I’ve written (probably elsewhere) in the past about how we’re spending more and more time considering the application of artificial intelligence technologies in the startups we’re looking at. Like “big data” in 2013 and “a mobile app” (how quaint!) in 2009, it feels like virtually every company now talks about how they’re leveraging AI (be it deep learning, computer vision, natural language processing or some other technology du jour) to augment their product. As investors we have to try and filter out the noise: picking the big problems that should genuinely utilize AI and assess whether the teams have the chops to actually deliver on their promises.
We get really excited when we meet a company that ticks both of these boxes and I especially love it when they apply this technology to a horribly outdated industry. Enter Focal Systems, a company from Y Combinator’s Winter 2016 batch who are applying at least two of the AI buzzwords mentioned above to solve real multi-billion dollar problems in brick and mortar retail businesses.
The first practical application of this technology is the Focal Tablet, an interactive device attached to shopping carts that provides the consumer with in-store navigation (“Where is the gluten-free bread? Where is the French wine?”) and relevant special offers. Underpinning this — and where the real magic happens — are side-firing cameras that collect image data as the carts are pushed around the stores. With this image data Focal knows exactly where the cart is currently located (so it can serve ultra-relevant adverts for items you’re just about to walk up to) and use image recognition to detect when items are out of stock or in the wrong place.
And — as any good YC pitch goes — this is just the beginning. The team are working on a number of related initiatives to help traditional retailers increase efficiency and revenues, cut costs and go toe-to-toe with the Amazon’s “grocery store of the future” Go initiative. All without the need for expensive infrastructure scattered across the shop floor.
You can see the Focal Tablet IRL at several grocery chains in the Bay Area including Lunardi’s Menlo Park, Draegers, Tragg’s, and Delucchis. You can also see it in action in this video and read a bit more about how excited one industry expert is here.
We’re proud to officially welcome Focal Systems’ founders Francois, Adriano and Michael and their team to the SoftTech family ✌️