GAMECHANGERS: Release the Kraken

Homegrown company takes sonar to a whole new level

Daniel MacEachern
Published on April 24, 2015

The Volvos show up in shades of yellow, red and brown, outlined through synthetic-aperture sonar capturing them where they’ve lain for more than 40 years: at the bottom of Halifax’s harbour.

Two dozen of the Swedish automobiles were dumped there in the late ’60s after they suffered extensive damage during an ocean crossing. Today, their fixed (if slowly deteriorating) positions make them ideal for tech companies to test sonar systems.

For Kraken Sonar Systems of Conception Bay South, it’s a way to demonstrate the difference between conventional sonar and their synthetic aperture sonar. Where conventional images show greyish blobs, the much higher resolution synthetic sonar shows the familiar outline of a car, its doors open.

“It’s probably the most sophisticated sonar technique in the world, and you can see very small objects and very long ranges,” says Karl Kenny, Kraken’s CEO.

“It’s like going from TVs in the ’30s to flat-screen LEDs today. It’s quantum. It’s not incremental change, it’s an order-of-magnitude change.”

Kenny’s work with the technology began when he was still CEO of the Marport group of companies in Newfoundland, which have since been restructured and sold off. The challenge, as he saw it, was that synthetic-aperture sonar was cost-prohibitive beyond military applications. He sought a way to bring the costs down to tap into broader commercial markets.

“One of these systems would sell for in the order of $3 or $4 million,” he said.

Successful trials with the Department of Defence’s research division in Halifax convinced Kenny he was on to something, and in 2012 he spun Kraken out of Marport into its own company, which moved into new offices in Conception Bay South in June and now employs about two dozen people.

“At the time, there were only four countries in the world that had this technology. Four countries! Because it was so expensive,” he said.

“The Americans had it, the Germans had it, the French had it and the Norwegians had it. Canada was very interested in having this technology, for obvious reasons on the defence side. So we attacked it from a software perspective. The whole idea was, let’s take the hardware costs out, let’s do it in software, do it in software, do it in software, where we got to the point where we are today, of having this incredible technology, and we’re able to sell it against conventional systems.”

That price competitiveness — Kenny says the same system that used to cost $3 million or $4 million now costs a tenth of that — is crucial to Kraken’s market share, he said.

“You walk into Future Shop or Best Buy today, and there’s a floor TV like your grandma or grandpa still have, one of those big, wooden cabinet ones, and you buy that for a thousand bucks, or right across the way is your flat-screen, hang on the wall LCD, and you buy that for a thousand bucks. Which one are you going to buy?” he said.

Kenny said Kraken — the name, taken from a mythical sea monster, was chosen as something that would resonate with potential clients — is exporting the technology around the world, including the U.K., France, Australia and China, and the company went public on the Toronto Stock Exchange in late February.

“It’s testament to the fact we didn’t give up, we believed in what we were doing, we developed an incredible technology, developed a series of products off that,” he said. “We’re building them right here and exporting them around the world.”