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Sahil Harriram from Elite Robotics

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Today you’re going to hear the story of Elite Robotics and it’s CEO Sahil. Sahil and his teams are developing robots that have human-like instincts!

Since launching in 2016, The Elite Robotics team have been finalists in 6 out 7 pitching competitions. They’ve built a successful prototype of their autonomous technology and have secured a partnership with a local golf-course to test and refine their groundbreaking creation. Some pretty great wins just there, and that’s just a few points, we’re going to cover more, but for now, let’s go back to day one where this story begins…

Transcript

Music

Sahil:

He’s come up with a new way of building navigation systems for robots or vehicles that doesn’t really on machine learning.

More

Adam:

Hi, I’m Adam Spencer and welcome to day one, the show that goes back to the very beginning, to share the story of some of Australia’s most incredible regional startups and entrepreneurs.

Today you’re going to hear the story of Elite Robotics and it’s CEO Sahil. Now, Do I need to say any more than Sahil and his teams are developing robots that have human-like instincts!?

You’re right, I don’t, but I’m going to because they are doing truly incredible work.

Since launching in 2016, the Elite Robotics team have been finalists in 6 out 7 pitching competitions. They’ve built a successful prototype of their autonomous technology and have secured a partnership with a local golf-course to test and refine their groundbreaking creation. Some pretty great wins just there, and that’s just a few points, we’re going to cover more, but for now, let’s go back to day one where this story begins…

Sahil:

My name is Sahil and I’m the CEO of Elite Robotics. I’m also one of the three co-founders in the business. We build autonomous vehicle platforms for service robots. Our platform basically gives these vehicles human-like instincts to help them navigate around the world.

We’ve got three co-founders. So, there’s me. There’s also Luke De Bono, who’s an industrial designer, and Nathan Bartlett, who’s also a mechatronics engineer, and he’s currently doing his PhD in autonomous navigation systems.

Adam:

Sahil was born in South Africa and moved to Australia via New Zealand, Sahil told me why his parents decided to pick their lives up and move across the world.

Sahil:

The whole reason that they justified why they moved us overseas, and, you know, why we picked up all our lives and moved over, was so that they could give us other opportunities, because they saw what the education system was like in South Africa, and how it was declining, because they were teachers in that education system. And they said that they wanted to give us opportunities that we would never have had in South Africa.

Adam:

Sahil’s parents really created an environment to give Sahil and his sister the best shot at a great life, both by making the move and just in the way they approached his curiosity that really allowed him to think big from a young age…

Sahil:

And so, I always had that natural curiosity, but also, as I grew up, I … you know, I saw the internet, and I saw computers, transform the way we live our lives, and how we communicate with each other. And especially growing up and living in so many different countries, I had a really good opportunity to see how that shapes different communities.

Sahil:

And I was always fascinated by that, and I thought that what I wanted to do when I grew up, like, I kept … Ever since I can remember, I’ve always been interested in, like, doing something that’s engineering based, or doing something that’s related to science. And as I grew up I continued down that path.

Adam:

Sahil started studying Mechanical Engineering because he thought it would be cool to design Formula 1 cars but soon he began to learn about the world of automation…

Sahil:

And so, I did some research and said, this seems like this is where the future’s going. I mean, this was, like, back in 2011. So, you know, what you hear about autonomous vehicles and stuff now, especially in Australia, was just not a thing that people spoke about.

Sahil:

But I knew a little bit about automation, and I was like, well, it makes sense that the world is moving to a more automated space, because humans are naturally lazy, and we want to find a way to conserve energy because that’s just the way that our brains are wired. So, it makes sense that people are going to be interested in this.

Adam:

And people were interest in ‘this’, so interested in fact that while Sahil was studying his bachelor of mechatronics engineering at the University of Newcastle he met two fellow students, Nathan and Luke, who were already thinking about starting a business in the field.

And, fund fact we discovered while putting this story together is that the University of Newcastle is ranked 8th in the world for automation and control. Which blew my mind and is actually higher than Stanford, Cambridge and Harvard universities.

I think that is absolutely remarkable and probably contributed in no small part to instilling Sahil and Nathan with the confidence to pursue a business in this domain.

Sahil:

So, Nathan and I studied at university together, and that’s how we met. We did a decent amount of group work together, and we sort of had a really good working sort of relationship where our strengths and weaknesses kind of complemented each other really nicely.

Sahil:

And Nathan and Luke have been best friends since they were in kindergarten. And so, they sort of came up with the idea to sort of start the business, and I got involved at a later stage because Nathan told me about … that he was working on this thing. And I said, “Oh, that sounds really interesting. I’ve always been interested in startups, so, you know, I’m keen to help out wherever I can.”

