No more innovation at a snail’s pace

An interview with Paul de Groot

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra
Paul de Groot

Paul de Groot is president of dGB Earth Sciences, He worked 10 years for Shell where he served in various technical and management positions. Paul subsequently worked four years as a research geophysicist for TNO Institute of Applied Geosciences before co-founding dGB in 1995. He has authored many papers covering a wide range of geophysical topics and co-authored a patent on seismic object detection. Together with Fred Aminzadeh, Paul wrote a book on soft computing techniques in the oil industry. He holds MSc and PhD degrees in geophysics from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Find him on LinkedIn at

In the mid 1970s I went to Delft University to study applied geosciences or mining engineering as it was called at the time. I was attracted by the sky-is-the-limit mentality of the oil men of the era. This was the heyday of exploration in the North Sea: oil was found almost daily and new fields were developed in turbulent seas using technology that had to be invented along the way. This was the vibrant, high-tech industry that I joined after graduation.

In the 30 years since, I have worked for a major oil company and a large R&D organization, and formed my own company. I have been fortunate to always work with the latest technology in my chosen field of seismic interpretation. This field has gone through a fantastic evolution. It is hard to imagine that when I started, a coloured pencil was the most important tool in the technical arsenal of a seismic interpreter. And look at us now – we immerse ourselves in a 3D model and steer a horizontal well through a thin layer of reservoir rock to extract the last drop of oil for an energy-hungry world. This is cool stuff that surely supports the image of a vibrant, high-tech industry. But are we indeed so vibrant and high-tech?

Personally, I don’t think we are. We certainly have great technology, but it takes ages for innovations to become accepted and to be used widely. A former R&D director of the major oil company I worked for once told me that it takes 10 years from invention to production mode. Sadly, I believe he was right. And he’s still right today. It seems to me that when it comes to innovation, ours is a very conservative business. Only a handful of geoscientists and companies stick their neck out to try something new. Most prefer to wait for new technology to be proven time and again before they adopt it themselves. In my experience early adopters are more successful than followers, which makes me wonder: why are we not innovating at a much faster pace?

The following analysis is not complete and it has no scientific foundation. I merely highlight a few factors that may explain why innovation in the field of seismic interpretation is going at a snail’s pace, and suggest what we can do to speed it up.

  • Demography. The G&G population is skewed with lots of old guys (like me). Most prefer to press the same buttons they have pressed for the last 20 years. Only few are willing to learn new tricks. Be one of them!
  • IT departments. In large companies IT departments control rather than service the user community. Standards are important for IT people because standards make life easy for them. New technology does not fit into standards hence is blocked by them. In the rigorous drive towards standards there is no room for new technology that subsurface specialists need to find and produce our precious commodity. Help your IT department see the big picture by showing how you will help meet standards with new technology.
  • HSE consciousness. The emphasis on HSE has made our industry a much safer place for people and the environment. I cannot agree more: HSE should be a top priority in everything we do. Still, I wonder whether we have changed the mentality of our work force somewhere along the line such that no one dares to take any risks at all. The risk-seeking spirit of the pioneers who built this industry has gradually been replaced by office workers who are not willing to stick out their necks and try something new. Learn to recognize when the reward is greater than the risk.


Please tell me about some of the recent innovative applications in a couple of areas of geophysics.

In the last decade we have witnessed great advances in seismic acquisition and processing. Take for example the introduction of variable depth streamer technology and new algorithms for Pre-Stack Depth Migration, which has allowed pre-salt exploration plays to be opened up.

To a lesser extent, in the area of seismic interpretation I also feel that we are at the onset of a golden age of innovation. I am convinced that so-called “global seismic interpretation techniques” are about to change the way we work as these methods add unprecedented value to seismic data.

Global seismic interpretation techniques such as the commercial products: Paeloscan, Age Volume, Extrema, and dGB’s own Horizon- Cube, aim to arrive at fully interpreted seismic volumes. “Fully” in this context is misleading as it gives the impression that we are dealing with an end-product and there is no more interpretation to be done. This is not the case. The correlated geologic time lines of these volumes open up new ways to analyze seismic data, thereby increasing our understanding of the depositional history and improving our ability to find stratigraphic traps and build highly accurate geologic models. Global interpretation techniques are still evolving but as these techniques mature I am confident they will become mainstream. In future, I predict that any seismic interpretation project will start with the delivery of various seismic processing products including a fully interpreted volume.

To continue to do what we are doing is human nature. But you rightly point out – ‘we must be willing to learn new tricks.’ How do you think this can be made possible? By making individuals realize, by citing examples, or what?

Innovation thrives in liberal environments and suffocates in conservative ones. An innovative environment is an environment in which individuals are stimulated to challenge conventional wisdom and historical work flows. Taking a broad view that is not restricted to what is just happening in your own field is also important. Cross-disciplinary fertilization is an important mechanism for innovation. As a company you can stimulate innovation by creating an environment in which hierarchical structures are kept flat; responsibilities are disseminated to lower echelons; and staff are given the freedom to explore. Also the hiring of talented staff and the offering of training and education possibilities are important elements that companies can embrace to become more innovative.

