This former Reliance engineer's bootstrapped startup is building AI-based solutions for smart cities
Neuronet builds AI-based bots that help automate processes in smart cities, malls, etc. Now, it wants to grow through WhatsApp and help small businesses deliver services more effectively.
Vijay Tanneeru served as an enterprise architect at Reliance Industries for five years before embarking upon his entrepreneurial journey in 2018.
At Reliance, his role was to evaluate new technologies, which allowed him to look at artificial intelligence (AI) solutions more closely. But, Vijay was always keen on product development.
So, he started building an AI-enabled voice assistant sometime in 2017. It was a pet project, but one that drew great feedback from his peers and colleagues.
“My managers said this could have different use cases,” Vijay tells YourStory.
It was just the validation he needed to quit his day job and start up.
Origins, and the first voice bot
Vijay incorporated Neuronet in January 2018, after his idea was incubated at Palava Accelerator. (Palava Accelerator is a tech accelerator run by the Lodha Group and Zone Startups India. It nurtures startups that build tech solutions for Palava, a smart city about 45 kilometres off Mumbai.)
Neuronet’s first pilot was a voice-based information kiosk for Palava’s 100,000 residents. The kiosk was installed at the Palava City Management Association (PCMA) office, and integrated with its existing systems.
“We trained the voice assistant with over 250 problem types,” Vijay says.
Residents could simply speak to the AI-led assistant and register their complaints or requests. These were typically ‘My lift is not working’ or ‘I need a maid’ or ‘I need a parking space’. A ticket would be generated instantly, and a resolution would take place in one or two days.
Vijay claims Neuronet’s voice bot helped bring down complaint resolution timelines in Palava drastically, and also improved resident interaction. “We cleared almost a year of backlog,” he says.
But, when the pilot got over and it was time to offer the startup a paid contract, PCMA turned cautious. The operations team “wasn’t keen on continuing” with the kiosk because it feared acceptance among residents would be low.
“That is when we realised we had to reposition ourselves as a complete smart city solution. Just one product was not enough,” Vijay admits.
Evolving into a smart city platform
Vijay and his three-member team started developing an AI-based “process automation” platform that could integrate all citizen services “in one box”.
Raptr, the automated solution developed by Neuronet, can track all resident complaints, amenities booking, parking requests, visitor management and security systems, registrations, and monthly billing, under one platform.
“Earlier, multiple vendors and third-party service providers had to be dealt with for each function. Now, all processes and services can be managed through one source: Raptr. It is both time and cost efficient.”
Neuronet claims that the Raptr smart city platform has resulted in a 40 percent reduction in vendor management costs for Palava City. Issues are identified upfront by the “24x7 system” and solutions are offered promptly.
Raptr has had two key use cases so far: a) visitor management at multiple security gates, and b) complaint management and redressal for residents.
Over 5,000 visitors are processed by the system per day, and close to 11,000 citizen requests have been logged in so far. If you describe a problem, the AI-led platform auto-fills the form, and generates your ticket immediately.
“The entire process of delivering citizen care has been redefined,” Vijay notes.
Neuronet rolled out Raptr at the start of 2019, and now plans to replicate it in more municipalities, smart cities, malls, schools, and more. The bootstrapped startup claims it has started making profits month on month, as it gains more commercial orders.
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Growing through WhatsApp
Because Raptr supports voice, text, and rich media, Neuronet believes it can integrate with WhatsApp and help small businesses deliver their services more effectively. These businesses can establish a direct communication channel with customers, and deliver offers, coupons, loyalty programmes, and all other information through a single window.
“Small business players aren’t very tech-savvy. And, they do not have access to WhatsApp Business. WhatsApp has opened its APIs for the bigger players only. So, any small-to-medium business owner can create an account on Raptr and fully automate their customer services.”
Neuronet has already launched the Raptr chatbot for Xperia Mall in Palava City. The mall uses it for automatic voucher distribution and marketing. Shoppers can simply upload their bills on WhatsApp, and avail hourly coupons and stay abreast of activities and events at the mall.
“We’ve also enabled the chatbot for small restaurants in Palava. Customers can directly place orders via WhatsApp. They do not have to worry if the eatery is listed on Zomato or not.”
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Opportunities and challenges
WhatsApp has huge potential. Or so believes Neuronet. The startup is in talks with the Facebook-owned company and “might get direct access to WhatsApp APIs”, it claims. That will help Neuronet scale up much faster, of course.
“WhatsApp Business is the future,” says Vijay, adding, “Every company will want to deliver customer services over WhatsApp because it is the most used medium.
"If we can start with just Palava, we are already looking at 100,000 users," he says.
But, while Palava is a hotbed for innovation for emerging startups, it can pose logistical challenges owing to its sheer distance from mainland Mumbai.
“Nobody is ready to come and work here,” the founder laments. “We’re facing a resource crunch, and that is our biggest challenge.”
Has Vijay considered moving to any of Mumbai’s coworking spaces - something bootstrapped startups are actively doing? “Not now.” he says. “But, we want to grow to about 10 members by the end of 2019.”
May be, in 2020, when it looks for its first fund-raising (“$1 million at least”), Neuronet could think of a workspace along the coast!
(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)