35 billion in 2011, and there are many organisations whose inventions are changing safety standards for the better.

One of these companies is Rebellion Photonics, a Houston based hyperspectral imaging technology company.

Co-founded by entrepreneur Allison Lami Sawyer, Rebellion Photonics history is one of development and adaptation. Today, its roots are firmly planted in the oil and gas industry but in the past the company’s focus was across many different sectors. Military, medical, science, technology and education all showed potential but eventually the oil & gas industry showed huge potential and that is where the company has laid its hat for now.

So how is this relatively new company helping in the oil & gas industry? Well, it’s all to do with detecting gas leaks on rigs and in refineries, using clever imaging systems that can detect gas and other chemicals in the air. Sawyer told The House Committee on Small Business in 2013: “Explosive gas leaks on oilrigs and refineries are one of the largest problems facing the energy industry today. Leaks, when not detected early, accumulate into dangerous clouds that can ignite when they reach a certain concentration. Current leak detectors are grossly inadequate. Furthermore, the alarms are too often ignored by the crew, who are desensitized by daily false alarms. In an age where a single explosive accident can cost billions, the leak detection market required an entirely new way to monitor explosive gas leaks.”

Hence the formation of Rebellion Photonics, which she and co-founder Robert Kester both admit is a name you either love or hate but you certainly don’t forget. “Rebellion Photonics’ specialty is, as you would expect, Photonics, which is any engineering concerned with light and Rebellion’s mission is to solve some of the world’s toughest problems,” she explained.

Interestingly, not everyone has always had confidence in Sawyers entrepreneurial abilities. She has a master’s degree in nanoscale physics and was volunteering at a local Houston incubator when she met Kester but just after she had completed her MBA, her entrepreneurship professor grabbed her and said: “You know you aren’t good enough, right? You need to get a real CEO,” and, of course, Sawyer was shocked. As you can imagine this only drove her forward with more determination than ever and the result is, three years on, a company that has been named ‘Start-up of the Year’ by the Wall Street Journal in 2013, $637,000 revenue in 2011, millions in revenue each year since, and major contracts for the likes of BP and Total on some of the world’s most important rigs.

But it wasn’t always easy and like the early days of any business, Sawyer had to spread the word, generate interest and get people to understand the technology.

“We have created the world’s first Gas Cloud Imaging (GCI) camera. The GCI camera offers full scene coverage at a fraction of the cost of other services and with a display that will not be ignored by the crew. The GCI continuously monitors, quantifies, and displays gas leaks in real-time video with automatic alarms.

“Rebellion Photonics produces video cameras that can identify and quantify chemicals – essentially our video cameras ‘see’ chemicals, not just colors. While this type of technology, called hyperspectral imaging, has been around since the 1980s, researchers were forced to wait minutes, even hours to see results. Our cameras take milliseconds and therefore allow the first true real-time chemical imaging video. The technology was initially invented to see live chemical reactions within cells for medical research. We do sell cameras for researchers, but with the help of grant funding for basic R&D we have been able to expand our product range.”

After writing the business plan for the company in 2010 and entering the company into several competitions, progress was made. The business won first and second place in a couple of early competitions, netting $150,000 and then received a further $100,000 in angel investment. After winning numerous other competitions and grants, and after selling a number of early products, the company gained a $1.6 million in competitive federal grants through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, allowing for high risk R&D to create high impact products.

So, Sawyer and Rebellion Photonics is most definitely on the path to success and at the same time, making the oil & gas industry a much safer industry in which to work. “I always wanted to start a technology based company and that’s what I’ve done. My advice to young entrepreneurs is that it’s not going to be easy but that’s what makes in fantastic,” she told Inc.com.

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