Some startups have modest goals: they just want to carve out a niche for themselves and make a profit on the margins. Grand Rapids-based Iris Technology Inc. isn’t one of those startups. What it has in mind is something far grander — using its facial recognition software and computer vision technology to replace the bar codes that are everywhere in the world of retail, to replace the scanning systems that read those codes and ultimately eliminate the checkout lines that customers funnel through at stores.
In other words, it wants to revolutionize how we shop.
Iris was co-founded by James Meeks, who is co-founder and managing partner of Grand Rapids-based Rapids Venture, a boutique investment firm with a handful of early stage portfolio companies. He has a partner in New York, where Iris has launched a pilot project to demonstrate proof of concept with a packaged-food-to-go company called Fraiche Corp.
Meeks is Iris’ president and chairman of the board. He has an MBA from Stanford University. The co-founder and CEO is David Stout, who got a bachelor’s degree from Stanford in machine learning.
Fraiche is one of Rapids Venture’s portfolio companies. It markets itself as selling fine-dining food at fast-casual prices, with dishes made from ingredients primarily sourced from organic farms close to New York.
The business model is to remove the store-as-middleman, with products on shelves in stand-alone refrigerator units in building lobbies or at local gyms. Sample dishes include wild roasted sockeye salmon with greens, seasonal veggies, mustard vinaigrette and sunflower-seed herb salsa; roasted alewife with carrots, chickpeas, dates, hummus and lemon vinaigrette; and a Manhattan cobb salad, with greens, smoked chicken, bacon, cheddar cheese, veggies and boiled egg with maple shallot vinaigrette.
The one Fraiche location that uses Iris’ technology eliminates the need for a consumer to take the product to an employee to have it rung up and paid for. No staff is required to handle transactions.
When customers register with Iris, their face is scanned by the company’s facial-recognition technology. Then they enter their credit-card information.
The refrigerator has two cameras, one aiming at food on the shelves, the other at the buyer. When the buyer picks up food and leaves, his or her credit card is billed for each item taken.
Meeks said he has meetings scheduled soon to demonstrate the technology to two large grocery retailers. He said the plan is for him and his partners to fund proof-of-concept and early rollout of the technology and then bring it to venture-capital friends on the East Coast and in Silicon Valley for possible investments.
Crain’s has confirmed that at least one venture-capital firm in Ann Arbor is in the process of setting up a meeting to get a demonstration of the technology.
“We’ve been in clandestine mode,” said Meeks. “We want to do a frictionless point of sale without a lot of infrastructure. Can Grand Rapids be a center for computer vision?”
There is a certain irony that he is hoping Iris can help Grand Rapids become a center for a new technology in a building that was once the scene of an older technology made in Grand Rapids. They are based in the old Metal Office Furniture Co. plant number two building, just south of downtown. Metal Office was a precursor of Steelcase, and the four-story building was built in 1909. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.
“Iris is one of the most compelling applications I have seen in some time. By combining complex computer vision and machine learning, the platform can solve a variety of real-life applications in supply chain, retail commerce and asset management,” said Mike Morin, a venture partner at Wakestream Ventures, the investment arm of Start Garden, the DeVos family startup incubator in downtown Grand Rapids. He said he has been tracking Iris’ progress for a possible investment.
Meeks said Iris’ technology can be used in non-retail settings. He said he will be targeting health care systems, too. The technology could be deployed in operating rooms, for example, to track how instruments and equipment are used, eliminating one major source of surgical error and infection: when sponges are left inside patients.