Ottawa startup Smats advancing smart traffic tech

By: Craig Lord
Published: Jun 5, 2018 1:03pm EDT

With the help of local universities and other players in the capital’s autonomous vehicles hub, Ottawa-based Smats Traffic Solutions is putting smart sensors on the roads where they’re needed most.

Operating out of Bayview Yards, Smats develops sensors to better manage and reduce areas of high traffic and congestion. The firm’s technology can track Bluetooth and Wi-Fi signals coming from connected cars or passengers’ smart devices, giving Smats valuable analytics on how traffic flows through contained areas such as intersections, border crossings or campuses.

That’s valuable data to the firm’s customers, which include port authorities, municipalities and border agencies. Smats can help turn those analytics into action, optimizing the flow of traffic through these areas.

This technology has applications for real-time tracking as well. Last year, Smats and several provincial partners won a contest from the Ontario Centres of Excellence to develop detection technology that could ensure drivers were not abusing the province’s high-occupancy vehicle lanes.

Academic edge

Founder Amir Ghods earned his traffic engineering PhD back in 2012 at the University of Waterloo. It was then that he saw a gap for these kinds of traffic management solutions and decided to take a sensor-based solution to market.

Support from OCE and other government initiatives have helped the bootstrapped company stay afloat, but the firm’s founder has turned to his academic background to fuel the Smats’ R&D.

“We’ve found that innovation comes from the universities, most of the time,” Ghods says.

Smats has partnered with both the University of Ottawa and Carleton University on pilot projects to test and gather data on the firm’s sensors.

At uOttawa, Smats is working with students on a project anonymously tracking bus passengers’ travel paths through their cell phone signals in order to improve the efficiency of transit routes. The firm is working with Carleton to enhance its detection accuracy through the use of multiple sensors, clusters or optimal positioning.

Ghods says aligning the firm’s product development with the research already happening at universities is a no-brainer. With just five full-time employees, collaborating with local academic institutions amplifies what Smats can do.

“There are groups at universities that are very focused on the types of challenge you’re trying to address. They can help you,” he says.

Students can also benefit from these relationships, Ghods adds. While they are often on the cutting edge of scientific application, engineering programs may not address issues such as market fit or the process of taking a product from the lab to commercialization.

Cluster contributors

Universities aren’t the only Ottawa edge Smats has utilized: the firm has developed the hardware side of its sensors with the help of MadeMill, Invest Ottawa’s workshop for entrepreneurs. Ghods says the 3D printing available in-house at Bayview Yards, as well as the design and production assistance from the local makerspace team, has accelerated the development of Smats’ sensors.

The traffic tech startup is one of the many Ottawa companies listed in a new directory of companies working in autonomous and connected vehicles. The Kanata North Business Association launched the database last week in collaboration with Invest Ottawa and the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence.

An autonomous vehicle driving in Kanata during an on-road demo in October 2017. (OBJ file photo)

Nearly 100 Ottawa-based companies, post-secondary institutions and government bodies are currently on the list, with an aim to scale the directory to include firms from across Canada.

“Ideally, the database will enable further collaboration and partnerships for, not just companies in Kanata North and Ottawa, but for companies across the country, to have an awareness of one another,” says KNBA executive director Jamie Petten.

For Smats, the company is feeling right at home with the partnerships and resources available in Ottawa.

“Ottawa is the perfect place for us, especially with this AV cluster,” Ghods says.