It’s been almost a year since Bryce Paden and Trent Carrender quit their jobs and jumped head first into i2i Labs, a Rogers-based startup that acts as a matchmaker between tech innovation and the retail industry.
“It’s been great in many ways to be on our own,” Paden said. “It’s more work than we thought, but it’s where we want to be. We are the doers bridging the gap between the dreamers and the entrepreneurs.”
Paden and Carrender bootstrapped the business as co-founders in September 2017, setting up shop in downtown Rogers in the original Bank of Rogers building at 114 S. First St. Paden said the partners renovated the leased space to suit their needs as a place that not only researches innovative technology, but also tests it for clients like Walmart and other major retailers.
Paden, 26, a graduate of the University of Arkansas with a degree in supply chain management, signed on with Walmart after graduation. He worked as a replenishment manager and ultimately got on the Lab 415-C team at Walmart. This team looked for innovative technology aimed at driving efficiencies in stores or improving customer experience. The last leg of Paden’s work at Walmart was in the Store No. 8 tech incubator division, which he left in January to officially launch i2i Labs with Carrender.
Carrender spent eight years working in the local retail sector with a third-party service vendor, linking more than 200 tech companies to Fortune 500 businesses specializing in retail, consumer goods and sustainability.
Paden said he and Carrender saw early on how difficult it was for large, siloed companies to work effectively with agile tech startups. He said that was the idea behind i2i Labs — to bridge the gaps and facilitate the relationships of both sides as professionals who understand retail, supply chain and tech innovation.
“By bringing innovation to help solve industry problems, we can help make the future better together,” Paden said. “We’re a technology commercializer focused on retail, food and pharmacy. Our model is subscription based and funded by the enterprise companies. Since officially opening the business in January, we have signed on nearly a dozen enterprise businesses ranging from Fortune 20 to Fortune 500.”
The fees range between $10,000 and $175,000 annually, depending on the level of engagement, Paden said. At its core, i2i Labs is a research company that works to build use cases for its enterprise clients by seeking out the right technology innovators to help solve the issues raised by the retailers or suppliers.
“We have signed up about 100 portfolio companies, and we are testing a number of innovations in our labs on behalf of our enterprise clients,” Paden said. “If we find the right tech solution and a contract is signed, then i2i Labs also gets a small percentage of that in revenue. The portfolio companies only pay us if they get a contract.”
Carrender and Paden’s lab is testing a robotic shopping cart that facilitates returns. Paden said the store worker tasked with restocking returns can do it much quicker with the help of the robotic cart. There is a small monitor on the cart. The employee scans the product and follows the robot to the shelf where the product goes. Scan it again, put it back on the shelf and the inventory is adjusted. Then it’s on to the next item.
i2i Labs is also testing smart shelves that keep track of inventory as it’s added or subtracted. Paden said the technology is mounted under the shelf. There are applications for large items such as coolers and small items such as nail polish where the smart shelf can correctly discern the various colors and accurately track the inventory.
The company is also testing LED and laser lighting that can replicate the frequency spectrum of the sun. Mounting these lights in a cooler, they found the shelf life of strawberries was extended two to four times longer when kept under the lights. Paden said the light is effective at keeping strawberries fresh longer, but there are some challenges with various cartons that don’t allow the light to permeate.
Paden said the brands working with i2i Labs are interested in enhancing customer experience in stores. The company is also testing an apparatus that plays music and moves the featured product (a can of Coca-Cola, for example) out and back while playing Coca-Cola jingles from the past and present such as “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” or “Share a Coke” or “Always Coca-Cola.” Paden said the device was tested in Europe, and products saw a significant boost in sales when featured.
Paden said there is significant interest in robotics from the enterprise companies because robots can enhance customer experience. But they can also take over some tasks of employees, which frees them up to do a better job helping customers. He said augmented reality is also a hot play, but the trick is finding the right uses for the technology. Paden said it should enhance the experience, not just replicate actions.
Paden said retail is changing quickly, and it’s been interesting to see which players are testing, failing, learning and retesting technologies and business applications that can differentiate them from the pack. One of the more challenging issues his firm has seen are the silos and cumbersome levels of management that must approve testing innovations.
“We expected this to some extent, and we are working to break down the barriers the best we can,” Paden said. “It’s a little scary to see how long it can take for enterprise companies to move on decisions and how hard it is to roll out a new technology. Our work can also be complex as we build out a use case and see how many vendors we have to tie together to accomplish the goal.”
Paden said the company is based in Northwest Arkansas because it is “ground zero” for retail and supply chain expertise. He said technology can be recruited into the region to work with the retailers and suppliers who know what problems need solving. Paden said i2i Labs scours the globe for clients and tech innovations, most recently working with a large retailer in India. While retail and supply chain is where most of the partners’ experience lies, Paden said the business platform is applicable in health and pharmacy.
“We are working with a Fortune 100 pharmacy chain that is looking at some interesting solutions for possible use cases, and we are excited about doing work in this area, as pharmacy and health are going to be more crucial for retail in the future,” he said.
Editor’s note: The Supply Side section of Talk Business & Politics focuses on the companies, organizations, issues and individuals engaged in providing products and services to retailers. The Supply Side is managed by Talk Business & Politics and sponsored by Propak Logistics.