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Artificial Intelligence: This MBA’s Startup Builds Facebook Messenger Chatbots

Gerardo Salandra launched his high-tech startup after an MBA at Hong Kong's CUHK Business School


Mon Mar 13 2017

Gerardo Salandra is an avid fan of artificial intelligence (AI). He worked at IBM and interned at Google prior to an MBA at Hong Kong’s CUHK Business School. He first spoke to IBM’s supercomputer Watson in 2014.

Now, fresh from his MBA, he’s co-founded his own artificial intelligence startup in Hong Kong. Launched in November 2016, RocketBots develops chatbots for companies so they can automate customer support, sales, and even marketing.

Hong Kong has the highest rate of mobile usage in Asia. Over 50% of its population use Facebook. Crucially, RocketBots’ bots utilize Facebook Messenger as a channel, so people can interact with the bots in the same way that they’d talk to their friends.

Gerardo started pitching his product even before the company had been created. He visited one of Hong Kong’s biggest banks and demoed a voice-enabled bot in front of the entire c-suite. That bank became his first client.

Previously, El Salvador-born Gerardo turned down a full-time job at Google to pursue his passion for marketing technology. He joined fitness app Runtastic in Austria before relocating to Hong Kong for his MBA

While still an MBA student at CUHK, Gerardo’s resume was picked out by one of the school’s elite alumni. Gerardo went on to work for his marketing technology firm. Now, they’re business partners.

How did the idea to start up Rocketbots come about?

Last year, Facebook made a massive announcement that they were going to allow chatbots to be connected to Facebook Messenger. In the past, when you developed a chatbot, you’d spend a lot of money, time and effort making an app for it. But no one is downloading new apps anymore. Now, with Facebook Messenger, there’s a channel you can use to get thousands of people to talk using your technology.

We thought, if we could sell this to brands we’d be huge. Imagine the money they could save in customer support. We started pitching the service before the company even existed! One of the biggest banks in Hong Kong said they were interested. So, we said let’s do it!

What do you hope to achieve?

We want to stop focusing on Hong Kong as a market and expand globally. We’re already in talks with a company in Germany who found us through a Google search. They’re very interested in buying a German bot. We have one German in our team, so it was easy to develop a prototype. We’re also experimenting to put chatbots on Skype, WhatsApp, and Slack.

What challenges do you face?

Our number one priority is finding a way to make this scalable. When you build a bot there’s a lot of customization involved for each client. We’re now building a platform that will allow us to deploy a new bot in a couple of clicks, so that when we have a new client we don’t have to spend two months hard coding the new bot. You get the ground work done quickly, and then train the bot for the specific client. If we don’t manage to do this quickly, I see other companies coming out with similar services.

Wouldn’t people rather speak to people instead?

What we’re seeing through our analysis is that it depends on the specific use cases. In healthcare for example, people are more comfortable mentioning sensitive issues to a bot.

Something we have already enabled is that the bot has what we call a curiosity percentage. If you ask the bot something, and it calculates there’s only 80% chance it’ll get the answer right, it’ll immediately send the answer over to customer support, and their answer will then come back through the bot.

Why is Hong Kong a good destination for MBA entrepreneurs?

Hong Kong is an amazing place to start a business. The infrastructure for entrepreneurs is extraordinary, there’s a lot of money here, and it’s easy to meet investors quickly.

It’s also a small community. Everyone who’s an entrepreneur knows each other, enabling you to build strong partnerships. And it’s an amazing market for testing. Hong Kong is a small homogenous region. If your business works here, you can be sure it will work in other places too.

Would you be where you are today without the CUHK MBA?

I don’t think so. The CUHK MBA was a milestone in my life which opened a lot of doors. I actually turned down a lot of job offers after it.

I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today without the CUHK network. It’s honestly everything for this business. When you’re talking to investors and they know you have an MBA, they will meet with you, they will answer your emails. All the clients I’ve got, and all the people I’ve spoken to, are somehow connected to someone I met during the MBA.