Robots are coming for the grocery aisle, and that’s because they promise to save storeowners invaluable time by inventorying shelves of stock quickly and accurately. Research and Markets anticipates that the global brick-and-mortar automation market will be worth close to $18.9 million by 2023, which some analysts say could cut down on the billions of dollars in lost revenue traced to misplaced and erroneously priced items.
It’s this opportunity that drove Brad Bogolea, formerly a product manager at mesh networking firm Silver Spring Networks, to found Simbe Robotics in 2015. Together with Willow Garage robotics lab veterans Jeff Gee and Mirza Shah, he loftily sought to transform the retail industry with robots capable of keeping tabs on inventory. Only a few years later, Simbe’s machine — Tally — has navigated more than 25,000 miles in stores operated by over a dozen of the top 250 global brands, including Schnuck Markets, Giant Eagle, Decathlon Sporting Goods, and Groupe Casino.
Building on this momentum, Simbe this morning announced that it’s secured $26 million in a series A equity funding round led by Venrock, with participation from Activant Capital and Valo Ventures. As part of the arrangement, SoftBank Robotics America, SoftBank’s intermediate holding company responsible for its robotics projects, has agreed to help Simbe scale production of Tally to an additional 1,000 units over the next two years.
CEO Bogolea says the newfound funds will be put toward business operations, including R&D and the expansion of Simbe’s engineering, sales, marketing, and customer success teams. Recently, Simbe moved into a new South San Francisco headquarters that’s six times the size of its previous office, and today, it revealed new board of directors members in iPod and iPhone co-inventor and Nest founder Tony Fadell, Venrock’s David Pakman, and Pathbreaker Venture’s Ryan Gembala.
“Our investors, both previous and new, provide much more than financial support. They are advocates and trusted advisors who bring invaluable institutional knowledge to all facets of our business,” said Bogolea. “Both our equity financing partners and the SoftBank Robotics team are deeply aligned with Simbe’s vision to revitalize physical retail through data. We are at a pivotal time of growth and value their support as we continue to transform retail at a global scale.”
So how’s Tally work? Simbe drives the robot around to create a store map and “teach” it the location of its charging dock. (Simbe claims most customers see Tally achieve baseline accuracy in as little as one week.) Once configured, Tally operates completely on its own, only requiring remote or on-site servicing if something goes wrong.
Tally taps computer vision to tell which products aren’t on a shelf and which (if any) are missing facings, and it uses RFID to take precise inventory counts. A single robot can scan 15,000 to 30,000 products per hour, or around 80,000 SKUs in roughly two hours. That’s compared with the average employee, who spends 20 to 30 hours a week scanning 10,000 to 20,000 products.
In a typical setup, Tally performs rounds three times per day: in the morning to validate the previous night’s restock, in the afternoon to fill remaining holes with backstock, and in the evening to provide recommendations to the restocking team. It’s designed for grocery store, drug stores, value stores, clothing stores, and consumer electronics stores larger than 5,000 square feet, and it currently captures all items with the exception of bakery, deli, and produce.
Simbe doesn’t sell Tally units. Rather, the company provides the hardware free of charge and levies a monthly fee on its retailer users, which varies depending on factors like deployment size, the number of SKUs scanned, and whether computer vision and/or RFID scanning are actively used.
Simbe competes with a number of companies in the retail automation space, including San Francisco-based Bossa Nova, which last year raised $29 million for a robot that scans store shelves for missing inventory. Penna Systems eschews wheeled robots for autonomous quadcopters that track store inventory from overhead. U.K. supermarket chain Ocado — one of the world’s largest online-only grocery retailers — has engineered a packing system that uses computer vision to transfer goods. And Takeoff Technologies‘ platform, which works out of pharmacies, convenience stores, and quick-service restaurants, doubles as a pick-up station, complete with lockers for easy access.
But investors like Venrock partner David Pakman have confidence Simbe’s solutions and vision will keep it well ahead of the pack.
“The Simbe team is building one of the most interesting datasets in retail, capturing inventory and pricing data that hasn’t been available before. With Simbe, retail stores can free up scarce labor to spend more time doing high-value activities like interacting with customers. Retail is changing, and stores must modernize to succeed in today’s environment,” said Venrock partner Pakman. “The Simbe team has impressed me from the start, and they are uniquely equipped to bring this new reality to retail.”