We talked to Jay Godsall, CEO and founder of Solar Ship, on how it is connecting remote with global and here is what he said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Jay Godsall: We are doing well, thanks for asking. I was involved in a startup infectious disease diagnostics company 20 years ago, and we have been expecting pandemics. Hence, we started with a high level of awareness for the whole family, and we were not caught off guard.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Solar Ship?
Jay Godsall: I was a teenaged entrepreneur in Canada’s capital city dominated by government workers and diplomats when three Burundian kids came into my high school class, aged around 16. They spoke no English, and I was one of the student volunteers who offered to help them translate French into English. The only caveat – I would teach them schoolyard bad boys English, not the Queen’s English. My new colleagues noted that I was an entrepreneur, and they came from a long line of entrepreneurs back in Burundi. I had a property management company taking care of everything a household needs for all seasons in Canada – that’s a lot of work cutting lawns, raking leaves, putting on storm windows, removing snow. In Canada, the weather creates a great deal of work, and I had a successful business removing stress for people with large properties. But I did not have any embassy contracts.
My new Burundian friend Michel Rugema decided to organize an ambassador’s lunch and invited me. Those invited were from landlocked African countries, which started a debate about landlocked African economies’ future. This meeting was in the mid-1980s. How could countries like Burundi and Rwanda progress without a transport system? I was interested in expanding my immediate business, but I thought I would suggest something to help them out as one does in business development. After some debate, I suggested they get an airship to transport things. Cheap, simple, like having a port to the sea, but in the air.
This idea caused quite a stir at the lunch table. I was asked about it some more but had no answers. So I did a high school project on the subject and saw a massive opportunity. I then started visiting Africa and became intensely interested. I then did an economics thesis at McGill University, which was rejected as unrealistic – then I knew I was onto something. It took some years to get prototypes built, with regulatory approval and flying. But Michel Rugema, my friend from high school, and I now lead Solar Ship. I’m CEO, and he is COO. It continues to be a great adventure.
How does Solar Ship innovate?
Jay Godsall: We make aerospace products lift anything, go anywhere, and never run out of gas – electric-powered aerospace products. We started making solar-powered electric airships for transport and communications connecting remote areas with the global community. Over 70% of the planet is disconnected by reliable, low-cost transport and communications – we connect those areas. We have branched out into hydrogen-electric planes, drones, and balloons. We’ve launched communications balloons into space and create mobile vaccine clinics to save lives in Africa.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Jay Godsall: The effects are threefold:
1) We have transformed our design and manufacturing processes to optimize remote working for design, strategy, and administration. This transformation means the thinking work is not only done from home but can be done from a safari lodge, an island in a northern Canadian lake, or anywhere safe and optimal for brain work.
2) We have redesigned our manufacturing model to create more distance between points within each facility and invest in producing more assembly plants in different locations. This expansion means creating more jobs at the point of business in the market of end-use. We use more machines at headquarters near Toronto and then ship out more parts for assembly in the market to places like Africa. This has helped create local jobs and increase local expertise, allowing us to ship the more innovative product to a more knowledgeable labor force that can build more sophisticated things.
3) The third effect is the market opportunity the coronavirus pandemic creates.
Experts tell us we need vaccines to get the global community and global economy back up and running, but how do you get those vaccines to the 2 billion people living outside transport and communications services? GAVI (gavi.org) often explains that cold-chain vaccine delivery to those in need is a challenge, like scooping ice cream in Paris and serving it as ice cream 300 km outside Lusaka. The planet has a surface area of ~ 510 million km2, yet nearly 400 million km2 has no reliable internet and no reliable transport, specifically no low-cost cold-chain transport. Both the internet and transportation are critical to managing a pandemic. Both must be low-cost and reliable.
The market demand for servicing these 2 billion people, over 400 million km2, is rising fast due to COVID. Prediction models suggest, COVID-19 is part of a pattern; humanity has entered the era of pandemics. Anyone with extremely reliable, low-cost transport and communications cable to service these 2 billion people over 400 million km2 is continuously rising demand. These three adjustments have created new energy on our team, among our investors, and with our partners and customers around the world.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Jay Godsall: There have been three main changes in direction, each of which has caused disruption. This disruption is difficult for those who do not like disruption. For those of us who create disruption, the choices were less complicated.
The first choice was to switch from a top-down, centralized company to a more bottom-up decentralized company. In a top-down, centralized company, one has a hierarchy and predictable workflow – mission, top-level requirements, ideas, concept design, detailed design, build, test & evaluate, refine, demonstrate, regulatory approval, training, licensing, and so on. The traditional food chain of processes and decisions in innovation. Innovators often think they are agile and react to events, but the pandemic teaches us that this approach is too slow and does not take good shots on the net to score often enough to win. Specifically, this means it does not have the mathematical probability of ideas tried to innovate to meet mission requirements successfully.
