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Avidbots Corp.’s autonomous floor-scrubbing robotsHandout

Demand has doubled for Avidbots Corp.’s autonomous floor-scrubbing robots since the COVID-19 pandemic hit North America, as property owners and managers rush to disinfect surfaces that they once took for granted.

The cleaner, called Neo, looks like a hulking photocopier on wheels, and can be found trawling the floors of universities, warehouses, malls and more across the globe. It drops water or cleaning solution onto the ground, scrubs away, then sucks the dirty solution back into the machine. Users don’t have to include disinfectant in the solution – but many of its new owners are buying Avidbots’ Neo specifically for disinfection.

Spurred in part by a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that found the novel coronavirus can live on floors and be carried elsewhere on shoes, many executives are now turning to the six-year-old Kitchener, Ont., startup to solve this need without further risking the health of janitorial staff.

“Disinfecting is now top of mind for a lot of top executives in a way that it wasn’t before,” said Faizan Sheikh, Avidbots’s chief executive officer and co-founder.

The company has 160 employees, largely based out of its manufacturing facility in Kitchener, and has sent Neos to clean hundreds of buildings in the United States, Australia, Japan, parts of Europe and other jurisdictions. It has raised US$36-million in venture financing, including US$24-million in growth capital 13 months ago in a round led by California’s True Ventures.

Not only have customers such as airports been buying Neos for use during the crisis, but Mr. Sheikh says many clients, including universities, have been ordering the robots to use when they’re able to cautiously reopen to ensure that they don’t spark another wave of infections.

“Everyone who experienced this is not going to forget this,” Mr. Sheikh said.

Neo cleaners can be found in airports worldwide, including Montréal–Trudeau, Singapore Changi and Paris Charles de Gaulle, as well as hospitals such as Sunnybrook in Toronto.

Customers are coming to Avidbots for more than just COVID-19-related needs. Shipping giant DHL International GmbH will announce Monday that it will roll out hundreds of Avidbots’s cleaners for use in warehouses worldwide in the next few years as part of its long-term robotics investment.

Gina Chung, DHL’s head of innovation for the Americas, said in an interview that the company was impressed with both Avidbots’s customer focus and Neo’s technical capabilities. “You have visibility and confidence that cleaning has been done consistently,” she said.

With demand up by 100 per cent, Avidbots’s Kitchener factory has been busy – and taking precautions. Those who can are working from home, while other workers, particularly in assembly roles, are required to wear protective equipment. Portions of the Neo assembly have been staggered further apart so that workers remain distant from each other, too.

Avidbots is actually hiring right now ­– both in Kitchener and for sales positions abroad. Mr. Sheikh has heard from many people over the years who say they’re fearful of robotics supplanting jobs; with worker health now a massive societal priority, he hopes more people will see the benefits of having a robot in the workplace. “It’s here, it’s going to do a dirty and dangerous job, and people don’t have to,” he said.

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