Spicedr: The company that wants to clean our buildings with robots

Back in July, the new batch of startups who will be taking part in Startup Chile's flagship accelerator program 'SEED G22' was announced, and among them is none other than 'Spicedr', also an 'Arab Startup Competition' alumnus.

Spicedr is a greentech Lebanese startup founded by Karim Tabaja and Ghassan Oueidat who have been working on making the industry of facade cleaning safer, more efficient, and less labor intensive.

Spicedr's original video pitch they used to apply for the 12th edition of MIT Enterprise Forum's Arab Startup Competition.

Recently, we've had the opportunity to sit with Karim (one of the cofounders) and talk to them about their journey with Arab Startup Competition, Seed G22, and their overall entrepreneurial story.

● Give us background information about yourself and how you met your cofounder

Ghassan is a Mechanical Engineer specialized in embedded systems, control theory, mechatronics and robotics. I (Karim), on the other hand, am a civil and environmental engineer turned strategy consultant. We first met at school when we were five years old, stayed friends through school and college.

● What exactly is Spicedr and what does it do?

Spicedr is an autonomous building façade cleaning robot designed to efficiently perform cleaning services even at high-altitude turbulent winds while ensuring safety for facility managers and building tenants. In addition to its ability to overcome any architectural obstacle and edges, Spicedr cleaning mechanism is environmentally responsible given that it does use any water or detergent.

● How did you come up with the idea, and why is it important to implement it?

Ghassan used to walk daily to AUB since he lived nearby. Funny enough, the idea came to him when he was once splashed with water as he walked past a building that was being cleaned. His first thought was that there must be a better, easier, cheaper and safer way to complete the task, especially when he observed the workers hanging on ropes.

When assessing the need for the product, we started by conducting multiple interviews with real estate developers, facility managers and building owners (over 35 interviews in total) across the GCC. The main issues they highlighted from their experience with traditional façade cleaning are (1) the costs associated with cleaning (some of the GCC's tallest buildings, e.g. Burj Khalifa, Qatar's Tornado Tower) cost more USD 200,000 to clean) and (2) the workers' safety and insurance costs (linked to the first issue). They also highlighted privacy concerns regularly raised by some tenants who feel uneasy seeing workers hanging outside their offices. When looking at numbers, the façade cleaning market is a multi-billion dollar industry globally. We estimated the Middle East and North Africa market to exceed USD 1.1 billion yearly.

● What difficulties did you face during your initial launch, and how did you overcome them? (technical, manufacturing, legal, etc.)

The lack of infrastructure for a robotics and advanced manufacturing industry in the region was the main source of our problems. This is also reflected through the Customs Departments' weak capabilities which affected our supply chain by limiting our ability to source higher quality parts and raw materials.

These issues caused us to delay the manufacturing and testing phases: we had to be extremely careful in our analytical work including design and simulations, accounting for the low quality facilities we had at our disposal and amending our designs to account for the sanctions on Lebanon affecting the import of specific raw materials and sensors.

Typically, in engineering design, the engineer sets the target outcome, the constraints to work around, and the budget. Our target is an autonomous façade cleaning robot, our constraints were on the one hand factors such as maximum allowable weight, power consumption, speed, and cleaning efficiency – factors we already knew we needed to address. However, the additional constraints stated above are unusual in more advanced countries. In order to overcome these obstacles, we had to be very "entrepreneurial" in our ways, by revisiting our designs and iterating them ensuring that functionality and quality of the product are not affected.

● What are some challenges that are specific for the MENA region market, and how is it different in Chile?

Sensitive question… The main difference between the MENA and the Chilean market are related to what we like to call "freedom from suspicion". As you most probably know, Chile is a developing country not affected by restrictions imposed by other global economies. This allows us to be more flexible in our designs since we are able to source a wider array of materials and products to develop our product.

As for the other main difference, it has to be the South American market's appetite for hardware startups which was reflected via more advanced infrastructure and more funding. Hardware companies are inherently harder to launch given the need to have a function physical prototype to prove the efficacy of solving the pains and problems identified and addressed.

Chile is on a journey to become Latin America's Silicon Valley, driven by clear government direction. In line with that, the Chilean Government is offering grants for promising tech-focused projects with focus on hardware start-ups revolutionizing "traditional" industries. Grants help cover the high costs associated to develop initial prototypes. In addition to financial resources, dedicated help, mentorship and connections needed across Latin America are provided to selected entrepreneurs through bodies dedicated to driving entrepreneurship led by CORFO and programs such as SEED, TSF and “HUELLA”.

