From building robots in the basement to putting algorithms on the moon

Matt RendallAbout 13 years ago, four friends and Mechatronics Engineering students at the University of Waterloo – Matt Rendall (BASc ’08, MBET ’09), Ryan Gariepy (BASc ’09, MASc ’12), Pat Martinson (BASc ’09) and Bryan Webb (BASc ’09) – started building robots.

It was an interest that grew from their involvement in UW Robotics Team and then carried on into their final-year engineering project, which became an idea for a company.

But it wasn’t long before they were running out of space.

“Robots take up a lot of space and so pretty soon, they were spilling out all over the place. We had some access to the robotics lab at the University; we had some space at the Accelerator Centre and we were using one of the founder’s basements,” says Rendall, chief executive officer of Clearpath Robotics, about how the company got started.

Customers in 50+ countries

From those humble beginnings, Clearpath became a multi-million-dollar global enterprise that now employs 320 people, mostly in Waterloo region but also elsewhere in the world. It has customers in at least 50 countries.

Clearpath now has an entire business unit devoted to autonomous vehicle technology that can move parts or products from one part of a warehouse or manufacturing plant to another. That business unit, OTTO Motors has “a portfolio of products and autonomous vehicle fleets running in some of the biggest plants in some of the most important manufacturing economies in the world,” Rendall says.

The company has also been increasingly integrating its software into other robots that work on factory floors.

Clearpath robot in a warehouse

Software to drive the rover on the moon

The Canadian Space Agency recently announced plans to send a robotic lunar rover to the moon in 2026. In that project, Brampton-based MDA, developer of the Canadarm, is working with Clearpath Robotics to develop the software that will drive the rover on the moon. “We have a long history in aerospace. This project that we just announced is continuing to build on that heritage.”

When Rendall is asked about Clearpath’s success, he will cite the combination of factors.

“I would say the intellectual property policy at the University of Waterloo, where you can own everything that you invent, plays a big role.”

The co-op program is another factor, he adds. “We have sharp young minds coming in and learning engineering at the university, but then they go into workplaces where they figure out not only how to apply those skills but also have opportunities to identify real-world problems and try to solve them,” Rendall says. Those solutions sometimes become companies in their own right.

The academic programs offered at Waterloo also play a role, Rendall adds. The Mechatronics Engineering program was fairly new at Waterloo when he began working on his degree and he wanted to try something new and difficult. “It was supposed to be very challenging – the biggest challenge you could possibly sign up for.”

Undergraduate design projects spur innovation

Waterloo Engineering programs also incorporate a final year Capstone Design project that has the students conceptualizing and designing innovations based on their chosen discipline. That final year design challenge, supported by several awards, has resulted in numerous spinoff companies and technologies.

“After the fourth-year design project, you’ve already built the prototype, you’ve built the business plan, you’re already familiar with living like a student without any money. So why not just extend that a little bit longer and try making a company out of it?” Rendall asks.

The larger Waterloo ecosystem is simply a “powerful reinforcing mechanism” for startup companies, according to Rendall.

There are professors who are entrepreneurially minded and tend to gravitate to Waterloo because they want to focus on their innovations. The graduate students who work for them will also be entrepreneurially minded and the undergraduate students are also exposed to that mindset throughout their education.

Exposure to the entrepreneurial mindset

“There are professors who are entrepreneurially minded and tend to gravitate to Waterloo because they want to focus on their innovations. The graduate students who work for them will also be entrepreneurially minded and the undergraduate students are also exposed to that mindset throughout their education.” 

The Velocity incubator provides further infrastructure, guidance and support for the startup companies that emerge from that entrepreneurial ecosystem, Rendall adds.

The ecosystem becomes self-reinforcing as co-op students who work for startups see “how exciting early-stage companies can be and the impact they can have at those companies.” That same ecosystem helped Clearpath Robotics grow long after it was spun out of the University,

The ability to hire co-op students has been “pretty foundational,” Rendall says. “We built the company with a tremendous amount of support from co-op students.” The presence of the University also enabled the company to establish important research partnerships.

“I don’t know where else in Canada, you could have an autonomous vehicle company and have the same advantages that we have here,” Rendall says.