There is little doubt that Laiye’s automation software has reshaped how enterprises function. The company merges artificial intelligence with robotic process automation (RPA) to streamline business processes and workflows.
RPA software completes structured tasks with speed and accuracy unrivaled by human labor. The objective is not only to streamline monotonous work, but also to free staff from time-consuming, repetitive tasks like high-volume document processing or data collection and organization.
This is catching on in a big way. With its headquarters nestled in Beijing’s Zhongguancun tech hub, Laiye’s services stretch to many corners of the world. Its clients include AstraZeneca, Nike, Walmart, and Porsche, to name a few. And in late 2020, Laiye gained backing from Microsoft, with a business partnership to follow.
Think of Laiye as an answer to New York-based UiPath, which had its initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday, raising USD 1.3 billion in a landmark moment for the RPA sector.
Laiye is moving swiftly to capitalize on the momentum in this space. After recording 900% year-on-year revenue growth from their RPA subscriptions in the last year, the company is leveraging USD 50 million in financing from a Series C+ round closed this week to ramp up its overseas expansion, just six years after it was founded in 2015.
Using AI to build the next generation of RPA
“UiPath’s IPO was a big moment for the entire RPA industry, because in the past five or ten years, no company has been able to grow its revenue to over USD 600 million within such a short period. This will signal to the whole industry that RPA is growing really fast,” said Hu Yichuan, Laiye’s CTO. Even with these leaps and bounds, Hu pointed out that RPA technology is still immature and in its early stages. The development of RPA is reaching an inflection point.
“While RPA got an earlier start outside of China, China has definitely embraced it with fervor. But they’re seeing the limitation of the first generation of RPA, which is essentially a glorified scripting tool,” Hu said.
Laiye has invested heavily in native AI capabilities. It sees the infusion of machine learning and deep learning into RPA solutions as the way forward in the sector.
In fact, Laiye’s first product, an AI-powered chatbot that went live in 2017, was released two years before its RPA offerings. With AI as a starting point rather than a built-out addition, Laiye has a competitive advantage over UiPath, according to Laiye’s founder and CEO Wang Guanchun. The mindset sets up the company to explore a plethora of potential use cases for the technology.
This means extending automation application scenarios beyond back-end processes and progressing toward Laiye’s ultimate goal of creating end-to-end automation. Core technologies like natural language processing (NLP), computer vision, and knowledge graphs can enhance Laiye’s solutions for interpreting documents, and they will play an increasingly crucial role in the future of RPA, said Hu, Laiye’s CTO.
Those processes need to work in tandem for new developments in RPA. “UiPath does one thing very well, which is user interface (UI) automation. Yet Laiye is an AI company. But when it comes to intelligent automation, you need a variety of AI automation technologies, not just UI automation,” said Wang, Laiye’s CEO.
Competing in new markets amid the pandemic
Laiye honed its software solutions by digitizing many of China’s sprawling and often archaic state-owned enterprises in sectors like insurance, telecommunications, energy grid operation, and banking. It is now casting its sights on international markets. Despite challenges introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic, like restrictions on international travel, Laiye persevered to build trust in new customers who were overseas.
“We realized it was possible to work remotely with potential clients in markets like Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and even some European countries, so we did a lot of Zoom calls and I asked all of our employees to turn on their cameras, even if our counterparts did not,” Wang said. The firm also took an important step to recruit additional English-speaking talent.
The persistence has paid off. Laiye is now working on two large projects for clients in Indonesia and Thailand, including one of Southeast Asia’s most recognized names.
“In the Indonesian market, there is a revolution happening right now in the healthcare industry. Conglomerates like Lippo Group are building hundreds of hospitals, but they’re looking to build next-generation digitized hospitals. They previously had lots of paper documents, but now, they want to digitize everything, so they need our solutions with technologies like optical character recognition (OCR), NLP, and RPA,” Wang said.
In the course of developing its business abroad, Laiye has mastered the art of localizing its solutions and utilizing springboards to make its suite a compelling choice.
“We use deep learning to train our data ingestion model on a wealth of local sample data. We also look for local technology partners,” Wang said. “For example, it could be a firm that has already developed the OCR language model for Indonesian. We would collaborate and use them as a starting point while we continue to improve the model for our customers.”
In Thailand, Laiye partnered with Raaspal, one of Thailand’s largest software integrators. In this case, the Thai company reached out to Laiye to enquire about the use of its RPA solutions. Raaspal was convinced that the Beijing-based developer was a good match for them after it tried out a virtual office built by Laiye. Not long later, Laiye’s solutions were integrated into the operations of Smart Raaspal’s clients and public sector organizations.
Automation software for SMEs
While the company has partners and clients among the Fortune 500, Laiye is targeting small and medium-sized enterprises overseas that are underserved due to the prohibitive costs of automation software.
“Smaller companies are stuck between a rock and a hard place. RPA solves a small part of their problem, but then if they want to really leverage AI, they can’t afford to access products like IBM Watson or hire a team of data scientists. Those options are not really viable for anybody outside of the top 5–10% of companies on the planet,” Laiye’s CTO Hu said.
“There is a massive market opportunity in the middle. We can leverage this business-friendly AI by making it more approachable. If you allow business users to train the AI models, you can really make a big splash and fundamentally move the needle for many companies, for whom it’s been out of reach for many years,” Hu added. Laiye’s positioning places it in a sweet spot, one where the company does not compete directly with UiPath.
“The main focus of UiPath is still the large enterprises, which means SMEs or even individuals are still not covered by any other vendors. This is a big opportunity, especially when we can leverage our developer community to better serve these SMEs,” he said.
Educating developers on how to use Laiye’s automation software is core to this strategy. At present, there are over 400,000 developers in the firm’s pool of users. “We think Laiye is a company by developers, for developers. In addition, we offer online training and certification programs,” said Wang, Laiye’s CEO.
Laiye deploys other creative, interactive means to foster a community of developers. “We organize a lot of competitions. For example, at the end of 2019, we initiated an online contest for developers, awarding RMB 1 million to the most innovative RPA use case,” Wang said. “The competition attracted thousands of developers and was a huge success. We will seek to replicate our successes in China across Southeast Asia and other international markets.”
The company takes a long view and is playing a part in cultivating new waves of RPA professionals. Laiye has moved to introduce RPA education at the university level, establishing a full-credit course at Wuhan Institute Of Technology, while working with Raaspal to introduce similar programs in Thai universities.
Going forward, Laiye is confident about the future of automation software and RPA solutions, as the market is maturing with the presence of big names like UiPath and Microsoft.
“Right now, the market is ready. With our strategic investors on board, I think we’ll be able to develop deep industry-specific solutions, which will help the market see the tremendous value that RPA plus AI can create. That’s what I’m most excited about,” Wang said.
KrASIA is a digital media company reporting on the most promising technology-driven businesses and trends in the world’s emerging markets.