Fresh out of their engineering college, three youths in Kerala decided to launch a robotics company in 2013. They had to show a capital of Rs 1 lakh to register their firm as an “India Private Ltd” company. They loaned Rs 35,000 each from their parents and got their company registered. They were so naive. Sastra Robotics, the startup they launched out of sheer passion, is now set to export 150 robots to the United Kingdom (UK).
Aronin Ponnappan, Akhil Ashokan and Achu Wilson became friends when they were pursuing their B.Tech in Electronics and Communication at Government Engineering College, Sreekrishnapuram, Palakkad. After completing their graduation, they got placed in some IT companies, but none of them wanted to end up being just another techie. They could have either taken up the jobs or gone for higher studies, but they chose a third path – to start a venture. The mothers of all three were teachers and they encouraged their sons to follow their passion. Sastra was born like that as a nascent deep-tech company incubated at the Startup Village in Kochi.
Aronin, co-founder and CEO of Sastra, said it was their common interest in electronics and robotics that brought them together. They had worked on several robotics projects in college. A robot they made, named Chippu, which could move its hands and legs as per commands was a hit on campus. However, the turning point in their life was a meeting with Mrinal Kalakrishnan, now a robotics scientist at Google. He was the one who enlightened them about the vast scope of the technology.
Since the launch, Sastra has been focussing on making robotic hands that can do more than what a human hand can. “Robotic hands were already being made in different parts of the world. Our idea was to incorporate the ability to touch and feel in our version of the ‘hand’ so that it can complete tasks that are more complex or even impossible for a human to handle,” Aronin told Onmanorama about the origin of their product.
Their idea was to make a platform which is a combination of a machine hand, computer vision and artificial intelligence. They made such a prosthetic hand which was displayed at an expo in Kochi in 2015. Their luck started as none other than the German tech giant Bosch found interest in their product.
Bosch wanted Sastra to make an industrial model of their machine hand which could be used for testing its car stereos under various environment temperatures. The Kochi startup in turn sold 21 robotic hands to the German company.
Sastra’s client base steadily grew with big names such as Honeywell, HCL, Qualcomm, Tech Mahindra, and ABB buying its products.
Sastra’s robots using AI perform quality testing tasks that cannot be done by human beings. Equipped with advanced robotic arms, the robots function like human hands and fingers and are primarily used to figure out defects in areas like mobile, space, defence, banking, and sophisticated equipment.
The startup has secured a total of Rs 3.5 crore in various fundings. It also received loans from the Kerala Finance Corporation, Kerala Startup Mission and Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation (KSIDC). The company has also received a total of Rs 1.6 crore in various grants.
It has recorded sales worth around Rs 5 crore, according to Aronin.
Apart from direct sales, Sastra is now pitching itslef as a robotic partner of other technology firms and three companies have finalised agreements with the firm. “Testing is a huge industry worldwide. We realised that the companies which buy robots from us were offering robotics as a service. Hence we decided not to limit ourselves as a component seller,” Aronin said.
The UK order is expected to change the company’s game big time. Some companies in the UK and US had rejected Sastra’s proposals earlier. In a shift in its strategy, Aronin launched a company in the US also during the lockdown as the Covid pandemic caused uncertainty over its supply chain.
On the UK contract this is what Aronin has to say: “The robots developed by our nascent firm have added another feather to projects like ‘Made in Kerala’ and ‘Make in India’. Also, for a Kerala startup to get such a big contract can be scripted as the first-ever in the robotics sector. It has given an opportunity to showcase our technological prowess in the field of robotics in Britain.”
Sastra now has a 5,000-sqft office in Kochi and a space in Silicon Valley, and around 30 staff. Asif Dadamiya Ismail is the company’s director/head of engineering.
(Startup Saturday is Onmanorama’s weekend series featuring promising startups from Kerala. Find the previous stories here)