Exclusive interview with Viktor Tokle

May 28, 2024
Viktor TokleFounder of Devico
Viktor Tokle
Founder of Devico

Viktor Tokle began his career at the research institute SINTEF after getting a mechanical engineering degree from Trondheim Technical College. His work took him to numerous construction sites and mines across Europe. It was during a rock mechanics assignment in 1986 that Viktor got the idea for a steerable drill. He took a leap of faith, and in 1988, he started Devico and forever changed exploration drilling.

Viktor knew accurate borehole steering is only possible with accurate borehole surveys and efficiently planned drill programs. So, four years later, in 1992, he launched the DeviSoft directional drill planning software and in 1995, the DeviTool, the first electronic survey tool in the industry to stay onboard during drilling.

In the years since then, Devico has become the number one global provider of directional drilling services in mineral exploration. The group has 21 companies in 15 countries and about 200 employees.

Grigor Topev: Viktor, it’s been a while. Having started my career at Devico, I hold some wonderful memories, so it’s a true pleasure to have you here for this interview. Let’s start by telling us more about your employment with the industrial research foundation SINTEF and how the foundation helped shape your career.

Viktor Tokle: Thank you, Grigor, I also have many good memories from that time. After completing my mechanical engineering studies at Trondheim Technical College, I was employed as a field engineer at SINTEF. There, I worked with rock mechanics and mine measurements, carrying out assignments across Europe. I worked in a research environment and had the opportunity to intern in various departments at the institute. I also gained experience with measurement techniques, including measuring rock stresses with strain gauges. This technology later proved to be applicable in DeviFlex. The assignments were numerous and varied, allowing room for creativity and problem-solving.

It was during the rock mechanics assignments that I got the idea for the steerable drill. It was also during these assignments that I was exposed to rock dust, which would later limit my physical capacity and lead to a slightly early winding down of my active career. I hereby urge everyone in the industry to take HSE seriously; nothing is more important than health.

GT: You developed a system for directional core drilling, which later became DeviDrill. How did you come up with the idea? Was it initially intended for mining and tunneling, considering Norway’s significant oil and gas industry?

VT: Part of my job involved measuring borehole deviations around the country, both for tunnel construction and mining. I quickly realized that there is a need to control boreholes as they often ended up far from where they were planned. In one instance, the drill ended up 500 m (1640 ft) away from where it should have been after 700 m (2297 ft) of drilling. The idea came after we made a drill in connection with rock mechanics that was supposed to bore completely straight. By tilting the drill bit and using a gripping system, we could steer the drill wherever we wanted. We tested various mechanical gripping systems but settled on using pressure differential in the drilling fluid to design a gripping system. This turned out to be the key to creating a functional drill. The principle of pressure differential has been present in all variations of the drill, from Stepdrill to Slidingdrill and finally to the wireline version.

GT: It would be really interesting if you could tell us more about these first directional drills and how they worked.

VT: The very first version was called the Vic drill and had a rubber packer and a powerful spring that pushed the outer body forward after every 20 cm (7.9 in) of drilling.

The next version was the Stepdrill where we removed the spring and used a locking piston to push the outer body forward.

After a while, we ended up with the sliding DeviDrill where we could drill continuously without stop. Installing sharp knives on the packer body allowed the outer body to slide forward during drilling. DeviDrill also included a mud pulse tool called DeviGuide that sent a pressure pulse as soon as the drill came out of orientation.

GT: What’s the story behind Devico? How did you decide to establish the company, and who were your partners?

VT: After we patented the principle, SINTEF wanted the idea to be sold to a larger company or alternatively for me to start my own company. After pondering for a few days, I decided to start Devico, which stands for Deviation Control. SINTEF became a 30% shareholder and also donated measuring instruments so that borehole measurement activities could contribute financially to the company. At that time, there were film-based multi- and single-shot instruments. After a couple of years of operation, the Trondheim company Teeness joined as a shareholder.

Around the same time, Reflex launched the Maxibor measuring instrument. The development had cost too much, and the founder was out of funds. I believed this was a good match and recommended Teeness to acquire Reflex. The plan was for Devico to develop directional drills and Reflex to develop measuring instruments. We were too early, and it didn’t turn out to be a good match. After a few years, we bought ourselves out and continued on our own. Reflex and the founder Claes Erikson also ended up going on their own and eventually ended up in IMDEX. Now, almost 30 years later, both companies are once again united, so we believe the time is right now.

