It’s a big year for Promobot, a resident startup of the Skolkovo Foundation’s IT cluster. The Perm-based company has just released version 4 of its cheeky service robots, whose antics have made headlines around the world and which are already on sale in about a dozen countries. Now the company is planning to open its first representative office abroad, in the United States. Promobot founder and CEO Alexei Yuzhakov shared his latest news and plans for the new generation of robots in an interview with Sk.ru during the recent Startup Tour in Perm.
Yuzhakov presenting Promobot Version 3, which could scan ID information, at Skolkovo in 2016. Photo: Sk.ru.
In 2017, the startup added Chile and Brazil to the list of places where its talking robots have been sent, and is currently in talks with companies in Mexico and Bulgaria. Promobot operates through partners in all the other foreign markets in which it is present, but in the U.S., the company plans to open its own fully-fledged Promobot U.S.A. branch with its own stock of robots, and work with dealers there.
“It’s a good market, with good purchasing power … and secondly, the widespread regulation of all processes there is a factor,” said Yuzhakov on the decision to open a U.S. branch.
“For example, you know for sure that to enter Trump Tower, you need certain documents, and that the security guard responsible for all that gets paid $18 per hour, while a robot could do it for $5 an hour … Where you can easily introduce automation to processes, that’s the place for Promobot,” he said.
Inspired by its success at the CES exhibition in Las Vegas, at which it signed letters of intent with more than 40 companies, Promobot plans to open its U.S. office in the second half of this year, probably in Louisiana, Florida, Pennsylvania or California, where the company already has partners, having previously broken through onto the U.S. market.
The idea of robot waiters is particularly popular in the U.S., said Yuzhakov. Promobot, for example, could take fast food orders, accept money, and print the receipt, which customers would then show to a human worker at the meal collection point.
“But in the U.S., they are pleased if the robot just recognises people and greets them. If the robot brings a tray with a bottle from the bar to a specified spot, that’s already great. If after that, it can also take an order, even better. They have this step-by-step approach, and we like that,” said Yuzhakov, adding that that attitude was another incentive to open a U.S. office.
Working as a waiter, concierge, tour guide in museums or consultant are all roles that Promobot V.4 can easily perform, says Yuzhakov. The design is externally similar to V.3 – though this time there is no female version – but the new robot has a new platform, new software, and new materials, including a lighter main body made of carbon. The moving arms have better, more reliable motors, and are now “fully-fledged mechanical arms with smooth and precise positioning,” he said.
“The next stage would be to add hands, and then it would be a robot that can move things, pick things up etc.,” he added.
While V.3 could scan passports for information, V.4 is also equipped with a card dispenser, enabling them to work as concierges, issuing visitors with security passes.
“If a pass has been ordered for you, the robot will recognise you and issue it right away. If not, it will offer to call the person who has to order the pass. It can enter the visitor information in a digital ledger, so there is no need for a concierge: our aim to replace a person,” explained Yuzhakov.
And while versions 1 and 2 were ultimately designed for entertainment – to provide promotional and useful information in crowded places such as malls and transport hubs – versions 3 and 4 are operational service robots.
Version 4 is equipped with a card dispenser. Photo: Promobot.
“V.4 is a fully functional replacement for humans in a narrow field of work: he can’t make coffee and bring it through, but he can recognise people and let them through, give consultations, or work as a tour guide: we’re currently actively upscaling that function all around the world,” said Yuzhakov, one of whose creations greeted Vladimir Putin when the Russian president visited Perm last autumn.
With success, new models and sales, however, come new challenges. As Yuzhakov told the audience of young entrepreneurs during a mentoring session at the Startup Tour: It’s one thing to make 250 robots. It’s another to service 250 robots scattered across the world.
“Support is the most important aspect of service robotics now,” he told the crowd.
Nor is keeping up with demand an easy task. Another of Promobot’s focuses this year is its production chain.
“Now we need to produce far more robots, and we are deciding where to do that: here in Perm, at our expanded premises, or whether to outsource production,” Yuzhakov told Sk.ru.
Currently, the robots are made entirely in Perm. That has its advantages, according to Yuzhakov, a Perm native.
“The main advantage for Perm entrepreneurs is that our whole team – engineers, programmers, technicians, welders: everyone involved in the process, which is like assembling a car – they are all local, with the exception of a couple of people in Moscow. That means our costs and salaries are local too – not even Moscow-level, never mind U.S.-level – making the end product price competitive,” he said.
“Secondly, we’re quite close to the regional authorities: the governor tries to support us in anything he can, such as introductions,” said Yuzhakov.
Promobot’s success story began when the Skolkovo Startup Tour first visited the city of Perm.
“It all began at Startup Tour 2014: we got through to the final, and we were invited to Startup Village [at Skolkovo]. We didn’t win – but we sold our first two robots right there at the exhibition!” Yuzhakov recalled.
“For us, a startup that had just made them in a garage, that was cool.”
Yuzhakov founded several other successful companies in Perm before turning to robots. Photo: Promobot.
The same year, Promobot won the GenerationS accelerator organised by Russian Venture Company, and in 2015, the company became a resident startup of the Skolkovo Foundation.
“A lot of people ask whether they really need Skolkovo residency or not,” Yuzhakov said during his mentoring session.
“I believe it’s essential. If you have the opportunity, apply. Your startup should have Skolkovo residency for the simple reason that if you don’t have it and your competitor does, you will lose. That’s my attitude towards state support,” he said, adding that he had started out (Yuzhakov, a serial entrepreneur, founded his first company in his third year at university) believing he did not need state support.
“Now that attitude annoys me,” he said. Without state support, “you’ll have to train people, pay for transporting your product, pay for customs, to get your intellectual property rights registered – and they [your competitors with state support] won’t, they’ll get money from the state. And that will be reflected in your costs, regardless of whether you’re making a robot or a cucumber.”
The micro-grants provided to Skolkovo startups to cover the cost of taking part in international conferences and exhibitions have been particularly useful, said Yuzhakov, noting that Promobot robots weigh 100 kilograms, and that sending them to CES in Las Vegas cost 600,000-800,000 rubles ($10,600-$14,200) in shipping. Fortunately, the company sold both the robots on the spot, and didn’t need to transport them back to Russia.
Helping companies like Promobot to take part in major international exhibitions and business missions abroad is one of the ways in which Skolkovo aims to support its resident startups, said Pavel Krivozubov, head of robotics and artificial intelligence within the IT cluster and Promobot’s project manager at the foundation.
“Promobot is one of the most remarkable robotics companies in Skolkovo’s IT cluster,” he told Sk.ru.
“As well as successfully expanding to Russia’s regions, their innovative promotional robots are actively entering international markets, and that’s an indicator that they are developing in the right direction,” said Krivozubov.