MOST PEOPLE LOOK AT A WAVE AND SEE WATER CRASHING IN ON ITSELF, BUT NOT Randy Billard. For him each wave is a marvel of mathematical possibilities. He is stoked by how wave energy is transferred and the tremendous forces it can exert. And he’s proud of his ability to use mathematics, physics, and computational software to visualize and model the wave interaction with small vessels and produce training simulation programs for vessels at sea.
The chief technical officer at Virtual Marine Technology Inc., the largest marine simulation training company in Canada, Randy Billard has always had a head for numbers and their practical application. Born in 1978, he grew up in rural Isle aux Morts, on the south coast of Newfoundland. Excelling in math at school, he retained an appreciation for tangible solutions. “I come from a family of fishermen and teachers and my wife’s family had a similar background in forestry. Their attitude is, ‘you get up and put in an honest day’s work and figure out your problems as you go’,” says Billard.
“Because of their experience and their way of life, as traditional fishing people, my father’s and grandfather’s generations have an inherent know-how when it comes to the ocean—how dangerous it can be and how quickly it can change,” he says. “Because of the need to be self-reliant they have practical skills that speak to an education they earned the hard way.”
It was that traditional approach to problem solving that gave Billard his understanding of invention. “Innovation is centred on going towards what you don’t know and finding a solution, and then applying it to the world,” he says. And it is that spirit of invention that motivates him.
While Billard is proud of his heritage on Isle Aux Morts, he bristles at the suggestion that his choice of career has anything to do with his famous ancestors Ann Harvey and her father George. In 1828 they endured harrowing seas in a small dory to rescue 163 people shipwrecked on a tiny spit of rock two kilometres from shore. Billard grew up in the same community as his famous relatives but he prides himself on launching his own career as a “numbers guy.”
“I get my motivation to do what I do from my own awareness of harsh environments,” he explains. “Living in Newfoundland and Labrador puts us right in that state of mind where, when someone wants to know about launching lifeboats into the waves, we understand the problems and the possible solutions,” he says. “We all have stories from our past of a relative who tipped over a boat or who had to weather a storm at sea.”
After high school he started on a math degree at the Grenfell Campus of Memorial in Corner Brook but after the second year switched to mechanical engineering at Memorial’s main campus in St. John’s, graduating in 2003. “Practical engineering looked more promising and we studied everything from how engines work to how we take oil out of the ground. In all of that the part I liked most was fluid dynamics,” he says.
In the lead up to his graduation with his B. Eng. Billard had job offers. There was work with government, construction in Alberta, but nothing that really grabbed his attention. “So I decided to go back to school and do something a bit different. I knew I liked fluids and I knew I liked math and had a half dozen masters programs I could choose from but only one stood out, numerical modelling of small boats and waves.”
The principles behind this program included Antonio Simões Ré, Senior Research Engineer – NRC – OCRE, Brian Veitch, professor of ocean and naval architectural engineering with Memorial’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, and Anthony Patterson who, after a career as a captain with the Canadian Coast Guard, was at that time working with the Marine Institute’s Centre for Marine Simulation. “The day after I graduated that they took me in as agraduate student and I was immediately part of the simulation project,” he says.
“We were all very different people, driven by different passions and interests, but we all complemented each other with our skills,” explains Billard, “and we all have the same goal, to save lives at sea.” Billard is convinced that he would not be where his is today if it was not for the level of support he received from those three and from Dan Walker, an early member of the innovation ecosystem. They gave him the opportunity and management experience as a graduate student, they mentored him, and then challenged him to see marine simulation as a business opportunity. He graduated in 2006 and his role with the VMT team has continued to evolve.
“When I started my masters I hadn’t considered becoming an entrepreneur, but I was immediately interested, given how adventurous it all sounded,” admits Billard. “I am an engineer who was converted to an entrepreneur.”
According to Billard the decision to launch a business “is like jumping off a cliff.” But he received a great deal of support from the team and from his family. When he told his wife Tonya, he asked her, “Are you okay with me doing something unconventional instead of just taking a job to earn money?” She first asked him, “Are you sure you know what you are doing?” He told her, “No, but that is the best part of it. This is going to be different, but people have done this before, taken the punches, and gotten somewhere. And it makes me excited to get up in the morning. That was all she needed to hear,” says Billard.
In 2004 they incorporated and suddenly Billard’s career was on a fast track. In that first year, he was learning the ropes and, “it quickly became more than just about building math models and all about building a technology that we knew would prepare people for offshore emergencies.” Billard says “You grow up real fast when you operate a business. Everything you do impacts the business. You have to start managing people and product from day one. But it is the people and learning to be a good team leader that will make or break you.”
“VMT has become well established and we continue to grow our product and our brand,” says Billard who is prouder of the team today than at any time in more than a decade of operations. “What we are able to do today is a product of a strong research and training background. We have built a team around a culture of building world-class simulations, and I have the privilege of working with some of the best engineers and leaders in the world, and working with them to build a technology that is having an international impact on the way people prepare for offshore emergencies.”
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