Introducing Turkish startups: Vispera

Vispera’s computer vision technology helps retailers to increase sales and productivity

It is unusual for Turkish academicians to start business as they are working at the university. But Prof. Dr. Aytül Erçil started two businesses, while one of them has been acquired by a German company. In 2013 she and her partner Ceyhun Burak Akgül founded Vispera, which operates in computer vision and machine learning areas. “Our image recognition technology can recognize not only retail products, but all packaged products from pharmaceutical, electronics or DIY sectors” said Erçil. Here is what Aytül Erçil told me.

What is the story of Vispera? How did you decide to launch Vispera?

After graduating from Electronic Engineering and Mathematics departments at Boğaziçi University, I completed my masters and PhD degrees in Applied Mathematics at Brown University in the USA. Then I worked in the research laboratories of General Motors in the US around 5 years before I returned to Turkey in 1988. I was a faculty member at Boğaziçi University for 13 years and at Sabancı University for another 13 years. Meanwhile, I founded a technology company called Vistek and sold it to German ISRA Vision company in 2013. I am currently the CEO of Vispera, which we founded in 2013 together with my partner Ceyhun Burak Akgül, who was the R&D manager at Vistek. Vispera operates in computer vision and machine learning fields.

What does computer vision offer for retail industry? Can you use it for other industries?

Companies that produce product recognition technology increase productivity by directing the workforce and resources used in field operations to the right area at the right time, thereby reducing operational costs by between 12 and 15 percent. Displaying field activities with the right data and preventing possible sales losses in time, turns to an increase in sales performance between 15 and 18 percent. We can see this benefit in various ways in different market and channel dynamics. For example, we increased the coverage rates of one of our customers by 400 percent in traditional channels. In another customer, we reduced the time sales teams spent inside the store by 85 percent. Again, we increased the planogram compatibility and shelf availability of a customer who uses planogram in modern channel and achieved 12 percent increase in sales. We continue to develop different products that will increase the benefit we produce every day with our customers such as Unilever, Reckitt Benckiser, Coca-Cola İçecek and Ülker, who manage their field operations using our technology.

When we look through the retailer’s perspective, this technology provides various benefits such as following their valuable shelves in real time, viewing the interaction rate of the products on every shelf, optimizing the shelf layout, and following the customer traffic in stores. As the competition increase and consumer behavior change rapidly, I think digitalization and technology applications are indispensable in every field of traditional retail to survive and maintain its profitability. Thanks to our fixed camera solution that we developed specifically for retailers, we see the products that are in the stock but not on the shelf in real time and take action. We prevent around 30 percent loss of sales through this process. This benefit turns into a holistic one by including other players in the industry, from production to distribution, as well as the retailer.

The economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 health crisis, accelerated the implementation of applications such as ‘click and collect’, BOPIS – Buy online, pick up in store, and shipping from the store. This situation shows us that in order for the systems to continue to operate, the commitment to human power should be minimized and technology should be engaged in every field. In the retail industry, we see that technology is very effective on both consumption and production and plays a liberating role, especially in times of crisis.

B2B companies expand their stock beyond traditional distribution centers to meet increasing customer expectations and provide a better satisfaction experience. The increasing number of small markets makes it compulsory to use these markets as a storage area. In order to offer applications like BOPIS and send products cost-effectively from the store, it is necessary to see the correct stock numbers in all your distribution centers and stores. If not, companies may run the risk of over-selling, losing sales or being exposed to rush shipping charges without real-time inventory accuracy.

Our image recognition technology can recognize not only retail products, but all packaged products from pharmaceutical, electronics or DIY sectors.

In Turkish academia, it is unusual to start companies for academicians. Is it difficult for you to start a company or academicians should keep doing their researches?

While I was a faculty member at Boğaziçi University, we were doing a lot of practical studies, but these were not implemented in any way. University-industry cooperation is still talked about, but there are very few successful examples of such cooperation yet. We were doing many industrial projects at Boğaziçi University, but they were generally not turning into products. This situation made me very uncomfortable. When I thought about the reasons for this, I noticed two things. First of all, there is the issue of financing of R&D. At the time, the R&D support provided by the state to industrial enterprises was very limited and industrial enterprises were not very eager to financially support R&D. The second issue was the lack of technology companies that will transform the technologies developed at the university into products. It is not the duty of universities to turn R&D results into product, university’s job is doing the initial R&D and creating the first prototype. Turning the prototype into a product usually takes 4-5 times longer than building the first prototype.

