Indian robotics startups gear up to go from baby steps to global giants
Recently, the robotics sector has emerged as a key focus area for the Indian government. At TechSparks 2023, Ati Motors CEO Saurabh Chandra and Nosh CEO Yatin Varacchia discussed where the Indian robotics space currently stands.
According to the Ministry of Electronics and Internet Technology’s (MeitY) recently published draft National Strategy on Robotics, the Indian government has set an ambitious target of becoming a world superpower in robotics by 2030. The union government’s Make in India 2.0 vision also identifies robotics “as one of the 27 sub-sectors to further enhance India’s integration in the global value chain.”
With India placing such a premium on the sector, TechSparks 2023, YourStory’s flagship startup-tech summit, saw two emerging stars of the country’s robotics space—Co-founder and CEO Saurabh Chandra and Nosh Founder and CEO Yatin Varacchia—take part in a discussion about Indian robotics on the world stage.
Nosh, which makes a robot chef, represents the business-to-consumer (B2C) side of Indian robotics and Ati Motors serves businesses like factories and warehouses with autonomous vehicles. While Ati Motors recently raised a $10.8 million Series A funding round and already has its vehicles out in the market, Nosh is bootstrapped and hasn’t yet launched its product. However, both Chandra and Varacchia echoed similar sentiments about where Indian robotics stands at present.
“I feel India's just taking baby steps in the robotics market…we are new to the entire robotics world,” shared Varacchia.
Backing this up, Chandra observed that the only real consumer-facing robotics success India has seen has been home vacuum robots, like those produced by iLife. The B2B side has seen considerably more uptake—robotics installations in India surged by 54% to 4,945 units in 2021, with India ranking 10th for the highest annual installation of industrial robots in the world—the country still remains a laggard in terms of B2B robotic uptake, Chandra stated.
To illustrate his point, Chandra took the example of various countries and their number of industrial robotics installations per 10,000 manufacturing workers. “South Korea is an outlier—they have some 900 [robots] or so. The US is also, say, at 300-400. China is at 250 and increasing. Japan is at a similar level. India is at four per every 10,000 workers. So we have a long, long way to go. Even if we get to 40-50, it would be an order of magnitude jump for us,” he explained.
Addressing the challenges that face the space, Chandra touched on the issue of talent. “Like any other deep tech ecosystem, you need deeper engineers. The people need to have experience at a Masters and PhD level. Sometimes, a bunch of undergrads can put something together, but you will not really create deeper innovation. And that is definitely a challenge,” he said. However, he said there was sufficient talent for the size of the industry at present. Varacchia concurred, saying there is a lack of more senior robotics engineers, meaning there is a lot of learning happening at robotics startups simply through trial and error.
Funding is another challenge for the space, both because of the nascency of the sector as well as the nature of robotics itself.
“Robotics and deeptech funding is difficult throughout the world. This is because the ecosystem is quite small and investors probably have other robotics companies in their portfolios,” says Chandra. He knows this all too well, having started Ati with his own money from a previous exit.
“There are only around 7-8 VC firms [in the country] which invest at the seed stage in robotics, which has a long gestation period,” shared Varacchia, with Chandra chiming in that five years ago there were none, however, that this isn’t a problem unique to India. “Robotics and deeptech funding is difficult throughout the world.”
Both founders reiterated that the Indian robotics space is in a much better place than it was, say, five years ago. Government grants, for instance, are available for founders to get their startups off the ground and at least reach a proof-of-concept stage, after which it is possible to pitch to private investors. There’s also an increased awareness and curiosity about robots in general.
“Awareness and acceptance of robots has definitely increased. The tech must now reach a place where it is competitive in terms of cost and value to the customer,” said Ati Motors’ Chandra.
The challenges, too, say both founders, are only making Indian robotics companies more innovative and resilient. “India provides a very diverse and tough environment. There are multiple challenges from day 1. That forces you to build a more robust product. And so, when you go out, you already have a solid product,” explains Chandra.
With both industry and consumers waking up to the benefits of robotics, said Chandra, India’s robotics space could grow by as much as 10X in the next five years. Counter-intuitively, the ongoing global funding winter could supercharge this growth. “For VCs, hardware businesses are now showing more value than software businesses,” Chandra says. With these trends and growing government support, Indian robotics startups have the tailwinds necessary to catch up with their global peers.
Edited by Kanishk Singh