President and CEO, Thoth Technology Inc.
Finalist, TELUS Trailblazer Award, CENTRAL
When Caroline Roberts co-founded Thoth Technology in 2001, she saw a market opportunity in Canada’s vibrant space sector, providing services to validate equipment for spaceflight. The space and defense company now has three divisions — Space Tracking and Navigation, Space Test, and Space Systems — with a headquarters at the Algonquin Radio Observatory (ARO). It’s here you’ll find Earthfence, the world’s first commercial deep space radar, which utilizes a 1,500 tonne antenna to track satellites in a 50,000 km range — the equivalent of detecting an insect at a range of 50 km.
My first job ever was… working as a cashier at an Elizabeth Drugs Store in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The store was one of a chain of drug stores that my grandfather owned. He was a medical doctor, a very successful entrepreneur, and a great inspiration to me. “Invest in banks,” he often said. “If the banks aren’t making money, nobody is.”
I decided to be a space entrepreneur when… I visited the European Space Research and Technology Center in Nordwijk, the Netherlands. The facility features massive thermal vacuum chambers for testing spacecraft, and I could see an opportunity to create a commercial company in Canada specializing in qualification services to validate equipment for spaceflight. We were the fourth country in space and the first to fly a domestic communications satellite. Canada has a vibrant space sector, and I foresaw a market to provide space-test services to large companies in need of overflow capacity as well as small companies who wouldn’t otherwise have access to this specialist equipment.
My proudest accomplishment is… having developed the world’s first commercial deep space radar. Earthfence utilizes a 1,500 tonne antenna to track satellites in geostationary orbits up to 50,000 km and is virtually undetectable. An equivalent performance would be to detect an insect at a range of 50 km.
My boldest move to date was… taking over the Algonquin Radio Observatory in Algonquin Park. The Observatory features a 46 m diameter radio telescope – the largest fully steerable antenna in Canada and one of the largest in the world. At the time it was transferred to my company, Thoth, it had just suffered major bearing failure. The refurbishment of it was a mammoth undertaking requiring around 20 person years of effort.
I surprise people when… they see me riding a powered unicycle. Professor Ue-Li Pen, Director of the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Toronto, introduced us to it. It’s very fun and really turns heads. The best reaction we’ve had yet was from a little boy who saw us riding and asked his brother, “Are they robot people from the future?”
My best advice to people looking to disrupt the status quo is… believe in your big, bold visions.
My best advice from a mentor was… from Allan Carswell, who advised me to have kids. Allan is the founder of Concord-based Optech, makers of Canada’s first lidar instrument on Mars. I was 36 at the time and debating whether to have children. I was and still am very career focused. To convince me, Allan said, “Caroline, my son now runs the Company.” It was what I needed to hear at the time.
If I could have dinner with anyone, it would be… my business partner and husband, Ben Quine, and I happily do most nights.
I would tell my 20-year old self to… keep up the good work! Also, in addition to banks, invest in technology companies, and start contributing to that RRSP!
My biggest setback was… the failure of the British Beagle 2 Mars lander mission. Thoth had secured rights from the prime contractor, EADS Astrium (now Airbus), to sell the lander technology in North America. When Beagle 2 did not return a signal, it was a blow.
I overcame it by… taking the opportunity to improve the lander design with fewer moving parts and greater robustness. We also studied everything that went wrong with Beagle 2. One of the mission’s biggest problems was communications, so when the opportunity to take over the Algonquin Radio Observatory materialized, we seized it, as it is the only asset in Canada capable of interplanetary communications. We are working on a private Mars mission called Northern Light and have all the elements apart from the launch. I am hoping Elon Musk can help us out with that. Elon was a student at Queen’s University when I was there too.
I never go a day without… being thankful for my job, my family, friends, and life in Canada.
The last book I read was… Canoe Country: The Making of Canada by Roy MacGregor.
I stay inspired by… looking up! I am fortunate to live and work in an area with very dark skies. Some nights at the Observatory, you can read by moonlight and see your shadow cast by the Milky Way. With our optical telescopes, we can see Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s moons. It is inspiring and humbling.
The future excites me because… of the tremendous opportunities we have thanks to the internet. Everything is at now at our fingertips because of a technology that I feel is still in its infancy.