John Risley and Jim Balsillie have just solved some sticky problems for Ottawa.
The entrepreneurs made famous in the worlds of seafood and smartphones, respectively, are players on a team repatriating MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Inc. (MDA), Canada’s best-known space- and satellite-technology company, just as the world embarks on a new stage of exploration.
It would have been much more troublesome for the Trudeau government to fund, say, a new Canadarm for NASA’s next project – the Lunar Gateway space station – if the main contractor for the Maple Leaf-emblazoned grabber was being sold to another foreign buyer, in a deal requiring heightened national security scrutiny. Its existing ownership structure was already uncomfortable.
MDA has been kept as an arm’s-length subsidiary after restructurings that resulted in its parent company, Maxar Technologies Inc., being based in Colorado. Still, that made for an uneasy bilateral relationship, not least due to national pride in the Canadarm attached to the International Space Station, which is its most visible product.
With Mr. Risley’s Northern Private Capital (NPC) agreeing to buy the Canadarm maker from Maxar for $1-billion, those worries disappear. So do others with national security implications tied to MDA’s satellite operations, such as helping to guard Arctic sovereignty.
The buying consortium is a well-known, and mostly Canadian, cast of entrepreneurs. Such a group has been Ottawa’s desire since word of Maxar’s auction for MDA began in global space- and defence-industry circles last summer.
Mr. Risley is co-founder of Nova Scotia’s Clearwater Fine Foods Inc., the seafood company. His partner in NPC is Andrew Lapham, former executive adviser of Blackstone Canada and husband of Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney. Mr. Balsillie is the former co-CEO of BlackBerry Ltd., the pioneer of smartphones that were overtaken by Apple Inc. and Android devices. He is expected to join MDA’s board.
The group has arranged financing through more locals - Bank of Nova Scotia, Bank of Montreal, PointNorth Capital Inc. and Canso Investment Counsel Ltd.
Many in the scientific community have long argued that MDA, which had its beginnings in a Vancouver garage half a century ago, should never have morphed into a foreign-owned company in the first place.
Its transformation came a few years after Ottawa had blocked a previous takeover attempt by a U.S. company. By 2012, its business at home slowing, MDA bought California-based Space Systems/Loral Inc., and five years later acquired DigitalGlobe, a U.S. satellite operator specializing in optical imagery for the government. It merged all of its operations under the Maxar banner and incorporated in the United States.
The landscape changed over the past year as Maxar’s financial picture worsened and its stock tumbled. In an effort to cut debt, it sought bids for MDA, which is also known for defence, maritime, satellite-imagery and communications technology.
Some of the world’s best-known players in the field had a look at the company, according to a source familiar with the process. The CEO of Italian defence contractor Leonardo SpA was upfront about his consideration of a bid in partnership with France’s Thales SA. However, the Canadian government’s expected negative reaction to a foreign player taking over MDA proved to be a stumbling block for other bidders, the source said. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the source because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The re-Canadianization comes at a crucial time. First, Canada has committed to provide a new robotic arm for the Lunar Gateway program, a space station that will orbit the moon and, at times, operate remotely. The Canadarm 3, building on the previous version, is being designed to perform both heavy tasks and more delicate work.
More broadly, space has caught the imaginations of some of the world’s best-known billionaires and technology companies, including the likes of Sir Richard Branson and Elon Musk, as well as Apple Inc. and Amazon.com. Much of the excitement is over the use of satellites for the next stage of internet connectivity.
MDA is ideally suited to supply gear for the low-earth orbit satellites that are the foundation of the technology. It has provided equipment for Mr. Branson’s OneWeb and is involved in designing a constellation - a group of satellites that operate as system - for Canada’s Telesat. That project, which has federal government funding, is scheduled to be providing broadband internet service to all parts of the country by 2022, and globally the next year.
All of this puts Canadian technology and know-how front and centre. Hopefully, homegrown ownership can make sure it stays there.