Mahisorn “Dr Chang” Wongphati, founder and CEO of Thailand’s robotic startup HiveGround Co Ltd, has turned his childhood obsession with robots into a business of farming drones and autonomous robots.
The chief executive had his primary school education in southern Phuket province. That was when he developed his liking for robots and electronic circuits. The childhood obsession later prompted him to study the science program in high school.
While studying at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Engineering, Mahisorn joined its robots club. He discovered that it was fun to build robots for competition. Despite many failures, he continued to join contests.
At that time, he believed that robotics was the future, given the large number of students in the field. He furthered his studies and got his master’s degree in 2007.
Later, he got a job offer in Japan to work for Toshiba Tech in developing point of sale (POS) systems and multi-function printers.
After being recruited to work in Japan, Mahisorn became convinced that robotics has a good future as a business. At that time, he noticed that the Japanese government encouraged entrepreneurs to set up robotics businesses.
After working in Japan for three years, he decided to resign and devote his time to studying for a doctorate in robotics at Keio University in Tokyo, with a scholarship from the Japanese government.
Birth of HiveGround
In 2009, during his study in Japan, Dr Chang decided to set up a company called HiveGround along with 26 friends and colleagues who share their interests in robotics. They pooled their money along with an investment from their consultant professor to raise 1 million baht.
“The company’s name means a large ground for bees of multiple species to work together and create something,” he said.
Other company co-founders and first employees are his friends from many universities who took part in RoboCup competitions and managed to beat teams from leading science and technology institutions like Carnegie Mellon and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
He believes that they are the type of people who will never give up but will focus on working their way to solutions and success.
Hive Ground was started with the “First Who, Then What” concept, and not “First What, Then Who”, according to Mahisorn. He said that’s why the business still has an unclear format or brand.
“We are trying to work on something innovative and unconventional. We choose to realize things people think are impossible. The business is focusing on robotics,” said Dr Chang.
His company was behind the “flying bags” in a Bangkok Airways advertisement, an autonomous boat, a drone for the Royal Thai Air Force, and software for car parts inspection.
“Our business keeps changing. We still have to think of ways to keep the company in business and succeed in a way that a tech firm should,” said the CEO.
Scaling business for commercial market
With an investment of 1 million baht and five co-founders, HiveGround initially was involved in business-to-business services. Dr Chang said that in the first five years of involvement in the B2B market, the company made “considerable profits” although its growth was minimal and the workforce was not increased.
HiveGround was involved in the development of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in a 17-million-baht project for the Royal Thai Air Force, in addition to robotic work and software.
In 2016, Somkid Jatusripitak, who was then deputy prime minister serving as the post-coup junta’s economic czar, launched a 500-million-baht government fund for Thai tech startups. HiveGround obtained a seed fund of 10 million baht for its proposed project.
That funding became an important turning point for the company. It started developing its own products and growing commercially. HiveGround produced prototype drones for PTT, SCG and the Air Force.
Later, the company was involved in a project to make an automated submarine for PTTEP with a team from Kasetsart University.
Start of ‘Tiger Drone’
The submarine project led Hive Ground from Chulalongkorn University to set up its new office at the Engineering Faculty of Kasetsart University. There, Mahisorn was introduced to Pravit Tongchairawewat, founder of agricultural chemicals maker Global Crops.
HiveGround later worked with Global Crops to develop Tiger Drone for agricultural purposes. After more than a few months of trial and error, the autonomous drone has now been on sale on Global Crops’ website.
“We developed the prototype drone between 2016 and 2017. Its sale started in 2018. Among the 10-litre drones available in the market, our products have features that make them competitive,” Dr Chang said.
He noted that although there is market demand for agricultural drones with the size of 17 and 20 litres, Thai law still permits a maximum size of 10 litres.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, HiveGround was involved in the development of delivery and glass robots along with Obodroid Corporation to be used in hospitals.
With strong growth in the drone market, HiveGround looked at capital increase and True Corporation became its business partner in late 2021.
“Farming services are a big thing in the agricultural sector today. Most farmers opt to hire people for soil and seed preparation, spraying fertilizer and pesticides. Some farmers buy drones for their own use and serve other farmers,” Mahisorn said.
However, when the services are sufficient, many farmers are looking to buy smaller drones that are smarter, which is a business opportunity for Hive Ground.
“We hope to get a 30% share in the drone market, which is an equivalent of 7-8 billion baht per year,” he said.
Expanding into autonomous farm tech
The farm drone market grew 200% per year between 2020 and 2022, according to data compiled by the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC). Similar growth is expected for 2023, with demand for about 10,000 drones and a total market value of 3 billion baht.
The growth is expected to continue further due to a shortage of labour in the farm sector caused by ageing workers, rising wages, and health issues.
“We place much importance on an autonomous system that becomes smarter. The drones are developed with a piloting system that prevents crashes,” the CEO said.
HiveGround’s core technologies involve perception, navigation, command and monitoring.
“Robotic technology requires high flexibility so we need to fine-tune our products to meet different demands while promoting their use. The core technologies that we develop can remain relevant for 3-4 years before new competition enters the market. We need to keep innovating as this market has opportunities waiting for us,” said Dr Chang.
A billion-baht business
He said that his business’s value is almost 1 billion baht with a large revenue, although much of its investment has been spent on research and development.
“We are not good at direct selling to customers. Our sales and marketing team was just formed six months ago. Luckily, we had some customers and made some money. During almost 12 years in business, we paid [corporate] tax once and it was a little amount,” he said.
“We are happy doing our business but still can’t make our shareholders happy.”
His business goal is to push for products under the HiveGround and Tiger Drone brands to enter the global market and make high returns for the company’s investors and stakeholders.
He is happy with building a strong and stable foundation for his company to reach its long-term goals. “Now we have a team of 100 people — 80 of them in tech and 20 in other departments.”
Business view on deep tech
As his company develops robots that require deep tech, Dr Chang views that there is a limited market for products with multiple deep tech components. It requires a lot of time and energy, as well as R&D investment, to make such products but the business growth is not satisfactory. Also, it is difficult to evaluate the user’s demands.
He gave as an example the development of global car brands over the past seven decades. Those brands require a lot of time and energy to develop their internal combustion engines to a level of “super deep tech”. Now there are only fewer than 20 brands that are known globally with market demand.
“HiveGround’s business may not be able to survive if we focus on building only certain types of robots. Our products may not sell. Deep tech needs time for development before we reach a turning point. It’s our duty to get there with information, inputs and attempts of everyone.”
With business partners like PTT and True Corporation, the company has sufficient funds for expanding its workforce to further develop core technologies. The CEO calls for opportunities and support for Thai tech firms like his to innovate through trial and error.
Uniting hogs to fight tiger
Professor Bundhit Eua-arporn, president of Chulalongkorn University, once said that Thai businesses are like hogs that fight one another in their pen and get all eaten when a tiger arrives.
Mahisorn said Thai businesses should unite so that together they can fight against tigers or wolves, which refer to foreign multinationals. For him, Thai drone makers need to seek cooperation from their peers to enter the world market. He has talked to Thai drone makers about the need for investment in R&D to improve their products.
He said that Thai businesses, even the country’s largest corporations, spent much less on R&D when compared to world-class companies.
For him, R&D brings business opportunities and helps improve competitiveness in the domestic and world markets. “R&D allows us to know which way we should be heading,” he said.
“Don’t overthink it. Continue with your work and find an opportunity for the business to survive. If you want to excel at something, you need to do it again and again until there’s only one left. That’s when you become the best in the world.”