Path to success

Alex and Andrew Lonsberry in June 2021 in Path Robotics’ warehouse in Columbus. 

Sibling Brilliance

The Case students who founded Path Robotics thought they could transform American manufacturing. They might be right.

Not long ago, Alex and Andrew Lonsberry were practically living in the basement of Sears think[box], where their dream was born. Both graduate students in the Case School of Engineering, they sometimes spent 12 to 16 hours a day, tinkering with robots and teaching them to weld. They thought they had an idea that could transform American manufacturing.

 

Deep-pocketed investors think they might be right.

 

In July, Path Robotics announced raising $100 million in its second major funding round, bringing the total invested in the young company to $171 million in less than three years. That makes Path Robotics one of the most successful student startups ever to launch from Case Western Reserve.

 

“It’s been an amazing ride,” said Alex Lonsberry ’09, MS ’12, the company’s Chief Technology Officer and still a doctoral student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He expects the thrills to continue.

 

“We’re an AI robotics company that will go way beyond welding. The final goal is to be that trillion dollar company that will take over manufacturing,” he said, laughing.

 

For he and his younger brother Andrew Lonsberry, MS ’21, there’s plenty to smile about. The siblings are putting their Case degrees to grand work.

 

As they applied robotics to mechanical systems, the brothers focused on welding because the craft faces a labor shortage. They also employed artificial intelligence to design robots that get better with use.

 

“Most robots merely repeat what they are told and have no ability to improve themselves,” Andrew Lonsberry, the company CEO, said in a statement. “Our goal is to change this. The future of manufacturing hinges on highly capable robots.”

 

Path’s robotic welding system uses image processing techniques to find and weld seams in metal parts. Largely a software company, Path adds sensors, lasers and AI capabilities to existing robots. The company launched its production models last summer: a large, boom-mounted robotic welder and an enclosed welding system for smaller parts.

 

“What they’re doing is well researched and brilliantly developed,” said Bob Sopko, director of the campus startup consultancy, CWRU LaunchNet. “It shows what we can do in Northeast Ohio — combining sophisticated software and manufacturing. It’s something which differentiates us from many locations, including Silicon Valley.”

 

Family friendly startup

The Lonsberry brothers began with a Silicon Valley mindset.

 

Alex Lonsberry, 35, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering at Case. It’s where he met his wife, Rachel Sherman, a graduate of the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing.

 

Alex finished his master’s program in 2012. Soon after, Andrew, an Ohio State-trained engineer, joined him at Case so they both could pursue doctorate degrees. Andrew Lonsberry, 30, accepted his master’s in mechanical engineering in May.

 

While they studied engineering, the brothers also sought out a business idea.

 

“My brother and I are so entrepreneurial, we can’t help ourselves,” Alex Lonsberry explained.

 

They grew up in the Cleveland suburb of Hudson, steeped in the family’s custom motorcycle business. It was run by dad, Ken Lonsberry, a manufacturing engineer. In 2016, they started an engineering consulting firm to search for a business niche — a problem to solve.

 

That quest led them to CORSA Performance, a Cleveland-area maker of exhaust systems for boats and muscle cars. The Berea company was struggling to fill critical welding positions. That’s how the brothers learned of the shortage of welders afflicting manufacturers nationwide. They had their problem. Was a smart robot the solution?

 

Path’s proprietary technology was informed by Alex’s master’s research into machine vision — using imaging technology to guide mechanical systems. Mentors included Professor Roger Quinn, director of Case’s Biologically Inspired Robotics Lab. He saw a trait common among his student who excel as entrepreneurs.

 

“They have the ‘It factor,’” said Quinn. “Whatever it is that attracts other people to a cause, they have it.”

 

And they were helped mightily by the campus innovation center, which provided the machine tools and work space to experiment and prototype. 

 

“Without think[box], we wouldn’t exist, period,” Alex Lonsberry said.

 

They became fixtures at the muffler shop and at Sears think[box], where they worked in a space next door to Sopko’s office.

 

“They were very quiet,” Sopko said. “They would come in and shut the door and work all day and work all day and work all day.”

 

In July of 2018, with a push from Sopko, the brothers entered a pitch contest sponsored by MAGNET — the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network — and won rent-free space at MAGNET’s offices near Cleveland State University. MAGNET also gave them industry
connections and insight from real welders.

 

Also in 2018, Sopko coaxed them to enter the LaunchTown Entrepreneurship Awards in Akron, which drew student startup teams from around Northeast Ohio. They won first place and a $7,500 cash award.

 

By January 1, 2019, Path Robotics was up and running.

 

Cleveland loses a hot company

Now it was time to find serious venture capital, which they were not getting in Cleveland. The brothers flew to Silicon Valley to visit VC firms, bringing a prototype of a robotic welder. Alex Lonsberry said a former lab partner connected him with Lemnos Labs, a VC firm that specializes in robotics. The first person he met offered a $2.5 million investment.

 

The West Coast investors wanted the company to relocate to California, but the brothers demurred. They argued the company was better off in Cleveland, a hub of advanced manufacturing.

 

Soon after, they heard unexpectedly from Drive Capital, a Columbus venture capital firm co-founded by former JobsOhio president Mark Kvamme and fueled by a massive investment from the state of Ohio. Drive offered to invest $12.5 million but insisted the company move to Columbus.

 

“It was part of the deal,” Alex Lonsberry said. “They said, ‘We want you nearby so we can check on you on a weekly basis.’”

 

And so a job-creating company launched from Cleveland’s elite research university, and nurtured by the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, is growing in another city.

 

The latest burst of capital, in what’s called a Series C funding round, followed a $56 million infusion less than three months before. Major investors included Lee Fixer, founder of New York City venture capital firm Addition, who said he sees a company that will “lead American manufacturing into the future.” 

 

Meanwhile, Path is on a hiring tear. Having started 2020 with 20 employees, the workforce exceeded 100 in May and the brothers expect to be overseeing more than 200 employees by the end of the year.

 

The company employs dozens of engineers, many of them Case alumni. Matt Klein ’12, MS ’17, who is also pursuing a doctorate in engineering at Case, is a co-founder and the head of robotics. Dad, Ken Lonsberry, who has been helping his boys since the beginning, is the Chief Supply Chain officer.

 

Alex Lonsberry said he and his brother believe they have a technology that will enhance productivity in all kinds of manufacturing. He talks as if the sky is the limit. And why not?

 

“We’ve done a lot of really hard, challenging things — on a shoestring budget,” he said. “We have a ton of great technology. So, yeah, I’m really confident.”

Alex Lonsberry

Andrew Lonsberry

A Path Robotics welding robot for a factory.

“Most robots merely repeat what they are told and have no ability to improve themselves. Our goal is to change this. The future of manufacturing hinges on highly capable robots.”

— Andrew Lonsberry

NASDAQ offered congratulations to Path Robotics on its electronic billboard in Times Square

Path welder

“They have the ‘It factor. Whatever it is that attracts other people to a cause, they have it.”

— Roger Quinn

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