Startup Of The Week

Startup Of The Week: Exotec Solutions

Exotec Solutions is developing fleets of robots to automate warehouse operations. The company’s autonomous Skypod robots help the human workforce by retrieving items from shelves and bringing them to the employees charged with processing them for shipment. In an era of booming e-commerce, retailers and distributors see such efficiency as crucial to remaining competitive.

“The demand from the market is huge,” says Exotec co-founder and CEO Romain Moulin. “And it’s going to play a big role in leveling the playing field for everyone.”

Exotec Solutions co-founders: CEO Romain Moulin (left) and CTO Renaud Heitz

Based in the French city of Lille, Exotec was founded in 2015 by Moulin and current CTO Renaud Heitz. The pair were working on robotics for GE Healthcare in Paris,when they decided to strike out on their own. Moulin said they were intrigued by Amazon’s acquisition of Kiva Systems in 2012 for $775 million. Kiva had emerged as a leader in the robotics revolution, having developed an inventory management system that allowed machines to roam a warehouse, find goods, and them bring them to a human packer at a truck. While Amazon now reportedly uses more than 100,000 robots in warehouses, the deal also created a void because once the company was sold to Amazon Kiva robots were no longer available to anyone else.

“We were discussing what we could do with advanced robotics,” says Moulin. “We felt there should be some interesting things to do with logistics.”

So, the two partners began work on their own robotic warehouse system. A partnership signed with French ecommerce leader Cdiscount in 2016 proved to be a lucky break. Cdiscount, which was founded about 20 years ago, was looking for ways to reinvent its own logistics. So Exotec began working with Cdiscount on co-designing the robotic system.

Today Exotec’s Skypod robot can carryß around a bin that can hold up to 30 kilogra,s as it wheels around the warehouse using a laser scanner for navigation. When it reaches the inventory racks, it grabs onto rails and glides upward until it finds the correct shelf to retrieve the merchandise. The Skypod then returns to a conveyor belt where a human uses a scanner to verify the goods.

This saves physical wear and tear on employees who walk an average of 15 kilometers a day fetching goods, Moulin says. And it’s more efficient because the robots can fetcn 400 items per hour, compared to 80 for humans. The system also allows Ddiscount to make better use of space in existing warehouses because it can pack items much closer together while also extending the shelving system far higher.

Vincent Valloir, director of supply chain planning and innovation for Cdiscount, says the system helps Cdiscount avoid building additional warehouse space. It has also increased same-day delivery times to customers.

The introduction of the system has prompted the company toredefine the roles of employees in the warehouse. It is training them to do new tasks such as managing the robotic systems or monitoring digital systems. “This innovation changes the approach and the roles of everyone in the organization,” he says.

This past summer, Exotec raised $17.7 million in venture capital which the company says it plans to use to start production of its robots for other customers.

“While retailers and platforms are expected to always deliver more and faster to customers, smart robots are now necessary to support warehouse workers,” Julien-David Nitlech, Partner at Iris Capital, said in a statement.

It is no surprise then that Exotec is facing growing competition from other new entrants in the warehouse logistics sector.

About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.