Tell us about you, your career, how you founded inVia Robotics.
Lior Elazary: I am a serial entrepreneur. I actually began my first business as a teenager when I started rebuilding and selling computers. So, it was always in my blood. I then founded three successive companies with a group of partners, all of which we scaled and sold (Hostpro, KnowledgeBase and EdgeCast). Five years ago, I started my current business, inVia Robotics. We provide businesses around the world with intelligent software and robots to help them fulfil e-commerce orders more efficiently. This is particularly important now when everyone wants to order a variety of products and receive them immediately.
I met my inVia cofounders while we were all working on our PhDs in Robotics at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles (USC). We are all passionate about making it possible to automate rote, mindless tasks so that people can do more inspiring work. We first looked at creating robots for the healthcare industry before we realized that there is a more massive need for robots in the e-commerce space that is becoming even more acute as online shopping keeps growing. And the job of a warehouse worker is a grueling one. They often have to walk 12 hours a day through warehouses on hard concrete floors and in temperatures that fluctuate from very cold to very hot. We knew these jobs were perfectly suited for robots, and we wanted to help workers take on tasks where they get to use their brains more than their feet.
How does inVia Robotics innovate?
Lior Elazary: We innovate through agility and iteration. Data analysis and simulations are key to our development, and we constantly evaluate if one path is better than another using data analytics. This is particularly important working in the e-commerce industry. It’s growing exponentially, and it’s very dynamic. Every day a new assortment of products is ordered, and businesses have to be able to fill and ship those orders often in 1-2 days. So, they need us to build products that are highly adaptable, and that can change over time, along with their business requirements.
How has COVID-19 affected your business?
Lior Elazary: Warehouse automation was already experiencing strong growth pre-COVID because e-commerce businesses were facing two big pressures in the U.S. – labor constraints and increased demand for online shopping. Post-COVID these constraints are still prominent. In fact, they have become even more severe.
While U.S. unemployment has climbed and the available labor pool has grown, the safety issues around working in the warehouse have proven to be a counterbalance. Given guidelines to keep people six feet apart, the number of people who can be in a warehouse at once has been cut. Additionally, many people are unwilling to take warehouse jobs for fear of contracting the virus.
What was already a steady increase in demand for online shopping has skyrocketed, too, with brick-and-mortar stores closed for safety or bankruptcy reasons plus people staying at home to limit exposure to the virus. In the second quarter, e-commerce grew 45% over the last year.
Warehouses were already being forced to find greater operational efficiencies through automation. Now they are feeling even greater pressure to automate and to do it more quickly than originally planned.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced with COVID-19?
Lior Elazary: Our biggest challenge was not being able to travel and help with deployments. One of our customers in Japan had just signed up for a 200 robot deployment, and the first 100 robots were on their way in March when Japan closed its borders to non-nationals. That meant that we were unable to go there and deploy the system. Our amazing team has worked diligently to develop better tools to have the system virtually deploy itself. This means that robots can explore the warehouse space autonomously and share the navigation map with the other robots. We also improved our software to handle various inconsistencies across deployments. The tools were a huge success, and we were able to deploy the system overseas without stepping foot in the warehouse (this has never been done before on that scale of automation). Furthermore, this helps us now lower the cost of deployment for future customers.
Did you have to make difficult choices and what are the lessons learned?
Lior Elazary: I think we all have had to make difficult choices in the face of the pandemic. For our business, a lot of our decisions were driven by our customers’ decisions. The way we sell our systems is Robotics-as-a-Service (RaaS), where our customers only buy the services of our robots rather than the equipment. That means we’re operating and maintaining the equipment for them. So, the biggest change we had to make was shifting our operations and support teams to be fully remote because they couldn’t be at the customer site. It wasn’t really a decision, because we had to do this to keep our customers’ operations running. The difficulty was developing a lot of tools quickly. Thankfully, it worked really well.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and inVia Robotics in the future?
Lior Elazary: I’ve always had a mindset of accepting and even embracing change. Change is constant, and stress and anxiety are only generated when you resist it. Of course, we make plans for our business, but I always know something will happen that will force us to make adjustments or do things a different way. When you expect the unexpected, it makes it easier to navigate it when it happens. We’ve built a company culture that operates the same way. One of our core values is adaptability, and that’s how our business will thrive in the future. I also sail on the weekends, which helps me disconnect a bit from everything and see things from a different perspective.
Your final thoughts?
Lior Elazary: I believe one of the most valuable traits you can have – and even cultivate – as an entrepreneur is an enthusiasm. When you’re building a business and building a team, you will certainly face difficult challenges. If your mindset is excited about getting to solve a problem you’ve never had the opportunity to solve before, you’ll find that the solutions come easier and you’ll have a whole lot more fun.