Five years ago, the Canadian government announced mandatory entry-level training (MELT) requirements for new drivers entering the commercial transport industry. The standard greatly increased training rigor and the number of in-cab training hours required, with the goal of making Canada’s roads safer. The MELT requirements, which went into effect in 2019, would improve safety, but they would also exacerbate existing driving shortages and contribute to increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as a result of more hours spent on in-cab training.
A virtual solution
Helping to solve this challenge is Edmonton-based Serious Labs. Serious Labs designs and manufactures virtual reality (VR) simulators for heavy equipment including aerial lifts, cranes and forklifts. These simulators enable operators to learn and practise their skills in a risk-free virtual environment.
“We apply VR technology to create a fully immersive training experience so operators can learn and hone critical skills through trial and error to do their jobs safer and more efficiently,” explains Jim Colvin, Serious Labs’ CEO.
In April this year, to help industry meet the MELT requirements, Serious Labs announced it’s developing a commercial vehicle simulator, with funding support from the Alberta government and Emissions Reduction Alberta. When the equipment is introduced, beginning with a pilot rollout in 2023, it’s expected to instill best practices and reduce GHG emissions by enabling operators to complete part of their in-cab training using VR simulation. It’s estimated that by adopting the simulator the industry could avoid more than 2.3 million tonnes of training-related GHGs by 2030.
“Our new VR driving simulator will not only help to create an expedited route to proficiency and safety for drivers, but a better, cleaner environment,” Colvin says. “This will also go beyond MELT training to help experienced drivers practice challenging tasks or prepare for environments they’re not used to. There are many applications out in the industry — for example, commercial carriers who want to reduce their risks and keep their drivers’ skills current.”
To prepare for this next project, Serious Labs is turning to long-time partner Alberta Innovates for support.
Investment in Alberta entrepreneurs and Alberta companies
Since Colvin joined the company as CEO nearly decade ago, Serious Labs has developed a strong partnership with the agency. Under Colvin, the company has received business coaching and secured more than $600,000 in Alberta Innovates funding grants to support various phases of technology and market development.
Now Cam MacNaughton, Alberta Innovates’ executive business advisor (EBA), is working with Serious Labs to help drive a capital raise to support the new simulator project. Also involved is Ayo Aiyeleye, Alberta Innovates’ director of scaleup and growth. Both MacNaughton and Aiyeleye have extensive experience as investors and senior business executives.
“Our goal is to help move the company further along their scaleup journey by providing executive-level, one-on-one coaching and support through our Executive Business Advisor (EBA) program,” says Aiyeleye, who oversees the EBA program at Alberta Innovates.
The current round of capital raised will add to over $4 million in grant funding from the provincial and federal governments, who have recognized the commercial vehicle simulator as a solution to key challenges for the transportation industry.
Growth that creates jobs and success
Preparing for new investment is another step forward in Serious Labs’ rapid success story. In just a decade, under Colvin’s leadership, the company has grown from a company of 10 to a multinational with nearly 50 employees. Its products are in 15 countries across North America and globally. Already it has dozens of major customers including United Rentals, Bechtel, Dow, Syncrude and Singapore Airlines.
And Colvin credits Alberta Innovates for critical support along the way.
“The experience with Alberta Innovates has been fantastic. They’ve always been there when we needed them — not just for funding but for business support, product commercialization and connecting us to the investor network. We could not have done it without partnerships like Alberta Innovates.”
Client journey: Shift to training technology began a decade ago
Jim Colvin had worked most of his career as a lawyer, investor and CEO specializing in emerging tech companies. About a decade ago, Colvin and his investor partners came across 3D Interactive, a small company focused on building models and project-based simulators using video game engines. Together they saw an opportunity to do something bigger.
For many years, simulation had been used successfully to train pilots in the military and civil aviation industry. With new advances making VR simulators more versatile and cost-effective, the group decided the time was right to extend VR simulation to heavy industrial training. The idea was especially appealing to Colvin. Growing up, his father had been a heavy equipment operator while his mother was an educator.
“Applying technology to help industrial workers come home safely each day really fit with my personal philosophy,” Colvin says.
So, in 2012, Colvin and his partners decided to invest in 3D Interactive and, with Colvin taking on the role of CEO, they rebranded the company as Serious Labs and began to shift the business in a bold new direction.
To get started, the Serious Labs team invested in R&D, taking advantage of rapid advances in VR science and computer power. Gradually, their simulator prototype began to take shape, combining advanced software with a motion-based system, actual machine controls and a 360-degree view head-mounted display to create a fully immersive training experience.
To advance their technology further, they formed a joint venture with the world’s largest equipment rental company. They also reached out to Alberta Innovates. Over the next 10 years, Serious Labs would receive a series of grants to fund commercialization, product development and marketing expertise. Providing guidance were Alberta Innovates’ technology development advisors such as Michael Kerr and later Rick Davidson, who met frequently with Colvin to offer coaching and business advice.
“We’ve helped to move their technology readiness through different funding mechanisms,” says Davidson, now manager of Alberta Innovates’ Technology Development Advisor (TDA) program for northern Alberta.
Meanwhile, the company’s profile among investors was rapidly growing. Colvin was promoting Serious Labs at trade shows across Canada, the U.S. and Europe. Back in Alberta, the company sponsored an Alberta Innovates VR seminar in 2017, which was attended by more than 140 investors and entrepreneurs.
All of this effort paid off, notably in 2017 with the company closing US$5 million in a Series A equity financing round to fuel growth. The funding was made by two co-investors, United Rentals and Silicon Valley-based Brick and Mortar Ventures. At the same time, the company commercially launched its first product, a motion-based VR simulator for aerial work platforms. The Series A funding was followed by a C$4.25 million investment from ATB Private Equity in 2019.
Serious Labs was building on one success after another.