Robo Crop: Seven B.C. companies pushing the boundaries of robotics

B.C.'s robotics sector has legs, but a shortage of engineers is holding us back

Credit: Statistics Source: Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Meet seven B.C. companies that are pushing the boundaries of robotics

Robots are on the move in B.C., if you know where to look. A mix of established veterans and promising startups, the province’s robotics companies are doing everything from delving into undersea exploration to teaching machines how to think like people. Some have become acquisition targets, a trend highlighted by camera maker Point Grey Research, a leader in machine vision, which Oregon-based Flir Systems Inc. bought for $253 million last year.

These businesses offer a glimpse of how lucrative the B.C. robotics industry could be if we devoted more energy to bringing it to life. “I tell everybody I know, we produce half per capita the number of engineers that our peer provinces do,” says Elizabeth Croft, a UBC professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Collaborative Advanced Robotics and Intelligent Systems laboratory. “If you don’t produce engineers, you won’t have robotics companies. You need people in computing and AI, and I think people are waking up to that investment.”

It’s a chicken-and-egg problem: B.C. desperately needs an anchor tenant to take its robotics industry to the next level, but major players won’t come unless they see a stable supply of staff. “You’re going to have to produce more engineers to create the talent pool to attract the companies to develop that virtuous circle of developing the economy around robotics,” Croft says, noting that though B.C. has limited potential for manufacturing automation, other industries offer fertile ground. “There are amazing opportunities, and one of them is mining.”

1. International Submarine Engineering Ltd.

Headquarters: Port Coquitlam
Launched: 1974
Founder: James McFarlane
Employees: 100
Financials: $10 million to
$25 million in annual sales
Origin story: After 18 years with the Canadian Armed Forces, McFarlane retired and launched ISE
Breakthrough: In 1983, the firm unveiled the first autonomous underwater vehicle to submerge solo. ISE subs became sought-after worldwide for gathering deep-sea data, including information to support Canada’s claim to Arctic sovereignty
Customers: The U.S. and Canadian navies, oceanographic research organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, commercial clients like Shell Oil Co. and government agencies such as NASA

2. Novarc Technologies

Headquarters: North Vancouver
Launched: 2013
Founders: Reza Abdollahi and Soroush Karimzadeh
Employees: 13
Financials: Raised $1 million this year in a seed round with Seaspan ULC and Business Development Bank of Canada participating
Origin story: Motivated by the global shortage of qualified pipe welders, engineers Abdollahi and Karimzadeh developed a process to automate such work
Breakthrough: Novarc has built what it calls the world’s first collaborative welding robot, the Spool Welding Robot, which could not only lower the cost of pipe welding but make less-skilled welders more productive
Customers: Mainly pipe shops servicing industries including oil and gas, shipbuilding, chemical plants, water and wastewater facilities, and nuclear and other power plants

3. Kindred Systems Inc.

Headquarters: San Francisco
Launched: 2014
Founders: Geordie Rose, Suzanne Gildert, James Bergstra, Graham Taylor, George Babu, Ajay Agrawal
Employees: 45 (7 in B.C.)
Financials: US$14 million raised from investors including Bloomberg Beta, First Round Capital and Google Ventures
Origin story: Gildert and Rose moved on from Burnaby quantum computer maker D-Wave Systems Inc. to the idea of developing software to enable robots to learn from people. From its Mount Pleasant research lab, Kindred is working with funding from Silicon Valley venture capital firms
Breakthrough: The company aims to deliver human and artificial “intelligence on tap” to any machine. One example is an industrial warehouse robot called the Orb, a robotic arm operated by a mix of human and automated controls. When a person takes over, the software adapts, with the goal that the machine will learn to perform new tasks on its own
Customers: Kindred is looking to deploy its Orb in warehouses soon

4. Genesis Robotics

Headquarters: Langley
Founded: 2015
Founders: Michael Gibney and James Klassen
Employees: 50+
Financials: More than $28 million raised from angel investors
Origin story: Robots have always moved awkwardly because of their limited range of motion. Genesis was spun off from robotics R&D outfit Genesis Advanced Technology to tackle the problem by designing a better actuator
Breakthrough: The LiveDrive actuator, which responds like a human joint, could deliver the torque necessary to replace robots’ traditional electric motor and gearbox joints
Customers: Genesis hasn’t commercialized its technology, but it’s working with global companies to bring LiveDrive to market

5. Inuktun Services Ltd.

Headquarters: Nanaimo
Launched: 1989
Founder: Terry Knight and Allen (Al) Robinson
Employees: 55+
Financials:>/span> About $10 million in annual sales
Origin story: Inuktun launched as a side gig to sell remote operated submersibles for the consumer market, but industrial clients proved more rewarding. The company specializes in interchangeable components, somewhat like industrial Lego, for robots such as its flagship MaggHD
Breakthrough: Inuktun’s Variable Geometry Tracked Vehicle plunged down mining tunnels, crawled through nuclear power plants and slipped into pipes. It put the company on the map and was one of four robots used to search for survivors after 9/11
Customers: BC Hydro and Power Authority, Dow Chemical Co. and the U.S. Navy’s Naval Surface Warfare Center–plus the Discovery Channel, which used Inuktun’s robotic cameras and crawlers to produce Shark Week

6. Apex Motion Control Inc.

Headquarters: Surrey
Launched: 2000
Founder: Rob Antonides
Employees: 8
Financials: $1.5 million in annual sales, with 100 per cent growth for two years straight
Origin story: When Antonides moved to Vancouver from
Minneapolis, his former boss encouraged the Penticton native to start his own automation business. Soon after, the electrical engineer was introduced to the bakery industry, and he’s been designing sanitary-food machines ever since
Breakthrough: Despite years of automation in the food business, decorating cakes is still largely a manual task. Enter the Decobot, a machine that can do everything from making cupcake swirls to writing “Happy Birthday”
Customers: Industrial bakeries in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K.

7. Motion Metrics International Corp.

Headquarters: Vancouver
Launched: 1999
Founder: Shahram Tafazoli
Employees: 60
Financials: Annual sales of more than $10 million; 30 per cent revenue growth in 2016-17
Origin story: Tafazoli was wrapping up a PhD in robotics and intelligent systems at UBC when he saw an opportunity to tackle some of the toughest challenges in the mining industry. Since starting Motion Metrics, he’s worked on developing solutions to allow mines and quarries to operate more safely and efficiently
Breakthrough: Shovel­Metrics Missing Tooth Detection is a monitoring system for mining shovels that detects tooth wear and prevents missing teeth from entering the crusher or conveyor belt and leading to dangerous and costly repair jobs. In 2015, Freeport-McMoRan Inc., one of the world’s largest copper miners, became the first company to adopt it
Customers: Some of the biggest names in mining: Barrick Gold Corp., BHP Billiton Group, Canadian Natural Resources, Goldcorp Inc., Rio Tinto and Teck Resources Ltd.