Density raises $51 million to promote social distancing with AI occupancy-tracking sensors

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Density, a startup building AI-powered, people-counting infrared sensors, today closed a $51 million financing round. The infusion brings the San Francisco-based startup’s total raised to over $74 million following $23 million in previous funding, and cofounder and CEO Andrew Farah says it’ll be put toward addressing “unprecedented demand” from offices, manufacturers, grocery stores, industrial plants, and governments trying to abide by capacity limits during the pandemic.

In many ways, Density’s products were tailor-made for the global health crises. Cities around the world have imposed limits on businesses — particularly restaurants — regarding the number of customers they allow in, reflecting current understanding of how the coronavirus spreads. Moreover, the shift to work from home and financial headwinds have companies questioning the need for physical office space; even before the pandemic, U.S. Commercial Real Estate Services estimated there’s $1 trillion in unused commercial property in the U.S.

Density leverages depth-measuring hardware and an AI backend to perform crowd analytics that overcomes the challenges posed by corners, hallways, doorways, and conference rooms. Clients like Pepsi, Delta, Verizon, Uber, Marriot, and ExxonMobil use its stack to figure out which parts of their offices get the most use and which get the least, and to deliver people-counting metrics to hundreds and even thousands of employees.

Farah conceived of Density’s core technology at Syracuse University, in graduate school, while working at a mobile software development firm. His modest goal —  to measure the busyness of a popular coffee shop, Cafe Kubal — led him to explore a couple of different solutions before eventually settling on one that would form the foundation for Density’s people-counting sensors.

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Above: The view from one of Density’s sensors.

Image Credit: Density

Density’s sensor operates sort of like a small laptop. It’s a rectangular box that fits in the palm of an average-sized hand, belying its complexity; the sensor consists of over eight hundred components sourced from 137 supply chains Density itself manages.

The sensor attaches above a doorway and tracks movement frame-by-frame with two Class 1 infrared lasers that bounce off of the floor. Algorithms filter out signal noise (for example, boxes, strollers, pushcarts, plates, and other items being carried or pushed) to measure the direction, collision, and speed of people walking into and out of view. The data is funneled via Wi-Fi to Density’s cloud-hosted backend, where it’s processed and analyzed. A web dashboard, SMS messages, signage, and mobile apps provide insights like the real-time capacity of a room and historical crowd sizes while an API allows third-party apps, services, and websites to make use of the data in novel ways.

One of Density’s clients — a large pharmaceutical company — uses the sensors to keep its restrooms spick and span by deploying cleaners every 70 uses. Ride-hailing giant Uber uses the sensors in one of its support centers to make sure the center is adequately staffed. Other applications include identifying which building entrances are most used during evacuation drills and estimating the number of people on the top floor of an office during a fire.

According to Farah, there’s advantage to Density’s infrared method of people-tracking: privacy. Unlike a security camera, its sensors can’t determine the gender or ethnicity of the people it tracks, or perform invasive facial recognition. “It’s far easier to do a camera,” he told VentureBeat in a previous interview. “But we believe the data pendulum has swung too far one direction. It’s good to see people ask about data being collected … We knew that the right market was corporate clients with office space because our sensor can do occupancy detection inside of a room where a camera can’t go.”

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Density doesn’t charge for hardware. Instead, its customers — which include a homeless shelter network, theme parks, Ivy League colleges, and others beyond the above-mentioned brands — pay a monthly or annual fee for access to the data.

The pandemic initially hurt Density’s sales because many potential customers temporarily shut down. But since the close of its series B funding in June 2018, Density says its sensors have counted more than 150 million people in dozens of countries across hundreds of millions of square feet. Recently, it expanded manufacturing in Syracuse, New York by 90% to keep up with pandemic-related upticks in orders.

Farah says Density is currently focusing its marketing efforts on grocery stores and other businesses deemed “essential” but required to adhere to social-distancing guidelines. In the near term, the company plans to expand its sales team and to further develop software and platform products.

Kleiner Perkins led Density’s series C funding with contributions from 01 Advisors, Upfront Ventures, Founders Fund, Ludlow Ventures, Launch, LPC Ventures, and individual investors Alex Rodriguez, Alex Davis, Kevin Hartz, and Cyan and Scott Banister. Founded in 2014, the startup now employs more than 50 people across its Syracuse and San Francisco offices.

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