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Ideasparq Robotics born out of solving founder's pain point over foreign machinery

  • 3 years to get first product built with Panasonic Air-Conditioning as customer
  • During pandemic Ideasparq helped vaccination centres with use of its robots

Asyraf Rahman (front row, centre) with members of his team.

A geek running a small software business, Asyraf Rahman's journey as an entrepreneur took a major turn when his ailing father asked him to take over the business. The father was a vendor to Proton.

Asyraf immediately saw a major pain and choke point of the business. "You are reliant on the machinery vendors, all of whom are based overseas," he says. Of course they tell you there is local support but when you need help with some faulty equipment, the expert needed was often based overseas. This made maintenance difficult, to say the least.

He found it to be an inefficient way to run a business, not to mention costly.

This was when the idea of going into a business where they could make their own machines struck him. And this was the early seeds of ideasparq, which today has grown into a promising robotics maker with some Japanese manufacturing clients and now, a growing base of hospitals which deploy their robots for cleaning.

The sale of Roomba to Amazon brings a smile to Asyraf's face as their first idea was to build a robotic vacuum cleaner.  Thankfully that idea was stillborn as they realised making a mass consumer product was not going to be a walk in the park. But an industrial robot was a whole different proposition.

"Building an industrial product is usually easier because you're not making mass and you can use simpler materials like metal and don't have to focus too much on appearances. Functionality was key," he says. Plus with Asyraf's background in testing and a factory at their disposal as they try to build a winning robot, Asyraf embarked on their journey launching Ideasparq Robotics Sdn Bhd. It was 2012.

"With our background as software developers, we thought it would be an easy thing to do," says Asyraf, laughing at the memory of how naive they were about the task of building an autonomous industrial robot.

These were early days still for autonomous robots and the software was not mature yet. Amazon had just bought Kiva Systems, a robotic maker in March 2012 and would go on to throw its engineering might into robotics systems as well.


After one year of struggle, ‘Let’s build something simpler’

But here in Malaysia, after one year of struggling to make headway, Asyraf called time. "Let's restrategise and build something simpler that we can take to market quicker," I told the team.

That was their entry into line guided robots or more popularly known as Autonomous Guided Vehicles or AGV.

But history repeated itself. This time, it was his engineers who felt this was going to be easy. After all, they had worked on such models for their final year projects and even brought them to the office to show Asyraf. "So I thought this will take us a few months," he thought.

It took a year. As the team found out, there is a gulf of difference between a final year project and an AGV that industry will approve of and use.  

All in it took them three years to get their first product built with Panasonic Air-Conditioning Sdn Bhd as their first paying customer. But today, it takes as little as two weeks for them to build a product for a customer. "That's how far the team of 20, with over 50% being engineers, has come," says Asyraf.

He is looking to grow the team as there is a significant local order book and with interest from overseas as well. How that order book came about is that, before the pandemic hit, Ideasparq was working with Medivest an integrated healthcare facilities services provider that was looking to strengthen its value proposition to the hospitals it was serving.

They were actually in the process of developing an entire line of service robots for cleaning in hospitals. The pandemic actually helped strengthen their value proposition and today, there are three hospitals in Johor that are using their services.

More promising is that a larger rollout with over 15 hospitals in on the cards. Hence the need for a larger team and new premises to build those robots. Ironically, the AGVs are still being built by hand and will likely remain so in the new plant as well, though there are aspect of production that will be automated in the new facility.


Good results from MTDC partnership

Ideasparq was already engaging with Malaysian Technology Development Corporation (MTDC) before the pandemic with the agency helping it with market access. The relationship deepened during the pandemic when MTDC saw Ideasparq helping some of the vaccination centres with its robots.

"They basically said, let's go hand in hand and we will help you to develop your company further," said Asyraf. That led them to the next stage where in 2021, Ideasparq managed to secure a RM3 million loan from MTDC via its Business Growth Fund that focuses on early stage companies. The funding will be used to set up a new production line with automated machinery and to build out its sales pipeline.

It is understood that MTDC is looking into the growth potential of the business as it weighs a conversion of its loan into equity.

Interestingly, one of the focus markets to drive sales are the SMEs and specifically to help them solve the problem that Asyraf saw his father's automotive business facing ie locked into purchasing expensive machinery from overseas with poor, and costly, mantainenance support. 

With most of the customers for AGV's being multinationals, Asyraf sees an opportunity to help SMEs purchase the robots as well to boost their competitiveness. With the cheapest AGV in the market retailing at around RM60,000, with no bells and whistles, Ideasparq has produced a competitor at RM25,000 that is easy to install and use.

Even better than the cost is a leasing plan that will allow a customer to pay around RM950 a month for three years. "That is lower than the monthly minimum rate," notes Asyraf.

The hope is that once the SMEs get comfortable using such entry level robots, they will eventually want more features.

With 15 years under his belt as an entrepreneur, Asyraf, on reflecting over the key lessons learnt, zooms in on one major lesson. Focus.

"Whatever opportunities came across my lap when I was younger, I gobbled them up." As a result, he says the business lacked focus, and suffered because you are spreading your resources too thin. "It is not easy to do but you must avoid chasing new opportunities before you have fully given yourself a chance to exploit the ones you are currently chasing."

Be brave enough to say, No.


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