Checkout Technologies, the new challenge of Enrico Pandian
20 June 2018 | Written by La redazione
We interviewed the founder of Supermercato24 and asked him to introduce us his new startup and to tell us what it means for him to innovate.
Faced with the introduction, development and dissemination of new technologies it is easy to get caught up in enthusiasm and start with a new business project. On the contrary, it is decidedly more complicated to have an idea of success that, thanks also to a reliable business model, is able to produce value and break into the market.
What does it really mean to do innovation? We asked this question to Enrico Pandian, an entrepreneur from Verona and founder, among others, of the startup Supermercato24, today engaged with a new challenge, that of Checkout Technologies, a company that develops convolutional neural networks for Computer Vision, which allows customers of the point of sale to make purchases without going to the cash desk. Recently, Checkout Technologies has been rewarded in Beijing as the best European startup, a recognition that does not have an immediate economic impact but that is helping to reach a greater number of customers and attract new investors.
Enrico, it’s been almost 20 years since your first startup. What does innovation mean to you?
During these years my idea about the meaning of the word innovation has changed: at the beginning, I thought that it meant doing something that is not in the market or simply doing something on the internet. This was enough to make innovation. Going forward, thanks to the experience gained over the years, I realized that to innovate we need to develop a technology that did not exist before and that has a strong impact on science. The last company I created, Checkout Technologies, is the first company that I consider innovative at all. Before Checkout Technologies I have always been involved in activities such as Marketplace and consumer web. With this undertaking it is different: the only other companies that take care of our own activities are university research centres, even if Checkout Technologies is based on a startup’s logic, different from the academic one.
Sometimes to do innovation it is not necessary to do something completely new. It is sufficient to do something that already exists but do it better. Is that so?
Everything is based on the level of risk that a startup wants to take. If you want to limit the risks, the advice is to take something that already exists and works well in another country, take it to Italy, replicate it and start from here to innovate. In this way we already have a basis, concepts developed and tested by others that can easily be brought into a new context. It is the easiest and safest way to make innovation, perhaps not very creative, at least initially, but that offers results already in the short term. This is what I consider “true innovation”, that is, something that does not exist, it takes more investment and much more time, but the result is much greater. To give an example, if with Supermercato24 I expect an investor to make 10-20 times his invested capital, with a company like Checkout Technologies I imagine he will do 100 times as much. This is to underline the difference between these two realities, they are two completely different worlds. When you do “true innovation” you have a risk, there is not a road already marked but you have to create it yourself and it is very likely to make mistakes. So you need to know how to make mistakes, get up and try again. Our logic is “try and error”.
Let’s go into the merits of Checkout Technologies, how does it work and what is the technology behind the company?
Ours is a company that develops convolutional neural networks for Computer Vision: by simplifying, from a video stream taken with a video camera we can understand what is happening in the images, without the help of a human operator but thanks to a system of artificial intelligence. This technology allows, for example, to record the actions of users within a store and then allow them to make purchases without going through the checkout.
An idea similar to that of Amazon Go, therefore. How is your proposal different and how does it exceed the limits of Amazon Go?
When we started analyzing the patents of Amazon Go we noticed a problem: the connections have bandwidth limitations and Amazon initially did not take this into account. So, it had a central system that processed all the information flows, creating a bottleneck: it prevented, for example, more than 20 users from staying inside the supermarket because it could not process all the data. Instead, we have created a modular infrastructure that we have patented, and which allows us to manage hundreds of users simultaneously. In this way, we have overcome the first big problem but obviously going forward there are further difficulties. In a year we have registered six patents, and this shows how much space there is to innovate in this area.
One of the elements that determine the success of an innovation is its diffusion. How do you plan to overcome the “problem” of users’ consolidated habits? Do you think they can welcome the revolution that is promising?
At the technological level, we moved from the PC, which forced us to go home or office to do certain operations, to have a smartphone always in hand, which allows us to do everything wherever we are. The next step, in my opinion, is to have artificial intelligences that are in the air, that we do not perceive but that are present and analyze our behaviours, interpreting them. This is exactly what we propose with Checkout Technology, without requiring the user additional actions compared to its normal behaviour. I believe that, as with any technology, at the beginning adoption and dissemination could be slow, but growth rates are exponential. In part, the revolution of artificial intelligence is already happening: there is not only the “computer vision” but there are voice assistants, devices that control themselves with gestures and movements and much more. Some of these have already entered our habits and we have not even noticed it.
And what do you answer to those who are afraid that the employees will lose their work?
The figure of the operator in supermarkets will not be eliminated, but simply relocated. To think that jobs will be removed is a very limited concept and above all linked to short-term reasoning. The human interface will be necessary, and this is indisputable. I think that the cashier plays a mechanical role, it is like a robot that reads barcodes, the human component does not exist in this type of work, there is nothing of value in that activity. We must give these people other tasks, move them between the shelves to tell the products, entrust them with the production of fresh food to be consumed immediately, there are many other tasks, which could also enhance more employees.
You’re used to creating startups and innovative businesses and then letting them go. How do you feel when you leave a project that you have founded and at the same time immediately immerse yourself in a new idea?
A few years ago I realized that I do not have to fall in love with my projects because of this conditions my choices, often in negative. Not all the projects I started went well, many went wrong because I wanted them to go well at all costs. What I consider particularly important, however, is leaving the companies in health: when you decide to take new paths, you have to bequeath capital to keep the company going and a functioning and run-in management team. Over the years I realized that I struggle to manage groups of more than 10 people, so sometimes the choice to go away and dedicate myself to other projects was also for the good of my company.
Starting again with new ideas, however, is always a great stimulus. I also feel a growth on a personal level, I started with very basic projects and today I deal with more complex and futuristic things. I think that the next startup will be even more.