While automated drink dispensers are nothing new, Botrista Technology Inc. said its system brings robotics design and business models to beverage service. The Redwood City, Calif.-based company also offers lessons for developers looking for new applications.
“I joined the company just over a year ago as head of product as it pivoted from selling cookers to drink hardware,” said Paul Chen, chief operating officer at Botrista. “Before that, I was helping to develop commercial drone applications.”
“We saw opportunities to build a similar model, with hardware from Asia and software designed and developed in Silicon Valley,” he told The Robot Report.
“When I met Sean [Hsu, CEO] and the team, they had made a lot of progress with the Boba Cooker and had insights on how to run a business, where to source, how to make drinks, and what operations should look like,” Chen said. “We started to design a machine to automate the actual drink mixing of bubble tea.”
“We do think of ourselves as a robotics company,” he said. “Botrista is not what everyone thinks a robot should look like, but we follow an incremental model like Tesla, where the company’s founders came from — build models and add more automation.”
“Unlike vending machines, Botrista has more classical robotics components, like arms and shuttles,” explained Chen. “Some investors have described us as a ‘smart fountain machine,’ but we’ve built more self-serve capabilities. The whole concept is more of a kiosk-type machine, which required a lot of capital and time to deploy.”
“When I joined, we decided to make it cheaper, smaller, and faster,” said Chen.
The company’s offerings include the DrinkBot 4.2 robotic barista and the Cloud Bar, an online platform to manage inventory and virtual sales. Botrista said its systems are designed for ease of use, to reduce staffing demands, and to create customizable and consistent quality beverages.
RaaS for beverages
“On top of that, we wanted to build a SaaS [software-as-a-service] model but with hardware [or robotics as a service, or RaaS],” said Chen. “Instead of a one-time sale, you have descriptions of recurring revenue, which investors like. They want to see revenue from providing a service that can benefit from automation.”
“Botrista is building on the model of a ‘drink as a service,’ charging a fixed monthly rent on a per-cup basis,” he added. “We’re targeting customers who could really generate more drink sales.”
Does Botrista integrate with store or restaurant systems? “We’re moving towards that,” Chen replied. “We have our own, separate logistics chain, different from typical food-distribution systems. They deliver through parcel for automatic restock and shipment. We are looking to integrate with in-store, point-of-sale systems, and we have shown a test concept.”
The company now has pilots with midsize food and beverage chains at 20 locations in Taiwan and 10 in the U.S., including a few sites in San Francisco.
“We have newer customers such as Ike’s Love & Sandwiches, which has 65 locations in California and Arizona,” said Chen. “Based on a ‘land and expand’ strategy, we could rapidly expand to hundreds of stores.”
Coronavirus and cola
The COVID-19 pandemic did affect Botrista’s business, acknowledged Chen. “It forced us to focus on high-value customers, since many restaurant chains were shut down,” he said. “On the other hand, at San Francisco International Airport, even with 25% of flights, we had good sales volume.”
“Fortunately, we’re still low-volume, and we could backstop the 20% of our components that come from China,” he added. “As we move to more of a cost-down model, we’ll need to increase our supply chain … closer to 50% would be needed. With Taiwan, there has been no problem getting components so far.”
Botrista raised $4 million in seed funding in May. “We were fairly fortunate to be able to extend our seed round during COVID, when most venture capital firms were trying to save their own portfolio companies,” Chen said. “We now have a little more runway and are in fact starting talks for our next round.”