William Chomley and his IMAGR team is on a mission to eliminate supermarket checkout queues from our lives. And no amount of hurdles will stop him in his quest.
Down the long, central corridor of Auckland’s old City Works Depot, in a cramped room littered with the paraphernalia of a tech start-up, you’ll find a team of nine enthusiastic software programmers busy scanning items of groceries into a supermarket trolley.
They’ve created leading edge AI (Artificial Intelligence) software linked to cameras that recognises grocery items as they enter the trolley. No need for barcodes; no need to queue at the checkout. IMAGR’s revolutionary SMARTCART technology incorporates QR codes, Wi-Fi, small cameras and a server-based algorithm to identify products purely based on what they look like.
After the items are scanned, the rest of the shopping transaction, including card payment, is all carried out on your smartphone. The idea is that shoppers bypass the checkout completely.
Sounds futuristic? Get ready, it’s here!
SMARTCART is now at the pointy end of its development cycle. It has already caught the interest of major New Zealand and UK supermarket chains, as well as US retail stores. For William and his team their dream is about to become reality.
But to truly appreciate the roller-coaster journey that brought the young entrepreneur to this point, it’s necessary to wind back the clock ten-plus years to when a 16-year-old William relocated to Sydney from Auckland with his family. It was his final year of high school.
Making new ‘mates’ wasn’t easy. Without the usual social distractions he found himself with time on his hands to plan a business. He also had encouragement from his parents.
His first venture happened while still at school – selling Coca-Cola and lemonade out of his locker. Until he was caught and forced to donate his proceeds to the school.
A landscaping/lawnmowing business in partnership with a school friend followed, but the travel bug took hold and an OE took him to Orlando in the US and South America.
Back in Sydney it took him four years to complete a three-year commerce degree, partly funded by another landscaping start-up. William had a strong interest in analytics too – which led to a short career in investment fund management – short because he couldn’t pass his CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) exams.
He quickly realised that people and selling were his strengths, and while waiting in a supermarket queue during lunch breaks at the funds firm, he hit on the idea of a technology that could eliminate the need for check-outs and their associated queues.
After discussions with colleagues, RFID (radio frequency identification) was utilised as the enabling technology to scan items as they entered the shopping trolley or cart. They set up a business called IN2GO.
After many long nights working on the idea, William decided to concentrate on the project full-time. He now had a small team working with him, but they were less willing to jump from their day jobs.
Unfortunately RFID technology had limitations for what William was trying to achieve, it required adoption right through a supply chain and it was expensive. Despite interest from potential customers, IN2GO stalled.
“In theory it was a great idea, but in practice it was never going to take off,” recalls William.
“So I started to look at alternative methods to try and achieve the same outcome.”
William applied many of the lessons learnt with his IN2GO venture to his next one. But with IMAGR it was a case of applying new, AI-based technology. This time he made sure he was heading in the right direction – getting retailers on board first, rather than wasting time and money on a ‘build it and they will come’ approach.
“I’m building this out of demand, instead of supplying something no one wanted as was the case with IN2GO.
“This venture will succeed for two reasons. Firstly because of our team. We have an amazing mix of the brightest, most humble and most passionate people I’ve ever encountered.
“Being the dumbest in the room has never been as true as is my case at IMAGR!
“Secondly, we are solely focused on the core functionality of the SMARTCART product. We acknowledge that the ‘bells ‘n whistles’ will come later.”
Progress has been swift – the technology quickly achieving 98 percent accuracy in the identification of products.
“It makes us commercially viable and now able to have conversations with some large retailers,” says William. “And when Amazon Go announced it was going into bricks and mortar sales, after already removing checkouts from supermarkets, interest in the SMARTCART product by the world’s retailers went up even further.
“It proved that what I wanted to do could be done,” he says.
His business journey hasn’t been without its challenges – as William recounts “not everyone that started the journey with me is still involved in the business unfortunately”.
But he has had support from a number of sources, including his parents. “After insisting I pitch to him, like anybody else, Dad decided the juice was worth the squeeze,” laughs William.
A $20k loan was put to good use in securing an airtight patent.
To help make ends meet, he got a job shifting household effects, and worked in a café in the mornings, leaving home at 4.30am. “I did anything I could to keep things going. And all the time I was pitching to people and getting knocked back.”
William still remembers his first pitch attempt, which didn’t end well. It was a taste of what was to come, and he’s lost count of how many pitches he has done.
“But Dad told me to back myself – and that’s what’s kept me going.”
William has big goals for SMARTCART. Having moved back to Auckland in December 2016, he now describes where they’re at as “running hard towards the finish line”.
In two to three years he sees the technology integrated into supermarkets around the world.
“It is an industry that is ready for change and most retailers we talk to acknowledge that,” he says. “The beauty with SMARTCART is that implementation into the first supermarket chain takes a month, but then scaling from there is extremely quick as it is an easy retrofit solution.”
William sees the export market holding most of the potential.
“New Zealand and Australia are mainly duopolies. But when you talk about the US or UK there are ten to 15 players all of the same size, so targeting those markets is certainly a priority.”
When NZBusiness caught up with him in late May, IMAGR had just successfully completed its second capital raise and William was planning trips to the US, UK and Europe.
IMAGR has been invited to pitch to the world’s top three retailers. By early 2019, they’re looking to achieve 100 percent user adoption at those retailers.
SMARTCART won’t just stop at the shopping trolley either – integrated with a supermarket app IMAGR will also recommend recipes based on what you’re scanning, direct you to specific products, map the fastest way around the store, eliminate paper coupons, and much more.
Trips to the supermarket are clearly about to become a much less frustrating experience.