We established Vistek, my previous venture in the same field, at the end of the 90s. During that period, there was no confidence in Turkish companies on creating a worldwide technological product. They usually took our price and used it to bargain with foreign companies. In addition, the entrepreneurship environment in Turkey was not very advanced back then. Angel investment networks, venture capitals etc. did not exist. That’s why we were having a really hard time during running Vistek. This environment has evolved dramatically over the years. When we founded Vispera, we were able to focus on a product that directly targets the world since its launch. We are currently working with over 30 global companies such as Coca Cola, Unilever, P&G, Carlsberg in 17 countries.

Of course, one factor that is very important in the success of industry – university partnerships and spin-off companies is the attitude of the university towards entrepreneurship. I believe a university should have different kinds of people, some who excel in teaching but may lack in doing high caliber research or industrial collaboration, others may be very good researchers but are not interested in applying their research results to real life problems.

Universities must become more open to giving people leading positions who bring more than just a research pedigree. They need multidisciplinary individuals who are mentors and bridge-builders.

In 2019 and 2020 you raised two rounds of investments. How will use you those investments?

Our goal from day one was to become an international company serving retailers and suppliers throughout the world. We are currently a Turkish technology company serving 17 countries, including Israel, Germany, India, the United Arab Emirates and Kazakhstan. In these countries, we work with many international companies such as Coca Cola, Unilever, Pepsico, Carlsberg, Henkel, Reckitt Benckizer, Nobel İlaç, Bacardi and Phillip Morris. The investments we have received will help us in taking an important step in our goal of operating all over the world. We plan to increase our sales and customer success teams and also boost our R&D team to be able to continue our innovative product development. We are also planning to start opening offices in different parts of the world.

How did COVID-19 effect your business?

Retail is one of the sectors that is most affected by COVID-19. Many dynamics of the sector are in the process of change these days. In fact, we predict that we will be able to see the consumption habits which developed during the crisis will be with us in the long term. Normally, consumption behavior is habitual and difficult to disrupt, but COVID-19, which causes such intense negative emotions, is an example that can do it. A lot of research has begun on this subject and according to those studies, more than half of the consumers will change their new shopping behavior in the future. Only 4 percent of the consumers’ said that their behavior would not change after the pandemic. In other words, a very serious number of consumers will change their behavior. At the same time, electronic commerce will gain more customers and automation shopping options will be used more frequently. Automatic distribution solutions such as drones are already used in the world. However, I think that many companies will start to implement this in other countries. We think that the share of revenues by categories will shift significantly. There will be an increase in the basic need categories, a decrease in more luxurious or “not so necessary” categories. We think there will be a decrease in manual jobs. In the short term, people will avoid crowded shopping places and focus more on electronic commerce because they shop more from home, but I think the stores will not end in the long term. Because people have long-standing experiences with physical retail. The stores are not only the points of sale, they also connect the online and offline worlds by offering different experiences.

In terms of our business, it is affected negatively in the short term since companies are not sending their field teams to the field. However, in the long run, we believe we will be positively affected since the importance of digitization of stores and real time feedback from the field is understood by most retailers.

As a woman entrepreneur did you have any difficulties in the Turkish start-up scene?

I personally did not have many difficulties other than those that all entrepreneurs, male or female, face, due to my academic background, however this is an important issue globally.

Research has shown that startups, especially high-growth startups, are the keys to job creation and leadership in new industries. While every entrepreneur, big or small, helps the economy, those who start high-growth companies, help the most.

Women capable of starting growth companies may well be our greatest under-utilized economic resource.

That’s all I want to know. If you have anything extra, just add it.

I would like to underline one point: It is essential to see women’s entrepreneurship, especially in high tech areas, as an economic issue, not a gender-equity issue. When new companies and industries flourish, everyone benefits.

According to a McKinsey Global Institute report: For a “full potential” scenario in which women participate in the economy identically to men, it would add up to $28 trillion, or 26 percent, to annual global GDP by 2025 compared with a business-as-usual scenario. This impact is roughly equivalent to the size of the combined Chinese and US economies today.

Hence closing the gender gap is not just a moral imperative, it is an economic one as well.

Here is an introductory video about Vispera:

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