When we started on our own, we also began developing our own instruments – IR orientation instrument, mud pulse orientation, Devitool EMS, Deviflex and later gyro instruments. One of the first projects after the Teeness period was in Hong Kong. It turned out to be a good market for us as the authorities eventually required all tunnels and underground work to be surveyed using the Devico method. We have had continuous assignments there since then.

GT: I presume you were in the field for DeviDrill’s first field tests. Can you share some stories from these times?

VT: The very first tests were done while I was still at SINTEF, where we drilled 20 m (66 ft) through a rock hammer and bent the hole 3 degrees. Considering the idea was to create a domestic market, I couldn’t have chosen a worse time to start Devico. Almost all mines in Norway were closed in the late 1980s, and I had to look for other markets and applications. Sweden had an active mining industry, and we were well-received there, getting jobs in both nuclear power and mining. The first commercial project was in the Viscaria mine in Kiruna, a project that lasted a couple of years and proved the technology’s validity. This was in the early pioneering days, and inventory and logistics were not as developed, so there were many long and rushed car trips over the 1100 km (684 mi) to Trondheim to repair or pick up spare parts.

In the absence of a domestic mining market, we opened a market for the survey of underwater tunnels. I believe Devico has been involved in every Norwegian fjord crossing. We also demonstrated to the Trondheim municipality tour capability to drill accurate pilot holes for gravity sewer pipelines, leading to a series of similar projects in several Norwegian cities.

GT: Devico launched the wireline version of the DeviDrill in 2001. What are the main differences compared to the original version? How much time did the product development take?

VT: There wasn’t much difference between the original DeviDrill and the wireline version. The principles of the pressure differential-based gripping system, orientation, and offset of the drill bit were the same. It was mainly standard wireline technology attached to a standard DeviDrill, with some adjustments, especially around the thrust bearing and orientation of the drill.

As for how long this took, it’s a relative question. We continuously work on improvements. It’s more of an ongoing process with constant improvements in design, functionality, material choices, etc.

GT: Bearing in mind that Devico opened a new niche, what was its impact on the drilling industry?

VT: It took a long time to convince a conservative industry. Perhaps we started a bit from the wrong end by trying to convince drilling companies and equipment suppliers. They didn’t save anything on reduced meters drilled by so-called branching drilling, nor were the suppliers of drill bits particularly enthusiastic. When we shifted more towards end-users, we were met with more interest, but there was still a lot of skepticism. Now, clients are reporting big savings, DCD (directional core drilling) has become an accepted technology, and is part of geologists’ planning for drilling new deposits.

GT: Can you tell us some unknown facts and stories about Devico?

VT: In connection with the buyout of Devico from Teeness, there was an unpleasant conflict. The owners had agreed with a potential buyer, but the deal required me to be part of it and to move away from Trondheim. I had no desire to move, which led the buyer to withdraw. I was dismissed for disloyal behavior, which was a very unpleasant experience. However, the conflict was resolved when, with the help of good friends, I bought back the company.

GT: What were the most significant moments in the company’s history?

VT: One of the most significant moments was when we got in touch with Bob Dowdell in the Ontario Hydro environment in Canada. They have been patient and supportive during periods when things might not have gone smoothly. They also secured major projects in Boston, New York, Taiwan, and Mexico in addition to the projects in Canada.

Another significant moment I remember was meeting Tokishiro Tani from the Japanese Nikko Exploration at a cabin in Rindal. Nikko offered to contribute to the further development of DeviDrill, which also brought funding from Innovation Norway and external investors. This gave us the financial muscle to enhance DeviDrill and the business model.

GT: Devico is not only successful in directional core drilling (DCD) but also in the realm of downhole surveying tools. Is there one surveying product/development you are proudest of?

VT: There are several measurement instruments I am proud of, perhaps Deviflex ranks high on the list. The first prototype was developed while I was still at SINTEF.

Otherwise, it’s the gyro instruments that we have developed and are among the most advanced and accurate available. I am incredibly fascinated by how the development team has brought this product to life. They are all experts within their field and they work well together. The gyro has become a better product than I had envisioned. For example, ADE (Automatic Depth Estimation), which allows measurement without a wire counter, was something I had not imagined when the project started. This is something the development team has seen along the way and developed as a separate service.

The entire infrastructure and business model around DCD and instruments make great strides when DeviDrill, Gyro, and Cloud work so well together. The end customer now has progress and borehole data almost in real-time through our cloud solution.

