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Thicker Than Water: Heron Instruments’ Unlikely Partner in the Maple Syrup Industry

“When developing partnerships, water sector companies tend to look within their own industry. But for us, thinking outside of the sector has led to new opportunities,” says Dave Mackie, Head of Research and Development at Heron Instruments Inc. Founded in 1995, Heron has built its sturdy reputation designing and manufacturing advanced groundwater monitoring equipment. Recently, the Dundas, Ontario company joined forces with Smartrek Technologies Inc., a Quebec company with roots in the maple syrup industry.

Despite the unusual pairing, says Mackie, the future for Heron has never looked brighter. “Working with Smartrek has opened new doors for us. Together, we’re able to offer a strong competitive advantage to our markets. It’s a very exciting time for us.”

From sticky situation to thriving partnership

Heron Instruments and Smartrek met by chance in Las Vegas in December 2016 while attending separate trade shows about irrigation and groundwater. The Smartrek team ventured into the groundwater expo, where they met the Heron team. More than a year later, when Smartrek needed water monitoring expertise, they remembered Heron.

A few years earlier, Smartrek had solved a unique problem for the maple syrup industry. For the first time, customers were able to deploy hundreds to thousands of sensors throughout densely forested areas to collect data in real time. Typically, the more nodes in a wireless network, the more interference they create. To counteract this noise, the signal needs boosting, which drains batteries more quickly, and results in a less efficient, prohibitively expensive system. Smartrek was able to deliver a wireless sensor network on an incredible scale and at a low cost.

Smartrek’s breakthrough was a new method of coordinating and managing all of the communication in its wireless network. In this system, each node takes turns “talking,” so to speak. If one node fails, the network re-configures automatically, bypassing the dropout.

“This advancement has applications well beyond the maple syrup market,” Mackie says. “The Smartrek team soon realized their innovation could benefit other industries, and that’s where our partnership came into effect.”

L-R: Martin Carrier, Smartrek Technologies and Dave Mackie, Heron Instruments at the Southern California roadshow in March 2018.

Collaborating on the Toronto Transit Commission project

In summer 2017, Heron and Smartrek began work jointly on the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) subway expansion project. Throughout the new tunnels, sensors were deployed to monitor potential leaks and floods in real time.

Each company’s technology complemented the other’s. “Our water level sensors are fully-integrated data loggers with their own built-in power source and microcontroller, which means we did not create a power drain on their technology,” Mackie says. “After testing together, we were surprised to discover that our out-of-the-box system was compatible with their wireless network configuration.”

“The TTC subway expansion project was a major success and Smartrek continues to buy our sensors,” he says. “Conversely, we recognized that their innovations could be disruptive in the water space, so we have been working together to integrate their advancements.”

“One of the leading reasons that Smartrek was able to win the TTC contract was due to the low-costs of the system as a whole,” Mackie says. “When combined with our sensors, there is no need for external power sources, which can add to the overall costs.”

“Furthermore, Smartrek’s wireless technology does not rely on cellular service, which means they can communicate to each other from 500 metres away in poor conditions, and up to 10 kilometres away in ideal ones,” he says. “We predict that this partnership will be a successful stepping stone into other markets.”

Building the partnership

This past March, both companies participated in a Southern California roadshow hosted by the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service. At these events, end users such as utilities are matched with technology companies that can help solve their water challenges.

The roadshow provided both companies with some exposure to local buyers, and Mackie says that the goal is to maintain that momentum into the new year when they launch the partnership officially. “We have already sold to clients together, and are sending samples to potential big customers,” he says.

The next move is to expand globally. Recently certified, Heron Instruments and Smartrek now have the go-ahead to export to the United States and Europe. “By working together, our complementary solutions provide a stronger value to the end user,” Mackie says. “In turn, we gain credibility and scalability.”

“We have many significant competitors in these markets, but they don’t offer the same price advantage,” Mackie says. “We plan to gain as much market share as possible.”

Further bolstering this partnership, Canadian values are of great importance to both companies.

“One of the great things about Smartrek is that we share the same values of strengthening Canadian business and innovation,” he says. “We manufacture almost all of our products in house. Otherwise, we go out of our way to find local suppliers.”

“Being Canadian is important to us,” Mackie says. “We are invested in the prospect of mutual shared growth. If one of us is successful, we both end up being successful.”

Josh Chong is the Communications Manager at WaterTAP.

Pictured: L-R: Martin Carrier, Smartrek Technologies and Dave Mackie, Heron Instruments at the Southern California roadshow in March 2018. Image copyright WaterTAP/Nick Spector