On average, a typical supermarket loses around 5,000 Euro per month due to shoplifting. Shocked by this reality, Alexander Siera, Roderick Lindner and Johnny Mills combined existing surveillance cameras, intelligent algorithms, machine learning techniques and the crowd to develop a state-of-the-art surveillance system that helps shop owners catch shoplifters in action. SpotCrowd is one of the latest additions to the imec.istart portfolio.
The original idea
Alexander Siera owns a company specialized in car parking real estate. In December 2014 one of his buildings was suffering from recurring theft on its parked vehicles and Alexander decided to act on it himself. For an entire weekend the businessman watched through hours of real time security footage and was eventually able to catch the thief red-handed. However, he quickly realized this approach was far from optimal – there needed to be an easier, less time-consuming solution for monitoring a given location.
Following some intensive market research he realized that, more than parking buildings, supermarkets were the sector suffering the most from these thefts, with losses amounting to an average of 5,000 Euro per month in each store. Combining several surveillance techniques, he came up with the idea of having an online community go through existing surveillance footage from supermarkets and spot potential shoplifters in real time.
In February 2016, Alexander Siera joined forces with Roderick Lindner, an experienced start-up advisor and marketing expert. Roderick immediately saw the potential in the idea and together they started further exploring the SpotCrowd concept. In April that same year, Johnny G. Mills joined the team as co-founder and IT developer.
From concept to product
SpotCrowd is an online platform that streams existing, real-time footage from retail stores’ surveillance cameras. Registered users (the ‘crowd’) can access those images to spot suspicious activities inside the stores and alert shop owners. Gamification ensures users remain active and engaged in their task: they are rewarded for every actual spot, but lose credits if a spot turns out to be false. For stores to be informed, a spot needs to be confirmed by several other users. After that, an alarm is sent to the shop owner, who can then decide whether or not to act upon it.
Stores pay a fixed fee per spot; they can choose from several packages (each including a different number of spots) to be renewed every 6 months or a year.
SpotCrowd’s response to privacy concerns
“Several surveillance solutions exist already, but none combines the crowd, camera hardware, video software and intelligent algorithms,” states Roderick Lindner.
To tackle Europe’s strict privacy laws, SpotCrowd is developing – in partnership with imec – IDLab – UGent – a state-of-the-art, real-time, irreversible blurring technology that anonymizes any shopper in the surveillance images. Moreover, spotters are unable to choose which stores to surveil and have no information on the origin (location, time zone, etc.) of the footage they’re viewing.
Alexander Siera highlights the innovation behind the blurring technology: “Companies such as Google and Youtube are already using such techniques in maps or videos. However, in most of those cases there is still a big latency. The technology we’re developing cuts that delay almost completely, allowing users to watch the surveillance footage as close to real-time as possible – it’s the only way our solution can be effective in helping to prevent shoplifting.”
The imec.istart quality label
SpotCrowd was accepted in the imec.istart program in October 2016. More than the financial support and the workshops, Roderick Lindner praises the speed at which SpotCrowd was able to get in contact with the right people to help them to co-develop and prototype their product features, including imec – CiTiP – KU Leuvern.“With just a couple of phone calls we were together with a dream team of experts in every field we needed,” he stated.
Alexander Siera adds: “The fact that imec believed in our idea immediately put our company in a higher level. Imec.istart is a quality label.”
SpotCrowd’s current focus is on securing extra funding for further product development. “Our goal is to have a marketable product in the second quarter of 2017,” states Roderick. And Alexander adds: “We want to reach 50 pilot stores in Belgium this year.”
Internationalization is also part of their short-term plans. The start-up is planning to apply to reputable US incubator and accelerator programs – such as TechStars Retail, a three-month intensive start-up acceleration program created by TechStars, focused on bringing new technology, experiences, products and solutions to retail.