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Robotic spider catches entrepreneur in its web

Rob Cunningham is a Vancouver video game developer who co-founded eatART, an arts organization that hosts events and parties, demonstrates art pieces at public events and schools, and provides a workspace for inventors and creators.

Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

In the spring of 2005, Rob Cunningham sold his first startup, a video game company called Relic Entertainment. He and his partners had started the company in Vancouver six years earlier, produced a couple of hits, and then got scooped up by a bigger gaming company for a cool $10-million.

Mr. Cunningham spent a chunk of his new wealth on a most unusual acquisition: the world's largest solar-powered tricycle.

Known as "Daisy", the trike was created by a Californian inventor and neurobiologist named Bob Schneeveis, who took it to show off at the annual Burning Man Festival in Nevada that summer. It was there where Mr. Cunningham first laid eyes on it. "She cost $23,000 [U.S.] including her custom-built transportation trailer," he says. "Clearly the best deal ever."

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Throughout his life, Mr. Cunningham had always been as equally enthralled with art as he was with technology. As a kid he loved science fictions movies and machines – "anything that moved, really" – and spent recesses with a stack of old-fashioned printer paper, "drawing these long side-scrolling war scenes while my friends gathered around and told me what should happen next."

His father, an agricultural engineer who worked on projects around the world, kept a collection of old cameras and models around the house. He carved figures out of rocks and made mobiles of wire and translucent film that hung all over the house, casting patterns on the walls. "There was always something cool to look at or play with," says Mr. Cunningham. "I could see how much time went into it all and loved that it all had no purpose but to simply be beautiful and inspiring."

Mr. Cunningham didn't know it at the time, but Daisy was the beginning of his own attempt to make a beautiful, inspiring mark on the world.

Not long after Burning Man, back in Vancouver, Mr. Cunningham heard about a group of guys working on an interesting project for Vancouver Junkyard Wars, a friendly competition organized by University of British Columbia engineering alumni. The challenge was to make a robotic, remote-controlled walking machine. They were going to do it in the form of a giant spider.

Mr. Cunningham was so thrilled about the project, he offered the team – four engineers and two builders, who were working out of someone's garage – $2,000 to lease a warehouse space where they could finish building it. The creators threw in what they could, and they got an arts grant for materials. When their creation MondoSpider was finished, just in time for Burning Man 2006, it was a 725-kilogram aluminum arachnid whose eight legs moved it along at four kilometres an hour with alarming realism.

Initially, Mr. Cunningham figured he would continue leasing the warehouse simply to have somewhere to keep Daisy and the Spider. "But it dawned on all of us simultaneously that we should spawn an entity to support more of these kind of crazy creations," he says.

In the beginning, Mr. Cunningham and Leigh Christie (one of the MondoSpider engineers) handled the business end of building the entity, while many of the rest of the MondoSpider team (including Jonathan Tippett, Charlie Brinson and Sam Meyer) were the boots on the ground. It was Mr. Cunningham's father's idea to structure it as an arts education charity. And so, the eatART (energy awareness through art) Foundation was born, and has become Mr. Cunnigham's passion.

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Today, eatART is an important anchor in Vancouver arts community and its cultural fabric. They host events and parties, demonstrate their pieces at public events and schools, and provide a workspace and laboratory for a whole community of inventors and creators. Many of the MondoSpider crew continue to volunteer their time running the space and devising new inventions. Like Titanoboa, a 50-foot-long robotic snake. Or the Black Ghost Electric Bike Car, a four-person "bicycle" that can generate and store power. Mr. Tippett, who now runs the space, is working on his latest and most ambitious undertaking, Prothesis: a two-storey tall, human-controlled robot.

For Mr. Tippett, eatART is, "my baby … a community that I've helped grow for the last seven years that embodies a set of values that I think is altogether too rare – which is creative undertakings for the sake of themselves and not for the sake of profit."

Mr. Cunningham, he says, brought a much-needed business perspective to the organization. His insistence on renting space, at first, was "a hard thing for us to wrap our heads around," says Mr. Tippett, but ended up being what made MondoSpider possible.

"It was a foreshadowing of the wisdom and insight and different perspective that he's brought to eatART since, which has long been populated by very hardware-focused engineers."

Mr. Cunningham estimates he spent about $60,000 altogether to get eatART up and running; now its activities are now sustained through grants and donations. His day job remains in the video-game industry. His second video game company, Blackbird Interactive Inc., is just approaching its fifth birthday and about to launch Homeworld: Shipbreakers. It's the company's first full-scale game and the latest in the popular Homeworld series, a real-time strategy game, that made Mr. Cunningham's original company, Relic, famous.

How well it's received could mean Mr. Cunningham has another winning company on his hands. "The team has been incredible, and it has surpassed by expectations," he says. "If it makes the fans happy and makes money for its brave investors, then I would declare victory."

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His busy schedule means he has less time to spend on his eatART passion. But he's still "super, super proud of it," he says.

"Children especially seem to see these things and have their faith in humanity restores," says Mr. Cunningham. He recalls one elementary student in particular who was so enthralled with Daisy he didn't want to get out after all the other kids had wandered off. "I asked him, 'What are you thinking?' and he looked up at me with this look of amazement and said, 'This is just like Science!' I was like, 'Yes, that's exactly it!'"

"These things have zero practical value, zero commercial value," he adds. "But they are baffling to people in a wonderful way. The implausibility of these things makes it worthwhile."

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