Building the first electric snowmobile

Engineering graduates turn a student project into a promising business, with the help of McGill’s start-up competition

You know you might be on to something when your student project elicits emails from around the world with offers to buy your product. In this case, the product – an electric snowmobile – was a student vehicle, developed by three McGill engineering students and their peers for a university competition.

“I guess people were looking [around] for cleaner alternatives to snowmobiles,” says Sam Bruneau, BEng’15, of the queries from ski hill and tour operators in North America, Europe and Brazil.

They emailed the student team’s account, asking if they could buy one. “And we were like ‘no, we’re still students’,” Bruneau laughs.

But the interest spurred on Bruneau, Gabriel Bernatchez, BEng’16, and Paul Achard, BEng’14, who ended up pursuing the idea and launching their electric snowmobile startup, Taiga Motors, in late 2015.

Others have converted gas snowmobiles to electric, “but this is the first specifically-built electric snowmobile in the world,” Bruneau says.

The company contends its zero-emission vehicle can outperform the best combustion snowmobiles and is much quieter, too.

The Taiga team built five beta versions of its snowmobile this year and showed off its product to ski resorts, rental operators and recreational riders during a demo tour to Colorado, California, Whistler and Revelstoke, B.C.

Reaction from ski hills has been really positive, according to Bruneau. “It’s a perfect fit for them,” he says, citing big cost-savings – the battery-operated snowmobile doesn’t use fuel – and the environmental angle. “They often receive complaints about noise and bad odour from all the exhaust that [their snowmobiles] generate.”

Taiga Motors has faced skepticism about how its fast-accelerating vehicle would hold up performance-wise to regular snowmobiles, Bruneau acknowledges, namely the assumption that since it’s electric, “it must weigh a ton.” But it weighs 500 pounds, the same as the lightest gas snowmobiles, he says.

“They’re really surprised by it, and then they ride it and everyone gets off with a smile, even the biggest skeptics.”

With more than 1,000 pre-orders, the company is raising money for the next phase – production – which Bruneau notes is a lot more capital intensive.

They aim to deliver their vehicle mainly to ski hills and other commercial entities starting next winter, and then in late 2020, begin rolling out deliveries to recreational users.

“We had kind of a wild reception from the European countries we hadn’t anticipated,” Bruneau says, of Norway, Finland, Sweden, Italy, Austria and Iceland.

They’ve been flooded with requests, “especially on the commercial side because [in] a lot of these European countries, recreational snowmobiling has been banned for awhile because it’s heavy impact on the environment. Many of these people lost a lot of business in the past. And electric would be a great way to bring it back and introduce a new generation to the sport.”

The vehicle’s thermally controlled lithium-ion battery needs to be recharged after 100 kilometres. Taiga hopes to extend it to 200 km in five years, putting the range on par with any gas snowmobile, says Bruneau.

He and co-founders Bernatchez and Achard met while taking part in McGill Formula Electric, an extra-curricular project where students design, build and race formula cars.

Soon after launching their company, the trio won a first-place prize and $15,000 in seed funding at McGill’s Dobson Cup startup competition.

“It’s just great to get all this input from experienced [mentors], and then winning it was a huge help. It would have been really hard to raise money without having won the Dobson Cup."

The networking was the best thing because the McGill network is really strong, adds Bruneau, noting they met their second investors at a McGill alumni dinner in Boston.

Their first financial backer was angel investor Tim Tokarsky, BSc’88, a long-time Dobson Cup judge and co-founder of the McGill X-1 Accelerator, an intensive summer program for McGill startups.

“I invest in people ... I liked their passion and their intensity,” says Tokarsky who sits on Taiga Motors’ board. “And for me it’s all about passion and if you’re passionate about something, you’re going to get it done.”

Taiga Motors’ has tested its electric snowmobiles with hundreds of users from the East coast to the Western Rockies – an experience that has provided the Montreal-based startup with data and feedback to refine its design before launch. Bruneau says they’ve designed everything to translate easily to other power sport applications, such as personal watercrafts and all-terrain vehicles.

“Our mission is to make power sports sustainable so anyone can experience the exhilaration of the great outdoors without the heavy impact on nature.”