Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Samay Kohli & Akash Gupta: The masters of robotics

Ecommerce poses new challenges for the warehouse automation space. Samay Kohli, 28, and Akash Gupta, 25, are stepping in with a solution

Debojyoti Ghosh
Published: Feb 16, 2015 06:29:08 AM IST
Updated: Feb 16, 2015 09:08:50 AM IST
Samay Kohli & Akash Gupta: The masters of robotics
Image: Amit Verma
Samay Kohli (left) and Akash Gupta with their robot

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.

Grey Orange raised its first round of funding within a year of its operation in December 2012 from Mumbai-based Blume Ventures Advisors, an early-stage fund, and Bits Spark, an angel network comprising Bits Pilani alumni. The combined investment was around $500,000. In April 2014, Tiger Global Management, whose investments include China’s Alibaba Group, Myntra, Flipkart and more, also put in money in Grey Orange. This round also saw investments from Blume Ventures, Dileep Nath, co-founder of Kanbay, and Dubai-based Alok Rawat, president of FG Wilson FZE.

Though Kohli shies away from disclosing details of the funding, according to an April 2014 report by financial daily Mint, the amount raised was about $10 million. By August-September 2015, the startup is planning to raise another around of funding. Grey Orange’s top line has been growing between 100-200 percent annually and the company has already broken even in 2013. But the founders do not want to divulge the financials of the company due to investor confidentiality.

At present, the startup has a team of about 120 people including over 100 engineers with offices in Gurgaon near Delhi and Singapore. It is also in the process of setting up a new 30,000 sq ft production facility in Gurgaon by April this year.

The road to this point, however, has been paved with teething issues typical of a nascent company in the products space.
“Setting up a startup in the hardware space is always a challenge. It is difficult to find custom prototype shops in India because the culture doesn’t support that, which forced us to set up our own machining centre and electronic prototyping shops. But, as a startup, setting up all this on your own is tough. However, if you don’t do it, you don’t grow that fast and if you take it forward, it costs a lot to set up different workshops,” says Gupta.

The other challenge has been building credibility across markets that an Indian company can produce hardware of the highest global standards. Consider that Grey Orange competes with global names such as Siemens, SSI Schaefer, Swisslog, Mitsubishi and Kiva Systems. (Indian startups are mainly in the robotics education business, such as Hyderabad-based EduRobo Pvt Ltd, Chennai-based Robotix Learning Solutions and others.)

“There are players in India who do some automation work, but nothing close to what we are doing. There are international players in the Indian market, but the price points are very different. Foreign products are four to five times our price,” says Kohli. The price of a robot is $27,000-$30,000, while a sorter costs $100,000–$500,000. 

Samay Kohli & Akash Gupta: The masters of robotics
“It’s rare to see this level of technology expertise being commercialised rapidly in India. There are global competitors but everyone worldwide has to adjust to the new supply chain reality of ecommerce and robotic automation solutions,” says Karthik Reddy, co-founder and managing partner, Blume Ventures. “This is a multi-billion dollar business opportunity with very few players having the capability to scale. Grey Orange has all the beginnings of a winner in this space.”

Kohli and Gupta aim to become a billion-dollar company in the next four years, concentrating on warehousing and logistics, and be one of the top providers of warehouse automation systems in the Asia-Pacific region.

Now that is a plan.

Here is the full list of 30 Under 30 for 2015 and its methodology

(This story appears in the 20 February, 2015 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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