Most people spend little or no time thinking about streetlights but it’s a business for Chuck and Ken Cartmill who, along the way, discovered something rather illuminating: The equipment used to light up roadways can also be a pillar for the information age.
Their Halifax-headquartered company, LED Roadway Lighting Ltd., has turned streetlights into technology platforms that can collect, store and analyze data for use by municipal and regional governments across Canada and some 60 countries.
“We’ve developed a product so that we can add any size or shape of sensor to any type of streetlight,” says Chuck Cartmill, LED Roadway’s chief executive officer.
It’s a major pivot from the original business he founded in 2007 to build and sell LED streetlights to cities across Canada and internationally. But over the years, as LED lighting became more of a commodity, the price began to plummet, taking the company’s profit margins down with it.
“We now sell a streetlight for one-tenth of what we used to sell our products for. So, we decided that we really needed to diversify,” Chuck says.
This challenge led his son Ken, who gained experience with Research in Motion when Blackberries were all the rage, to look for a new product line that could grow from the company’s main lighting business. (Chuck’s other son Curtis also worked at LED Roadway as chief information officer until 2017, before joining the faculty of computer science at Dalhousie University).
The team came up with the idea of giving lamp posts a dual purpose of holding sensors as well as lights.
“Streetlights all have a common electrical receptacle at the top. It’s like a plug on your wall at home. We put a lot of thought into how we could leverage that,” says Ken, 42, vice-president of product development at LED Roadway and its sensor technology division Liveable Cities.
For the past year, the company – which has about 125 employees working at its factory in Amherst, N.S. and its offices in Halifax and Victoria – has been working feverishly to pivot from not only manufacturing lights but also becoming an Internet of Things (IoT) service provider. (During the current COVID-19 public health crisis, the company is classified as an essential service because it provides infrastructure. Chuck says its supply chain from China is now running at 90 per cent capacity, customer orders continue to be processed and office staff are working from their homes).
The sensors, roughly the size of a can of pop, can be added to posts either individually or as a network. The business opportunity is not so much in selling the sensors, which they expect will become ever-cheaper, but in storing, analyzing and delivering the information that the sensors provide.
“What clients are looking for is actionable information. They’re not looking for software; they’re not even just looking for data. They want you to hand them the solution,” Chuck says.
Seeking those solutions for clients meant having to make a few important technical decisions, including the kind of sensors they would provide. Instead of building an in-house proprietary sensor network, the company opted for the new standard LTE-M cellular-based IoT networks used by the big carriers such as Bell Canada, Rogers Communications Inc. and Telus Communications. It’s a variation of the LTE network smartphones users see displayed on the corner of their screens. These LTE-M networks are being deployed globally, which enables the company to enter new markets without having to adapt to different local networks.
“This allows us to deploy sensors sporadically across a city at an extremely low cost and offer smart city data to clients on subscription,” Ken says.
Liveable Cities’ sensors can plug into a standard streetlight in 30 seconds, an ease-of-use that makes them attractive to many customers. Still, the Cartmills believe the real growth opportunities will come from their sensor subscription service, which includes a “sensor roadmap.”
Its sensor program, SmartLinx, already provides traffic information. The traffic sensor data can help cities immediately set slower or higher speeds depending on what’s actually going on, rather than having speed traps or radar. “The World Health Organization notes that the effectiveness of enforcement is short-lived. With sensors, cities could reduce speeds and make adjustments in real-time,” Ken says.
The shift from streetlights to smart city technology is wise given the growing need for data and analytics, says Douglas Kennedy, RBC managing director at the Centre for Global Enterprise at York University’s Schulich School of Business.
“First, what was their alternative strategy? Simply to keep making streetlights wouldn’t make sense,” Mr. Kennedy says. “And since they’re looking at markets outside of Canada, almost everything they’re doing seems to make good sense. Canada makes up about one and a half per cent of the global economy, so if you are looking to scale up, looking internationally is a good place to go.”
Mr. Kennedy also believes the Cartmills are smart to focus on wooing their traditional streetlighting clients, municipal and regional governments. “The contracts will be big and, by developing something that’s going to be able to last over time, clients will consider that this Canadian solution might be more cost-effective in the long run,” he says.
Tyler Hamilton, director of ecosystem, cleantech at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, which advises many innovation-based companies on business growth including LED Roadway, says using data to capture and sell services is “the big play” for technology-based firms today.
“LED lighting has become more of a commodity these days, making it cheaper. So, this company sees that it’s a forward move to deliver data and the services that come with delivering data,” Mr. Hamilton says.
Chuck, now 71, is pleased with the direction towards data that Ken and Liveable Cities’ product development team are taking the business.
“We’ve recognized the smart city opportunity. It feels like 100 years ago that I went into the lighting business,” he says.