The story of ClampOn’s Vice President, Geir Instanes (45), is the story of the nerd who started out building electronics in his basement, had a fax machine in his bedroom at age 14, as a DJ got shy boys dancing with teenage girls, just missed out on the car alarm business, and ended up creating ultrasonic intelligent sensors that he sells all over the world.
“I would definitely define my young self as a football playing nerd,” Instanes says. He leans back in his chair with a little smirk, eyes sparkling behind sleek glasses. Back in the day, he also had glasses, just slightly different coke-bottle ones. Up until eighth grade, he was reserved and lived on the outskirts of Bergen, which at the time was practically living in the countryside.
Buses were few and far between so when Geir’s parents were unable to drive him places, he had to get creative. Sometimes he cycled, sometimes he hitch-hiked, but mostly he would run. For football practice, he would run six to seven kilometres to get there, then run back home afterwards. “I was in pretty good shape,” Geir says.
THE POWER OF CONTACT LENSES
In the eighth grade, Geir’s image changed. He discovered contact lenses and went from being the invisible nerd to suddenly getting noticed.
Geir did not care all that much about his appearance, though. He was the middle one of three brothers. While his mother worked in HR for the national telecommunication company, his father was an electronics teacher. In addition to teaching, he had an electronics company selling components from his basement. This became Geir’s playground. “I could just go down there, pick up components, and build whatever I wanted. I built organs, an electronic door opener, and a car alarm.”
The car alarm could have been his future. 14 years old, Geir installed a fax machine in his bedroom, so that he could receive faxes from abroad. He established his own company, and his idea was that a local insurance company could sell his car alarm in a bundle with their insurances.
Young Geir presented his idea to one of the directors of an insurance company, who liked what he heard. The challenge was that Geir needed to get his car alarm approved and in production, which took a long time. “Long story short, it took way too long. The insurance company started working with another inventor of car alarms instead, and sent out car alarms to all their customers. When my product finally was approved, the market was more or less saturated. I still have a lot of car alarms in my garage.”
BABY BLUE AND PINK
Geir did not let the setback stop him from developing new business plans. 16 years old, he bought a big van, a huge sound system, and created a mobile disco. The van was metallic baby blue with a pink skirt, and as you have to be 18 to get a driver’s licence in Norway, he could not even drive it himself. From 16 to 21, Geir was a DJ at school discos and proms.
“I played disco, of course, all the hyped up stuff like Flashdance, Modern Talking, and Lionel Richie. When we started playing, people would be too embarrassed to dance. I would go down, pull out the girls so that they in turn would get the shy boys onto the dancefloor. You only had three hours to get the temperature rising, so it was hectic, but fun,” Geir recalls.
All of these extra-curricular activities took place while he was still in school. Geir studied electronics and became a service technician. After finishing his education, he wanted to start working, but getting a job was difficult. Facing 15% unemployment in Norway, many Norwegians looked to Sweden for jobs – including Geir. He found a job in Sweden, but before he could start, he got a job offer from a watch company in Bergen, and suddenly Geir was a watch technician.
While studying, Geir had a five-week work experience in a company that developed flare gas sensors for the oil and gas industry. Half a year into his job at the watch company, he got a phone call from Dag A. Aldal, his boss during his work experience, who offered him a job in the production department.
“Dag is exactly the same as back then, with exactly the same humour. Although back then he was slimmer with a lot more hair,” Geir laughs. He accepted the offer.
While Geir’s background was mainly from radar and sonar, he picked up a lot about transducers and acoustics while working with Dag. He stayed there until a change of leadership and direction made him decide to quit. The plan was to go back to school to become an engineer. That is when Dag approached him yet again.
“Dag asked if I wanted to work with him to develop a flow sensor based on the clamp-on principle. I replied yes, let’s try. That was the start of ClampOn.”
The newly formed company won a contract with the City of Bergen to develop a water leak sensor. After developing the product, they discovered that working with cities with multi-year budgets was tricky. Coming from the oil and gas industry, they knew that sand particles and erosion was an issue, and looked to that market instead.
After developing the first sand monitor, their goal was to hit the market as soon as possible. BP Gyda was their first project. Geir recalls that the person they met at the platform did not believe in the product at all.
“His belief was that if sand was present, it would come in a continuous stream. Many people thought so back then, based on results from erosion probes, which are too slow to catch the spikes. When we presented our results, which showed that sand came in batches, he thought it was a total failure.”
While the BP representative was dissatisfied, Geir was happy about the results. ClampOn moved on to do more and more projects, even with BP, where they got in touch with the head of sand control and sand monitoring for BP worldwide. He became a key person for ClampOn.
“We got a test project with him in a marsh in Venezuela. I flew over with the equipment, where he had constructed a sand injector to test our equipment. He injected the sand, and as soon as he saw the sand coming through on the monitor, he was a ClampOn fan. Based on this, he opened up the entire BP market to us. He also gave us the sand injector he had created, and we use it for testing even today.”
ClampOn often encountered people who doubted them. Geir drew a lot inspiration from people telling him their product did not work. Enthusiasm was important, and kept him and Dag going even though Geir had to sell his house and Dag sold his car to raise money for the company. Geir even spent his nights delivering newspapers to get by financially.
“The first three years were exhausting, but a lot of fun. We had the enthusiasm and a constant adrenaline kick. Sometimes we would bite our nails in suspense, but then we saw our technology worked, customers kept coming, and we built a good reputation.”
Many years have passed since the football playing nerd built electronics in the basement. Still, Geir admits that all the paperwork sometimes makes him miss the hands-on approach that came with being a start-up business, and he is not too fond of the attention that sometimes comes his way.
The creative drive he has had all his life makes him heavily involved in creating and developing new products. Currently he has taken the opportunity to move to Houston for a year, to work from ClampOn’s US office. The goal is to lift the technical expertise of the Houston branch, and to continue collaborations he has with University of Cincinnati, University of Illinois, Shell, BP, GE, and FMC. In addition, he wanted his children to strengthen their English skills.
“My wife and daughter pushed for it, while my sons were more like ‘nah, do we have to?’. Now they are all fine with it. The biggest challenge is all the homework the kids have. When I was young, I was creative after school, with friends. I think it is extremely important that children get the opportunity to be creative. All the things you do as a child – building treehouses, making videos, anything – help you learn and develop creativity. We have forgotten much of that today.”
Geir enjoys living in Houston, even though the heat and humidity can be a bit overwhelming for a Bergen native who is used to cold, fresh air. He misses some of the Norwegian food, such as strawberry jam, Norwegian liver pâté, brown cheese, and cured lamb sausage used on sandwiches. Geir was even asked to bring a dish-washing brush back to Houston after a trip to Norway as the American ones were rock hard.
In spite of the troubles the oil and gas industry has faced lately, Geir sees the future as bright. He believes there is a great need for products that can optimise production, and that ClampOn will branch into new markets.
“I want the ClampOn concept to become so dominant that everyone realises it is a lot safer to perform monitoring from the outside of a pipeline rather than penetrating the pipe wall. In the end, it is all up to us. Nothing will fall into our laps. We need to keep working, and the world needs smart ClampOn solutions.”
“I do not see problems, only challenges. Problems are hard to overcome, and you will dig yourself down into them. You can work through challenges and still move forward, and that is our spirit – moving forward with our challenges from day to day.