Robotics: Mexico’s Gateway to Becoming a Tech HubBy Andrea Villar | Mon, 09/21/2020 - 05:00
Q: How did Roomie IT start in Mexico and what solutions does it provide?
A: We are the only 100 percent Mexican company that manufactures, develops and markets humanoid robots. Roomie IT, which started operations in 2014, employs a B2B business model. We have worked on more than 50 IT projects, from machine learning and artificial intelligence to humanoid robotics.
Developing high-end technology, which is very deep in R&D, entails a significant capital investment. When we started, the venture capital ecosystem did not support humanoid robotics companies in Mexico. Our first approach in the sector was to start commercializing artificial intelligence software, including cloud integration. We operated for two years with this strategy to form the necessary financial muscle to later invest in the creation of humanoid robots. This bootstrapping strategy worked and after those first two years, we traveled to Silicon Valley to dive into entrepreneurship, innovation, the venture capital system but, above all, to see what technology was being developed.
Upon returning to Mexico, we decided to invest in R&D, working our way toward humanoid robots. We created our first robot in 2016, with a prototype of a home assistant robot emerging in 2017. With the help of researchers and engineers from La Salle University, we created the Roomie Bot, the first 100 percent commercial humanoid robot in Mexico. Initially, we wanted to target the mass consumer market but the country was not sufficiently mature for the adoption of this technology. In 2017, there was still no Amazon Alexa or Google Home. We recognized that we were not going to be able to position a humanoid robot in the Latin American market. The cost would be too high and Mexican families were not ready to adopt it.
It was then that we decided to adopt a B2B business model. We always thought of developing a robot with an open architecture, easily trainable to be able to solve different problems. Our goal was to capture corporate clients to eventually narrow the gap between humanoid robots and the domestic market. At the end of the day, robots will be interacting with mass markets through services offered by companies.
This is how we began to market the first humanoids developed in Mexico in 2018 and we began to reach major clients, such as Bayer, Bimbo, Barcel and Intel. Later, we were recognized by the MIT Technology Review as one of the most innovative companies in Latin America. We were also the only Mexican robotics company that participated at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), where we presented a 100 percent commercial robot. Our clients include Banorte, Bayer, Bimbo and Totalplay.
Q: How was the partnership between Intel, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Roomie IT born and why is it relevant today?
A: More than an out of the box robot, at Roomie IT, we market solutions. We understand the requirements of companies, their digital transformation and their innovation strategy and based on that, we generate projects that address them. That is why there are different layers in robot implementation, from software, cloud, artificial intelligence, integration and finally hardware. That said, the alliance we have with Intel is based on the use of its components in our robots’ architecture, such as NUC computers, Realsense cameras and Neural Compute Stick, all hardware components. Regarding artificial intelligence and data processing, we use several of the services that exist on Amazon’s cloud. Humanoid robots must be seen as an interaction channel that organizations have with their users and with their customers. The cloud is necessary for this, since it works as an enabler of humanoid robotics. Both Intel and Amazon market our humanoid robots as a way to generate indirect sales of their components.
We want to expand installed base of humanoid robots and transform our business model toward Robotics as a Service (RaaS), where we can offer a service on demand to companies. This is a great opportunity because our clients do not have to acquire an asset that can depreciate over time and they do not need to hire robotics experts. Roomie IT takes care of the entire product cycle, from implementation, manufacturing and maintenance policies.
Q: How did you alter the Roomie Bot to diagnose COVID-19?
A: Companies need to reinvent themselves when there is a crisis. When the health crisis hit the country, beyond thinking about reinventing ourselves in terms of a commercial strategy, we thought about what we could contribute to society. We devised a way to assemble our modular components to solve a problem: identify possible COVID-19 infections at hospitals, airports, shopping malls, corporations and so on. The prototype worked and in just three weeks we were able to develop a robot with the help of two medical experts in infectious diseases. The robot provides a questionnaire to identify if someone has symptoms of the disease and tests the person through a thermal camera and an oximeter. Based on these data, it determines whether the person might be infected or not.
