Steve Belyea and Isaac Barkhouse of Saint John’s Victory Advanced Technologies pose with a VW ‘Baja’ Beetle that’s been retrofitted with its high-performance electric drive system.Andrew Bates, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Steve Belyea had been working out how to make his favourite classic cars electric so his grandkids could drive them.

Now, he’s trying to corner the market on high-performance, electric drivetrains made in Saint John that can power everything from his 1971 VW “Baja Bug” to marine equipment to heavy machinery.

Belyea is the CEO for Victory Advanced Technologies, a Saint John startup founded in 2021 looking to commercialize made-in-house high-performance “full-kit” electric motors. The federal Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) is investing $400,223 in Victory as part of its Regional Economic Growth through Innovation program.

“The dream is global supply of a Canadian built, extremely robust, high-performance electric power train,” Belyea said, meaning a motor, battery, and the systems that make them go.

After two years in the research phase, the startup has taken its first purchase order and has meetings with U.S. clients, Belyea told Brunswick News earlier this week.

They’ll look to sell to manufacturers who will include the powertrains as part of their machinery, with a focus on smaller “bespoke” companies making everything from recreational vehicles, motorcycles, utility task vehicles (UTVs) and marine crafts.

“We’re electrifying everything right now,” he said. “As many of the large (manufacturers) that exist, there are as many small companies looking to get into the race. It’s almost like the early 1900s … internal combustion race all over again.”

The global market for electric motors was US$106.3 billion in 2020 and is expected to double by 2030, according to a press release. 

Waiting lists can run up to 16 months for a motor, Belyea said.

One end of the EV business involves low margins for vehicles sold at commodity prices, Belyea said. But Victory wants to serve the “high-performance” market looking for durable, reliable options suitable for motorsports or heavy machinery purposes.

“Our stuff is trying to be very high-performance, very robust, very rugged, that ‘Canadian-built’ quality the world is used to,” he said. “You can command a higher margin, better quality, better customer support.”

Belyea, also president and CEO for BASE Engineering, said the idea for the startup came as an “accident” while he was looking for ways to combine electric vehicle technology with his hobby of classic cars.

“I’m a car guy. I have a number of classic cars. I can see the writing on the wall,” he said. “It’d be a real sin for my children or grandchildren not to enjoy the vintage classic car hobby that I have … because of gas engines.”

While asking around for someone with experience in electric conversion, Belyea said he was connected with Isaac Barkhouse, a UNB electrical engineering grad who worked with Bosch in Germany before co-founding Potential Motors, in Fredericton.

Belyea and Barkhouse found that buying all the necessary parts, including the motor, battery, motor controller and battery management system, and it took “a great deal of work to get these things tuned and working harmoniously,” Belyea said.

“The deeper we got into this conversation … it seemed to make sense that there might be a business opportunity to manufacture everything as a system,” Belyea said. “If I’m struggling with this, everyone is struggling with this.”

The two of them brought in a third partner, Greg Hemmings, to found Victory, and they now have a team of six working out of an east-side space that had been used during the 1910s to manufacture the Maritime Singer Six automobile.

That includes Behrad Pedar, an engineer with experience at Renault in France and Turbotech in Iran who moved to Saint John for the project, and showed off thermal imaging of how the motor would operate on Tuesday.

The funding from ACOA, which was announced Friday in Saint John by Wayne Long, the MP for Saint John-Rothesay, on behalf of the Honourable Gudie Hutchings, Minister of Rural Economic Development and Minister responsible for ACOA, will allow them to “acquire the expertise, tools and equipment” to commercialize and manufacture the engine, according to the release. 

“Victory Advanced Technologies is poised to develop technology that represents transformational change in clean tech,” Long said in a statement in the release, which said the funding allows Victory to “acquire the expertise, tools and equipment” to commercialize and manufacture the engine. 

“The company’s vision is an example of innovative thinking and I’m so excited to see this kind of creativity and entrepreneurship happening right here in Saint John.”

The business has bought a CNC machining unit that will allow them to make aluminum and steel parts in house, Barkhouse said. Combined with 3D printing, that allows them to de-risk their supply chain, Belyea said.

Another step is to lower their dependence on motors made with “rare-earth” magnets which are facing supply chain issues related to where and how they’re mined, Belyea said.

“If you can produce motor doesn’t rely on that supply chain, it certainly makes for a more sustainable product,” he said.

A prototype rare-earth-free motor was sitting on the table in their conference room. Belyea said that commercializing a full motor with no rare-earth elements is still a year out, but the current design can been commercialized “in weeks.”

“The shift to electrification in general is the right thing to do for the planet, no question,” he said. “The first step was to figure out how to electrify. The second step is to figure out how to clean up the supply chain.”

Belyea said he’s not interested in developing the idea to sell it, but aiming to build a factory in Saint John. That would be down the line, when the company has put more sales numbers on the board and they’re “tripping over each other,” he said.

“We will outgrow the space we’re currently in … and at that point, we’ll gradually grow organically, it’s all sales based,” he said. “This year is about partnering with customers.”

By Andrew Bates, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 18, 2024 at 10:25

This item reprinted with permission from   Telegraph-Journal   Saint John, New Brunswick
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