Grant’s Desi Achiever
THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME
By SHAGORIKA EASWAR
Most newcomers – even those enamoured of the look of winter – don’t love ice that much.
They don’t look at ice forming on the lake and decide to build a robot to measure its thickness and indicate whether it was safe to walk or skate on.
But then robots were something he was always interested in, says Sougata Pahari who founded the robotics and automation firm Korechi within a couple of months of moving to Canada in 2016.
Korechi specializes in design of autonomous robotic mobile platforms with high-precision spatial awareness and a payload capacity of up to half a ton.
As a little boy growing up in Nigeria where his father was stationed, Pahari used to create robots out of cigarette packs and match boxes, using aluminum foil for antenna. After completing his BE in Mechanical Engineering in Chennai, India – during which he picked up several awards for innovative robots at competitions – he was recruited by Tata Chemicals, but before he could join a full scholarship drew him to Milan where he did his Master’s in Materials Engineering.
That was also where he met his wife Nisha, who was doing her PhD in Materials Engineering and Nano-technology and the two tied the knot in 2015. Even before he’d completed his Master’s, Pahari was hired by an Italian company and worked on designing a black box for trains.
He enjoyed the work, had made good friends, but he wanted to be an entrepreneur. When his company got into production in the US and sent Pahari there, he was happy to expand his horizons. And when they couldn’t secure a work visa for him after a year, he again looked at it as an opportunity.
He made a list of countries he’d like to live and work in, ranking them by the happiness index, levels of prosperity, openness towards immigrants, and interestingly, the number of trees.
“Canada consistently came out on top,” he says. “Australia was a possibility, but I prefer the cold! The health-care system is great, and proximity to the US as a giant potential market was a plus.”
The Canadian government had just recently launched the Express Entry program for immigrants and the couple made their way to Toronto.
The plan was to work for a bit and save before going into business for himself, but he found that 80 per cent of the job openings aren’t even posted on company websites.
With Nisha’s support, he decided to launch his venture. But while the Paharis had found the country very welcoming, he found it challenging to get people to respond to his calls as a new start-up. Pahari approached The Forge and The Innovation Factory at the McMaster Innovation Park in Hamilton with which Korechi is now affiliated.
“They connected us to Niagara College,” he says. “They have a huge credibility and I am very grateful for the doors they helped open for us.”
Korechi is now incubated at the Spark Centre in Oshawa and Pahari looks back at the early days as a learning process.
“I was very cautious, I discussed it with Nisha and said we may have to spend up to $1000!” Pahari recalls with a chuckle. “It was closer to $2500 by the time I’d purchased all the components and experimented with what worked and what didn’t.”
At the time of this interview, he’d invested $52,000 of his money.
“It shows I have skin in the game,” he says. “It’s a testament to how confident I am in the market. We did a valuation and at a conservative count, we are now worth between one and three million dollars. Yes, that’s theoretical, I haven’t seen the money in hand, but it helps in raising investment to fuel further growth. We have to pay for product certification, I want to hire new people to help us get to our next target.”
But how does one go from measuring lake ice to designing robotic lawn mowers and vineyard research tools? It’s called pivoting in start-up lingo, explains Pahari. While in the final stages of completion of their ice-measuring prototype, they were asked a simple question.
How big was the market size?
They learnt that it wasn’t big enough to warrant a big enough investment. The folks at Forge asked: Could the robot be put to any other use?
“I keep an eye open for the next progression. Our robot was designed to mark dangerous or thin ice with paint and could thus be used to paint lines on playing fields. The city has 245 fields and after the first application, two-thirds are managed by user groups. Lines have to be repainted after rainfall, they also get blurred when the grass is cut. Earlier, they used to use corrosive paint that required less maintenance but since that was outlawed, a month or two of playing time is lost across the playing fields in this painting and repainting.”
Pahari’s team also designed a robotic lawn-mower. This market is quite saturated, some point out. But those are for backyards, responds Pahari. His are designed for golf courses.
“They have to cut the grass three times a week in season, it’s their biggest expense. Our robot is perfectly designed to attach a lawn-mower, aerator or spreader. We did a market calculation – having learnt from our first experience! – and we we’re looking at $30 million for Canada and $560 million for the US. That’s a huge figure, but if we capture even a small percentage, that’s something.”
RoamIO is making waves in the farming industry. It can patrol vineyard rows with ease, and with its unmanned aerial systems and high-performance computing, provides smart farming options. Asked whether there was any pushback against automation within the farming community, he says farmers in Ontario are among the most innovative in the world.
“The principal platform that connects them is Twitter! They hang out on social media! And they are happy to consider new options that will improve farming, make it easier. A very few people – less than one per cent – started out with the position that people belong in farms, not robots. We showed how we can help farmers cut costs and increase productivity in environmentally-friendly ways,” says Pahari. “And that robots will do the tasks that people don’t want to do. It’s about changing perceptions. In the talks I give, I ask people to imagine walking down a street in New York in early 1900s. They would have seen only horse-drawn carriages. Within a few years, cars had replaced these carriages.
“The average age of Canadian farmers is 55 and they are not being replaced by younger people. I believe that Canada can become the supplier of food to the whole world – it is ideally positioned to do so with abundant land and the world’s largest bodies of fresh water. But the farmers need to attract younger people – and younger people find robots sexy.”
While robots for use in agriculture and golf courses remain his primary focus, Pahari is looking at applications in other areas such as defence and waste disposal.
“We will not put weapons on our systems, that is not our way. But imagine a situation in which a soldier is down and others have to go in to rescue him while bullets are flying. A robot could be piloted to carry out the rescue mission. It has a lower profile and would be safer. Robots could carry soldiers’ heavy, bulky backpacks. Robots can also segregate waste that ends up in landfills in spite of recycling. So, basically, we are not replacing labour, we are getting robots to do all the dirty, repetitive, boring work and they can do it 24/7.”
To those who visualize a dark, dystopian world that has been taken over by robots, like something out of a science fiction film, Pahari points out that we are already living with robotics in our daily lives.
“People with robotic limbs or with pacemakers are basically cyborgs, but we don’t think of them as scary. Science and the introduction of new technology can make life better if we embrace change instead of fearing it. Yes, there is a cost to technology, and yes, there is a messy period in between no development and a highly-developed society. Marie Curie died of radioactive poisoning, but look at all the positive ways her discoveries have impacted human lives. Artificial intelligence is a sustainable solution and there is no doubt in my mind that it can and does improve lives.”
Nisha is now an assistant professor at University of Ontario Institute of Technology and Pahari says he believes they came to Canada at the right time in their lives.
To others who seek to make a new life for themselves in a new country, he has two tips. “Don’t do anything unless you are really passionate about it. Because you will hear a lot of negative responses before you receive your first positive one, and it’s hard not give up under such circumstances. I’ve seen so many great ideas, ideas that actually had me wishing I had come up with them, but those people folded, they didn’t last the distance.
“You also need to be resilient as an entrepreneur. There’s a saying among the trader community in India, that if you open a shop and sit in it for five years, it will run. But you need to see it through.”
Korechi is Bangla for I’ve done it. Asked if that’s how he feels about his venture, Sougata Pahari says yes, but there’s so much more to be done.
To learn more about Korechi’s upcoming projects or to get involved, e-mail Sougata Pahari at firstname.lastname@example.org.