wealth distribution

This 41-year-old CEO quit finance to build a multimillion-dollar coffee robot business

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Long black. Flat white. Iced latte. However you take your coffee, Ella — Singapore’s first fully autonomous coffee barista — has got you covered.

Ella is the multimillion-dollar brainchild of 41-year-old Keith Tan, a former wealth manager who gave up the daily grind in 2015 to launch his own chain of coffee shops. 

“I was 35 years old, in finance, and I thought: ‘It’s my chance.’ I’ve got to do something, build something for myself,” Tan told CNBC Make It.

‘It’s going to grow, it’s going to grow more than that!’ So, then I decided it’s time to really look into technology.

Keith Tan

founder and CEO, Crown Digital

But it wasn’t long after he got the coffee joint off the ground that he began to discover manpower issues within the food and beverage industry.  

“We had four shops that were facing labor crunch, and I thought, ‘I’ve just invested in this company, it’s going to grow, it’s going to grow more than that!’ So, then I decided it’s time to really look into technology,” said Tan, who is the founder and CEO of Crown Digital.

Re-energizing food and beverage

Singapore’s first robotic barista, Ella, is created by internet of things start-up Crown Digital.

Crown Digital

The machine operates around the clock and can serve up to 200 cups of coffee per hour — four times as many as a typical human barista.

Its ingredients — fresh milk and beans — only need to be topped up after 360 servings, which is done by delivery drivers monitoring Ella via an app. Crown Digital’s in-house command center allows Ella to detect and resolve spillages or machine faults remotely.

Tan said the technology is designed specifically for high density, grab-and-go environments like airports, transport hubs and offices, where speed is paramount.

“There’s opportunities where you just want speed, consistency and ease of ordering, and that’s where robotics can really come in,” said Tan.

Robots on the rise

We’ll certainly see some front of house … but we’ll also see a lot of robots actually in the warehousing, the transportation, the distribution.

Chris Holmes

managing director, IDC Insights Asia Pacific

More robot cafes have sprung up in recent times, such as Cafe X in San Francisco and B;eat at South Korea’s Incheon Airport. 

“As we look to the future, we’re expecting tremendous growth,” Chris Holmes, managing director at IDC Insights Asia Pacific, said of the automation and robotics industry.

In the next two years alone, the market intelligence company said it expects half of all food and beverage and retail outlets to employ some form of robotics.

“We’ll certainly see some front of house,” he said. “But we’ll also see a lot of robots actually in the warehousing, the transportation, the distribution.”

Accelerated by Covid

Covid has only boosted that demand.

As more people became conscious of hygiene during the pandemic, Tan secured Ella’s first permanent retail space in one of Singapore’s central shopping malls in 2020.

Ella’s coffee is available to consumers at transport hubs in Japan and Singapore.

Crown Digital

Impact of automation

We’re starting off with coffee, but we’re not ending with that … Ella’s going to go on to do food, for example, delivery.

Keith Tan

founder and CEO, Crown Digital

Tan argues that robots like Ella are simply making way for more skilled human jobs.

“Eventually, automation will come in for the bread-and-butter, and then you have the human experience where you can pay them better, retain them, and build that human experience,” he said.

For him, his robot barista is barely scratching the surface, and he’s got plans for more robots to help with our everyday lives. 

“We’re starting off with coffee, but we’re not ending with that,” he said. “Ella’s going to go on to do food, for example, delivery. There are going to be many different verticals where Ella could be deployed.”

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