Challenge: Moving beyond a prototype
Solution: Finding the right niche to commercialise and go global
Sometimes the most interesting business ideas can start in the most casual of ways.
With backgrounds in medical imaging analysis and mechanical engineering, two friends got together in 2012 to build a prototype drone. That led to the creation of a small company meant to continue to perfect their idea and to "make some extra money". In 2013, SkySquirrel was born.
Fast forward to January 2018, when SkySquirrel Technologies and VineView Imaging in California announced they were merging to form the new VineView, to be headquartered in Halifax.
SkySquirrel started out as a drone hardware company developing professional grade drone systems. The team, led by CEO Richard van der Put, quickly realized that the drone market was oversaturated and that they needed to turn the business to a specific application for their drones.
An early challenge for SkySquirrel was that the team really didn't see the global market opportunity or how they may take advantage of it. That's when meetings with their eventual government partners opened them to the possibility of commercializing their idea with some start-up funding that helped to minimize the personal risk and provided some market research that allowed the team to eventually focus on developing technology for vineyards.
"Initially, we discarded agriculture because it looked like there were too many companies in that space already," says van der Put. "However, as we looked closer, we realized that many companies were just talking about it, and that agriculture has many sub-markets, each with their own challenges and opportunities. That's when we decided to focus on grapes."
SkySquirrel Technologies became a crop-analytics company developing drone-based technology for monitoring crop health, with a primary focus on raising the bar on grape quality by improving crop yields and reducing costs at commercial vineyards.
"Finding the right partners allowed us to move very quickly and to become one of the first in the market to focus specifically on vineyards," says van der Put. "A key part of that success was the partnership government helped us develop with VineView Imaging from California. When we contacted VineView, it had already been approached by several drone companies in the Silicon Valley who wanted to partner with it. VineView chose us because we were Canadian. We're not Silicon Valley where people are willing to provide bigger cheques, but we do have leverage with government support that helps."
Today, the company operates globally with customers in South America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S. They have ceased the manufacturing of their commercial drones to focus purely on the camera technology and the analysis of the field datacoming from vineyards around the world.
The new VineView continues to drive vineyard technology forward and provide the most accurate and advanced data insights for grape growers.
The company credits its success to finding the right partners and the right niche, thanks to input and direction from government partners.
"In our business, it would be impossible to be successful without the venture capital type approach," says van der Put. "The opportunity meant we needed to be first to several markets all over the world and we wanted to be the dominant player for vineyard markets."
One of those key partners was the Government of Canada. With support from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), the government helped SkySquirrel develop a new agricultural imaging technology, a trade-marked camera called QUATA. The $500,000 investment also helped the company’s development of the only drone-based platform for diagnosing grapevine leafroll disease. SkySquirrel’s innovative technology is now hoping to create a niche market globally aimed at crop consultants.
VineView is a prime example of how innovation and resourcefulness fuel Atlantic Canada’s economy, at home and beyond.
For more information on programs and services available to businesses in Atlantic Canada call 1-800-561-7862 or go to canada.ca/acoa.