October 7, 2019

The road less excavated

Conversation yields inspiration

An Alberta start-up is making it easier and safer for industry to traverse Canada’s difficult terrain — from naturally occurring muskeg and wetlands, to human-created tailings ponds and cut lines.

John Skierka from Great Excavations
John Skierka

Great Excavations was launched by CEO John Skierka after a pivotal conversation with a family friend who wondered aloud why no one had solved the problem of birds nesting in tailing ponds in the North. To him, the solution was simple: use a floating excavator to turn over the grass growing on top of the muskeg so the birds have nothing to land on.

At the time, John was based in Hong Kong and working in the aeronautics industry. Originally from a ranching family based in the Crowsnest Pass, he was intrigued enough to check out local manufacturers in China to see what was available. He figured the technology, which wasn’t being used much in Canada, could do the trick efficiently and effectively.

Bringing unmanned amphibious innovation to Alberta

Alberta entrepreneur: Trax amphibious excavator, one of the first branded machines brought into Canada specifically for work in the north
Photos courtesy of Great Excavations

Seeing a business opportunity — not just in the oil field, but in other industries dealing with challenging geography — John decided to start a company, incorporating Great Excavations in 2013. By 2016, the company had grown to include brother Tom Skierka as Chief Operating Officer and Director of Maintenance, and sister Lisa Skierka as Director of Business Development. All three siblings had worked internationally and saw potential to grow the sector at home in Alberta, through the Canadian north, and worldwide.

Using amphibious equipment, the company primarily provides environmental services for the forestry, mining, and energy sectors, with a special focus on bird aversion systems and caribou habitat remediation. The company also has a parallel research division, Amphibious Equipment Solutions, that launched the same year.

“When John started bringing in amphibious equipment, he was surprised at how old-fashioned the technology was worldwide,” explains Lisa. The company’s biggest challenge has been to modernize the equipment — which hasn’t seen many improvements since the 1960s — and adapt it to the needs of a northern climate while also enhancing safety and efficiency.

Support yields steady growth

In the last six years, Great Excavations has grown steadily despite economic changes and government cutbacks, but new innovations require extensive capital and expertise. The company turned to Alberta Innovates for help and joined Economic Development Lethbridge’s Tecconnect community in 2016 — a member of the Alberta Innovates-supported Regional Innovation Network of Southern Alberta. The company received business support and resources through the Tecconnect centre for entrepreneurship and innovation, and connected with numerous contacts and organizations.

Through continued work with Alberta Innovates and its local Technology Development Advisors (TDAs), Great Excavations has received funding assistance by way of a microvoucher and voucher, as well as important guidance and connections.

Technology Development Advisor Lindsay Spadaveccjia
Lindsay Spadavecchia

“Great Excavations is an exciting, growing company that has leveraged the support and resources in the community,” says the company’s current TDA, Lindsay Spadavecchia. “They are a great example of how companies can, with their Regional Innovation Networks and Alberta Innovates, find the support and resources that fit their needs along their business journey.”  

Understanding the environment

Since its inception, Great Excavations has pushed ahead with the development of key safety features for operators of the equipment.

“Our technology is a game changer not only for amphibious equipment, but other equipment as well,” says Lisa. John adds that, for him, it’s about improving the equipment, tailoring it to meet the needs of each job.

“Our experience working with the equipment on Canada’s terrain means we understand the hardships and what needs to be done to improve the technology,” says John. “Our innovation is driven by the desire to make amphibious equipment work better, serving the needs of industry while also providing solutions for municipalities — for example storm ponds and sewage lagoons — and wetlands management.”

The company is also developing remote-controlled technologies as part of their pathway to autonomous vehicle operations. Lisa explains that even with state-of-the-art safety features, such as those funded in part by Alberta Innovates, working on uncertain terrain means they can always do better.

Great Excavations’ work in this area incorporates everything from hand-held devices to mobile command stations and has the potential to eliminate many hazards while also reducing environmental impacts, she says: “Great Excavations is setting the standard for how these machines should improve in Canada and worldwide.”