Iconic Air Entrepreneurs See Big Opportunities on the Horizon
By ERIC AYRES
Growing a new company may seem like a big enough challenge without even considering impacts of a global pandemic and a changing administration in Washington, D.C., but Iconic Air is poised to emerge out of turbulent times and soar to new heights.
Ohio Valley natives Kyle Gillis of Wheeling and James Carnes of Weirton founded Iconic Air during their senior year at West Virginia University’s Statler College of Engineering. The startup company specializes in pioneering technology that helps companies such as those in the oil and gas industry monitor and analyze emissions data.
Within two years, Iconic Air began making waves in the industry for its cutting-edge approach to real-time emissions data analysis, and was awarded a $700,000 grant through a 15-month research contract with the U.S. Air Force to adapt Iconic Air’s technology to military needs. Still in their 20s, Gillis, the CEO of the company, and Carnes, chief technology officer, were recently named to Forbes magazine’s famous “30 Under 30” list of young, successful entrepreneurs — with their work recognized in the Energy category.
Like many other businesses, however, their firm faced challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Unfortunately it led to a downturn in the oil and gas industry, but what has happened with COVID as a whole across all industries has accelerated what we see as the future,” Gillis said.
Because of the pandemic, there has been an increase in online retail sales and online ordering, and society has punched the gas pedal with the wheel already steered toward a more virtual world. Gillis said this is a transition everyone could see coming over the past decade, but it had been moving at a much more deliberate pace, until now.
“It’s something we were just talking about 10 years ago about being around the corner sometime, but it was kind of moving slow,” he said. “COVID has accelerated all of that, and it’s the same in the oil and gas industry.”
Gillis said he believes companies in the industry are having to look harder at ways to increase sustainability and improve ESG — or Environmental, Social and Governance factors on how far advanced they are with sustainability.
“Platforms like Iconic Air — where we help organizations specifically in the oil and gas industry — help them improve sustainability by logging, tracking and reporting their emissions data,” Gillis said. “It’s no longer once a year, but day to day, week to week, month to month, making it continuous and transparent.”
By doing that, what Iconic Air provides used to be just a “nice-to-have” system for companies in the era before COVID hit. Now it is an “absolute need-to-have” system, Gillis said.
“A lot of our customers are saying that 2021 is the year of getting our air quality reporting right, and I think that in order to do that, in order to make changes — in order to break down or reduce your emissions as a whole, you first have to be able to log and track that information,” he said. “I think the industry is catching up on that right now — they want to be fully accurate right now.”
Some of the biggest companies in the world are formed out of economic downturn and recessions, Gillis noted.
“They’re born in that era,” he said. “I can’t say exactly why, but there’s a pattern there and a reason for it. I think that’s going to be the same for us. We were essentially born in this economic downturn, and I think it’s solving massive pain points for industries and companies during that time period and leading to better outcomes at the end of the day.
“We have more people calling us and asking for demos and wanting to pull the software in right now than pre-COVID, for sure. I don’t think we have to wait until after COVID, I think that right now, our business is accelerating. We’re just trying to position ourselves so that over the next one or two years, we’re going to come out on the right side of things.”
In addition to the pandemic, companies — particularly those that deal with oil, gas and other fossil fuel industries — are also in the midst of changing times in terms of a new administration in Washington, D.C. The sharply shifting political winds and change of power will no doubt have an affect on how certain companies will be able to do business in the future.
Gillis said this is a double-edged sword in a way.
“The new administration is going to drive a lot more compliance in terms of forcing the industry to do particular things,” he said. “But what’s fascinating is there’s always arguments about regulatory bodies and how much they help versus how much the markets help. This ESG movement — sustainability movement — is a classic example of when the financial incentives align with having sustainable futures, things tend to move really, really fast.”
If oil and gas companies rely on money from large financial institutions, those banks and lenders will be interested in the company’s sustainability practices.
“If the investors say, ‘Hey, we can’t give you any more money’ or ‘We can’t give you as much until we can see changes in your emissions numbers or sustainability,’ it’s funny how fast they’ll go out and search for these solutions.”
Because things are happening so quickly in the wake of the transition of power in Washington, Iconic Air is dedicating staff to focus on how developing changes will have an effect on their operation and the operations of their clients.
“We are bringing on a smaller team of people to dive in and just research how that impacts our business,” Gillis said. “We know it’s going to drive compliance towards a more strict pattern compared to where it used to be, but we don’t know the ramifications of exactly how that’s going to impact us financially, but likely it will be in the more positive direction.”
The recent Forbes “30 Under 30” recognition also has helped to put Iconic Air on the map.
“That’s been huge for our business, because it gives us some validity to people who didn’t know who we were previously,” Gillis said.
Looking ahead to 2021, Iconic Air is already very busy with a number of projects. The firm is in negotiations with several oil and gas companies with pilot programs in West Virginia and outside the region, as well.
“That’s going to be a big deal for us, because we’re going to roll out a small number of assets to help them volume track their emissions data, and then as long as things go well, we can scale it out across many more thousands of assets that these people own,” Gillis said. “It’s just a real chance to kickstart us and take us to a new level that we’ve not experienced before.”