Published in Sullivan & Frost on Oct 12, 2016
Rakesh Agrawal has served the energy industry since the beginning of his career, and is considered a thought leader and true innovator across the industry. Since the early 1990’s, Rakesh has helped guide numerous companies through market de-regulation and the highly dynamic marketplace evolution that has been unfolding ever since then. He has been serving as a NAESB Board Member and Executive Committee Member for the Wholesale Gas Quadrant for the past five years. As a seasoned professional and a highly regarded visionary, Rakesh leads Trellis Energy in delivering complex, multi-tier, mission-critical solutions to Fortune 1000 companies. His ability to first understand and then envision a unique and scalable solution while still complying to the strict regulations required by the energy industry, has made him a tremendous asset for all of Trellis Energy’s clients.
Rakesh holds an M.B.A. in Finance and Operations Research Decision Science from the University of Kentucky, and a Bachelor in Material Science Engineering from the Regional Engineering College, India, and he has earned numerous industry certifications in Information Systems Integration and Management. In his free time, he enjoys cooking, photography and spending time with his family.
Vishal Sapru (VS), Research Manager for Energy & Power Systems Group had an opportunity to conduct a Movers & Shakers interview with Rakesh Agrawal (RA), CEO of Trellis.
VS: Can you start by providing our readers a brief overview of Trellis including the vision behind its formation and its current role in the market?
RA: Trellis™ is a natural gas transaction management software platform. It manages energy transactions and automates a wide variety of critical business processes involved in natural gas production, gathering, pipeline, and end user delivery. The Trellis software platform began as a product offered by Blackstone Technology Group, a privately-held, global IT services and business consulting firm. It has been continuously developed over the past decade by a team of energy industry and IT veterans who have spent more than 20 years building and delivering solutions for Fortune 1000 companies within the energy industry.
As the popularity of the Trellis software platform grew within the natural gas sector, it became clear that it would make more sense to spin it off from Blackstone and have Trellis operate as a stand-alone company. This was due to the inherent differences in business model needed for selling a software platform (Trellis) versus providing consulting services (which is Blackstone’s core business). As such, in July 2016 we spun-off Trellis from Blackstone and created the new company, Trellis Energy. Trellis Energy today operates as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Blackstone Technology Group.
In addition to providing the Trellis natural gas transaction management software platform, the newly-created Trellis Energy entity also provides consulting services to energy companies in the areas of Grid of Things (GoT), mobile, cyber security and big data analytics.
As a firm, Trellis Energy is already experiencing great success within the energy market. The Trellis software platform has already been selected by more than a dozen energy companies, including BP Pipeline, Chevron Pipeline, DTE Energy, Gaz Metro, NextEra Energy, ONE Gas, Pacific Gas & Electric and Tokyo Gas, among others.
VS: Please describe your product/technology/solution for our readers?
RA: The Trellis natural gas transaction management platform is a cloud-based solution that manages energy transactions and automates critical business processes involved in the production, gathering, pipeline, and end user delivery of natural gas. It enables energy asset owners to integrate, automate and optimize a wide variety of processes from throughout the entire enterprise, all under a single, easy-to-use management console. The Trellis platform helps energy companies automate processes from throughout the midstream and downstream natural gas supply chain, from production wells through pipeline to storage and end-users behind the city gate, including gas supply planning and optimization. You can think of Trellis almost like an enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution for the natural gas industry.
In addition to our Trellis software platform, Trellis Energy as a company also provides consulting services in the areas of Grid of Things (GoT), mobile, cyber security and big data analytics. Through our software and services, we help natural gas, oil and electric companies become more digitized and automated, enabling them to better manage and operate their energy assets and easily keep up with highly dynamic market conditions and regulatory changes.
VS: What are Trellis’ greatest challenges and what strategy is in place to overcome them?
