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Montreal-based scanner maker Voti targeting airports

Dec. 18, 2013, Montreal - Quebec politicians talk ad nauseam about supporting local entrepreneurship and the need to develop homegrown talent, especially through research and development.


December 18, 2013
By The Montreal Gazette

But what does all that blather translate into? When it comes to Voti Inc., zilch. Nothing. Rien.

The
state-of-the-art three-dimensional scanners the Montreal company makes
have been bought by 24 countries and many Canadian provinces. The
burgeoning security industry has a wide range of uses for them — in
courthouses, government buildings, airports, penitentiaries — including
the screening of mail and employees for Saudi Arabia’s royal family at
various Riyadh palaces.

 

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But in the nearly three years since making
his pitch to Quebec’s Department of Public Safety, Voti founder William
Awad has heard nothing but deafening silence.

 

And yet it would be
hard to find a better candidate than Voti that checks all the boxes
stumping politicians say they’re looking for to nurture Quebec’s economy
of the future. Research & Development? Check. A knowledge-based
industry? Check. Job creation? Check (20-plus employees so far).
Future-looking technologies? Check. Local engineers, technicians and
sales and marketing? Check. A vast array of clients? Check. Many
untapped applications? Check, check and check.

 

Philippe
Desjardins, spokesperson for Quebec’s department of public security,
said that his ministry didn’t purchases any Voti scanners “because all
our detention centre needs are met at the moment.”

 

The justice
department purchased its own machines for courthouses, Desjardins said. A
justice department spokesperson was not available for comment.

 

It’s enough to make Awad want to move to Toronto — which he says is under serious consideration.

 

“I
can’t tell you how much the Ontario government has helped. They even
asked us if we’d consider moving there and doing something there.”

 

“I
love Quebec and all. We’re a Quebec-based company, our engineering
department is all Quebecers — this whole company is Quebecers, most of
them graduated from Quebec universities. And at the end of the day, when
the Quebec government wants to purchase, they buy elsewhere. I really
find that disappointing.”

 

“We didn’t even get to the bidding
process” in a recent security contract for a Quebec courthouse. “We were
eliminated immediately.”

 

It didn’t help that a Voti executive
blabbed to some media about a confidential pilot project, but that
manager was fired instantly, said Awad.

 

Despite the lack of home support, Voti has been growing fast since The Gazette first profiled the company nearly four years ago.

 

Revenues
have climbed from $50,000 that year to $500,000 in 2011 and $1.5
million in 2012. So far this year, booked orders total about $3 million.

 

Company
chairman Norman Inkster, commissioner of the RCMP in the 1980s and
’90s, attributes that success to Voti’s proprietary software technology.

 

“This
is breakthrough technology. It’s truly incredible. William is a very
bright guy who said ‘I can build a better scanner’ — and he has. But I
don’t think he foresaw all the applications that are available to this
technology,” Inkster said.

 

Predicated on seeing
through any matter by scanning layer upon layer upon layer and from a
multitude of angles, the 3D image scanners are able to detect objects
and substances in nooks and crannies that other machines can’t.

 

“It
comes down to the fact that the machines can detect anything that has
an atomic number (which identifies a chemical element’s unique
properties),” Inkster said. “And that’s amazing.”

 

Initially, Awad
targeted airports, but the dominance of U.S. manufacturers — aided by
U.S. protectionism — as well as the slow and difficult certification
process forced him to seek out alternatives.

 

These applications
now run the gamut, from jeweller-to-the-stars Tiffany & Co. of New
York on one end to prisons at the other — 130 scanners installed
worldwide so far.

 

Voti scanners are also in about 20 Canadian embassies around the world, and possibly another 10 next year, Awad said.

 

“We
take the security of our Canadian diplomats and staff abroad very
seriously,” said Ian Trites, a Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development
Canada spokesperson, by email. But he wouldn’t comment on the scanners.
“We do not comment on security specifics at our missions abroad.”

 

Voti’s
success elsewhere has allowed Awad to loop back to aviation. In two
breakthrough deals, Voti recently was certified by Europe’s STAC
(Service technique de l’aviation civile) to screen passengers at
airports; and has been given a contract by an air cargo firm at Dorval’s
Trudeau airport to screen its air freight. These two toeholds present
huge growth potential, said Awad, especially as cargo screening becomes
more prevalent over the next years.

 

“That gives us access to airports in Europe, the Middle East, Northern Africa and a lot of other places in the world.”

 

What
makes the scanners unique, said Awad, are the software modules.
Prisons, for instance, are on the lookout for tobacco, drugs and
cellphone cards, while mining firms — and Tiffany’s — want to detect
precious metals being smuggled out (the technology also distinguishes
among the precious metals). For government buildings, airports and
military bases, the mission is sniffing out guns or explosives.

 

Each application has a software module tailored specifically to it.

 

“The
magic is in the software,” Inkster said. “We can remotely update the
software to the threat.” That’s where Voti makes its money — licensing
the software and collecting yearly fees.

 

After being bankrolled
until now by financial angels — including some of Quebec’s most
prominent families and individuals — to the tune of about $10 million,
Inkster and Awad said that Voti needs “as little as (another) $10
million” to fund expansion and development projects.

 

Both cheered
their financial backers for their “extraordinary support and patience,”
and promised that Voti would finally turn a profit this year.

 

“We expect to break even within six to eight months,” Inkster said.

 

“Absolutely,” Awad agreed. “And by the end of 2014, I plan to be in 40 countries, almost the double of today.”

 

Quebec as well?

 

He would not hazard a guess.