[Interview] - How it started – How it’s going - Alex Tsekenis

Posted 16/12/2022 by Benet Hanley

 Ai Exploration was formed in 2019. The company develops and commercialises hardware sensors and data analytics solutions for the Energy sector to provide real-time insights to optimise production & reduce emissions. In part one of this industry interview we talk to the co-founder Alex Tsekenis about his journey to become a founder of this deep tech company.

Personal background

Ben

Okay, so, I guess the first question would be tell me a bit about yourself and what you do?

Alex

So, I'm originally from Greece. I came to the UK back in 2004 to study electrical electronic engineering, and as years went on and then into the big recession of 2008, I kept running out of excuses not to stay in the UK.

I worked for Intel Corporation in semiconductors. I then joined Shell Global Solutions where I was part of the Fuels Team which involved a lot of engine diagnostics and optical sensing. This was my first exposure to the beautiful shiny world of lasers, optics and expensive glass in general. I have also worked with the University of Edinburgh, Rolls Royce and Shell.

I would say that because I have been part of such multidisciplinary teams over the years, most of them have been under resourced one way or another, I have learned to go out and find out about things myself, learn about it, do my best to get it to the next stage, and that then led me on to pursue and continue to pursue commercialisation of technologies.

How it Started

Having been so committed to development projects working endless nights, day in, day out, I wanted to see the projects succeed. I have a very large personal commitment to them and for me, success was also getting them out there in the real world outside the academic belly, if you like. So it was at the University of Edinburgh where I started a number of outreaching activities joining events, organized by CENSIS or Technology Scotland to try to understand what really is the state of the art in terms of sensing. Whether that is optical sensing or gas sensing, sensing and imaging. I was pleased to find a very vibrant community in Scotland.  I started working with what was then called the Oil and Gas Innovation Center up in Aberdeen, the OGIC as it was called in 2012. We started working with them and a company in the Middle East that was interested in applying large scale, 800 km² sensing out in the desert to detect noxious gases from oil fields. We started off a joint project between the University of Edinburgh, that company, and the OGIC. That went really, really well. We were able to produce a prototype, and  I was hooked once I saw how much interest and recognition I could get from actually commercializing some of these technologies.

Meanwhile, another company in Scotland that was involved with optical diagnostics for combating whisky adulteration approached OGIC with the idea of applying their technology to an oil and gas pipeline. The then OGIC CEO introduced me to them and that was the first time that I met Robert, who is now my four-year-long business partner. We are of a similar age - actually we have the same birthday - so it's a sign, right? I mean, what are the odds of that? We started discussing what the implications might be of them applying their technology to oil and gas, but it turned out there were some significant physical challenges. However, as you know, relationships are as important as the technology, and I think we went along very well. We're both very passionate. So, we'd continue the discussions in the fall of 2018, identifying an opportunity then in oil and gas that has to do with the flow measurement in pipelines.

So, very similar to what Robert thought was a challenge, but this one involved flow metering and composition analysis. So that was the stage where we started going to the University of Edinburgh library and doing what we do best. Just having a go at it, you know, trying to understand it, almost accepting our naivety that we don't know and sort of allowing ourselves to take an approach of, “hey, look, this assumption is probably wrong, but what if, what if it's right?”  

So, that was the stage where we finally decided to formalize the arrangement between us two and founded Ai Exploration in the fall of 2018. We're approaching now, in a couple of days, our four-year anniversary.

Ben

So you mentioned it a little bit, but maybe you could expand on where the spark or inspiration came from to start your own company.

Alex

I have always been motivated by a challenge, something that perhaps others perceive as particularly difficult, or something that would have a significant impact in one way or another. I think that was probably the underlying reason why I was trying to reach out and just do more when I was part of academia; that and exploring bootstrap-funding of research activities through commercialization of matured technologies. Perhaps there I felt a little bit of the glass ceiling above me.

I have always wanted to do the ultimate challenge, which is to go out in the wilderness and try things on my own, but it's extremely difficult. I've been doing the side consultancy gigs since second year in university, mostly in electronics, and then during my engineering doctorate, I started another company with an Australian co-founder, in that case building electronic kits and novelty items using obsolete technologies. So that was very nice, but I found out that alignment between business partners is of paramount importance. And alignment can mean many things, from how rich or poor your bank account is, that's also very important, to family situation, aspirations, and what are you trying to get out of the project, what are one’s drivers for starting a new company.

Because objectively talking, it's suicidal, right? So, what I was thinking back at that time then was to just join a safe, large multinational. So, leave the university and just join a huge company, move about a bit, do that long circle in one's career. Then, once I have things like family and personal finances de-risked - if that can ever be said – to then pursue something entirely on my own or with probably a network of former colleagues that I have met over the years.

But having more and more discussions with Robert, I started realizing that there is no perfect time to do it and the best time is now to start some things and just do our best, as we have always been doing.

So, in terms of the spark, it was meeting someone like Robert, we had good alignment between us and a good synergy. Like me more on the technology side and him more on the commercial side. We were both in Scotland, both in Edinburgh, same age, same aspirations. In fact, we did an alignment meeting back in the day in the University of Edinburgh just to list what our priorities are in terms of the company, family, over the next ten years. So, that was interesting and I realized that then it was the time to do that. I just try it out, and if it didn't work, the positive thing is that I would have tried it and learned a little bit more and I would be better suited next time I try it again. I think it was inevitable for it to happen at some point. It was just a matter of when and finding a like-minded person, pushed me over the edge, if you like. It didn't take much convincing, just one pint at the Old Bell Inn in Edinburgh.

How it’s going

In 2021 we successfully conducted independent testing of our watercut sensing technology for Oil & Gas, called Poseidon, at the National Engineering Laboratory (NEL), attracting strong interest from clients for the mass produced product. The device integrates easily into high pressure and temperature multiphase flow pipelines – a very challenging measurement to make reliably. In early 2022 we demonstrated our ppm-level moisture sensing technology for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), called Aether, at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), for integration into the BP Teesside project - the UK’s largest net-zero carbon industrial hub once operational. More recently we have won the Net Zero Technology Centres’ (NZTC) 2022 Open Innovation Programme - CCS category, targeting disruptive CCS technologies focusing on transportation and storage of CO2 as part of the North Sea Transition Deal. This will allow us to mature our sensing technology for CCS and build the UK’s first high pressure direct-CO2 humidity saturation facility to validate our technology by the end of 2023.

In general we have achieved commercial traction with BP, Saudi Aramco, Chevron, BP, Total, Harbour Energy, Equinor, NOV and Expro.

Based out of Edinburgh, we maintain a well-equipped R&D lab and separate but collocated office space and a multiphase flow loop facility used for technology testing located at the National Subsea Centre in Aberdeen.

 

Enigma People Solutions specialises in the recruitment of specialist roles in the deep tech sector.

We also offer a complimentary recruitment review. If you have tried the following but have still failed to attract the right candidates, we can help you:

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Visit our job search page for the latest vacancies in photonics, electronics, semiconductor, and software in Scotland. Check out our blog for the latest in the technology industry.

 

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