RA: The challenge that lies ahead is scaling all aspects of our organization to meet the demands that come with attaining market significance with our platform. Our products have proven themselves with numerous significant players in the energy industry. Additionally, we have gotten several brand names in the industry comfortable with SaaS-based software delivery, and have helped them attain more operational efficiencies than they’ve ever had. Now our focus is on replicating this success model, reaching more and more customers with our solutions to help them realize similar business benefits, and delivering the same type of value and quality in order to become a tried and true brand name in the industry ourselves.
VS: What is the unique value proposition of Trellis and what are your key competitive differentiators?
RA: Traditionally, the natural gas industry has relied heavily on manual processes and spreadsheets, even as the adoption of technology have grown, leading to many ad hoc system implementations and archaic, legacy software systems that are costly and time-consuming to maintain and update.
The Trellis platform is unique in its ability to integrate and automate a wide variety of business processes from throughout the entire enterprise and bring them together under a single, easy-to-use, cloud-based management console. Using a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model and a flexible, scalable platform, Trellis enables energy companies to quickly and easily update their systems to meet changing regulatory requirements, and leverage real-time information to adjust to dynamic market conditions. For example, Trellis is the only natural gas transaction management platform that is already compliant with the new North American Energy Standards Board (NAESB) 3.0 standards that require pipelines to add an additional intraday nomination cycle and offer new capacity release features. As a cloud-based platform, Trellis helps natural gas pipelines easily and affordably become NAESB 3.0 standards compliant by simply upgrading to the latest version of the software platform.
Key competitive differentiators of the Trellis platform include:
VS: What is your strategy in regards to offering best value to customer for the price, compared to similar offerings from competitors?
RA: We are constantly thinking of ways we can add value to our solution in order to better meet market needs. Sometimes these are nice-to-have feature sets that allow the most sophisticated operations refine their business; others are required adaptations to changing market conditions, such as integrating compliance initiatives, like the NAESB 3.0 standards.
Thinking up new feature sets and add-ons is never a challenge. Large operations often come to us with new details we incorporate into our next update. What’s more difficult is bringing a set of effective tools to a small or medium operation that allows them to compete with the big guys, without the price tag of the largest deployments.
As the natural gas industry becomes more global, large and small energy companies alike need to increase efficiency and bring down operational costs to keep up with market demands. They can do this by modernizing their systems and automating their business processes. However, traditionally only the larger industry players have had access to the latest technology solutions enabling them to stay ahead of the curve.
Often companies that are not the largest operators are forced to purchase the same software to do this – which represents a much more substantial portion of their discretionary budget. Vendors don’t necessarily cater to these businesses in the same manner as their biggest companies, and so some services and features tendered in the product may not even be used by smaller operators. With today’s software modularity, we can create the perfect package for every use case. I believe it is fundamentally important to create solutions that may be optimized most effectively by companies, without having to pay for feature sets and modules that will remain unused. Have them there, developed and ready to deploy as an organization matures enough to really gain ROI from it – without making them pay a premium on those capabilities now.
To address this gap, Trellis is a flexible, scalable, modularized platform that energy companies can customize to meet their needs, size and budget. The SaaS nature of the Trellis platform offers midstream and downstream natural gas companies an easily scalable and flexible solution that can keep up with companies’ growth as well as market fluctuations. Additionally, we offer a pre-packaged collection of modules for small to mid-sized energy asset owners, enabling them to have access to the same advanced technology as their larger counterparts.
Lastly, Trellis is the only natural gas transaction management platform that is compliant with the NAESB 3.0 standards. Thus, deploying Trellis enables companies to automatically become fully compliant, thereby avoiding heavy fines that can run into millions of dollars each day.
VS: Continued innovation is the key to success in this growing industry. How is the process of innovation managed at Trellis?
RA: As I mentioned above, a consistent development cycle that has a built-in, easily facilitated feedback mechanism for the most sophisticated user is of fundamental importance. Setting aside time in the development cycle specifically for addressing this feedback is critical for not only keeping customers happy, but also for keeping tabs of the market drivers affecting these largest customers – because these will be the concerns of all of your customers tomorrow.
