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This article was published 18/2/2021 (249 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
As with many small businesses when the pandemic hit, sales fell to the ground at the Winnipeg satellite communications hardware company, Solara Remote Data Delivery.
Tom Tessier, a former satellite engineer at Magellan who founded the company 15 years ago, has high praise for the federal government’s Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program, crediting it with making it possible for him to keep his 10-person staff on the job.
The company makes a rugged satellite phone unit, called the Field Tracker, that is virtually indestructible with an international customer base including defence units in countries as far away as New Zealand and Nigeria and Italy.
But because the device is durable, it doesn’t lend itself to repeat sales.
Last March, just before the pandemic forced a worldwide shutdown, Solara launched a new product called Flare, a small unit that connects by Bluetooth to smartphones allowing them to function as a satellite phone when they are out of cell tower range.
It is half the cost of the Field Tracker — $499 versus $1,199 — and includes a large battery that can recharge a smartphone.
"We surveyed our customers and the two things that most worried them was losing cellphone connection and charging the smartphone batteries," Tessier said. "The Flare can handle both."
After getting his staff back on the job with the CEWS — many were temporarily laid off — Solara has now relaunched the Flare as well as developing a remote data collection business in conjunction with a company called eMission LLC out of Alexandria, Va., that has connections with all sorts of international organizations such as UNESCO with potential remote data collection projects.
In the last few weeks, Solara has sold "hundreds and hundreds" of the Flare device and Tessier is optimistic about the coming year.
"I’m calling it our renaissance year," he said. "I’ve heard of other companies who had been operating in very low activity who are now picking up like we are."
While the Field Tracker required some amount of technical savvy, the Flare was designed for ease of use.
The app looks like any texting app and it, too, is as rugged as the Field Tracker.
Tessier said he’s "getting lots of traction with truckers," fishing guides and boating enthusiasts are also buying it.
The Flare is being carried by the North West Company’s Northern Stores and discussions are taking place with electronics retailers such as Best Buy and Visions Electronics, and in the future he hopes to have presence in the cellphone retail chains as well. Boat dealerships in Florida are carrying it and there is a real potential for a much broader consumer market than exists for the Field Tracker.
Although he sells hardware, Tessier has effectively built a small telephone company. Solara handles all his customer satellite texting traffic and all the billing for the satellite time plans through its own server operations in Winnipeg and Montreal.
And because his customers don’t necessarily use a lot of satellite time — he confesses that the Iridium satellite service can be expensive — he is working with a Toronto company called Kepler Communications that has launched a couple of satellites in the past year.
"We are helping them get going and if we use their service it will cut our customers’ satellite time costs significantly," he said.
As well, over the past year Solara has started up its data collection business allowing operations such as the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s Experimental Lakes Area to collect data from sensors via satellite connections.
"It means folks don’t have to paddle out to the sensors and download data onto a USB stick," he said. "It can be done remotely."
Solara has done a good job innovating at its own pace while not compromising on the quality of its products.
"There’s cheaper stuff out there, but people buy for safety," he said. "The way I put it is, do you buy the budget parachute or one that you know that will really work?"
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.