Butler and Sorter seem like an unlikely pair. One is unassuming, small, and squat, though it has a talent for lifting weighty shelves and whirring around with them. The other is loud, long, and immobile, with a conveyor belt for a spine and pneumatic arms that swing with unerring precision.
Yet, they are a match made in robotic heaven with a bright future, especially now that the Goods and Services Tax (GST) promises to transform their homestead: The Indian warehouse. And there is no one more invested in this mechanical love story than a 27-year-old engineer called Akash Gupta.
Gupta is the chief technology officer (CTO) of GreyOrange, a robotics company that he founded with a senior from college, Samay Kohli, in 2011. The venture, which began as a way to formalise a collegiate obsession with robotics, has grown to become one of the rising stars of India’s startup ecosystem.
Having raised at least $38 million from the likes of Tiger Global and Blume Ventures, GreyOrange now sells its warehouse automation solutions (featuring Butler and Sorter) across the world. The company, headquartered in Singapore, has a massive research & development facility in Gurugram, near Delhi, and offices in Japan, Hong Kong, Germany, and Dubai, with a total workforce of over 650 people.
For two years in a row, it has also been voted among the world’s top 50 robotics companies to watch by trade publication Robotics Business Review, where its peers include Alphabet (Google), Boston Dynamics, and DJI.
So, it’s a little hard to imagine that less than a decade ago, GreyOrange’s CTO scarcely knew anything about robotics.
BITS by bit
Gupta spent most of his school years in Kanpur, a large industrial city in Uttar Pradesh once known for its thriving textile mills. “I was deep into computer programming, computer animation, and stuff like that,” he said in a telephone interview during a business trip to Santiago, Chile, last month. “But, of course, nothing close to robotics.”
It was only after he arrived at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) in Pilani, Rajasthan, in 2008, that he was introduced to what would eventually become a passion and a career. All it took was a presentation by a team led by Kohli, two years his senior, that was working on a humanoid robot. “I became really, really inspired by the fact that there’s a physical things that they are working on,” Gupta explained. After years of cramming concepts and regurgitating them at exams, the fresher wanted to get his hands dirty.
For up to 18 hours a day on some instances, Gupta, Kohli, and company went neck-deep into robotics, designing and building their machines from scratch, and then travelling across the world competing with these contraptions. In the process, Gupta built up expertise straddling the four main verticals essential to robotics: mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, embedded systems, and servers. The first two areas deal with the physical shape of a robot, and the motors and sensors that run it. Embedded systems and servers process the data received from sensors, facilitate motion, and provide the software backbone for the robot to execute specific functions.
Thomas Chance, former CEO of C&C Technologies, which specialised in autonomous underwater vehicles, met Gupta and Kohli in the US around 2009. “They were going to work in the robotics lab of the local university (in the US), but the university had some internal issue that precluded that. So, the university professor brought them to me,” recalled Chance, who now heads ASV Global, an unmanned marine systems firm.
Gupta showed up before Chance with three suitcases. “One small suitcase had clothes,” Chance said. “The other two suitcases were large and were filled with electronic components, servo motors, computer parts, printed circuit boards, soldering irons, bolts and nuts, and a tool shop inventory of tools.” For nights together, Gupta would plug away on computer programs, electronics systems, motors, and gears.
“Most importantly, everything he did worked flawlessly,” Chance added.
The long hours in the lab that built Gupta’s engineering acumen also helped forge a partnership with Kohli. Even when they were operating as a collegiate robotics team, they had their roles cut out. “I was always the person who went super deep into technology, while Samay (Kohli) was the person who liked defining more of the product part, defining overall business and things like that,” Gupta said. So, when the two decided to setup GreyOrange, the division of labour was easy: Kohli took charge as CEO, while Gupta became CTO.
But building a world-class robotics company in India turned out to be much more difficult than assigning roles.
“Firstly, India has very few people who have a lot of experience in hardware, embedded (systems), and software development,” Gupta acknowledged, which made it especially hard for two college graduates out to find the right people for their startup. “At that stage of the company, you couldn’t afford to hire very experienced people who had been working on hardware.”
Instead, GreyOrange went around picking up greenhorn engineers, many of whom came from BITS, and then getting them up to speed with the company’s requirements. Broadly, Gupta was looking for two qualities: A strong analytical ability to help solve the complex engineering challenges, and the humility to deal with a steep learning curve and the high probability of failure. ”Technically, it was extremely challenging because we were trying to build an industrial-level product with a very, very young team,” Gupta said. “On the other side, it helped us in building an unique core culture at GreyOrange.”
The first project Gupta and his team took on was the Butler, a robotic system that ferries shelves to a human operator within a warehouse. The product had to be reliable, safe, efficient, and flexible for multiple markets, and good enough to go head to head against similar offerings global competitors. “I was confident that we can do it in pieces, but how to get all the pieces together to build one complete system? I think that was the most technically challenging thing,” Gupta said.
For three years, 90 engineers at GreyOrange, led by Gupta, slogged away at building Butler, but that wasn’t the only product they were working on. “If you look at the Indian ecosystem, we still haven’t reached a point where you can have product development going on for three years without even getting any revenues. You’ll run out of money, and you won’t be able to raise any more funds,” Gupta explained. So, the company simultaneously started developing the Linear Sorter, another robotic system for separating packages based on multiple parameters, including weight and dimensions, which took two years to finish.
It wasn’t just the engineering that was a struggle. Gupta, in his early 20s back in 2011, also had little experience of managing large teams, which in GreyOrange’s case was a motley crew of engineers working on everything from software to industrial design. So far, however, the young CTO seems to have pulled it off: Butler and Sorter have propelled GreyOrange into a top-rung robotics firm that draws 70% of its revenues from non-Indian markets and is close to break-even.
A key factor in the company’s early success, according to GreyOrange’s CEO, has been the single-minded ambition to disrupt the warehousing industry. “I think perseverance is one thing that’s paid off well,” Kohli said. “I think we’ve just really concentrated on the same problem really well and not got distracted.”
So, Gupta and his 250-person research & development team, including engineers from Germany, Singapore, and the US, are doubling down to ensure that GreyOrange’s product engine keeps on cranking out the goods. “We’ll see some good things coming out again in a year or so,” Gupta promised.
Till then, Butler’s and Sorter’s robotic romance should keep GreyOrange’s cash register ringing.