Artificial intelligence (AI), which enables computer programmes and machines to think and learn, is at the forefront of transforming business processes across most sectors today. AI can help businesses develop completely new ways to interact with their customers, offer customers more intelligent products and service experiences, optimise processes, save costs and increase revenue. Little wonder then that more and more businesses are adopting AI-based solutions to maintain a competitive edge. And helping them do just that is Fluid AI, a Mumbai-based start-up that draws on AI to provide businesses with intuitive user experiences and data analytics.
Founded by brothers Abhinav (28) and Raghav Aggarwal (31), Fluid AI has clients across various sectors like banking, e-commerce, finance, government, health care, insurance, retail marketing, and others. Among its clients are Accenture, Axis Bank, Bank of America, Barclays Plc, Capgemini, Deloitte, Emirates NBD, Toyota and Vodafone, to mention a few. And all of these organisations are serviced by Fluid AI’s 55-member core team spread across its five offices in India (in Mumbai), USA (in Charlotte), Jamaica, the Netherlands and Mauritius. For a company that started from the Aggarwal’s home in 2012, Fluid AI has grown by leaps and bounds, currently selling its AI-based solutions across 10 countries.
A passion for coding
It was a chance holiday trip to New York in 2012 that put Abhinav and Raghav Aggarwal on the road to founding Fluid AI. During their visit, they got to know that the city was going to host the TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon, one of the largest coding competitions that see participation from coders, hackers, developers and creative tech-makers. The duo signed up for it immediately, participated in it (by coding relentlessly for nearly 24 hours) and emerged as one of the winners. Raghav says, “This prepped us up and we realised that the next step for us had arrived—it was time to develop more advanced technologies which would help us provide differentiated services. This thought was the precursor to building our AI-based solutions, and thus Fluid AI was born.”
To give their undivided attention to Fluid AI, Raghav dropped out of IIM Ahmedabad, while Abhinav dropped out of the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. Despite having a non-coding background, they were confident of making Fluid AI a big success. Abhinav says, “We were finance guys—I had studied chartered accountancy while Raghav had completed a chartered financial analyst programme. However, we have always had a passion for coding and are self-taught coders.”
Entrepreneurs at heart
The duo decided to start Fluid AI using seed money derived from the profits generated by the learning management platform that they had founded back in 2008, when Abhinav was still in school and Raghav in college. Called Trutech, it was a cloud-based platform which allowed students, teachers and parents to access information, including attendance, class notes and test schedules and scores, from any location. Only educational institutions would be charged for the service, while it was free for other users. Trutech, which gained immense popularity with around 3,00,000 students from schools and colleges accessing it, was profitable since inception. The platform is active even today, with a 95 per cent retention rate of annual-licence-fee-paying schools and colleges. Over the years, the duo launched other initiatives as part of Trutech Webs (the parent company of Trutech), including iLiftoff, an aptitude-based hiring platform that enables employers to recruit the right candidates.
The brothers started Fluid AI in 2012, using their home as their first office. Recalling those days, Raghav says, “Both of us would work in our den, which we called the ‘coding room’, and the only infrastructure we had were our laptops and the Internet!” Initially, the brothers focused on understanding self-learning algorithms, building their own algorithms and AI platform and filing patents. They managed to get Axis Bank as their first customer. Their second customer was Bank of America. Raghav adds, “After this, the sky was the limit. We kept envisioning more AI-based solutions and working to develop these across sectors. From just two employees whom we had recruited upon closing our first deal, we scaled to 55 people and set up global offices and teams.”
Initially, one of the challenges we faced was in garnering trust and getting big brands to see value in our offering. However, we proved our credibility early on by offering a success-based fee component to clients
The AI-based solutions that Fluid AI offers to clients today can be classified under two categories: AI-based experiences and AI-based analytics. The former comprises offerings such as face recognition, gesture-enabled commands, conversational chatbots and conversational text bots. Fluid AI has also developed one of the world’s first AI-powered call centres (using conversational call bots). When it comes to AI-based analytics, Fluid AI analyses the data from a company or a bank by using its AI engine, thereby enabling businesses to make better decisions and predictions.
Presently, Fluid AI offers AI solutions including automated kiosks and robots at physical locations such as bank branches and retail stores. For instance, it worked with Bank of America to open completely automated branches (or people-less branches). Fluid AI also implements its AI-based solutions in smartphones, through conversational video bots. The company has made a prototype of this technology and deployed it in 2017 for the special centennial issue of Forbes, by developing an AI-based cover that allowed users to talk to Warren Buffett, the cover subject, and the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway. Abhinav says, “Users had to scan the cover of Forbes using their smartphones, prompting a virtual hologram of Buffett to emerge from the cover. They could then interact with him, asking him questions about business, finance or his personal journey. Buffett’s virtual avatar got over a million user interactions.” Explaining that a similar project was executed by Fluid AI in India with Reliance Jio Infocomm (Jio) for their mobile application, he says, “Users got to interact with celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan, Ranbir Kapoor and Shraddha Kapoor and ask questions about their upcoming movies or personal life. Fluid AI’s initiatives got more than 56 million interactions over the last year.”
