Robotics is a complicated business.
You need to have visionary leaders who can identify a problem expensive enough to need robots and a solution affordable enough that it’s reasonable. You need top talent in two very different industries, technology and manufacturing. You need support: money and expertise.
There’s a reason why you don’t see robotics clusters popping up everywhere.
We know that Waterloo is home to Canada’s largest robotics and automation cluster for a reason. We’ve written about it, of course. But, what you can’t capture in an ecosystem map or a high-level summary is the lived experience of a CEO looking to grow a robotics company in Waterloo.
To provide that context, we spoke with Clearpath Robotics and OTTO Motors CEO and Co-Founder Matt Rendall about his company’s origins, where he finds talent and more. Here’s what he said:
Q: Let’s start at the start – where did Clearpath Robotics come from? It really seems like a product of the Waterloo ecosystem.
RENDALL: If you rewind back to 2008, when we graduated and started the company, the economy wasn’t in a great place. And we were starting a robotics company, which at the time was a crazy idea. It was the resources inside of the Waterloo tech ecosystem that helped us stay grounded, get oriented and navigate our way through some challenging economic times.
Q: How does the University of Waterloo fit into this narrative?
RENDALL: I mean, to say the University of Waterloo played a foundational role wouldn’t do it justice.
If you look at some of the things that the University of Waterloo offers engineering students – the biggest thing is co-op. Co-operative education means every single student who goes through the program is going to get six work terms of practical applied experience in the workplace. These students are able to iterate really quickly, take learnings from the classroom, apply them in the workplace, get better grounded on those concepts then go back to school and refine their learning.
Q: And this is paid work, too. It’s less than you’d pay a graduate or experienced worker, but the company taking on a co-op is getting lots of value. That’s why global companies like Google, Microsoft and Disney are involved with University of Waterloo co-op students.
RENDALL: The oft-overlooked benefit – from a tech startup point of view – is that as a participant in co-operative education, you’re taking your six four-month work terms, and four months of work is just enough time to save up money to pay for the next semester of school. If you do it right, you can actually graduate without any debt, or at least minimal debt. And if I had been saddled with student debt, I wouldn’t have been able to take the risks that I took in starting the company.
And then finally, I would say, the entrepreneurial spirit at the University of Waterloo has a lot to do with the intellectual property policy where 100% of what you develop you own. As an entrepreneur, inventor and engineer, that’s incredibly motivating, right? Everything that I have created during my study is mine. That policy also creates an environment where entrepreneurial professors apply and want to work and research at the University.
Q: Can you speak a little bit more broadly about talent in Waterloo Region, especially as it relates to robotics? Engineering programs, computer science programs, that type of thing.
RENDALL: Waterloo has an incredibly diverse talent base. You know, obviously, it starts with very highly educated, highly skilled technologists, whether it’s an engineer or a computer scientist, or a mathematician or an actuary. But as it relates to robotics and automation, there’s also a really long vibrant history in manufacturing. If you have a robotics company, yes, it’s important that you can get great talent from the universities, but you also have a really rich pool of talent that you can pull from in traditional industry, in automation and systems integration. And to be successful, you really need both.
Q: And then there’s non-tech and non-manufacturing talent. That’s pretty important, too.
RENDALL: Right. If we only had roboticists and automation personnel, then who’s running finance? Who’s running marketing? Who’s running operations? You really need the complete picture. Waterloo has this really great critical mass in terms of overall population, where it’s still small enough that you can navigate and become a meaningful player in the ecosystem quickly, you know, the whole adage of a big fish in a small pond, right? The pond is big enough that you can achieve scale here, but small enough that you can navigate and network and interact with basically anybody inside of the community.
Q: You were one of those bright young engineers from University of Waterloo, weren’t you?
RENDALL: I graduated from the first class of Mechatronics Engineering at the University of Waterloo. In fact, my co-founders and I are all from the Mechatronics Engineering program. Mechatronics Engineering is this amazing combination of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, software engineering, and systems design, which kind of packages all these components into a system, like a robot. It’s such a diverse base of disciplines, often what you’ll find is a mechatronics engineer will still have an area of specialty. And so of the four co-founders, one was a specialist in mechanical engineering, one was a specialist in electrical engineering, one was a specialist in software engineering.