In my opinion, one of the most effective ways in which innovation is brought about, is when individuals develop a passion for what they are doing. Would you agree? Please elaborate.

Yes, this is an important point. When you like what you do, you will naturally want to improve things given the chance. If your innovation is implemented and provides tangible, real-life benefits to the end user, there’s no better feeling. This will fuel your passion and commitment to making a positive contribution; it’s a positive vicious circle. But passion alone is not enough, you also need vision and drive and a desire to improve things.

Some people opine that innovation usually comes with experience. This is because when an individual is completely immersed in solving the problem at hand, there are various ideas that are put into practice, out of which some pan out, and innovation happens. What is your take on this?

It really depends on the problem that is being addressed. For some problems experience is a prerequisite but experience can also limit one’s vision to seek solutions outside the bounds of existing concepts and preconceived ideas. Toyota became the largest car manufacturer in the world by constantly innovating their production process. These innovations were initiated from the bottom up. Experience plays a role in this process but even more important is a corporate culture where every employee is constantly questioning what and how the things he or she is working on can be improved.

Do you think innovation has taken place more in certain areas of geophysics than others? Could you cite some examples either way?

There is a clear relationship between innovation and budget. There is more money in seismic than in any other geophysical method, hence we see more innovations in this domain. And in the seismic arena there is more money targeted at acquisition than processing and seismic interpretation. As explained already we see this reflected in the innovations that have led to broadband seismic and improvements in seismic imaging.

Although money is an important driver, however, it is not the only one. You also need a supportive environment. Only a few years ago innovations in seismic processing and interpretation were restricted to those who had access to expensive software and proprietary data sets. The open source movement with packages such as Seismic Unix and Madagascar for processing and dGB’s OpendTect for interpretation, and the availability of free data sets, has drastically changed the landscape.

Nowadays any University in the world can access tools and data sets needed to make innovative contributions in these areas. As a company dGB takes enormous pride in the role we play in shaping this environment. Together with partners ARK CLS, Earthworks and Sitfal, we currently support more than 3,500 academic licenses of OpendTect and its commercial plugins. Moreover, we started the Open Seismic Repository to give users access to free data sets. Free software and free data certainly elevates education to higher levels and stimulates research and development. But even more important than free software and free data is the free exchange of ideas: openness sparks ingenuity. This is the opposite of conventional business wisdom and the mindset that you either hide, or protect your IP rights. This type of thinking delays and frustrates progress.

Continuing with the previous question, why do you think that is?

As I said: money rules the world but the landscape is changing in some areas as a result of the open source movement. dGB remains committed to this movement.

How do think it is possible to keep a track of the geophysical innovation taking place in our industry?

We have all become specialists in one domain or other and even keeping up with developments in our own area of expertise is a challenge. Obviously it helps to talk to colleagues, to visit conferences, exhibitions and workshops and to keep up with literature. Apart from these conventional ways, the Internet provides new and faster ways to keep up. Professional groups in Linkedin and blogs (e.g. the blogs by Matt Hall and Evan Bianco of Agile Geoscience) are good instruments in this respect.

Innovation has economic, social and environmental implications in our industry. How is it then that not enough emphasis is laid on innovation by the oil companies or the government institutes.

The cycles of a petroleum development project are much longer than economic cycles. Our industry should make long-term plans not only for specific field developments but also for R&D and innovations, which will lead to more efficient, safer and environmentally friendlier solutions. Instead the industry reacts on spikes in the oil price and takes decisions aimed at increasing short-term shareholder value. This is not just a flaw in the decision making process in our industry but a fundamental flaw in pure capitalism that values short-term individual profits above long-term benefits for the planet and society as a whole.

On a different note, permit me to ask this: what differences did you notice when you turned 30 years, 40 years, and 50 years old, and then at present? As an example, some people think 30s allowed them to experiment with options, 40s gave them time for self-introspection or naughty at 40, nifty at 50, and so on. Your comments?

It is inevitable that your views change as you grow older.

I joined Shell after graduating from Delft University. This is where I learned the profession. I was pretty naive in these years. Not really concerned about a career, but just focusing on enjoying my work. When I saw a technical improvement I thought it would be embraced simply because of the technical benefits. I didn’t see (or didn’t want to see) that in the bigger picture other factors (budget, training, complexity) play a role that may prevent the innovation from being implemented.

In my thirties I left Shell for TNO, the Dutch R&D institute. I used a project on reservoir characterization I had started up with the help of TNO to get my PhD. This is the time when I was closest to real R&D.

I learned that an R&D environment is good for prototyping but not for commercializing products. A commercial enterprise is a much better vehicle to develop products that meet or exceed customer’s expectations.

This is what I have been doing since Bert Bril and I founded dGB Earth Sciences in 1995. As a company we strive to be at the leading edge of seismic interpretation technology. In the early days, when I was in my forties, I thought our solutions, because of their technical benefits, would sell by themselves. That is not the way it works. To sell seismic interpretation software solutions you really need to understand the market and deliver products and services that address all concerns a client may have. I’m now in my fifties and my main innovation focus is on improving workflows. The challenge is to design simple workflows for non-specialists without sacrificing the flexibility required by specialists. I am enjoying it a lot. Innovation is not about age but about mind-set.


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