India Times: Power of Ideas: How start up Grey Orange Robotics helps online retailers and logistics companies
Tooling around with technology is a common pastime on campus but to turn a classroom project into serious business is uncommon.
That is exactly what Samay Kohli, 26, and Akash Gupta, 23, have done. While still at the Birla Institute of Technology in Pilani (India), the two designed and built a robot that waited at tables in the college cafeteria.
Pushing the sci-fi button further, they programmed it to act as a tour guide to guests during seminars and conferences in the college. Drawing on the learning from those halcyon days, Kohli and Gupta have started a robot making company that is helping some of India’s largest online retailers automate their warehouses.
Journey to commercializing an industrial robot
Grey Orange Robotics, set up in 2009, is a first -of-its-kind venture for the Indian logistics industry. It builds robots that can move shelves stacked with various products to a floor assistant who then scans a bar code to confirm the right items.
The robot in turn moves the chosen products to the shipping bay where workers seal the packages for final transport.
“There is no player in the Indian marketplace offering a similar solution today,” says Sanjay Nath, managing partner at Blume Ventures. Blume along with other investors – BITS Spark Angels and the Hatch Group – invested $650K in Grey Orange in January.
The robots, which look like cubes and are called Butlers, help a worker pick 500 items per hour compared to 40 items in the normal course.
This also helps retailers’ ship products in one hour instead of two days. “Low cost labour advantage in India can be beaten by automation resulting in higher customer satisfaction,” says Wolfgang Hoeltgen, founder of CTH Consulting Team Hoeltgen GmbH, an IT consulting firm based in Germany who mentors Kohli and his team.
For the young engineers this journey to commercialize technology began with an early experiment to build a human-like robot. While still in college they put together AcYut, India’s first indigenously developed series of robots, resembling human body.
The project has received a total funding of over $325.5K from technology firms Force10 Networks, Sierra Atlantic and Department of Information Technology. The duo also got an opportunity to intern at a US-based surveying and mapping company C & C Technologies.
“We had excellent job offers in the US, but chose to return to India,” says Kohli. They set up Grey Orange Robotics as an education and training company in the field of robotics but could not scale up the business.
Appling their passion for robotics to solve bigger problems
“We were missing product development,” says Gupta. Meanwhile, AcYut, the robot they had built in college, was competing at international robot Kung Fu and football matches. It won one gold, two silver and one bronze medal at the RoboGames (previously ROBOlympics) held in the US in 2010. At the event, Kohli and Gupta met a series of mentors and investors who advised them to spin their business into industrial robotics.
“We told them to apply their passion for robotics to solve bigger problems and go nine miles deep into it,” says Sundi Natarajan, an early investor in Grey Orange. Grey Orange now earns revenues of over Rs 1 crore per annum and has bagged a roster of big ticket clients.
As the young venture moves to global markets, it will finally face competition from companies like Swisslog and Kiva Systems, bought by internet retailer Amazon for $775 million in March last year. Kohli believes pricing and the hardiness of robots developed for Indian environment will help them compete.
According to Kohli’s estimates, a Grey Orange robot costs around $22K and the whole system requires an investment of $591K, compared to global products that offer a similar range of service, and are priced at around $1.7M to $2.5M.
“Our robots will be a big game changer for large Indian companies” said Kohli.
Growth spurt from India 2013-2020
According to D&B (India), India?s Real GDP is expected to register an average growth of around 9.2% during FY11-FY20, on the back of robust private consumption demand, increased infrastructure spending, substantial growth in investment activity and strong growth in services sector.
Strong GDP growth is expected to result in considerable increase in real per capita income, which in turn would lead to significant reduction in the percentage of people living below the poverty line. With rising income levels, India is expected to move from a low-income country to a middle-income or upper-middle income country?and surpass China?s population numbers by 2020.