It started with a singular goal: to prove that robots weren’t evil. It was 2008; Clearpath Robotics CEO, Matt Rendall, and his co-founders Ryan Gariepy, Patrick Martinson and Bryan Webb, were students at the University of Waterloo. At the time, armed conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan shaped the public’s perception of robots. “Everyone was talking about drones and bomb-disposal robots,” explains Rendall. “We wanted to show that you can use these same systems for a much more humanitarian purpose.”
The team never commercialized their initial concept—a landmine-clearing automaton—but stuck with the idea of using robots for jobs too dangerous for humans. Five years later, Clearpath is a bustling, multimillion-dollar concern with 70 employees at its Kitchener, Ont. headquarters. The company now has a high profile in robotics circles, anyway, thanks to its yellow-and-black unmanned Kingfisher vehicles, which are used in commercial applications such as mining. (You can now find the Kingfisher measuring tailings in potash mines—a procedure that would otherwise expose people to harsh chemicals.) Clearpath has also gained big inroads selling robot technology to research laboratories. Clients include the Canadian Space Agency and MIT.
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Clearpath is one of 10 corporations named by Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions and Richardson GMP Ltd. to its current list of Canada’s Passion Capitalists, which recognizes organizations for their energy, intensity and sustainability. This year’s winners don’t just rely on their intellectual, human and financial capital to get ahead, says Paul Alofs, a former Disney and HMV executive who inspired the awards with his book Passion Capital. They have something more: “Not just passion, which is an emotion, but a tangible asset called passion capital,” says Alofs. Passion capital, he contends, is built by channeling the emotion into concrete actions that are energetic, intense and sustainable. Alofs believes Clearpath has this kind of capital “in spades.” “They believe very deeply in their product and what they’re doing,” he explains. “In their own way, they have changed a small corner of the world.”
It certainly hasn’t been easy. Clearpath launched as a business, in 2009, just as the effects of the recession were really starting to take hold. The few venture capitalists that had money to spend were focused on lean, scalable website startups, not high-risk hardware businesses with major overhead requirements. “It was like trying to push a boulder up a mountain—there were days and months when we felt like we didn’t make any progress,” Rendall remembers. “And we had very little money.” He ate a lot of lasagna—the most cost-effective food he could afford—to get by.
That’s when Rendall and his co-founders realized that brilliant inventions are a dime a dozen in tech; it’s top talent and scalable systems that separate the failed inventors from the BlackBerrys. To scale up, they’d have to prove they were more than a quartet of mad geniuses. They’d have to build an army of robot freaks who cared as much about their mission as they did.
To raise its army, Clearpath knew it needed a strong culture. While it’s become a buzzword in the entrepreneurial community, culture is also an intangible asset that companies often cite for their success. On the surface, the culture at Clearpath is similar to countless other progressive 21st-century ventures: “We encourage people to take ownership and responsibility for the role that they fill,” says Rendall. But the company makes this ethos more than management-speak with a series of people-motivating policies. The hierarchy skews flat; there’s a 10-to-one manager-to-employee ratio. People are encouraged to work autonomously and bring new ideas to the table. “Once or twice a quarter we have ‘hack days,’ where we let our development team focus on whatever they want, to exercise their creativity. It should be loosely related to what they do and help them hone their skills.” A visit to Clearpath’s headquarters—which has all the trappings of a tech startup, including the obligatory foosball table—reveals the fruit of this creativity. At the front door, visitors are greeted by a robot receptionist; it’s a bit like being welcomed by Rosie from The Jetsons. It’s a fun nod to Clearpath’s core purpose, and the idea came from an employee on a hack day. Little things like this make the company’s people feel empowered, and keep its staff turnover rate low—no mean feat in the talent-hungry Kitchener–Waterloo region.
A culture of personal responsibility and limited oversight could be daunting to some job seekers, but that’s exactly the point. Despite the region’s competitive labour market, Clearpath is extremely selective in who it hires; according to Rendall, the firm only brings in people “who were born to do the role that we’re looking to fill.” This exclusivity has been extremely effective in attracting the best, says Murray Gamble, president of tech firm The C3 Group of Companies, an early angel investor in Clearpath and a member of its board of directors. “They’re like a magnet for talent,” he says. “Every young person that has anything to do with robotics wants to work at Clearpath.”
The company deepens its reputation as a desirable employer by fostering strong ties with universities. Its first sale was to the founders’ alma mater, and many of its clients are university research labs. Such customers provide a second kind of return for the company: Engineering students get to see what makes the firm unique firsthand, and many find themselves eager to join the team. Take Jay Shah, one of Clearpath’s first co-op students, who was drawn in by the firm’s fast pace and intrapreneurial atmosphere. “Being able to see how much impact I was having on the company was really great for me,” he says. And when Shah decided to launch his own startup a few years later—a parcel pick-up kiosk provider, called BufferBox, which Google acquired in 2012—Rendall and his co-founders didn’t hold him back; instead, they shared contacts, advice and even workspace. Losing the occasional star to his or her own venture is a small price to pay for an entrepreneurial environment.
Alongside entrepreneurialism, the idealism that motivated Rendall and his cohorts to start Clearpath continues to shape its culture, too; it’s redolent of Google’s famous “don’t be evil” edict. Although the firm has worked with Canada’s Department of National Defence and the U.S. Navy, Clearpath maintains a strict stance against allowing its automatons to be used as weapons of war. In August 2014, it became the first robotics company to join the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, an international lobbying group. It was a bold ethical stance that may alienate some potentially lucrative clients, and it typifies the company’s principled creed, says Gamble. “The goal is to build a great company that changes the world,” he says. “It’s not just to make money.”
That’s not to suggest the firm is struggling. Clearpath, like all Passion Capitalist winners, has had to demonstrate both profitability and sales growth. The company started turning a profit 18 months after launch, and while it doesn’t disclose revenue publicly, demand for its systems—which start at $12,000 each—is strong enough to warrant an expansion at HQ next year.
Automating dirty and dangerous tasks that put human lives in jeopardy may not be glamourous work, but it is what fuels the passion of Rendall and his team. Clearpath’s success in identifying a purpose around which to rally, and in building a viable business that supports it, exemplifies exactly what it means to be a great corporate citizen in 2014, according to Alofs. “[The company shows that] it’s OK to have great passion, to wear it on your sleeve, to say you want to be the best in the world at whatever niche your business or company is part of.”
It’s what unites the 10 organizations honoured as Passion Capitalists this year, which range from regional players to some of Canada’s biggest brands. And it’s something any firm can do, says Rendall: “We find the right people for our organization and nurture an environment in which they can be passionate about what they do. A company of one person or 100,000 people can do that.”