Entrepreneur

Art Aylesworth can be the creatively savvy, business-challenged entrepreneur's best friend.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Art Aylesworth can be the creatively savvy, business-challenged entrepreneur's best friend. He has an impressive track record for helping people with good ideas negotiate their way to success; a record that earned him the nod as Ernst & Young's 2006 Pacific region Entrepreneur of the Year.

You have to wonder how much better off Canada would be if every inventor with a new technology or product had an Art Aylesworth as a partner. The road to business success is littered with the carcasses of great ideas that withered on the vine.

The chief reason is because people with the creative juice and spectacular insight often do not have the business skills to make that essential shift from being an opportunity driven vendor to a strategic one. That, however, is where Mr. Aylesworth shines.

The most recent example is Carmanah Technologies Corp. of Victoria, B.C. Mr. Aylesworth joined the company in 2000 and is now chief executive officer. Since then, its sales have grown by an average of 80% a year and now touch the $60-million mark. Mr. Aylesworth says that is just the beginning. This spring, he plans on introducing a pair of product lines that may revolutionize the way we light roads, highways, bridges and remote locations where it is too expensive to run copper wire.

One of those lines also promises to deliver affordable, solar-powered generators, capable of delivering up 80 watts of power.

"What we have going for us is one of those disruptive new technologies that holds the promise of changing the world," he says. "We are making solar-powered, renewable energy practical and affordable."

For his efforts, Mr. Aylesworth was named the Pacific region's 2006 Entrepreneur of the Year in the annual competition sponsored by Ernst &Young.

To understand Mr. Aylesworth's remarkable achievements you have to look back to 1994, when Dr. David Green, a brilliant young researcher, launched a trio of companies with the aim of creating environmentally friendly technologies. There was Carmanah Research, Carmanah Management and Carmanah Technologies.

Carmanah Technologies was focused on combining solar power with light-emitting diodes (LED) to create a reliable, affordable and, most importantly, renewable source of light. Dr. Green wanted to end the dependence on fossil fuels.

By 2000, Dr. Green had come up with a commercial product and a potential buyer. The U.S. Coast Guard was interested in using solar-powered LED lights to top its navigation buoys. With a maintenance-free lifespan of five years and at a reasonable cost, the lights seemed perfect. Just install them and forget them until it was replacement time. No batteries to replace on a regular basis. Just replace the entire unit twice a decade.

There was only one problem. The Coast Guard wanted a stronger beam of light. Carmanah was able to produce that, and there lies the secret of its amazing success.

"In 2000, Dr. Green came to me through mutual friends and explained what he wanted to do," Mr. Aylesworth says. At that time, Mr. Aylesworth was president of Sharp's Audio Visual, one of Western Canada's leading audio-visual suppliers. He had played a key role in turning Sharp's from a $4-million-a-year company into one doing $20-million in sales.

"I was intrigued by the challenge, by the potential for the technology and by David's vision for the future of the world," he says.

That initial challenge, however, was to take existing solar panel and LED technologies and improve upon them. Solar panels have limits on how much light they can collect; batteries can only produce so much power on a sustained basis.

The secret lay in two improvements. First, Carmanah covered the solar panels with a clear plastic dome, which had the effect of concentrating sunlight and greatly boosting the amount of power going in. Then, Carmanah engineers created software that allowed the LED display to blink on and off at speeds so great the off-time was imperceptible to the human eye. That blinking sent greatly increased power from the batteries to the LED display for brief periods of time. The result was a greatly intensified light.

Today, Carmanah's software is so smart that it analyzes local conditions where systems are installed and adapts the devices being powered to suit them, says Mr. Aylesworth. As a result, Carmanah installations have found a home in aviation, marine, military, remote and rural markets. Carmanah now sells into 100 countries around the globe and employs 246 people in seven locations in North America and in the United Kingdom.

One of Mr. Aylesworth's first tasks was to identify markets where the company could be either No. 1 or No. 2. No point in beating your head against a wall if you hold any other position, he says. The Coast Guard sales gave Carmanah instant credibility with both the aviation and military sectors.

Not with installations in major airports, which have sophisticated power lines serving runway lighting systems, but with smaller secondary fields, with fields in developing nations and with temporary landing zones used by the military in theatres of action. The proven benefits in airfields led to marine uses and even to the lighting of stretches of dangerous highways and bridges.

"Each of the verticals we chose represents a potential $100-million a year in sales in most cases," Mr. Aylesworth says. "And in each of them we have little competition because of our disruptive new technology."

But $100-million markets are small beans compared with the areas Carmanah now has its sights set on. This spring, the company launches a general interest line of solar-powered lighting systems, which may lead to solar-powered street lights. He sees them as a cost effective solution for not just rural and remote communities or developing nations but also for mainstream municipalities and industrial users keen on escaping the tyranny of rising energy costs and the increasing instability of existing power grids.

Carmanah also sets great store in its new line of solar-powered portable generators that can be toted like a backpack and deliver 10-watts, 30-watts or 80-watts of power. The 10-watt version can be used to power a radio; the 30-watt could be used to power production and monitoring data from oil and gas well heads, while the 80-watt pack can be used to power remote lighting systems.

There is another order of business on his desk. While Carmanah now has 27 engineers working on research and development, most of them are occupied with improving existing products or creating new ones. Mr. Aylesworth wants to see Carmanah get closer to its roots as a pure research company.

"We only have four engineers right now doing pure R&D but I very much want to expand that number," he says. "We are just now scraping the surface of technologies that will dramatically change the world. That is where our future lies."

CARMANAH TECHNOLOGIES CORP.:

  • Head office: Victoria, B.C.
  • Business sector: Solar-powered LED lighting , solar-powered systems, energy efficient LED signage
  • Market: Global
  • Number of employees: 246
  • Revenue: $60-million
  • Web site: www.carmanah.com
  • More business profiles at www.roynat.com

ROYNAT CAPITAL

The Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Awards honour Canada's best and brightest entrepreneurs. Nominations are open March 1 to April 30, 2007. For more information, call 1-800-WIN-EOYI (946-3694)