Niru Somayajula has identified an additional 10,000 square feet of space in Dartmouth’s Burnside Park that will allow her to expand her company’s operation in Nova Scotia.
The president and CEO of Sensor Technology Ltd., headquartered in Collingwood, Ont., but with assembly operations at Dartmouth’s Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship, Somayajula says she had plans to quadruple the size of her company when she and two business partners acquired the business in 2011.
Sensor Technology’s roots are actually in the commercial pottery business, “if you can believe it,” she said in an interview.
“It was called Blue Mountain Pottery and it wanted to diversify its offerings. So, in 1983 the company hired my dad, Eswar Prasad, who had his PhD in physics and a specialization in something called piezoelectric ceramics.”
The subsidiary Prasad headed up was called Blue Mountain High Tech Inc. It’s speciality, the creation of piezoelectric ceramics, is used in acoustic equipment such as sonar and underwater sensors, and is still one of Sensor Technology’s main product lines.
“It was once a large company, employing about 700 people making ducks and ashtrays and things like that,” said Somayajula.
“It had a very specific teal-green-blue colour that is pretty iconic all over the world.”
Eventually, though, the pottery side of the business failed in 1985 but her father, along with some partners, acquired the tech division.
“They had some government contracts from the U.S. to develop the materials needed for piezoelectric ceramics. (The U.S. military) wanted more sources of supply because the basics of sonar are all made off of these ceramics,” she said.
“That’s sort of how Sensor Technology was born, out of the Office of Naval Research grants.”
Somayajula’s mother, Shashi Prasad, has a “very deep financial background” and was the company’s chief financial officer for many years.
“So they were a nice pair; he was technical and she was very practical.”
They decided to retire and the company was readied for sale. Somayajula was brought in as interim manager in preparation for a large oil company to complete the acquisition but the deal failed.
The business fell to her and two partners. They bought out her parents in 2011.
“We bought the business from them when I was about seven months pregnant with the first (child). So it was a perfect transition plan except . . . I was very pregnant while taking over a business. But they became instant grandparents, so that helped them to refocus on retirement.
“They were so helpful in the early days of my kids being born and I couldn’t have done the big career and the child rearing without kind of an army of support, a village really.”
The company employs around 40 people, about 30 in Collingwood and about 10 in Dartmouth.
“I started with just a desk at (the Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship) in Dartmouth, just to have a small presence there,” Somayajula said.
“I was planning to fly in every six weeks for meetings and sort of develop a better client base in Nova Scotia and it . . . transitioned into a sales office.”
Shortly after that, she got some manufacturing space at COVE.
“We make the piezoelectric ceramics in Collingwood and that will probably never change,” she said.
“But we then turn the piezoelectric ceramics into the acoustic sensors, and that whole product line has been shifted to Nova Scotia.”
Unmanned vehicles remotely operated, and sensors that go on an underwater vehicles, the designers must be very conscious about weight and drag, and the light weight piezoelectric ceramics have an advantage.
“Our plan is to create a whole suite of products that will support the unmanned vehicles,” Somayajula said.
The company’s expansion in Dartmouth has been slowly building, and that is part of what a recently announced $393,367 loan from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency will be used for, to fund the purchase of equipment.
While the company is eying new space in Burnside, Somayajula said, Sensor Technology just started construction Monday of a mezzanine at the company’s space at COVE to provide some better temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms for some processes used in the assembly of acoustic equipment.
“I actually live in both places,” said Somayajula.
“I have a home in Dartmouth and the home in Collingwood, and I spend a week in each. . . . I’m on a plane every Sunday, just trying to keep things going amidst COVID.
“I’m like the only person I know who’s still getting on planes these days, but we have so much going on in Nova Scotia. That team, while wonderful, they’re pretty new to the organization, so they need a hand and I’m the only one in the company willing to travel these days.”
She said she does “a modified quarantine because of some of the work that we do in the defence industry, we are considered essential, and so I am allowed to go to the office but that’s about it. I’m sort of expected to do a direct to office and back trajectory.”
Somayajula said she’s “trying to keep the plant running in Nova Scotia, and we’re expanding now at the same time. It’s lots of fun.”