Neptec Technologies Corp.
November 4, 2013 Issue
The Most Powerful Name In Corporate News and Information
Commercializing Innovative Robotic Space Technologies for Terrestrial Markets
About Neptec Technologies
Neptec Technologies Corp. develops and sells innovative 3D robot vision products for machine automation and robotics applications in harsh environments.The company was founded in 2011 to commercialize the Space-technologies developed by Neptec Design Group Ltd., an award-winning technology innovation company and NASA Prime Contractor. Many of these proven technologies have direct application on Earth. Markets such as mining, oil and gas, construction, automotive, defence, and homeland security are increasingly turning to advanced sensors and robotics to improve safety and productivity, and reduce costs.
The company’s first products are a family of obscurant-penetrating 3D laser scanners (OPAL) and a software development tool kit (3DRi) with advanced features such as automatic change detection, object recognition, and tracking. Together, these out-of-the-box “building blocks” make it easy to integrate intelligent real-time robotics vision applications on autonomous off-road vehicles, and for more familiar laser-based survey and measurement tasks in harsh environments.
Neptec Technologies Corp. is
located in Ottawa, Ontario.
Interview conducted by: Lynn Fosse, Senior Editor, CEOCFO Magazine, Published – November 4, 2013
CEOCFO: Mr. Sekerka, what is the vision at Neptec?
Mr. Sekerka: To understand our vision, we need to look at our history. Neptec Design Group was founded some 20 years ago and has been developing innovative robotics solutions for NASA’s Space Shuttle and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). Neptec Technologies was founded two years ago with a mandate to commercialize many of those space technologies and bring them into terrestrial markets.
CEOCFO: How has it worked out over the last couple of years?
Mr. Sekerka: We’re doing very well with it! It is getting very exciting for us!
CEOCFO: Are the opportunities easy to identify? Is it intuitive? How do you know, with your long history of what you have developed, what you should be doing with it?
Mr. Sekerka: One of the challenges everyone has with commercialization is that it’s not, “We have this technology and we could do this or that with it.” That approach does not really work. We took a different view. We focus first on identifying real high-value problems that our customers face and then help them find a solution. We really try to get into a discussion with our customers about “what is a problem that is worth solving” and that fits into the expertise and technologies we have. In our case, space is a harsh environment, so we looked at what other harsh environments exist on Earth: mining, offshore oil and gas, and even defense and aerospace fit into that category. They are all looking for robotic technologies to help them improve productivity and safety in their operations. And they are all very high-value operations because there is a lot of capital attached to big excavators in mining or drilling at 3,000-meter depths under water.
CEOCFO: Would you tell us what you have developed in those two areas? Could you walk us through what you can do?
Mr. Sekerka: Some of the technologies and expertise we have from our space side are 3D sensors and 3D intelligent software to extract useful information from 3D sensors. The technology was originally developed for things like automated rendezvous and docking of the Space Shuttle with the International Space Station and for 3D sensors that can see through dust for helicopter landings in the desert under brown-out conditions.
We have a product line called OPAL - Obscurant-penetrating autosynchronous LiDAR- which is basically a very unique 3D laser scanner that works in real time and can see through obscurants such as dust or snow or fog. We packaged them up for really harsh environments, meaning they withstand a lot of physical abuse in terms of vibrations and shock. We also have a software development tool kit called 3DRi which stands for 3D Real-time intelligence. It includes intelligent software features like object recognition and tracking and automatic change detection.
When you put those two things together, it makes it easy to create a robotics application to solve a specific customer problem. Right now, we are working with three global mining companies on intelligent robotics solutions for the loading area in open-pit mines. We are using our sensors and software technology to make the area around these huge excavators safer and more productive. OPAL is a great example of how public investments in space technology can be leveraged and adapted to benefit other industries on Earth.
CEOCFO: Have these mining companies been actively looking for new ways or were they happy to “sign on” when they found you or you found them?
