Powering the troops: Ottawa tech firm seeks to revolutionize military battery industry

Advancing military technology means that soldiers now trudge through battlefields lugging increasing amounts of high-tech equipment, as well as the batteries that power them.

A single soldier will often carry several dozen different power sources; specialized brick-shaped batteries among stockpiles of AAs to power two-way communicators, headlamps, gun sights and more.

 

After returning from a mission, some of the soldier’s batteries are drained dry while others remain almost full.

“That means they’ve been carrying all that extra power with them,” says Steve Carkner, chief technology officer and founder of Ottawa-based Panacis, which designs and manufactures lithium ion battery systems for military applications.

Panacis’s technology dramatically reduces the number of batteries soldiers require in the field and contributes to what the company believes will be an industry trend of power consolidation.

Last month, a funding round of $1.8 million led by local angel investors and matched by a federal government program vouched for the company’s abilities.

That money will be used to commercialize the Soldier Sharepack, a two-pound, ergonomically designed energy management device that will be manufactured by Panacis in Ottawa with the goal of selling it in high quantities to militaries around the world.

“This is not just a battery,” says interim CEO Janet Mason. “It does more than that. It can share energy, it can harvest energy, it can scavenge energy from other batteries and solar blankets.”

The local company brought in industrial designers to help develop a pack that curves against the body and is easily gripped by a wet palm. Panacis also consulted with Canadian soldiers about their unique battery needs. The goal is not only to lighten soldiers’ loads, but to increase their comfort and maneuverability, says Mr. Carkner.

 

INDUSTRY SNAPSHOT

Many North American military divisions have yet to make the transition to high-efficiency batteries, but are shifting from multiple types to just one – trusty AAs, by the hundreds.

“You can find a AA battery in Afghanistan, and you can buy one in New Jersey,” says Bob Whitcomb, vice-president of sales at Alexander Battery Corp.

The local company sells Duracell batteries (among other brands) to a customer list that includes many unspecified Canadian military bases.

But Panacis is counting on the defence and security industry upgrading its wares, as energy and power efficiency have been identified as one of the top priorities for important players such as the U.S. Army, Marine Corps and the Canadian Forces.

“There’s more and more gear that needs to be powered,” says Panacis’s Ms. Mason. “Power is everywhere and they just need more and more of it. This is why we think we’re in a sweet spot, in this market.”

 

THE FUTURE OF BATTERIES

Continued evolution of batteries will likely include wireless charging, says Ms. Mason.

“Wireless is definitely on our roadmap of where we want to take some of our batteries,” she says, painting a picture of soldiers hopping into their troop vehicle, where a transmitter will automatically begin to recharge their batteries.

Harnessing power from non-traditional sources, such as kinetic energy from soldier movement, will likely also become more commonplace.

After officially launching its Sharepack product at CANSEC this year, Panacis will continue to re-envision traditional batteries for the defence and security industry in the hopes that the company will be remembered for one thing.

“That we changed soldier power,” Ms. Mason says. “That’s how we want to be known.”

SIDEBAR: PANACIS PROFILE

Founded in 2002, Panacis currently has 12 employees but may take on additional engineers as a result of its recently closed funding round.

Interim CEO Janet Mason previously worked for General Dynamics Canada and was brought in as an interim CEO at Pacific Safety Products in 2010.

Chief technology officer Steve Carkner is a former employee of Research in Motion, where he was in charge of product development and intellectual property. He was part of the team that brought RIM to Ottawa from Waterloo.

While pitching at the Ottawa Venture Forum earlier this year, Mr. Carkner said the company expects revenues of $900,000 in 2013 with the goal of reaching seven figures by 2014.

Named one of Ottawa’s fastest-growing companies in 2010 by OBJ with three-year revenue growth of 215 per cent, Panacis provides advanced power systems for the medical, aerospace and defence markets, as well as contract engineering services.

 

GOVERNMENT OPPORTUNITIES

The federal government’s Integrated Soldier System Project was launched in February 2012 to procure an integrated suite of equipment to increase soldier performance and efficiency, including weapon accessories, electronic devices, sensors, individual equipment and operational clothing.

But this January, the government cancelled the solicitation because no compliant bids had been received following its request for proposals.

That RFP was relaunched in March, closing this August, with the intent to acquire up to 6,624 integrated suites of equipment over four years.

Panacis was involved in round one of the process, partnering with one of the main contenders, and will also be part of the most recent solicitation.

The delayed process is a prime example of the local firm’s biggest challenge: long defence sales cycles.

“We were really counting on potential revenue from that program to happen next year or the following year,” Ms. Mason says. “Well, now that’s not going to happen until at least 2015.”

That’s why the company needed to secure a financing round to get itself through the commercialization of its Sharepack technology and reach a state of steady sales, she says.