Techopia Live: Jason Lee’s journey from Siberia to SmartCone to make life safer

Techopia Live brings Ottawa’s hottest startups and coolest tech execs to your screen every week. The live tech show airs at 12:15 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays on Techopia's Facebook and Twitter channels. If you miss it, videos and recaps will always be available on obj.ca/techopia.

Travelling through Bolivia, Siberia and the Middle East early in his career, Jason Lee says the many security and communications projects he was working on all shared a common flaw.

“During that 10-year journey, the one thing that really stuck out to me everywhere was there wasn’t enough help to keep people safe,” he said.

Lee joined Techopia Live recently to talk about how this critical missing piece for soldiers, first responders and construction workers drove him to found SmartCone Technologies, which manufactures a connected device in Ottawa that he hopes can make life safer for the people trying to save lives themselves.

The SmartCone, as it stands today, is an easy to deploy device in emergency situations, in construction zones or anywhere sensors are needed to quickly gather data. Its array of sensors can detect anything from hazardous gases to approaching footsteps, and it connects to the cloud to deliver information to off-site managers.

When Lee first started work on this project, back in 2009, the Internet of Things hadn’t really been imagined yet – but that’s exactly what he was already working on. The problem is that while today developers have access to a variety of miniaturized tech to construct connected devices, those chips were tough to source a decade ago.

Size was important to SmartCone, though. The device itself is placed in a tube just a few inches wide, Lee says, because “anywhere in the world” you can find a three-inch pipe.

“So that gave our customers the ability to be able to mount it in an area. We wanted to give the freedom to people to do that,” he told Techopia Live.

With the prevalence of IoT in today’s market, SmartCone has been able to accelerate development. The firm has partnered with IBM Watson and other large companies to implement the device in numerous applications.

Jason Lee
SmartCone Technologies CEO and founder Jason Lee. (File photo by Mark Holleron)

Lee says there are many use-cases for the SmartCone, but the company is better off focusing on constructing reliable hardware and making sure the platform can plug in to whatever a prospective customer wants.

“Inviting these companies to run with it and making it their own has been the secret to our success so far,” he said.

One of those early customers is the City of Ottawa: SmartCone has been deployed at the O’Connor bike path and Waverley Street intersection to warn drivers about approaching cyclists.

Lee says the device isn’t just about making Ottawa streets safer in the moment, it’s about the future of smart cities.

The data collected by SmartCone includes information on near-misses, where a collision could have occurred. Reducing these is nearly as important as actual accident reductions, he says, because no one needs to be hurt to gather useful data.

“As the planners begin putting new measures in, maybe a new signal or maybe brighter lights, we can track and map the difference it’s making. We’re saving lives without having to have an accident. That, to us, is the foundation to us of what the smart city is.”

Lee told Techopia Live that the SmartCone can currently do about five percent of what he wants it to achieve. With the increasing popularity of IoT and smart city applications, he believes the device can be a game changer in the lives of workers and everyday citizens.