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Banking on KC - Heather Spalding

Banking on KC - Heather Spalding

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Heather Spalding, the CEO and co-founder of Cambrian, a company that has created AI powered technology to allow people to visualize space. And they are exploring applications of the technology in the autonomous vehicle sector and other industries. Welcome, Heather.

Heather Spalding:

Hi, thanks so much for having me.

Kelly Scanlon:

Well, first of all, I have to say, congratulations, you started this in 2011, so you're celebrating your 10 year anniversary. And I seem to remember reading a while back that when you launched your first app, you got something like, I don't know, it was something like 10, 12 downloads the first night. But by the next morning, it had already zoomed up to 12,000 downloads. And of course, since then it's skyrocketed. It's just incredible.

Heather Spalding:

We were thrilled at the 12 I think, we got that evening when we went to bed. And the next morning seeing that more than 10,000 people had downloaded it was really incredible. Kind of shocking.

Kelly Scanlon:

It is gone much, much further than that now with the likes of Home Depot and many other of your partners on board. So let's go back and talk about what Cambrian does. How does the technology work?

Heather Spalding:

First of all, we're a visualizer tool for people and companies, so you can see their products in your space. So if you wanted to see what a particular flooring looked like in your space, let's say you wanted to get rid of your old carpet. Well, you could go to one of our customers like Shaw Floors and using our visualizer tool on their Floorvana plus website, you could see all of the flooring that they provide in your space. And how our technology works essentially is we're finding the borders, we're finding what's floor and what isn't, we're finding your camera position relative to the floor. So we can scale it properly. We're finding the normal plane. So the floor doesn't look like it's floating into the sky or going into the ground. It's laid down properly. We're pulling out all the highlights and shadows and preserving them and then reapplying them on the digital asset.

Heather Spalding:

So we're trying to give you a really realistic view of what this floor or paint would look like in your space, where all you have to do is upload or take the photo. So there's a lot of work like you mentioned, AI on the backend, determining the lighting conditions of the room, pulling out shadow and lighting information, identifying what's in the room, including what's for and what isn't. And then additional AI to determine the normals, the planes in the room.

Kelly Scanlon:

The biggest way that this is different from other things that are out there. I mean, I think we're familiar with, if you're trying to pick out a paint color for a room, you can go on to a paint manufacturers or a paint distributors site and pull in some of their paint colors, but it's not necessarily your room that you're doing that on. And it's not looking around all the different corners like you just described.

Heather Spalding:

That's one of the biggest advantages. When you go to a site and they already have room scene selected for you, they're essentially using Photoshop or something like it. So they've already had someone draw out the different planes on the wall or the floor or whatever you're visualizing. And then they've had someone digitally pull out all the highlights and shadows. They're rendering a floor or whatever in that space, but they've already set where all the normals are. Whereas to do that in your own space, you don't have artists, and programmers, and stuff working on this. This has to work automatically on the backend. So it's a lot of work. It's a really robust system that we have. We actually just got a patent for our technology, which I think we started the process in 2016. Finally, officially got our patent like last month or so.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. It takes a while. Yeah.

Heather Spalding:

It does. Yeah, but it's worth it to have to start getting this kind of secured. With paint color in particular, what I've seen out there, some of the people out there, they either have like I said, the already done room scene. Or you have to draw in where your walls are or where your floor is or whatever you're doing. So you have to put it in manually. It takes away I think, the experience when it's not very realistic looking. It's hard to trust what you're seeing. And that you want to select a paint color and visualize it in your space. But what you're seeing looks like a cartoon or a badly done Photoshop, then you don't tend to trust that that's really how it's going to look in your home so.

Kelly Scanlon:

And it is great to have a Kansas City company that's leading the way with this kind of technology. In fact, you just mentioned that you've gotten a patent, but you've had a lot of firsts in the field of augmented reality. Tell us about what some of those are.

Heather Spalding:

Really early on when we were first starting out, we were primarily interested in just computer vision period. One of the first things we did was a Pop-A-Shot type app that had a hand tracker. And so it would be in real-time tracking the motion of your hand as you would virtually throw a basketball through hoop. Connect came out that year, which is part of the reason why we started focusing in on the app that was doing so well, which was paint.

