Matt Rendall didn’t consciously set out to become a technology entrepreneur. As an undergrad studying Mechatronics Engineering at the University of Waterloo, cramming for exams and building robots for fun, he didn’t envision that just a few years later he’d be at the helm of a fast growing, multi-million dollar technology company.
But that’s exactly what happened.
“I’ve been asked a bunch of times why I became an entrepreneur. And I like to say that ignorance is bliss,” he chuckles. “I think it just is what was supposed to happen in my life. What began as a student project, working with really cool technology helped me fall into this entrepreneurial world. And I became addicted to the uncertainty, the discomfort, and the excitement that comes hand in hand with entrepreneurship.”
Rendall is CEO of Clearpath Robotics, a 40-person company specializing in robotics solutions for the academic, industrial and commercial marketplace, and a recognized market leader in the robotics world. The company sells its Grizzly, Husky, Kingfisher, and Turtlebot robots to 300 customers in more than 30 countries, including organizations such as NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, the US Navy, and MIT among others, and is stacking up awards, such as the “2013 Game Changer Award” for its technology.
It’s been four years since the company graduated from the Accelerator Centre and struck off into the world to make its way. Rendall attributes Clearpath Robotics’ fast track success to he and his co-founder’s experience at the Waterloo Accelerator Centre.
“I became exposed to the Accelerator Centre as an undergrad, and knew that this was where I wanted to be to get our business off the ground. When I graduated from Engineering and decided to pursue a Masters of Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology (MBET), I negotiated a desk at the AC into my admission to the program. So for our first year in business, I had a seat at the AC sponsored by UW—which was awesome, because back then we were basically working for food,” says Rendall.
Rendall didn’t even consider other incubators. “We are Waterloo guys. We did our undergrad and our masters there. We hire from there. There’s something special about the AC’s connection to UW that made it a no brainer for us.”
Within Clearpath’s first year at the AC the company pivoted away from its original intent, to build robots for land mine detection, toward its current focus, providing sophisticated robotics platforms to organizations engaged in research. The decision set Matt and his team on the right course and Clearpath soon began to expand as research institutions from around the world lined up to purchase the company’s platform. “We went from one desk to four, and then to 12, and finally into a suite at the AC, with inventory spilling into the hallways. We were using the AC’s boardroom after hours as our assembly line,” Matt recalls.
During this phase of rapid growth the Clearpath founders took full advantage of all the services the AC had to offer, such as education programs, CEO lunch and learns, and time with legal and accounting service providers. “That saved us a boatload of cash in our first couple of years,” says Matt. Clearpath also found its first investors through business introductions facilitated by the AC team.
Matt and his co-founders also held weekly meetings with the in-house mentorship team to help the young entrepreneur set objections, and establish direction for the business. “Being at the AC is a bit like having a business on training wheels,” Matt explains. “Like us, many of the companies coming into the AC are headed by students fresh out of school. UW grads are incredibly capable with technology, and come into the AC with a potent but raw technical ability. The challenge for the AC team is to take and polish that up and turn this raw material into a viable, long-term business. The AC team held our hands just enough, providing candid advice and feedback, while still letting us cross the road by ourselves.”
In retrospect, probably the most valuable takeaway of all for the Clearpath team was the ability to interact with other technology start-ups in residence at the AC.
“It is really hard to quantify, but there’s a particular energy in the AC environment that is infectious. When we were just getting started, we would regularly work until 1 am, and then come back at 9 am. But it wasn’t just us—the crazy robot guys—who were there pulling all nighters. At midnight, we’d get together with our next-door neighbors, the guys from Top Hat Monocle (also a highly successful AC graduate), and we’d play video games in beanbag chairs for a break, then head back to work. That interaction, that collision, that serendipity that comes from being with other entrepreneurs; it was the most encouraging, most helpful thing. And it is probably what I miss the most to this day.”
Clearpath Robotics’ success eventually became too large for the AC to contain. The AC was not equipped to house a growing manufacturing business. “We were leaving grease spots on the board room table after our late night assembly efforts. We were driving robots down the hallway. The front desk was acting like our shipping and receiving department; taking delivery of parts of all shapes and sizes. We’d outgrown the AC and it was time to move out,” says Matt.
A move to the Tannery in downtown Kitchener was a bit of an eye-opener for the young company. While the company remained a client of the Accelerator Program to tap into business mentorship services, they no longer had the safe haven of the Accelerator Centre facility.
“In one go, you are actually running a business on your own with all that entails,” says Matt. “We took for granted all the AC did for us. I don’t think we cleaned anything for six months,” he sheepishly admits. A move to the company’s current Manitou Road location followed a year later, putting the business into a more traditional manufacturing style setting.
Would Clearpath’s big dreams and plans have been realized without the influence of the AC?
“I like to think we would have found ourselves on the same path. We’re pretty stubborn people, so we would have flogged away at it,” says Matt. “But it probably would have taken more time, more money, and lots more frustration. There’s real benefit in the wisdom you gain from the AC’s experienced team. It would have been a much harder go for Clearpath Robotics without the benefit of the AC.”
Matt believes the AC’s multi-year approach to business cultivation is key for a business such as his, and remains a unique selling point in a market that is now rich with incubators.
“Clearpath is not one of those businesses that would succeed in one of those heavily compressed do or die incubator approaches," he says. "We were not trying for a quick flip, acquisition exit. We were focused on building a sustainable business and we needed more time. The AC provided us with the experience to know which markets to go after, and to build a business that could scale. It offered the right combination of resources, but also the right pressure setting.”
Today, Clearpath is poised to embark on its fourth move in four years, to a new 30,000 square foot facility that will offer the company plenty of room to realize its ambitious growth plans, which include doubling in size from 40 to 80 people.
“We have built out technical and operational capacity that is beyond what we ever had. When we were just a year old, at the Accelerator Centre, it was reasonable for us to see one year ahead. Now we can begin to look out to the 4 or 5-year horizon. We are ready to take all we have learned and invest in the next layer of the business, and a much larger market opportunity. Hardware is all of a sudden very cool. Robotics is very cool. From the Google driverless car, to armies and mining companies, the future is going to be all about fully autonomous vehicles. The industrial world is moving to automation in a way we just have never seen before, and we’re in a great position to capitalize on those opportunities.”