Building smart robots for the world, this Bengaluru startup aims to transform the way industries function
Invento Robotics burst into the limelight in late-2017 when a five-foot-tall humanoid developed by the company greeted Ivanka Trump at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in Hyderabad. The bot, named Mitra, was programmed with technologies like facial and speech recognition, contextual support, and autonomous navigation to greet dignitaries (including Prime Minister Narendra Modi) at the event.
Almost overnight, Bengaluru-based Invento gained visibility in elite circles. Its bank loan got approved, it started getting corporate orders, and its promise of “made-in-India robots, for the world” intrigued global CTOs, some of whom invited the company to demonstrate its products in their respective countries.
“It was a game-changer for us,” Balaji Viswanathan, Founder and CEO of Invento Robotics, recalls.
“Before that, we were facing a survival crisis. Most customers were curious about robots but they were not sure if they should include it in their business. Everyone was a fence-sitter. But, GES gave us a lot of visibility and credibility,” he tellsYourStory.
It also fulfilled Balaji’s “childhood dream” of being featured in Amul ads, which are almost a commentary on our times and enjoy cult status in India. “That was a huge moment. Friends started calling me to say that they had seen our robot on a hoarding at Pedder Road (a prime billboard location in Mumbai),” he says.
Amul's nod to humanoid Mitra greeting Ivanka Trump in Hyderabad made Invento Robotics' Founder Balaji Viswanathan one happy man.
Building high-quality hardware out of India
Balaji, of course, is a startup veteran, having founded and shuttered at least three ventures before setting up Invento Robotics in 2016. His single-point agenda was to “do for India what Sony did for Japan”.
“In the 70s, Japan was infamous for making inferior products. That completely changed when Sony introduced transistor radios, and later, other gadgets. Within a span of 10 years, Japan became a standard of quality. Similarly, India is not known for its hardware innovation. Our cars aren’t that popular. We are big on SaaS, but we haven’t been able to build good tangible products for the world. At Invento, we tried to change this. We wanted to build high-quality hardware products out of India, but for the world.”
The startup asserts that every bit of the design and manufacturing of Mitra robots is done within India. While many hardware companies assemble their products in China - something even investors insist on for sunrise sectors like robotics - Invento ensures that it does everything in-house.
But, it wasn’t easy.
Balaji's agenda with Invento was to "do for India what Sony did for Japan”.
“We spent an entire year in exploration, and approached everyone from automobile manufacturers to helmet-makers. We realised that industrial design is not India’s forte. Our knowledge is limited in this area. So, we travelled to China to buy outer body shells for our products. We hit a roadblock when those got stuck at customs for over six months. In the first year itself, we figured out all that could go wrong in this business,” Balaji says.
And thus began Invento's journey of making in India.
Of clients and use cases
Invento currently employs 31 people, spanning across functions such as hardware design, PCB design, electronics and software, and app development. Add to that, a sales and operations team that takes its robots all over the world - Finland, Dubai, US, China, Hong Kong, and Thailand.
“We are doing demos everywhere. There are some regulations and standards that have to be met. But by the end of this year, we will be going all out on exports,” Balaji reveals.
Invento has manufactured 25 robots so far. There are five to six design variants. It intends to build over 150 robots over the next nine months. By 2022, Invento wants one million robots out in the market.
“That is our big picture for now,” says Balaji, adding, “We are looking to raise about $2 million in the next six months to get our global operations going.”
Until now, the startup has borrowed Rs 1 crore in the form of a bank loan, and raised about Rs 1.35 crore from undisclosed angel investors.
Its robots are deployed at malls, office complexes, airports, and are also being rented out for conferences, trade fairs, and festivals.
At coworking operator Smartworks’ flagship facility in Bengaluru, the AI-enabled Mitra robot is being used as a “productivity mascot” that undertakes interactions with visitors and also serves as a concierge desk.
At Chennai airport, on the other hand, Invento has conducted pilots to automate check-ins and customer support for travellers. “This will not only save time but also drive better engagement. And, if customers are not satisfied with the experience, they will have an option to engage with a remote human assistant through the video screen fitted on the robot,” Balaji explains. (Invento is outsourcing customer assistance to third-party call centres.)
Some of its key clients are banks like HSBC, Canara, and others that are using Mitra robots to engage with customers at public places such as malls, restaurants, and multiplexes.
“Large banks are our early adopters. Mitra can get an entire loan generated inside a mall, while people are waiting at the food court or at a multiplex queue. We use NLP, speech recognition, customer vision, and demographic analysis to get all customer details, and generate a loan or a credit card. They don’t have to install any another app for it,” Balaji explains.
This might sound like science fiction, but Invento is already making it a reality. HDFC Bank, for instance, has deployed the bot at a few malls/multiplexes.
“Besides banks, we are also working with players who are building the conversational AI required to support this,” he adds.
Revolutionising retail with smart robots
While banks and office spaces continue to drive growth, Invento is now turning its attention to large-format retail stores with an all-new product - Spod (smart pod) - that launched earlier this month.
Spod is a smart, AI-enabled shopping cart that seeks to redefine the retail experience by fundamentally changing the way people shop at supermarkets.
Spod runs on rechargeable batteries and is programmed to dock itself to a charging station whenever required.
Spod can do everything: from greeting customers as they enter a store to helping them navigate through the aisles to scanning their shopping lists and directing them to relevant products and promotional offers (depending on shopping history) to answering product-related queries.
It takes the shape of a shopping cart and has an iPad attached to it. The screen displays discounts on brands as the customer moves around in the store. So, when you are in the shampoo aisle, for instance, it will inform you of new launches, offers, and show you pictures and videos. Spod even allows customers to seek remote assistance from a human expert via video calling.
The robotic shopping cart runs on rechargeable batteries and is programmed to dock itself to a charging station whenever battery is low.
Balaji sheds light on the cutting-edge technologies that have gone into the development of Spod. “It uses noiseless locomotion, autonomous navigation with centimetre-level precision, speech recognition with natural language processing, computer vision, and predictive analytics,” he says.
Spod also has hydraulic levers that can ergonomically unload items from the cart and place in your car boot. “It is fully and proudly built in India, and will now be taken to the world,” Balaji states.
An iPad is fitted on Spod, and it displays promotional offers and videos as the customer moves through aisles.
Invento has already identified large-format retailers in the US, Singapore, and the Middle East as potential customers. While the concept is new, there is enough interest in the market, Balaji says.
But, is Indian retail-ready for such AI-led shopping experiences?
“Not yet,” reckons Balaji, adding, “Space is a problem in Indian supermarkets. They are small and overcrowded. Spod needs space to move around and function properly. That's why we are looking at foreign markets for initial sales.”
Competition and industry overview
Robotics is a nascent industry in India at present, but is slowly gaining in momentum as productivity and superior customer experience become non-negotiable for business owners.
“If you invest in a robot for three years, that is comparable to a human employee’s salary. And, you get more out of a robot.”
The startup counts Asimov Robotics, GreyOrange, and a few others among its competitors. But most of them are focused on industrial automation, whereas Invento has a greater consumer-facing component.
Robotics is estimated to be a $1 billion market in India in the next five years. Balaji says, “Innovation is a constant process. What we will see in the next few years are general purpose robots instead of just special purpose ones.”
And that will perhaps be the true measure of sci-fi turning into reality!