Roger Morrison is CEO of dTechs, a Canadian software company that has had great success exporting their technology in Colombia electricity market. dTechs is the creator of the epm Suite, an electrical management software that enables electric utilities to wirelessly monitor technical and non-technical energy losses across their distribution systems. Using highly accurate medium voltage sensors coupled with a robust software platform, dTechs addresses the last-mile gap in grid monitoring.
In this interview, Roger discusses why Colombia is a great place for Canadian companies to expand internationally. He identifies opportunities in the electricity sector and provides tips on how to find success in the emerging market.
Why did you enter the Colombian market and what is your current involvement there?
We were contacted by a foreign trade commissioner’s office asking us to be a part of a Canadian smart-grid trade group to Colombia. That was three and a half years ago and the rest is history. We went down to Colombia with the trade mission, and it gave us instant credibility being with a trade mission. We also found a very strong need for our technology in Colombia. Hence, we decided to enter the Colombian market, and since that time, I have been to the country probably upwards of 20 times.
We deployed our technology there as a pilot, as the utility we are working with wanted to see a demonstration of the effectiveness of the technology. Currently, we’re wrapping up the paid demonstration in the northern part of Colombia, with a white paper to be submitted to the utility, the Colombian government, and the Colombian regulatory body. We anticipate a much larger implementation with this utility, and we also have four utilities awaiting the final report and wishing to move forward with our technology.
Sounds great, it seems like you’ve made some strides in the market. So what were some of your major considerations when you were initially entering the market?
Well, firstly, anywhere we want to expand globally has to have a strong rule of law. So at first glance, I was reticent to expand into Colombia, having all the same preconceived misconceptions from its recent history regarding corruption, drug violence, such and so forth.
Going down there I found a much different country. I found a very friendly people and very friendly business environment. I discovered the Canadian government and the Colombian government have free trade agreements. Colombia displayed very strong, up-and-coming business ethics. We also had conversations with Canadian companies, both documented and anecdotal, to find out how Colombia was to work in. Obviously, getting an impression that Colombia was a very up-and-coming, strong economy with a want and need for energy efficiency solutions made us excited to step into this market.
What do you think are the current opportunities in the Colombian market regarding cleantech? What is driving these opportunities?
First and foremost, energy efficiency is a great opportunity in Colombia. Believe it or not, the hotter the geography, the higher the losses, both technical or non-technical. Colombia sees the strong need to move forward and become more efficient. They have a very strong regulatory body there that keeps utilities working very hard to get better at conservation practices while maintaining quality and reliability of supply.
The second most obvious opportunity in the Colombian electricity sector is that of infrastructure modernization and upgrade. Similar to Chile, Colombia has changed drastically in the past 15 to 20 years. It is a growing market, and the median income of the middle class is moving up dramatically. So to get their infrastructure ready and to become a developed nation, they have to have that infrastructure. They have to have better power lines; their losses have to be decreased, their outages have to be dramatically decreased. They are looking to Ontario a lot because of how Ontario has led the world in energy efficiency and new technologies. And they’re very serious about it. They’re just not doing window dressing. They want to move forward.
Finally, Colombian utilities are also private companies with a presence in other regions in Latin America and the Caribbean. Hence, if your technology is adopted by a utility, it has the potential to be spread across the region. Currently, we’re dealing with nine utilities with a total of 100 million customers, which is three times the customers in all of Canada. Colombia is an excellent hub to enter with new technology.
And what are some of the other challenges that you would say exist for doing business in Colombia?
Being a Canadian company, the primary challenge we found is language. So finding a strong in-country partner with strong bilingual skills is a must.
Other challenges include technology and data availability. Technology is often old there, which can be a challenge. Also, you make certain assumptions in North America regarding GIS mapping or mapping of their grid. Some places down there (in Colombia) do not have GIS data available, making the design of new systems difficult. We have identified this also as an opportunity and are designing a solution.
The electricity grid challenges are essentially the same as in North America, with some regional challenges, like high energy losses in the tropical region, often far greater than those faced by a North American utility. Apart from differences due to environment, the system in itself is very similar to North American systems.
So in conclusion, what would your advice be for other Canadian cleantech companies who are considering exporting or setting up operations in this market?
Well one, rely on people. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Essentially, reach out to industry-related North American companies that have or are working in Colombia and get an unfiltered view of their experiences. Don’t get your information from brochures and business catalogues. Talk to real people that have been down there because you’re going to get a mishmash on different issues.
Connect with industry, non-profits, and government departments that are in the country – they have the experience. MaRS has been fantastic. They’ve opened up opportunities. As a partner company with them, you gain instant credibility. Export Development Canada, working independently or in tandem with the foreign trade commissioners, they’re the reason we’re there. They’re the experts. They’re in-country. You need to listen to them. They’ve already been through it and are also dealing with multiples of companies. They’ve heard their horror stories, and they’ve heard their successes.
We’re going back again in June as part of a foreign trade industry Andesco. We’re part of the Canadian contingent, as we have been for the last four years, because we’re a trusted, vetted company. EDC, MaRS, foreign trade commissioners will coordinate meetings with the Colombian decision makers for your offering, and that is probably the most important aspect of what they do.
They’re very well respected; Canada is very well respected; Ontario is very well respected as the leaders in the field. Companies in South America love dealing with Canadian companies because I would say we have one of the highest reputations in the world for having strong & moral business practices. So use that. Leverage that. And if you make a mistake and you can’t deliver your offering you won’t be invited back, so be ready and prepared. But utilize these services, don’t try to go it alone.
To hear more from Roger and the opportunities in this market, listen to our Electrifying idea: Going Global Colombia podcast.