On a mission to make robotics accessible to all

Programming robotic systems is expensive and requires deep technical skills, with multinational corporations typically the only ones able to afford these solutions.

NUS Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) Year 3 Economics major Daryl Lim would know. He experienced this while helming his first computer distribution startup selling business-to-business automation solutions during his polytechnic days. In 2019, to help smaller firms left behind the technology curve, Daryl co-founded Augmentus – a robotics software startup that offers the first code-free robot programming platform for people with zero robotic experience to develop deployable robotic systems at a fraction of the cost; and on an iPad to boot.

We sat down with the intrepid student who shared about his passion for entrepreneurship and the support he has received from the NUS Entrepreneurship Society (NES), NUS Overseas Colleges (NOC) programme and NUS Enterprise. He also spoke about his hopes for an inclusive and sustainable industrialisation, and plans to nurture young talent in robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

What is the idea behind Augmentus? What does your team seek to do in the robotics industry?

Daryl: Programming robots to perform specific tasks typically requires massive amounts of code, as well as programmers with very specific, in-demand skill sets to accomplish.

Different robot manufacturers require the use of their respective proprietary languages and require high coding expertise. Existing automation processes require system integrators to develop custom solutions due to the fragmented modules, such as machine vision, cloud computation and storage, and programmable logic controller integration.

This results in the high difficulty and heavy fragmentation of conventional robot programming. About 70 per cent of the lifetime costs of each robot are software and programming related.

A chance meeting with my co-founders Chong Voon Foo (NUS Engineering Year 4 student) and Leong Yong Shin at a hackathon in 2019 made me realise I was not alone in my views. We shared similar experiences from commercial projects done previously.

We thus started Augmentus to address the pain points and level the playing field for smaller players and non-technical users. We do this by enabling them to affordably programme industrial robots in minutes instead of months through an intuitive graphical interface on an iPad, thereby eliminating the need for coding and computer-aided design files in robot teaching.

Our software is currently used by companies in the aerospace, automotive and electronics industries for industrial surface treatment, pick and place, and inspection applications.

Singapore company Abrasive Engineering, for instance, is using our software to automate surface treatment processes in a high-mix manufacturing environment – something that would be deemed impossible using conventional programming methods.

I understand that Augmentus is looking at developing more local talent in robotics manufacturing?

Daryl: There is currently a shortage in robotics talent and this is a growing problem faced by developed countries looking toward automation as a path towards sustainable productivity improvement. My team and I want to help nurture local talents in this field.

Currently, Augmentus is a team of 15 staff comprising 70 per cent NUS alumni and students and many of our new hires do not possess deep robotics expertise. However, we have dedicated mentoring sessions to upskill and train them in the necessary robotics skillsets, and this allows them to contribute to our product development.

Our robot programming software has also seen increasing interest among robot training educators, where they see it as a means to lower the skills and knowledge barrier for students to learn robotics, AI, and Industry 4.0 in a more intuitive and hands-on manner. We are currently in advanced discussions with educational institutions across the region to deploy our software in classrooms.

What inspired you to become an entrepreneur?

Daryl: Growing up, I was always curious about tech stuff. Building my first computer at the age of 12 got me hooked. The euphoria from materialising concepts and theories into real-world devices captivated me.

My entrepreneurial inclinations were borne in my teens when I saw how my friends’ smartphone screens often broke within weeks of unboxing. Phone repairs were expensive. I wanted to help my friends so I imported the parts from China. Eventually I set up a phone and PC repair business called Infofix, which I transformed into a computing distribution business. It grew to become the largest blockchain-based encryption solutions provider in Southeast Asia.

This experience deepened my interest in entrepreneurship, and as cliché as it may sound, it nurtured my desire to help people and make an impact in the world. Augmentus melds my twin passions of tech and entrepreneurship perfectly.

How has your NUS education helped you in your startup journey?

Daryl: At NUS, I naturally gravitated towards NES and the NOC programme. I made many lifelong friends there and we bounced off countless startup ideas. It was exhilarating and this formalised my interest in entrepreneurship and gave me the courage to take a leave of absence and start Augmentus. The NOC programme has been incredibly helpful as I grew Augmentus and made significant strides to commercialise and deploy our technology. We have received invaluable support and guidance from the NUS Enterprise team and the NOC modules were relevant and practical to the execution of a deeptech business like Augmentus.

As an FASS student, I had the opportunity to learn modules from different disciplines, namely, Sociology, Global Studies, Southeast Asian Studies, and my major, Economics. Studying such a diverse set of modules was exhausting but it has broadened my perspective on many things. I realised how different key stakeholders with different incentives can behave very differently given a similar scenario.

Studying economics and taking NUS Computing modules in particular, has also taught me key hard skills in computational thinking, logical reasoning and statistical analysis which I use often to make strategic decisions, giving me the necessary traits to grow my business. I truly believe that being hyper rational is an important trait to succeed in business.

Augmentus was recently recognised at the Singapore Digital Techblazer Awards. What are your feelings about the achievement?

Daryl: Yes, the company recently won gold in the Student Techblazer category at the 2021 Singapore Digital Techblazer Awards, which recognise Singapore’s best in tech innovation.

The award validates the incredible work behind our team at Augmentus, and proves that age is not a barrier for purposeful innovation, as long as you stay focused and do things that have great impact to society. We are thankful for the support of our customers, as well as the guidance that we’ve received from everyone at NUS.

We will continue to work hard to achieve our vision, and bring pride to those who have believed in us.