“Hello customer!!! Welcome to India’s favourite travel portal A! How may I help you today?”
“Hi, I’d like to know the transportation options from my hotel in Goa to the beach.”
“Sorry, I am unable to understand your question. Please rephrase your query.”
Conversations like this one are as frustrating as they are familiar. We have all, at some point in our lives, interacted with a chatbot on a service provider’s app or website, be it to order food, shop for clothes or to bank online. Haven’t we all, after spending 10 minutes explaining our issue to a bot, yearned to talk to a human who could potentially resolve our issues in seconds?
Well, that’s what one Bengaluru-based startup is looking to help you with.
CoRover is a chatbot-as-a-service startup, which provides end-to-end conversational AI-driven chatbot solutions. This means that the startup does not just develop bots -- it also develops the technology and AI stack in the backend to customise the bots for every client’s platform and use case.
Its biggest innovation so far, according to founder and CEO Ankush Sabharwal, is its video chatbot offering, which provides a “human-centric” or human-like one-on-one conversation. The chatbot, named Yukimi, has been deployed in a Japanese restaurant as well as a food discovery platform, Innovation Hills.
It also offers the regular click-based, text and voice-based bots in over 12 Indian languages and more than 100 foreign languages.
The startup’s key differentiator, Sabharwal said, is its technology. This trained technology, in turn, helps the startup improve turnaround time based on the data sets gathered.
“Nearly 80% of the users' questions come from the top 20% of queries and categories,” he said. “The technology we use is a cognitive AI framework. It’s not just a blackbox AI, wherein you ask a question and get an answer. We have broken the platform into multiple AI components, which helps us and the clients create and train the bots faster, with less training data. Our live analytics identify answers and the correlated components for it on our platform in real time,” he said.
“We didn’t start with having a USP with the features, but did on the AI and tech component of the platform, when we started having multiple layers,” he said.
CoRover currently caters to over 300 million users and 100 businesses across various industries. It’s clientele includes organisations such as IRCTC, NPCI, Indraprastha Gas and ITC.
The AI-based chatbot market is reportedly positioned to grow at a CAGR of over 29% from $2.6 billion in 2019 to an estimated $9.4 billion by 2024.
The origin story
When Sabharwal started CoRover in 2016, the industry and technology landscape for AI chatbots was still nascent. Companies such as Amazon, Google, IBM and Microsoft had already developed their own chatbots and platforms, but weren’t offering it as a service to customers.
The opportunity was picked by the IT services companies such as TCS, Wipro and Capgemini, who built chatbots on top of the platforms from the aforementioned technology companies, and offered them to third party clients.
This opened up the sector for startups too, who called themselves AI companies. However, these bots weren’t smart.
“They would often hang and wouldn’t understand what the consumer is trying to say. There was an expectation mismatch,” Sabharwal said. “So we wanted to create an end-to-end chatbot solution platform, wherein we generate, gather and partially own the data to give accurate knowledge-based information to the user.”
A year later, Sabharwal was joined by his childhood friends Manav Gandotra and Kunal Bhakhri as co-founders.
Once the product was in place, CoRover sought to onboard clients who would likely have a lot of data, which would help it train the bots. Sabharwal approached online companies including MakeMyTrip, Naukri, RedBus, Ixigo and IRCTC, offering free proof of concept (PoC) demonstrations. Among his cold mails, Sabharwal also reached out to the prime minister and Suresh Prabhu, who was then the railways minister.
“To my surprise, Suresh Prabhu replied the very next day and connected us to the concerned person. That gave me confidence that it is actually easy to reach people. Although from that day, it took us one-and-a-half to two years to finally materialise the order. It’s not easy to work with the government -- there were a lot of processes and tenders,” Sabharwal said. CoRover started working with the IRCTC in October 2018.
CoRover customised IRCTC’s chatbot AskDISHA, improving customer engagement satisfaction by 70%. Within two years of its launch, it had over 10 billion interactions, benefitting more than 178 million passengers. In a statement in January, the company said that the bot processes around 1,50,000 passenger queries daily, and passengers receive immediate responses with 90% accuracy and user feedback on the chatbot service has been 85% positive.
Better bots, business boost
CoRover now wants to focus and expand on its government clientele. Before IRCTC, the startup had conducted free PoCs with various government organisations, including tourism departments in Karnataka, Northeast India and Jammu & Kashmir.. But these stints never culminated into paid businesses.
“Sometimes, we would work and build a bot for them specifically and not get paid because sending tenders and other issues were involved. Further, the processes are so slow that it can take upto two years for a tender to get selected,” Sabharwal said.
“We narrated this issue to IRCTC, as government-to-government project transfer is much easier -- you don’t need a tender there. It depends on the organisation, but it can happen through MoUs. We got into a revenue sharing model with IRCTC. They have experience and trust our product. IRCTC will be in the front and they anyway sell our services by advertising through SMS.”
But that’s not where the story ends though.
CoRover’s industrial bots have been adopted by the BFSI, healthcare, FMCG, and oil and gas industries as well. The startup recently launched the AskDoc app for virtual medical checkups from doctors.
CoRover’s bot is also deployed at ITC’s subsidiary Asian Tobacco Company’s cigarette manufacturing unit in Hosur. The factories, which are entirely automated, often had issues with the machineries. The console they used earlier showed points of errors in the machinery system through a digital representation, but couldn’t tell the company how to fix those problems.
The factory generates 12,000 cigarettes per minute and any error or delay in the process would mean huge losses for the company.
Enter CoRover bot.
The bot, now integrated with the machine, not just points out errors, it also instructs factory workers on how to fix it and run quality checks. As a voice bot, it can be handled by anyone, including unskilled workers.
In another instance, workers at Indraprastha Gas Plant can use the CoRover chatbot to raise alarms across the country, get queries answered, raise complaints of over duplicate bills and check their balances. “We are solving a lot of queries on a daily basis -- at least 15,000 queries a day in NCR alone,” Sabharwal said.
The clients are charged based on use cases, number of channels, as well as integrations and languages used. For IRCTC, the revenue is generated through ad costs, while Indraprastha Gas is charged a license and usage fee.
The startup broke even and turned profitable in FY20, according to VCCEdge data. It reported profits of Rs 12.39 lakh for the financial year ended March 31, 2020, against a loss of Rs 56.96 lakh in the previous year. Its total revenue in FY20 stood at Rs 2.27 crore, up from Rs 67.96 lakh in FY19.
Around 50% of its revenue comes from the travel sector, 30% from BFSI and the rest from the healthcare, gaming and retail sectors. CoRover is used by 70-72 banks across the country.
In the next six months, Sabharwal said the startup will work with big clients in the retail sector, providing them in-store ordering voice bots. He did not disclose the names of the customers.
CoRover will also offer its services to automobile companies, including the Mahindra Group, where one could ask for features, prices and get the whole experience through a voice assistant.
Till date, the startup has raised only one round of funding -- an undisclosed seed round from angel investor RP Singh, Start Karnataka’s Elevate programme and the US firm Digital Harbour. CoRover is now looking to raise a Series A funding round.