From startup to industrial unicorn
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Romain Moulin, ISAE-SUPAERO 2004 engineer, is the co-founder and CEO of Exotec, a robotics company specializing in optimizing warehouse order picking, which this year, thanks to a major fund-raiser, became the first French industrial unicorn. A great adventure started on the benches of ISAE-SUPAERO.
"It all started when I exchanged courses in the structure major for embedded systems courses to cover all the disciplines of robotics" says Romain, who was also the facilitator of the robotics club where he perfected his knowledge in practical mechanics and control command. In parallel to this, during his third year, he also did a DESIA. A Graduate Diploma in Business Engineering that allowed him to improve his skills in management, business, finance and business engineering.
After 6 years as an engineer at Astrium and BA System, he joined General Electric Healthcare in 2010, and worked on the functional management of the robotic development team for a new generation of mammography imaging systems. There he met Renaud Heitz, Robotic Architect, who became the co-founder and CTO of EXOTEC.
We interviewed Romain Moulin to find out more about the development and objectives of his company and to ask him for some advice for future ISAE-SUPAERO entrepreneurs.
How did you come up with the idea of creating your startup?
What were the reasons that pushed you to go forward?
In 2012, Renaud and I were working at General Electric Healthcare. That’s when Amazon acquired technology from Kiva Systems, a robot that can move around and pick up items from warehouses. Then in 2014, Amazon announced that it would stop marketing this technology to keep it exclusively for use in its warehouses. Being both passionate about robotics, having started in logistics and sharing the same vision of the sector, we decided to design our own robotic order picking system with a fleet of robots with the ambition to find a more efficient solution than that of Amazon.
What are your company’s missions, challenges and objectives in the short and medium term?
Our mission is to optimize the supply chain of our customers’ warehouses. When we created Exotec in 2015, retailer demand was already strong, but it was accentuated by the health crisis and recruitment difficulties specific to the logistics sector. Our current offer consists of the Skypod system, which is a set of AMR (Autonomous Mobile Robot) type robots that can move in 3 dimensions inside warehouses. Each one can climb the storage cabinets to retrieve the products via a rack and pinion system.
Currently, the company has 350 employees for a turnover of €100 million, and we hope to multiply this by 10 within 3 to 4 years. This will be achievable thanks to the 500 recruitments planned in R&D by 2025. We just raised $335 million in January and became the first French industrial unicorn. This fund raising will allow us to continue our efforts to develop new products and internationalize.
Exotec has always put R&D at the center of its activity. Half of our 150 engineers are dedicated to this activity. We plan to unveil a new product every year, to complement our current offering which consists of the Skypod system, and the Skypicker articulated arm. We want to be able to quickly manage all the processes of a warehouse to gain proximity.
What does the word success mean to you?
To have created something that didn’t exist before, a product, around a team. I am proud to get my hands dirty, to create a concrete, palpable, visible product. This is extremely satisfying, as is the recognition of our customers. Success is also to create a company of 350 people who seem to be happy to go to work in the morning! But also, to have created a culture of excellence and customer awareness within Exotec.
What advice could you give to young entrepreneurs?
Overall, do not be afraid to share your ideas to improve them, talk to as many people as possible, and meet as many potential customers as possible. Customers are considerate and often happy to collaborate. This approach requires being willing to review one’s idea, to study it again to mature it.
From a business point of view, it is important not to give in to certain requests that are too specific to a single customer, you have to sell a product and not a project, otherwise it will be very difficult to grow the company. It means saying no to potential customers, being willing to take the risk of closing your business. But it is better to quickly ascertain viability of one’s product and business model. Investors are clients like any other, you have to understand what they looking for, and use their feedback to question yourself and mature your project.
From a hardware point of view, you have to develop your product as late as possible, because it is expensive. The production process should only be started once you are sure of your proposal. Ideally, you should sign a contract before launching production.
Upon leaving school, we underestimate the work involved in making a finished product. Working in companies that structure these processes is a good idea, it was very useful to me.
If I had to recommend just one reading to young entrepreneurs, which personally has been very useful to me, it is the book by the American entrepreneur Eric Ries, The Lean start-up (Pearsons Editions – 2015)
And of course, my last tip, and not the least, to know how to surround yourself well.
Credit photos : EXOTEC
Founded in 2015, EXOTEC, which specializes in industrial robotics, employs 350 employees and has a turnover of 100 million euros. In 2022, it will become the 25th unicorn of French tech and the first industrial unicorn, thanks to a €335 million fundraising that values it at $2 billion (€1.75 billion).
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