Engineering entrepreneurial success
By Sonia Preszcator
From the tobacco fields of a small town in southern Ontario, to the oil fields of Alberta and Texas, the journey for Anthony Vysniauskas, BESc’74, MESc’76, began with an idea that had nothing to do with business.
“Initially, we were dreaming up ideas for a successful business that would give us the means to extend our ski season,” he laughed.
After graduating from Western, Vysniauskas earned a PhD in chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Calgary in 1980 and then co-founded Hyprotech, a Calgary-based company he helped grow into a world-leading supplier of process simulation and engineering software for the oil, gas and petrochemical industry.
Hyprotech was the first company to introduce interactive process simulation for the energy sector with HYSIM, and later, HYSYS, a workflow-oriented process simulation software for the optimization of conceptual design and operations.
When Hyprotech was acquired by Atomic Energy Authority of the U.K., it had grown to 450 employees and expanded into more than 80 countries, with more than 17,000 users and a long list of alliance partners. Hyprotech has served more than 50 per cent of the world’s refineries and 90 per cent of the world’s gas-processing companies. Revenues reached in excess of US$80 million in 2001. Aspen Technologies Inc. acquired the company for more than US$106 million in 2002.
When thinking back to his choice to study Chemical Engineering, the “kid from Tillsonburg in Ontario’s tobacco belt” chose Western because it was close to home. But he counts himself fortunate the lessons learned in, and outside, the classroom made a lasting impression.
“The most memorable part of my years at Western was the social atmosphere mixed with the intense study habits necessary for the Chemical Engineering program,” he explained. “Our professors, especially the late Maurice Bergougnou, were not only great instructors, they were mentors. The classes were small and the professors routinely got involved in the social activities and made you feel like an associate with similar interests in life, as opposed to just a student-teacher relationship. The support we received, both inside and outside of the classroom, really honed our confidence.”
With a laugh, he noted, “after all the work, the Mustangs football games were always something to look forward to, as well.”
He credits the academic rigour of the Chemical Engineering program as key in developing the focus that served Hyprotech well at start-up. “In business, as in life, sometimes we’re our own worst enemies. People and companies get paralyzed by dilution of focus. As a result, they become poor at everything, rather than good at something.”
Vysniauskas and his partners figured out early the smart path to success.
“In the beginning, no one in our group had any business experience. But in some ways, that was to our advantage as we were able to be audacious and follow our decisions to our advantage. We decided early on to focus on key strengths, leverage relationships and put the customers’ needs first; feel their pain and figure out their challenges,” Vysniauskas said.
“Too many engineers figure building a solution is enough. In the real world, just building a solution won’t make it connect with customers, manage competition or communicate and convince the advantages of the product to industry. Good marketing and selling was central to our success,”
As a former instructor at both the University of Calgary and Rice University in Houston, he is encouraged by the recent attention and investment universities are making in “encouraging an entrepreneurial mindset in students, which is essential if we want our young talent to innovate and then produce and market those innovations for the betterment of society.”
Key to this mindset, he believes, is understanding value proposition.
“You need to be able to communicate what’s unique about your business and be clear on what your differentiators are. If you can’t talk to customers about why they should choose you and why they should pay what you’re asking, why would they?”
It was this understanding that grew Hyprotech into a world leader. “We viewed ourselves as a technology-focused company that tried to understand what the end-user was tasked with solving on a daily basis.”
After the company was acquired in 1997, Vysniauskas served as Executive Vice-President of the amalgamated company until 2000. He then took a 12-year hiatus to sail along the western coast and support his family’s passion in running an equestrian facility.
His retirement didn’t last as he was persuaded to “do it all over again” as President & CEO of Virtual Materials Group (VMG). Currently, the company employs a global team of engineers and experts in process simulation software for the oil and gas industry and serves more than 5,000 users worldwide.
Clearly not ready to retire anytime soon – joking, “I’ll probably retire at my desk” – Vysniauskas is excited about the VMG’s future as well as the potential for the next generation of students to improve the quality of life for people, whether that’s cleaning up the environment, sustainable energy production, better drug delivery systems or creating new or better materials for products we’ve only begun to imagine.
“Chemical engineering science is becoming increasingly about managing a world that is full of resource constraints. Universities, like Western, can teach students about optimizing processes, eliminating possible failure points, and improving or creating new materials. But technology alone is a hard sell. These future business leaders and society servers will need to know what is the importance of value, how to market and sell smart and create a culture that understands the client’s problems. You do that, and everyone wins.”