BY IRIS DENG, SCMP
Silicon Valley start-up founder Zhe Zhang is part of a rising wave of innovators and entrepreneurs migrating their tech and operations to China in order to fulfil their global ambitions.
Just two years after Zhang, a Chinese national, set up home robotics outfit Trifo he decided to expand his business to Beijing and manufacturing hub Shenzhen.
Like others, Zhang believed Shenzhen, with its comprehensive supply chain and logistics support, would help translate his tech dream into a tangible reality.
“Shenzhen is underestimated for its capabilities to create new and original things,” said Zhang. “With its comprehensive supply chain, companies are scaling at a pace much faster than in Silicon Valley.”
Trifo started out in 2016 as a software company providing core AI vision algorithms and solutions for robotic and autonomous driving technology solutions – counting Huawei, Amazon Lab 126, and Tencent among its users, says Zhang, who previously worked at Microsoft and Magic Leap. A somewhat limited field of applications for industrial robots – used mainly in logistics and warehouses – led the company to put its focus on consumers instead.
Trifo’s big, new product is an AI-powered robot vacuum cleaner that can be fully integrated into the home and will be launched at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, US, early next year.
Last month the company secured a combined US$11 million in funding from backers including Samsung Ventures, Matrix Partners and Walden International, with a latest round coming from the AI fund at his alma mater Tsinghua University. Trifo has filed over 100 patent applications for its technologies in hardware and software in China, the US and Europe.
Trifo’s version of the robot vacuum cleaner promises deeper sensing and perception of the environment, “decisioning”, and more intuitive interactions with its users, Zhang said. The robot is also built to get “smarter” over time and be able to “talk” more with other future Trifo smart devices in the area. For example, if the robot senses that its users are away, it can adjust the temperature and humidity levels in the room before they return, he explained.
Zhang made an analogy with mobile phones, saying just as they act as the primary connection between people, then home robots should be the connector between machines, homes, and their occupants, whether they are at home or not.
Global sales of robots for domestic tasks such as vacuum cleaning, window cleaning and others – are estimated to reach almost 6.7 million units with a total value of US$2 billion in 2017. This is projected to surpass 32 million units by 2020, worth an estimated US$11.3 billion, according to data from the International Federation of Robotics last year.
Even with Trifo’s main operations in China, Zhang said the company’s main target markets are still the US and Europe “where the home robot market is more mature”.
“The segment has great potential as one third of American families have plans to buy smart home devices, and tech giants are only starting recently to tap into the market,” he said, citing Amazon’s smart doorbell Ring and Xiaomi’s smart cameras as examples.