Three co-founders behind the promising Newcastle-based startup Elite Robotics are working industriously now so that humans can work less later.
“It makes sense that the world is moving to a more automated space because humans are naturally lazy. We want to find a way to conserve energy because that's just the way that our brains are wired,” CEO Sahil Harriram says.
This is one of a few reasons why Sahil along with his colleagues Luke De Bono and Nathan Bartlett think their plans for robots with human-like instincts really has potential. The three are developing an autonomous lawnmower, and their ultimate goal is to enable similar autonomous technology on a much larger scale.
In 2016 Sahil joined in on what was then just a project. His background in engineering at the University of Newcastle steered him instinctively towards missions like this one. Sahil studied mechatronics (a branch of engineering that focuses on electrical and mechanical systems). This degree helped him see how important robotics would be in the future.
“Luke is an industrial designer, and Nathan is a mechatronics engineer. Nathan is currently doing his PhD in autonomous navigation systems,” Sahil said. “Nathan and I studied at university together, and that's how we met. We did a decent amount of group work together and had a really good working relationship. Our strengths and weaknesses complimented each other really nicely."
A combination of nature and nurture led Sahil to be the leader he is today.
An intuitively curious person, Sahil was born in South Africa to two teachers who were concerned about the decline of education in their homeland. First, they moved Sahil, his grandmother and his sister to New Zealand and they then migrated to Australia. Sahil can’t speak highly enough about his parents' encouragement.
“I think as kids grow up, they get the curiosity beaten out of them. Parents get angry, and they're just like, ‘Stop asking so many questions,’ but my parents were never like that,” Sahil says. “They might be getting a little bit frustrated with me asking lots of questions, instead of them saying, ‘Don't ask me so many questions,’ they'd be like, ‘I don't really know. Why don't you go look it up in the encyclopedia?’"
As a kid he remembers seeing computers transform the world around him and changing how people communicate; the importance of communication and people skills are not lost on him. Throughout his twenties, he’s worked hard to master his people skills as much as his technical skills. He studied abroad for a semester in Germany and in the process mastered the art of public speaking with the help of required lectures.
Sahil’s background is a bit different compared to Luke’s and Nathan’s.
Nathan and Luke have been best friends since they were in kindergarten. Sahil was intrigued by their trailing and experimenting of autonomous vehicles and was keen to join in.
Their autonomous lawnmower project manifested from an earlier idea of vacuum cleaners. The idea grew from Nathan’s yard. He was living on an acreage, and his landlord didn’t let him use a ride-on lawnmower to mow. The three started talking to people and asking questions. They found many people dislike mowing their own lawn.
“Nathan thought ‘what if I used this autonomous vehicle technology that I've learnt about at university and combined it with Luke's industrial design skills to build autonomous lawn mowers for consumers?’ And that was the original product that we started working on,” Sahil says.
The three started out with a prototype where they implemented a basic system for guidance, navigation, and control.
“From that same system, we upgraded it. Lots of modifications happened to that until we built it out. The initial aim of the lawnmower was to actually build a prototype that we could show to customers, but then also to have a better understanding of what was involved in that process,” Sahil says.
But what they eventually learnt was that a small scale product was not financially viable, so they had to change gears. From here the prototype shifted to large scale lawn maintenance. The University of Newcastle and Merewether Golf Course generously allowed them to trial their robot on a portion of their land.
Since its inception in 2016, the Elite Robotics team has manifested and refined their idea. Nathan, Sahil and Luke have won two pitch competitions to help them finance the development of their prototype and secure a coworking space at I2N Hub Hunter Street. Sahil learnt a lot in I2N’s workshops and met inspiring and influential people at their connection events like Startup Stories and Join the Dots.
“Part of the I2N Hub is about providing workshops and events to encourage people from the innovation ecosystem to collaborate with each other. Their events (are about) finding opportunities, so I learnt a lot about the types of government support available to startups,” Sahil says. “I had a chance to meet people who were involved who could also help me.”
Elite Robotics received the New South Wales Government MVP Grant, something they couldn’t have done without a letter of support from the University. Earning a bit of cash and staying at I2N opened more doors, including pitching to investors in China in 2018.
At I2N they’ve had so many opportunities to talk about Elite Robotics, and Sahil has now perfected communicating what Elite Robotics does in a clear, simple, and effective way.
“We provide vehicles with human-like instincts to be able to navigate around the world,” Sahil says.
Capturing every opportunity that comes their way, Luke, Sahil and Nathan are well-oiled machines, so to speak. Elite Robotics is a great startup to watch as the Hunter Valley continues to entice new entrepreneurs to its desirable region.
To learn more about Sahil, Elite Robotics and I2N, listen to the Welcome To Day One podcast, linked below.
Listen to Sahil Harriram's founder journey by downloading the Welcome to Day One podcast episode here.