A Core Engineering Startup is still a rarity among a deluge of Startups focused on E-Commerce, Machine Learning, Mobile Apps. So you could call a Startup based on Autonomous Technologies founded in 2014 well ahead of its time !
Srinivas Reddy Aellala, our next pathbreaker, heads Products for the Autonomous Driving Division of RideCell, spearheading the product roadmap with the vision to make the world move better and safer.
Srinivas talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about co-founding “Auro” Autonomous Robotics Technology based Driverless in-campus Shuttles, with Seed Funding out of IIT Kharagpur’s Entrepreneurship Incubation lab and subsequently being acquired by RideCell.
For students, startups are an opportunity for you to unleash your vision in the form an innovation that could play an important role in shaping the future of our society ! Incubate a Startup if you have a disruptive idea .
Srinivas, tell us about your background.
I thank Interview Portal for asking me to do a recap of my career so far, for the benefit of the young and curious students in their teens. It turned out to be a nostalgic drive, down the memory lane.
Most of the students start to think seriously about what they aspire to become in life from around the age of thirteen. It wasn’t so different for me. I grew up in Hyderabad, one of those epicenters of India that churns out numerous Engineers every year to the world. The city’s middle class has passionately brewed many students of science and engineering in the last thirty years and I am proudly one of them.
When I was 5 years old, I wanted to be a traffic cop, because back then I felt he had a lot of power in the society. I remember watching him as a kid in admiration, where with one gesture of his, the buzzing vehicles would come to a halting stop. Life comes in a full circle. I’m currently dabbling within a field of moving vehicles on the road, but in a way I couldn’t imagine when I was five.
What did you study?
It’s important to have teachers that inspire you in your foundational years. I was lucky to have had them. Mrs. Satyalakshmi who taught me science in my eight grade was a great influence on me. By the time I was thirteen, I was sure I wanted to dwell into the world of science and technology. I learnt that IIT, the premier Engineering Institute in India was the place to be for the students of science and started working towards it. Although now I realize, you don’t have to enter a certain school or University to pursue what you want to do. It’s the people and books you surround yourself with that matter. Good schools, only help you create that environment in an easy way. I did my Dual degree (Integrated Mtech + Btech) in Electrical Engineering from Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.
Tell us, how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?
So, my current profession is a sum of two fields — Robotics
I was drawn into Robotics in the first year of my under-graduation at IIT and since then I couldn’t get out of it. It’s the awe and admiration of the moment when your robot runs, the way you programmed it to , that you get sucked into the magic of creating more and more. We built robots for the fun of it — it was more like a sport. Every few months we participated in one competition or the other, where we had to build robots. A robotic dog with servo motors, sign language Interpreter with a sensor enabled hand glove , a wearable power augmenting exo-skeleton with pneumatic actuators, autonomous ground robots for underground mines — level and complexity of the projects increased year on year. The spirit and emotional connection to the teams we represented had an immense effect on the continuation of this work throughout my undergrad.
Entrepreneurship, on the other hand, is a bug which when enters your mind, you can’t get it out of your system. Entrepreneurship in simple words is the “art of creating something from nothing”.
For me, it started with the first company we started to build in my 4th year in 2012 – with a grand vision of changing the way India transacts payments. We aimed to build a mobile payments system leveraging the then, newly launched Aadhaar identification system in India. That startup didn’t take off, but it introduced me to the world of entrepreneurship — on how you imagine a vision , and start to build things to achieve that vision by seeking out everyone around you to make that vision a reality — investors, team members, friends and family.
Can you talk a little bit about how it all started, your career path?
The failure of our first startup taught us — me and my cofounder, Nalin Gupta a very important lesson. The lesson that startups are hard and you’ll have a lot of low moments along that journey. Hence you have to choose a field that you love where you keep working even in the lowest of the moments. With that realization we started our next venture, in the very field where our first love was.
We started Auro in January, 2014. This was a time when most of the startup ideas in India revolved around e-commerce and mobile apps. Having built robots throughout my undergraduate days, I had this drive to build a startup from India that can make robots a part of people’s daily life. My passion resonated with my batchmates Nalin Gupta and Jit Ray Chowdhury. We incubated our company at IIT Kharagpur’s entrepreneurship centre — STEP (Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Park) and secured a research grant of Eighteen lakh rupees from DSIR (Department of Science and Industrial Research) to build our technology. I named the company as Auro — short for Autonomous Robots — Robots that sense, think and act within their environment without any human aid.
What were some of the challenges you had to face and how did you address them?
