From above, a forest appears as an indistinguishable mass of bulbous green shapes, like florets on a giant head of broccoli. All that uniformity presents a challenge for foresters, who need to know what lies beneath the canopy. In the past, forestry companies would fly airplanes over swaths of trees and snap photos from the sky. A specialized group of individuals would then scrutinize the photos through stereoscopes and make judgments about the types of trees and estimate the volume of wood. With that crucial information, forestry companies could then plan their harvesting operations.
But analyzing photos is a slow, inexact process that can yield mistakes—sometimes costly ones. Kevin Lim was well aware of these issues. As a PhD student at Queen’s University some two decades ago, Lim began researching a new method to survey forests with lidar, an acronym for light detection and ranging. The technology uses a laser to fire a pulse of light, which bounces off objects and returns to a sensor. By timing how long the light takes to zip back, lidar can calculate the distance travelled. Repeated hundreds of thousands of times per second, the technology can build an accurate 3D model of the surrounding environment.
Lim’s thesis was the basis for the company he founded in 2006. Lim Geomatics, based in Ottawa, now has 21 employees and a suite of software products to help forestry companies manage their operations and provide accurate data on forest inventories, right down to the height of trees. The growth of Lim Geomatics, 80% over a three-year period, is not due to any one factor. Rather, the industry is finally catching up to Kevin Lim. “We’ve crossed the trough of disillusionment where people are like, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to work,’” he says. “They’re realizing if they’re not doing this, they’re probably behind.”
Lim, 45, endured skepticism when he first sought to bring lidar to foresters. The industry, he says, is hesitant to adopt new technologies. Moreover, Lim came to forestry as an outsider, someone who had never spent time in the wilderness felling trees. He had at least gotten his hands dirty before, though. As a high school co-op student for Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, he sifted through soil in search of pests, such as small worms called nematodes. “Most boring job ever,” he says.
Another high school co-op experience proved more consequential than nematodes. In the early 1990s, he worked for an internet service provider building websites, which led to consulting gigs with various federal government departments. The pay was good, especially for a teenager, and Lim began to wonder if he should bother with university.
His dad intervened. “In an immigrant household, you comply whether you like it or not,” Lim says. His father, who was born in Malaysia and grew up in Brunei, and his mother, who grew up in Taiwan, were both proponents of education. Studying computer science might have been the logical choice for a budding tech consultant, but he didn’t want to go into a “geeky” field. He had a love of the outdoors, though, and enrolled in environmental science at the University of Guelph, followed by a master’s degree in geographic information system (GIS) mapping at the University of Waterloo. GIS, which involves plotting data on maps, opened a new world for him. “It was a recognition that there isn’t a single piece of data on this planet that you can talk about devoid of geography,” he says. “You can start formulating relationships about how things are related in space and how they impact each other.”
He had never really heard of lidar before starting a PhD on it. The proposal to apply the technology to forestry was already written and the funding obtained by a professor at Queen’s whom Lim knew. Ironically, forestry was Lim’s second-worst course during his undergrad; it conflicted with his gym schedule. But when the prof asked if he was interested in the proposal, Lim found himself intrigued by lidar, which was still relatively new, and discovered he had a knack for it. He also saw a business opportunity and later commercialized his research by founding Lim Geomatics.
He decided to give himself 10 years to make it a success. But foresters weren’t just entrenched in their ways. Some just weren’t very tech savvy. While doing his PhD, he had met with folks who had no idea where to plug in a USB key, let alone pull up the software to view the GIS data it contained. That later sparked the realization that his company would have to build its own software.
He found companies willing to bet on him, though. His ability to explain complicated ideas in simple terms certainly played a role. “He has a way of dumbing down the concept so that at the end of your meeting with him, you have a really clear picture of it,” says Chad St.Amand, a GIS specialist who has worked with Lim at two different companies in the past 15 years or so.
He had seen first-hand the folly of relying on photo analysis. St.Amand worked at a company in the mid-2000s that operated a sawmill in Timmins, Ont. The mill had been configured for large-diameter wood, but the trees fed into it were much smaller than the data gleaned from photos showed. “The configuration that got put in, that was a multimillion-dollar investment, and it was wrong,” he says.
When St.Amand later joined Millar Western Forest Products in Alberta in 2015, he tapped Lim to transition the company to lidar, a process that took about two years. The company can now determine with better certainty the most profitable way to harvest a block of timber, build an operational plan years into the future and make capital investments. “In the past, you’d kind of throw a dart at a board,” St.Amand says.
Even as Lim Geomatics has grown, Lim has never taken outside funding, partly because he felt he never truly understood the financing world. Instead, he did consulting work on the side, typically GIS projects for the federal government, and put the money back into his firm. That allowed him to hire developers to build its suite of software products, which now includes applications that predict harvest volumes, bring GIS data to workers in the field and allow companies to monitor trucking fleets. About 60% of the company’s revenue comes from its software-as-a-service business, while the rest flows from consulting, custom software development and lidar forest inventory work.
Tolko Industries, headquartered in British Columbia, relies on a Lim product called Op Tracker to help with harvesting operations. Previously, workers had to trek through the woods and string ribbon for harvesting crews to know what to cut down. Op Tracker digitizes the process. Equipment operators are supplied with a tablet loaded with the Op Tracker app, which displays the harvest area on a map. The app sounds an alert if the vehicle strays out of bounds.
“It’s definitely increased our speed and productivity by making our operators more aware of where they are at any given time,” says Michael Morgan, a woodlands operations supervisor with Tolko. Efficiency is crucial, especially in Alberta, where the harvesting season lasts roughly 100 days while the ground is still frozen. “Once the ground thaws out, there is little access with the equipment,” Morgan says.
Lim is now many years past the 10-year deadline he gave himself to make his company a success, but there’s more to do. “One of the things that’s killing us right now is that people still don’t know who we are,” he says. Lately, he has been focused on building the company’s marketing team and experimenting with ways to get the word out, even launching a podcast earlier this year about foresters adopting digital technology. It’s a niche topic, sure. But for Lim, it’s one that’s served him well.
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