Mr. Sekerka: The mining industry is very interesting. If you look at open-pit mining, for example, both large mining companies like Rio Tinto and large mining OEMs like Caterpillar or Komatsu have been investing very heavily in robotic technologies to try to get to the vision of an “autonomous mine.” There are now mines in Australia, for example, that have autonomous haul trucks and they perform their mining operations pretty much under remote control, from thousands of kilometers away. Much of the robotic technology that you need also requires 3D sensors to understand the dynamic environment around those machines. That is where we fit into it.
We recently had a major proof point for our products when we installed one of our OPAL scanners on a big P&H excavator at Barrick’s Goldstrike mine in Nevada as part of a joint application development initiative we have with three mining customers. There are no other laser scanners out there that are specifically built for and can survive in those harsh environments.
CEOCFO: What have you figured out that others have not to allow the equipment to survive?
Mr. Sekerka: On the technical side,our unique technology allows us to deal with the dust or obscurant problem. We were working on that technology for 10 years for helicopters landing in the desert. Some of the early sensor designs originated in systems Neptec developed for the Space Shuttle. Our scanner designs use rotating prisms that are inherently robust and we then designed a packaging around that to make them very survivable in environments like mining. However, it is really the combination of the space technologies, the unique way we do our scanners and the mechanical packaging that really differentiates us from other laser scanners in the market.
CEOCFO: What will you be looking at next?
Mr. Sekerka: We are actively developing applications for the mining industry and are working with a number of aerospace companies to get our products and technology adopted for military and civilian rotorcraft. Next for us is the offshore oil and gas industry.
CEOCFO: Is it easy to reach the companies and the right people at the companies when you are proposing a new idea or when you are starting to work with them? Do they pay attention easily?
Mr. Sekerka: Yes, they do. If you look at a typical startup, you have a number of risks. One of them is the technology risk. You might have a good idea, but you do not have the technology proven yet that it actually works. We have technology we inherited from the space side that has been demonstrated multiple times in very difficult applications. Therefore, we know our technology works. When it comes to adapting the technology to the specific market or problem or product idea that we have, that risk is mitigated for us. The other risk, of course, is reputational risk. If you are a startup just starting out, you have to convince customers even to pay attention to you. In our case, Neptec has a stellar reputation with the likes of NASA and CSA. It has won awards and been well recognized for its quality and innovation. That, of course, opens up doors and gives us instant access and credibility when we are starting to talk about the commercialization of some of those technologies and innovations.
CEOCFO: Do you find that “sexy” factor of space is helpful as well?
Mr. Sekerka: Of course it is! Space technologies are always at the leading edge. It absolutely helps. But more to the point, it is a great example of how public investments in space exploration can be leveraged and adapted for other industries and to create jobs and drive economic growth here on earth.
CEOCFO: What are the next steps for the company?
Mr. Sekerka: We have launched our first suite of products and intend to grow our markets with those. But there is alot of space technology out there and many high-value customer problems worth solving. We will probably be looking at other technologies to bring into our portfolio of products we can offer for different markets.
CEOCFO: Do you have your funding in place or the finances to do the push that you are working on and would like to continue doing and possible acquisitions or technology licensing as well?
Mr. Sekerka: Yes. We are well supported. People are also paying attention to the approach and discipline we bring to the challenge of commercializing technologies. Our focus on “customer problems first” and pulling together a first-class team experienced in product development and commercialization really sets us apart.
CEOCFO: Why should investors and people in the business community pay attention to Neptec Technologies?
Mr. Sekerka: There are two main reasons. First, we have the advantage of being able to leverage proven, mature space technologies. We know the technology works; the challenge is adapting it to solve customer problems in other industries. Second, we have taken a different approach to how we do commercialization and the discipline and team we bring to that challenge. We think we have figured out a formula that improves the probability of success.
What we do at Neptec
Technologies is a perfect example of how government investment in the space
program drives innovation, creates huge benefits for other industries, and
builds a stronger economy by creating new products, jobs and global export
opportunities. I think the success we are having is a small but good
illustration of how that value chain ultimately delivers economic growth and
prosperity for Canada.
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