Heather Spalding:

I think we were the first automatic paint visualizer app where you could just upload a photo and tap on the screen. And it was segmented automatically. We were definitely the first video AR application where you could download our app called video painter and then walk through your space. And it would apply the color on the wall as you're walking through the space. We did the first flooring application that was like that, where again, tap on the floor and apply flooring. And then you could walk through the space. And then now we're getting more into web development just because we've kind of listened to the customers and what they want and what possible barrier of entries are for people to use tool. And so I think we're going to continue to innovate now through this web tool and browser.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. Based on what your customers are telling you. Let's talk about those customers. Who is a typical customer for you?

Heather Spalding:

We've worked with a lot of enterprise level customers. We did a early project with the Lowe's Holoroom. Home Depot of course, was one of our big customers. Shaw Floor, which is a Berkshire Hathaway company. We're working right now with one of the larger paint companies in the world. And then we've started since we've gotten into a visualizer tool for websites, we've been able to accommodate a whole range of business sizes and retailers. And so a lot of the people who reach out to us now are smaller manufacturers or retailers where they only have a few stores, a smaller business, but they really want the visualization tool because that's what their customers demand. And so we've figured out a way to license this tool at different tiers for all these different businesses. So right now our focus is on these smaller to mid tier businesses. I mean, we'll try to schedule calls at 8:00 PM or 4:00 AM trying to accommodate.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. The joys of international business, right?

Heather Spalding:

Yeah. But a lot of it has been just, retailers, especially with the pandemic last year, we gave away over 600 licenses to smaller retailers for free for a few months when everything was shut down. Because they really needed that virtual showroom.

Kelly Scanlon:

Right.

Heather Spalding:

People are stuck at home and wanting to say, I'm finally going to do some of these home projects. I'm going to do the paint project I've been wanting to do. I'm going to have the flooring installed or whatever, now that I'm home anyway. Well, all the showrooms are shut down and some of the plants are shut down. So providing like a virtual showroom was a great opportunity for us to help out other small businesses and then just get our tool out there as much as possible.

Kelly Scanlon:

Right. So you really have two different customers. You have the retailers and the enterprise level and the smaller retailers, but then you also have the end user such as the DIY'er

Heather Spalding:

Yeah. I mean, primarily who we work with right now is we're just directly dealing with the businesses. But I mean, of course, the end users who we have to keep in mind at all times, because if they're not happy with the tool or if they're not using the tool, then the businesses we sell to aren't going to like it. Originally when we started the company, we were just releasing apps out to the public ourselves, but really kind of found our footing with licensing this to the companies that have all the assets, had the SKUs, and data and are really motivated to get this tool into the hands of their customers.

Kelly Scanlon:

What drew you to this field, Heather?

Heather Spalding:

So my background is in neuroscience research. I was at the NIH. I came to KU med. I was looking at possibly pursuing an MD or MD PhD. I started learning more about biomedical technology and I thought that was probably a really good fit for my interests. So I started researching more like engineering programs and biomedical technology. And I met Joel, who's my co-founder and my husband. He was also interested in biomedical technology and he was pursuing getting his biology degree. He already has a electrical engineering background. We were both interested in kind of the other side of the same coin. So I was wanting to get more into engineering. He was wanting to pursue more biology. We were talking about all our interests and one of the up and coming things at the time was computer vision. And it just was such an interesting problem.

Heather Spalding:

To me, it's like, how can we take some of the tricks that the brain uses and apply it to an algorithm or apply it in a way that a computer could see? So one of the things I always mentioned is something really easy for a human is looking where a white wall meets another white wall, meets a white ceiling. And I can look at that and say, I know approximately what the planes are. I know that these are three separate surfaces. For a computer, it can't necessarily distinguish that. It's a hard problem for a computer. You have to tell it how to think. And so early on back when I was way more involved with algorithms than I am now, we would look at what are the tricks that the brain uses to know that something's farther away? What are the tricks to distinguish where one plane ends and another plane begins and that these are two separate surfaces.

