As part of an ongoing “Cleantech Startups 101” blog series, this week we interviewed Soroush Karimzadeh, co-founder of North Vancouver-based Novarc Technologies. Novarc develops custom robots for niche applications, including the world’s first collaborative welding robot.
For starters, what is a collaborative welding robot?
Novarc’s collaborative robot combines the skill of human welders with welding automation technology, allowing welders to do more, with better performance. Welding is required in any industry that uses a lot of pipes. Water and wastewater, oil and gas, and ship building are the big industries, but pipes are also used in nuclear and chemical plants, and in the food and beverage industry. Our robot enhances welders’ capabilities across all these sectors. Compared to manual welding, Novarc’s collaborative robot can help welders do three times more and lower costs by up to 75 per cent (depending on the pipe shop’s existing processes), while also improving welding consistency and quality.
How long have you been operating and how much have you grown?
We’ve been operating for four years and, in that time, we’ve grown from two people to 13.
What led you to found Novarc?
I’ve always had a passion for using machines to enhance human abilities, which is why the work we are doing at Novarc is so important to me. My background is in industrial automation and I started my career as an electrical engineer and worked in the pulp and paper, mining and oil and gas industries as a consultant. I then did my MBA, specializing in finance and strategy. My co-founder had been working in robotics and building machinery for 30 years, and he had a customer who needed to automate a pipe welding project. We came together to find a solution, which turned out to be the collaborative welding robot – Novarc evolved out of that challenge.
How did you go about building a market?
We had a great market response right out the gate due to the fact we developed Novarc’s collaborative robot as a solution to the challenge customers presented: how to automate a pipe welding project which has high mix and low volume. However, we realized that there was a large untapped market because of the growing shortage of welders on a global level. In the U.S. alone, there is projected to be a shortage of 400,000 welders by 2025, and that is expected to be mirrored here and in places like the Middle East. Our robot enables welders to do more by increasing their productivity and overall shop capacity while improving weld consistency and quality, which provides a solution to the supply shortage.
This year, our team is expanding our sales efforts into the U.S., where fortunately for us there is a lot of growth in manufacturing. We’re partnering with our big multi-national customers as well as with local partners in target regions to find customers. We will also have a significant presence at FABTECH, North America’s largest metal forming, fabricating, welding and finishing event which will be held in Chicago in November, where we will unveil our Spool Welding Robot.
Do you have a connection to cleantech? How did you get connected to Foresight?
Cleantech is a pretty broad umbrella, and advanced manufacturing is part of it. We make the welding process more efficient, so that reduces the resources used as well as the dangerous materials released during welding. From a social sustainability perspective, we reduce the health hazards for welders, who are typically exposed to radiation, fumes and physical stresses.
We are part of the Foresight cleantech accelerator program, which is a great help in fine tuning our go-to-market plan.
What have been the biggest challenges?
Our biggest challenge has been ensuring that our customers and stakeholders understand that collaborative robots are not taking over people’s jobs. Our robot helps welders enhance their productivity and efficiency – and helps to address the growing labour shortage. There just aren’t enough welders to manage the work, so collaborative robots will help those in the field do more with less.
We also expect that robots will help our customers become more competitive, and as a result bring more manufacturing jobs into the U.S. and Canada. Robotics itself is a very active space and there are a lot of highly skilled, highly paid jobs on the horizon.
There is a lot of talk in Canada about the challenges associated with commercialization. What’s your experience?
The truth is that the biggest market is the U.S., and penetrating that market is challenging. Canadian companies have certainly learned a lot in the last few years, and figured out some common best practices.
Our roots are in Vancouver. We want to grow our business from here, and I’m confident that we can. We’re cultivating relationships with suppliers and channel partners in the U.S., and we talk with a lot of potential customers, so we have a good feel for the market.
We were also fortunate to attract $1M in funding from a consortium that includes Seaspan, BDC and an angel investor. That’s allowed us to expand our operations, research and development efforts, and sales and marketing initiatives.
What are your biggest opportunities?
In terms of regions, the U.S. is our closest and biggest market, and there is also a lot of potential for us in the Middle East.
In terms of sectors, the fabrication market is under-served and we believe we can help this market benefit from proven technologies and become more competitive. Fabrication is pipe and pressure vessel manufacturing, which is hidden from everyday life but creates essential infrastructure. It connects all the pipes that bring water and natural gas into our homes from water treatment plants and gas refineries and plants.
We’ve also recently started working with Seaspans’ Vancouver Drydock on retrofitting ballast water management systems so they work faster, more efficiently and cost effectively.
What advice would you give to a cleantech or robotics entrepreneur?
Having both technical and business skills is very helpful as an entrepreneur. My engineering and MBA background really prepared me to anticipate some of the challenges and navigate a successful path for our company.
Robotics is an exciting space with a lot of promise, but it’s very different than working with software products. Scaling is more complex with hardware because it tends to be more capital-intensive and requires a longer-term investment. Adoption happens over a longer period of time and more development is required. It’s important that all your stakeholders understand this, especially your partners and investors.