Basic requirements: planning, imagination and plenty of hard work
Moving a robotics venture from the “good idea” stage to “in production” is a long and complex process.
Many paths lead to success and, unfortunately, an even larger number of routes head toward failure.
Matthew Rendall, CEO and co-founder of Clearpath Robotics, a Waterloo, Ont., start-up, knows how challenging it can be to grow a robotic concept into a marketable technology.
“We cater to the niche academic, industrial and military R&D segment of the unmanned vehicles industry, offering robotics platforms to accelerate product development, reduce technology risks and control engineering costs,” Rendall says. “Our clients include major aerospace and defense contractors, heavy vehicle manufacturers and the world’s leading technology research institutes.”
Clearpath originated as a hobby project for members of the University of Waterloo Robotics Team. The company’s partners are passionate robotics enthusiasts who like to build robots in their spare time.
“The business was started as a way to make money doing what we love,” Rendall says. Initially, the business plan called for creating a team of small coordinated robots to detect landmines and map minefields.
“Unfortunately, this idea would have required millions of dollars in funding and years of development to commercialize,” Rendall says. The team quickly shifted its focus to the R&D market and filling the need for a rugged and easy to use robotics platform in academic robotics research.
Success Through Failure
“We started out in our local Waterloo technology start-up incubator, called the Accelerator Center,” Rendall recalls. “One of our mentors advised us early on that if we wanted to succeed, we would have to fail fast, fail cheap and fail often.”
And that’s exactly what the partners did. “We failed a lot, but learned a lot from our mistakes and I believe we are a stronger team and company because of it,” Rendall says.
Success eventually followed. “First, we raised capital from our customers,” Rendall says. “Our number one priority when we started was to win a few orders to prove to ourselves that we were marketing something of value and also to provide an initial capital injection.”
As a Canadian business, Clearpath had access to several funding programs, similar to U.S. Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. “We were very fortunate to participate in a number of the bigger government funding programs for new venture creation,” Rendall says.
In 2010, after about eight months of operation and with orders starting to pile up, Clearpath received a small amount of seed funding from a group of angel investors in the local start-up community. “We used this money to fulfill our first orders, hire our first three full-time employees and move into a larger production facility,” Rendall says. “We’ve been experiencing triple digit growth and have been financing ourselves organically ever since.”
As Clearpath began growing, Rendall made an effort to speak to as many entrepreneurs in the manufacturing and automation space as possible, listening to their advice and learning from their mistakes. “We created a board of advisers very early in the business and they have been critical to our success,” Rendall says.
Finding skilled employees to design and build its products hasn’t been a problem, Rendall says. “Our experience has been that most engineers really love robots, so the trick is finding the really exceptional ones to join us.” He notes that it’s actually more challenging to find qualified people to fill the company’s non-technical positions.
Rendall believes that marketing is crucial for any small robotics start-up. “Marketing is the fuel for your sales engine, it won’t run without it,” he says.
Not surprisingly, Rendall is bullish on robotics and the robotics industry. “We are on the horizon of a major robotics revolution,” he predicts. “As with many great revolutionary technologies, heavy military spending has paved the way for robotics.”
He also sees interest growing strongly in a number of other areas. “We are seeing massive sectors like mining, agriculture and construction beginning to show keen interest in robotics technologies,” he says. “It is only a matter of time before robotics become ubiquitous.”
Rendall offers one final bit of advice. ” The world has enough iPhone apps, so don’t waste your time there,” he says. “Build robots and you will change the course of history.”
Ian Campbell, co-founder of Tovbot, an Atlanta-based company that specializes in entertainment and companion robots, knows that building a robotics company requires substantial doses of imagination and perseverance. Tovbot’s roots can be traced to a meeting at the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC), a business incubator at Georgia Tech. That’s where Campbell met Gil Weinberg, a technology researcher who focuses on robotic musicianship, artificial intelligence and musical networks.
Fun and Friendship
“Gil and I are serial entrepreneurs, so we were familiar and comfortable establishing a new venture to explore our robotics projects together,” Campbell says.
The duo, along with two other partners, opened a $500,000 seed round shortly after incorporating in this year’s first quarter. “We ended up raising the full amount from a single Chinese investor with a strong interest in the robotics space,” Campbell says. “With that initial funding, we are well positioned financially to complete our first product, Shimi.” Shimi is a speaker dock for Apple and Andoid phones that not only plays music, but dances and interacts in various ways with its users.
Campbell says the partners have benefited from a great deal of expert counseling. “We initially sought advice from advisers and mentors in our personal networks and the entrepreneur networks in the Atlanta/Georgia Tech area.”
After forming Tovbot, the partners created an advisory board comprised of experienced business people, entrepreneurs, roboticists, scientists and marketing specialists. “All of our advisory board members hold equity?stock options?in Tovbot, so they are very motivated to help us in any way possible, from pure advice and counsel to identification of top talent and investors to exposure to their vast networks in the robotics and high-tech industries,” Campbell says.
Tovbot is fortunate to be located adjacent to one of the top engineering schools in the country, Campbell says. “Nearly all of our hires are Georgia Tech alumns or post-docs,” he notes.
“Each of the founders comes from a technical background, so we also leverage our own networks in finding both full time hires and the best vendors to support our near-term and long-term milestones.”
Applications that fill a unique need
Tovbot’s strategy is to start out small with simple robotics applications that fill a unique need. “From these early products, we will build a robotics platform onto which we can launch future robotics products and eventually fulfill the decades-long dream of service, entertainment, and companion robots for the home,” Campbell says.
Marketing is a key component of any start-up, and it?s an item that Tovbot has budgeted heavily for, Cambell says. “However, we view marketing as existing on the same tier as some other critical pieces of a robotics start-up: team, technology and funding,” he says. “You can?t sell without marketing, but you also can?t sell if you don?t have a product.”
Campbell says the partners hired an experienced start-up attorney to support their corporate legal needs. “We also sought out some of the best IP talent in the industry,” he notes. “Good IP protection is one way a start-up can defend itself from larger, more resource-rich competitors.”
Launching a robotics start-up is a team effort, Campbell says. “Put together a solid team,” he advises. “Robotics is a space that really requires top engineering and business talent.” Campbell also notes that robotics is very much a capital-intensive industry. “Be prepared to spend a great deal of investment capital on R&D and manufacturing,” he says.
“Be prepared to spend every waking moment on your passion, bringing exciting robotics products to reality.”Read More