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One Step At A Time

Will Green Imaging be the region’s new tech darling? The Fredericton company is a case study in holding a strategy lightly. Bottom line: innovation is a journey, not the destination.

When Jill and Derrick Green launched Green Imaging Technologies Inc. in 2005, the married engineers-turned-entrepreneurs shared an enticing vision of the future. It included a radical new use for MRI technology. It included a revolutionary shift in how the world’s oil and gas giants would find increasingly elusive new reserves. But it didn’t include this: boxes full of rocks. “Sometimes we get oil too, but mostly it’s just rocks,” says Jill with a laugh.

Delivery boxes of ore samples and a modest office on the outskirts of Fredericton. Its image belies the notion of yet another New Brunswick software company on the cusp of massive success. The chatter is that Green Imaging could soon follow Radian6 and GoInstant as the next company to land massive investment from a corporate giant.

But it’s still a decidedly bricks-and-mortar reality, and it certainly wasn’t part of the original business plan the Greens conceived when they gave up a comfortable and stable life they had built for themselves and their two young children in order to launch Green Imaging. “When we first started, we thought we were going to revolutionize the oil and gas industry overnight,” says Jill. “We thought the technology we had was going to be game-changing, but really it wasn’t. It has been much more of a journey.”

For both Derrick and Jill, that journey started in childhood. The Fredericton natives grew up in entrepreneurial families. Derrick’s grandfather Rex Chappell owned the company that built a number of highways in Nova Scotia, and his father, Paul Green, owned a successful roof-truss company. Jill’s father, Marc Schneider, has developed and marketed various innovations, including a technique for making polymerized wood.

Jill and Derrick’s relationship began early too. They were in the same Grade 1 class and remained classmates and friends right up until university. A full-fledged romance bloomed when they enrolled in the University of New Brunswick’s engineering program; Jill focused on civil engineering, while Derrick was drawn toward electrical engineering, bringing him under the mentorship of a professor named Bruce Balcom, who is the driving force behind UNB’s pioneering MRI Research Centre.

Most people know about MRIs (short for magnetic resonance imaging) because they have become such a cornerstone of modern medicine: a technology that allows doctors to peer deep inside the cells and tissues that comprise our bodies. But Balcom understood that the technology had potential far beyond flesh and bone; it could provide fresh insight into any form of matter, and he has dedicated his career to finding and refining those insights. Studying under Balcom, and working at his lab over the summers, Derrick had a front-row seat to his bleeding-edge research.

When Derrick graduated from UNB in 2000 with a PhD based on his MRI work with Balcom, he had his pick of jobs with medical-technology companies around the world. He chose one of the biggest: Philips Medical Systems Inc., based in Ohio. In 1995 he and Jill married, and eight years later they had twins (a boy and a girl) and seemed to settle into what could have been the rest of their lives. Derrick was soon advancing up the hierarchy at Philips, while Jill established herself as the head of the local stormwater authority and founded a thriving civil-engineering consultancy on the side. They weren’t looking to launch a tech start-up, but when opportunity came knocking, they couldn’t say no. “Neither of us are the kind of people who want to look back on our lives and say we wish we had tried that when we had the chance,” says Jill.

And what a chance it was. After Derrick left UNB, Balcom and his team made a major breakthrough, figuring out how to use MRI to determine how much oil was in a potential reserve by examining one small piece of rock. It was a process that promised to make oil exploration much faster and much cheaper. Getting such an incredibly complex new technology from lab to market is no small task, however; Balcom and his colleagues eventually decided they needed outside entrepreneurial talent to make it happen. UNB organized a week where Jill and Derrick could consult with more than a dozen local academics, financial organizations, and business people to vet commercialization ideas and strategies.They began searching for the people who could successfully steward the technology to its full commercial potential.

In the end, it was an easy choice. “They were a great combination,” recalls Chris Mathis, an entrepreneur who at the time was running a company called Mathis Instruments Ltd. with his wife, Nancy. “Jill had marketing expertise, and Derrick was already deeply knowledgeable about the subject area. If they had both been salespeople, it wouldn’t have been the right fit. But their skills were distinguishable. And as a couple, they obviously trusted and respected one another.”

Soon after, Green Imaging Technology was launched with an exclusive licence to Balcom’s new MRI technology as its backbone. What followed provides a textbook example of why the ability to listen well is key to the success of any company bringing something new to market. “We figured there were three ways we could have gone,” says Jill. “We could have been a service company, we could have tried to develop and sell instruments that use the technology, or we could have focused on developing new software for the instruments that were already in the field.”

With the help of the UNB advisory council, the Greens settled on the software option. Establishing a service company would have required finding investment to build a large staff quickly. Trying to break into the instrument business would have meant going head to head with well-established global players. Focusing on developing software that would allow existing instruments to leverage Balcom’s technique emerged as the most sensible strategy.

“Jill and Derrick are both genuinely interested in the input they receive from people,” says Mathis, who is now the president and CEO of Springboard Atlantic Inc., an organization dedicated to fostering more co-operation and collaboration among the region’s universities and entrepreneurs. “I think their success is based on how well they receive input and incorporate it into their thoughts and plans.”

While the Greens have remained committed to that strategy, they have taken great care to continue listening. They have travelled the globe, cultivating business relationships and soliciting feedback from the major players in oil and gas. “If you look down the list of the Forbes 100, we can now count more than 20 of them as customers,” says Jill with pride. What they learn from their partners, they strive to incorporate into their software, which has been totally redesigned three times.

They have also been rewarded by allowing themselves to be somewhat flexible with their overall strategy. Although they decided early on not to pursue a service model, they built their own testing lab in 2009, inviting companies to send rocks and oil from potential reserves to Fredericton for testing and analysis. It has provided revenue and, more important, valuable insight into how their software works from a user’s point of view. “It’s really helped us make our product a lot stronger,” says Jill.

All the while, the Greens have been building on Balcom’s initial technology, developing new techniques and technologies of their own. Jill says they’re most optimistic about the innovations they’re making in the analysis of material from potential gas deposits, and they’re pleased to see courier boxes already arriving filled with shale.

As to whether Green Imaging Technologies going to be the next big exit from the region, Jill is remaining tight-lipped. But she will say that she and Derrick are as excited and optimistic about the venture as the day they launched. “We had a technology that we thought was a whole new kind of hammer,” she says. “And with the help of some great partners in the industry and at UNB, we have built an entire tool chest. That has become our value. Our first tool didn’t change the world, but our tool chest might.”