Tech CEO Allison Lami Sawyer Sees the Answer to Oil & Gas Leaks

Allison Lami Sawyer on the job as CEO of Rebellion Photonics

For the past seven years, Allison Lami Sawyer has been the CEO of  Rebellion Photonics, which makes hyperspectral video cameras to detect leaks at oil and gas fields and refineries. Allison talked with us about how her role as CEO has evolved as Rebellion photonics has grown, how her physics and engineering background have been critical to her success as a tech CEO, and that "the hardest part of starting my own company was finding the starting line."


Where she’s from: Alabama
Grew up with: her mother
Education: Bachelor’s degree in applied physics from University of Colorado- Boulder; master's degree in nanoscale physics from the University of Leeds; an MBA from Rice University
Where she lives now: Houston, Texas
Now she’s: CEO of Rebellion Photonics

Tell us about yourself growing up!

In many ways I was essentially the same. I was a tomboy. I grew up in Alabama, single mom. My dad was an alcoholic and it got pretty bad. But then he did leave, and things got better. I was really quiet for a time. I went to middle school, and I think like most middle schoolers I felt completely isolated.

I went to a little school in Alabama where they didn’t teach evolution. The math teacher was openly sexist. It was tough. My mom sent me to camps, and I loved camp. Not normal camp, : math camp, and law camp, and space camp, and debate camp. Anatomy and physiology camp, one of my favorites. The summers were great. At 15 she let me backpack on my own in Europe, and that was really amazing. I would have an older friend in the beginning or I would live in dormitories with other girls and take classes, so I wasn’t completely on my own. My mom gave me a very long leash.

How did you end up going to boarding school at Choate?

By my freshman year I’d gotten totally sick of it. I’d tried everything I possibly could to fit in. I even made the cheerleading team, which was a huge deal in Alabama. I was miserable.

Remember before Google, there was Alta Vista? Alta Vista had a headline, “The Best Schools in America,” and it popped up on a list. Back in the day the top three were in New England. I just told my mom, “I did the application online.” I remember my mom saying, “Okay.” I found out later she had to dip into her retirement fund to pay for it, but she did.

It’s amazing how it’s the very littlest things, the quickest turn of your conversations, which guide your life.

In college you studied engineering physics. How did you pick engineering, and what exactly is that?

That’s just applied physics. You basically take every engineering class and every physics class. It was something like two of your whole four years. I loved it.

I didn’t know anything about engineers in Alabama. I never associated myself with being an engineer but when I was at Choate I was in AP calculus, did very well. Even then, although I was in honors math all the way through and did very well, I didn’t think I’d be an engineer. Senior spring, we were doing post-calculus, really neat linear algebra class, and [the teacher] asked the class, “What majors did you guys pick? Who’s going to be an engineer?” No one raised their hands, because Choate’s raising you to be a politician, or a businessman, or something like that. But afterward he took me aside and he said, “You’re stupid to not do engineering.” He actually called me stupid. He was a gruff man.

I looked back at the handbook and picked a major in engineering physics. It sounded cool, that’s about as much as I knew about it. And he was right; I loved it. I don’t know if I would have thought of it otherwise. It’s amazing how it’s the very littlest things, the quickest turn of your conversations, which guide your life.

You really just don’t associate yourself with some things. I don’t think that anyone ever suggested engineering to me. And I ended up getting a master’s in engineering, but it wasn’t something I had ever considered for even a moment before.

I wasn’t ready to say it out loud, but I already had a hope that maybe someday I would be an entrepreneur.

What did you do after college?

I got my master’s in nanoscale physics. I was going to do my PhD in astrophysics, but I wasn’t loving it. I get bored easily. But I didn’t want to go to work. I said, “No, I’ll get my MBA.” I wasn’t at a point where I was ready to say it out loud, but I already had a hope that maybe someday I would be an entrepreneur. I didn’t expect that it would work out. But I thought maybe, that it would super-cool, however unlikely.

I read that you were involved with a startup incubator also, when you were in business school.

I volunteered there. They’d have a lot of scientists come in needing help writing grants or putting together business plans. I generally helped then in that way. I wanted to find my own cofounder and start a business. I knew I wasn’t going invent my own technology because I’d gone out of the lab, but I thought I could help someone who had. I volunteered for a year-and-a-half with that in mind, and I did finally find a technology worth going after.

You did meet your business partner there. How did you join forces to start Rebellion Photonics?

I read [my partner’s] paper he’d published before I met him, so I was already very excited. It was a very technical paper. He was thinking more of, “What can he do for biology experiments?” because that’s how he got funded. The nice thing about having six years of physics is that you can read the paper and understand it and go, “Well, if you’re able to do a chemical imaging video of proteins on a microscope, you could also put a regular lens on it, essentially, and do it other places.” That ability to identify the chemical within a video is just very powerful. It’s very exciting.

When I met him he talked most of the time, I asked a few questions pertaining to the technology. He asked for me to help him write a grant, I said, “Yeah sure, no problem.” We met again a week or two later, and I did most of the talking this time. I laid out my vision for this technology, turning it into a company, becoming an optics powerhouse meeting these needs, and really solving some big real-world problems using this new genre of optics technology. We shook hands. That was the second time we ever met.

He seemed nice, he was nice, and we had a very clear vision that we both agreed on, and we talked about that. I think we both have very similar risk tolerances. We’d prefer to go big or go home. We have clearly defined roles. A lot of cofounders don’t have that. When the technology is really complicated you really do need a designated CTO, and that person is totally different than the CEO. Because they’re just different mindsets.

Can you tell us a little bit about how your role as CTO versus your partner's as CTO?

