Tapping a market niche: Ellie Ardakani leads a geotech trailblazer in Ottawa

Ellie Ardakani
Ellie Ardakani

As her growing tech startup mines a treasure trove of new opportunities helping clients in the oil and gas sector train their workers, Ellie Ardakani is gaining star power in an industry where she’s a bit of an anomaly.

The native of Iran is the co-founder and CEO of Meta Innovation Technologies, a rapidly expanding firm based at Invest Ottawa. 

The company’s software helps big-name clients in the oil and gas sector ​– think Shell, for example – teach employees how to apply scientific concepts to multimillion-dollar projects. The platform uses simulations to explain workflows in areas such as geosciences and reservoir engineering.

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After hitting a bit of a lull early in the pandemic, the firm is getting its mojo back in 2021. 

Meta has nearly doubled its headcount from seven to 12 in the past two months, landing high-powered executive talent that includes Dallas-based sales guru Jonathan Charles, a former account manager at global oilfield services powerhouse Schlumberger.

In addition, well-known Ottawa tech entrepreneur Samer Forzley has joined the firm’s board as an adviser as Meta looks to capitalize on growing opportunities in the energy space.

“We know that we have to grind and get going with building a sales team and pushing as much as we can,” says Ardakani, who founded Meta with her business partner Brandon Reid in 2017 at Kingston’s Launch Lab. 

‘A really good community’

The company moved to the capital a year later to tap into Invest Ottawa’s network of mentors and marketing experts and hasn’t looked back.

While being thousands of kilometres from Alberta’s oilsands might not seem like the best choice for building tech focused on energy exploration, Ardakani says Ottawa has been the perfect launching pad for the enterprise.

“I always say that building a startup is like raising a child – it takes a village,” says the rising entrepreneur, who studied petroleum geology in Iran before moving to Canada 12 years ago to do her PhD in geophysics at the University of Alberta.

“Ottawa has a really good community that is supportive in terms of building startups. People try to find ways to help each other. Ottawa is a really good place to build a tech company. It’s not too big, it’s not too small, and it has a really cohesive startup ecosystem.”

Meta stands out from the pack for another reason – it’s one of relatively few tech startups in Ottawa helmed by a woman. If female tech founders remain all too uncommon in North America, it’s rarer still to find a woman leader in the energy field.

“I usually sit in meetings with maybe 90, 95 per cent men,” Ardakani says. “(The oil and gas industry) is very male-dominated, it’s very Caucasian dominated. Being a woman of colour, it’s a little bit tough at times, but I just brush it off.”

Undaunted, Meta’s CEO is using her status as a trailblazer to encourage other women to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. She says she wants to show that “there are women out there that are building successful startups, and, hey, if you’re a young professional, you can do that too.”

After leaving Alberta in 2014 to take a job in research and development at Kingston-based seismic technology firm ESG Solutions, Ardakani struck out on her own. 

She thought about pursuing an MBA, but her boss Ted Urbancic, an entrepreneur himself, urged her to take a different path.

“He told me, ‘if you want to learn business, you’ve got to start a business,’” she says. “I did it.”

With a pre-seed round of angel funding, she and Reid set to work. 

In addition to developing Meta’s flagship software, they’ve since diversified the company’s product offerings and customer base. The firm is now developing an AI solution that uses machine-learning algorithms to analyze geophysical data.

AI solution 

“It’s easy to sell one and sell the second one after,” she says of Meta’s training platform and its emerging AI software. “It’s a very hand-in-hand kind of thing.”

Meanwhile, the company tapped into another new market as the flow of revenues from the oil and gas sector slowed during the pandemic. Meta is now licensing its training simulation software to universities in Canada, the United States and Australia that are using it to enhance their online learning offerings.

Clearly, the old adage, “do one thing and do it well,” doesn’t apply to this venture.

“Everybody tells you that if you’re a startup, you have to focus on one thing,” Ardakani says. “I actually believe you have to have multiple products so that if one of them doesn’t produce as much (revenue) … you don’t end up running out of cash.”

She says Meta is targeting revenue growth of 50 per cent in 2021, adding the bootstrapped company is in no rush to bring on VC funding partners.  

“I’m just keeping my options open until it gets to the moment that we can raise (a sizeable seed round) to take … us to the next step,” Ardakani says.

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