Gearing up for big business in autonomous solutions

Four years ago, Mr Joseph Lew left a well-paying job at a prestigious research institute and sold his three-bedroom apartment to raise funds to go into business in a relatively new field: unmanned vehicles.

Together with money borrowed from his mother and friends, Mr Lew, 44, pooled over half a million dollars to found Red Dot Robotics.

Despite being an unknown start-up then, the company has managed to secure contracts to run autonomous vehicle trials with two major clients: Changi Airport Group and PSA.

Mr Lew has since repaid all his loans - with "good interest", he adds - and is looking to raise more funds to improve his products and to expand. By 2025, he wants to commercialise his autonomous solutions and supply them to the world's top 10 airports.

He has come a long way since his tough start. Recalling the time after he left the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, where he worked in areas such as autonomous and intelligent transport systems, the electrical-electronic engineer said it was a trying period with many sleepless nights.

"I had comments like 'you know, you should focus on providing for your family first', which were quite discouraging.

"We lived with my parents while searching for an HDB flat to save money. The four of us would sleep on one king-size bed. It was totally uncomfortable." His wife, who works for an insurance group, was supportive. They have two school-going children aged nine and 12.

 
 
 

Still, he decided that he would try things out for a year, working out of a co-shared space with just a table and a chair.

As it turned out, he landed a contract to carry out trials at Changi Airport "on the very last day of that first year". The trials include operating driverless baggage container trailers in a "live'' traffic environment. The firm is now working on autonomous tarmac cleaning and aircraft parking.

Soon after, the company got a grant from Enterprise Singapore. "It was just under $250,000, not a lot for what we do, but I'm still thankful," Mr Lew says.

On the third year, the company secured a trial to perform "localisation benchmarking" - an exercise to see how well an autonomous vehicle can locate a spot without using ground guidance systems.

When Red Dot Robotics landed the two contracts, Mr Lew says he felt "excited and elated" but, at the same time, humbled. "There are so many other companies around, so there must be something special about us."

Today, the firm has a team of 10, made up of young engineers previously with unmanned vehicle ventures within establishments such as ST Kinetics, ST Aerospace and Nanyang Technological University. "They are passionate, dedicated and capable," Mr Lew says.

The technopreneur says Red Dot Robotics does not compete with giants such as Google or Baidu, which focus on the automotive sector.

Instead, its niche is in "dirty, dumb, mundane and dangerous" jobs. "We'll look for jobs in outdoor cleaning, last-mile delivery, logistics and material handling."

Mr Lew adds that he was once offered US$5 million (S$6.8 million) by a US-Korean private equity firm for a stake in his company. But he turned it down because he says the conditions were not favourable.

Speaking at his premises in a disused warehousing facility in Changi, he says he will focus on growing Red Dot Robotics' niche, and on serving its first clients well.

"I'm very grateful for all the help I got when I started," he adds, including from friends with an automotive-related firm who provided him with a few electric vehicles, including an autonomous vehicle, to help him jump-start his business.