After greeting Narendra Modi and Ivanka Trump, robot Mitra has been signed up by a Chinese banking chain
The time is right for startups to enter the global robotics arena because now, software innovation is as important as hardware
From a corner of the stage, Balaji Viswanathan watched nervously as his startup’s robot, Mitra, came out to greet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Ivanka Trump, the US President’s daughter, at the opening of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Hyderabad. Everything that could go wrong raced through his mind.
The 60kg five-foot-tall humanoid had cleared testing by the Indian and US security forces, but it was, after all, a large mechanical object with wires and a huge battery moving autonomously. The red carpet hindered its movement and remote control was patchy because signals had been jammed at the venue. What if its hand started rotating crazily like it had done during one of the trial runs with NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant?
“You don’t want your robot punching the prime minister or the US president’s daughter," says Viswanathan, who can joke about it now. But two years ago, that was one of his most nerve-wracking moments as an entrepreneur.
There was indeed a glitch. A pre-programmed sequence expected the Prime Minister to touch an Indian flag icon on the robot’s chest, but Modi chivalrously invited Ivanka to go first. That confused Mitra.
Nevertheless, Mitra’s debut on a global stage was a crucial juncture for Invento Robotics, which had been pushing through its development phase with seed funding from Viswanathan and his co-founder, Mahalakshmi Radhakrushnun, along with some angels. Renting the robots for all kinds of events and parties became a significant revenue source and kept the lights on. Mitra and his better half, Mitri, were greeting visitors at the Bengaluru tech summit last month, but you might even spot them at a wedding.
NOVELTY TO BUSINESS
Robots, especially of the humanoid kind, do catch the eye, but it takes a lot more than a gimmick to make a thriving business out of them. That’s why Invento’s chief revenue officer, Sumit Roy, is more excited about seeing the robots gain traction in enterprises. Banks, retailers and others have been running pilots with the robots for customer engagement and analytics.
A global insurance company wants to take it further by turning Mitra and Mitri into sales agents who use their AI brains to recognize customers, recollect their demographic backgrounds, and recommend suitable products. The insurance company ran an experiment with the robots for three days at a large IT company. “The robots had 1,683 interactions with people, 700-odd registered with the insurance company, and 60 to 70 actually bought the medical insurance," says Roy.
The tech nous that goes into such a robot is considerable. Facial recognition, natural language processing, autonomous navigation, AI-based analytics, data-capturing sensors, mechanical engineering design—it doesn’t get more multi-disciplinary than this.
But that is also a ticket for Indian startups to enter the global robotics arena as software innovation becomes just as important, if not more than hardware. SoftBank’s Pepper robots may look cuter with a wider range of movements, admits Viswanathan, but he believes Mitra can outdo its Japanese counterpart in brain power.
LIKE THE PC ERA
One of the innovations is a platform model for Mitra. The robot will come with middleware and open application programming interfaces (APIs ) enabling it to plug into an enterprise’s ERP or other backend software. This will allow organizations to build their own applications for different uses on the robot’s core system.
Viswanathan likens this approach to the dawn of the PC era where Microsoft’s operating system became compatible with a range of hardware and software. “Instead of building end-to-end banking or retail applications, we’re getting our team to focus on what is that minimal system that will allow our partners and distributors to build their applications on top."
This is vital for scaling as the startup enters its growth phase. But getting a bunch of techies in love with robots to concentrate on middleware is easier said than done. Distractions abound as new possibilities keep cropping up.
“The sales guys are like kids in a candy store," says Viswanathan. “One guy calls from an industrial warehouse, another is on the phone from a bank an hour later, and a third guy is convinced that if we give him what he wants, he can sell 100 robots."
On the other side, the engineers are equally excitable. Viswanathan himself started the company in Bengaluru three years ago after relocating from Boston in the US, where all kinds of consumer robots were appearing. In the beginning, it was a “maker space" for robots.
That culture has continued. The basement in Invento’s HSR Layout office is strewn with fibreglass moulds, electronic paraphernalia and robot body parts. Among those you will spot the chassis of an autonomous mini-car that the engineers have made in their spare time.
“Engineers always want to build something new. But this is not a lab with a research grant," Viswanathan cautions them. “The thing that kills robotics companies is lack of focus on their core business."
SELLING TO CHINA
Of course, the experimental attitude has its upside too. One of these is Spody, Invento’s new robotic shopping cart that recognizes you, scans your shopping list, leads you to spots in the aisles, shows you offers and connects with payment systems. Its infrared sensors enable it to navigate autonomously around the supermarket.
Spody has caught the interest of a large retailer from China, so it will have to start conversing in Mandarin soon. Mitri is also learning Mandarin for a Chinese banking chain. Entering the Chinese market, which Viswanathan expects to scale up by March next year, would be a huge validation for Invento’s robots competing with a variety of Chinese robots.
The Invento founder hopes that the Indian robots will be smarter in engaging with customers than their Chinese counterparts who may be more adept with handshakes and high-fives. That would open new doors in a huge market where adoption of robots is already well-developed.
The time is ripe for this. Apart from the industry, there’s a pull from the Chinese government for Indian technology. Simultaneously, there’s a push from the Indian government to sell more in China and redress a trade imbalance. “We’re getting a corridor into the China market, thanks to support from the government and industry bodies like Nasscom as well as incentives for doing business in China," says Roy.
“It’s a litmus test for us," adds Viswanathan. “And if we’re able to do that, it becomes a playbook for other Indian startups going to China."
Sumit Chakraberty is a contributing editor with Mint. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org