When one thinks of a robot, chances are the image that comes to mind is that of a humanoid assistant. For more than 50 years, science fiction writers, notably Isaac Asimov, have shaped the idea of robots for many of us. And films and television have aided it, adding to the mystery surrounding the world of robots.
Reality, however, is quite different. P.N. Sudarshan, partner at consultancy firm Deloitte India, says the robotics market can be classified into three primary categories: industrial robots, professional service robots, and software robots. “While industrial robots have been in existence for the last few decades, professional service robots and software robots are more recent,” he says. Professional service robots are those that are used outside of manufacturing, in domains such as retail, hospitality, health care, logistics (warehouse automation), construction, and agriculture, among other areas.
If you’ve visited a hotel, hospital, or mall in the recent past, chances are you’ve encountered a professional service robot. These generally mop floors, clean windows and swimming pools, and can also mow lawns. In fact, in April, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi deployed two robots at their Covid-19 ward—one to disinfect the floors, and the other to help doctors remotely monitor and interact with patients. Both were manufactured by Gurugram-based Milagrow Business & Knowledge Solutions.
As the pandemic hit India, hospitals emerged as a major new market for the company, which, till then, had depended primarily on the hospitality industry. As hotels closed due to the pandemic and demand from that segment plummeted, Milagrow, thanks to the lockdown, found hope in the consumer segment, says the company’s founder-chairman Rajeev Karwal. The other big segment has been facility management services, such as JLL, Cushman & Wakefield, CBRE, and Sodexo. With air travel gradually returning to normal, Karwal is also betting on airports. “I believe in the next few months, we will get a lot of demand from airports,” he says.
Besides, with the unlocking of the economy, there would be demand from offices, museums, and timeshare properties. So much so, that the privately-held company—which claims to have a market share of 60%—is looking to sell 100,000 robots in FY21. That would be a 15-fold growth in robot sales, it says. And in five years, Karwal wants Milagrow to be one of the top robotics firms in the world.
That’s a far cry from the testing times in 2016-17, when Milagrow was hit by the double whammy of demonetisation and GST. “Our top line came down by about 70%,” recalls Karwal, a veteran of the consumer electronics industry who has been in leadership roles at LG, Philips, Electrolux, and Reliance Retail before turning entrepreneur. The company, which launched its first floor robot in 2012, had principally focussed on the consumer segment till then. After the crisis of 2016-17, it was time for Milagrow to pivot its business model and move from being a business-to-consumer company to including a business-to-business element as well.
The Indian robotic cleaning market could touch $500 million-$75 million in annual sales in 2025.Barnik Chitran Maitra, managing partner and CEO of Arthur D. Little, India and South Asia.
The hospitality industry was a natural choice. “Today we have more than 350 installations at five-star properties,” Karwal says. Milagrow also reduced its headcount by outsourcing many of its operations. Now, it has less than 30 people on its rolls.
Milagrow’s optimistic outlook isn’t without reason. “The Indian robotic cleaning market is anticipated to be around $100 million-$200 million of annual sales in 2020 (from under $30 million in 2019),” says Barnik Chitran Maitra, managing partner and CEO of Arthur D. Little, India and South Asia. The cleaning robot market is forecast to grow at 25% per annum between 2021 and 2025, he says. As a result, the Indian robotic cleaning market could touch “$500 million-$750 million in annual sales in 2025”.
As the pandemic hit India, hospitals emerged as a major new market for the company, which, till then, had depended primarily on the hospitality industry. As hotels closed due to the pandemic and demand from that segment plummeted, Milagrow, thanks to the lockdown, found hope in the consumer segment.
No wonder that Milagrow—which sells directly on its online store, as well as on e-commerce platforms—has recently expanded its presence to offline stores. Its products are now sold at multi-brand retail stores such as Croma. And by the end of 2021, “we are planning to open about 20 experiential stores in the top 20 cities across India”, Karwal says. For those buying online, the company plans to use virtual reality and mixed reality to demonstrate the robots on the website. On customers, Karwal reveals an interesting statistic: 25% of the company’s user base is made up of senior citizens.
With the pandemic showing no signs of easing yet and social distancing being the norm, Milagrow is gearing up for a new segment: restaurants and canteens, which have resumed operations. “I feel our delivery robots will have a really good market,” Karwal says. But to finance the surge in demand, it will need to raise funds. Karwal, who, together with his family, owns 100% of Milagrow, says an initial public offer is on the cards. The firm is also planning to give shares to its employees. For Milagrow, its most exciting phase may just be around the corner.
(This story first appeared in Fortune India's January 2021 issue.)