Sensitive business – Local man specializes in seismograph technology
Doug Crice readily concedes he’s in a business the big boys won’t bother with, but he has prospered manufacturing “obscure geophysical instruments” for seismology and other work.
Crice’s company, Geostuff, is billed as “the world’s leading (if not the only) manufacturer” of land streamers, rollalong switches, and borehole geophones.
All of these geophysical accessories are essential – if unglamorous – tools used in seismic surveys that determine how the ground will move in an earthquake, monitoring blasts, and finding oil.
“The entire world market is so small,” Crice said, “a real business doesn’t do it.”
Leveraging three decades of contacts in the industry, Crice handles the sales and marketing over the Internet from his Cedar Ridge home. Manufacturing is run by his daughter and son-in-law in Portland, Ore. Travel consists of a couple of trade shows a year.
“One or two trips a year is about all this business can afford,” he said. “A lot of the business is word of mouth.”
Crice sells his products around the world – two-thirds of sales are outside the U.S. – to customers that range in size from small engineering firms to Schlumberger, the world’s largest oil field services company.
He’s also launching a new company at the age of 63 to make and market a product under development that could make obsolete most of the equipment he manufactures now.
“It’s a fascinating field,” he said. “Most (geophysicists) don’t get rich, but they enjoy it a lot.”
In simple terms, geophysics is the measurement of physical properties to determine what’s underground. The work involves sending shocks into the ground and then measuring and quantifying the resulting vibrations.
To do this, seismologists arrange sensitive instruments called geophones in a straight line or a grid to measure vibrations. If they are mapping a large area, the process can be costly and time consuming.
Crice’s products make this work easier. His first product introduced in 1992, a rollalong switch he named Geostuff (“It’s a dumb name,” he said), is designed to record the input from up to 96 geophones.
Instead of repositioning the geophones, seismologists just move Geostuff.
Crice thought there might be a market for five or six of the systems a year, but ended up selling four times that amount. The product is being displaced by newer technology, but has been a strong seller for more than a decade.
Geostuff’s other products include:
– A land streamer designed to tow a string of geophones along the ground, eliminating the need to individually plant, connect, and then move groups of geophones.
– A borehole geophone that clamps the phone against a borehole wall to record shear waves.
Crice is now working on a startup, Wireless Seismic, that will replace the traditional geophone networks and miles of cable with a wireless mesh network.
The basic unit connects to each sensor, records the data and then passes it by radio relay from unit to unit until it is captured by a central computer.
The device can operate for days on two flashlight batteries and transmit data between units 100 meters apart.
Hardware and software development are being supervised by Crice’s partner in the venture, Mihai Beffa. “I used to be a pretty good engineer, but I’ve been in management so long, my knowledge is obsolete,” he said.
Crice expects to have a prototype ready in six months and is looking for $250,000 in seed money from independent investors, known in the venture capital world as angels. Eventually, Crice will need to raise another $2 million from VCs.
This is a long way from Crice’s original goal of being an electrical engineer, a degree he earned from Sacramento State. While pursuing his degree, Crice worked for the state on a water project.
He worked with geologists measuring earth movement and other phenomena related to earthquakes. Crice got his degree at the same time he was laid off by the state.
“In 1971, there were a lot of EEs walking the streets,” he said. So he decided to start a business with two engineers he worked with on the water project.
“It’s easy to form a company when you can’t find a job because you have nothing to do,” Crice said. “We never had any money, and I thought that was a bad thing. I learned later that a negative cash flow is the sign of a thriving company.”
The company, Nimbus Instruments, manufactured scientific instruments and provided geophysical services. Crice designed the hardware for several seismographs used in shallow exploration and earthquake research.
Crice and his partners sold the company to EG&G Geometrics in Sunnyvale in 1977, and Crice became vice president of marketing for the geophysical instrument company. That’s when he “became aware of products people needed, but couldn’t buy anywhere,” he said.
A person who has been building electronic gear since he was a teenager in Marysville, he developed the Geostuff rollalong switch as a hobby project and discovered there was a market for it.
Crice always thought he would be an engineer, but discovered that he really enjoys business.
“When I was in school, the really cool people were engineers and the football players went into business,” he said. “I learned later that business can be fun. It’s exciting, rewarding, the ultimate adult game.
“You do it because it’s fun…The money is how you keep score.”
The self-educated geophysicist has been honored by the profession for some of his past work, and wants to do it again with Wireless Seismic.
“You can build the products that change the science,” Crice said. “I want to change the world one more time before I really retire.”
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