Varden Labs steers change in the autonomous vehicle industry

Self-driving cars are quickly becoming the next frontier in the automotive world, and two recent students from the Velocity Residence are developing a vehicle with its own unique spin. Varden Labs is building an autonomous shuttle for university campuses, and the company is on a roll.

The idea for Varden Labs grew while tinkering with ideas at the Velocity Residence, a residence for student entrepreneurs at the University of Waterloo. A conversation between co-founder Alex Rodrigues and Director Mike Kirkup two and a half years ago grew from a project into a company, all while Rodrigues and co-founder Michael Skupien were living in the residence and on co-op terms. After winning a $25,000 prize at the Velocity Fund Finals in Spring 2015, Varden Labs was officially launched. The co-founders continued to develop their prototype, a converted golf cart, and landed at the prestigious Y Combinator accelerator, and most recently, cinched a win at the 2016 California Pitch Alumni Event, in front a packed crowd of Alumni and friends of the University of Waterloo.

Since their time in the residence, the unprecedented growth for Varden Labs keeps Alex and Michael busy, leading them to expand their team to four people. “We’ve done six different pilots and tested our shuttles with students on different campuses,” notes Rodrigues. “We also went to a Sacramento Kings game and shuttled VIPs in our autonomous vehicle from the parking lot to the stadium.”

The autonomous vehicle industry is estimated to be a $87 billion market by 2030, but self-driving car technology is still new and can lead to anxiety from consumers. “Feridun Hamdullahpur, President of the University of Waterloo, was initially a bit apprehensive when he first rode in our shuttle, but within the first few minutes of realizing how smoothly and safely it drove, he relaxed and pulled out his phone. It’s been really cool to see that the best way for people to learn about self-driving cars is to try it” mentioned Rodrigues. Since their launch from Velocity, Varden Labs has been racing ahead with their self-driving cars, first at the University of Waterloo, and now on a five-college California tour that has taken them from Sacramento State to UCLA. Their current model’s name is Alvin.

On April 14th, ten Velocity startups gathered in Mountain View California at the Computer History Museum to pitch their innovative solutions to a crowd of alumni and guests at the California Pitch Alumni Event. “The event was held at the same venue as the Y Combinator Demo Day, so we were there back to back. We met a lot of people we know from Waterloo. There’s a huge network of people that I didn’t even realize we had down here, with people at varying levels of success. It was awesome to be back with the Waterloo family.” As one of the winners of a $5,000 prize, alongside Voltera and Lumotune, Rodrigues highlights the importance of alumni getting involved with Waterloo’s entrepreneurship ecosystem. “Improving the Waterloo network helps us all, and has really been a good experience for us. It leads to an exchange of ideas and makes connections to an invaluable network of people.” He also credits the University of Waterloo for influencing his entrepreneurial aspirations, “Being able to do co-op at Waterloo has helped me learn a lot technically, but has also helped me expand my mind and changed my thinking around what a university student is capable of.”

“A lot of what you’re constrained by is what you imagine, so co-op really helped me realize that even at 20 you can make a difference.”
– Alex Rodrigues, Co-founder of Varden Labs

Being surrounded by other startups at Velocity and Y Combinator helped Varden Labs avoid many of the mistakes startups are often accustomed to, but there were a few bumps along the way. “It’s amazing that if you stick at it, how quickly things snowball and move past what you were expecting. When we started out, we never intended for this to be more than a project. We developed a vehicle that somehow worked, leading to us testing it at Waterloo, winning the Velocity Fund Finals, and heading to YC. Companies that don’t look very impressive in the beginning and are very small have that much more room to grow to be at par with highly successful companies. Even a year ago, Voltera would have been a company that we looked up to, and still look up to, as a very successful Velocity startup. So it was really cool to see that we pitched and won alongside them at the California Pitch Alumni Event.”

With Varden Labs steering towards success, their next steps are to continue improving their technology to the point where it is fully autonomous, without the need for safety drivers, and bring it to various university campuses in 2017. The team is also looking for people familiar with computer vision and machine learning to join their team. Alex has a few parting words of advice for entrepreneurs:

“Having a co-founder has been invaluable through this process and I strongly recommend that. However, when I was in YC, the single biggest point at which companies failed was because of having a bad co-founder. Having no co-founder is better than having a bad co-founder, but having a strong partner who is also a good friend, is significantly better. It’s a bit like dating in that way.”


The California Pitch Alumni Event is sponsored by Shopify Plus.