High-voltage cleaning company plugs into accelerator

· The Pulse
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A Spruce Grove-based company has come up with a safe, green way to clean high-voltage infrastructure without having to turn the power off. Now the team behind SPI Utilities Solutions needs to build a sustainable business around the highly sought-after innovation.

"We're getting to the point where we literally can't keep up," co-founder and CEO Brett Fleming told Taproot after a recent trip to China to meet prospects for the tool he and Elton Hunter invented.

Fleming said he came home to 32 major projects in the pipeline, each worth more than $100,000. "We're going to be six months sorting this stuff all out, but when we're done all this, it's going to build an industry, it's going to build a company, it's going to build (the) Alberta economy."

The founders and manager Megan Hunter got some help with the business-building side of things by participating in Batch 3 of the Alberta Accelerator by 500, which held its demo day on April 18.

Resident mentor Shaheel Hooda, who is also a general partner at Sprout.vc, sees a lot of potential in the company.

"(SPI is) impacting an industry that is local in nature, but has similar problems globally, as well," Hooda said in an interview at the wrap-up event for the accelerator. "So we love working with companies that have this ability to solve a problem here, test it out, build a customer base, and then export that around the world."

To take advantage of that opportunity, SPI's team will need to figure out the division of labour and ensure everyone is aligned with the long-term growth strategy, Hooda said.

As is the case with all the startups in the accelerator, it's vital to "always be curious, always try to spend as much time as they can with their customers, and really fall in love with their customers' pain as opposed to falling in love with their product," Hooda added.

A worker in orange and yellow coveralls points a long, red tool at a metal cabinet

SPI Utilities Solutions has designed a tool and a process for cleaning power equipment safely and with little waste using dry ice. (YouTube)

Why dry ice?

The tool SPI has invented uses dry ice to blast debris off of transmission towers and other such equipment. Dry ice is used as a non-abrasive way to clean airplane wings, but Fleming and Hunter, both longtime linemen and former instructors at NAIT, could imagine an application to their line of work.

"We use physics against what was an unsurpassable problem for the utility industry," Hunter said.

It's expensive and potentially dangerous to turn the power off to clean the infrastructure; it's also dangerous to leave the equipment dirty, as that can lead to equipment failure.

"Safety's important," said Fleming, who lost his left hand at work in 2000. "I almost died in the industry because of electrocution."

The solid carbon dioxide that makes up dry ice is recovered from other industrial processes and leaves nothing to clean up afterward, which makes the method environmentally attractive, too.

The original design for the tool to deliver the blast started out as a sketch on the back of a cereal box, and it has gone through many iterations since. Now SPI has a recipe for manufacturing it and patents in the works; the company also has an agreement with Linde Canada to get its customers a good deal on the dry ice. It sells training and safety inspections as part of its package as well.

"We're transforming an industry that needed it 50 years ago," said Megan Hunter, who is Elton's daughter.

Being part of the Alberta Accelerator by 500 has been invaluable for strengthening SPI's business chops and connecting with like-minded people, she said.

"There's some really cool companies in (Batch 3), and we've kind of become a little family now."

Accelerating growth in an untapped market

SPI's fellow companies in the cohort included Edmonton's Aro Robotic Systems, which makes autonomous robots for small businesses, and 11 startups from all over the world. After their short pitches on demo day, investors were invited to get in touch with those who piqued their interest most.

Alberta Innovates brought 500 Global to the province as part of the Alberta Scaleup and Growth Accelerator Program. The Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm is interested in investing in untapped markets, said CEO Christine Tsai, who came to Edmonton to watch pitches.

"There's always kind of hidden gems, I think, and I think a big part of being a strong investor is looking for those hidden gems when others haven't caught on yet," she said in an interview.

Alberta has a "potentially huge advantage," in energy, cleantech, agtech, and frontier tech "that historically maybe venture hasn't invested too much into because it's capital-intensive," she said.

Tsai has also been impressed by the level of intergovernmental cooperation she has seen here.

"There's quite a bit of collaboration in the public sector that I've not really seen too much of in (the U.S.)," she said. "Different governmental organizations have really come together on a collaborative initiative … I think that is a very strong signal."

As for SPI, investment may be what it needs to scale, but Fleming and Hunter are not keen on giving up equity.

"At some point, we're probably looking for an exit strategy, but right now we're not," he said.

Applications are now open for Batch 4 of the accelerator, which will be based in Calgary in July. The deadline to apply is May 21.