Pensa, AI-Enabled Drones Maker for Inventory Monitoring, Raises $5M

[Updated, 1/18/19, 1:10 pm CT] Austin—The grocery store shelf has yet to be plugged into the increasingly digital food supply chain. Instead, inventory is typically tallied by employees by hand in a slow and laborious process.

“It’s one big black hole with groceries, not knowing what is exactly on the retail shelf and available for sale,” says Richard Schwartz, president and CEO of Pensa Systems in Austin. “Something like one out of eight or 10 items is typically not in stock.”

Inaccurate inventory costs retailers $1.1 trillion annually, according to IHL, a Tennessee firm that specializes in retail and hospitality research.

Pensa, an Austin startup which announced Sunday that it has raised $5 million, is trying to digitize the manual process that grocers currently use. Signia Venture Partners led the funding round with participation from new investors Commerce Ventures and existing investors ZX Ventures, ATX Seed Ventures, Capital Factory, and Revtech Ventures.

Pensa’s plan is to move beyond employees regularly walking the aisles and noting where products have sold out or been misplaced. It has created artificial-intelligence-enabled drones to surveil the shelves and give stores accurate inventory information in nearly real time, Schwartz says.

“We provide autonomous, continuous monitoring of the shelf,” he explains. “We are able to look and conclude and learn in the same way that people do when they walk around, down to the individual SKU level.”

Schwartz describes Pensa’s drones as “very small and light and don’t look like drones in terms of the military with exposed blades.” The machines are quieter than a typical’s store ambient noise, he adds. “People are largely oblivious,” he says. “When it’s 10 to 15 feet away, it fades into the background.”

The new funds will help Pensa do additional store trials. Anheuser-Busch InBev became a strategic investor (through ZX Ventures) in the startup following one such trial, the company says. (A video provided by the company, below, shows the drones navigating a store.)

Knowing exactly what’s on shelves becomes even more important as shoppers are increasingly turning to “click it and pick it” and e-commerce delivery services. Grocery Dive reports that 18 million U.S. consumers used a grocery app at least once a month last year—a 49.6 percent increase over 2017, citing eMarketer data. This year, eMarketer predicts 22.6 million will use grocery apps at least once a month, rising to more than 30 million by 2022, the industry publication reported.

To meet those needs, grocers are turning to new technologies to give customers better shopping experiences. [Updated with latest investment.] Boston-based Celect, which has developed machine-learning software to help retailers manage inventory, raised $15 million in a Series C round last month led by Palo Alto, CA-based NGP Capital and existing investor Fung Capital, which is based in San Francisco.

Bossa Nova Robotics and Simbe Robotics are both producing robots that use cameras and artificial intelligence to keep an eye on store shelves for items that need restocking or price changes. Bossa Nova, which is based in San Francisco and Pittsburgh, PA, has run pilots with Walmart, while Simbe has backing from SoftBank.

The merging of online and in-store shopping means customers are expecting merchandise to be on the shelves when they place orders online for pick up. “If somebody orders something and they see it’s available on the website, and then it’s not [at the store], you could lose a customer for life,” Schwartz says. “It’s the worst possible case. … We can fill the gap between online and offline, virtual goods and physical goods.”

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