High hopes: Ottawa’s SmartCone looks to make big bucks tracking down ‘space garbage’

Jason Lee
Jason Lee

Ottawa entrepreneur Jason Lee is taking the old mantra of reaching for the stars more literally than most as he tries to build his startup into a made-in-Canada tech juggernaut.

The founder of Stittsville-based SmartCone Technologies says his company’s prospects are looking up ​– way, way up ​– after it recently won a contract from the Department of National Defence. The firm plans to develop a system to identify, track and collect debris from satellites and other human-made objects that’s floating thousands of kilometres above the Earth.

The six-figure proof-of-concept deal won’t make Lee and his team rich. But SmartCone’s founder is hoping it paves the way for partnerships with waste-collection contractors that smell a lucrative opportunity in getting rid of “space garbage” that could be on a collision course with the growing network of low-Earth orbit satellites circling the globe.  

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“That’s where the big risk is, so that’s exactly what we’re targeting,” says Lee.

It’s not the first time that SmartCone has looked to the heavens for potential financial rewards. 

In late 2019, the high-tech sensor manufacturer was runner-up in the Hyperspace Challenge, a competition sponsored by the United States Air Force that aims to solve problems facing the space industry. 

‘A good future in space’

SmartCone’s engineers came up with a plan to deploy the firm’s technology on the moon, where it would measure temperature, vibrations and a host of other atmospheric conditions from the lunar surface and funnel that data back to researchers and companies on the Earth’s surface.

Lee has high hopes for the project, and his company has set up a subsidiary in New Mexico to further develop the technology. But at the moment, the moon venture remains stuck on the launch pad due to a lack of funding, a situation that clearly irks the entrepreneur.

“We feel that we’ve got a good future in space,” he says. “We still have an opportunity to get our stuff to the moon, but we’re really looking for Canadian companies to help us do that and it’s really difficult. It would be a shame if Canada didn’t get the (sensor) network on the moon when we had the chance.”

Meanwhile, SmartCone continues to expand into other areas as it seeks to diversify its partnerships and revenue streams.

The 20-employee company has made a name for itself working with partners such as IBM, Nokia and BlackBerry QNX to create sensors that, among other things, help self-driving cars detect obstacles. The firm’s AutoGuardian subsidiary is currently honing its autonomous vehicle technology at sites such as Ottawa’s Area X.O test track. 

On the logistics front, SmartCone has set up a subsidiary in Israel that’s working with IBM and local partners in the Middle Eastern country. Together, they are developing sensors that attach to forklifts and help track the movement of packages at e-commerce fulfilment sites. 

Lee says the company has already landed a major contract with one of the world’s largest logistics firms and plans to set up another subsidiary in Thailand to help export the technology to Asia.    

More recently, SmartCone has turned its attention to helping businesses return to work safely in the wake of the pandemic.

The firm has developed thermal cameras to detect whether workers entering a job site are running a fever. The technology is equipped with facial recognition software and can be configured to determine whether users are wearing masks. 

In a couple of weeks, SmartCone plans to roll out SYMP2PASS, a symptom-screening app that uses artificial intelligence to gauge whether users can correctly identify smells such as lemon, coffee or chocolate from a scented wipe. With the loss of smell being one of the earliest symptoms of COVID-19, the company believes the system can be an extra layer of defence.

“We have global demand for it, which is really exciting.”

The result is fed into a QR code embedded in a user’s smartphone or key fob, which must be scanned at a special kiosk before a worker can enter an office building. Only people who pass the smell test, so to speak, will get the green light. The app also taps into a mobile device’s microphone to detect coughs.

Lee says a major Canadian customer has already signed on to use the system, although he can’t name it yet. In addition, he says, SYMP2PASS is drawing interest from businesses around the world.

“We have global demand for it, which is really exciting,” he says.

The CEO’s vision is to build out a growing series of subsidiaries that target a specific market and are united under the SmartCone umbrella.

Once the firm has identified a market in which it sees an application for SmartCone’s tech, it puts a call out to entrepreneurs and partners that are keen to build and lead that part of the business. It’s already happened in Israel and Thailand, and Lee hopes to keep expanding the shared ownership network around the world.

“If I try to do this all myself and own everything, I mean, that’s too much work,” Lee says. “That’s exactly what we want, so that we’re not the ones carrying the torch for everything.”

The approach seems to be working so far.

Save for about $400,000 in angel funding, SmartCone has been almost entirely bootstrapped for most of its six-year existence. The company has already booked $3 million worth of contracts so far in 2021, more than halfway toward its full-year revenue target of $5 million with 10 months left to go.

Lee’s goal, he says, is to build “a powerhouse in Canadian technology.”

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