High-end vehicles use them already, but Jean-Yves Deschênes has a vision of all vehicles one day featuring collision-warning sensors to improve the safety of all on roads and highways.

And when they do, he hopes the technology they use is the one he and his business partner developed — a collision-warning sensor based on laser technology.

Phantom Intelligence, Deschênes’s company, has developed a product that uses laser-based LiDAR sensors to identify obstacles around the car or truck and brake if need be.

“Right now, there are a bunch of very low-cost solutions, but a lot of them use cameras or radar,” said Deschênes, who owns the company with Eric Turenne. “The problem with cameras is that you have safety systems that don’t work in the dark. Our innovation is having sensors that compete cost-wise, but provide 24/7 reliability.”

So how do a computer science consultant — Deschênes — and an electrical engineer — Turenne — end up selling futuristic automobile technology? Turns out it was a client who brought them to this market. The gents were working for a Korean tier-1 company on a consulting project to help it better understand the market for assisted driving technology.

“During those two years, we identified a lot of technology that existed and we noticed that laser-based technology was underrepresented,” Deschênes explained.

At the end of the consulting contract, the client ended up going with a solution that combined camera and radar technology, but it acknowledged that the consultants had demonstrated some interesting potential for laser and said it would have bought that if it were available. Bingo! Phantom Intelligence was born.

“We decided to tap that niche where laser-based systems can be made very affordable,” Deschênes said. “We started our company based on that.”

It’s early days for the company, but it’s already sent prototypes to the U.S., Korea and France.

“Some of the stuff we export to the U.S. is for the American division of a large European manufacturer,” Deschênes said. “All of our activities are very global.”

At this point, the technology is still between three and five years away from being in production vehicles, but Phantom recently signed an agreement with a Korean manufacturer of dash-mounted cameras for its first volume production contract — a warning system for aftermarket applications. It also recently opened a South Korean branch office to support the growing business there.

“We’re not just pre-revenue anymore,” Deschênes said. “We’re transitioning.”

Phantom Intelligence is currently in discussion with Export Development Canada on what services it can access, but just knowing EDC is there has made the company’s value proposition much more viable to its potential clients, Deschênes said. “Even though we haven’t yet completed the EDC agreements, knowing we have EDC’s support has given us the confidence we need to seek global customers.”

“Don’t try to do it all by yourself”: Five questions with Jean-Yves Deschênes, President of Phantom Intelligence

What was your first export sale?

Our first small export sales were to the U.S.

How did that first export opportunity arise?

We were lucky enough to be able to convince our American client to buy the very first few prototypes. In the next few years, we have made inroads with tier-1, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and aftermarket suppliers, who currently have programs in place to evaluate our sensor technology.

When it comes to exports, what do you know now that you wish you knew then?

We knew that the sales cycle in the automotive sector and adoption of technology would be long. What we did not anticipate was the complexity and time required to finance a production contract when there is still some development and customization to be made to meet client requirements. Even though the technology risks have been mostly ironed out, the introduction of customized features and new processes to facilitate production is still perceived as a “risk,” and that limits access to a lot of financing sources.

How has the trading world changed since you started in business?

Communications are so much easier than they were 30 years ago when only the fax and mail could be used. Apart from the timezones, international collaborations are now pretty transparent. But even though it is easier, sometimes nothing beats a handshake or “touching” your product. So be prepared to travel a lot. (Fortunately, making travel arrangements is also much easier than it used to be.)

What is the #1 thing new SMEs need to know about export and trade?

Actually, three things: First, if your product is well defined and well differentiated, and you have targeted your clientele well, going global is not so scary. There is probably only a handful of people you need to be exposed to in order to generate business.

Second, don’t try to do it all by yourself. Have a local representative steer you and represent you in each of the local markets. They can guide you through the local administrative and cultural obstacles. And they can provide a physical presence when you can’t be there.

Finally, federal and provincial trade commissioners and local representatives should be your first contact into a new country. They can really accelerate your critical networking and are very pro-active.