A strong partnership can mean the difference between success and failure for tech entrepreneurs. Along with funding, great partners offer expertise and help validate hypotheses. It’s why AOMS founder and CEO Hamid Alemohammad applied to the MaRS-run Generate Innovation Challenge, a competition that came with a $25,000 prize and a chance to work with renewable-energy leader Ontario Power Generation (OPG).
“The Generate Innovation Challenge was the holy grail of business development because it had an enthusiastic customer with real problems to solve,” says Alemohammad. “The coaching and resources MaRS provided gave me the confidence to apply.”
Founded in 2014, AOMS uses IoT (hardware and software that collects and analyzes data over the internet) to monitor, inspect and assess industrial infrastructure, which, in turn, allows clients to save energy while also increasing productivity, efficiency and safety. The startup’s integrated platform digitizes and automates routine inspections, such as checking safety kits and fire extinguishers in harsh conditions and hard-to-access locations.
OPG, for its part, was implementing its digital transformation strategy to create a more connected workforce and was looking for affordable ways to upgrade infrastructure and automate tasks. And that required a different, more entrepreneurial approach to procurement. “We had a history of choosing established vendors, which is good for mitigating risk, but less effective when coming up with new ideas,” says Rob Mager, an advisor in data analytics at OPG. So, in August 2019, MaRS and OPG’s Inspector and Reactor Innovation division launched the Generate Innovation Challenge in hopes of striking startup gold.
AOMS’s winning solution is novel: a collection of wireless sensors, instrumentation and digital tools that can gather and analyze information from non-generating assets at OPG’s hydro stations. The product had the potential to reduce the time and labour needed to perform routine inspections, as well as improve real-time data assessment. The Generate Innovation Challenge judges were also impressed with AOMS’s commercial readiness, made possible by years of research and development. Ed Loghrin, an OPG maintenance supervisor whose team is frequently deployed to rural areas, is excited to see how the tech improves the day-to-day work as it expands. “It can free up my team’s time so we can concentrate on more important tasks,” he says. “Putting information at our fingertips will allow for faster and more accurate decision making.”
The partnership has been a win on both sides. AOMS reinvested the $25,000 prize into successful pilots at a handful of hydro stations; the company also learned valuable lessons about budgeting and negotiating contracts, as well as navigating the complexities of corporate processes and government regulations. And OPG got to experiment with a faster, more fluid style of work. The organization now hopes to use this playbook to work with more startups.
Pilot stage complete, AOMS recently signed a three-year contract with OPG — the goal is to equip 12 hydro stations with the potential for more down the road. And the “learn by doing” approach, as Mager calls it, is paying off: the two parties meet frequently through video conferencing to strategize and finesse details and are planning a demonstration day. That collaborative process allowed them to push the initiative forward despite lockdowns and physical distancing requirements.
In fact, despite all the challenges of the pandemic, Alemohammad is feeling confident about the coming year. AOMS actually added staff throughout the emergency, and closed a deal with partner PCL Construction. “Being an entrepreneur is challenging, and I’ve leaned on my staff, customers, advisors, board members, shareholders and peers,” he says. “I’m very pleased to be part of the MaRS ecosystem.”