Sahil:

And so, they had this idea about, you know, consumer robots, and the idea of, like, a vacuum that could potentially go up and down stairs, and that would be sort of the unique advantage of the technology that we were going to look to develop.

Adam:

The vacuum cleaner was just one of many ideas they were throwing around in those early days, the core concept was the fusion of Nathan’s study of autonomous navigation systems and Luke’s industrial design skills. The team were searching for a way to apply those skills and learnings to the real world. So really, they were just throwing around ideas to see what might work…

Sahil:

Still talking about vacuum cleaners, but there was also … the idea of the lawnmowers was still there, because Nathan lived on an acreage, and because he lived on this acreage his landlord didn’t actually let him use a ride-on lawnmower to mow his property.

Sahil:

So he thought, well, what if we combined… what if I used this autonomous vehicle technology that I’ve learnt about at university and combined it with Luke’s industrial design skills to build autonomous lawn mowers for consumers? And that was sort of the original product that we started working on.

Sahil:

As you would know, most people I’ve spoken to, and probably most people you’d speak to, absolutely hate mowing their lawn. It’s just one of those things that need to be done.

Adam:

The 3 of them joined up and Elite Robotics was born, more or less. They started working on the project, which I might add, was just that, at this point, a project, not a business, not a company. Just three guys working on a cool idea. But before the guys finished their respective degrees they signed up for an entrepreneurship course offered by the University of Newcastle and that was their first touch point with entrepreneurship.

Sahil:

I started reading a lot about entrepreneurship and following a lot of entrepreneurs. And so, when we did this program it was really cool because they were able to bring in all these really sort of high … like, reasonably high profile entrepreneurs from around the world, here, and they gave us lectures and things like that, which was pretty exciting.

Sahil:

Because of that program, we found out about the pitching competition. The one that the university ran was called Enterprise and Innovation Week Pitching Competition, which was the first time that they’d ever run that. We ended up entering it and winning it.

Sahil:

And just getting that sort of validation, and going through that startup development process … You know, we went about, like, the Lean Canvas and identifying who your customers are, and doing customer interviews, and all that kind of stuff, going through that process and coming out the other side, where there was … there was still interest in what we were doing, it gave us the confidence to sort of seriously start looking at pursuing it.

Adam:

In addition to the prize money, Sahil and his two co-founders won some space at the i2n hub on Hunter Street, Newcastle.

This proved to be a pivotal moment in the elite robotics journey.

Sahil:

We got four months of space to work at the Hunter Street Hub. And for us, that was pretty important, because, you know, we’re all fresh out of university. We didn’t know anyone in the industry. So, we didn’t even know where to begin. And so, by coming here and being a part of this space we had the opportunity to engage with the local innovation ecosystem.

Adam:

The reason why the i2n exists is to connect and enable founders to actually turn their ideas into commercial businesses. Introducing Siobhan.

Siobhan Curran:

name’s Siobhan Curran, and I’m the manager of the Integrated Innovation Network at the University of Newcastle.

Siobhan Curran:

I’d first met Sahil, he was our first member at I2N Hunter Street when we opened at the end of 2016. He had taken out the first prize or at least his team had, in the Innovation and Enterprise Business Pitch Competition, which is an initiative through the undergraduate student services team.

Siobhan:

His pitch was a robot lawnmower, which sounds really awesome, but you can imagine is a really tricky undertaking, because it has sharp blades and it’s a robot that’s moving without anyone controlling it.

Adam:

For 3 students who were just finishing their degrees and getting ready to look for jobs in the respective fields would have been hard enough, add to that the desire and ambition to build an autonomous robot, launch a startup and try to figure out how the heck to begin down that path would have been really difficult. These kinds of hubs really help green startup founders by giving invaluable guidance and a sense of community.

Sahil:

What was the most obvious thing for me was getting involved in a community, and finding people that could support me in what we’re doing because a big part of us getting to where we are is that we didn’t really know everything that we needed to know. And it was being able to surround yourself with mentors that could help you through that process or give you advice.

Sahil:

Part of the I2N Hub is about finding … providing workshops and events to encourage people from the innovation ecosystem to collaborate with each other. And so, there are events like things about, like, finding opportunities, so I learned a lot about, you know, the type of government grants available, or government support that is available to startups.

Adam:

A great example of the type of advice Sahil is speaking about is related to grant applications. Elite Robotics were in the process of applying for the MVP Grant.

The MVP Grant is a grant supported by the NSW Government and aims to help promising startups move from proof of concept to their minimum viable product.

Sahil:

I remember really early on, when we were applying for the MVP grant, I showed Siobhan one of the letters of support that we got written for us, that we asked someone to write for us and she looked at it, and she was like, “This is not how you write a letter of support.” And she just, like, found an example of one, and showed it to me, and was just like, “This is …” Well, she basically explained to me how you’re supposed to do it.

