Vanguard’s latest Game Changer is Erinn van Wynsberghe. He founded VanWyn Aerospace Logistics a few years ago by developing a concept.
“My start-up company’s project began when I developed the concept of a high-altitude, geostationary payload platform as part of my graduate thesis,” he said. He went on to relate that it started out as a theoretical project in developing the mathematical models involved. But as he continued, he realized that if he could solve the core issue of getting sufficient power to high-altitude craft for extended periods of time, he could transform this theoretical work into a practical solution for a wide range of sectors including Defence (C4ISR), industry (surveying, telecom) and government (science, environment and astronomy).
“I discovered that I could solve the power dilemma using wireless power transmission from ground to the craft,” he said. That led to the start of his company.
“Over the past several years with the help of my local start-up incubators (The Forge and Innovation Factory) and numerous mentors and strategic partners from a wide variety of industries including National Defence, I found myself where I am today,” he said. “Developing our concept into a working model, constructing a full-scale prototype, and creating a profitable business by providing a valuable market solution.”
Today, Erinn van Wynsberghe is the President and CEO of VanWyn Aerospace Logistics.
Here is the full interview.
What is your role at your organization today?
As the founder of this start-up company, I tend to wear many hats. I am the President and CEO, the chief engineer, the promoter, and the cheerleader of my team. I make all the tough calls, resolve all the problems, and ensure everything gets done. I divide my day between leading and inspiring my people, forging new business relationships, pitching our product, reporting to my investors, and advancing our technology toward construction of a full-scale prototype to prepare for market entry.
What was your most challenging moment?
Flight day. We recently completed construction of our first-generation proof-of-concept demo model and undertook our first flight test. Many months of calculations, modeling, and construction all boiled down to this one day, so it was understandably tense. Not surprisingly there were complications, and it was certainly frustrating to see that all our theory and planning didn’t exactly match up to real life. Fortunately, we persevered, made changes, and had a perfect test flight the following week. The lessons learned from that experience helped provide for an even more robust design. In the end, those challenges helped us grow and improve, so it was worth the frustration.
What was your A-HA moment or epiphany that you think will resonate most with our reader, tell us that story?
In early days, we presented our concept to a wide range of prospective clients. In one particular meeting with a couple of military commanders, things quickly fell into place for the defence sector. Those officers excitedly described to us many possible uses they envisioned for our product, such as forward operating bases, arctic sovereignty, line-of-sight reach-back, and autonomy from foreign satellites. It was then that we had our “A-HA” moment. We realized then that we had a winning concept and a solution that was needed and awaited.
What is the one thing that has you most fired up today?
I am thrilled at the ever-increasing list of possible uses for our product, the “Sitallite” and all the enthusiastic responses we’ve received throughout the industry from potential customers, partners, and investors. I keep learning every day from advisors with deep knowledge of the armed forces market about how we are well-positioned to make a meaningful and sustainable contribution. I find that incredibly motivating and empowering.
What is the best advice you received?
I was facing a particularly difficult challenge last year and a trusted mentor crystalized everything by asking me “what kind of company do you want to be?” That stuck with me. So now I take stock daily of how exactly I want my business to be perceived and evaluated. I think about our value, about how we can help and serve customers, and how we innovate to differentiate – essentially, I think about our reputation and our legacy.
What is a habit that contributes to your success?
As an entrepreneur managing a growing business, two habits help me. The first is to find support: mentors and advisors who offer guidance and encouragement but also honest feedback. It can be colleagues, or family, or friends, or formal consultants. Having this network of close, trusted people impacts everything from my mood to our strategy, to our success.
The second habit that helps is to teach. I regularly volunteer my time to mentor other start-ups at my local incubators in Hamilton: “The Forge” and “Innovation Factory”. Teaching is the best way of learning. It helps us refine and improve our own skills. A good leader trains others to lead, and in the process becomes a better leader.
What people or organizations do you believe best embody the innovation mindset?
Right now, I’m inspired by the organizations that foster better connectivity and communication. For example, websites like YouTube democratizes broadcasting so that everyone can create and share content, some of which inspires more and more creativity and innovation. Ted Talks and Big Think come to mind as some of my favourite channels. Also, trail-blazers like Amazon, Google and Microsoft keep pushing the envelope of connecting people such as by creating innovative new high-altitude platforms. It is my aim to join their ranks when we introduce our geostationary high-altitude platform to enable new paradigms for connectivity, commerce, and security.
How is your organization changing the game within your industry sector?
We are developing an entirely new alternative to satellites and drones. With our new craft, we can dramatically impact some of the familiar challenges such as the cost, complexity, and risk of positioning client payloads. But the real magic is in our ability to offer solutions that never existed before to provide all-new capabilities. We will give clients the equivalent of geostationary service – holding a payload at one spot in the sky, for months to years – but in the stratosphere, rather than GEO orbit. So, the possibilities are endless for greater resolution, data security, real-time video of any border, service in remote regions with difficult terrain, autonomy from foreign satellites, and persistent surveillance over the long-term. Plus, a client can retrieve their payload at any time for upgrade or repair and quickly re-deploy, which can’t be done with a satellite.
Also, with our novel approach to power (wireless transmission from ground) and propulsion (air-breathing electric) we will offer significantly more power for instruments and positional accuracy, plus more payload weight carrying capacity, cone of service coverage, and mission duration — overcoming some of the common bottlenecks of the traditional platforms. With all of these new advantages, we will enable entirely new paradigms for defining objectives and executing missions.
What are some of the biggest impediments to innovation in your industry sector?
Start-ups are challenging enough in their own right, but even more so with aerospace projects where the capital requirement to reach full-scale prototype can be in the millions. Finding and connecting with the right Primes, investors, and strategic partners has been one of the most challenging aspects, especially in Canada where the approach to innovation and risk can often be more cautious than the States and elsewhere. Fortunately, we’ve found enormous support here at home through mentors, advocacy groups, and NGOs such as CARIC and CADSI nationally, and OAC and SODA locally. These groups are helping us to find the best resources and connect with the right people to help us continue growing and bringing our product to market.
How has innovation become engrained in your organization’s culture and how is it being optimized?
Our entire company was born out of innovation with our concept for a geostationary high-altitude payload platform receiving wireless power from the ground. We are essentially “boiling the oceans” with this project, doing something that’s never quite been done before.
Beyond that, we now strive to carry over the mindset of innovation to everything else we do. One example is our hiring process. We look for certain traits such as innovation and creativity in perspective and attitude, demonstrated with concrete examples from past work experience. We have found that skills can be improved on the job, but the core outlook is hard to change regardless of talent, knowledge, or experience.
What technologies, business models, and trends will drive the biggest changes in your industry over the next two years?
I am paying particular attention to the changes in the procurement process within the Canadian government. New programs like IDEaS and SIF and new policies like “Strong, Secure, Engaged” should help the government to better communicate its needs to industry in order to get deals reached faster and smoother. Also, I am seeing continued refinements to valued programs like ITB that are helping small businesses and start-ups (like mine) to align with Primes and bring our valuable new solutions to market much faster. We will see in the next few years if these efforts, and the valuable work of many advocacy groups, will help to build and keep more projects in Canada, for sustained economic growth and a model of leadership on the world stage.
What is your parting piece of advice?
Pick your goals precisely and write them down, with deadlines. And then go for it. Whatever it is, just go for it. Don’t debate it, just start it. Why are you still reading this? Go out and do it!
And for entrepreneurs, don’t try to do it alone. Build a support network. Join an incubator.