Digitally activated systems and e-tailing may be the most talked about subjects today. But how can one forget the good old brick and mortar store? A place where people, products and purchases interact in real time. Lucky for us and our love for in-person connections, Spencer Hewett is making sure that retail is remembered and re-energized through RADAR.
While tech entrepreneurs were focusing on digitizing the Internet over the past decade, Spencer Hewett was secretly inventing a technology that does quite the opposite. RADAR is a first-of-its-kind fully integrated hardware and software system that uses RFID and computer vision to help retailers easily locate and manage inventory while allowing customers to shop products as easy as an e-commerce transaction.
Six years in the making, Spencer recounts the rise and return of RADAR as he celebrates the company’s latest round of $16 Million in funding! Yes kids, hard work and patience really do pay off.
“One thing I learned from The Thiel Fellowship is that companies only die when the founder stops working on it!”
Spencer was born in Illinois and raised across six states. His early childhood years included playing with dolls (thanks to his two older sisters) and mainly building and selling computers. He even made his high school pocket money selling second hand designer bags for his mom’s friends on eBay! All of which led to studying computer engineering at Washington University in St. Louis.
Yet in 2012, he would quit university as a sophomore and be awarded The Thiel Fellowship, a $100,000 prize and an opportunity to move to Palo Alto. “My application essay was about automating checkout. I still remember receiving an email from them asking to get on a call to further discuss my application the night of my take home algorithm exam. Turns out that it was CNBC filming live reactions of all 20 folks who had been accepted into the prestigious program.” Feel free to scavenge the Internet for footage of Spencer screaming f*** and running down the dorm hallways with $2 champagne being sprayed on him.
THE RISE OF RADAR
Rewind back to 2011 and the early seeds of RADAR came in the form of Shopit – a company Spencer had built using RFID tags to map out stores. Considering this was more of a feature than an actual product or service, he was later inspired to fix long shopping lines. This aha-moment happened while interning at eBay, and specifically waiting in line for over 30 minutes at a Victoria Secret semi-annual sale during lunch (he blames it on his co-intern at the time).
“This was the first level of improvement in checkouts – a kiosk that one could walk up to, scan their items in hand and be charged right away. It was after many iterations and a crash course in fundraising Silicon-Valley-style through YCombinator, that I raised my first $600,000 in investment.” And then came a moment of self-checking (no pun intended).
Spencer’s goal was to create a system that would know what everyone was picking up so that the store could charge them for items on their way out (autonomous checkout as we like to call it). So how does this work you might wonder?
“We built a system of antennas that would power RFID (radio frequency identification tags) and locate them in addition to using computer vision to locate people and objects. Our technology then matches the location of the product to the person. Typically in this space, accuracy is measured around 2-3 meters in 2D. We were trying to get it down to 10cm. While experiments in the Lab went very well, once the environment changed, the radio properties would affect how the signals between the tag and reader would bounce off the walls, thus shifting the data. This was a physics problem, not a software one.”
To fix this, Spencer literally went back to the books! With the mentorship of an MIT professor (who had invented RFID), he studied the law of physics. Between 2013 and 2016, he learned, ran out of money and turned his apartment into an Airbnb operation, finally to have launched RADAR as we know it – a system that works within a realistic environment giving an accuracy of 10cm in 3D! (Essentially you can apply all of the KPI’s and metrics from an e-commerce site to the physical store.)
“The long-term vision for the company is to index every single object in the world.”
Today, RADAR counts 13 employees, including COO, Michael Murphy (former Head of RFID at Inditex, parent company of Zara) and Adam Blair, CTO (former chief engineer at Boeing having launched 18 satellites and founder of a company that built RFID systems for Intel).
Even more impressive, RADAR has signed three major publicly traded billion dollar apparel companies, two being active investors. While the company currently focuses on inventory management to drive revenue for retailers, it’s not the end goal. In Spencer’s words, “Walmart sells 80 billion items per year. If we are able to index all of it, that’s 80 billion items in the world that can be tracked. Imagine picking up a bottle of water from Walmart, throwing it in the trash and the trash can knows that its plastic and recycles it automatically. We are excited about adding intel to everything and having companies build consumer-facing platforms upon it.”
As a Thiel Fellow, YCombinator participant, a young CEO and a mastermind in creating something that never existed, here is Spencer’s humble advice to aspiring entrepreneurs:
Don’t start something if you just want to make money. It’s not enough of a motivation factor to get you through near-death experiences and hard times.
Don’t be afraid to ask people for stuff.
While fundraising, be transparent with investors. Acknowledging all the downsides and challenges of your business shows that you are approaching your business in a realistic manner.
Want to chat with Spencer about the future of retail or simply grab a drink with him at Soho House? Email us and we’ll put you in touch!
PS. Check out his boss sister, Denise’s RADICHE feature here. Don’t you wish for some Hewett genes? We sure do!
Photo Courtesy of RADAR.