Sahil:

You know, it’s just like little bits of information like that, that you wouldn’t just normally know, or you wouldn’t even know how to ask. You just do something and think you’re doing it right, but it turns out you’re doing it completely wrong.

Adam:

The pitch has been refined, sharpened. The team have a clear direction now, support and a community of like-minded people around them, They have some assistance from the MVP grant and they’re getting serious now. The next step they take is applying for the Slingshot Accelerator program, ICON…

Sahil:

We went through the Icon Accelerator the first year that it ran, which was run by Slingshot in partnership with the University of Newcastle.

Sahil:

But then also, on top of that, you get into the program and it’s a 10-week program. Each week is focused on a different part of your business development or your business that you need to focus on.

Sahil:

In terms of content delivery there’s like a full day of content delivery from nine to like two or three, and then you have your one on one entrepreneur in residence sessions, which are like an hour long, once a week.

Sahil:

Then you just have to go away and do work. It’s not like they’re holding your hand through the whole process. They’re there to just guide you through it and tell you, “Oh, have you thought about doing this?” Or, “You know, you’re not doing this right,” or, “Maybe you should consider doing this,” and then you get to talk about your challenges.

Sahil:

The aim of the program is once you get out of it you’re at a point where you’re quite investible and enables you to be able to access that money because you’ve got a lot of the things that you needed to get done in your business done.

Sahil:

Then you have a demo day, and you get a chance to pitch to … you know, they bring in people from the innovation ecosystem and you pitch to them.

Adam:

Throughout this entire process from the entrepreneurship course, to pitching, to the i2n hub and then slingshot, the Elite Robotics team were designing, developing and building their autonomous lawnmower with the goal of selling autonomous lawnmowers direct to consumers, well, that plan was about to change…

Sahil:

Yeah, so the initial aim of the lawnmower was to actually build a prototype that we could show it to customers, but then also have a better understanding of, like, whether we could actually build this thing, and what was involved in that process, and actually really … go really deep into understanding that.

Sahil:

But what we actually uncovered during that time was we were originally targeting this to consumers, and as we started building this prototype out we sort of realized that actually, even with the low-quality sensors, the low-quality computer system, all the low-quality components we were using. It was still going to be quite expensive, and it was going to be difficult to compete with other products on the market. But also, it was going to be difficult to implement the technology we wanted to implement in a way that would be commercially viable for the end user.

Sahil:

And so, that’s when we sort of shifted to focusing on sort of large scale lawn maintenance. And the purpose of this prototype shifted. So, once we realized that, we were like, okay, well, this is basically our sort of proof of concept kind of MVP that we’re going to take to these big organizations to say, well, do they actually want this?

Sahil:

We were fortunate that there was this program called the Regional Incubator Program that we ended up getting involved with. And they ended up getting the connection with us, with the Meriwether golf course.

Sahil:

And so, they basically gave us a little section of their golf course that we could utilize, and run our lawnmower around through there, and develop and test our system. And…

Sahil:

It was useful for us because it was ... it gave us a better understanding of what their requirements were, and the type of environments that these vehicles would be operating in.

Sahil:

This was all happening while Nathan had started doing his PhD. So, he’d come up … He was in the process of identifying, at the time, a new way of doing robot navigation, or using existing techniques, but planning … but improving on them and making them significantly better.

Sahil:

We recognized really early on that there were more applications for this technology beyond lawnmowers, and that was always the intention was that we would take it into these other verticals.

Sahil:

We leaned into that lawnmower part because we sort of realized there was an opportunity there, but also we wanted to focus on, you know, getting through the point of getting a product to customers.

Sahil:

We started off down that path, and then, you know, maybe, like, eight months during the process of the development … We still have that lawnmower, we still use it from time to time, but

Sahil:

Straight after that eight-month period, we sort of shifted focus and decided to actually develop this platform.

Adam:

Sahil and Elite Robotics have pivoted once again, this time away from direct to consumer or selling any one specific product, they are thinking much broader now, developing a platform, a part that they will wholesale to much bigger business to be used in Autonomous Machines. This is what the future of Elite Robotics looks like.

Sahil:

Essentially it’s a hardware and software platform that uses onboard sensors to help a vehicle identify where it is, where all the objects are in its environment, and what path it needs to take in order to avoid the objects to perform its objectives.

Sahil:

So essentially what our customer is, is anyone that has products are services that they’re looking to automate. So, the mowing example is still a relevant industry that we’re working down with prospective customers.

Sahil:

But there are manufacturers that make these products that also we’re looking at areas like getting into last mile delivery, and finding logistics providers and helping them automate their delivery process for the last mile delivery, which is a huge industry.

