For 42-year-old entrepreneur Ayyappa Nagubandi and his doctor wife 40-year-old Dr Mahalakshmi Nagubandi, the transition from building a pani puri vending machine to a fully-automated idli machine happened when they realised that there are no all-time meal options available for a large segment of the population. Zeroing in on idlis, the founder couple has invented a fully automated machine that will serve “hot, soft and fluffy idlis” along with sambar and chutney that is controlled by a robotic arm.
“We had started building a pani puri vending machine over a year-and-half ago. It took a lot of money and resources. It was becoming difficult to arrange capital, and we thought of pivoting. Around the same time, I read an article by CK Prahalad about business at the bottom of the pyramid. The idea was to create a vending machine that would cater to feeding a large segment of the population at an affordable price. Idli is a popular dish in India and it is an all-time breakfast,” explained Ayyappa, who has invented and authored 14 patents over his 20-year career.
When one selects a plate of idli on the machine and scans the QR code to make the payment of Rs 35 for two idlis, a robotic arm lifts the biodegradable plate and puts it on the conveyor belt where two fresh idlis are added by the robotic arm in less than two minutes. Then a side serving of sambar is dispensed in the plate, and peanut chutney also follows.
But what’s special about this venture considering there are so many vending machines available in the market? “Like instant coffee, instant idli is now possible. You would find coffee vending machines but there are no vending machines to dispense burgers, sandwich, dosa or idlis. We believe, ours is the true vending machine for Indian food,” said Ayyappa.
According to the couple, idlis were the obvious choice. “As a healthy all-time breakfast, idli is rich in carbohydrates, proteins, amino acids and fibre. The plus point is that it doesn’t contain any saturated fats and cholesterol. Idli gets digested very easily and is rich in iron content. It can be eaten by anyone from a small child to an age-old man. It can be eaten even during your illness,” Dr Mahalakshmi told indianexpress.com.
However, she stresses on why hygiene was one of the prominent factors behind the development of their machine. “Ayyappa and I wanted to have street food one day. We went around our colony and saw a cart. The guy wanted to go to the restroom, asked us to take care of his cart and came back after a couple of minutes. We knew that there were no public toilets in that area and were not sure if he had access to water and soap. So, we excused ourselves and did not order anything. I believe hygiene is as much important. Our solution is towards offering a healthy and hygienic alternative,” she said.
While many contend that the original taste of food can’t be recreated by automatic processes, Dr Mahalakshmi believes that “spread of Indian food is possible when we automate things”. “We believe that the world should know more about Indian food. A lot of Indians know about burgers and pizzas but a lot of Westerners do not know about idlis or dosas,” she said.
She added, “We want customers to have healthy, hygienic food with consistent taste and quality. All this is possible when processes are automated. We took help from food technologists to arrive at a good recipe and shelf life. Then, we hired mechanical and embedded systems developers to automate the processes and create a vending machine.”
Looking ahead at the launch of the machine in Hyderabad before Dussehra on October 8, the couple shared, “We will launch in Hyderabad first as we are based there. We intend to learn from our mistakes and solve problems related to logistics. Once we are stabilised, we will launch operations in other cities and countries.”
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