A stealthy company that’s been collecting data from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s baggage handling operation for the past 10 months has won this year’s Airport Shark Tank competition.
And so has a Boston company that builds booth-sized pods for travelers looking for a private place to work or chill out.
Bellevue, Wash.-based Alitheon and Boston-based Sleepbox shared the honors in Thursday’s startup contest, which was inspired by the “Shark Tank” TV show and organized by the American Association of Airport Executives to cap off its third annual Airport Innovation Forum.
Yours truly was the emcee. The judges included startup-savvy executives from Amazon and Microsoft. But the winners were chosen by forum attendees, who used an online balloting system to give 30 percent of the total vote to each of the top two contenders. A tie!
Three other ventures accounted for the rest of the voting:
- Kiana Analytics, a Silicon Valley company that uses cloud-based analysis of location data from mobile devices to track visitors as they make their way through airport concourses or other public spaces.
- Loud Steps, an app created by Boni Global to help visually impaired travelers find their way through airports and other venues using voice directions, large-size graphics and signals that buzz on the user’s smartphone. The company has offices in Chicago, Istanbul and Berlin.
- Venuetize, a mobile app platform that can serve as a “driveway to runway” guide to airport services. Venuetize, based in Tampa, Fla., has already made its mark with app-based venue guides for sports teams such as the Portland Trail Blazers, and for restaurants and shopping malls as well.
The two winning teams will be added to the Airport Market Match program, an accelerator service that helps airports and entrepreneurs make connections for business opportunities.
Alitheon: Tamper-proof ID system
Thursday’s Shark Tank served as a coming-out party for Alitheon, which has been working stealthily on a proprietary technology called “Featureprinting” to identify items without the need for labels or tags.
Featureprinting takes advantage of computer vision and machine learning to pick out distinguishing details in the surface structure of each item and store its profile using cloud computing services. The item can be identified at a later time by matching the profile with imagery that can be captured using a standard-issue smartphone.
Alitheon co-founder and CEO Scot Land said the system is virtually tamper-proof, because the ID profile for a given object is based on a set of points that represent the unique fine-scale surface features of that object. No seals, watermarks, security tags, RFID chips or microdots are needed.
Featureprinting can be used as an anti-counterfeiting measure, as a way to track components in a supply chain, or as an ID system based on facial recognition. In one test, the system could match up pictures of the same person taken 10 years apart with 99.99999 percent accuracy, Land said.
Baggage handling is the application most relevant to airport operations. Alitheon’s system can correctly identify baggage from a distance of 100 feet as it travels along a conveyor belt, Land said. It can also sound an alarm when a “bad actor” tries to tamper with luggage as it goes down the line.
Land said his team has been collecting data at Sea-Tac to train and test the Featureprinting system, with 2 million images captured to date. The Shark Tank exposure, and the Airport Market Match program, could well open additional doors for his startup.
“We’re hoping this will give us an opportunity to engage with airports,” he said.
Sleepbox: Pods provide a little privacy
Catching a nap at an airport can be challenging. Usually, travelers who are stuck in an airport overnight resort to snoozing on the floor or sprawling out on the seats.
“If you see someone sleeping in your airport in a chair, that’s an opportunity that could have been captured,” Peter Chambers, Sleepbox’s chief operating officer, told airport executives at the forum.
Sleepbox provides soundproof booths that can be rented on an hourly basis using a credit card. Chambers said the typical rate for the first hour is in the range of $45, with the price eventually hitting a daily maximum as the hours add up.
A standard-size pod takes up about 45 square feet. The pods can be placed as stand-alones in an airport concourse, or bunched together in a lounge or micro-hotel setting. It takes about 5 minutes to change the sheets between stays, and as little as 15 minutes to relocate a pod, Chambers said.
One of the judges, Seattle-based aviation journalist Harriet Baskas, delicately noted that private spaces in public places aren’t always used for innocent purposes. Seattleites might remember the $5 million city-funded project to put in self-cleaning public toilets, which quickly turned into havens for drug use and prostitution. (For what it’s worth, Seattle is still having toilet troubles.)
Chambers said the fact that Sleepbox’s airport pods would be located in a secure area, with payment tied to a credit card, should ensure they won’t be turned into trash-clogged dens of iniquity.
The company’s pods have been field-tested in the Boston area, Moscow, Stockholm, Edinburgh and other locales. Next up for Sleepbox is Atlanta’s airport, which already hosts a similar type of micro-hotel operated by a company called Minute Suites.
Chambers hopes more airports will be added to Sleepbox’s offerings, thanks in part to the Shark Tank exposure. “We’re really looking forward to building our network of installations,” he said.
In addition to Baskas, the judges for Seattle’s Airport Shark Tank included Lisa Nelson, who leads portfolio development activities for Microsoft Ventures; Benjamin Richter, CEO of Bradford Airport Logistics; and H.B. Siegel from Amazon’s Department of Ideas.