Foreign markets 'opening up' for Giatec Scientific after COVID-fuelled lull

Giatech co-founders
Giatech Scientific co-founders Rouhollah Alizadeh (left) and Pouria Ghods. File photo

A cutting-edge Ottawa cleantech firm hopes millions of dollars in new federal funding will help kickstart its push into foreign markets that stalled amid widespread COVID-19 shutdowns.

Giatec Scientific – which makes wireless sensors that measure the quality and consistency of concrete during the construction process – received $5.1 million this week from Sustainable Development Technology Canada, an arm’s-length federal government agency that funds promising cleantech enterprises.

The funding announcement was welcome news to Giatec co-founder and CEO Pouria Ghods, who says he’s seeing indications that international customers that clamped down on spending earlier in the pandemic are starting to loosen their pursestrings.

“The markets are opening up,” he said this week. “We see that as a good sign of recovery.”  

Giatec has been among the country’s fastest-growing cleantech firms in recent years, landing on OBJ’s list of fastest-growing companies three years ago and finishing in the top 100 on Canadian Business magazine’s prestigious Growth List last fall with five-year revenue growth of nearly 1,400 per cent. 

But the past 15 months or so have seen a bit of levelling off for Giatec. 

While the firm hasn’t quite finished crunching the numbers from its fiscal 2021 that ended July 31, Ghods says year-over-year revenue growth is likely to be in the range of 20 per cent – a rate that many companies would view with envy, but a bit below what the folks at Giatec have become accustomed to.

Infrastructure bill brings hope

Still, the CEO is confident that the firm has moved past the worst of the pandemic-related turbulence and will continue its ascent. 

Ghods says he’s sensing renewed optimism and confidence in Giatec’s North American customers in particular. 

He’s also buoyed by the U.S. Senate’s approval this week of a US$1-trillion infrastructure bill that would pave the way for the country’s biggest spending in decades on new roads, bridges, airports and other big-ticket items – almost all of which require plenty of concrete.

“The next (few) years are going to be good … from a construction point of view,” Ghods said. “We can probably benefit to some extent.”

Giatec is also starting to get some traction for its latest innovation, a web-based dashboard called SmartMix that uses AI algorithms to help concrete producers calculate the ideal amount of cement and chemical additives in their mixes in an effort to cut down on material costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

Concrete has long been one of the most notorious sources of greenhouse gases, accounting for eight per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, according to U.K.-based think-tank Chatham House. 

Supply shortages

But Ghods says this summer’s record heat waves that have fuelled massive wildfires and other weather events are driving home the message that climate change is real and urgently needs to be addressed.

“Cleantech is becoming bigger and bigger every day,” he said.  

While there are a bunch of reasons for Ghods to believe Giatec’s best days are yet to come, challenges abound.

For example, he says, shortages of microchips and other complex components of the firm’s technology during the pandemic still threaten to limit just how quickly it can scale up production as demand for its products start to rise once again.

And like many other growing Ottawa tech firms that have continued to add to their payrolls throughout the pandemic, Giatec is finding it increasingly difficult to lure qualified engineers and software developers who are now suddenly fielding offers from far-flung tech giants that have embraced the work-from-anywhere model.

“COVID has definitely changed the mindset of big companies,” said Ghods, who figures his firm’s headcount will jump from its current total of 70 to around 100 by this time next year.

“They’re hiring anywhere they can, including Ottawa. There’s lots of recruiting happening from San Francisco, Silicon Valley. They’re poaching people from Ottawa, which is unfortunate. It’s really, really difficult for us to find (qualified) candidates.”