At an industrial park in south-end Ottawa, robot maker Icor Technology is giving new meaning to the phrase “the long arm of the law.”
An employee in Icor’s quality-control department keeps a watchful eye on one of the firm’s freshly assembled devices, a six-wheeled vehicle that weighs in at about 150 pounds, climbs stairs and features a mechanical extremity with a metal claw that can rotate 360 degrees and comes embedded with a camera.
The robotic arm makes a soft whirring sound as it swings around during one of the machine’s final tests before it’s shipped off to a customer and becomes another high-tech tool in the fight against crime.
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Founded in 2005, Icor makes robots that dispose of bombs and aid in tactical operations for police forces and other security agencies in 43 countries, from Canada to Turkey. The devices have been used to investigate the scenes of such infamous crimes as last October’s mass shooting in Las Vegas in which 58 people were killed and another 851 injured.
Icor now employs 45 people at its head office and production facility in Ottawa. Its annual revenues of under $20 million make it a relative minnow in a marketplace dominated by big fish such as Florida-based Harris Corp. and Virginia’s Northrop Grumman, but Icor vice-president of sales and marketing Andrew Kavalersky says the firm still wins its share of bids against its larger rivals.
“We’re punching above our weight class for sure,” says Kavalersky, who joined the company in 2006 and figures he spends at least one week a month travelling to international trade shows.
While military contracts are where the big bucks are, Icor tends to leave that territory to the hefty power punchers such as Harris. Early on, Kavalersky says, Icor founders Hany Guirguis, Sasha Grant and Ken Molnar saw a niche in supplying robot technology to police forces.
“We said, it’s too late to get into (the military sector). Those ships have sailed. We saw an opportunity for a low-cost, easy-to-maintain robot for public safety (for) federal, state, municipal police (use).
At the time, he explains, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan led most of the big suppliers to target military clients, he explains, so Icor decided to zero in on the opportunities in its own backyard.
“Everybody was military, military, in the sandbox doing that,” Kavalersky says. “We said, it’s too late to get into there. Those ships have sailed. We saw an opportunity for a low-cost, easy-to-maintain robot for public safety (for) federal, state, municipal police (use).
“We’re more of a Toyota than we are a Mercedes,” he adds. “It’s understanding our market, understanding our price point. Police departments don’t have a lot of money. We have a good product at a very competitive price.”
‘We had to build a brand’
With just a single model in production in those early days, Icor’s sales team – that is, Kavalersky – began hitting the pavement in an effort to drum up business at police forces in Canada and the United States.
“That was a challenging time to go out there because there were all these other established companies and we were hitting the market as me, myself and I in the department in those days,” he says with a laugh. “We had to build a brand.”
It took a year or two, but the firm eventually reeled in a marquee customer – the U.S. State Department, which bought a dozen robots. The company landed another blue-chip client in 2010, when the Canadian Police College chose it to supply the organization with robots to help train its bomb technicians.
The Ottawa-based institution – which provides specialized training to law enforcement officers from across the country – has become one of Icor’s biggest Canadian customers. That relationship helped the firm gain credibility with the RCMP and other major police departments, and Icor’s devices are now used by cops in every province and territory.
“We thought we’d sell a few robots (to the police college),” Kavalersky says. “We have almost 70 robots in Canada now. That really helped us market our product.”
Icor’s technology has come a long way. The company now has four models ranging in size from a nimble 60-pound device that can easily wheel down hallways to a 750-pound behemoth used for high-risk jobs such as dismantling vehicles filled with explosive materials. Two-way audio equipment allows law enforcement officials to use the robots to communicate with suspects, and the devices are designed to fire high-speed jets of water that can neutralize a bomb without setting it off.
In the security sphere, after all, if your robots are standing still, they’re falling behind. Kavalersky says Icor invests about 10 per cent of its annual revenues in research and development, with nearly a quarter of its workforce devoted to R&D.
“We’re always working on new technologies, trying new systems,” he notes. “Mr. Guirguis has always been a proponent of, you’ve got to (focus on) R&D or you die. If we only had one robot, I don’t think we would be here today.”
The United States remains the company’s largest market, accounting for about 50 per cent of its annual sales. But Kavalersky and his four-person marketing team are starting to do a brisk business in other parts of the globe, with a growing number of clients in Europe.
The Middle East is also a fertile sales ground, particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where the ministry of the interior has purchased about 50 of Icor’s machines.
Still, they aren’t mega-deals like the one Harris landed with the British Ministry of Defence last year that could be worth as much as $100 million. Icor did not bid on that contract, Kavalersky says, quickly realizing the requirements went beyond its scope.
“Sometimes you take on a project that isn’t really in your wheelhouse, and then you can get hurt,” he explains. “You’re stretching your resources to the point where you’re not really well-suited for that.
“When you’re competing with the really, really big boys, there’s some big opportunities there, but we’ll back off from it. We let the big boys go for the home runs and get those really big military contracts, and that allows us to focus in on the smaller contracts, which has been very good for us. We can be small and profitable.”