● How is your robot better/different than a facade-cleaning drone? What extra features does it have?

At the start of our journey, we conducted an extensive competitive analysis on all products in the market. During our assessment, we were intrigued to learn that some startups using drones to clean building façades. After carefully evaluating the system, we realized that using drones was not the most suitable and scalable solution to clean building façades. Although they look "cool" and are trendy nowadays, drones are (1) vulnerable to winds, (2) expensive to buy, design or manufacture and (3) offer limited applications given building designs – all problems Spicedr is not affected by. Furthermore, drones require batteries to operate which limits their deployment and operation time. Finally, since drones are flying objects with no physical contact with buildings, they can’t use a dry-cleaning technology.

Spicedr, one the other hand, is a façade crawler that uses industrial grade active suction cups, has an unlimited operation time, cannot fall off buildings, can effectively apply our dry cleaning technology to any type of architecture thanks to its flexible design, and is quiet with the ability to operate at any altitude, temperature regardless of wind speed.

● How did the ‘Arab Startup Competition’ experience benefit you personally, professionally, and in your startup?

The MITEF “Arab Startup Competition” was beneficial in many ways, even though it was a competition; we strongly believe that the most important aspects were the workshops and trainings we took part in. The feedback we received from trainers and judges was very beneficial in hindsight as we ensured that our future pitches were on point.

● What are your ‘KPIs for Startup Chile’ - how do you aim to make the most of it?

Six weeks into the acceleration program, we are progressing towards developing our final (4th) functioning prototype which will meet all international safety regulations for façade cleaning. Another target we have set for ourselves to secure clients to pilot our product. The move to Chile will allow us to also penetrate the South and Latin American markets which will help us complement our initial base in the GCC and MENA. Today, we are ranked 2nd out of the 59 startups participating in Generation 22 of the program, and we are humbled by the support we have received so far. We hope that by the end of the program we will be able to exceed our targets.

● What do you think gave you the edge to be accepted in Startup Chile’s accelerator program?

We believe that our acceptance in the StartUp Chile Accelerator Program was driven by three reasons:

Our first key differentiator was the fact that we are the first robotics company to have tackled a valid problem, aiming to disrupt a traditional industry while improving working conditions for millions of workers across the world. In fact, we are the first robotics company to be selected to participate in the program after 22 generations – which shows how eager Chile's Government is to transform the City of Santiago into a real technology and economic hub which would compete globally
Our second edge was the team leading the company – in fact, each partner in our team is a demonstrated expert in his field. Before we decided to team up, we both were top performers in our industries, in addition to having a strong symbiotic relationship, we all see eye to eye and we all have the same vision for the future of our company.

Finally, it is hard to ignore how a company launched in the Middle East has been able to survive and overcome so many obstacles and challenges inheriting to the region and the ambitions of the project. Therefore, our origin as well as our dedication and commitment to succeed were key to our success to join the accelerator program.

● How do you see the facade-cleaning industry evolving in the next 5 years? What do you think is the ‘next big thing’ on that front?

The façade cleaning industry has been growing at the same rate as the facilities management industry, mainly driven by the growth in real estate as well as growth in demand for higher service quality across properties.

Nevertheless, with more complex architectures emerging due to improvements in computer aided design (CAD) software and the increase in computing power used by architects for stress simulations, it is clear that manual / human façade cleaning is reaching a hurdle that is hard to overcome, which is why it is the perfect time for automation in this industry. The beauty of robotics is the ability to design tailor-made solutions to problems. Using our R&D capabilities, we proved our ability to develop robots which can navigate highly-complex architectures in a safer manner that traditional façade cleaning. Today, we are confident that our robots are able to adapt and clean any shape and surface, not only smooth ones but also porous and rough surfaces.

Besides increased efficiency, the façade cleaning will be disrupted by:

· Our ability to clean more surfaces, e.g. concrete, which would help clean and preserve old traditional buildings and monuments, and

· Our ability to adapt to clean more architectures, since more complex building require more customized solutions

As we further develop and upgrade Spicedr we are confident that we will be able to increase our product's efficiency as well as its ability to clean more surfaces and adapt to more architectures.

● Are you currently seeking any funding rounds?

We plan on launch preparations for our first fundraising round towards the end of our acceleration phase. Our goal is to use these funds to manufacture additional units, grow our customer base and grow our team as we aim to continuously upgrade our products and services. It is worth noting that we will be keen on securing investments from strategic partners (both angel investors, individuals and institutional investors). We strongly believe that, with the right financial and strategic support, we will be able to disrupt the façade cleaning industry and grow into the reference across MENA, Latin America and South America.

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