Neo is making a clean sweep inside hundreds of buildings throughout the world.

Launched by Kitchener-based Avidbots in early 2017, the robot is gaining a reputation for effectively cleaning and scrubbing large spaces in over 100 locations such as commercial and industrial buildings, shopping malls, airports, education facilities and healthcare centres.

Neo is the creation of Avidbots co-founders Pablo Molina and Faizan Sheikh, both alumni of Waterloo’s mechatronics engineering program.

“Customers love it,” Sheikh says. “Many are buying fleets of robots after using Neo in one or two of their facilities.”

Neo uses lasers and 3D cameras along with artificial intelligence (AI) navigation. Now on the ninth iteration of the original model, the robot cleans up to 1.2 metres per second and navigates with 5 cm accuracy. Safety features include collision avoidance technology, protective bumpers and flaps, an e-stop button, warning lights, and a low noise rating.

No special training or programming is required to operate Neo, according to Molina.

“The way it works is that you first have to make a map of the area you want to be cleaned,” Molina explains.  “To do that, you push Neo around the facility so that it learns where the walls, pillars and static objects are located.  After that, you put it in a start position, press go and it cleans the entire area by itself.” 

The lifespan of each machine is five to 10 years with proper care and regular maintenance, says Sheikh.

Molina and Sheikh met as first-year Waterloo Engineering students and stayed in touch after graduating in 2011. Both moved to Ottawa for jobs. Molina worked on a lunar rover at Naptec Design Group for the Canadian Space Agency.  Sheikh was a software developer for a couple of companies including Kinaxis, which produces cloud-based management software.

Neo in action

A still image of the robot Neo in actionA still image from CTV footage of Neo in action.

A good idea leads to a better one

It was over fish and chips in an Ottawa restaurant one night that they discussed starting their own company. Passionate about robots having both grown up watching Japanese animated TV shows and the futuristic Jetsons cartoon, they came up with the idea to design one to remove snow. While it made sense to them, especially with the amount of snow they had experienced living in Ottawa, a snow removal contractor quickly talked them out of their plan.

“He pointed out the downside of the business, which included mild winters and seasonal employment,” Molina says. “But then he said, ‘What about the Walmart next door?  They clean inside every night.’”

Molina and Sheikh took the contractor’s advice to heart and began working on robotic office cleaning prototypes. With their early stage designs underway, they co-founded Avidbots along with Ken Anderson, an alumnus of both Queen's University and the University of Alberta. Anderson has since left the company. 

Molina and Sheikh moved back to Waterloo Region in 2014 after being contacted by then-Velocity director Mike Kirkup who offered them free space in the University’s Velocity Garage, a hardware incubator located in downtown Kitchener.

“It’s hard to put a price on free space, mentorships and the connections that were made there, especially at that stage of the company,” Molina says. “It’s something for which we’ll be forever thankful.”

While Molina and Sheikh started out by trying to turn a manual floor scrubber into a robotic one, they soon discovered that they needed to begin from ground zero and build their own.

“There are huge differences between a manual machine and one that’s meant to be a robot from the very beginning,” Molina says.  “Another reason is we couldn’t find a company with an existing manual floor scrubber who wanted to partner with us back then.”

After eight months as part of the Velocity Garage, Avidbots moved into its own building and has since relocated again to a larger space in Kitchener that features a 40,000-square-foot industrial manufacturing and R&D facility. The company currently has 85 permanent employees and 17 co-op students, many of whom are Waterloo Engineering graduates and current students.  To meet the growing demand for Neo, Avidbots is actively recruiting to bring this year’s target to 110-120 employees.

When it comes to the argument that the company’s floor-cleaning robot eliminates human jobs, Sheikh says there’s another way to look at it – it helps companies with a role that is difficult to fill and keep people.

“The commercial cleaning industry has an extremely big problem with recruitment and retention of employees. There are extremely high turnover rates in excess of 300 per cent,” he says.  “When people purchase robots no one loses their job.  People quit on their own like they were going to anyway.”

Valuable lessons learned

Molina’s experience building robots dates back to his time as a Waterloo Engineering student when he was a member of the University of Waterloo Robotics Team and the co-founder of the University’s Mars Rover Team.

“I learned a lot about prototyping,” he says.  “A lot of failures that I experienced were very valuable lessons.  I didn’t make the same mistakes again.”

Both Molina and Sheikh say looking back they appreciate the rigor of Waterloo’s mechatronics engineering program that taught them invaluable skills, including how to effectively problem solve.

“We were told by our professors that someday we’d thank them for our experience,” Molina says.  “And now we are thanking them.”