Crisp air, with the clear feel of the terrain beneath your skis as you shift side to side, taking in the outdoors… and with a squeeze of a handle under your glove, you go just a little faster.
It’s been a long and winding trail, and Roshell Industries has powered through.
The start-up launched by Labradorian Donna Paddon and millwright-turned-inventor Jim Maidment is headed into regular production on the Skizee, motorized ski machine.
It all comes after years of intense, early attention to prototypes and then a couple of years that included settling details for manufacturing.
The company is now sourcing component parts in North America and has Design Manufacturing Inc. (DMI) in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland and Labrador signed as its key contractor, including final assembly duties.
“COVID helped us definitely cement that down,” Paddon said in a recent interview with Atlantic Business Magazine. She explained the company had been entertaining possibly producing final product in other provinces, including Quebec or New Brunswick, when the pandemic response measures began.
“You have to keep moving forward,”’ she said.
The uncertainty led to a decision to evaluate manufacturing some machine components and the machine assembly closer to home, in Paddon’s home province.
While having heard general comments about production on the island being particularly expensive, she said she was surprised by what she found when she went digging.
“It taught us … the capability was here, the price point was here and we were still able to arrive at our retail cost,” she said. The compact machines that can be fitted into the back of a pick-up or trunk of a car are currently priced at $4,990 (roughly US$3,820).
“We know, from looking at (DMI’s) capabilities, that they have essentially everything else that we would have had, that we needed, from a manufacturer anywhere else in the country. The entire ability to do this is here in St. John’s.”
DMI is locally owned and operated. The company began as a part-time business back in 2001, but demand led to a full-time operation beginning in 2007. DMI has since added more staff, machines and moved to a new location between two of the island’s busier industrial parks.
Roshell Industries is now laser-focused on working with DMI to fulfill 20 initial orders for the Skizee this winter. The run is limited, but is expected to prove up the forecast costs and will include deliveries to other parts of Canada, the United States and Europe. Assuming all goes according to plan, the company will be looking at aggressive marketing, new orders and increased output to a goal of at least 500 units for sale in 2021 and 1,000 units by 2022, meaning Atlantic Canadians can expect to hear more about power skiing in the near future.
The Skizee was invented by Paddon’s business partner and company president Maidment, a journeyman industrial mechanic and millwright, who would ski Snow Goose Mountain in Happy Valley-Goose Bay before his relocation to British Columbia. Maidment was actually inspired for his propelling invention after encountering broken ski lifts.
The Skizee he developed can now spur downhill skiers across vast expanses, and even uphill, by way of a motorized assist with a single, trailing track you might otherwise find on a snowmobile, operated by hand controls.
The earliest Skizee prototypes received international attention in the late 2000s, before the machine was anywhere near market ready.
Paddon is also principal consultant at Kashkuan Communications and Consulting, providing communications services and training for Indigenous communities and entrepreneurs. She has past experience as a federal Labrador policy advisor; as an assistant to the Grand Chief of the Innu Nation. She is perhaps even better known in the region for her extensive volunteer work.
She said Maidment offered her a partnership around 2015 and they created Roshell. Paddon would develop the business side to launch the Skizee, while he refined the concept design.
The Skizee then made a splash in 2018, when Maidment was shown zipping about Pippy Park in St. John’s on CBC N.L.’s evening news. It was suggested the product was ready for launch, but there were still manufacturing details the company needed to hammer out, and further business development demands, including settling on how to best market and deliver product.
Shortly after the feature in 2018, Paddon said, there were some small adjustments to the Skizee design, as Maidment considered efficiencies for manufacturing. A manufacturer-ready prototype was produced.
Beyond the tech, Paddon worked through a fundamental question for the company: was the Skizee going to be a powersports machine, or a mechanical assist for skiers? Was it going to be marketed to people looking for a shot of adrenaline, for a little zip, or would it be a new cross-country experience and about personal empowerment and being closer to nature?
During product development, Maidment made a point of testing the design on a wide variety of snowpack and conditions, in locations across Canada.
The company took to the trade shows to test the different audiences. First, there was the Toronto International Snowmobile, ATV & Powersports Show in Mississauga, marketed as the world’s largest snowmobile and ATV show.
“It was quite something to be exhibiting close to Bombardier and Polaris and the big name companies with our Skizee, but people were interested,” Paddon said, describing the response at the show as actually quite intense.
“That was one of our first opportunities to take this to where there would be well-established companies exhibiting and as well to see who that clientele was and to talk to them,” she said.
The company then presented the Skizee at the Toronto Ski + Snowboard Show, the largest showcase of its kind in North America, where she said there was a similarly strong response to the product and general pitch.
“That was really, really encouraging. And it helped us see it’s not so much about a powersports product, or being a skier, it’s about what people want to do outside in winter,” she said.
In the same way jet skis brought something new to the waterfront, the Skizee could hit the snow for different user types.
The trade show response re-affirmed to Paddon the interest, but also affirmed the thinking of the co-founders was on the right track when it came to personal use for rural winter explorers. There was also clear potential to further evaluate search and rescue applications and business-to-business sales for remote lodges and resort ski patrols.
The company is further exploring the military market and twice attended the Maritime Arctic Safety and Security Conference.
Paddon says many of the soon-to-be early Skizee owners made their bookings shortly on the heels of the media exposure in 2018. They agreed to Visa commitments to reserve their Skizees, but the company would draw down funds on delivery.
“All of our customers have stayed with us, which we’re really encouraged by,” she said.
In addition to launching production, Paddon and Maidment and the Skizee have just graduated from the Enterprise program at Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Genesis Centre. It was the first company from Labrador to graduate the program. Paddon said the centre and everyone she’s encountered in St. John’s have been extremely supportive. She said the Genesis Centre introduced her to “the whole language of tech product development” and the company to essential resources.
“You have your product development and you have your business development, and you need both to get out the door.”