Viktor holding a photo of himself with the very first DeviDrill
Viktor holding a photo of himself with the very first DeviDrill

GT: Devico as a company has given so much know-how to the industry; several companies, such as BG Drilling Solutions and Aziwell, have begun from Devico. Was this a disappointment or a testament to Devico’s impact on the industry?

VT: Looking back, I feel a sense of pride knowing that the ideas and business model I developed have led to several spin-off companies and generated numerous jobs. I have to admit, though, that initially it was disappointing. We were mostly concerned that copies and imitations would come from outside, and perhaps we were a bit naive towards the risk that employees represented.

 

GT: By my count, there are more than 80 Bulgarian engineers working in the field of directional drilling. That’s substantial. Why do you think they are a good fit?

VT: The Bulgarian field engineers turned out to fit well into our organization. They are reliable, hardworking and very pleasant. Some came directly from university, others with a bit of drilling experience. This mix of experience and education has proven to be a success factor.

GT: Devico’s sale to IMDEX was one of the biggest shifts in our industry. It must have been a difficult decision, so if I may ask, how did you come to it, and were there other options?

VT: Initially, the plan was to own Devico forever. Things have changed along the way, and we realized that Devico had become large and complex. There were subsidiaries all over the world and over 200 employees. We felt that it was time for new owners with more financial muscle. We saw plenty of opportunities to bring out more products, but we didn’t have the capacity. A larger owner could unlock this potential.

Moreover, there was the danger that others could now sell the technology since Aziwell could freely use it after paying the fine they were imposed. We also considered going public, but that wouldn’t solve these issues.

GT: I have heard that IMDEX was not among the initial bidders. Is that true, and who was the main bidder?

VT: There were several bidders, both industrial and private equity funds.

It is true that IMDEX entered the second round after they heard rumors that Devico was for sale. Initially, we had no desire to sell to a competitor and both the management and I did not see IMDEX as a good match. After IMDEX CEO Paul House had some initial discussions with Erlend Olsø (CEO) we became aware of IMDEX’ interest and the potential compatibility. The management team looked into this for a short but hectic period of time, and it was suddenly obvious to all. The vision from 1988 to become the world leader in directional core drilling, borehole deviation measurement, and associated software is now completed.

After giving it some thought, when IMDEX entered the scene, our choice was easy. Reflex and Devico together will become a powerhouse in the industry, something Teenees hoped for 30 years too early.

GT: Do you expect Devico to go through serious changes or restructuring after the acquisition?

VT: IMDEX, which is publicly traded, runs the company in a more professional manner than we did as owners. There has probably been a bit of a different everyday life for the employees with new routines for reporting, budget processes, approvals, etc. Decisions could be taken on a lower level under our management, so it will take some time to get used to this new management style.

So, yes, there has already been a lot of restructuring, it seems to be working fine and most people seem to be satisfied.

GT: What do you think the future holds for surveying equipment and directional drilling?

VT: I think the market will continue to grow as we saw with electronic multishot instruments in the 1990s and with gyro instruments in the 2000s. Equipment will become more user-friendly, more accurate, and we will see further developments in cloud solutions. Deposits are getting deeper and deeper, and the need for DCD will increase in the years to come.

GT: What was the toughest business lesson you have learned?

VT: One of the most important lessons is that you must build the business step by step; it always takes longer time than you think when you start. If you don’t have perseverance and an unwavering belief in what you’re doing, it becomes exhausting. From when we started Devico until we could take dividends, it took almost 20 years. If we hadn’t built the business step by step and made money along the way, we would never have succeeded.

In addition, I would say that I have tried to be honest and fair to both employees and customers all the way. I believe that has paid off in the long run and has given me many friends whom I greatly appreciate.

GT: Viktor, your story is really inspiring and full of valuable input! It was indeed a pleasure to have you featured in our magazine. Thank you! I have one final question. Are you planning to completely retire from entrepreneurship? If not, what are your plans?

VT: I have a few shares in IMDEX, and I will for sure follow them closely, and I am also a discussion partner for the development department. Devico has been a big part of my life, and I wish them all the success in the future. I think it’s an exciting topic and look forward to seeing which way the industry goes forward. Beyond that, I work together with my family investing in new startups in the Trondheim region. We already have many exciting technology companies in the portfolio.

For more information visit: devico.com and imdexlimited.com