Change Agent

How Ian Burgess and Nouman Ahmad are bringing innovation to the oil and gas sector

The co-founders of Validere have made crude oil testing easier with portable devices that provide critical information instantly

Validere is a Toronto and Calgary-based startup that builds in-the-field testing solutions for the energy market. The company provides software and connected hardware that reduces operator errors in crude oil testing. After attending Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator program and raising financing from Canadian and Silicon Valley investors, Burgess and Ahmad are focusing on scaling up their products and growing sales on both sides of the border.


Ian Burgess: “I went to Harvard to do my doctorate in applied physics, and worked a lot on sensing technologies. Much of my research was about developing materials that record physical properties of substances they come into contact with as visual patterns someone could read by eye. In 2013, the Department of Transportation reached out to us after the Lac-Mégantic train disaster. They had heard about the work we had done and introduced me to the problem of crude oil testing and how it’s very difficult to do in that field. When I moved back to Toronto, I met Nouman through CanLeads [a political training organization founded by Ahmad]. I asked Nouman if he wanted to help out, writing pitch competitions and business plans. What I do now is very different from what I did at Harvard, and we learned a ton about different markets and ended up settling on the energy market as having the biggest need.

In the crude oil market, we found that accuracy of testing relied much more heavily on operator judgments in how they executed and/or interpreted the test. What makes these errors so difficult for companies to deal with is they have no visibility into what operators are doing because the locations are so remote. The challenging part of the problem, which was really the biggest opportunity, was how to make these people’s jobs easier. The core function of our solution–software plus hardware–gives a testing manager eyes into what is actually happening at all their field sites. Our hardware lets us collect this data in a way that also makes the field worker’s job easier; fewer manual steps, less guesswork, less paperwork. But record-keeping and transparency really is the key.”

Nouman Ahmad: “We have done funding rounds in Canada and Silicon Valley and we have a built a very good team. We’re at 14 full-time people. The product is in good shape, so our focus now is to build a sales organization and sell the product in Canada and the U.S. We’re very excited to be in the energy field because there is a lot of innovation that needs to go into this sector. When I look at the innovation that has come out of Silicon Valley, a lot of it has gone into B-to-C [business to consumers]. It hasn’t gone into deep verticals like the energy market.”

Burgess: “I think it’s important for young entrepreneurs to focus on a really big problem.

If you start on a small problem in an industry you don’t understand very well, then you don’t necessarily have room to iterate. You might end up down such a narrow, niche problem that you can’t build a sustainable business out of it. If you start with a large problem, it gives you a lot more room to adjust your thinking and adjust your strategy.”

Ahmad: “When you start building your team, hire co-owners and not employees. Our business will not be built by just Ian and myself as founders, it will be built by the team we hired. Our team—from junior to senior—has equity in the business and we are all aligned on the same path. Secondly, just be super ambitious. You have to be ambitious and resourceful. One of the best things we did for this business was spending four months in the Silicon Valley at Y Combinator program last year. We raised financing and came back home having learned a lot. Be resourceful and look beyond just Canada. Get out there.”—As told to Rebecca Harris

Videography by Scott Simpson. Photography by Kayla Chobotiuk. Makeup and hair by Jukka Suutari for Plutino Group.