The northwest region of Arkansas (NWA), set within the beautiful Ozark Mountains, is well known as an outdoor paradise for camping, hiking, kayaking, and fishing. So it might surprise you to learn that the area is also home to a quietly burgeoning retail-tech industry that supports three of the biggest Fortune 500 companies that are headquartered there: J.B. Hunt, Tyson Foods, and of course the world’s largest retailer (by revenue), Walmart.
One of those retail-tech startups is Oculogx, the brainchild of 22-year-old Charu Thomas (BSIE 2018) who — while still a student at the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISYE) — came up with the idea of using augmented reality (AR) wearable devices to make warehouse order picking faster and more accurate.
As a second-year undergraduate, Thomas took her concept to Thad Starner, a professor in Georgia Tech’s College of Computing, who also happened to be the technical lead/manager for Google Glass. As Thomas explored how to make her idea a reality, she also conducted research with Starner on wearables. Thomas wrote about their research and won the Best Paper Award at the 2018 ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) International Symposium on Wearable Computers.
Fast-forward to 2020. Thomas and her team of five have grown Oculogx into a company that serves industry-leading businesses with household names like Walmart and Google. Oculogx is a rarity among startups in that it is primarily revenue-funded. Thomas herself was recently named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list for 2020.
How did you end up headquartering Oculogx in northwest Arkansas, rather than, say, Silicon Valley? After I graduated in 2018, I moved to Bentonville, Arkansas, to participate in the Fuel startup accelerator created by Startup Junkie and Revunit. It’s specifically designed to help early companies become enterprise ready, and to bring economic growth in the form of entrepreneurship to NWA. The people who live here are really passionate about the area — and with good reason. Because Walmart, as well as the other Fortune 500 companies that are here, is such a major player in the retail industry, there’s a huge retail-vendor ecosystem in the state that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the U.S. Through Fuel, Google and Walmart became Oculogx clients, and I was able to begin growing my company.
What specifically did you learn through Fuel? The program was four months long. We were taught workshop-style and learned about intellectual property, contract terms, legal issues, how to negotiate, IT, security, and employee happiness — essential and practical knowledge for successfully developing a startup.
In addition, I made some incredible connections. Fuel introduced me to high-level individuals working at Walmart, and I still cherish those relationships now.
Oculogx’s initial technology, which is now called Ocx One, provides AR order fulfillment for retailers. What makes Ocx One so powerful? Ocx One offers hands-free order picking via an ecosystem of wearable devices. This can include eyewear like Google Glass, wrist devices, or even ring scanners. It’s really designed to help enterprise-level companies with significant infrastructure, like Walmart, to be more efficient. Our technology has been shown to make associates more efficient at order picking compared to manual methods like handheld technology, and it can offer a 2600% irr [internal rate of return] over two years.
Given that Oculogx is geared toward retailers, what changes have you seen in the retail industry as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic? We focus on retailers in general, which can mean retail distribution center operations as well as actual retail stores. This market has absolutely exploded because of Covid-19. Online grocery sales in August 2019 were $1.2 billion; in comparison, sales were $7.2 billion this past July. The average grocery order was nearly five times larger. People need their groceries but aren’t super comfortable going into a store to get them.
We have been working in that space to make online grocery operations more efficient through Ocx One, and this is something we do especially well. We also quickly built and brought to market two new products, Ocx Portal and Ocx Outline.
Tell us about these two products. Ocx Portal is a real-time order management system. Retailers can connect their orders through our third-party storefront, Shopify, or their order management system, and upload facility maps. Ocx Portal batches and optimizes pick walks with artificial intelligence. With Portal technology, associates can fulfill multiple orders at a time.
Ocx Outline is a modular mobile order fulfillment application. An associate — like an Instacart shopper, for example — can use a phone or any existing hardware like a scanner to access Outline to automatically optimize picking.
Ocx Outline is geared toward mediumsized enterprises that may have more manual-type processes in place, such as Excel or even a paper list. Ocx Outline completely digitizes the operation.
Given Oculogx’s tech-heavy products and your current entrepreneurial career path, why did you choose ISyE as your major, instead of something like computer science or business? I didn’t know I would be an entrepreneur coming into college. Originally, I wanted to be an academic mathematician, and ISyE was a great fit because it gave me the theory of math with practical applications built in. In hindsight, I see how ISyE had a really big impact by pushing me toward the supply chain industry, which is where Oculogx operates now.
What was it like being named to the 2020 Forbes 30 Under 30 list? It was a shock and an incredible honor — I definitely didn’t expect it! I’m thankful to be recognized, but it’s important to keep in mind that Oculogx is more than just me. We have an amazing group of people who make Oculogx run — including our stellar team, our industry-leading customers, our sharp investors, and our best-in-class advisors.
You’ve spoken enthusiastically about the future of wearable technology, such as brain or eye implants. What about this is so exciting to you, and why? I’m bullish on the idea that wearable technology and cybernetics represent the next step of human evolution. For example, gloves with vibration motors can teach us a new skill without practicing; tattoos on our skin enable us to interact with technology in alternative ways. Wearable and implantable computers enable us to overcome our limits.
What’s next for Oculogx, and for you personally? At Oculogx, we’re focused on building out a proven sales cycle in the next two quarters. Personally, my goals align pretty closely to Oculogx’s goals. I want to build technology that impacts millions of store and distribution center associates.
H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering