Founder Series: Neil Gordon, CEO of Sentinel Subsea

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Neil Gordon, CEO at Sentinel Subsea
Neil Gordon, CEO at Sentinel Subsea

Sentinel Subsea has created a revolutionary, cost-effective and environmentally-friendly well integrity monitoring system called SWIFT (Sentinel Well Integrity Fluid Tracer). The solution has the potential to significantly reduce the consequences of undetected leaks of plug and abandoned and decommissioned wells.

Aberdeen Business news talked to Neil Gordon, CEO of Sentinel Subsea about the journey.

What do you do there / what is your role?

The idea behind Sentinel Subsea is one I have had in mind for some time. It came to fruition during early 2018, within Elevator’s second Grey Matters cohort. Meeting our CTO, Andrew Jaffrey and our Business Development Director, Elliot Kinch, we realised that as a group, we had the potential to take the idea to the next level. Today’s Sentinel team provides the knowledge, experience – and enthusiasm! – required to develop our proprietary technology.

What is your background?

I have over 35 years’ experience in well construction within the UKCS and western Europe and have worked on a number of innovative well construction technologies and managing global product line projects. Through the majority of my working career I have been located in Aberdeen, however much of my time was spent abroad. I started out as a field engineer, eventually undertaking several global vice president roles with some of the world’s largest oil and gas service companies. I became increasingly interested in decommissioning as the industry itself progressed; having spent the most of my working life with wells I have considerable interest in what eventually happens to them! The responsibility behind the decommissioning process and what comes after that fascinates me and led me to recognise the global requirement for our system.

Why did you launch the company?

Having worked in the well construction industry for so many years, I noticed a gap in the market for a cost effective and efficient well integrity monitoring system. I introduced this at the beginning of the Grey Matters programme,  and, together with Andrew and Elliot, we realised pretty quickly into our project that this was something the industry undoubtedly requires. Through our discussions, we evaluated the responses of the industry to an increasing scrutiny on well integrity, which provided us with further evidence that our idea was both relevant and realistic.

As you can imagine, the long-term integrity of suspended or abandoned well barriers is a critical component of the late life and decommissioning process, affecting the oil and gas industry, environmental organisations and other industries operating within the North Sea. Whilst there is legislation in place to ensure monitoring of suspended wells, there is currently no legalisation surrounding abandoned wells, despite the serious financial, environmental and reputational ramifications of a leak – whether from a suspended or abandoned well.

Critically, adoption of our technology will also make a huge contribution to the OGA’s 35% cost-reduction target. By passively monitoring the subsea environment for over ten years, without the requirement for intervention, it provides the decommissioning process with a solution which assures environmental integrity, multiple cost-efficiencies and no operational risk.

Equally important in terms of cost reduction, as well as for the future of our industry, the technology delivers the confidence for industry to adopt innovative decommissioning techniques, providing evidence of integrity.

The early-detection offered by this system offers additional economies: early leak detection quite clearly has the potential to significantly lower clear-up costs. That environmental assurance will also, in turn, assist in the quest to provide quantifiable data for insurance purposes. 

In other words, the impact of our technology upon the offshore oil and gas industry is far reaching, and on many levels. 

Where did you get assistance when you started?

The Grey Matters Programme was an incredible and indispensable help to us at the beginning. Without it we wouldn’t exist as a team, and my idea would remain at embryonic stage! For that, I am extremely thankful. 

Give us a brief history of the growth of the company

In all honesty, the last 18 months have gone by so quickly. We have been working hard to make our idea a reality and as a result, time has flown by. We have encountered so much support and encouragement regarding what could have been an industry-sensitive subject. But now we have just completed our first in-shore trial, with our first offshore trial taking place in September – what a milestone! 

Have you taken any external funding? If so from who and when?

We have been extremely fortunate in this respect. Earlier this year, The Oil & Gas Technology Centre (OGTC) agreed to fund our field trial process and we also received further financial support from Scottish EDGE, as winners within its 14th funding round. 

Other, invaluable, support has come from Scottish Enterprise’s High Growth Ventures programme (which we were accelerated on to, after just three months in existence), OGIC, which facilitated our relationship with Heriot-Watt University, and our presence upon the OGTC’s TechX cohort 2019. 

All this support has undoubtedly allowed us to come so far in such a short space of time.

So, what does it look like now with regard to staff and turnover?

We have recently moved into new premises in Dyce and it’s great to have a solid and permanent residence. We have taken on a business development manager who is fundamental in getting our name out there, as well as a business administrator. There’s no doubt we’re growing! 

What is your target market – who is buying your product / service? 

Ultimately, any company that owns a well has perpetual responsibility for its safety. So, our target market is fairly straightforward. However, we know that there are others who will benefit from adoption of our technology and it’s important that they’re aware of the benefits our technology brings; the well sealant innovators, the insurance experts, the environmental lobbyists and last, but not least, the tax payers who are responsible for the overall decommissioning cost.  

What are your goals for your business?

Simply for our product to become ubiquitous wherever there is a suspended or abandoned well. There is a real need for this solution, otherwise we wouldn’t have worked so hard on the idea. Not only is it essential for the industry, it is essential to our environment; something we need to take more seriously than we have ever done before.

What has been the biggest challenge so far?

Inevitably being a start-up, generating sufficient funds to keep going is always a challenge. We were lucky in that the strength of our idea was recognised early on, resulting in us gaining support from Scottish Enterprise and securing funding from Scottish Edge, OGTC and TechX. The unique nature of the Grey Matters programme along with the support from Elevator helped us overcome the other start-up challenge of exposure to the client and investor community.

What do you know now that you wished you had known earlier?

Coming from an oil and gas background I am used to the pressures of getting things done quickly. I now realise that bringing innovative technology to market can take longer than I first thought; staying patient and moving forward is key to success.

What’s the secret to good leadership?

Building a great team which understands your vision and has the same passion as you. Our team works very well together because we all have the same goal; to provide a solution to ensure responsible decommissioning stewardship.

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