How Planeter Plans To Push Robotics Forward In Bangladesh: An Interview With Rini Eshan Khushboo and A.B.M. Rezaul Islam Rakib
Robotics, IoT are among the most talked about topics in the world of technology these days. The case that robots will destroy our jobs has taken over the imagination of an entire generation.
In Bangladesh, however, we seldom find ourselves at par with these passionate discussions. It is hard to as well because our understanding of robotics starts and ends with these long distance discussions and also to our limited exposure to dummy robots made by amateur hobbyist university students.
That said, there are people doing important works in the field of robotics and IoT in Bangladesh, Planeter Limited is one of those companies that has been consistently working hard to push the boundary forward.
Started in 2012 as a passion project by Rini Eshan Khushboo and A.B.M. Rezaul Islam Rakib, two founders of the company, Planeter Limited has been working in designing and manufacturing robotics and IoT stuff, albeit in a limited scale, for commercial purposes and for researchers, robot hobbyists, and professionals and businesses.
Started as a proprietorship company teaching students robotics in Chittagong, the startup turned it into a private limited company in 2015 and scaled further into serious work of Robotics showing a dogged determination on the part of the founders.
For the past years, it has designed robotic stuff, it has made robots that are used by companies and industries, worked with companies in robotics and IoT projects, which the company does these days as well, and taught over 3000 students on robotics and IoT.
In 2017, the company plans to launch some of its products into the market and get seriously into marketing as well. We recently sat down with Khushboo and Rakib to talk about the evolution of the company, current status, challenges and opportunities, and the future plans.
How did Planeter come to exist? How much has the company evolved over the years?
Rini Eshan Khushboo: Planeter started its journey in mid-2012. It was initially a Chittagong-based organization. We, Rakib and I, were penultimate in university when we founded the company.
I studied Mechanical Engineering at Chittagong University of Engineering and Technology, and Rakib did his bachelor’s from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology.
To be honest, we weren’t that serious when we started Planeter. We were passionate about robotics and all that but never thought of building a company. I personally wanted to get into NASA. So, I was preparing for that. In my last year at university, I went to NASA to participate in a robotics competition from CUET. We were the only outside Dhaka team to take part there.
Seeing our success on winning competitions and developing various robots, many people, mostly students, came to us with requests to teach them robotics. The number of such enthusiasts was quite large. So, after much thought, we finally decided to do something about it.
We created a curriculum to teach people about robotics and microcontroller and gathered them together. Our first batch enrolled into the program in 2012. Initially, we started as a sole proprietorship business but later changed to a Limited Company.
The response we got from people was overwhelming. There were times when Rakib had to teach 16 batches of students simultaneously. We had two teaching centers in Chittagong: one is our headquarter at Agrabad, and the other was at GEC Moore, which we left later on.
In January 2013, we opened a new branch in Dhaka. The response was equally dumbfounding. Over 900 students from BUET have joined in our training program in Dhaka so far.
Frankly speaking, we were teaching people and earned money doing it but we didn’t have any idea about startups at that time. Our aim was to build a research institute for robotics in Bangladesh.
In fact, Planeter, as it’s now, is a research company. We help other companies to develop new products and provide solutions for different types of problems. We haven’t started our marketing activities yet, but we have plans to open the marketing department this year.
Our journey in Dhaka began in 2013. We soon opened our second branch here at Panthapath. At that time, we were largely involved in teaching. We didn’t yet bring any change to our operation because, although I had already graduated, Rakib was still busy with his undergraduate studies. But, we were earning enough money through teaching only.
Then, on the side, we started working on several projects for different companies. In the early days, we used to get only small projects. Given that we were still a company in its infancy, no one dared to give us big projects.
Our first big project was with Renata Pharmaceuticals Ltd. in 2015. We were assigned to create an entirely new quality inspection division for them. The project was successful and we haven’t had any complaints yet. That was actually the point when we started getting big projects from other firms.
Lately, we have sold robotic arms to CUET. We have also developed a humanoid robot called IRA which we rent to corporates. You must have seen at different occasions when humanoid robots are used to greet guests. So, IRA is our own humanoid robot. The ICT ministry of the government has been agreed to provide us funds to develop it further.
Robots at present are mostly imported from abroad, but it is an expensive business. We want to manufacture robots locally, which is very much possible so that we can offer robotics stuff at an affordable cost.
A.B.M. Rezaul Islam Rakib: I knew Rini from childhood. I became really interested in robotics after getting into BUET. I began with understanding how a robotic brain works. I tried to learn to design one thing at a time and not everything at once.
It was a bit challenging early on to find required materials. I was a sophomore when I started doing this and at the end of the year, I was able to design a robot. Afterward, I took part in a robotics competition called Roborace. I came third in the competition which made me more enthusiastic about robotics. This is when we started to teach others about robotics and eventually founded Planeter. In the meantime, we wrote two books jointly called Robotics and Microcontroller (2015) and Image Processing and Robotic Vision (2016)–both published by Systech Publications.
As Rini mentioned earlier, we weren’t that serious in the beginning. But things have changed since then. In future, we want to work more on self-reconfigurable robotics.
Can you give us a short overview of Planeter?
