Ontario company looks for new global reach—and does a pandemic pivot—with trade commissioner's help

With a history that dates back 45 years and sales in many parts of the world, Team Eagle Ltd. is no stranger to international business. But when the airfield operations equipment supplier in Campbellford, Ontario, started moving into different parts of its sector a few years ago—and recently came out with a whole new product to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic—an extra helping hand from the Ontario regional office of the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service (TCS) was welcome.

The TCS has been instrumental in helping us transition, pivot and move quickly to different products and different markets, says Cindy Porter, the marketing and funding manager for Team Eagle.

The company first began making, distributing and servicing heavy equipment for airport operations, safety and maintenance and then added proprietary leading-edge technology to its offerings. These runway reporting, safety and maintenance systems and devices allow airfield operators to pinpoint features, issues and safety boundaries in events such as snowstorms and emergency responses. Additional technology centered around safe aircraft braking and landings has recently become another major focus. It was developed following an accident at Chicago-Midway airport in 2005, where an airplane slid off a runway while landing in a snowstorm and crashed into automobile traffic, killing a six-year-old boy.

That product put the private family company into a whole new side of aviation. Looking to promote the technology and expand overseas, in 2015 Team Eagle met with Lisa Pogue, a trade commissioner at the TCS Ontario regional office who covers infrastructure.

Pogue says the firm is well-respected within the industry, has the potential to scale up quickly by acting nimbly and takes advantage of all that the TCS and its partners have to offer.

"They're very savvy in their market niche. What the TCS does is help them expand outside of their market niche," explains Pogue, who linked the company with trade commissioners in Canada and overseas and encouraged it to apply for funding to explore new markets under the CanExport SMEs program.

Ben McKeown, commercial business manager of Team Eagle Ltd.
Ben McKeown, commercial business manager of Team Eagle Ltd.

Porter says the company was grateful to get support from that program just before the start of the pandemic. This was intended to help Team Eagle begin the two-year process of launching and promoting new software under a brand new International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) global reporting format (GRF), which requires that airports around the world develop standards to report runway conditions to aircraft.

But when the COVID-19 crisis began, "airports were the number one hit market across the world," Porter says, and the process to roll out the GRF regulations was suspended. "Everything just halted for us."

Ben McKeown, Team Eagle's commercial business manager, says that instead of "standing there and waiting for the aviation market to come back," the company decided to "help fight COVID-19 around the world." It turned the ultraviolet lights used in hospitals into a portable lightboard that can be plugged into a vehicle cigarette lighter to quickly sterilize the air and surfaces in the cabs of airport equipment.

Called CleanRide UV-C, the device has been proven to kill the coronavirus and myriad other viruses and bacteria, without damaging a vehicle's interior or electronics. The company began selling the product in new applications like police departments, fire stations, municipalities and car dealerships in Canada and the U.S., "and when we told Lisa about it, she said, 'Well, you guys need to take this everywhere,'" McKeown recalls. Team Eagle signed up with a partner in Germany to sell the product around Europe, with assistance from Berlin-based trade commissioners Thorsten Henke, who covers industrial machinery, security and aerospace, and Enrico Nake, whose sectors include infrastructure and transportation.

Henke says the two helped Team Eagle with "further guidance and intelligence on our respective sectors, as well as contacts from our networks." Adds Nake: "The pandemic has created many ongoing concerns related to safe and hygienic workplaces, which can be addressed with the solution from Team Eagle."

McKeown says that adding Henke and Nake to the company's export journey "opened us up to markets that we had no chances of getting into," noting that sales of CleanRide also "kept us relevant in front of our customers."

He says that as the point person, Pogue "was instrumental in helping us come up with a Plan B," and she "really broadened our scope and our reach" beyond airport applications. "Lisa knows our business just as well as we do," he says, noting that there's a regular call where "we keep her up to date on absolutely everything we're doing."

Pogue in turn informs the company of special opportunities and things to watch out for, like ensuring its intellectual property is protected, McKeown says. "Lisa warns us about mistakes that might be costly and waste time—before we make them." He notes that Pogue gets excited when she hears good ideas from the company but is not afraid to disagree if she feels something won't work. "She gets back to us and says, 'Hey, that might not be the best idea. But here's six other options that you could be doing instead. And they're all usually better than the idea that we had."

Team Eagle, which today has 22 staff, expects to remain in the CleanRide market, he says, with increased awareness of the need to clean the surfaces and air in multi-user vehicles. Meanwhile, the ICAO is expected to introduce the GRF beginning this autumn. McKeown anticipates that the company's first launching pad for its technology to respond to the regulation will be in Europe, followed by places like India and China, where the aviation industry is growing quickly.

He looks forward to pursuing those opportunities under the guidance of Pogue, whom he calls "one of the most passionate and hardest-working people I've ever met in my life."

Pogue thinks the company "absolutely has potential" in the future. "I tell them, 'Airflight will come back and people will be hungry for what you have to offer,'" she says, noting that the GRF guidelines will reveal the importance and marketability of Team Eagle's runway safety technology. "I say, 'You're the only team, the only company worldwide that has a beautiful solution like this. Just hold on.'"

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