Q: Given this education, I’m sure you’re very familiar with the experts and research facilities at the University of Waterloo. Has Clearpath worked with them?
RENDALL: Over the years, we’ve looked at a variety of different ways to expand our relationship with the University of Waterloo. We have a long history with mechatronics and the engineering department, obviously, but there are specialty labs in advanced robotics and autonomous vehicles, and we’ve cultivated deep relationships with them, too. We’ve also established a research partnership with the management sciences department to help with an optimization problem of effectively deploying a robotic system or a network of robots operating on a factory floor.
Q: Before coming here, I took a look at the Clearpath Robotics LinkedIn Page – you have a ton of Conestoga College graduates working in everything from HR to supply chain to engineering. Can you talk a bit about the importance of an institution like Conestoga College?
RENDALL: Conestoga College has played a critical role in how we’ve built our business. When you commission an autonomous vehicle in a factory for an advanced manufacturing customer, there are PLCs, and system integration and SCADA systems and all, you know, more traditional applied automation skill sets needed. There’s also other great non-automation programs at Conestoga College that we’ve been able to pull from, to help round out the skill sets outside of robotics and automation, like HR, finance, operations, marketing, etc.
Q: We’re always writing about the local support ecosystem, especially places like the Accelerator Centre and Communitech. Did they play any role in the growth of Clearpath Robotics?
RENDALL: The Waterloo ecosystem has really embraced hardware startups. If I rewind back to when we were going through the ecosystem, the early days at the Accelerator Centre, it was a time when mobile apps were the big thing to develop. If you weren’t developing a mobile app, you weren’t an investable company. And here we were, robotics engineers trying to build autonomous vehicles.
The Accelerator Centre was set up for software development. And so, in the evenings, after everybody had gone home, we would book out the boardroom, lay down newspaper and set up an assembly line. And in the morning, the next day, we would have tried to clean up as well as possible, but there’d be like little oil spots, or a nut or a bolt. We’d get spoken to about needing to make sure we leave the room the way that we found it.
Little interactions like that were formative in helping identify what is needed to support a hardware business. And over the last five years, the resources around assembly and quality and supply chain management and even just facility space to do the work has come leaps and bounds. And so, you know, robotics is especially of interest for me, but I think for hardware in general Waterloo has a tremendous amount of extra focus or specialty in helping hardware companies grow.
Q: I’m not from Waterloo originally, and I know you aren’t either. When I arrived, the culture really blew me away. It’s hard to describe, but you can almost feel it when you’re here. I know terms like “collaboration” and “problem solving” are buzzwords in most places, but it’s incredible how apt they are with this place. Do you think that’s accurate? Has Waterloo’s culture had any effect on Clearpath’s growth?
RENDALL: I grew up in Toronto. And that’s, I think, a really good example of being a small fish in a very, very big pond. Right? So, as a new entrepreneur, how do you navigate those waters? Just connecting with the right people to help you solve a problem is a monumental task in and of itself.
In Waterloo, I think one of the most amazing parts of the ecosystem here is the fact that it’s big enough that there are really meaningful success stories – people with real experience – and the community is small enough that you’re one or two or three connections removed. It’s often just asking one person and you’re an email introduction away from a very deep subject matter expert that could help advise or mentor you in that particular problem. And so the tangibility of the culture here, I would say, is rooted in just a natural human desire to help. Everybody is tremendously helpful here. Remarkably helpful.
Q: That leads nicely into my last question. If you were to describe Waterloo in just a few words, what would they be? What’s the elevator pitch for this place?
RENDALL: Incredibly smart. The intelligence in the community here is pretty remarkable. Very entrepreneurial. Very helpful. And resourceful. I would probably say if you look at what we’ve been able to accomplish as a community, given how small we are – the inputs that we have relative to the outputs we produce – I think resourceful is pretty accurate.
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