The ad for a popular automobile maker opens with voice-over observing, “It’s a funny thing about the future: you don’t wake up surrounded by jet-packs and robot dogs—the real future sneaks up on you…”
In his 1921 play, Rossum’s Universal Robots, Czech writer Karel Capek replaced the then popular word ‘automaton’ with the derivative of the Czech word, ‘robota’, which meant ‘servitude’. Going back as far as 1945 to Leonardo Da Vinci’s design of a humanoid robot, through the mechanical men in The Wizard of Oz, to popular depictions in sci-fi literature and movies as recently as the eponymous sentient machine of the movie, The Matrix, the idea of futuristic non-organic beings serving, replacing, or conquering humans has always been the popular notion of robots. But like the car advertisement suggested (warned?), the robots are already here.
In the context of business: ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) software connected all sources of information and made data available for timely and strategic decision making. Thus, it replaced the ‘gathering’ role of humans. RPA (Robotic Process Automation) mimics a human data worker in capturing information and interpreting existing applications to process transactions, manipulate data, automates workflows, trigger responses and communicates with other digital systems. Thus, it replaces the ‘doing’ role of humans. AI (Artificial Intelligence) will learn and make decisions without human intervention. Thus, it will replace the ‘thinking’ role of humans.
A recent McKinsey report stated that 33% of time spent in the US across all occupations involved data collection and processing activities, of which over 60% work could be automated. Forrester Research estimates the RPA market to be worth about $2.9 Billion by 2021. It ranks Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism, and UiPath as the current leaders in this space. A quick Google trends search shows that latter is almost two and a half times more popular than the next most searched RPA tool.
UiPath was founded in 2005 by Romanian entrepreneurs Daniel Dines and Marius Turca. Back then it was an outsourcing company working on UI automation and screen scraping libraries for developers from around the world. Around 2012, seeing an opportunity in the processing space, it started building a platform for orchestrating software-robots. The big break came when one of India’s largest BPOs approached it to build a complete back-office automation solution, including the command control with robot management and monitoring. Since then, the firm has moved from strength to strength, to recently turn into a unicorn (market valuation of $1 Billion or more).
The first product in UiPath’s RPA suite is the UiPath Studio. This is a Windows-based graphical development tool that defines processes for the software to mimic either through a drag-and-drop design approach, or by capturing and recording actions performed on the Windows, Citrix-delivered, or web-based applications. Decision points and branches in the process can be defined too. The second product is the UiPath Robot. This is an automated assistant running efficiently on the side, under supervision or autonomously, processing high-volume work that does not require constant human intervention. The UiPath Orchestrator is the final product, that the company describes as the heart of the product suite. It is a server platform that takes operational management responsibility for robots, as well as for the deployment of processes, configuration of work queues, and other runtime environment aspects.
UiPath is now headquartered in New York city, with about 250 employees in 12 countries. It has offices in London, Bengaluru, Singapore, and Tokyo. It has over 700 paying enterprise customers, including E&Y, BMW Group, CenturyLink, Dentsu Inc., and Huawei. That list increased by seven times in just the last year. It is pushing an “Intelligent RPA” agenda aiming to partner with analytics, document capture and voice/ text interaction technology providers, to allow customers to increasingly augment tasks carried out by contact centre and customer administration staff. To achieve this, it is building an ecosystem through partnership with companies like Tableau and Power BI for Analytics Dashboards; IBM Watson and Microsoft Cognitive Services for Machine Learning and Deep Learning; Oracle and SAP for Business Process Management; Salesforce and Service Now for CRM; and Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure for cloud services. To aggressively push for adoption, it has created the UiPath RPA Academy—a completely free, open online training platform. Over 20,000 people have signed up for the courses since it was launched last year.
UiPath’s seed-round of $1.6 Million funding came from Earlybird, Credo Ventures, and Seedcamp. This was followed by a Series-A round of about $30 Million in 2017, led by Accel Partners. In the first quarter of 2018, the company raised $153 Million in Series-B funding round with participants including all previous investors as well as CapitalG (one of Google’s investment arms) and internet-investor Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers. The investors valued the company at $1.1 Billion—up 10 times from the last round. This was the largest round of funding ever in the RPA market and made UiPath the first unicorn out of Romania. It also shows the belief the investors have in RPA—and UiPath—in leading the revolution of automation at the workplace. As Accel Partner Rich Wong who will be joining the board of the company said, “We are putting our money where our mouth is.”
Current RPA tools work best with structured data and well-defined processes. The evolution of RPA would be along the lines of increasing capability to work with unstructured data (machine learning) and unstructured processes (deep learning). Thus, the progression would be from robotic (mechanical/ rote-tasks) to intelligent to cognitive automation. With this in mind, it is unsurprising that UiPath’s roadmap already includes a lot of AI and Cognitive developments.
In July 2017, Elon Musk declared that “robots will be able to do everything better than us”, creating the “biggest risk that we face as a civilization”. It is hard to not feel anxious about this, especially when the Forrester report on effects of automation on global workforce predicts that in 2018 automation will eliminate 9% of jobs in the US alone. But a quick glance into history tells us that this is no new phenomenon: In 19th century England, textile workers and weavers destroyed weaving machinery fearing that their skills would be replaced by machines. But this mechanization in the textile industry ushered in the Industrial Revolution that raised the levels of income in Europe and led the continent through an astonishing period of growth.