Rini: Planeter is a hardware company. That said, the market in Bangladesh is relatively small than many other countries like the USA. At present, we are mainly working with robotics and internet of things (IoT). We have also introduced a course on IoT.
We started by developing various kinds of microcontroller based boards and hobby robot kits especially to assist university students in completing their robotic projects. As I said before, our fund for research and development came from teaching students on microcontroller and robotics.
We have trained over 3000 students on microcontroller and robotics since our inception.
We have got a capable R&D team and are working hard to establish robotics in Bangladesh.
How many projects are you working on now?
Rini: We are currently working on around 23 different projects. There are some other projects we are working that we can’t mention for the sake of confidentiality. We are mostly working on the internet of things. The government is really enthusiastic about a new project called Smart City which aims to incorporate the concept of IoT in our day to day lives to increase efficiency and convenience.
We are also working on attendance count in schools and workplaces, and security. Automation in households, security, and entertainment are some of our other project matters.
Rakib: We help companies develop devices and technologies that they can use in order achieve greater convenience and effectiveness in their daily operation.
These devices are particularly engineered to collect data from physical sources. Mobile applications will be used to control these devices which we are designing as well. One project is almost done. We will disclose the details as soon as we are ready to start the pilot project.
So, you are doing a lot of things on the product end. But, to get a clearer understanding, how does Planeter work? How many people are working in your team?
Rakib: Currently, we have 4 members in the team who work full-time. There are several other members who work part-time and work as consultants.
We plan to recruit a couple more members this year. We are also collaborating with a lot of partners, some software makers and others in hardware.
How does the revenue look like? How is your growth?
Rini: We have grown almost 8 times since the company’s inception. Our revenue now stands at several million a year. Up until now, we have been largely focused on training and consulting project works. From this year, we plan to design and launch our own products.
We have already completed designing a 3D printer model which we expect to launch in February. The price will be below TK 20,000 so that students can afford it.
What are the key challenges now?
Rini: I think one of the biggest challenges is the size of the local market which is relatively small. As a result, we are now thinking of export-oriented strategies.
Rakib: Moreover, access to information is often difficult. There are not enough resources available in the country which makes it difficult for us to experiment and develop new models. Communication also doesn’t happen in an organized fashion.
Customers education is often a major challenge, particularly for products like ours.
Pricing is another important issue for us. Consumers are price sensitive in Bangladesh and often do not hesitate to compromise quality just to get something at a cheap price. This is a huge challenge for us because sometimes we have to make products that are more durable but cost a little more. But due to the price-sensitivity, we frequently need to adjust. Unless we do, we could very well lose in the competition.
How do you reach out to your customers? What channels do you use?
Rakib: We haven’t put much effort on marketing yet. Promotion till now has been done on a rather small-scale. For example, we participated at a 3-day tech-expo organized by ICT Ministry last year. We attend fairs and expos on a regular basis. These programs have allowed us to build our network and reach to a larger audience.
The two books we have published have also helped us to reach out to many people. We have received many responses from our reader who have found our books interesting and wanted to convey their feedback.
What are your future plans?
Rakib: Our main target is to enter the international market in the near future. As we mentioned earlier, much of the work we do now is concentrated on IoT and robotics. We want to penetrate the global market with our products in the coming years.
That’s wonderful. What are the major lessons you learned from your journey?
Rini: Throughout these years, I’ve realized that research-based companies in Bangladesh, or research as a whole, do not get due recognition from the society which is detrimental.
We want to build a company where people would love to work at and be proud of.
Rakib: To venture into robotics in our social and business set up, there is no alternative to hard work. I have learned this the hard way.
One also needs to continuously develop his/her skills. If you want to be an entrepreneur, especially in the technology, having multidisciplinary skills is an advantage.
Although an engineering student, I had to learn different terminology and mechanism related to business. It’s a necessity in this fast-changing world. You have to be a master in something, but also be a jack of all trades.
What do you think about competition? What is your take on the industry? How do you think it will unfold in future?
Rakib: Planeter Ltd is the first Robotics Company in Bangladesh. Many people are researching, but we still do not have any commercial competitor as such. That said, we have international competitions.
As for the industry, I think it will go through a number of changes in the near future. Bangladesh is adopting technology very fast.
That said, the market for robotics is relatively small, as I’ve mentioned before. So, we can’t focus on just one single niche. The wise thing would be to do multi-disciplinary works.
How does Planeter work as an organization?
Rakib: Everyone at Planeter has a specific job. We carry out our responsibilities individually, then we bring our works together. As the Chief Technical Officer, I oversee the work distribution and progress in the company.
The culture quite collaborative.
Rini: Rakib is our troubleshooter. He spends most of his time studying new materials, identifying new problems, and solving them. Kaiser Raihan knows power circuits and embedded programming very well.
What advice would you give to people who are just starting out?
Rakib: Perseverance is a critical quality especially if you want to start a hardware company. Because designing a device needs patience and a specific set of skills. You also need to know how to develop software in order to make your hardware function properly.
It’s also quite tough to collect raw materials for hardware in Bangladesh. I mean, there’s rarely any one-stop destination for everything you need. So, organizing your sources first is a good way before starting a new business. Add to that, one also needs to be good at managing inventory.
Lastly, I’d discourage anyone who doesn’t have a true passion for building hardware to come into this business. Passion is the key here, not profit.