In addition, a large importance must be placed on prioritizing new features and appropriately grouping them together in into packaged modules that allow for the customer to customize their feature set to suit their current operations and business need. Not everyone needs the newest widget, but everyone benefits from maximizing the widgets they currently possess.
Continuous innovation is key to ensuring we provide the best product we can to the market. Through our Trellis Garage program, any one from the team, regardless of their role or responsibility, can submit new ideas or perform a proof of concept. Items with the biggest impact are rolled in into the development release cycle.
VS: What do you want the company to accomplish in the next couple of years and how would you define success for Trellis?
RA: In the short term from an operations perspective, the focus is to ensure that Trellis Energy as a wholly owned subsidiary is fully operational under its own brand. We’re excited about the flexibility we will have as the new entity. Operating as Trellis Energy gives us the agility we need to adapt to changing client demands and market conditions, while having the backing of an organization such as Blackstone which has been an established IT industry player for nearly 20 years. So to me it’s the best of both worlds: startup nimbleness with strong and stable corporate support.
From a market perspective the focus and definition of success over the next couple of years comes down to one word: growth. We have already proven ourselves in the market with successful deployments with some key industry players. We are now squarely focused on increasing our customer base, market share, and impact on the energy industry with the solutions we provide. We are currently planning our first annual customer end user conference in mid to late 2017. The definition of success to me several years down the road will be in seeing the Trellis customer community grow and thus, our annual end-user conference grow with it year-over-year.
VS: What is your key value proposition that provides your firm a major competitive advantage over other players in the industry?
RA: We have gained success by identifying an innumerable number of tasks that had previously been completed manually and creating a platform that connects these, then completes, validates and documents the process in an automated manner.
Identifying these processes only came from countless years of working within the industry on a consulting basis. Regardless of the customer, we saw the same massive commitment of man-hours burned to get these processes completed. Little by little, we have crafted an unprecedented solution that automates the processes and overcomes to these challenges.
Some of the key characteristics of the Trellis solution include automation, ease of use and scalability while enabling energy companies to greatly improve efficiency. Our motto for our customers: don’t lose a single molecule, don’t lose a single cent!
Along the way, we frequently asked ourselves why others had never tried this before – why we were the first to take on and resolve this glaring problem. Customer response, the greatest indication of need, confirmed that we are now an integral part of successful pipeline business operations.
VS: Could you elaborate on the acceptance or adoption of your product/technology/solution in the marketplace and are there any positive client testimonials that can be shared with us?
RA: Several leading energy companies including BP Pipeline, Chevron Pipeline, DTE Energy, Gaz Metro, NextEra Energy, ONE Gas, Pacific Gas & Electric and Tokyo Gas have already adopted our natural gas transaction management platform. The key reason for this adoption is that we are the only company to provide a private cloud and on premise solution that delivers comprehensive features, functionality, and configurability.
Some frequent feedback we’ve heard from our customers is that they were able to reduce their month-end billing closing by two weeks. Additionally, they were able to reduce the time to create contracts from three days to less than a minute. One of our customers was able to process and approve their customers’ orders/nominations within few minutes. All thanks to automation and ease or use of the Trellis platform.
We have several positive customer reviews available on our website. Please visit: trellisenergy.com/media/testimonials.
VS: Do you foresee the acceptance of your product/technology/solution in the marketplace to have an influence on the direction of the overall market going forward?
RA: I believe that innovation within the industry as a whole will have a greater impact on the direction of the overall market going forward, which in turn will drive the need for better software solutions. For example, advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have led to more economical extraction of natural gas and unlocked new resources. Mid-stream and downstream industries have seen a surge in investment into building supporting infrastructure and several new companies have joined the market, creating higher volumes of data and new ways to do business with innovative service offerings to increase returns on assets. In order to keep up and better compete, companies will need to modernize their IT systems and automate processes while keeping their operating costs low. They will need secure, agile technologies that allow them to navigate complex regulatory environments and dynamic market conditions. So yes, I believe that further acceptance of our product, technology, and solution in the marketplace will have an influence in the overall direction.
VS: As a general conclusion, what do you think the future holds for such solutions and, more specifically, what role can we expect Trellis to play in shaping the future of the industry?