Heather Spalding:

So we started just writing within computer vision, some of these algorithms to identify, and then there was a lot of digging of, okay, if there's this or that on the wall, how do we know to go around it? How do we know what's wall and what isn't? And then there was a lot of interesting just user interface problems. Would a user want all the walls painted or just one at a time? And even that was fun to explore because we would literally go around pulling people saying, what would you expect and what are you looking for? And then we'd kind of build something and watch people interact with it. And see where people would get hung up and be like, okay, everybody assumes you can tap on this and that's not how we built it. So we have to change that.

Kelly Scanlon:

Right.

Heather Spalding:

So some of that stuff early on was fun. We talked about painting, nail colors. We talked about applying virtual makeup, which, I mean, there's all sorts of companies now that do that.

Kelly Scanlon:

Right.

Heather Spalding:

Early on, there was nothing like that. And we're talking about like an iPhone four. I don't think I had a front facing camera back then, or it did maybe soon after that, but the camera wasn't very good back then. And there was not that much power in the phones back then. So we had to get really creative with our use of just memory in the phone, battery life, app size. So we had to be really efficient with our algorithms even early on.

Kelly Scanlon:

Let's talk about the applications to other industries. And one of those that I saw recently is the field of autonomous vehicles. How did you get into that?

Heather Spalding:

So Joel had had a coworker from EyeVerify, who's ZOLOZ now, who knew that his company now was dealing heavily with computer vision. So they were working on a project where they needed some experts in computer vision and they reached out to see if this was something we'd be interested in or capable of. And we took a preliminary look at it. There's basically two key things I have to ask my team before we move forward. Is one, does this move us forward with where we're going? Is it within our scope and within our pipeline of the technology we're building. And it was, it was actually very similar technology to what we're doing inside homes and buildings. And so I thought, okay, that's test one. And test two is how excited or interested is my team in working on this? And yeah, everybody was really excited and really wanted to do the project.

Kelly Scanlon:

I was going to say autonomous vehicles, pretty exciting right now.

Heather Spalding:

Yeah. So everybody was really excited and really wanted to get their hands, and just so many ideas flying around. Especially because, I mean, this is right in our area of what our talents are. With computer vision, and these algorithms, and we have to optimize, and do all these things. And so I'll say the caveat, what we're doing right now is not exactly a self-driving car. That's not the piece that we're doing. It's along the lines, I would say. I can't do too much detail about what our project is except to say, with finding camera position, finding the planes, even object identification, horizon lines. I mean, this is all stuff we have to do inside a home. And so we're just basically retraining our datasets for driving. It was something the team really wanted to get into and it's right up our alley really. And it's helped us with the SDK that we do for flooring. We've learned some things that we've since applied to making the planes of the floor better.

Kelly Scanlon:

What have been the advantages of being a startup in Kansas City?

Heather Spalding:

I've had some really great resources from the beginning once we started looking for them. I got into ScaleUP!. I think the SBTDC is the one that kind of organizes that. Jill Meyer over at the SBTDC. That was a huge resource for me. My background's in science and stuff, and I've done bench work and lab work. I never took any formal entrepreneur classes. I never did anything like that. I just learned through doing it. So to attend a course like ScaleUp!, it was so tremendously helpful. It was like, how do you work not just in your business, but on your business? How do you do a SWOT? One of the biggest things I got out of that, that I still, I think used to this day is where are your bottlenecks and how can you stream light them? How can you automate everything? How can you be as efficient as possible?

Heather Spalding:

It's really for the purposes of scaling your business and growing. So that was tremendously helpful. I met a lot of other entrepreneurs. It was so cool to see that across businesses, like from a jewelry business, to like a food truck, to high-growth tech, we all have the same issues of how do you hire the right person? What do you do if you have an employee that's like a little bit toxic or even dealing with firing a customer. Or getting someone to sign your contract quicker. It's all the same issues. It was really cool to feel like I had more of the confidence behind me to be the one running the business. I eventually got into pipeline, which has been incredibly cool. It is a phenomenal program. So that was huge for us. And it continues to be. There's probably not a day that goes by that I'm not talking to someone in pipeline, or reaching out to somebody in pipeline, or asking for feedback on something.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. And you talk about a great Kansas City success story. Started here in Kansas City, but it has expanded out regionally. And I think it's, is it global yet? I mean, it is really expanded its reach and the entrepreneurs that it's helped. And the network has just grown exponentially.

