When a 19-year-old University of Waterloo student built a fully autonomous golf cart, he knew he had "one of the 50 best self-driving vehicles" on the planet. A little over a year later, when he dropped out of school and took his technology to Silicon Valley to pivot to autonomous trucking, he knew he was at the forefront of something truly special.
Alex Rodrigues, the now 21-year-old CEO and co-founder of Embark Technology, has built one of three companies approved to test their autonomous 18-wheeler semis on roadways in the State of Nevada – along with Uber and Freightliner.
He and a group of other early 20-something Canadians left Waterloo in the winter of 2016 to partner with California's Y Combinator, one of the world's largest start-up incubators.
"Just because it was such a young, nascent technology, we realized that we were sitting on the cutting edge of a really transformative technology and it was a worthwhile risk to take to get that opportunity to work in the space," said Mr. Rodrigues, a Calgary native, of his decision to drop out of school.
Mr. Rodrigues and Embark co-founder Brandon Moak, 21, were admitted into UW's Velocity Residence – a program that welcomes 70 entrepreneurial engineering students each year to help them develop their ideas into a business – in their first year.
It's unusual for Velocity to welcome first-year students into its residence. It prefers students have a year to settle in on the academic side. Y Combinator also prefers its founders finish university before starting a business. But the team at Embark, which was then called Varden Labs, weren't ordinary.
The partners at Y Combiantor have a term for "founders who are very, very young but respond in ways that make them seem far more mature than their years."
"We say they passed the young founder test," said YC partner Geoff Ralston, who worked closely with the team at Embark for their three months with the California-based incubator. "Alex is a force of nature."
Mr. Ralston credits Mr. Rodrigues not only for his intelligence, but also his boundless energy, intensity, idealism and enthusiasm – qualities he says are required to become a successful Silicon Valley founder.
"You have to have a certain amount of naiveté and sometimes that helps because if you know too much you can ask 'well why would I go through with this?' " Mr. Ralston added. "Because doing a startup is really hard."
Mr. Rodrigues had managed a team in the FIRST Robotics competition since he was 15, overseeing a budget of $50,000 and a group of 20 people. He went on to become the youngest student to win the Velocity Fund pitch competition, which is the largest free startup incubator in the world.
"Alex in particular always just kind of had that leader mentality and he stood out right from the beginning," Nancy Heide, Velocity's associate director, said. "They were a really special bunch of people."
A founder needs to be equal parts talker – someone who can persuade people that what they're doing is part of the future – and doer, according to Mr. Ralston.
Mr. Rodrigues and his team "actually had built a self-driving car as kids, it was amazing," said YC's Mr. Ralston of the then-19-year-olds. "They were clearly talkers and doers. They were very impressive."
Mrs. Heide worked closely with Mr. Rodrigues and his team while they were at Waterloo. She says it is extremely rare for students to drop out of school to pursue their project, but that Velocity continues to offer support and guidance regardless.
"The biggest thing you learn in Silicon Valley is a lot of companies don't value college degrees as much as they used. It's pretty irrelevant," said Paul Ashbourne, a 22-year-old from Aurora, Ont., and one of a number of other Waterloo mechatronics students who dropped out to join the Embark team in San Francisco.
The team at Embark is rapidly outgrowing the garage they retrofitted into an office and they're on the hunt for a new space.
The Embark staff is rounded out by Americans in their late 20s and early 30s from Audi's self-driving division and an electrical engineer from SpaceX and a Stanford research grad.
"Having experience doing something like this is far better than anything you'll learn in school," Mr. Ashbourne, now an engineer with Embark, said. "Here, we're learning very real things that will potentially reshape the way that all of society and the economy functions."
Trucking is a $3-billion industry and the self-driving space is taking off. Embark wants to use its technology to transition from a driving system where humans do everything to one where the simpler highway driving is completely automation, freeing up drivers for sleep and other work.
Before the group left Waterloo for the Valley, they tapped into additional funding through the residence's micro fund. Velocity also made accommodations for their ground-breaking project by installing electrical power outlets to enable charging the golf cart outside the residence.
The team's cart quickly became a "feature on campus," according to Mrs. Heide. Eventually, the school's president began to call Mr. Rodrigues to "show off his technology" when special visitors were on campus.
Mr. Rodrigues credits Waterloo and Velocity for providing him and his classmates-turned-colleagues with funding and experience in co-op placements in the Valley at places such as Facebook. Still, starting your own company, pitching investors and developing technology that now competes with giants such as Uber's self-driving Otto truck, is no small task.
"It's a big responsibility," said Mr. Rodrigues, who said Embark's staff would watch Maple Leafs games on a projector in the office to wind down. "But it's also not that we're on our own. We have investors who have been around the Valley for 30 years, we have advisors who can pick up the phone anytime I call who I can ask about basically anything. It's a mixture of being able to know a lot of the relevant technology and having those good advisors and knowing when to call them."
You must be bold, too.
"The number of people who are willing to call up their parents who are paying for some school and say 'hey, guess what? I'm leaving school because I want to do some company,' … it's not a big percentage who are willing," Mr. Ralston said. "It's even a smaller percentage that we actually think 'oh wow, they pass the young founders test, they're good enough' and that's definitely, definitely true for Alex."