Sahil:

Last mile delivery is the delivery process that whether it’s food or it’s parcels, once they get to a warehouse, and then they have to get from the warehouse to the customer. And so, usually, you have people like Auspost doing that kind of thing or like what Uber Eats does.

Sahil:

Then there’s another thing, which is waste management. So, how we manage our waste disposal in our cities, or in areas where just people are living, right?

Sahil:

This is something that we’re interested in getting involved in, which is, if you think about in the future you’ll have bins that have smart sensors in them, which you’ve already got bins around the world that have this, that tell you when the bin is full in a public place.

Sahil:

But what if you had a way of being able to, once these bins are full, you have a person managing a fleet of robots that are actually going out, and collecting these bins, and bringing them to like a central place so that the garbage truck can come and pick it up the next day.

Sahil:

So, I looked at some research and it said that in 2016 we spent $205 billion on waste disposal. And that’s going to increase to 375 billion by 2025.

Sahil:

And 44% of this cost is attributed to the transportation of the waste. So, if you can optimize that, you can actually enable these cities to function in a more efficient way.

Sahil:

This is huge. So that’s a small part of what we’re looking at getting involved in. There’s a lot of players in that market, but there’s also a lot of opportunities there to have multiple people involved.

Adam:

What a journey and the future is looking bright for Elite Robotics and their robots. At the start of their journey, the mission was to build autonomous lawn mowers for the families in the suburbs.

Sahil:

It’s like a Roomba, but for your lawn.

Adam:

To today, where through a number of pivots and iterations the goal is to service a horizontal marketplace, providing the software and hardware to enable autonomous technology on a much larger scale.

Sahil:

Where if I had to say what we do now, we provide vehicles with human-like instincts to be able to navigate around the world.

Adam:

There is an old saying, luck is when opportunity meets with preparation The elite robotics team found an amazing opportunity when they started the entrepreneurship program at the university that introduced them to the pitching competition that led them to the i2n hub. But it wasn’t just luck, they were the type of people that hustled, that chased down the opportunities in front of them. Between all their combined years studying and Nathan’s PhD, they were extremely prepared for the opportunities available to them. The community they become a part of at the University of Newcastle’s i2n hub saw them transform from three students into three incredibly well equipped and supported founders of an incredible company, Elite Robotics, a company that is doing incredible work.

Siobhan Curran:

The other thing that’s really impressive about them is their knack for taking advantage of every single opportunity that being a member of the I2N has been able to provide to them. Obviously, we do coworking, it involves lots of informal and formal opportunities to network and engage with people within the innovation ecosystem. Sahil, in particular, has really taken advantage of every single one of those opportunities to ask people questions and work out how it relates to how they can make their startup grow better.

Adam:

I’ll wrap the Elite Robotics story up with Sahil’s advice for any other founders out there listening right now…

Sahil:

Go find people and ask people for help and talk to people. And, spend as much time as you can around people that know more about what you’re doing than you do so that you can learn from them.

Adam:

I hope you enjoyed listening to the Elite Robotics story, Alex Morris has also written a great article about Elite Robotics that you might also enjoy, there will be a link to that write up on the shownotes page on our website. If you liked this episode please feel free to check out the shownotes for this episode at welcometodayone.com which has links to everything that was mentioned in today’s episode plus a way to leave a rating for the show wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you enjoy what we are doing we would appreciate if you would take a minute to leave a rating for the show as it really helps the show get in front of more people that might enjoy it too. You can do that easily  by going to ratedayone.com

(Music)

Adam:

Next time on the show you’ll hear from Heath Raftery of Newie Ventures and Gunilla Burrowes the Chair of Eighteen04.

Heath:

I think this is a common misconception of many entrepreneurs too that they’re risk takers. I think most entrepreneurs, in fact, take extremely calculated risks. So they certainly welcome risky elements into their life, but they always hedge their bets. Always go to the nth degree.

Adam:

Thank you so much for giving this episode of Welcome to Day One your attention, I’m really happy you tuned in up to this point.

This episode was created by Adam Spencer & Andy Jones in partnership with the Integrated Innovation Network of the University of Newcastle.

Interviews conducted by me, Adam Spencer and big thank you to Sahil from Elite Robotics and Siobhan Curran from the i2n for their time and involvement in putting this episode together.

The script was written by Adam Spencer and Andy Jones.

Music by Lee Rosevere, full attribution on our website welcometodayone.com

This episode was produced by Adam Spencer and Mixed by Andy Jones.

Thank you for listening and see you next time.

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Resources mentioned

Credits

A big thank you to Sahil from Elite Robotics and Siobhan Curran from the i2n for their time and involvement in putting this episode together.

Music Credits

Music by Lee Rosevere.

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