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Clearpath Robotics: A clear path to growth

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Clearpath Robotics

In just 4 years, Matt Rendall and his partners turned a passion for robots into a multi-million-dollar business “dedicated to automating the world’s dullest, dirtiest and deadliest jobs.”

Rendall formed Clearpath Robotics in 2009 with classmates Bryan Webb, Ryan Gariepy and Pat Martinson, when they were all still engineering students at the University of Waterloo.

“We built robots for fun and decided it would be great if we could make a living doing what we loved,” says Rendall, 29, who is CEO of Clearpath in Kitchener, Ontario.

The group was also motivated by a desire to make a difference through robotics. Their initial project centred on building a remote-controlled device for clearing landmines in war-torn countries.

Reality check

“We named the company Clearpath Robotics for our original mission,” Rendall says. “We built prototypes and drafted a business plan, but we hit financial barriers and other challenges too large for a student startup.”

So the group decided to go after another market, selling their devices to researchers working in difficult or hazardous conditions.

The shift in direction reflected Rendall’s view that many startups fail early because they ignore market realities.

“We didn’t incorporate our company until we received our first purchase order,” he says. “We decided it was not worth starting a business if we couldn’t convince someone to give us money. In fact, we had six purchase orders before producing the first robot and sought angel investors to finance building it.”

The company became profitable within 18 months and now sells its products in 35 countries. It employs 37 people. With an annual growth rate of 100%, the company works with academic, corporate and military clients around the world, including the Canadian Space Agency, NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

From Ontario to Mars

Clearpath robots include vehicles that can be fitted with sensors and other research equipment and can be customized to perform tasks over all types of terrain and in water. The company, which augmented angel investments with a loan from BDC, sells a wide range of products—at prices from $2,000 to $2 million—because customer needs vary so greatly.

For example, the popular Husky robot patrols landfills to sniff out potentially harmful gas emissions and also operates in a Chilean open-pit mine seeking hazards. Closer to home, a gold mine in Ontario uses the amphibious Kingfisher to collect data safely in a tailings pond.

“Our platforms are also being used by space programs to prepare for future exploration of the moon and Mars,” Rendall says.

The Toronto native credits an entrepreneurial family background for his skills, as well as a business program for technology graduates at the University of Waterloo. The region’s Accelerator Centre also helped get Clearpath up and running.

Balancing growth and profit

“BDC’s support was critical because it allowed us to free up our working capital and retain more ownership in the company,” he says. “Every dollar of our own money we had to spend on inventory was a dollar we couldn’t invest in hires and the future of our business.”

Rendall and his partners have big ambitions for their company and that means the emphasis is on investing for growth.

He also emphasizes the importance of keeping a close eye on the books. “It’s a matter of cash flow discipline. We analyze every deal to ensure it meets our profitability criteria.”

A human heart

“Your people are the heart of the organization and will make or break your success,” he says. “We work with self-driven experts who have multidisciplinary skills and we are passionate about what we do.”

Rendall stresses the importance of constant innovation, especially as robotics becomes ever more widespread. An important part of the company’s innovation strategy is to maintain close relationships with customers and seek their feedback.

It’s the journey

Ultimately, Rendall sees the success of the company as the triumph of passion for robotics over the roadblocks that have threatened the company’s survival. “We have an irrational love for robots. It makes no sense that we’ve continued to operate through some of the challenging times along the way,” he says. “But I don’t really view it as work. This was what I did for fun before we started the business. We’ll continue because we’re in love with it…and we’re stubborn.”

Lessons learned

  1. Make sure there’s demand for your product, modifying it and your business model as necessary.
  2. Adopt an ambitious vision for your company.
  3. Listen to your customers’ feedback to guide your innovation projects.
  4. Watch your cash flow and invest for growth.
  5. Be prepared for setbacks on your journey.
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