At the height of the Covid-19 outbreak in the Chinese province of Wuhan, where the coronavirus emerged, a Bengaluru startup’s innovation helped deal with it. Wuhan will be coming out of quarantine on April 8, after two and a half months of a lockdown, with new infections dropping to zero. As a Chinese official told Bloomberg in February, “It’s like fighting a war—some things are hard but must be done."
One of the measures Wuhan took was to set up emergency medical centres on a war footing. Ventilators were vital and many came from a German manufacturer, Huber & Ranner. The trouble was technicians could not go to Wuhan to help install them. This is where BlinkIn, housed in the Nasscom CoE in Bengaluru, entered the scene.
Huber & Ranner used BlinkIn’s AR (augmented reality) product Scotty to provide visual guidance from Pocking in Germany. Hospital staff in Wuhan just had to click on a link to get tech support. When they pointed a phone at the ventilator and installation point, AR markers helped indicate what needed to be done as a technician talked them through the process.
“WebGL lets you access a mobile phone’s GPU (graphics processing unit) to run computer vision algorithms. That’s how we bring AR experiences through the Web rather than a mobile app," explains Harshwardhan Kumar, CEO and co-founder of BlinkIn.
The idea behind a lightweight product like Scotty is to provide just enough AR for tech support “to get the job done then and there." This requires minimal computational power unlike a full-fledged AR product that would involve heavy downloads and figuring out how to use it.
“Our approach differentiates us from companies trapped in a showcase trip of creating fancy AR/VR experiences that seldom get rolled out. We just try to understand a problem and create value for a customer," says BlinkIn’s German co-founder and MD, Josef Seuss.
“What I do on a daily basis is build understanding between us and our clients," adds Reinhard Kurz, who handles business development for BlinkIn. For example, one challenge was doing a live video call when connectivity was unreliable. “We came up with a solution of instant image chat."
Seuss was a consultant to companies in Germany for digital transformation when he first connected with Kumar to do a project for one of his clients. Later, when BlinkIn was in the iCreate accelerator programme in Ahmedabad last year, Kumar told him about a smart visual bot they were building. When Seuss started asking around in Germany, he saw a lot of interest in the product. He ended up coming to Ahmedabad to join the BlinkIn founders in the accelerator programme and becoming a co-founder.
While Scotty opens doors to enterprises with easy-to-use AR, the AI-powered visual bot Houston is BlinkIn’s deep tech product. Imagine an automated video conference call that gets smarter as it progresses. Houston can be deployed in multiple scenarios.
One of its early testers is Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club (ADAC), an automobile club in Germany. The bot can assist a user do an oil-level check in his car, fit a safety seat for a child and so on. “We’re going to do a larger Europe-wide pilot with an automobile company," says Seuss.
An Indo-German startup enjoys the best of both worlds. AI and AR talent is scarce and expensive in Germany, so the tech side is in Bengaluru. And Europe is the main target market where Seuss and his team can interact closely with potential clients.
After the Ahmedabad programme, BlinkIn’s Indian founders—Harshwardhan Kumar, Nitin Kumar and Dhiraj Choudhary—went with Seuss to attend an insurtech acceleration programme in Germany. There, they connected with insurance company VKB, which is now running a pilot to see how a visual bot can improve the claims process and reduce time taken.
The three-year-old bootstrapped startup, which was initially a consultancy called Etrix, found the ecosystem more favourable in Europe for its products. “Earlier, we reached out to industries in India that were willing to take our products forward. We reached out to investors willing to invest in us. But after getting a taste of the German ecosystem, we had to think again about what we may be losing in equity by raising funds in India or getting into agreements with Indian customers," says Choudhary.
“Being in both India and Germany, we learned from day one to work remotely and trust each other," adds Seuss. “We don’t have to all the time sit next to each other."