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Q&A: How Deep Trekker turned a summertime hobby into a global business

Q&A with Sam Macdonald, President of Deep Trekker, about her company's success in Waterloo.

Waterloo has more than 150 years of history in the manufacturing industry, and today the community is home to 1950+ manufacturing companies with 50+ developing technologies in robotics, hardware, aerospace and industry 4.0.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and Deep Trekker founder Sam Macdonald’s dive into underwater robotics brought that proverb to life: she wanted to explore shipwrecks in the Great Lakes, but most existing technologies were far too expensive. She then built a prototype and realized that she could produce a product at a much lower cost than potential competitors.

Deep Trekker is now a global provider of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), or as they refer to them, “swimming robots”. This summertime idea turned scaling company now features four product lines of ROVs and operates worldwide in numerous industries.

We sat down with Macdonald, the President and co-founder of Deep Trekker, to discuss why Waterloo was the ideal place to grow her company.

Q: How did you break into the ROV market? How did you continue to build your brand in the ROV market?

Sam Macdonald, President, Deep TrekkerMACDONALD: In 2010 I really wanted to make a toy for myself, growing up in the Great Lakes area there are thousands of shipwrecks, many of those are undiscovered and I always had a dream of finding my own wreck right here in the Great Lakes.

What we found was instantly people were interested in the ROVs for other things like fish farms. Our first customer found our website online, he was selling lighting systems to fish farms in Norway. He bought our first 10 units and we were suddenly in business, international out of the gate. What we thought was going to be a fun toy ended up being a very useful tool and we’ve expanded around the world in nine different industries from there.

We also really like to immerse ourselves by getting out there at trade shows, working directly with the customers to learn what their specific needs are for the ROVs. So, as opposed to saying “Hey, we’ve got this tool, will it work for you?” We’re out there going “What is your project, what is the application that you need for underwater inspection?” And then building the right tools for those different industries. So we’ve been able to make many different add-ons and make several modifications to the ROVs to meet those specific industry needs.

Q: What sets Deep Trekker apart from its competition in the ROV industry?

MACDONALD: When we started looking at ROVs, I found that there was nothing that was out there under 40 or 50 thousand dollars. These things were complicated, they were difficult to use and they were really inaccessible to most small businesses and treasure hunters like myself. So we endeavored to go out and make a really high quality product that was very simple to use.

We found ways to really work our supply chain, simplify some of the designs and make a high quality commercial grade product that was under ten thousand dollars. And this opened markets for people who had never heard about ROVs.We started taking them to energy shows and people would say “what is that, an underwater drone? I had never heard of this.” And now they’re using them in a big way for their infrastructure inspections and we found that this happened in a number of different industries. We made a product that was as accessible, commercial grade and robust, and brought it to people who had never heard of it before.

Q: What aspects of the Waterloo community have been the most beneficial to Deep Trekker?

MACDONALD: I love being in Waterloo for a number of reasons. One is that it really feels like a home town, this is the area I grew up in, but some of the bigger benefits to that is we are in the middle of three world-class institutions. We hire from the University of Waterloo and Conestoga College, we love having that talent pool, but we also love being out of that big city feeling. We have a very friendly culture here, very much family focused and the region really offers that type of environment.

Q: How has the Waterloo community assisted you as a startup to a scaling company?

MACDONALD: We have enough people building wonderful things right here in the region that if I run into any type of problem or have a question, I have a network of people that I can call on at any time. I’ve called up some of the CEOs of other robotics and technology companies right here in Waterloo and said “Hey, let’s have lunch together, I have a problem that you might have run across before. I’d really like to run something by you.” Waterloo offers that family friendly, really warm culture that we have at Deep Trekker.

Q: Why did Deep Trekker open and choose to expand in Waterloo?

MACDONALD: When it came time to find office space I started looking around the region and I found the Accelerator Centre right away. They were offering not only fantastic office space but also connections to organizations like Communitech, as well as a pool of mentors that were available through their programming. We were instantly immersed in the Waterloo tech environment.

When we thought about where we were going to put our first building and where we were going to expand, this was the perfect region for it. Because of that access to the international airport in Toronto, as well as the talent pool coming out of the local universities and colleges, this was a perfect spot for us. So let’s call it a lucky accident that we happened to be here already, but we have no motivation to move out because it is just the perfect place to be.

Q: What is your experience with the locally developed talent in Waterloo – graduates and co-ops?

MACDONALD: With Conestoga College, the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University we’re seeing a lot of diverse skills coming out of the schools here in the region. With Conestoga College offering real hands-on experience with their co-op program as well as the University of Waterloo having a very high academic standard, we’re able to fill our needs for mechanical engineering, mechatronics engineering and software development.

We are really pleased with the level of talent that we’re getting from our local colleges and universities. It’s been helpful and really motivates us to stay right here in Waterloo.

Q: Why should other companies consider investing in Waterloo?

MACDONALD: Waterloo offers a wealth of resources in terms of access to major highways, access to the Pearson International Airport where we can get a direct flight to anywhere in the world, as well as that diverse talent pool that you have right here. I wouldn’t make any changes with regards to where we are.

What I found was that the ecosystem, with Communitech, with the Accelerator Centre and being right in the heart of the University of Waterloo campus really helped us out. We do recruiting events at the University of Waterloo and Conestoga College, pulling from their co-op programs as well. We’ve found that those resources have been helpful in the growth of our business over the last 10 years.

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