Density, a startup building AI-powered, people-counting infrared sensors, today closed a $51 million financing round. The infusion brings the San Francisco-based startup’s total raised to over $74 million, following $23 million in previous funding. Cofounder and CEO Andrew Farah says the $51 million will be put toward addressing “unprecedented demand” from offices, manufacturers, grocery stores, industrial plants, and governments trying to abide by capacity limits during the pandemic.
In many ways, Density’s products were tailor-made for a global health crisis. Cities around the world have imposed limits on businesses — particularly restaurants — regarding the number of customers they allow in. Moreover, the shift to work from home and financial headwinds have companies questioning the need for physical office space. Even before the pandemic, U.S. Commercial Real Estate Services estimated unused commercial property in the U.S. is worth about $1 trillion.
Density leverages depth-measuring hardware and an AI backend to perform crowd analytics that overcome the challenges posed by corners, hallways, doorways, and conference rooms. Clients like Pepsi, Delta, Verizon, Uber, Marriot, and ExxonMobil use its stack to figure out which parts of their offices get the most use and which the least and to deliver people-counting metrics to hundreds and even thousands of employees.
Farah conceived of Density’s core technology while in graduate school at Syracuse University and working at a mobile software development firm. His modest goal — to measure how busy a popular coffee shop was — led him to explore a couple of solutions before settling on the one that formed the foundation for Density’s people-counting sensors.
The sensor consists of over 800 components sourced from 137 supply chains Density itself manages and operates sort of like a small laptop. It’s a rectangular box that fits in the palm of an average-sized hand, belying its complexity.
The sensor attaches above a doorway and tracks movement frame-by-frame, with two Class 1 infrared lasers that bounce off the floor. Algorithms filter out signal noise (for example, boxes, strollers, pushcarts, plates, and other items being carried or pushed) to measure the direction, collision, and speed of people walking into and out of view. The data is funneled via Wi-Fi to Density’s cloud-hosted backend, where it’s processed and analyzed. A web dashboard, SMS messages, signage, and mobile apps provide insights like the real-time capacity of a room and historical crowd sizes, while an API allows third-party apps, services, and websites to make use of the data in novel ways.
One of Density’s clients — a large pharmaceutical company — uses the sensors to keep its restrooms spick and span by deploying cleaners every 70 uses. Ride-hailing giant Uber uses the sensors in one of its support centers to make sure the center is adequately staffed. Other applications include identifying which building entrances are most used during evacuation drills and estimating the number of people on the top floor of an office during a fire.
According to Farah, Density’s infrared tracking method offers a major advantage over other approaches: privacy. Unlike a security camera, its sensors can’t determine the gender or ethnicity of the people it tracks, nor perform invasive facial recognition. “It’s far easier to do a camera,” he told VentureBeat in a previous interview. “But we believe the data pendulum has swung too far in one direction. It’s good to see people ask about data being collected … We knew that the right market was corporate clients with office space because our sensor can do occupancy detection inside of a room where a camera can’t go.”
Density charges $895 per device, and its customers — which include a homeless shelter network, theme parks, Ivy League colleges, and others beyond the above-mentioned brands — pay a monthly or annual fee for access to the data.
The pandemic initially hurt Density’s sales because many potential customers temporarily shut down. But since the close of its series B funding in June 2018, Density says its sensors have counted more than 150 million people in dozens of countries across hundreds of millions of square feet. Recently, it expanded manufacturing in Syracuse, New York by 90% to keep up with a pandemic-related uptick in orders.
Farah says Density is currently focusing its marketing efforts on grocery stores and other businesses that are deemed “essential” but required to adhere to social-distancing guidelines. Following the round, the company plans to expand its sales team and further develop software and platform products.
Kleiner Perkins led Density’s series C round, with contributions from 01 Advisors, Upfront Ventures, Founders Fund, Ludlow Ventures, Launch, LPC Ventures, and individual investors Alex Rodriguez, Alex Davis, Kevin and Julia Hartz, and Cyan and Scott Banister. Founded in 2014, the startup now employs more than 50 people across its Syracuse and San Francisco offices.