Stories on advancements in artificial intelligence, automation, and robotics often focus on how these technologies will eliminate many of the jobs humans do today. Cameron Waite, founder and CEO of Real Life Robotics, said this is a misconception and is working to change it with his startup.
“There's always been an underlying challenge that people have tried to solve with robots—the labour problem. It’s a problem that has been exacerbated by COVID, people retiring and burnout. This has created a perfect storm for automation in so many ways. There's an enormous gap between available labour and the labour that needs to be done,” Waite said.
Solving labour shortages with robots
Instead of replacing humans, Waite said robots could do the work that humans don’t want to do. It’s work he described as the ‘three Ds’ — dull, dirty, and dangerous.
“As time goes on, fewer and fewer people have been interested in those dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs. Nobody wants to work in your warehouse, scrub your floors, deliver your pizza, or clean your toilets. But those are still tasks that need to be done. They may not be the jobs of the future, but they’re still tasks that need to be done, so what do you do? Well, you solve that problem with automation,” he said.
Real Life Robotics focuses on cargo and last-mile delivery. These tasks include food and retail delivery, moving lab samples or soiled linens in hospitals, or delivering supplies and documents in a campus, office, or industrial setting.
“At the end of the day, we're moving something from point A to point B where previously that was either a cost-ineffective solution or something that you struggled to find humans to fill—but it was still a service you needed,” Waite said, adding that besides helping address labour shortages, robots could also help tackle environmental and sustainability concerns across these industries.
“We're all trying to lower our carbon footprint wherever possible. Here in the world of delivery and logistics, having a two-ton vehicle sitting idling and spewing emissions into the sky while we're delivering a taco just seems silly,” Waite said.
Bringing experience to the problem
Waite brings over two decades of sales and business experience to his first time as a founder. But it is Waite’s experience at robotics and automation companies over the last 15 years that inspired him to launch his own.
Before starting Real Life Robotics, Waite helped build the sales teams at aerial drone maker, Aeryon Labs, and cleaning robot maker, Avidbots. He always sold products that are considered new or cutting edge, and his time in the mobile robot space helped him develop a deep understanding of the problems customers face—and the potential robots have to solve them.
“I was the first sales hire at Aeryon Labs. It was a really interesting learning curve and a cool opportunity to get into the tech space here in Waterloo,” Waite said.
After five years of growing the sales team at Aeryon Labs, Waite had the chance to do it all again at Avidbots. He said it was an opportunity to take those experiences and learnings from Aeryon and apply them to a different market.
“In those early days, people were still trying to figure out what is a scrubbing robot? How is it different than this Will Smith movie that I watched where robots are taking over the world? I've spent the last part of the decade educating and resetting expectations for people to help them to figure out how to effectively bring value into their business with robots,” he said.
Not your standard founder journey
AC:Studio founders bring a variety of experiences to their leadership roles. While many often have previous experience as founders, Waite is unique in being a sales professional making the pivot to startup founder.
“The founder journey that I've found myself on seems to be a little different than what others have done. A lot of times, it’s an incredibly capable and smart engineer that has designed something new, and they eventually find someone like me to help sell it. Mine is the opposite of that. I've got all this knowledge and experience of how to take a robot company from zero to scale and commercialization, but I had to go and build a robot,” Waite said.
Waite found partners with the right engineering skills to realize his vision. The Real Life Robotics team has spent the last few years quietly developing its robot platform to prepare for launch. Knowing when to come out of stealth mode is a challenging decision. Waite said the team looked to the technology readiness level (TRL) scale to know when the time was right.
“It’s a scale from zero to nine, and seven is the one that you want to get to because it’s when you then turn on the commercialization train and throw some gas on the fire. That’s where we're at. The robot has been built, and now we're at a place where my skill set comes into play, which is taking something that I certainly don't know how to build, but I do know how to introduce it to clients and markets around the world,” he said.
Why Real Life Robotics chose AC:Studio
Waite said it’s hard not to know about the Accelerator Centre when living in Waterloo Region. What attracted him most to the AC:Studio program was the well-respected mentors who could provide advice and guidance as he navigated being a first-time founder. He added that being an Accelerator Centre portfolio company also gives Real Life Robotics a sense of credibility and legitimacy.
“It helps to bump us up as a business, not only in how we’re perceived by customers but also how investors look at us. There's such a large, invaluable swath of mentors there that it doesn't really matter what stage of business you're at, or what you particularly need today. There's probably somebody that you can talk to that's done that before, and that's pretty valuable to have for any startup,” Waite said.
Waite said his primary concern was getting financial advice as the company planned its launch. Between building the team and looking for investors, he added that he knew he needed guidance to set the company up for success. In addition to finance mentorship, Waite and the team have leaned on marketing and operations mentors.
“There are some strategies around marketing that I understand enough from a high level to know the value of it, but the implementation of, and actually operationalizing some of those marketing strategies, is not my expertise. I’ve gotten help from the engineering mentors on patents, help with customer success and how to manage people. That's the beauty of the Accelerator Center, no matter what you’re doing, they have someone with the experience to help,” Waite said.
AC:Studio is funded by the Government of Canada through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario) and is delivered in partnership with WEtech Alliance, Innovate Niagara, Conestoga College, SnapPea, Uvaro, Bereskin & Parr, RSM Canada, and Gowling WLG.