Occipital’s application to Techstars was submitted within five minutes of the final deadline. I’m sitting with Vikas Reddy on a Skype date with his co-founder, Jeff Powers, who is at Occipital’s San Francisco office. “That’s cutting it pretty close, guys,” I tell them. Applying by the early deadline is something heavily championed these days but Occipital was in the one of the early Techstars programs, 2008 in Boulder. The two met in school at Michigan, both officers in Tau Beta Pi. “We met at an event called Rock ‘n Bowl, at a light-up bowling lane place. Jeff had some delicious looking chicken wings so I traded him for some of my M&M’s.” Reddy laughs quietly. “Before applying we had been working together for awhile in this tiny apartment in New York City. Jeff was in Ann Arbor doing a talk on the day of the deadline. We had just been coding a whiteboard powered by LED light, so we were super busy. We applied before Jeff gave his talk and got an e-mail back from David Cohen within twenty minutes of hitting the submit button.”
When I ask what earth-moving details elicited such a prompt response, Powers says, “Likely who we are and our technical background. The product itself was receipt scanning. Taking your cell phone camera, snapping a shot of a receipt, and doing optical character recognition of it later.” Their hope was to build a personal activity tracking application which captured every purchase at every place you visit, including paper receipts which otherwise had no digital trail. With some Techstars fandom under my belt, I knew enough to know that this wasn’t their final product. So I ask. “How was the idea for RedLaser born?” “We were hanging out a lot with Paul Berberian in an basement office off of Pearl Street. We were brainstorming different business ideas. Vikas and I had just implemented a machine learning algorithm that could recognize so many things,” Powers reflects. “We were scratching our heads asking, but what should this recognize? It was frustrating. Then one morning before everyone else got into Techstars, we were looking at a desk and saw a barcode on a popular science magazine that someone had left behind. It had Einstein on the cover and it was an epiphany moment. We spent an entire day searching the web to see if anyone else was doing easy barcode scanning on the iPhone and we were giddy to realize nobody had.”
Was it true that there was a potentially in-demand product that no one had built well yet– an existing pain in need of a technology? Yes. And so RedLaser was built, a scanning application that is compatible with iPhone, Windows phones, and Android that as of this date has been downloaded over 15 million times. Barcodes can be scanned and immediately you can check prices to see if a better deal is available elsewhere.
Occipital announced that it had sold RedLaser to online marketplace giant eBay in early 2010 for an undisclosed amount. They both credit the eBay sale as happening at an opportune time. They had taken RedLaser as far as they had, it was in the top five for about three months in the App Store, and had already been featured in an iPhone app commercial. “If we had kept it, it would have been a monumental task,” says Reddy. As a mutual acquaintance of his by that time in the Boulder tech scene, I remember another friend teasingly using RedLaser to scan the bottles of wine Occipital had bought to celebrate, wary of how much they had (or hadn’t) spend on their friends that night.
Wanting to get back to the bigger problems they had originally set out to solve, Powers and Reddy kept chugging with Occipital. After RedLaser and only six months after completing Techstars, the Occipital team built 360 Panorama, a real-time panorama creation tool available for iPhone, iOS, and Android.
“How did you decide what to create next?” Reddy answers first. “What we were looking for was augmented reality ideas, looking around for ways that we could enable it. One of those things that’s needed for augmented reality is tracking. It didn’t even exist for rotating your phone around and taking a panoramic photo. No one had taken that core idea and built the technology. Programs existed but they were all manual and you had to stitch them together during or after taking the photo. We had 360 Panorama in the works by the end of 2009.” Last August, Occipital publicly announced their first major investment, a $7M Series A led by Foundry Group. The founders wrote: It’s going to be a wild ride, and where we’re going, we don’t need roads. Now the company spends its days building the platform that other developers can leverage.
“We are computer vision enthusiasts,” says Powers. “We’re so excited about computers and phones with a sense of sight. Computers can read text on the internet and enable certain things but what they can’t do, generally speaking, is see. It’s a combination of mathematics and computer science.” Reddy agrees. “Our top goal is to push forward the state of technology and change the world. I know it sounds a little cheesy but it’s not about making money. We want to be able to look back and know that we changed things and weren’t some flash in the pan. That’s what drives us and gets us up in the morning– the ability to create magical experiences.” Before I leave their office, I note their heads-down, passionate engineers and managers, a small team of eight. The only break they have taken since I arrived about an hour ago was to excitedly test whether or not running the microwave in the kitchen was negatively affecting the network speed in one of their real-time tests. It was. Magic indeed.