Steamboat tech startup shifts Grokker to commercial applications
November 10, 2012
Steamboat Springs — Just eight months ago, Steamboat's Carrie and Tony Requist were flush with excitement about the reception their new consumer electronic device, the Grokker, received at an industry show in San Francisco.
They are just as excited today, but they are forging a new path to success. Or, as people say in the world of startups, the Requists have made a pivot.
Their company, U Grok It, was created to develop a smartphone attachment that would allow people to search for lost personal items in their home — a TV remote or a billfold, for example — using economical radio-frequency identification tags, or RFIDs.
But that's all changed for the time being.
"The consumer market was enthusiastic about the Grokker, and we still want to go that way at some point," said Carrie Requist, the company's CEO. "But the business market spoke up loud and clear. Once we started announcing the project, businesses came out of the woodwork saying, 'We need the product now!' When your market comes to you so strongly, it's good to listen."
U Grok It has raised cash from three angel investors — one in Steamboat, another in the San Francisco Bay Area and a third in Florida — that will allow them to build working prototypes they can take to large companies and industry shows.
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Requist said that typically, no more than 1 to 4 percent of startup companies are able to secure outside funding.
“The seed investment that we just announced is a huge milestone and vote of confidence that U Grok It will succeed,” she said.
RFIDs have been used for the past decade by large companies such as Walmart to monitor inventory or track the progress of merchandise already shipped from distribution centers.
The tracking is accomplished by embedding an individualized RFID tag in each piece of merchandise or machine part that enables the user to monitor its status using an antenna that detects the magnetic field or radio waves being emitted by the RFID. The heavy handheld devices used in large businesses can detect the tags from several yards away and ideally are placed next to assembly lines.
The Grokker represents a breakthrough because it can be attached to a smartphone, including Android phones and iPhones, through its audio port. It results in a lightweight device taking advantage of a user interface that most store employees and their customers already are familiar with.
Most smaller businesses, like those found in Steamboat, are receiving merchandise with RFID tags attached, Requist said, but have no practical means of accessing the efficiencies and cost savings they offer.
Imagine a large clothing store where the customer is looking for a specific sweater in the right size. A store clerk could locate the sweater and close the sale much more efficiently with a Grokker attached to a phone, Requist said.
The Grokker also ideally is suited to service businesses that could use the device to sense the maintenance history of a specific hot tub in a rental condo in a ski town, for example. Or just as likely, boot up the medical history of a horse embedded with an RFID chip.
Perhaps the most practical example of the advantages of U Grok It's new device is the laborious task of doing inventory in a hardware or gift store.
Typically, store owners do this with bar code readers, which require them to aim the reader directly at the bar code. With a Grokker and an RFID chip, they could walk down an aisle with their phone pointed in the general direction of all of the items on the shelf and successfully capture their data, Requist said.
Instead of hiring four college kids to help them do inventory throughout the span of five nights, they and an employee might do it by themselves in one night, Requist said.
"If we make them efficient in one of those areas, it goes right to the bottom line,” she said.
Requist is hopeful that the new working prototypes will be ready to show to prospective customers in January or February and then to make a big splash at a national retailers show.
Who knows, Grokking someday could be almost as familiar as Googling.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com