We transformed our culture from one team working on one innovation to creating a league of teams with several captains leading several approaches to the same mission and top-level requirements. The starting point is the same, but the ideas and concepts are different. Therefore they proceed down separate paths attempting to complete the mission. This is disruptive for the old traditionalists. It is a dream come true for young innovators eager to show what they can do now. It exponentially increases the rate of innovation, reducing risk, reducing cost, and delivering solutions on target.
The second choice was to switch from selling products in the aerospace industry to selling services in remote areas. The aerospace industry is at least 30 years behind the auto industry when it comes to successful innovation. We often don’t think about that, but as soon as you defy gravity, the culture becomes dominated by big, old, large, conservative top-down companies whose track record for innovation at low cost and high speed is horrendous. It’s an old boys club with a $billion membership card with minimal history of driving new ideas when compared with cars or boats, for example. At the same time, the remote communities of the world are completely open to ideas because they lead the world in death rates and are most threatened by a changing planet. Service these areas, and you have lifelong loyalty and learning.
Not everyone has a mission of connecting 2 billion people over 400 million km2, so these two direction changes are not for everyone. For us, these first two were necessary, and they created the opportunity to develop the third choice, to create an annual event called The Peace + Freedom Challenge.
The Peace + Freedom Challenge invites smart people worldwide to join us in designing, developing, and deploying technology to connect 2 billion people over 400 million km2. Diverse skillsets from different backgrounds are assembled into teams who compete to find the best ways to complete the mission. This pushes our team of experts to join groups of students, entrepreneurs, and innovators from all parts of the small world to play the game of connection. Other teams take different approaches with specific locations being targeted. Each year the challenge increases in ambition until the mission is complete. Africa is the ideal starting place. This approach brings globally diverse minds to one specific target area at a time.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Jay Godsall: The shift from a centralized meeting place to online video chats means that we use the video chat channel best suited to the team. The primary management skill is to find the team’s optimal time to meet and ensure you do not organize too many video chat meetings. One cannot easily monitor mood and motivation with remote workers, so we provide everyone with a life plan parallel to the business plan. Team leaders formally check in on people far more often now than when we were all in the same physical location. This is important for scalability. If motivation on teams is not high, innovation cannot be advancing on target and pace. Scaling team dynamics is essential.
By decentralizing, we not only export technology, but we must also export culture and values. Suppose everyone is operating within the same culture. In that case, we can have a large event in 2021 with different teams competing to achieve a mission, switch team members and geographies for 2022 and retain the same system and culture – but allow new ideas to be tried and measured with different team dynamics. An example is to ensure teams have their primary weekly meeting at least one day ahead of their weekend. Weekends allow people to think on their own and solve problems in their context.
Working on video chats and online is that it can make people work all the time. A 7 day/week workforce burns out especially fast when you have a competitive structure with high creativity and innovation degrees. Team leaders must formally declare their weekly meeting happens ideally a day before a weekend and that weekends have silence to enable people to be free of work structure. People won’t stop thinking, but one must remove cumulative stress. The coming pandemic for highly innovative workers is burnout and depression. This needs to be managed.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Jay Godsall: There are a few massive aerospace companies backing airship and hybrid airship ventures, such as Lockheed Martin and Airbus, on the transport side. We used to consider them primary competitors, but their business model is very different from ours. Their motivation, investors, mission, and customers are very different from ours. They are very much part of what we consider the old school of aerospace billion-dollar goliaths. We are very much the new school small David, but we do not expect them to be interested in our customers.
On the communications side, the drive to get internet into remote areas is wide open. Loon would have been the leader in this space, backed by Moonshot (Google), but they went out of business a few days ago. They were the inspiring leader for connecting the 2 billion unconnected. Satellite companies and cell companies will claim they can do it, but they cannot fully service this large area with reliable service at a low cost. We would expect this space to start to see far more competition in the coming five years.
We plan to change the game, not stay in the old game. The new game is to invite the smartest of the 2 billion people living in those 400 million km2 to join us in creating a new game called The Peace + Freedom Challenge. How do we connect this vast area with the benefits of the global community? Our competitors do not play this game. They are not interested, but 2 billion people are interested. The more we play, the better we get at the game.
Your final thoughts?
Jay Godsall: The pandemic has taken away our peace by threatening our lives. It has taken away our freedoms by creating lockdowns globally. How can we set ourselves on the path to Peace + Freedom? Most of us don’t know exactly, but we can go into the unknown to find the answers. In this quest for answers, entrepreneurs are the key to the world adjusting to pandemics. This is not just for COVID-19, but entrepreneurs are the heart pumping vitality to give energy to any significant change. We have entered a new era for the global community, where we share pandemics and climate change. The pace of innovation must increase exponentially to keep pace with threats. Entrepreneurs need to adjust their tools and systems to decentralize, act globally and share best practices. Startup.info is wise and potent for inviting us to contribute.