Can shelf scanning robots unlock a massive dataset and save $1.7 trillion?

One of the most peculiar and promising growth areas of robotics, these shelf scanners mean business.

Shelf-scanning robots: Real value lies in the data, not the hardware ZDNet's Greg Nichols talks to Karen Roby about one of the most peculiar and promising growth areas of robotics. Read more: https://zd.net/34zJxt3

Simbe, which deploys shelf scanning robots and AI to provide retailers insights into inventory and operations has pulled in $26 million in a Series A. The company also added substantial inventory financing from SoftBank Robotics.

The unique blend of equity and inventory financing points to the swift rise of the kinds of scanning robots Simbe makes a category that was virtually unheard of just a couple years ago. Now robots from Bossa Nova, a Simbe competitor, are in hundreds of Walmart stores. Pensa, another competitor, albeit one that makes a shelf-scanning aerial drone, has a strategic partnership with Anheuser-Busch InBev. Simbe, meanwhile, has strategic partnerships with grocery chain Giant Eagle, among others.

The buzz around the premise of a shelf-scanning robot may be a head-scratcher, as with so many technology companies nowadays, the real value lies not in the hardware but the data.

"The Simbe team is building one of the most interesting datasets in retail, capturing inventory and pricing data that hasn't been available before," explains David Pakman, partner at Venrock, which led the equity round. "Retail is changing, and stores must modernize to succeed in today's environment."

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The data that these robots collect while roving aisles at retail locations, combined with powerful analysis, is meant to increase efficiency by solving for the $1.75 trillion "ghost economy," defined by out of stocks, inaccurate price execution, and lack of product location optimization industry-wide. With up-to-date inventory information, managers using robots like Simbe's flagship Tally robot can enact faster operational decisions at the store level and more nimble inventory management. The problem of poor stock management is so pervasive that inventory mishaps account for more lost revenue than theft.

The elephant in the room, of course, is e-commerce; or, to put a finer point on it: Amazon. Brick and mortar retailers and especially large chains are doing all they can to shortcut the traditional inefficiencies of operating a storefront. Granular data models of how inventory moves through a store are considered a holy grail in that quest, bringing e-commerce analytics to traditional retail. Investors are responding.

Simbe's equity financing is led by Venrock, and its inventory financing builds on a partnership Simbe began in 2018 with SoftBank Robotics. The inventory financing side of the equation will support scaled manufacturing of an additional 1,000 Tally units over the coming two years.

"Both our equity financing partners and the SoftBank Robotics team are deeply aligned with Simbe's vision to revitalize physical retail through data," Brad Bogolea, Co-Founder and CEO of Simbe Robotics. "We are at a pivotal time of growth and value their support as we continue to transform retail at a global scale."