These apart, Fluid AI deploys AI-based analytics and data-driven solutions to improve marketing and sales functions, operations, risk management, payments, and others, for three top private banks in India (which includes ICICI Bank) and leading global organisations. For instance, Fluid AI has worked with Bank of America to power the marketing of its products to customers. Raghav says, “Fluid AI was able to predict which product (out of 96) to cross-sell to each of its existing customers; what communication channel—such as e-mail, SMS, in-app notification or call—to use; and what time and day to send the communication. We were able to achieve over 95 per cent product prediction accuracy across 3,77,000 predictions as well as six times’ higher conversion of products pushed by AI, compared to existing conversions.”
Differentiation is important for any business, and what helps Fluid AI outshine competitors is that it provides end-to-end AI solutions to industries and end-users, right from front-end user experience to making predictions and providing back-end insights. Raghav says, “This makes a complete AI package solution for a client to implement and upgrade. The end-to-end deployment and packaged offerings allow us to provide services at competitive prices and maximise revenue over our competitors.” What also helps is that Fluid AI provides clients the option of deploying its AI-based solutions on their premises and/or the cloud—in contrast to Fluid AI’s competitors, who deploy solutions only on the cloud, which might not be preferred by data-sensitive institutions. Most importantly, Fluid AI is making digital transactions more natural and engaging by using AI to offer voice, text and touch interactions through virtual avatars. Abhinav adds, “These avatars have personalities that represent the brand in question, create predictability and help to build relationships. They also make an interface easier to use by making it more obvious where to find help and how to navigate through a transaction.”
Steps to success
For Abhinav and Raghav Aggarwal, the road to making Fluid AI successful was never covered with roses. Scaling the business—in terms of hiring the right talent and assembling a global team—has been a challenge, and the early days of operations too came with its set of problems. Abhinav reveals, “Initially, one of the challenges we faced was in garnering trust and getting big brands to see value in our offering. However, we proved our credibility early on by offering a success-based fee component to clients.”
Acute business sense, combined with their passion for innovation has meant that the brothers have received recognition and honour for their venture. These include awards such as ‘Emirates NBD Fintech Challenge 2016’ award, ‘Intel Perceptual Computing Challenge 2016’ award, ‘Microsoft National Challenge 2016’ award and ‘NASSCOM Emerge50 2016’ award. Fluid AI was also part of Mastercard’s 2017 Start Path Class programme. Further, it was recognised as one of the ‘Top 20 Global Fintech Companies’ by BBVA Open Talent in 2016 and as one of the ‘Top 35 Startups in India 2018’ by Startup India, an initiative of the Government of India. The brothers were also part of Forbes’ ‘30 under 30 2017’ and Fortune India’s ‘40 under 40 2018’ lists.
While their business achievements itself are completely worth the name that they have garnered, for Abhinav and Raghav Aggarwal, it is also a matter of pride that Fluid AI is a completely self-funded venture. Raghav says, “We plough back our profits to grow our business. We constantly receive funding offers but have refrained from taking them up.” What has also worked in their favour was their practice, right from the start, to sign a deal only if it was profitable. Abhinav says, “Therefore, we never actually had a gestation period [time to break-even]; we were profitable right from the start! Moreover, because we started out as a profitable venture, we did not take up any investor money or external sources of funding such as loans, and grew our business as a zero-debt company from the very beginning.”
The brothers proudly say that Fluid AI continues to be a business owned by their entire family—comprising their father Arvind, mother Alpana, Raghav’s wife Jayati, their three-year-old son Riam and Abhinav’s wife Nikita. Apart from Fluid AI, the Aggarwals also own a venture called the Indo Euro Group. Initially started as a hand tools export business by Arvind and Alpana Aggarwal when they arrived in Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1987, the company went on to become the largest exporter in Western India, exporting to 60 countries globally. Today, the Indo Euro Group also builds large industrial facilities and factories across Maharashtra and leases these spaces to MNCs. Just like Fluid AI, the Indo Euro Group too has been a zero-debt company right from inception.
We constantly receive funding offers but have refrained from taking them up
Outlook for the future
In 2018, Fluid AI clocked a growth of 65 per cent from the previous year. This was also the year when the company unveiled several path-breaking products and solutions for clients across North America and Europe. The new launches included physical robots to interact with customers and enhance their experience; ‘avatar bots’ in Indian regional languages and foreign languages; and call bots that engage in human-like conversations with customers to solve their queries in real time.
This fiscal year, the brothers expect a 75 per cent increase in revenue from FY18. Asked about future plans, Abhinav Aggarwal replies that they want to be the plug-and-play AI engine for the world—a vision that may not be unrealistic, considering their diverse portfolio, the fact that more and more companies today are recognising the potential of AI and leveraging it in their businesses, and that 80 per cent of their business comes from foreign clients.