Pune startup mantra: Let the robot clean it up - faster, cleaner and safer

In today’s startup mantra Pune entrepreneurs Runal Dahiwade and Miraj C Vora of Peppermint, which has designed and built an industrial floor-cleaning robot share their business mantra
Pune-based startup Peppermint, which has designed and built an industrial floor-cleaning robot, was founded by serial entrepreneurs Runal Dahiwade and Miraj C Vora. (HT PHOTO)
Pune-based startup Peppermint, which has designed and built an industrial floor-cleaning robot, was founded by serial entrepreneurs Runal Dahiwade and Miraj C Vora. (HT PHOTO)
Published on Sep 18, 2021 04:18 PM IST
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By Salil Urunkar

PUNE Pune-based ‘Peppermint’ start-up has designed and built an industrial floor-cleaning robot that leverages a combination of physical scrubbing, chemicals and ultra-violet light to facilitate seamless cleaning of floors.

These robots help in automating housekeeping and service operations across industries, warehouses, airports, offices and public spaces.

This B2B service robotics company (Aubotz Labs) is now coming up with “commercial real-estate friendly” robots.

In the beginning…

Peppermint was founded by serial entrepreneurs Runal Dahiwade and Miraj C Vora.

Dahiwade is orginally from Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh while Vora was raised in Kolkata and has currently settled in Bengaluru.

Dahiwade and Vora initially met in 2006 during a quiz competition in Bengaluru. Dahiwade was pursuing his engineering and Vora was graduating in business administration then.

Dahiwade was curious about entrepreneurship and startups, with Flipkart and Redbus sparking his introspection, and inspection, then.

He got an opportunity to intern with Redbus after which he founded his first startup, Carkhana, in 2011.

Vora also founded a profitable startup - a gamified sales-enablement software, Outsell. He wanted to make a global impact and knew Dahiwade had the same thoughts.

Says Dahiwade, “I was interested in the automotive sector. Carkhana was an ecommerce marketplace for automotive spare parts and accessories. While we were looking for angel investment in 2012, we met Naveen Kumar Kshatriya, who then was managing director of Castrol India. In 2013 Kshatriya retired and started his own company TopWheelz and offered to acquire us. We accepted the offer. I stayed with the company for next three years. Later, I joined another company, Refreshed Car Care, in 2016 as its chief operating officer.”

Robotics

Dahiwade scaled the new company, but in 2019 there was an interesting turn of events.

Dahiwade says, “Refreshed Car Care (RCC) was a car washing service business, which was human resources dependent. As we scaled, we turned into a manpower aggregator instead of a service provider. RCC Founder Chirag Shah, who is now also an investor in Peppermint, acknowledged the problem and asked me to find an automation solution. I quit my job and went back to Kshatriya for guidance. He suggested we look at a broader use case, critical for daily operations.”

“Commercial housekeeping in public spaces, working spaces like airports, hospitals, schools, colleges, warehouses, industries, railways, was one such case. It was predictable, completely global and scalable. Interestingly, commercial housekeeping workflows globally are also same. Automation could solve all problems related to workforce dependence and quality of execution of work. I was convinced that housekeeping robots is the way to go,” said Dahiwade.

Automation ecosystem

Housekeeping is usually outsourced to facility management companies. Dahiwade met them to understand the nuances of business and operations. So Dahiwade says, “In Mumbai, compared to Pune, the engineering talent pool is not deep. Mumbai is also an expensive city, so we chose Pune. Besides, Pune also has a good ecosystem for automation companies. I shifted in March 2019 to Pune. We scouted for locations and finalised the Narhe-Ambegaon area. Since the renowned PARI company (Precision Automation and Robotics India) is situated here, there are plenty of automation suppliers – who adhere to global standards due to PARI’s requirements – in Narhe. Peppermint was officially founded in May 2019 and initially we were just four in our team. By November-December 2019 we knew this that we can build this in India.”

