Sometimes it pays to not have a plan. This is, of course, a jarring notion in the Indian startup and venture capital space where most successes come with a plan A, and a plan B as well.
But for Samay Kohli and Akash Gupta, the lack of a plan has worked out just fine. The engineering duo, which even dabbled in teaching, are now co-founders of one of India’s hottest ventures in the warehouse automation space, Grey Orange. The Gurgaon-based company has funds from investors including US-based Tiger Global Management, one of the world’s largest hedge funds. “We could manage to do all this in a short span because while we were studying, we had varied global exposure. And, in life, any experience never goes waste,” says Kohli, 28, “including building an automated haunted house for someone’s Halloween celebrations.”
The duo was tasked with creating a playhouse spread over 400 sq ft during their internship with surveying and mapping company C&C Technologies Inc in the US in 2009. “It’s like a Disney park where everything is automated with special effects,” recalls Kohli, a mechanical engineering graduate from Bits Pilani. This, he says, was an exercise in building a product of scale and, till date, such experiences hold them in good stead as they make robots and assisting systems that help workers in logistics and distribution of goods in warehouses.
Though they didn’t plan to set up shop in this field, Kohli’s proclivity for product development was evident in college. As part of the humanoid programme at the Centre for Robotics & Intelligent Systems at Bits, he created AcYut in 2007, one of the first indigenously created humanoid robots in India. He was later joined by Gupta, 25, who was also studying mechanical engineering. They represented India in robotics competitions across 13 countries; they won the gold medal at the RoboGames (formerly ROBOlympics) in San Francisco in 2009. Kohli feels global competitions and exposure through startup platforms such as the Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at Bits has had a strong influence on their lives.
Instead of opting for corporate careers and foreign postings, they launched Grey Orange initially in the robotics education space in February 2011. They invested an initial capital of Rs 5 lakh sourced from their personal savings from internships in the US. “We were teaching in colleges and institutions,” says Gupta. “But we are not the kind of people who could manage teachers, motivate them and build curriculum. That’s not our expertise.”
After a few months, they moved out of education and, in December 2011, ventured into the robotics product space. “We were researching different industries where we could add value and where there is enough growth,” says Kohli.
The last disruption in warehousing took place almost 60 years ago with the introduction of automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS), he says. The industry, then, was built to cater to long lead times with clear market visions. Today, it’s the polar opposite, he points out. With enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems in almost every retail enterprise, and ecommerce players relaying stock counts of single units, logistics have to move in double, even triple, quick time to maintain a constant, optimum supply to meet consumer demand. Grey Orange tries to build products to cater to this new demand, not just for India but for global markets too.
The company started building robots that would help workers in warehouses move items faster and efficiently. In sectors such as retail, logistics and ecommerce, where a quick turnaround in terms of delivery timelines is critical, Grey Orange has helped clients become up to 40 times more efficient through replacement of manual labour and minimisation of error.
Here’s how it works: Typically in a warehouse, workers pick about 100-120 items in eight hours. But, by using robots (butlers), this number can go up to 400-600 items per hour. There is minimal need for human movement and, consequently, a huge reduction in human error and wasted labour.
Today, Grey Orange boasts an impressive client list that includes India’s leading ecommerce retailers such as Flipkart, Snapdeal, Myntra, Jabong, courier-services companies DTDC and Dubai-based Aramax. Kohli, however, did not divulge the details of its international clients which include third-party logistics providers, retail and cosmetics majors.
US-based angel investor Raju Reddy, who invested in Grey Orange in 2012, feels the business idea of the company is unique and intellectual property [IP]-driven. “The reason why other investors and I came in is because of the prospect that this business can truly become a global company,” says Reddy, who serves on the board of Grey Orange and has been a mentor to Kohli and Gupta since their college days. Reddy was previously an early investor in online bus ticketing firm redBus, which was acquired by the Ibibo Group in 2013.
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(This story appears in the 20 February, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)