Concept mock-up of an automated grocery store. The startup can build modular stores for its customers, including cameras, sensors, and proprietary software. Rendering Courtesy of Accel Robotics.

Concept mock-up of an automated grocery store. The startup can build modular stores for its customers, including cameras, sensors, and proprietary software. Rendering Courtesy of Accel Robotics.

In San Diego, a local startup called Accel Robotics is one of a growing number of AI startups that is setting out to enable automated cashier-less stores around the globe.

Founded in 2015, Accel Robotics enables grab-and-go, checkout-free shopping experiences across existing and emerging store formats. It does this by leveraging computer vision software   along with cameras, sensors and store equipment.

The startup was co-founded by Brandon Maseda, Marius Buibas Brain Corp.’s former director of engineering and Martin Cseh, a Harvard University graduate. The company was incubated early on by San Diego-based tech accelerator EvoNexus, along with a Texas-based incubator RevTech Ventures.

Today, the company has an office in San Diego’s Kearny Mesa neighborhood and has offices in Argentina and Tokyo, employing a total of 60 people.

Accel Robotics raised $30 million in funding at the end of last year. Previous investors include Miyabi Ventures, New Ground Ventures, Saison Ventures, Recruit, GMO, and angel investors. Building on $7 million in previous funding, the company has raised a total of $37 million, to date.

"Our technology team has worked countless hours on difficult challenges and edge cases," said Maseda.

Frictionless Platform

Accel’s frictionless commerce platform provides retailers with technology to eliminate checkout lines, track inventory. It also generates shopper analytics. It does this through camera-based AI systems that allow customers to walk in, grab the item they need and walk out and receive their receipts electronically  — a model, popularized by Amazon Go.

Accel plans to create stores from scratch — and partner with existing retailers — to help bring small-format stores to locations that couldn’t accommodate larger buildings.

The company has already deployed its platform in stores with category-leading grocery, convenience, quick service restaurants, and drugstore chains in North America and Japan.

Recent studies show everyday consumers largely support the initial idea. Nearly three-quarters of consumers feel that technologies that can reduce checkout time are valuable to them, according to recent A.T. Kearney research.

Henrik Christensen, Qualcomm Chancellor’s Chair of Robot Systems and the director of the Contextual Robotics Institute at UC San Diego, provided his perspective on the cashless store concept.

“We’re now getting to a point where the technology is good enough that we can track the people, what they’re buying, and other tracking that enables us to do this at scale,” said Christensen. “I think it will take a little bit of time before everybody trusts it. But COVID has been a forcing function for this, where people can go now go to the grocery store and not meet anybody -- which is what Accel is offering.”

Accel is also reported to set up one of their first stores on the UC San Diego campus, although, further details have not been disclosed just yet.

Hot Competition

Accel has a lot of competition in the world of grab-and-go retail tech. Amazon recently expanded to larger formats and license the technology out to other retailers for the cashier-less store model. Amazon expanded to 18 locations across the US, while Microsoft and Walmart are also dabbling in the space.

“Accel Robotics is quickly becoming a tier one supplier,” said Christensen. “I think Accel will come in with a few other technology providers and enable all of these companies to actually have these contactless stores. It’s not just Walmart, and Amazon, there will be a number of small players that want to play a part in this.”

Other technology startups creating cashier-less checkout systems, include Trigo, Grabango and Standard Cognition. In 2018, Trigo had raised $22 million, Grabango secured $12 million, and Standard Cognition nabbed $35 million. All companies have a similar goal of eliminating checkouts and empowering supermarkets with data.

Over the last five years, the team has significantly grown its headcount and is hiring in a variety of positions, including software engineers, hardware engineers, project managers and data scientists.

“It has been a wonderful ride so far and we’re ready for the next five years of growth,” said Maseda.