IIT Bombay incubation

Dahiwade went to the Society for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (SINE) at IIT Bombay, but since it was premature idea for incubation, they routed him through the Nidhi (National Initiative for Developing and Harnessing Innovations) and Prayas (Pomoting and accelerating young and aspiring technology entrepreneurs) grant, a pre-incubation initiative by Department of Science and Technology of the government of India. Peppermint received the grants in June 2019.

Says Dahiwade, “By August 2019 it was clear that we were on the right path. Some investors from Carkhana supported us including Naveen Kshatriya. We raised a pre-seed round in September 2019. In November 2019 we got formally incubated at SINE. It gave us access and resources, because as a hardware startup, unlike software, our costs are way beyond manpower. Manpower is just one aspect. We have to plan for other basic necessities like machinery purchasing. We soon realised that we have to be wise or else we will spend our resources. We paced our goals and figured out we would require six more months to have a good product ready.”

Product launch

Peppermint launched its first robot in February 2020. Dahiwade said, “It was not open for deliveries, but for showcasing to potential customers and to assess feedback. In Mumbai it was done at IIT Bombay and in Pune at Narhe. We had a virtual incubation for six months in Venture Centre. Dr V Premnath helped us. Our hypothesis was proved and now the journey needed more people and more guidance.”

Vora joined Peppermint full time in March-April 2020. He oversees all business and sales while Dahiwade oversees all product development and productions. By April 2020, in the middle of first lockdown, Peppermint was ready to start demos.

Lockdown boon

In May 2020, Peppermint we got clearance as an essential service provider to government agencies. Says Dahiwade, “In June 2020 we did demos for some essential industries. We realised that in the next six months our prototype will turn into an actual product. We needed more resources and so we did a seed funding round in June 2020 led by Venture Catalysts. Existing investors also topped up.”

“We moved our R&D team and operations team to Narhe and began scaling. By September 2020 we deployed the first few robots. These were paid customers including some from the pharmaceutical sector. In January 2021 we entered batch production. Now we have operations in Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru, Chennai, Indore and Goa. In March 2021 we set up our first overseas distribution channel based out of Dubai. In July 2021, our first delivery of the Peppermint robot happened,” he said.

Traction and the overseas market

Says Dahiwade, “We knew we had enough traction. We had 10 customers including JSW Steel, Godrej and other large industries in India. We realised if they are finding value in our robots, it’s time to scale further and make Peppermint truly world-class. We decided to invest in production and so we raised another round of funds - Rs5 crore in June. This was led by Venture Catalysts, Indian Angel Network and supported by Vinners group.”

Prakash Kelkar, a Punekar and one of the investors from Venture Catalysts, suggested eying the overseas automation robotics market. Says Dahiwade, “We see Peppermint as a global robotics company. There is no difference between a Delhi or Detroit or Doha. We had our plans to go overseas in 2022, but we said to him that we can expedite if you help us.”

“After-sales support is an issue globally, especially in the Middle East. We as Indian manufacturers care for customers. We found that people appreciate that and realised that our philosophies and fundamentals are very good. In the Middle East we have three cities, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, where we have our channel partners,” says Dahiwade.

With fresh round of funds, a world- class manufacturing capability is next.

“We have the building blocks in place and now we have to convert into seamless assembly lines. We should exit this financial year with very stable manufacturing operation,” he added.

Future plans

Peppermint has regional service centers in Pune, Mumbai and Bengaluru. Dahiwade says the future is more of sales and that their distributors can rent or lease. He said, “At present we have industrial robots. By end of 2021 we will have commercial real estate friendly sized robots which will be slightly smaller in size for use in offices, hotels. These products will be dryer machines like vacuum cleaners, carpet cleaners, dry moppers. Our existing robots have payloads as per floor cleaning systems. We can program these same robots to bring tea, for material movement in warehouses, room service in hotels. Our game plan is to be a ‘B2B Service’ robotics company – the best and the largest in its space.”

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Saturday, October 23, 2021