Miko is an Indian robot that has been entertaining and educating children in Asia. Now it wants to befriend American kids. Its Mumbai-based creator Emotix announced series A funding round of $7.5 million in August.
Butler is a warehouse robot from Gurugram. Its maker GreyOrange has clients from Japan to Latin America. GreyOrange is the best-funded startup in this space after a series C round of $140 million last year.
Mitra and Mitri are humanoid robots greeting visitors at banks, restaurants and tech events in India. Now they’re getting their act together for West Asia and China. Their maker, Bengaluru-based Invento Robotics, is eyeing a series A round for expansion into new markets.
India is known more for its software prowess than hardware. So it seems counter-intuitive that the country can become a hub for making robots. But increasingly, it’s software that sets robots apart, as AI, natural language processing and computer vision make rapid advances. Robots are getting smarter by the day in the way they see, sense, move and adapt. That creates new use cases for them.
“When it comes to data analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, India has a lot to offer," says Arvind Vasu, senior vice president at ABB Technology Ventures. “We’re starting to see more startups working with industry in the B2B space. I’m eager to see what’s going to come in the next couple of years."
DAVID VS GOLIATH
Apart from GreyOrange, robotics startups in India are still at an early stage, even though a number of them have been founded in the last five years. It takes time to build a differentiated value proposition with robots for a global market. Investors are still in a wait-and-watch mode.
“It’s not that we haven’t met good Indian robotics startups. Some are still at a phase where they’re also developing and figuring out which direction to go," says Vasu, whose company, Swiss-Swedish giant ABB, is a leading manufacturer of industrial robots and invests in startups when there is collaborative potential.
The relatively nascent funding scenario for robotics startups in India makes it a David VS Goliath battle as they take baby steps into global markets. Chinese startup UBTech Robotics, whose humanoid robots hold the world record for most robots dancing simultaneously, had an $820 million funding round last year, which eclipses the total funding so far for all robotics startups in India.
As with any other domain, institutional investors want to see scaling potential before making big commitments. This is more the case for emerging tech like robotics which is capital-intensive with long gestation periods.
“A robotics startup requires significant domain experience. Early money required for minimum viable product (MVP ) or proof of concept (POC ) is also higher than a normal tech startup. Robotics startups spend a lot of time and resources on R&D," says Vivek Kumar, co-founder of Excubator.
GreyOrange rode on support from BITS Pilani alumni before demonstrating scale with warehouse automation. It’s early days for others like humanoid, educational or medical robots.
Tracxn data shows that while industrial robotic startups in India have raised $216 million, consumer robotics funding is heavily skewed towards the US and Japan, with Israel and South-East Asia starting to make inroads.
But India may be on the cusp of change. “In 2019, more than 25 venture capital funds and enterprises chose robotics as one of their focus areas to find startups on the Excubator platform, which is higher than last year," says Kumar.
Apart from funding, the ecosystem is at a formative stage, because adoption of robots is yet to pick up.
But this is changing as Indian engineers are exposed to different parts of the robotics value chain in global organizations, see what’s lacking and launch startups.
“They’re pushing the frontiers of robotics with new technology," says Arun Raghavan, co-founder of Arali Ventures, which has invested in two robotics startups. “Bengaluru-based CynLr is solving a fundamental problem robots face in picking up randomly aligned objects. They use computer vision to enable a robotic arm to pick up an object, see what it is, and place it in a slot."
Those who have made early bets, like Bay Area investor Raju Reddy, who wrote the first cheque for GreyOrange, see potential to gather momentum from India’s large engineering and tech talent pool. That’s because robotics requires a pooling of talent from multiple streams.
“GreyOrange combines computer science with electrical and mechanical engineering. You don’t see too much of that in one place," says Reddy.
Malavika Velayanikal is a contributing editor with Mint. Write to her at email@example.com