Local Web entrepreneurs win high-tech contest, CommTech is a sponsor

Event to nurture new Internet firms

By Stewart Yerton, Business Writer

(The Times-Picayune, Money Section, February 16, 2001)

A New Orleans-based maker of computer software for the oil and gas industry is the first winner of a contest for high-tech entrepreneurs, marking what the event's founders say will be a continuing effort to nurture technology firms in the Crescent City.

PetroDesigns produces software, distributed on the Internet, that streamlines engineering and design work for oil and gas production platforms. The company's business plan was selected from a pool of 75 plans submitted by entrepreneurs trying to develop Internet products and services.

PetroDesigns' founders, Matthew Steckel and Ralph Hicks, will receive $115,000 in cash and services, including premium office space, Web hosting and accounting technology and consulting services.

The company received the award from the Loa Group on Thursday at a ceremony at the House of Blues

Tim Williamson, regional general manager of Cox Interactive Medial in New Orleans and one of the contest's founders, said PetroDesigns' plan was chosen in part because of New Orleans' strong ties to the energy industry and the wealth of skilled energy experts in the city.

PetroDesigns, Williamson said, seeks tot take an old-economy expertise and use new-economy tools to deliver it more efficiently to customers.

"This is something that's sort of a lay-up for us" in New Orleans, Williamson said.

Other finalists were Workboatrentals.com, an on-line marketplace for maritime transportation; rezMD.com, a career service for doctors; The Homework Site, an Internet service for school administrators, MD Technologies, a maker of management software for doctors, and America Insurance On-line, and on-line insurance brokerage.

Named for a bar where its members meet each month, the Loa Group was established by a handful of technology, new media and advertising executives who wanted to promote growth of new economy industries in New Orleans.

In addition to Williamson, its members include Allen Bell of Nola.com; Darin McAuliffe of turbotrip.com; Greg Meffert of Certia; and Robbie Vitrano of Trumpet Advertising.

The contest started in August, when the group's founders anted up $10,000 in cash as a prize. Then other firms began stepping up, offering a host of in-kind services for the winner.

Contributors include: Adelphia Business Solutions; Arthur Anderson; Bahroux Interactive; Bent Media; CommTech Industries; Carrero, Fishman, Haygood, Phelps, Walmsley & Casteix, LLP; House of Blues; Kensington Business Centers; LOA Grope; Sales
Training Institute; W Hotels.

The Loa Group's members are native New Orleanians who worked elsewhere and returned home. Williamson said he hopes the Loa Group can be a catalyst of significant economic development.

"All we need is a few trophies out of this community, and we'll show people -- it can happen here," he said.

Williamson acknowledged that nurturing a new industry is not a quick fix for the city's economic woes. But he said the results could be profound

"This isn't about taking a bunch of palm trees and putting them on Canal Street," he said. "We need to plant oak trees, but it takes time for them to grow."

Tech Group Names PetroDesigns Most Promising Start-up.

By Keith Brannon

(City Business, February 19, 2001)

PetroDesigns, an on-line software service targeting the oil and gas industry, is the winner of the Loa Group contest to find the most promising local Internet start-up.

The company will receive approximately $115,000 in cash and services, including a year of premium downtown office space. PetroDesigns provides on-line software that automates the engineering and design work for equipment used on oil and gas production platforms. The service, which is still in development, promises to reduce engineering time for designing production machinery on a typical platform from nine months to 10 days.

The Loa Group is a technology advocacy group comprised primarily of entrepreneurs who run successful Internet ventures in new Orleans. The group started the contest to spur interest and growth in the local technology sector.

PetroDesigns was selected from 75 contest entries in part because the company combines New Orleans roots in the oil and gas industry with new economy ideals, say Loa member Robbie Vitrano. "We loved the idea of taking existing equity, resources and intellectual capital (of New Orleans) and leveraging into new economy applications," Vitrano says.

PetroDesigns was founded by former oil and gas industry executives Ralph Hicks and Matthew Steckel. Hicks has 32 years of experience in oil and gas production equipment design, fabrication and operation. He managed oil and gas industry software design firms for the past 10 years.

Matthew Steckel has worked in the oil industry since 1965, most notably serving from 1983 to 1988 as president of Tamoil Corp., a company that acquired all of the Italian assets of Amoco and Texaco.

PetroDesigns is testing its service, which is built around 22 software programs, with Shell Oil Co.

"They represent what we are trying to do ," Loa member Tim Williamson. "We in Louisiana - in our own backyard - should be creating a model for what should be done in the oil and gas industry."

Five other companies made the final round of cuts in the contest before a winner was selected. Loa selected MD Technologies, RezMD.com, Workboatrentals.com, The Homework site and America Insurance On-line as finalists.

The contest will give PetroDesigns access to resources seldom available to start-up companies. Correro, Fishman, Haygood, Phelps, Walmsley & Casteix LLP offered 50 hours or up to $15,000 in information systems design and consulting work; Arthur Anderson, up to $15,000 in accounting services; Bent Media, up to $10,000 in Web site design/Internet advertising and consulting services; Bahroux Interactive, up to $15,000 in Web site creative support services; the Sales Training Institute, $5,000 in software training services; and Kensington Business Centers, one year of class A office space either in the Bank One Center or Poydras Centre. Adelphia Business Solutions is donating a year of high-speed Internet access; the W Hotel chain is offering a weekend stay and dinner for eight; and the House of Blues hosted the contest award ceremony.

Loa members include Allen Bell, general manager of Nola.com; Greg Meffert, founder and chief technology officer of computer security and encryption company Certia Inc.; Williamson, regional general manager for Cox Interactive Media; Darin McAuliffe, chief operating officer of hotel reservation service turbotrip.com; Vitrano, owner of Trumpet, and advertising company that specializes in promoting on-line ventures; and Sally Forman and Michele Carrere of local even coordinating company Inside Spreaders.