Not only has Potential Motors pivoted to become a software company, but the Fredericton startup has brought two of New Brunswick’s most successful tech entrepreneurs on to its team.
Chris Newton and Marcel LeBrun have joined Potential Motors as Chief Scientist and Chairperson respectively. They are best known as the Co-Founders of Radian6, the social-media-monitoring company that sold out to Salesforce.com for US$326 million in 2011.
As they joined the Potential Motors team, the company changed its business model to focus on software that improves the performance of automobiles, especially in steering, accelerating and braking. It’s a change from the team’s original mission two years ago to convert gasoline-powered automobiles into cars with electric engines.
“This all happened about eight months ago,” said CEO Sam Poirier in an interview this week. “We got to a point where we were working on converting autos to electric vehicles, and we were excited about it, but wanted to do something that would have a big impact.
“Marcel had been mentor us for quite some time. He introduced us to Chris Newton, and he was absolutely ecstatic about the changes going on in the automobile industry. He’s passionate about autos in general and he said . . . all the value in autos now is coming from the software. We chatted and went through tons of brainstorming sessions and how we could go through the transition.”
Potential Motors got started two years ago when Poirier and Co-Founders Isaac Barkhouse and Nick Dowling were going through the Technology, Management and Entrepreneurship program at the University of New Brunswick Faculty of Engineering. They began to work on ways to convert gas-powered cars to electric motors.
They proved they could do it, but the problem with the business model was always scalability – how would they do enough conversions to expand into a global business?
Enter LeBrun and Newton, both entrepreneurs with software in their DNA. The team realized the real opportunity in the automotive sector is in designing the software that will control the next generation of vehicles. So they pivoted to being developers of motor train software.
“It’s pretty amazing,” said Poirier of working with LeBrun and Newton. “They’re just normal guys but they’re amazing to work with, with the amount of experience they’ve built up in their time. Chris Newton is visionary and brilliant at coming up with different ideas and different pieces of technology from what’s out there.”
The company is working on software that will change the driving experience. Driving now relies on the driver controlling how the car moves or stops through mechanical systems, which Poirier says is neither the most comfortable nor safest driving experience.
Potential Motors is working on software that will work in control systems that would oversee the power, steering and braking in each wheel. That means that if one wheel hits a patch of ice in the winter for example, the others will react accordingly to stabilize the vehicle.
The work the team carried out in the first two years has not been wasted, said Poirier, because the co-founders deepened their understanding of the mechanics of automobiles, which is helping in the current work.
Poirier declined to discuss the timeline for bringing a product to market or whether the company has raised capital. It’s obviously got money from somewhere as the team has grown dramatically – from five paid employees in December to 12 today, growing mainly in the development team. Poirier said the company has been looking across Canada and internationally for tech talent, and hopes to have a staff of 16 by the end of the year.
“We’re working hard in terms of our R&D and hope to have something to show soon,” he said. “The biggest thing is building out a really strong team to bring this thing to fruition.”