In business and in life, timing is everything.
However, there are so many forces that will always be outside of our control – and when a new technology is on the verge of commercialization, sometimes it makes sense to push ahead even in an incredibly challenging environment. It might sound crazy, but my company, Absolute Combustion, is about to take just that leap.
Several years ago, we embarked on a journey together with the Edmonton International Airport to pivot the ultra high-efficiency combustion solution that ACI has developed for the energy sector to applications in aviation. After years of R&D, rigorous testing and incredible results, our low-emissions aircraft heater is ready for the international market, and pre-crisis, had strong interest from some of the biggest international brands in the aviation. But with the travel industry in financial chaos and the pandemic still raging, to say that this is might be an unhospitable environment to launch our product is an understatement.
According to a report just released by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO.int), the pandemic’s impact on air travel is at a scale that is hard to even comprehend. Scrolling through pages of numbers and projections in the ICAO’s report, titled ‘Effects of Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) on Civil Aviation: Economic Impact Analysis’, I was shaken by a deep feeling that it will take many years of uphill struggling before the industry bears any resemblance to its pre-pandemic self.
Here are just a few of the report’s conclusions for 2020:
The numbers for 2021 look quite a bit better, with airlines losing revenues of just (!) USD $46-83 billion over the year, but many analysts have said that air travel is unlikely to get back to anything resembling normal until 2024 or even longer. With travel & tourism as one of the world’s biggest industries, it’s not hard to see why the IMF and World Bank are projecting that the global GDP will shrink by up to 5.2% this year.
“The crisis highlights the need for urgent action to cushion the pandemic’s health and economic consequences, protect vulnerable populations, and set the stage for a lasting recovery.”World BankThe Global Economic Outlook During the COVID-19 Pandemic (2020)
While our product launch might be facing some unprecedented headwinds, I have complete faith in the value of our technology to solve some of the biggest challenges our hard-hit industries are facing, and I believe we have the right path to success. My late father and business partner in ACI, Darsell Karrington, always told me that as long you can make some progress is made each day, moving even a little bit further down the road, you’re winning.
These small steps in the right direction add up to much bigger wins. After demonstrating our commercialized ACI-SM1000 aircraft heater in front of industry leaders and getting incredibly positive feedback, both ACI and the Edmonton International Airport are confident that it’s time to go ahead – even during this challenging time. As we begin our launch, we’re keeping some fundamental principles in mind to keep us on track.
Leverage Available Support
ACI is lucky to have a dedicated partner in the Edmonton International Airport, but like most other companies of our scale, additional funding has been crucial. Throughout the pandemic, the Government of Canada has offered numerous grant, loan and wage subsidy programs to small technology entrepreneurs, especially with technologies that can benefit the response and recovery. While some of them have been challenging to navigate, ACI has had success with gaining support from programs like IRAP. Researching and applying for government support has become a core activity for many companies through the agencies like IRAP, the BDC and Export Development Canada. The MaRS incubator in Toronto has a great comprehensive list of resources.
Solve the Right Problems
There are major industrial priorities, like the lowering of damaging emissions, that are relatively unchanged throughout the crisis, and many other existing trends are being amplified. In particular, heightened economic pressures and uncertainty over workforce availability are causing leaps forward in automation. Since our aircraft heater reduces both fuel expenses and emissions by 50% or more while requiring less maintenance and staff than conventional technologies, we’re targeting all three critical priorities.
In a business landscape without conventional tradeshows and conferences, which are responsible for $2.5 trillion in business sales a year, finding creative ways market your product and build relationships is essential for new technologies. I’ve found that during the pandemic, ACI’s promotion has taken two very different directions – small and personal events like our recent demo, or more distant web-based presentations, with none of the usual exhibitions or group meetings in between. On the positive side, the new culture of almost exclusively remote meetings has removed a lot of geographical barriers, making it matter even less where you’re located.
Launching a new product during the pandemic isn’t easy, but it can be done – especially with the right support. For Alberta in particular, the way we manage through this crisis and back our technology entrepreneurs will shape the future of our provincial economy. We’ve been hearing about the need for diversification for years, and we have a renewed motivation and new opportunities to make it happen.
“Alberta is quite behind the rest of the country when it comes to our tech ecosystem. Things had been pretty good here for a long time with our other core industries and I think one could argue that it pushed out the tech ecosystem a little bit.”Cory JanssenAltaML CEO
According to Cory Janssen, AltaML CEO and member of the working ground behind some of the government’s stimulus, the relative prosperity of other Alberta industries like energy made technology a lower priority when it comes to R&D support – especially since many of our tech products were intended for, and financed by, the oil sector. However, now that this pillar of our economy has undergone a multi-year slump, we urgently need new injections of capital to innovate for new markets.
As Albertans, we have a culture of innovation that will enable us to launch solutions to help solve some of the biggest issues the globe is facing right now. After a lengthy energy downturn, we’ve worked hard to create new ways to reduce expenses, automate processes and help companies meet high regulatory standards in a cost-effective way. This one of the reasons why I have so much faith that this is the right time to commercialize ACI’s own technology. Alberta has spent years building the solutions industry urgently needs, and by taking risks to get to market now, our entrepreneurs can help both our province and the world find the path to a strong and sustainable recovery.