Heather Spalding:

The network is really incredible and I'm sure the network and the mentors are global, but entrepreneurs, the focus there is right in the Midwest here, which is really cool to have something kind of focused on specifically the Midwest. You have people with experience all over, but it's kind of nice to have, okay, we're all kind of in the same boat, we're all in the same area. And seeing all these success stories of fellow businesses from Kansas City, or Nebraska, or Missouri, been really cool.

Kelly Scanlon:

And then you went on to become a grand prize winner in LaunchKC. That's a huge achievement.

Heather Spalding:

Yeah. That was another, that was really a highlight. So yeah, I practiced and practiced that pitch. So much fun getting up on that stage and pitching. I loved the questions, and the panel, and the energy. And then yeah, to win grand prize was just incredibly cool. That got us into, WeWork for, I think a year. We had office space there. Got us a lot of attention and opportunity and it helped us grow this portion of our business now, which is the web visualizer tool. So it was very important to the success of our business so far.

Kelly Scanlon:

I travel around the country. Some of the different organizations I'm involved with, people are just amazed at what we have in Kansas City in terms of the startup community and the resources that are available for the startup community. And where's the future headed for you for Cambrian? And what do you see on the horizon?

Heather Spalding:

We had a couple really large companies reach out to us wanting to partner or wanting to use this tech. And it's very cool that in Taiwan, and in Indonesia, and in Japan, and Australia, and California, and some of the biggest companies you've heard of saying, you're the one that we're seeing in this space and we're interested in working with you. So it feels very cool to be known in this space, but I want us to be much more well-known. I want us to be the go-to for visualization tools. So I'm wanting to continue moving forward with home and space visualization until that is the name you go to when you're doing a home project. When you're looking at floor, when you're looking at paint, your first thought isn't to get swatches, and brushes, and paint them on your wall and stand back and see which one you like, your first thought is going to be, I'm going to just visualize this and choose it that way and order it. With some of the technology that we're doing, we're actually building 3D models of the space.

Heather Spalding:

So a user could walk through their home just with their smartphone. And if I'm wanting to put in hardwood floors in my entire first floor, I could walk around the space with my phone and build a floor plan of my space and have a measurement of how much I would need to order, and also be able to visualize it. A lot of flooring companies, a lot of contractors, even within the builder and commercial space are interested in having easy 3D floor plans with a mobile device. We're already employing that in our technology with what we're doing now. But putting that in the hands of the user so that they can redecorate their space, they can price things out, they can budget for a project. It's something that as a person who owns a home and then who's doing these sort of projects, like I have the old original carpet in my house.

Heather Spalding:

I want to be able to do that. I keep talking to people and I tell them what we do. And when I meet them and they're like, oh, I just redid my bathroom. And I had the hardest time choosing color. I had the hardest time picking out the floors. It took us months to pick them out. It's one of the things where I'm like this needs to get out there so people know this is there. The way we do it now is going to seem so archaic here in a couple of years.

Kelly Scanlon:

Huge market, huge opportunity. We wish you so much success in the coming years as you continue to become more visible within that market and perhaps break into some other industries with it as well.

Heather Spalding:

Yeah. Absolutely. Thank you so much.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Heather Spalding for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. Imagine, visualize, transform, those are the words successful entrepreneurs use to describe their journeys. In Heather's case, she imagined a new technology application, visualize how it could be used and is on her way to transforming the home improvement industry. And interestingly, her customers are experiencing the same journey as they use Cambrian's technology to re-imagine their home or office space, design it and transform it. Kansas City is rich with innovators who see possibilities around corners most of us don't even notice. Our city is also home to dozens and dozens of business resource organizations that help entrepreneurs bring those ideas to market. Be sure to seek out their assistance as you build your business. And don't hesitate to give Country Club Bank a call. We'd love to talk with you about making your innovative ideas a reality. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank member FDIC.