The pandemic forced companies to transform themselves and to redefine their strategies based on contactless tech. As a result, the implementation of humanoid robotics has begun to boom around the world. Our monthly manufacturing capacity is 50 robots and so far, we have sold five robots for diagnosing COVID-19. These are working at shopping malls and hospitals and we are in talks with airports, corporations and hotels.
Q: What have been the challenges of marketing this technology?
A: One of the main challenges, when we talk about digital transformation, is that companies still perceive it as innovation and therefore categorize it as a luxury, something which is nice to have. Most organizations spend their entire budget on what they are experiencing, such as cloud migration, PR or day-to-day operations. Humanoid robotics are rarely their priority. The second challenge is the cost of a humanoid robot and that is one of the reasons why we want to migrate toward a RaaS business model. Organizations are not yet willing to pay to acquire assets like these.
Mexican entrepreneurs are used to acquiring technology from other parts of the world, mainly from Asia. Because of his, we are limited to consuming technology that comes from abroad, to be importers of technology and never exporters. It is an unfortunate mindset in Latin America and at the end of the day that does not allow us to innovate or exploit an opportunity to grow the local economy based on innovation.
Q: How are you taking advantage of the renewed focus on regionalization from USMCA and the pandemic?
A: Short-term results never transform a country's economy. Most investments have been made in shared-economy business models like Uber, Airbnb or Netflix, which can scale very quickly. However, developing new hardware and technology takes longer and does not scale at the same speed. When the pandemic began, we realized that we lacked ventilators, sanitizing robots and medical equipment because everything comes from Asia. China became a world power by copying many of the products that other countries were sending to manufacture there and it is also a hub for R&D, not only for hardware manufacturing.
In Mexico, we have excellent engineers who come from the leading universities. We have won many humanoid robotics competitions. Academic institutions, such as Universidad La Salle, Instituto Politécnico Nacional and UNAM, frequently win competitions for humanoid robotics worldwide. Mexico is an emerging power in R&D for humanoid robotics. It is necessary for entrepreneurs and investors to commit to the local economy as we have the ability to compete with any startup from Silicon Valley or Asia.
Q: How does Roomie IT deal with ethical dilemmas related to humanoid robotics development?
A: So far, we have not faced any ethical dilemma. This is because we are a people-oriented company, which seeks to generate employment and enhance the local economy. For every humanoid robot that we create, we also create a job. There is a very common misconception that robotics will eliminate jobs. But this is far from true. Robotics, just like artificial intelligence, is a tool that generates jobs in its production and development. Beyond the conception stage, we need people to manufacture, paint and assemble our robots. At Roomie IT, we believe that technology is part of the evolution of society and companies have a responsibility to provide growth, either directly or indirectly.
Q: In 2019, Roomie IT was looking to raise funds to build an assembly plant in Mexico. How has this project progressed?
A: The idea to build an assembly plant in Mexico came after a customer asked us for a massive deployment of robots and we realized that assembling them abroad would be extremely expensive. On the contrary, by enabling the plant in the country, generating jobs and reducing costs, the project was totally profitable.
Last year, we stopped the process of raising capital for a bit to generate a sales track record. 2019 was one of the best years for us and our sales grew by 105 percent by marketing robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence solutions. To realize our goals, however, we need capital and this year, we are again approaching venture capitalists (VCs), both Mexican and foreign. Curiously, we have seen more openness from VCs from other parts of the world toward our value proposition.
In Mexico, there are many questions regarding how hardware development will scale in the short term and how much should be invested in Mexican technology when there is technology already financed by Silicon Valley VCs. This is the wrong mindset because it means we are still going to wait for technology from abroad, without being able to export technology and boost the local economy.
We are still betting on our strategy of marketing robots, generating a sales track record, contracts and letters of intent for mass deployment projects. In 2020, we’ve noticed that VCs are more open toward new business models. However, there is still a long road ahead. There is a great deal of technology born in Latin America and with enough help we can be a powerhouse in technology.
Roomie IT is a Mexican robotics and machine learning solutions company. It is the first Latin American organization to develop and sell humanoid robots built with modular components