In 1989, Louis Roy launched a business with the goal of shaping the future. But the world doesn't change just because you want it to. There's a long, hard road between coming up with a big idea and having a real impact. Despite the obstacles, the company was up to the challenge. Optel, now a global leader in traceability solutions, revolutionized the industry and is still doing so today.
Standing out from the competition
Roy founded his company while simultaneously starting his master's degree in physics. He and his partners launched their business with nothing more than what little savings they had in their Desjardins accounts, ownership of what was considered relatively new technology at the time and the determination to change things.
The data processing technologies developed by the Quebec business are directly integrated into production lines. Today, they link the producer to the manufacturer while also connecting the manufacturer to the consumer. By assigning a unique serial number to each product, whether it's a raw material or finished good, the company can track it wherever it goes. This makes it possible to optimize production and measure a product's large-scale impact.
Financing: A major challenge
Roy became an entrepreneur "because entrepreneurs are the people who change the world".
Even though Optel now has the largest market share in its industry, its road hasn't always been easy. "For the first few years, we were just trying to survive," Roy said. A lack of funds, costly development phases and delinquent clients combined to create a not-so-rosy outlook for the young entrepreneur. "We more or less survived by dipping into our personal funds," he added.
Access to financing is a major issue for new businesses. Optel's early years involved a major development phase, while the company wanted to focus its efforts on marketing its platforms. In need of venture capital, Roy turned to Desjardins, which gave the company its first loan. Optel was then able to roll out its technology in North America. "The loan helped us invest in marketing, which gave us some momentum," said Roy.
With the influx of capital, the startup gradually began to specialize in the pharmaceutical industry. It provides companies in the sector with inspection systems that check the quality of products and packaging. Although counterfeit medications are everywhere, the United States and several other countries have passed laws requiring that unique serial numbers be assigned to all their products to limit the circulation of counterfeits. Optel, which was already present in production lines, was well-positioned to play a key role in facing this challenge.
Reaching the limit
To excel, you sometimes have to take risks and invest without any certainty of returns. "Once we noticed this trend, we decided that for the next two years we wouldn't make any money, and might even lose some," said Roy.
"Some big companies offered to buy us, but we made the decision to stick it out on our own and try to keep the company's ownership in Quebec," he continued.
Once the second phase of investment began, "Desjardins came back to us. They believed in us and offered us some much-needed financing," said Roy, who says he grew up alongside the financial institution.
Pushing the boundaries
Today, Optel is taking some time to diversify applications for its technologies. In keeping with its goal of using its technologies to help build a better future, the company is currently expanding into a growing number of industries in the pharmaceutical, agri-food and natural resources sectors.
With connections to more than 300,000 small producers all over the world, the company is able to monitor social and environmental conditions in these industries. It tracks six billion products annually, collecting all kinds of data on their movements and composition. What Optel does is, as Roy puts it, "pretty wild".
By addressing major environmental challenges like deforestation and the loss of biodiversity caused by the palm oil industry, or major problems in healthcare, Roy has created a disruptive platform that forces us to face up to the facts. "I started this company because I wanted to have an impact. My main concern is the future of all our children," he said.
It's a future that Optel changes a little more each day.