B.C. robotics firm Sanctuary nabs $30M from feds to help replace workers in dangerous jobs

Nearly 300 people expected to work on robotics project Ottawa hopes could have a mining, military applications

Sanctuary AI co-founder Suzanne Gildert | BIV file photo

Ottawa is ponying up $30 million to help a B.C. technology firm develop what it describes as the first general-purpose robots equipped with human-like intelligence.

Sanctuary Cognitive Systems Corp. is putting the money towards a $121-million project that the feds say will directly employ more than 160 people as well as hire 120 co-op students.

“We basically want to create a nice version of Westworld,” co-founder and chief technology officer Suzanne Gildert told BIV shortly after the company’s launch in 2018.

Sanctuary is developing human-sized robots meant to think just like people do with cognitive systems designed to mimic how the brain works. Those robots are being designed to take on tasks humans deemed too dangerous or physically exhausting.

Applications include putting robots to work in nuclear or chemical facilities, or else in mining and even military operations, according to the government.

But the company has remained cagey about how its technology works.

Pete Voss, a representative working on behalf of Sanctuary, declined an interview request from BIV and instead directed the newspaper to links to the announcement.

Federal officials would not discuss what due diligence it performed ahead of earmarking $30 million to the private company.

Sanctuary has caught the attention of deep-pocketed investors who helped the firm close a Series A funding round worth $75.5 million announced in March.

Those investors included telecom giant Bell Canada, Vancouver’s Evok Innovations, Export Development Canada, Magna, SE Health, Verizon Ventures and Workday Ventures.

Former International Space Station commander Chris Hadfield sits on Sanctuary’s board.

The B.C. company has previously partnered with another other local firm on robots that use UV lights to disinfect high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs. The janitorial robot known as AMRUD, which was developed with A&K Robotics Inc., looks akin to a mini-Zamboni.

Sanctuary spun off from fellow robotics firm Kindred Systems Inc., which Gildert also co-founded, in early 2018 before the latter was acquired by the Ocado Group in 2020 for US$262 million.

Kindred develops robots that help sort packages at fulfillment centres.

Sanctuary CEO and co-founder Geordie Rose is best known throughout the B.C tech sector as the co-founder of quantum computing firm D-Wave Systems Inc.

"Many labour-related challenges are outside the scope of current specialized AI and robotics technology. We appreciate the contribution from the Government of Canada and we are working hard to make work safer, more accessible and, ultimately, more productive,” Rose said in a prepared statement provided in Ottawa’s funding announcement Wednesday.

In a blog post on the company's website, Rose said the initiative would create high-paying jobs and address labour.

Innovation Minister François-Philippe Champagne said in a statement Sanctuary’s robotics initiative “will help maximize the economic potential of AI for Canadians and further cement our AI leadership on the global stage."

torton@biv.com

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Updated Dec. 13 with response from federal officials stating they would not share what due diligence was performed on Sanctuary ahead of earmarking $30 million. BIV originally reached out Nov. 30.