Battle-ready: Kwesst Micro Systems making its mark in defence technology

Kwesst technology

If Kwesst Micro Systems hasn’t exactly been in stealth mode for the past five years, it’s been content to fly just under the radar as it builds out its technology aimed at helping soldiers and first responders thwart enemy threats and get a better bead on their surroundings.

The Kanata company has been on a slow but steady ascent since it was founded in 2017 by former Colt Canada executives Jeff MacLeod and Warren Downing. But industry veteran David Luxton – Kwesst’s executive chairman and one of its largest shareholders – says the firm is ready for its coming-out party during this week’s CANSEC defence and security trade show at the EY Centre.

“Our mission, and we think it’s realistic, is to be able to grow Kwesst into a very significant enterprise,” he says.

Kwesst started out developing sensors that could be attached to high-powered rifles and other weapons to help soldiers pinpoint exactly where ammunition such as bullets or grenades would make contact with a target.

The tech soon turned heads in the U.S. Marine Corps and other military organizations. Kwesst then began developing other products like software that delivers images of a target’s location to a display screen in a soldier’s goggles.

"The gleam in our eye is a calculated one. The market for each of these segments could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars over time."

Initially funded by its founders and a few well-heeled angels, the firm went public on the TSX Venture Exchange in the fall of 2020.

Since then, Kwesst has been diligently developing and acquiring technology in three main product areas – systems that feed real-time information to soldiers in the field, measures that counteract deadly lasers and other space-age weaponry and equipment such as high-tech anti-riot munitions designed to subdue aggressive protesters and other belligerents.

What might sound like gadgetry straight out of Star Wars to the average person is a real opportunity just waiting to be seized in Luxton’s universe.

“The gleam in our eye is a calculated one,” he says. “The market for each of these segments could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars over time.”

If anyone in Ottawa can instinctively gauge the appetite for such tech, it’s Luxton. In more than three decades in the business, the former infantry officer has seen and done it all, including helping launch Simunition, a firm that became a world leader in equipment aimed at training soldiers and first responders for close-quarters combat.

Luxton, who joined Kwesst in October 2019, says its products have arrived at just the right time to serve militaries and police forces contending with volatile situations like the war in Ukraine and the Freedom Convoy protests in Ottawa earlier this year.

Decoy system 'a hot item'

Aerospace and defence giant General Dynamics, for example, is installing Kwesst’s electronic decoy system, dubbed Phantom, on hundreds of next-generation armoured vehicles it’s building for a U.S. military customer. 

“It’s a pretty hot item these days,” Luxton says of Phantom, which is designed to dupe enemy forces into attacking non-existent targets. “It saves lives and buys time.”

He says the firm has found another “sweet spot” in building a platform that takes data from an array of sources, including cellphones, radios and drone videos, feeds it into software that provides soldiers and first responders with real-time assessments of their surroundings and delivers that data to a user’s smartphone or other mobile devices. 

Luxton says such information can be crucial in diffusing situations similar to last week’s deadly school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. 

“There’s a digital gap that needs to be closed for the public safety market,” he says. “We see no reason why that (market) couldn’t continue to just snowball.”

Kwesst’s other products include technology that detects sophisticated weapons such as lasers designed to zap a combatant’s eyeballs with deadly rays. The Kanata firm’s system can locate the lasers and alert potential targets to the looming threat.

“We don’t know of anything else like it in the world,” Luxton says.

Earlier this year, Kwesst had a moment in the spotlight when one of its newest offerings played a high-profile role in dispersing demonstrators against vaccine mandates in downtown Ottawa. 

Police used the firm’s anti-riot devices to fire baton-shaped projectiles into a group of people gathered near Bank and Sparks streets during February’s Freedom Convoy protest – prompting the company to issue a news release noting that the media said no one was hurt in the incident.

“It very quickly resolved the situation without injuries and brought it to a safe conclusion,” Luxton says of Kwesst’s Anti-Riot Weapon Enfield line, which it acquired last December. “Everybody went home safe and alive.”

All three product lines will be on display at CANSEC this Wednesday and Thursday, where Luxton expects Kwesst to add to its growing list of admirers that includes former Phoenix police chief Daniel Garcia. Garcia, who also served as assistant chief of the Dallas Police Department, joined the company earlier this month to help spearhead its push into the wider U.S. market.

Eyeing Nasdaq listing

“He’s a big believer in what Kwesst is doing,” Luxton says.

The company now has just over 30 employees, about 20 of whom work in Ottawa and the rest at offices in Virginia, London and Abu Dhabi. Kwesst has begun laying the groundwork for a listing on the Nasdaq, and Luxton says an update could come in the next few weeks.

“Obviously, we want to do it at a time of our choosing when capital markets are co-operative,” he says, adding the company hopes to make its debut on the exchange later in 2022.

While Luxton is bullish on Kwesst’s future, he knows that in business, just as in combat, success can never be taken for granted.

“There’s what you can control, and there’s what you can’t control,” he explains. “You know, war breaks out, pandemics break out, geopolitical security arrangements get realigned, supply chains get disrupted. You have to stay poised with a plan A, plan B, plan C and plan D so that you can remain agile and adaptive.”

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