Alum Ventures: NextFirst – Veena Radhakrishna, PGP 2004

Automation is one industry that is being eyed upon with high expectations considering the current pandemic. This industry has tremendous potential for development and bringing positive changes in society. NextFirst is a pioneer in industrial automation and provides sustainable solution-based services to many industries. NextFirst was founded jointly by Ms. Veena Radhakrishnan with her husband Mr. Jayendran Balasubramanian about two decades ago when the nation was warming up to the idea of next tech advancement. A visionary business idea for the time.

While speaking to Veena about this interview, her passion for her work came through with such simplicity, like it was her second nature. A sneak peek into her entrepreneurial journey and future of the automation industry in India.

Please tell us something about yourself.

I am a PGP 2004 alumnus with about 18 years of experience – I have co-founded a technology company (NextFirst) that caters to robotics and automation for industries like automotive, e-commerce and healthcare. My role spans strategy, team building, execution and finance. NextFirst is recognized as a market leader in the robotic automation domain in the country and has now expanded into the US market. I’m currently playing the role of CFO and head of strategic initiatives of the company. I enjoy building and mentoring teams and taking challenging initiatives to their fruition.

How and when did you start NextFirst Engineering Technologies? What was the idea behind it?

We started NextFirst in 2004, with the intent to bring world-class automation technology to the Indian market. India’s labor productivity in the manufacturing sector is significantly lower than global levels (about a third of that of China). It has to drastically increase if it wants to meet its “Made in India” growth aspirations. Push for manufacturing quality, flexibility, smart manufacturing and labor challenges have propelled the usage of robotics and automation globally. In India, while the capital intensity – fixed capital used per worker – has increased over the years, it has not resulted in a corresponding increase in output intensity. We at NextFirst help our customers adopt appropriate automation solutions to achieve measurable improvements on productivity, quality and time to market. Driven by our success in the Indian market, we have taken our automation solutions to the global market.

What are the products/ services offered at NextFirst Engineering Technologies?

We design and build robotic assembly lines and warehouse automation systems customised to customer needs. Our systems are industry 4.0 ready with insightful dashboards, diagnostic and predictive capabilities. Typical engagements begin with a consultative phase to identify automation approaches targeting key business metrics and moves on to detailed engineering involving mechanical and controls design, sourcing, programming, assembly and commissioning.

How has NextFirst evolved in terms of a company and business?

We have designed and built over 400 robotic and semi-automated assembly lines and warehouse automation systems. Over 60% of the passenger vehicles in India have at least one part assembled on a NextFirst assembly line. Our technology for material kinetics is being deployed by industry leaders in warehouses across North America. We have helped numerous companies bring their product to market, plan their assembly process and partnered with them in their growth. We are excited about using our patented technologies to expand our footprint in the global market.

Impact of Covid and future of automation industry in India.

The COVID-19 has positively impacted sectors like e-commerce which have seen almost a three-fold jump in revenues. This has led to a significant interest in setting up of less-human touch, automated warehouses and micro warehouses to meet the fulfillment promise that the customer demands. Warehouse material handling has to cater to a huge product variety and has to be inherently flexible. We see the flexibility trend in manufacturing too, where, more and more, there is a push to achieve a batch size of 1. This has pushed investments in smart and flexible automated systems that can work with changing manifests, offer end-to-end traceability and connectivity without compromising on quality and throughput. We see this trend picking up in the future driving the need for compact, flexible, robotic automated systems.

How did you get into core engineering space which is not very common for a management graduate?

Robotics and automation are hot sectors worldwide, attracting the best of engineering and management minds. In India, unfortunately, manufacturing, warehousing and automation were not considered glamourous. The consumer growth story, primarily powered by the e-commerce sector, has generated much interest and of late, we are seeing more smart management graduates entering this space.

Both you and your husband are co-founders of the company, how is it working side by side?

It was initially a challenge but it helped that we were handling complementary areas of the company. Our strengths and approach to dealing with issues are completely different, so that has helped too. Now we have a professional team of senior and middle management and we focus on playing to our strengths in the roles we take up in the company.

How has IIMB been a part of your entrepreneurial journey?

My education and approach to break down difficult problems into smaller, tractable ones are valuable learnings that have helped in my entrepreneurial journey. The friends I made when at IIMB have been friends for life – acting as great sounding boards whenever I have had to make difficult decisions. The network of alumni have been key people I reached out to in business, and it is immediately possible to establish a wavelength and connect with them. Our mentor, who has helped shape our growth strategy is an IIMB alumnus too!

Any advice for young alums.

Careers in technology and management are exciting. Technology need not be restricted to software. If you come with an engineering background, you can be a valuable asset in technology companies in a variety of roles. If you are interested in exploring robotics and automation as a career, I will be glad to walk you through our factory floor and give you a sense of what a career in this stream can be like!