At Auro, we started developing autonomous vehicle technology systems (e.g. autonomous parking systems that can park the vehicle without driver input) and approached R&D divisions of automotive companies. An autonomous vehicle company in India in 2014 was too far ahead of its time and we faced the music soon enough. We saw interest and encouragement from many automobile and technology companies in India, but couldn’t convert that to revenue. There were also the problems due to red tape in the government agencies we were dealing with. It took us 6 months to secure one sensor from the USA, as it had to go through multiple departments for authorization, followed by the enormous time taken for the clearance of customs.
In the process, we narrowed down our focus to developing an Autonomous Shuttle for campus-like environments which we could build with a lean team and still prove the use case of a self-driving vehicle within our campus — without having to rely on the automotive companies.
How did you get your first break?
By March of 2015, we were coming to the end of all our essential resources — money, time and morale. But, we got our biggest break this month, when we applied and got selected into Y-combinator, one of the most prestigious startup accelerators in the world. It has an acceptance rate of less than 0.5% (lower than even Stanford University) and we were the 5th Indian company to get in. The Y-combinator interview was an epic adventure in my life, as I had to fly to the US within a week’s notice and made it back to India just 2 hours ahead of my sister’s wedding!!
What have you been doing since that turning point?
Enter the hi-tech, fast paced silicon valley startup culture — things move with rocket speed here, completely contrasting our prior experience. Investors fund entrepreneurs within a 30 minute coffee meeting with the confirmation of a handshake, followed by wiring money to your account. This might sound crazy, but this must have been an evolved way of the valley to test out early stage startup ideas — seed them quickly and see if they grow or die.
We converted the garage of our home in Sunnyvale, California to a laboratory where we built the first prototype of our autonomous shuttle. Y-combinator accelerator has a 3 month incubation period, followed by an Investor demo day in the end. We signed up a few local universities as our pilot customers and started giving demonstrations of our autonomous shuttle to investors and customers. We raised a seed round of $2.1M from leading angel investors and a VC firm called Motus Ventures. All through 2016, we focused on product development and deployed our shuttle at our first customer site in November, 2016. Doing so, we became one of the very few US companies to have launched a commercial autonomous shuttle service to end users, back then.
In 2017, we got acquired by Ridecell , and became the Autonomous Driving Division of that company. Currently, I head the product for this division.
What is your role like at Ridecell?
In the engineering world, there are broadly two categories of work one does — you either build things or sell things. A product person ideally needs to have a working knowledge of both, even though he/she might not lead either of these activities.
A good analogy for a product person within a company is someone between the roles of a Producer and Director of a movie, depending on the team and company. In some cases, a product manager is like a director, where he/she leads the team from the stages of script writing i.e. product/business plan to the casting i.e. hiring engineers , all the way upto the release i.e. product launch. In another case, like a producer of the movie, crafts the pitch for the movie genre he/she wants to invest in i.e. write the product plan, pitch and get the money and help the team in all other stages without taking a lead role in them.
Autonomous vehicle is a complex robotics system that needs engineering work on both software and hardware. For every new version of the system, we design the sensor configuration — that includes lidars, cameras and radars , we maintain a modular software architecture that does perception (i.e. detection of objects and surrounding environment) , motion planning and controls, do rigorous testing in simulation world first , followed by pubic roads. The hands-on experience I gained in all these engineering activities over the years, is helping me today in all the product decisions.
Heading the product for the autonomous driving division of Ridecell, I sketch the engineering and business roadmaps for my division, taking inputs from the team, customers and external market. My daily work varies between writing product plans, pitching to investors / customers, hiring engineers to grow the team, drawing requirements for the engineering teams, reviewing progress and delivery to the customers.
How does your work benefit society?
The vision of Ridecell, the company where I work now is to make the world move better and safer. Traffic accidents are a major problem in the society today. Road traffic injuries are estimated to be the eighth leading cause of death globally for all age groups , causing more than 1.3 million deaths every year. Statistically speaking, it’s a bigger problem to the world than Terrorism or HIV/AIDS. Autonomous Driving Systems have the potential to reduce 90% of these accidents. Our motivation at Ridecell-Auro is to contribute to this reduction as much as we can.
Your advice to students?
Before concluding , If I have to give one advice to the growing person in you, it’s this — always keep learning. Get into the habit of continuous learning, keep the curiosity you have now in this young age, until you are old. That will keep you sane, interested in life and wanting more.
Some of the books that shaped my journey until now, that I recommend for everyone ,especially for the dreamers who want to carve out a new path — Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish . Build to Last. Good to Great. Zero to One. Hard Things about Hard Things. Trillion Dollar Coach.