OTTO Motors Founder Talks AMRs, APIs, and Entrepreneurial DNA

OTTO Motors Founder Talks AMRs, APIs, and Entrepreneurial DNA

After starting his materials handling robotics company with just $200, Matt Rendall has learned to focus relentlessly on product and customer development, lead with humility, trust his gut, and allow his team to learn from mistakes.

Matt Rendall, CEO, OTTO Motors

When he wasn’t cramming for exams or working on multiple engineering assignments at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Matt Rendall spent his time in the robotics lab. “Building early prototype autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) quickly became a passion,” Rendall says.

Years later, that passion engendered a startup, as Rendall and three university colleagues formed Clearpath Robotics to create robotics platforms for research and development. In 2015, Clearpath formed a new business division, OTTO Motors, which develops AMRs for material handling. Rockwell Automation acquired Clearpath Robotics and OTTO Motors in 2023.

Rendall heads Clearpath and OTTO as CEO. He recently gave us a look at OTTO’s evolution, discussed the impact of the Rockwell acquisition, and discussed how he leads his teams.

IL: What is OTTO Motors’ origin story?

As Clearpath became a market leader, around 2013 we got our first R&D contracts for AMRs in material handling applications. We recognized this quickly emerging opportunity as the first big end use application for AMRs. So we decided to take our amazing technology and deploy it vertically into that category.

IL: Is there a lesson you learned early in your career that has helped to shape you as a leader?

We started our company with just $200. We didn’t have money to develop prototypes; we didn’t even have enough experience to know what prototypes to develop. So we concentrated on product and customer development. We said, “Let’s find customers who have a problem that’s so painful, they’re prepared to buy an idea on paper.”

From day one, it has been part of our DNA to ask customers probing questions, get to the root of their challenges, find the patterns, and turn that information into opportunities. To this day, our leadership position comes from our relentless focus on listening to the customer.

IL: What does it mean to OTTO Motors and the industry you serve that you are now part of Rockwell Automation?

Rockwell has brought the AMR industry credibility that it never had before. We did great work in the past, but we were a mid-sized company trying to serve the world’s largest manufacturers. That difference in scale created all kinds of speed bumps. Now, as part of Rockwell, we can accelerate delivery of our AMR technology on the global stage, for the world’s biggest companies, at the pace they need. AMRs are now entering prime time.

The acquisition also means OTTO can grow faster, and we can integrate into a portfolio of automation and digital transformation capabilities that unlock new value propositions for our customers. We’ve always used application programming interfaces (APIs) to integrate our robotic fleets with manufacturing execution systems. Now, we can integrate with Rockwell’s systems completely and seamlessly.

IL: Which emerging technology will soon make a big impact on your products and customers?

I’m excited about the evolution of computer vision in AMRs. As robots move materials around facilities, they’ll also be able to observe important secondary or tertiary things that we can turn into actionable data.

To give a simple example, say a customer needs to keep an active inventory of fire extinguishers. With its photographic memory and real-time map of its environment, a robot could produce a daily audit of fire extinguishers and send an alert the moment one went missing.

IL: What’s at the top of your agenda these days?

Our most important goal is, with Rockwell’s support, to grow the company even faster than we were previously. We’ve had success with our core customer base in North America. Now we need to pour gas on it and create value for more customers in farther reaches of the world.

IL: Which traits make you an effective leader?

I try to show up with humility. I also try to create an environment where people know it’s okay to make mistakes in a calculated manner, and then learn from those mistakes.

IL: How do you give criticism when that’s required?

When we experience a challenge, it’s likely to be technical in nature. I try to dig into the root issues, so we can have a conversation from a place of understanding. When you do that, and you approach things with curiosity and humility, you can have a constructive conversation about what went wrong, what we’re doing about it, and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

If the problem is too technical, or outside my domain of expertise, I defer to my team. If I can’t get comfortable with their answer about why something didn’t happen as planned, I ask if they’re happy with the way things turned out. And I ask, “If you were in my shoes, what would you do, and what do you recommend?”

IL: What’s the hardest aspect of your job?

We essentially created a market, and the hardest aspect is dealing with the uncertainty of venturing into a new category. I try to face it with humor, and—as an engineer—by anchoring my decisions in data. Also, as I’ve gained experience, I’ve learned to trust my gut more.

IL: Is there something you believed strongly at the start of your career that you’ve since changed your mind about?

Early on, I felt that I was on a journey to a destination. Now, I realize that the destination is always on the horizon, and the journey is the important thing. I need to make sure that I’m enjoying the journey. Sometimes I need to stop and reflect on all the great things that are happening among all the difficult times, hard work, stress, sleepless nights, and ups and downs. I want to create a workplace that everyone enjoys.

IL: Outside of work, how do you like to spend your time?

I prioritize being a father to my two boys, ages five and two-and-a-half. I spend weekends driving them from activity to birthday party to activity. It’s a rewarding contrast to the workplace. No matter how big the challenges you face at work, they’re not that meaningful in the grand scheme of things compared with the kids. n

An Entrepreneur Worth Watching

In 2023, Ernst & Young (EY) Canada named Matt Rendall one of the Ontario Finalists for its Young Entrepreneur of the Year award. This program bases its choices on multiple factors, including the nominees’ entrepreneurial spirit, their companies’ financial growth, the growth of their teams, and their impact on customers, employees, and the world.

For Rendall, one striking aspect of this honor involves the industry that OTTO Motors serves. “That Ernst & Young could scan the entire province of Ontario and, from all the amazing entrepreneurs in the region, select a supply chain company is pretty cool,” he says. “As much as a recognition of myself, I view this award as a recognition of our company and our products.”