Canadian engineer and entrepreneur Jim Lotimer has built the world’s largest company in a small but crucial technology niche – making monitoring devices that allow researchers to track animals, birds and fish in almost any environment.
Lotek Wireless Inc.’s sophisticated tags and collars generate crucial data – and even video – that inform vital decisions on resource development.
The company is now a $20-million business with expansion on its mind. It has plants in Canada, the U.S. and Britain, and in November it bought a company in New Zealand.
Was there an unmet need for wildlife monitoring equipment when you started the company in 1984?
No one was applying modern technology to that particular application – the understanding of animal habitat and requirements. [Initially]I didn’t want to build products, but there just wasn’t anybody doing it. So in order to apply our own technology we had to build it.
What does your equipment do?
We provide instruments that [help answer]questions that scientists are asking. A scientist might say, “Why are we losing the tuna stocks?” We then ask them what would answer the question. [If they say they need to know]where the fish travel and what they eat, we try and design an instrument which would give them that.
Who are your corporate customers?
[We sell to]entities interested in using any kind of natural resource. Anybody who wants to use coal, water, oil, or power [could be]our client. [Companies]that use natural resources today are legislated into doing environmental impact studies.
What technological advances have contributed to your work?
One of the greatest ones is the reduction in power consumption [needed]to operate electronics. We can now use very, very low amounts of power to do a lot of things. That has enabled us to miniaturize [equipment]because we don’t need very big batteries and we don’t need very much power to get a lot of information.
Have global positioning systems and satellite tracking made a big contribution?
Absolutely. We started supplying GPS in 1994, at a very early stage. But habitat information is as important as positioning, so [we also measure]what temperature wildlife needs, what food they are eating, how often they eat, how often they sleep. Position is only one of the aspects of understanding the environment from the perspective of the animal.
Have companies changed their attitudes towards the environment?
For decades and decades, I’ve seen a good amount of interest [among business people]in maintaining the proper use of our environment. What has changed is that they are putting more money where their mouth is. I have seen a change in the amount of resources people are willing to spend actually discovering [information about the environment]
How can we resolve intractable disputes over environmental issues?
The key to solving these problems is information and knowledge. [No one]is really opposed to using resources. We eat, and we have to have heat [our homes] What we are really after is the sustainability of the resources. Let’s eat cod, but let’s make sure we don’t run out of cod. The real key is putting the proper value on something, and understanding its position in ecology.
Is there enough support for entrepreneurs in Canada?
I think there is. The government is quite nurturing, and has been for many, many years. Ontario has done a pretty good job relative to other places in the world – and Canada too – to nurture entrepreneurship.
How have governments helped your business?
First of all they are interested in understanding the environment, so they buy our equipment, and that is significant. Second, we have had research and development tax credits available for many years, and Lotek has certainly developed a number of world-leading products with their assistance. When we wanted to move into the oceans we tapped in to the Atlantic Innovation Fund. That was fundamental in developing some patents we wouldn’t have had without the risk capital.
Have you tapped into private venture capital?
We’ve had no problems in accessing private capital. The interesting thing about private capital is that if you don’t have a good idea and you are not making money, it is hard to get. Then you complain and say it is not available.
Do you outsource manufacturing of your devices?
We source parts and subcomponents, and engineering and development all over the world. We are usually pushing the boundaries of manufacturing capabilities. We want things to be smaller, lighter, and take less power. But Canada is a leader in many areas, and the vast majority of our sourcing is in Canada.
Where are the technological breakthroughs going to come in the future?
Power delivery is going to have some very significant changes. The amount of energy you can get out of a battery hasn’t changed a lot. That is where we need a huge amount of innovation.
Where is your internal R&D focused right now?
We are developing positioning systems using sunlight and magnetics in the oceans. You can’t reach GPS in the oceans. So how do we position the movement of the huge fish stocks that we have out there, and their interactions? There has never been a technology that can do that.
Is video technology a new frontier?
The concept of using video to understand animal needs and behaviours is not new. What is new is the technology that enables us to miniaturize it. [Older technologies]worked for hours, but our stuff has to work for years. [What is crucial]is the ability to manage the power.
Have you uncovered any remarkable discoveries?
Some years ago [we developed]GPS products that were put on elephants. The goal was to find out how much time they spent in national parks, versus how much they go out and eat farmers’ crops.
Some of the things that came out of that were shocking to biologists. They learned that elephants were communicating across 10 or 15 kilometres by trumpeting and pounding the ground. They would leave one national park area and run at night to the next one. And they would tell other elephants that they were leaving, and the other ones would run to the same area.
[Our equipment was also used]to discover what is known as the Serengeti of the Pacific Ocean. This is an area where a whole bunch of fishery species come together like they do in the Serengeti. That [discovery resulted from]12 years of individual studies of animals and fish moving around the oceans.
Are you optimistic about the state of the planet?
I am optimistic, because we are spending a lot of effort in understanding our environment. The vast majority of people really care about the planet and they really want to know about it.
President and CEO, Lotek Wireless Inc.
Born in Ottawa; 60 years old
Electrical engineering, University of Waterloo
In 1976, joined Ontario’s ministry of natural resources, designing electronic monitoring equipment for fish and wildlife.
Founded Lotek in 1984 in Newmarket, Ont.
Awarded the Wilson Biodiversity Technology Pioneer Award from the American Computer Museum in 2011.