Vancouver design firm pays homage to the local environment

Engineering design firm MistyWest creates products that make the world a better place.

0 July 13, 2016
Lindsay Luminoso

It started with an idea. Straight out of university, Leigh Christie and Josh Usher partnered on a design engineering venture around sports equipment. The duo struggled to gain traction, realizing they needed to learn more about their intended markets. Christie and Usher explored the electric vehicle market, battery design, and sustainable energy and transportation sectors, eventually launching their own company, MistyWest.

MistyWest Vancouver

The MistyWest team: (top l-r) Angela May, Madison Reid, Tyler Cooper, Dylan Groven, Tero Marin, Div Gill, and Aaron MacDonald; (middle l-r)Derek Disanjh, Oleha Riden, Justin Lam; (bottom l-r) Leigh Christie, Josh Usher, Steve Cooper the Dog, Vlad Lavrovsky and Denis Godin.

The company began to grow in earnest five years ago with the hire of their first employee, Derek Disanjh. Today, MistyWest has 14 full-time employees, 10 of them engineers. It’s a small company so everyone shares in the responsibilities. And that’s the beauty of it, explains Dylan Groven, business development lead at MistyWest.

“One thing that is strange about our company is that there is no intention to grow this into a 1,000 person company,” explains Groven. “We are seeing growth through increasing our knowledge base and skill set.”

MistyWest’s team is unique because it includes not only electrical and mechanical engineers, but also engineering physics majors, mechatronics engineers, industrial designers and firmware developers, all with varied skill sets.

“We hired engineering physics majors because we wanted people with skill sets grounded in first principles,” says Groven. “It goes back to the question of whether you can be good at a wide variety of things. The answer is, you can, if you have a team that can work from first principles.”

The goal is to do a lot of unique projects well, not just focusing in on one sector. The social impact of the project is also extremely relevant for the team, whose primary imperative is to do work that makes the world a better place.

One of the early projects MistyWest designed was a pulse oximeter to test for pre-eclampsia in the developing world. Pre-eclampsia is a highly treatable yet potentially lethal condition during pregnancy. In North America, a medical grade pulse oximeter could cost upwards of $1,000. However, the client, LionsGate Technologies, asked the team to shrink the cost to around $10.

“We were able to get the device down to $12 and we did that in 16 weeks – from prototyping, board spin, enclosure design and full production of the first run,” Groven says.

On average, the design firm works on five to 10 large projects and approximately 10 to 20 smaller projects annually.

Groven explains that the last three projects were extensive and included the development of a high-end, commercial batch coffee brewer, a proprietary 3D display system and daylight-visible LED signage for a large U.S. company.

Just prior to that, the team finished a development prototype of a particle counter for a product called TZOA for Clad Innovations. The device monitors air quality through optical particle counting of airborne particulates and reports values to a smartphone app via Bluetooth.

The company’s design philosophy is based on small teams, Groven explains, composed of three to four.

“At that level, the team is almost telepathic,” he says. “We can do design changes on the fly. When you have a small team, there is much less communication overhead and it decreases our design cycle time.”

A great example of this was the development of the coffee brewer. The customer needed a showable prototype for an upcoming conference. MistyWest was able to do a full product development cycle in two months, which would have normally taken upwards of a year, but the team was able to do it in the timetable needed.

The design team had never worked on a coffee brewer before so they encountered unique challenges, like understanding the varying levels of quality in coffee. In numerous taste tests, some team members couldn’t tell a difference in taste, whereas others who fashioned themselves as amateur baristas could provide better feedback to improve the end product.

“I guess as engineers, we are used to getting by with pretty crappy coffee,” jokes Groven.

In the past year, MistyWest has taken on projects in a range of industries like biomedical, 3D imaging, IOT, wearable devices, personal transportation and the sustainable energy sector. The company also provides a unique service where large companies with very capable engineering teams will hire MistyWest engineers as their R&D SWAT team to prove out a concept before they internalize it with their own engineering team.

“We are pretty diversified,” says Groven. “As far as saturation, we’ve been watching the market and we’ve seen an explosion of design related companies, which is a natural extension of the democratization of the means of production.”

The team is adjusting to shift in production through what they call “Agile for hardware,” using the design philosophy of rapid iteration, developing a minimum viable product, testing it, seeing where the failure points are, and doing a quick turn on the design, accelerating the development cycle. This allows them to meet the ever-evolving needs of their clients.

The company boasts a wide range of customers, with approximately 60 per cent of the business coming from the U.S., although Groven does note there is a very loyal customer base in Vancouver, largely because MistyWest really wants to grow the local industry.

“Half the reason why Josh Usher and Leigh Christie founded the company was that there is a phenomenal talent pool here,” he explains. “We are working with some very large, well-known companies in the U.S. and our engineers can work and compete with them. We also have a lot of connections with people in the Bay Area and understand the technology culture well. It’s humbling and instructive to know that we can develop at that level.”

MistyWest is showing the world that Canada offers a phenomenal post-secondary system, produces a great deal of talent and is letting the world know as a Canadian engineer you can definitely compete on a global scale and reach out to new markets.

“Canadian engineers kick ass,” boasts Groven.

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