World class innovation

  • Decision to focus on single product key to success
  • Early market validation helps avoid wasting time, money

World class innovation
IT is often said that automation is the way of the future and that it will completely transform how the world works. Taking this to heart, an innovative and cutting-edge Malaysian company — Ideasparq Robotics — decided to dive into the world of Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs).
 
Ideasparq’s AGV is essentially a mobile robot vehicle that can move raw materials and finished products from one location to another, within a factory floor. It eliminates the need for the traditional driver-operated forklift.  The AGV has many benefits. It can work around the clock in a hassle-free manner. It is also cost-effective and saves time. In addition, AGVs can run at different speeds and are easily controlled via a cloud-based application on a tablet.
 
Building dreams over coffee
Ahmad Ahsan (pic), Ideasparq's managing director, first met cofounder and director Asyraf Abdul Rahman at a sales event. Following a chat over coffee, they realised that they both had a similar vision about technology and innovation. Though their clientele now includes big international names, Ideasparq had very humble beginnings. Initially, their team consisted of just four individuals, and to save costs, they had to crowd into a 1,100 sq ft office with three other startups.
 
While Ahmad and Asyraf had many exciting and innovative ideas, they decided to choose and focus on just one – building AGVs. The only problem was, they had no clue what the first version would look like. Young and eager, they felt compelled to include ‘all sorts of crazy features,’ recalls Ahmad but they soon realised that they had to be more focused or nothing would ever get completed.
 
Having assembled a unique and talented team of fresh graduates (two of whom had won gold at an international robotic competition, while Ahmad ran his own tech company while still in uni with Asyraf working in the family business), they set out to learn about AGV technology from the ground up. The research and development (R&D) phase took about three years, and during this time Ideasparq built not one but four AGV prototypes.  While the R&D started in 2011, Ideasparq Robotics Sdn Bhd itself was formed on 27 November 2012.
 
Overcoming challenges
The biggest challenge they faced in the early stages, says Ahmad, was the lack of experience. Inevitably, it led them to making quite a few costly mistakes. Fortunately, their investors were very understanding and supportive. It was Asyraf’s family which runs a metal stamping company, Autokeen Sdn Bhd who pumped in the initial RM100,000.
 
At that point, taking Nov 2011 from when they first started working on the idea, three years had gone by without a single sale and the Ideasparq team was seriously concerned about their reputation. However, they refused to give up.
 
Proudest moment
Though they had a rocky start, Ideasparq eventually took off. Ahmad and Asyraf’s proudest moment arrived at the end of their first year after deciding to commercialise (2014). Prior to that it was just R&D with the duo having no intentions of making any sales. They were pleasantly surprised to find that they had exceeded their sales target!
 
To date, Ideasparq has won the ‘Best Business Pitch’ award twice, at both WIFE (World Islamic Economic Forum) Young Fellow 2012 and WIEF Idealab 2015.  Despite the awards, Ahmad and Asyraf believe that Ideasparq’s success can be traced to one key factor — people. This is why the cofounders raised the salaries of all their employees after the first year even though the company did not make a profit at that point.
 
Invaluable insights
When the time came for them to market their AGV, the Ideasparq team realised that they needed professional advice and guidance. This was why they decided to enrol in the Coach and Grow Programme (CGP). The programme gave them much-needed exposure, from the commercialisation process to valuable insights into common business mistakes. This allowed them to be more adept at knowing what to do in each phase of the business and helped make their product development process far more effective.
 
During the CGP, they gained the opportunity to reorganise their entire operations with a more holistic view. Ahmad also received valuable advice on his investor's pitch and a short course on company valuation. However with the company being operationally profitable, the founders are in no rush to raise funding.
 
Do one thing
Ahmad's advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is simple: stay focused. "Do one thing and one thing only." He adds that entrepreneurs who work hard, work smart and stay honest will find that their sacrifices will pay off in the end.
He also cautions against spending too much time and money on developing a product or service, without doing some sort of initial market validation first.
 
Going global
In the year to come, Ideasparq hopes to push ahead of their competition by furthering their R&D and introducing more new features to their AGV. They also aim to double their sales and launch a new product, expected to be launched in April, which would complement their AGV and enable clients to view data and make smart analyses in real time.
 
There was however a slight hiccup in sales this year with production partially halted during the start of the year due to overwhelming orders.
“But since July sales efforts have restarted and things look equally good, like how they were last year,” shares Ahmad.
 
Their ultimate vision is to become a listed company, which will produce all kinds of industrial automation products that will add value to the workforce. Within the next five years, they plan to enter the South-East Asian market, and in a decade to go global and enter markets in Europe, the Middle East and the USA.
 
Greater good
At the heart of their vision, Ahmad and Asyraf have the desire to turn Malaysia into a technology-producing country, rather than a technology-consuming one. For Ideasparq, it is not just about making money, states Ahmad. "We want to see our clients grow with us, and help them to innovate and improve their processes."
 
Together, they also seek to inspire young Malaysians to start innovating, experimenting and making mistakes because accidents can bring about great innovation.
 
Ahmad shares that he chose to be an entrepreneur because it was the only avenue that gave him a feeling of fulfillment and paved the way for independence. He highly recommends entrepreneurship. “I feel it’s the only way forward for an individual to add value for himself or herself.” Ahmad feels he is exactly where he should be. “There is no dream job, other than what I am already doing. There is no chance that I will ever give up entrepreneurship!”
Discover Ideasparq at www.ideasparq.com

The above is an updated version from the book Startups to Scaleups published in October 2015 by Cradle Fund and Proficeo Consultants, the programme manager for Cradle’s Coach and Grow Programme. DNA will be featuring every entrepreneurial story from the book in a special commercial arrangement.
 

 
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