We recently had a conversation with Paul van der Vorst, European Business Development, Clearpath Robotics. They’re a Canadian spin-out currently exploring European markets from an office on the High Tech Campus. We asked him to share insights into what he's discovered.
“I’ve been on the High Tech Campus Eindhoven for a month and a half now” explains Paul. “I’m here as part of the Canadian business development team to explore how Clearpath Robotics can accelerate business opportunities in Europe. Clearpath builds unmanned autonomous vehicles for research and development and it’s my responsibility to determine if we require a European office and, if so, whether Eindhoven is the best location. I have Dutch parents, grew up in Africa and studied in Utrecht. I’m now based in Canada.”
Why Clearpath Robotics is looking at Europe.
“Our company originated as a successful student spin-out from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. The original idea, six years ago, was to build mine-clearing robots. However, when other universities and clients saw what we'd done they suggested we apply our rugged, reliable mobile robot platform to research purposes.
Today, our focus is on mobile robots. Our modular approach means you can cherry-pick and choose which sensors fit the project. For instance, the University of Toronto is working with the Canadian Space Agency to develop navigation software for landing crafts for Mars, which cannot use GPS. We're proud that we have built a portfolio of more than 300 clients in North America, including such research centres as Carnegie Mellon and MIT. Now we’re looking at expanding in Europe as we scale up from a team of 75 people, at the moment, to 150 by the end of 2015.
We started off selling the hardware with the software integrated. Now we're focusing on the really smart software – the robot’s intelligence. I’ve discovered many interesting high-level robotics projects on my travels around the Netherlands and also neighbouring Belgium and Germany. For example, our autonomous vehicles are proving to be of interest in the Dutch Agro-Food sector. Think about using robots to harvest bell peppers on commercial fans. What sounds simple at first is in fact a set of complex challenges required to pick the peppers fast without damaging the crop.
What are Paul’s findings?
Paul shares three insights after his introduction on the High Tech Campus.
I’m in business development. It’s clear that face to face meetings in Europe are an essential part of the role and also an efficient way of building a network. Cold calling from Canada is difficult – especially with a six-hour time difference. I told the HTCE the kind of companies I was looking for, our target market, and they did a lot of the preparation by tapping into their vast network. It meant I could start meetings on day one of my arrival. Seeing potential clients in their own context is invaluable. I get more ideas of how Clearpath could help and collaborate with them.
I’ve constantly heard from potential European clients that our company needs a European office if we want to tap into funds like Horizon 2020. Eindhoven has proved to be a well-connected centre – since I have also been exploring leads throughout the Benelux and Germany. It is easy and fast to get around.
The funding situation in Europe is very different to North America – Canada and US have more private universities and research centres. In Europe, many of the research organisations are public and apply as a group for government tenders. I’d advise asking for direct help from a local funding expert. Fortunately, I’ve been introduced to funding specialists on HTCE who can show us the paths to possible funds, provide advice on the extensive paperwork required and point out any shortcuts. Application times are significantly longer here in Europe and the jargon is confusing for an outsider. So use help to your advantage.
“I like the way HTCE has practiced a relaxed, open door approach. They appreciate that I’m a scout for the company, not the CEO, and the give me time and room to think and complete my work. The soft-landing approach allows me to explain the picture to my company back home in my own words. In fact the eco-system here sells itself once you get inside. In the end, it’s all about trust.”