Interview with Balaji Viswanathan, CEO of Invento Robotics
– by Laura Quinton, 14.12.17
“Finland is like an iPhone – small and highly developed. India is like a vintage automobile that is now getting restored. Connect your iPhone music to the speakers of this great old car and you experience a fusion of two great things” (Balaji Viswanathan)
Balaji Viswanathan is the CEO of Invento Robotics and creator of Mitra; the robot that was launched by Indian Prime Minister Shri. Narendra Modi and Ms Ivanka Trump at GES 2017, Hyderabad, India. Last month, Balaji and Mitra joined GOInternational Finland in Helsinki to showcase the Robot at Slush17. We had some good chats about the future of Humanoid Robotics, Nordic Match-making, and tips for reaching entrepreneurial success.
She’s not only intelligent, but truly adorable too! Tell us the story of Mitra’s inception.
Thank you. I went into engineering to build robots; and so it could be said that “Mitra” is the first physical manifestation of that aspiration. With regards to problem solving, the concept of enhancing service delivery with robots/AI and enhancing experiences resonates with me as an entrepreneur.
Especially since it adds real value to the customer experience. So a combination of my love for robotics and adding value through it to society at a profit are probably the real inception points of Mitra.
We originally built a makerspace and took a bunch of things we built to a makerfaire 1 year ago. The biggest reception we got was for a humanoid robot we built. Since then we focused on it and built a company around it. There is also another background to the story. I went in to engineering to build robots. However, 11 years ago a Microsoft recruiter convinced me that there is no future for robots and I should work for them instead building operating systems. It is like going back to my roots for me.
You believe that it’s time for humanoid robotics to enter into our workplaces. In which fields and industries do you see the greatest potential for Mitra in the coming years? And how far away are we from this becoming a day-to-day reality?
We see potential in a number of industries ranging from hotels, malls, restaurants, airports, hospitals. They will serve the need for a multilingual world needing personal/contextual assistance. The robots will work with their human masters to provide a superior customer service. We are about 2-3 years away from seeing this ubiquitous in the places we go.
How will Mitra enhance customer interaction? Are humanoids the best solution?
Mitra recognizes a person’s face from past encounter and begins to interact with them in the language they are comfortable with. Imagine you landing up in Beijing or Tokyo or Rio and rather than fumbling with a dictionary or an app to make a sense of world around, what if a Robot can find you in the mall, airport, restaurant or hotel, talk to you in Finnish or English [or one of 15 other languages we support], know your preferences and then provide you customized assistance. That is the place where humanoids will excel.
Would you like to join forces with Nordic partners, and if so what kind of collaboration would you be seeking?
Once our technology matures more we want to work with Nordic partners in retail and hospitality and do pilots to gauge user interest in our product. We are also looking at software consulting companies to help build custom applications around the robot.
Mitra is pretty famous! Last month she met Prime Minister Modi and Ivanka Trump – that’s high-profile!! Has she met any other celebs? And what kind of reaction is she getting?
Besides Ms. Ivanka Trump and Indian Prime Minister Modi, Mitra has met a range of business executives from around the world. The interaction has mostly been positive. They have given us good lessons for our product team to fine tune the product better. We are still a small team building things manually. Once we perfect the product in the upcoming months, we can go for a more mass production.
Personally, I was taken by your entrepreneurial spirit when we met. This is the ultimate bootstrap story – you’ve built everything up from scratch. Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
My wife and I staked everything we owned to start this company. We did it without taking any venture money and created a sustainable venture. We are home to now 20 smart people from 3 major religions and 7 languages. We take pride in a culture that encourages both men and women to build complex engineering products – our women engineers, product managers and operations managers work as crazy as their male counterparts.
The key piece of advice we give to other entrepreneurs is do stick on longer. There will be many failures, disappointments that will make you go crazy – but look to survive one other day. The longer you survive the failure winter and the longer you stay with good people, the better you will thrive in the upcoming summer.
‘India vs Finland’ (in any context!) in two sentences!
Finland like an iPhone – small and highly developed. India is like a vintage automobile that is now getting restored. Connect your iPhone music to the speakers of this great old car and you experience a fusion of two great things.
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