With a vision to automate the world's dullest, dirtiest and deadliest jobs through their unmanned robots, Clearpath Robotics Inc. is making an international name for itself. The company's co-founders, Matt Rendall, Ryan Gariepy and Bryan Webb, were recently included in '40 Under 40: People to Watch in 2015', a list published by online magazine Business Insider, that placed the young Canadian entrepreneurs alongside Yahoo's Marissa Mayer and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg.
"That recognition is helping create more credibility and buzz around Clearpath Robotics as a major player in our industry," says CEO Matt Rendall, 30. "Big names aside, what's really exciting is we're the only guys on the list in robotics. That says something about the quality of the company we've built."
Founded in 2009 while they were still mechatronics engineering students at The University of Waterloo, Clearpath Robotics is committed to building robots for good – on land, water or in the air. The company's robotic solutions are used for research and development in over 30 countries in academic, mining, military, agricultural and industrial markets. High profile customers include the Canadian Space Agency, NASA, MIT and Carnegie Mellon University. Although the company has military clients such as Canada's Department of National Defense as well as the U.S. Army and Navy – their Grizzly robotic utility vehicle (RUV) is designed for heavy industrial and military field robotics – Clearpath was the first robotics company to join the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, calling for an international treaty to ban the use of robots as lethal autonomous weapons.
The Kitchener-based company, which broke even after only 18-months, currently has 75 staff and "multi-millions" in annual revenue. With one secretarial robot that greets you in their reception area and another that obeys commands via Twitter, they sound a bit like the robotics version of the CBS TV series, The Big Bang Theory. "We pretty much are," Mr. Rendall acknowledges. "We also have a robot named Sheldon."
The Business Insider list honours people who "disrupt industries." Do you see Clearpath Robotics as a disruptor?
Yeah, I definitely classify us as a disruptor. There's a lot of old school industrial automation companies and we're the crazy new guys trying to shake things up in an outdated industry. We were born into this technology and can make a big impact because we understand it better.
How far do you want to take Clearpath?
As far as I can. The market is growing very quickly. There's an opportunity for Clearpath Robotics to become a major global brand. I'd like to do for robotics what RIM did for smart phones in Canada. That's the magnitude of the opportunity we see here.
Where did your passion for robots start?
My business partners and I were the heads of the University of Waterloo robotics team. That was the springboard for us to develop our passion for robotics and ultimately decide to start Clearpath. We basically spun off directly from the robotics team into Clearpath Robotics.
Where do students get funding to start a company?
It was the global financial apocalypse in 2009, so finance was tricky. Investors weren't really interested in hardware, let alone robotics, so we focused on getting customers from day one. We actually got our first purchase order from the University of Waterloo while we were still students. We were contracted to develop an environmental robot for the engineering department. We used that early cash flow to finance the business.
Once we had a track record, we started working with some provincial and federal funding initiatives. The Ontario Centres of Excellence and NRC-IRAP [Industrial Research Assistance Program] were two major supporters early on. As we grew, we worked with FedDev Ontario and others.
It got to the point where we were growing our order book faster than we could finance through our own profits and government grants. About eights months into running the company, we had a half dozen purchase orders that we couldn't fulfill. So we went to the local angel investor community and got a small angel investment to finance those orders. All our investors are still onboard. The lead investor from that transaction in 2010 is our chairman.
What's your education? Any business training?
I did my Masters in business entrepreneurship and technology, but as for actual business experience from the field – no. We've been figuring it out as we go.
What's been the biggest learning curve?
Managing profitable growth. With success comes increasing demand and with increasing demand comes a requirement for more capital, people, infrastructure and larger facilities. It's ongoing. When you grow fast enough, those problems never end so managing the balance of all those different elements while still keeping enough cash in the bank is challenging. We're triple-digit growth so it's pretty explosive. Our three-year compound annual growth rate is 250 per cent.
Your website says Clearpath's number one priority is customer service. That's an interesting focus for a bunch of engineers.
Before Clearpath existed, I had a mug in university with a quote by Sam Walton on it that really resonated with me. "There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else." It stuck.
Because we had such a hard time getting financing, that forced us from the very beginning to listen to our customers, make sure they're happy and try to earn their business – not just the first time, but anytime that they'd need robots.
As a scrappy little startup, you make a lot of mistakes, but it's all about how you respond to those mistakes. Is it with integrity? Does the customer experience remain intact? That very simple philosophy of putting the customer first and delivering a top notch experience has enabled us to grow so aggressively.
What kind of mistakes did you make?
Cash flow. Early on, that discipline wasn't as established. When you're doing a build of robots, the timing of cash in and cash out is very unpredictable. One of the most shocking moments in our first year of business was when we found we had less than two weeks of cash left in the bank. That's pretty jarring. The painful lesson was to always respect and keep an eye on cash flow. Whether you're getting the cash from investors, customers, banks or the government, the number one role of the entrepreneur as the business is getting started is to make sure you never run out of cash.
The other is people. The impact a single person can have on your small business is significant. If you make the right hire, it's positive but the wrong hire can take your business to zero quickly. We made a lot of mistakes early on as we were tweaking the recruitment process and making sure we had the right people in the right seats. So we've spent a lot of time refining our communications and recruitment process to filter out the right people and the wrong people.
Is there one question you always ask?
What do you do for fun? We've got a culture with a fun, quirky energy. We want people who aren't boring. The result is we have teams emerging in our organization that are self organizing into board game nights, cooking classes and rock climbing.
What we're really looking for is passion. If they don't know how to exhibit passion outside of the workplace, how can they be passionate inside the workplace? We define passion as having an irrational love for something. If we didn't have this irrational love for robots, we would have quit a thousand times already.
What's most rewarding is we do hack days, hackathons, where our development team builds whatever they want to exercise their creativity. It puts them in charge of developing something they think is important. We get some really exciting results out of that. Just recently, the theme was model rocketry. The team was divided into groups and the goal was to launch as many little army men into the air as possible, then land them safely. It was a lot of fun.
What kind of boss are you at 30?
I think effective leadership is to not be a boss, but to be a coach and a sounding board and when necessary, provide some direction – but as little as possible to allow the employees to figure out their own way. That's how you build a resilient organization.
What's your advice to other would-be entrepreneurs?
Don't wait. The longer you wait, the harder it will be. The great thing about starting a company fresh out of school is that you're already used to living like a broke student. If you go work for a company first, you get used to a salary, you get a mortgage, start a family, have car payments. That thinking squashes more entrepreneurial dreams than it creates.