RA: As I mentioned above, we see the natural gas industry at a critical point in its evolution. The rapid pace of innovation and expanding market competition will only create a greater need for companies to find ways to improve their internal processes in order to complete. I strongly believe that Trellis is leading the way as the only private cloud and on premise SaaS solution in the market that that delivers comprehensive features, automation, functionality, and configurability.
VS: What are your company’s marketing and product positioning strategies? Do you plan to form any strategic alliances with other client companies?
RA: In July we announced that Trellis Energy would be launching as a standalone company (we were formerly part of Blackstone Technology Group). One of the key purposes for this strategic separation was to allow the company to focus on managing energy transactions and automating critical processes in natural gas production, gathering, and delivery. This also gives us an opportunity to expand the company into entirely new areas, such as natural gas liquids (NGLs) and crude oil management, renewable power, grid of things, and cybersecurity. We have several things in the works that we aren’t able to discuss at the moment, but you can certainly expect to see more from Trellis over the next 12 to 18 months. And yes, we always strive to form strategic alliances with our clients and partners that benefit all parties and the industry, in general.
VS: What is unique about your company in regards to offering the best and differentiated service experience to customers?
RA: Having spun-off from Blackstone Technology Group in July 2016, Trellis Energy is able to leverage Blackstone’s vast experience in technical consulting services to deliver superior service to its customers in the areas of natural gas transaction management, Grid of Things (GoT), mobile, cybersecurity and big data analytics. Additionally, Trellis Energy’s leadership team brings more than 20 years of experience in delivering technology solutions and digital services consulting in the energy sector.
VS: Please describe the importance and focus of your company towards building and strengthening the brand equity of your offering?
RA: Our customers’ experience is Trellis Energy’s brand equity. Because we were the first and still are the foremost, our challenge from here will be to defend our relationships with pipeline operators from the inevitable copycat competitors that have emerged in our wake. Ongoing innovation will be key to this defense. In this industry, innovation is very customer-driven. We are the only company able to add an historical perspective to our solution development. Because we are the first, we are the only company that can credibly use that experience and history to inform our development and innovation at this time. We are the only company that can say, “Trellis has already done this for the biggest; now let us do it for you.”
VS: What kind of customer feedback mechanism do you have in place to ensure that the product development and innovation matches market and customer needs?
RA: We stay very intimate with our customers, and continue to get real world feedback on our product stack every month across our customer portfolio. Being a young, nimble player in the space allows us to often directly incorporate customer feedback right into our product stack, so that customers often get to see some of these enhancements in a matter of weeks or months, not years. In addition, as previously mentioned, we are currently in the planning stages to host our first annual Trellis end user conference in 2017. This conference will provide a forum for our customers to meet one another, share perspectives, and provide direct feedback to our Trellis engineering leadership to help us shape the future product roadmap. Our goal is to have Trellis deliver optimal business value for our customers in both the short and long term, and we see no better way to accomplish our goal than by hearing from our customers firsthand how they feel we can best achieve this.
VS: How do you compare yourself with top competitors in regards to offering Best-in-Class solution, with a full complement of features and functionality?
RA: Many companies still use antiquated gas transaction management systems—complicated, monolithic infrastructures that cause delays, and prevent new revenue-generating opportunities by blocking the timely flow of information. Trellis is a state-of-the-art natural gas transaction management solution that enables gas asset companies to integrate and optimize enterprise-wide transactions under a single, easy-to-use business management software platform.
VS: What is/are unique features of your product/technology that address unmet customer needs and competitors are unable to replicate and replace?
RA: Trellis is the only NAESB 3.0 compliant solution on the market and is configured for Interstate/Intrastate Pipelines, Hubs, Utilities, Storage, and Gathering companies. Trellis is also the only secure, cloud-based natural gas transaction management solution on the market today. Because Trellis is web-based, installed on the cloud, or in the company’s own data center, it can be accessed from a laptop, tablet, or mobile device—no matter where in the world the team is located.