Smart support yields smart results for SmartCone Technologies

- Ottawa, Ontario

Jason Lee

(Photo credit: Ottawa Business Journal)

Jason Lee, CEO of SmartCone Technologies Inc., kneels beside his flagship product, TheSmartCone. With support from NRC IRAP, Jason and team have been able to catapult their company on an international scale.

In today's data-driven world, organizations requiring safety and security monitoring systems often face the challenge of being able to access and sort through mission-critical information in a time-sensitive and cost-effective manner.

That's where TheSmartConeTM from SmartCone Technologies Inc. comes in.

TheSmartConeTM can look like a roadside construction cone but comes with a twist: each individual unit contains a high-powered customizable computing platform that controls sensors, cameras and networking capabilities.

Since 2011, building on its expertise in researching and developing IoT (Internet of Things) solutions, SmartCone Technologies Inc.'s breakthrough solution has helped utility companies, departments of transportation, construction companies and more. With a wide variety of applications, from securing dangerous work sites, to monitoring and controlling traffic, tracking assets and beyond, SmartCone's mission is to make safety more intelligent, cost effective, adaptable, scalable, and mobile.

With help from the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC IRAP), SmartCone is beginning to experience explosive growth on a worldwide level.

Getting started with NRC IRAP

Since 2015, SmartCone has benefitted from advice and support from NRC IRAP - a relationship which has allowed the company to evolve from strength to strength.

Early on in the relationship, SmartCone approached NRC IRAP to review a pitch they planned to present at TiECon, Canada's annual pitchfest. The goal was to convince the audience—including entrepreneurs, investors and industry leaders—that TheSmartCone would make first responders, cyclists and construction workers safer.

Out of all the other pitches, SmartCone placed first.

Also early on, NRC IRAP provided the resources to help SmartCone hire on new expertise.

"When we first start with a new company, we often provide funding to bring on fresh talent to help the firm with a smaller-scale project," says Gregory Fruchet, an Industrial Technology Advisor (ITA) with NRC IRAP. As such, SmartCone's first funded project helped support the hiring of a young professional to improve the company website interface and overall user experience.

Over time, NRC IRAP began to support larger business-building projects, providing SmartCone with the resources to enable initiatives including remote performance monitoring of SmartCone software systems deployed at customer sites worldwide; and hiring other youth to conduct research into making SmartCone devices more energy efficient.

To date, SmartCone has received advisory and financial support for more than 10 research and development projects—including 2 major initiatives that helped catapult the company on an international scale.

Affording talent for cost reduction

SmartCone's modular

SmartCone's modular IoT (Internet of Things) platform offers a variety of solutions surrounding safety, security, and asset tracking.

One key initiative involved finding ways to reduce the SmartCone price per unit.

"During a site visit, a NRC IRAP team member noticed that the product was not cost effective for mass production," recalls Gregory. "We were anticipating requests for larger volumes, but manufacturing each SmartCone involves electronics, plastics and moulding among other things. SmartCone worked with NRC IRAP to find a more cost-effective solution."

With help from NRC IRAP, SmartCone was able to hire new employees who could focus on finding a solution.

"We didn't have the money to spend on engineering at that time, so NRC IRAP gave us the financial support to pay for talent to get the product ready for cost reduction," says Jason Lee, Founder and CEO of SmartCone. "We never would have been able to hire those people if not for NRC IRAP."

Combined with NRC IRAP's advisory support, SmartCone was able to reduce its price point for each individual SmartCone product by approximately $1,000 per unit, paving the way toward mass production.

Creating an IP strategy

As SmartCone began to have discussions with large multinational companies about potential partnerships, Gregory realized they didn't have an IP (intellectual property) strategy in place.

"SmartCone had several patents at that time, but didn't have an IP strategy that was defensible, so we identified this as a key challenge that needed addressing," says Gregory.

"We were beginning to do business with some really big companies and needed to ensure we had patent protection so we didn't lose our technology to anyone else in the world," adds Jason. "However, we didn't have the funds or expertise to create an IP strategy ourselves."

With financial support from NRC IRAP and guidance from Gregory, SmartCone was able to create and implement a solid IP strategy.

"Having that strategy meant we could grow really big, really fast. Once the strategy was in place, that's when things really started taking off," says Jason.

The strategy project led to the signing of contracts with 3 major multinationals.

"Growing like crazy"

When SmartCone first started out in 2015, they did $200,000 in sales.

In 2019, the company made $2 million in sales in just the first quarter, and forged partnerships with several multinationals including IBM and Nokia.

"We're growing like crazy, by leaps and bounds," says Jason. "We wouldn't have had this explosive growth without the advisory services and financial foundation from NRC IRAP. Maybe we wouldn't have even survived, because we wouldn't have been able to cost-reduce our technology. We started with a really good idea, and they helped us get the funding and business together from an execution perspective."

With help from NRC IRAP, the company is poised for further growth and expansion into new markets as it undertakes research and development on wearable multisensory safety technologies.

A rewarding relationship

Jason says one of the best things about the NRC IRAP program has been the ongoing support and advice from its experts.

"NRC IRAP has hired some of the best business people we've ever met—people who get our technology and who understand what works in business from a product perspective. The ITAs have a very strong business instinct; they are ambitious, helpful and forward-thinking. I'm blown away with what this program has done for us."

Jason Lee, CEO, SmartCone Technologies Inc.

NRC IRAP's ITAs have also helped deliver guidance and hope to SmartCone throughout their multi-year relationship.

"Every time I've called Gregory or another ITA, it's been like a light at the end of a tunnel," he says. "The ITAs are guiding lights, which is especially important when you're a struggling entrepreneur. They've worked so hard to provide us with the right level of support when it makes sense—and really saved our bacon a few times!"

According to Jason, more businesses should consider support from NRC IRAP.

"Many business people I've spoken to think the NRC IRAP application and reporting process will be cumbersome—but it's actually quite easy to do, and there really is minimal work required considering what you get from the program," he says.

"No way we could have made it without NRC IRAP," he adds. "I think every company should be using them. They're phenomenal people and really show that Canada is investing in Canadian tech. We're absolutely grateful."

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