When Scott Gravelle came up with the idea for his robotics logistics company Attabotics Inc., he modelled the technology after leafcutter ant colonies, which build vertically rather than across.
Their efficiency and structure inspired Mr. Gravelle to radically redesign the distribution warehouse model to better serve the rapidly expanding e-commerce industry. Instead of moving goods across aisles, which requires larger stretches of land, Attabotics uses robots to move items up and down high-density vertical structures.
“We’re building the automated platform to drive modern digital commerce fulfillment. It’s a way for retailers and brands to fulfill the expectations of the consumer base,” says Mr. Gravelle, founder and chief executive officer of the Calgary-based company he started seven years ago.
In the Attabotics 3-D matrix, robots locate goods housed in storage bins and plastic totes and bring them to staff to package and ship. And because its design optimizes space by being vertical, the fulfillment centre can even be in the core of a city, rather than requiring acres of land on the outskirts.
“It lessens the carbon footprint because we utilize existing real estate assets,” Mr. Gravelle adds.
This cutting-edge thinking has made Attabotics a leading fulfillment provider, with clients in Canada and the U.S. It also led Mr. Gravelle to be named the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2019 Prairies Award winner in the Emerging Entrepreneur category.
“I want to inspire other people; to show it’s possible,” Mr. Gravelle shares. “There’s no reason you can’t build a great business in Canada.”
For more than 25 years, Canada’s EY Entrepreneur Of The Year program has been shining a light on entrepreneurs like Mr. Gravelle who are transforming the world through unbounded innovation, growth and prosperity.
“The program acts as facilitator across the entrepreneurial ecosystem to fuel collaboration, inspire new partnerships and offer learning opportunities that, in turn, help to turn ground-breaking ideas into purpose-led businesses,” explains Jad Shimaly, chair and CEO of EY Canada.
Entrepreneurs redefining business norms
Mr. Gravelle is among a growing number of Canadian entrepreneurs who are ripping up traditional rulebooks around doing business — and thriving in the process.
Mr. Shimaly says Canada has many of the ingredients to support and scale truly transformative companies “but those supports and investments need to grow to boost the success of companies like Attabotics — to keep intellectual property on Canadian soil, drive our country towards an innovation economy and be the global connector that builds competitiveness on the world stage.”
Relying on technology and innovation, unstoppable entrepreneurs are proving how business can increasingly be done anywhere there’s local investment and a skilled workforce. They’re also demonstrating Canada’s potential to become an entrepreneurial powerhouse that serves as the backbone of our economy.
The numbers prove it: technology firms across Canada are growing at unprecedented rates, driven in part by increased investment. Canada’s technology sector set a full-year record for venture-capital fundraising in the first nine months of 2021, surpassing the previous high set during the dot-com bubble in the 1990s. According to market data company Refinitiv, as of the end of September, 427 Canadian companies have raised a total of nearly $10.92-billion in venture capital already. That’s well ahead of the prior high of $7.5-billion set in all of 2019.
Jobs are also expanding: employment in the information, communication and technologies (ICT) sector grew 14.3 per cent from 587,000 in 2015 to just over 671,000 in 2020, according to federal government data. Share of employment for software and computer services also increased from 62.2 per cent to 69 per cent over that same period, “reflecting the rising proportion of service firms in the ICT sector compared to other subsectors such as manufacturing.”
Attabotics is part of that growth trend. In 2021 alone, it hired more than 120 employees and saw its business ramp up, securing two large new contracts — one with a large Canadian retailer and another with a large U.S. distribution company.
Mr. Gravelle says access to talent has helped the company expand, alongside job grant programs.
“You just need to start the flywheel,” he explains.
Laura Kilcrease, CEO of Alberta Innovates and regional judge for the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year 2021 Prairies program, understands the flywheel concept, having spent decades in a variety of senior-level technology roles, including helping transform Austin, Texas from an oil and gas city to one of the top technology centres in the U.S. A big source of pride for her is how diversified the city’s economy now is, insulating it to some extent from economic downturns.
Her goal at Alberta Innovates, the province’s largest research and innovation agency, is to tap the power of technology – known and emerging – to help diversify the economy. Trillions of dollars’ worth of investment will be required to transition to a net-zero economy worldwide, and Ms. Kilcrease says Alberta has the right ingredients to “become a multibillion-dollar clean tech heartland” as it diversifies into growth areas such as ag-tech, digital health care and cleaner energy sources.
“Innovation in tech leads to natural evolution into other markets,” Ms. Kilcrease says.
She believes entrepreneurs need four key elements to succeed: talent, technological innovation, capital and expertise. She suggests the last element, which includes knowhow in intellectual property, marketing and production, glues those other factors together.
“If you can get talent, technology, capital and knowhow together, you can accomplish almost anything — regardless of what sector it’s in,” Ms. Kilcrease says.
Meanwhile, Mr. Gravelle continues to work on ambitious expansion plans. “We’re a little busy, but busy is good,” he says. “When you build a business that’s focused on solving large, global problems, there’s opportunity everywhere.”