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In Pictures: TrueNorth Avionics' entrepreneurial success story

The company makes high-end phone and WiFi systems for private jets

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Mark van Berkel’s Ottawa-based company, TrueNorth Avionics Inc., allows private jet owners to do many of the same things they do at home or in the office: make a phone call, surf the Net, fire off an e-mail or send a text message. He started his business after bringing up the idea for his technology at his previous employer, which rejected it.

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A selection of custom airplane phones at TrueNorth Avionics. “Old technology produced horrible connections with lots of echo and unclear sounds, so people didn’t want to use telephones on planes,” Mr. Van Berkel says.

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Lab workers at TrueNorth Avionics. While he’s tight-lipped about his clients’ identities, Mr. Van Berkel says one-third of Fortune 50 companies use TrueNorth Avionics’ Simphone telecommunication system on their business jets and helicopters. “We don’t market in Canada because our market is probably less of Canada than other countries,” he says. “But name another place on the planet and we probably have customers in it – Russia, China, India, Australia, Western Europe, Africa, the Middle East.”

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Lab workers at TrueNorth Avionics. From the start, TrueNorth set its sights on private jets used by many of the world’s largest companies and very wealthy individuals. This strategy was right on, Mr. Van Berkel says. “We don’t sell anything to commercial airlines,” he says. “The silver lining for us during the recession was that the companies we targeted – the high-end business jet owners – didn’t go away but in fact still had solid growth.”

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The company has recently introduced a wireless telephone that uses the same WiFi network as a laptop or tablet, instead of a radio transmitter and receiver. What this means for the user, says Mr. Van Berkel, is no interference and no static. “The phone also programs itself so that wherever you are on the plane, the phone nearest you is your phone,” he says. “Because usually what happens is that, when the phone rings it’s never where you are.”

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Like many entrepreneurs, Mr. Van Berkel and his partners didn’t collect a salary for about two years after launching their venture. “We were pretty much volunteers,” says Mr. Van Berkel, who is the majority shareholder at TrueNorth. “But now we’re profitable, we make money, and we can put money back into the company.”

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