X-ray vision in the warehouse: ThruWave raises $6.4M to help online retailers see through packages

ThruWave founders Andreas Pedross-Engel, Claire Watts; and Matt Reynolds. (ThruWave Photo)

Seattle startup ThruWave just raised a $6.4 million round for its futuristic technology that uses millimeter waves to see through packaging.

Fortune 100 customers in retail and e-commerce warehouses are using the company’s hardware and software, which was first developed at the University of Washington.

ThruWave’s sensors mount alongside conveyor belts and make 3D images of the items inside via antennas and what the company calls “compressive sensing.” Computer vision software can measure cube utilization, count items, and detect missing or damaged items. The system can automatically image and analyze up to 20,000 boxes per hour.

“We’ve all had the experience of ordering things online and receiving a tiny little item inside a big wasteful shipping box — ThruWave helps solve that problem,” said CEO Matt Reynolds.

The millimeter waves can penetrate most packaging materials but not human skin.

“Industry-wide, it is estimated that a typical e-commerce shipment is only 40% full, leading to tremendous waste in packaging material, shipping cost, and carbon footprint,” Calvin Chin, managing partner of E14 Fund, said in a statement. “ThruWave’s unique sensors and software enable customers to regain control over their shipping cost and environmental impact.”

The pandemic is helping drive demand for ThruWave’s technology given the increased ecommerce activity as more people buy products online.

“ThruWave enables accuracy and efficiency in automated material handling to enable our customers to meet this shift in shopping patterns, which was already happening but has accelerated dramatically as people shop from home to help reduce the spread of COVID,” Reynolds said.

ThruWave is also working with In-Q-Tel, a nonprofit investor for U.S. government agencies, to use its packing screening technology for national security applications. Reynolds said the sensors can also be used to see through wall surfaces and help with construction or remodeling projects.

The company spun out of the UW in 2017. Reynolds joined the UW as a professor in 2013. He previously co-founded RFID systems firm ThingMagic, which was acquired by Trimble Navigation in 2017; home sensing company SNUPI Technologies, which was acquired by Sears in 2015; and energy conservation startup Zensi, which was acquired by Belkin in 2009.

Reynolds co-founded ThruWave with Andreas Pedross-Engel, a research scientist at the UW, and Claire Watts, who earned her physics Ph. D at Boston College and worked in Reynolds’ lab at the UW.

The investment round was led by E14 Fund and Ubiquity Ventures, and included participation from Root Ventures, Blue Sky Capital, WRF Capital, Tsingyuan Ventures, and In-Q-Tel. ThruWave has raised $8.6 million to date, in addition to $1 million in Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants from the National Science Foundation.

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