George Yan, founder and CEO of Clobotics, is a seasoned executive with over 15 years of experience at Microsoft. Before starting Clobotics, an AI solution company focusing on retail and green energy, he served as the CEO of EHang, an autonomous aerial vehicle company. He successfully led EHang to enter markets in North America, Europe, Asia-Pacific, and China. He also built a successful industrial drone team from scratch and achieved rapid growth in its user base.
Clobotics is a computer vision company that provides data collection solutions for retail and wind power customers. The company holds multiple patents in retail and wind power. Retail customers use Clobotics for shelf management, availability, and pricing. The company’s platform also helps wind power customers acquire, process, and analyze time-sensitive data on wind turbines and automate dangerous processes such as inspecting, repairing, and optimizing.
The company was founded in 2016, headquartered in Shanghai, and with a research and development center in Seattle, and an Asia-Pacific sales center in Singapore. The name Clobotics is a word combination of the cloud, robot, and analytics, reflecting the company’s focus on the intersection of cloud computing, robotics, and data analytics.
Below is an interview with Clobotics’ CEO George Yan, text has been edited for brevity and clarity:
1. What kind of product and service does Clobotics offer? What technologies does your company focus on?
Clobotics is an ESG and AI company. We believe that all the technology we build needs to be specific to certain industries and have a bigger ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) impact on their customers.
Clobotics is a made-up word with three parts: cloud, robots, and analytics. The cloud is where all services and data are stored, and Clobotics is cautious about where the cloud sits, ensuring that customers’ data stays in their respective regions. Robots is the way Clobotics captures images and data. The better the robots are, the easier it is for processing and computer vision. Analytics is where Clobotics analyzes the data, which is what customers are looking for.
2. Clobotics works in both retail and wind power. These are two very different sectors and we usually don’t see startups working in a combination of these two. Why did Clobotics choose to focus on these two areas?
Our computer vision stack is a fundamental framework that can be applied to both retail and other industries such as wind and solar. The key is capturing and processing the data using a uniform model to achieve effective results. However, scaling the business requires finding experts in the industries who understand the data and can groom it effectively for customer response.
We believe that the fundamental technology and framework are quite similar in multiple different industries, and we picked two different industries to prove this point. The more insights we have into these industries, the better we can use the technology to apply to multiple industries.
3. Can you share with us a specific example in the retail industry where your company’s technology made an impact?
Our product on the retail side is in-store observation. For example, imagine a beverage company with over 200 different SKUs wanting to push its products out to all its stores. Once they do that, they want their people to go back and track if the products are on the shelf, stocked in the fridge, and at the right point of interest for the customers. All these things are done manually. We think a lot of things can be done digitally and via technology, including computer vision.
Essentially, if we can digitalize a store, we can open up that digital footprint to beverage companies or other snack companies for them to take a better view of what the store looks like. They get a massive amount of data that they can use for better analytics. This is a very important path for a maturing developed country like the United States but even more for emerging countries in Southeast Asia.
Previously, going to stores to take pictures and write down surveys would take about 30 minutes to an hour. Now, with our product, you can take a picture of the shelf, and all the pictures will get stitched together, making it easier to track where the product is. All that can be done in five minutes. Building efficiency for our customers on a daily basis is exciting for us. And the data we provide to these companies helps them understand how their products are varying in these countries. There isn’t a place with a second copy of that data anywhere, so having that information is super valuable for them to understand more of their business.
4. Can you tell us about a particularly challenging problem the company solved for customers in the wind power industry?
In the wind industry, we have developed an autonomous inspection service for wind turbines. Before our product came to market, engineers had to climb up the turbine with ropes and use binoculars and a mobile phone to look for defects, which was a strenuous and dangerous process. Accidents happen around the world every year.
After seeing this in some wind farms in China, we thought there had to be a better way to do this. So we decided to use a drone and built autonomous software to make the inspection process take less than 15 minutes. With just the push of a button, the drone can detect where the turbine is, where its blades are, and conduct the entire inspection without anyone on the ground. So we set on that journey four years ago. The inspection is only the tipping tip of the iceberg. We also built a repair robot after customers told us that “this is an area that if you want to grow your business, we really need some help there.”
So going from inspection to repair to that data-driven, decision-making is really what the customers in that industry told us.
5. Can you give us an example that illustrates the process of how the company’s technology is developed, from ideation to implementation?
The developing process is really a jigsaw puzzle. Every time that we go and sit down with a customer or visit a customer, the part of the jigsaw puzzle gets filled.
When we started on the inspection journey in the wind industry, a lot of people said this couldn’t be done. Because, how do you get a drone to fly autonomously? It has to be manual. And the wind blades are so much bigger now. And the wind tower is so much higher now. How can you really have a pair of eyes on the drone that can do this precision inspection? But we thought that this is something exactly that technology needs to do.
So we started looking at questions like: Are there enough drones available in the market that can do the work that we need. Are there enough cameras out in the market to do this? Are there enough gimbals out in the market to do this? So really, it’s a jigsaw puzzle that requires a lot of knowledge from different parties and different parts of the business.
When we list all technology pieces together, there won’t be a place where everything lines up, all technology is 100% ready. Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith. Many technologies are only 60%-70% ready, but if you look at the technology trend and trajectory, it’s going to get there sooner or later. So you have to take a leap of faith and get on this journey a little bit earlier.
6. How does Clobotics plan to expand its reach outside of China, and what new markets is it exploring currently?
Clobotics does business on six continents and in more than 40 countries worldwide, serving large companies that want to expand to different regions. More than half of Clobotics’ revenue comes from global customers.
Clobotics sees Southeast Asia as a blooming area due to its younger population and thirst for newer technology. The company has engineering teams in Shanghai, Seattle, and customers in the Asia Pacific, China, Japan, the US, and Brazil. Clobotics serves its customers across the world, and it is a unique strength that helps the company increase its revenue internationally.
The company plans to have an 80/20 split between its revenues in China and globally. 80% global and 20% China.
7. Tell us more about Clobotics’ experience of working with Microsoft for Startups?
My career began at Microsoft many years ago. I usually joke with people that I believe in blue. I had a unique opportunity to be an engineer at Microsoft, coming to China to build its engineering center, and build a large part of the Microsoft China business. In the later part of my days, Microsoft gave me the opportunity to build the Microsoft cloud platform here in China.
My journey with Microsoft for Startups has been a personal one. When I was at Microsoft, we started the idea of having startups participate in the cloud journey. Microsoft for Startups came about once I started running a startup on my own. Obviously, I wanted to take advantage of what Microsoft for Startups can offer, not only in China but also having China as the center that connects the world. It is especially fitting for a company like ours, where a large majority of our business actually comes internationally.
Having China as a hub allows us to build and polish our products using that sandbox to grow our customer base. Once we reach maturity, it is easy to use the Microsoft network to go broad and go global and touch into their account teams and the services they offer. Once we make that connection, our business grows exponentially increases internationally.
Because of our connection to Microsoft for Startups, we have the opportunity to leverage their resources and expertise. We feel like standing on the shoulders of a giant, which will help us take the next step forward in our growth.
Clobotics is a Microsoft for Startups portfolio company.
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