Pivots are how you find your way to the gold at the end of the rainbow!
Pivots, according to Merriam Webster, are the action of turning around a point. Steve Blank uses the term a bit differently.
“I want to introduce the concept of the pivot, the idea that successful startups change directions but stay grounded in what they’ve learned. They keep one foot in the past and place one foot in a new possible future.”
Pivots are a disconcerting but necessary part of being an entrepreneur. Pivots may occur when an entrepreneur realizes that their original vision is not technically feasible. They can also occur when a young company realizes their potential customers don’t care about the solution they’re developing. Are pivots a problem? Only if you let them derail you.
Let’s look at the journey the COSY team has taken. Three years ago, through the power of networking, a business colleague introduced me to Jonas Cleveland and Dr. Kostas Daniilidis. They were developing an app that would provide turn-by-turn directions in complex indoor environments. This app would enable someone who was blind to independently navigate these environments. A byproduct of the technology was augmented reality which would provide information about the space. Suddenly, complex indoor environments would be as accessible as GPS has made the outside world.
If you’re reading this blog post, then you probably also know that I’m passionate about anything which improves quality of life for people with compromised vision. So naturally I was all in and couldn’t wait to put this app in the hands of people I knew that were blind or visually impaired. There was only one problem. This was tough technology (that’s why no one had yet introduced it). And there is a perception (reality?) that it’s hard to generate substantial revenue selling technology to people with disabilities in general. Whether that’s true or not can be tackled in another post but for now, I’ll repeat the words of a friend who told me to never start with a non-profit. Always form a for-profit, generate steady revenue, then tackle the altruistic opportunities.
Well, we weren’t a non-profit but we were leading with altruism which feels good but may never get you off the ground. In comes the pivot although it wasn’t completely intentional. A major retailer came to UPenn seeking assistance with managing their shelf inventory. Like many retailers, they were struggling to keep actual store layouts aligned with the recommended planograms. In case you aren’t familiar with the term, planograms are a kind of roadmap specifying where products should be placed throughout a store to maximize sales.
The assignment was directed to the robotics lab and Professor Kostas Daniilidis. Proprietary technology he had developed might be the answer. His student at the time, Jonas Cleveland, recognized both a problem and an opportunity and COSY completed a pivot to creating detailed maps of retail spaces. These maps can be compared to the planograms, radically improving shelf management in most retail settings. Is it a big deal? Studies suggest planogram non-compliance and stockouts represent a $400B lost revenue opportunity. You can learn more at the COSY website.
So is all lost for an accessible indoor world for the blind? Absolutely not! Armed with COSY technology and the virtual maps we’re creating, something magical will occur in the very near future. Someone who is blind will be able to shop independently. And they’ll be able to navigate other complex indoor environments independently. But wait there’s more… Everyone will benefit unless you happen to have memorized the aisles in big box stores like Home Depot, Walmart, etc.