Wal-Mart to hear 26 startups’ ideas

ERIK S. LESSER/ EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
ERIK S. LESSER/ EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

By Robbie Neiswanger

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc.

FreshSpire Inc. was founded when five high school friends decided they wanted to do their part to help solve the issue of food waste and hunger.

Just two years later, two members of the North Carolina-based startup will get to show their solution to the world’s largest retailer. Their idea is an application that can notify consumers of grocery store discounts on food items nearing the end of their shelf lives.

“We feel like the way that FreshSpire can really make the most impact is to partner with a global-scale store, and Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the world,” said co-founder Shraddha Rathod, who is now a student at North Carolina State. “So it’s kind of unbelievable that we’re getting this opportunity.”

FreshSpire is one of 26 startups invited to present their ideas to Wal-Mart as part of today’s Technology Open Call in Bentonville. The event is being held in conjunction with Friday’s Northwest Arkansas Tech Summit in Rogers.

Wal-Mart declined to reveal the number of startups that applied, but Wal-Mart Lab 415-C Director Tom Douglass said in an emailed statement that participants were selected on the basis of relevance to the retailer’s corporate strategy, the innovative nature of the technology and how it relates to customers.

The startups’ officials will spend the day with Wal-Mart representatives demonstrating how their ideas could provide solutions for the retailer in areas like food waste, sustainability, security, augmented reality and artificial intelligence.

Wal-Mart said in a post on its technology website that investing in a company is not the primary purpose of the open call. The open call offers partnership opportunities through seed capital, engineering expertise or access to Wal-Mart Technology’s headquarters.

Technology has been a priority for Wal-Mart under Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon. The retailer recently purchased Jet.com for $3.3 billion, and has expanded tech-centered services like grocery pickup and Wal-Mart Pay.

“As part of Walmart Technology, Lab 415-C actively seeks to engage emerging technology in order to better understand how to serve our customers,” Douglass said in a statement last spring. “Our goal in the event is not only to offer these companies a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but to keep Walmart on the cutting edge of technology.”

So startups like FreshSpire and New York-based big data company Grey Jean Technologies recognize the possibilities of a potential partnership with Wal-Mart.

“There’s only one Wal-Mart-sized opportunity, and that’s Wal-Mart,” said Craig Alberino, chief executive officer of Grey Jean Technologies. “So it’s huge for any company, let alone a company that’s less than 20 people and less than two years old.”

Alberino said his company began with the idea of improving the accuracy and reliability of marketing messages to consumers. The result is an artificial intelligence engine — a tool called Genie — to provide what he said are more accurate predictions of consumer purchasing behavior.

Grey Jean Technologies has worked with big clients and Fortune 500 firms, but the open call will be its first meeting with Wal-Mart officials. While the event is important for his company, Alberino said, it’s also a chance for Wal-Mart to turn to smaller companies for innovative retail ideas.

“In an ideal world, we’re partnering with that organization to transform one of the world’s biggest and finest retailers that there is,” Alberino said. “Quite honestly, I think some outsiders can actually do a lot of good there, and I think they believe that too.”

Participating startups are based in U.S states like New York, Colorado, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, Maine and South Carolina.

GrowTech Industries, based in Rome, N.Y., will show Wal-Mart its verticle farms, which are fabricated from recycled shipping containers. New York-based Criteek will demonstrate technology that enables customer-generated video product reviews for product pages.

Other countries will be represented as well, with startups from places like Italy, Israel and Denmark selected to participate. Israel-based Cimagine Media will pitch its augmented reality tool, which allows customers to see how products look and fit in their homes before purchasing them.

Joe Recchia, who is the company’s vice president of sales and business development, said the open call is not the first time he has met with Wal-Mart representatives. Two previous opportunities have not led to a partnership, but Recchia is hopeful the open call produces different results.

“I’ve been close so many times,” said Recchia, who is based in New York. “This is just one more opportunity there.”

Meanwhile, the FreshSpire team is hopeful its first Wal-Mart meeting will be a success.

The founding members of the company, who all attended the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, began discussing ideas late in their senior year of high school after recognizing the food waste problem. They entered their technology-based solution in a venture competition, which helped the idea gain momentum.

The five women now attend four different colleges, and the distance led to some complications as they developed the technology, but Rathod said each wants to “really see this through.”

Rathod and Mona Amin, who attends East Carolina University, will pitch the technology to Wal-Mart today. Both said it’s the biggest opportunity for the young company so far.

“When we started we never really thought FreshSpire could go that far because we were students and we were young,” Rathod said. “This is just something we tried out. When we got momentum and people believing in us, we realized that our idea was actually very valid, and it was something that could make a difference. … Now we’re going in front of Wal-Mart, and I think we’re ready.”

Business on 10/06/2016

Print Headline: Wal-Mart to hear 26 startups’ ideas

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