He would be like the head artist. His first thought’s not always going to be how profitable this will be, who’s going to pay for it, how many staff will we need, where it’ll be done. He’s more like, “Wouldn’t this be cool?” and then try it out. You don’t want to impede the artist. You give them a framework, and then you let them really go wild within that framework. But that’s different than the person steering the ship.

[The CEO] is always one person that’s a little isolated from everyone else that’s good at making tough calls on who to hire, who to lay off, which projects do we do? Once it gets to a certain size you occasionally have to fire customers, because they’re not good customers. They don’t pay on time, or it’s just not profitable enough to do that business. And then have someone who’s just not in the weeds. Being the CEO is very lonely. I don’t really notice it as much anymore, but it was hard in the beginning.

You can’t be the CEO of an incredibly technical company and not be technical, not for one second of one day.

Do you draw on your technical background as CEO?

You can’t be the CEO of an incredibly technical company and not be technical, not for one second of one day. I can’t imagine an engineer respectfully talking to a CEO who doesn’t have an engineering background. It would never happen. They wouldn’t respect you, and in a way you would not know how to respect them, because you wouldn’t know what they do. Am I in the lab ever? No, unless I’m just chatting and saying hi.

How long was it between when you and your partner decided to start a company together until you actually started selling your product to customers?

We started making money about six months later, but it was not our product. We applied for lots of government grants and competitions to get initial funding. Because we’d only had a proof of concept, not even a prototype. It was three-and-a-half years until full-scale installations, which is not abnormal for hardware. We did prototypes, and did testing before that. But it was three-and-a-half years until we had full-scale real sales, which is very fast for our industry.

How does your technology work?

The cameras are fully automated. What’s special about the technology, is there’s no one watching the screen. The camera automatically knows what it’s seeing, so it can alarm on its own, so it’ll alarm if there’s about to be an explosion.

It’s really transforming oil and gas. Before us, they just had the traditional detectors, which were a lot like smoke alarms in your home. There weren’t any other options. Maybe they’d get one or two high alarms a week. We come in, and it’s not unusual for us to turn on the camera and see a thousand high alarms in the first week. It’s really equivalent to turning on the lights all of a sudden and seeing all your demons. The install process is psychological.

I think many people underestimate how difficult true change is, change of thinking, change of how you do your operations, and change in taking responsibility.

What's psychological about installing your technology?

We try to prepare them for what they’re about to see. You go from knowing you have a few fires and trying to keep them controlled. You can’t see it; you can’t smell it. Then you turn on our cameras and you see everything leaking. You see the storage tanks leaking; you see the valves with the pinhole leaks, the compressors that are jammed. You see the tanks that should have water in them, but they have four feet of oil. For the first time they’re really seeing what’s going on at their site.

I think many people underestimate how difficult true change is, change of thinking, change of how you do your operations, and change in taking responsibility. There hasn’t been change like this in oil and gas above ground in our lifetimes.

Have you seen significant operational changes from your customers since you’ve been implementing your technology?

They can usually bring their leak rate down about 90 percent within the first quarter, which is unbelievable. We’re very visual creatures. If we see it, we generally believe it. Customers are biased for safety, and only safety. If you have an explosion on your site, that affects your stock price. It will actually dramatically affect the stock price. No explosions mean you don’t get in the news.

You’ve been running Rebellion Photonics for over seven years. What keeps you engaged with your work?

Every time the company grows my role changes. That always takes me a few months to get used to. Then in a year I have to change again. But these are good problems. I divide it into bad problems and good problems. Growth pains are good problems.

We now have 32 staff and interns, and I’m not involved in the nitty-gritty as much. I’ve gotten better at saying, “You know what, that’s not mine, you figure it out.”  

And then what fills your time outside of work? 

I’ll be running for State Representative for my district in Texas in 2018. I have more free time and the means, so I feel duty-bound to help. Rebellion’s been kind of in my comfort zone for a few years now. And this political run reminds me of the beginning, where I was completely out of my comfort zone. It’s interesting to be out of my depth again.

You’re in a group of women CEOs that you cofounded. How did that come about?

When I was doing a two-and-a-half million dollar raise, I probably had about a hundred meetings, which is normal. I only talked to one woman, and she wasn’t even a partner, she was a lower level. I only took the meeting because it was a woman. And after the meeting I was like, “Well, it won’t be a good fit, but I am so excited to meet you. We should be friends.”

She said, “All right. We should form a group,” so we did. It’s been going for two or three years. It’s a group for under-40 women either on the investor side or on the entrepreneur side, because you can’t really have one without the other on the big company side. We meet every month, and it’s one of my favorite things.

The hardest part of starting my own company was finding the starting line.

What advice would you give somebody who wants to start her own company?

The hardest part of starting my own company was finding the starting line. It took me a really, really, really, really long time to say out loud that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. And you have to say it out loud; you have to introduce yourself as someone who would like to be an entrepreneur. That’s really difficult, because people will say, “Well, of what? What’s your company?”

And you have to say, “Well, I haven’t figured it out yet. But this is my background, and this is what I’d be good at. I’m looking to start a company in this space. And I’m just gathering ideas and looking to meet people.” That’s hard, because we feel like we have to have it all ready, with a bow on top, totally prepared. You’ll never get anywhere as an entrepreneur if you’re waiting to have it all ready to go.

How did you picture adult life when you were growing up?

I was so miserable, I guess I assumed it would still be miserable. I had pretty low expectations. I thought maybe I’d be around in academia, with no friends, and maybe a dog.

I think my favorite part is just finding my tribe, because I just didn’t realize how lonely I was until I started hanging out with other female CEOs. It took a long time to find that. There are very few female CEOs. It just took a long time before I finally met likeminded people.

This interview has been edited and condensed.