The DTC Interview
CEO and co-founder, Tag’n’Trac
We’re going to the basics and saying, “You want to know where your pallet is at any given point in time? We’ll give you give you that capability.” You don’t need AI and all this predictability. It’s actually real data coming from the field.
We’ve heard plenty about supply-chain challenges of late, but even before the recent crises there were issues. Chief among them? Lack of visibility into both exact locations and conditions for shipments that require specific environmental conditions and delivery timelines.
That’s the problem that Venu Gutlapalli, CEO and co-founder of Tag-n-Trac, is intent on solving.
The company, backed by DTC as its Series A lead, has created a platform that gives customers a comprehensive, real-time look into where its shipments are as they move from factory to destination. At the heart of the platform are Tag-n-Trac-pioneered UPC labels that are imbedded with a cellular tracking device and other sensors; they not only monitor where a shipment is at any given moment, but also track things like temperature and humidity levels. Gutlapalli, a Qualcomm veteran, talks about technology, the value of partnerships, and building a supply chain solution at a time when there are problems with the supply chain itself.
WHY THIS, WHY NOW
The fundamental problem we’re wrestling with is… giving greater visibility into the supply chain, at a lower price. Right now, if somebody wants real-time visibility into a shipment, there are two ways to do it. One is a data crawl. You find another system that’s tracking the train or truck or ocean liner your shipment is on — for, say, safety information — and tap into that web site. But it’s not the latest information. The second way is by putting a live tracking device on it – like a GPS-enabled device. But the current trackers are bulky, and they’re around $100 a piece. And you need to reverse-ship them.
We solve the problem by… taking a bar code label and a tracker and merging them together at a low cost — below $10. And now that the tracking device is actually inside the label, we can add other sensors to track variables like temperature, pressure, humidity and so on. If it’s a perishable or a high-value good like a food or beverage or pharmaceutical, those variables are essential to understand.
We saw the opportunity to create a company because… when it came to solving some of these warehousing and shipping issues, most manufacturers just hire some big consulting company that are good at warehouse management software. If you’d ask consultant-types how shipments are tracked, they’d often just say, “I’ll go to China and buy some device and put it in the bottom of the shipment.” Those off-the-shelf solutions aren’t customizable and can be expensive.
We looked at the problem and said it’s possible to build a platform that’s focused on lowering costs and lets developers write customizable applications on top to manage specific workflows. And it can offer more real time data: your shipment is on a truck that is actually 30 minutes away from the warehouse, this is how much inventory is coming from it, this is how much inventory you’re expecting.
A tech breakthrough that’s been crucial to us is… FPC — flexible printed circuits. The traditional way of manufacturing a tracking device, like a cell phone or a watch, is that you first make a PCB, then you put a battery to it, then you build an encapsulation like a plastic casing. But that’s where the cost goes up because you have all these layers of manufacturing.
With flexible printed circuits, all the components are printed: the sensors are printed, the battery is printed, and then we encapsulate it all inside a UPC label. And the label material is the same as before.
With flexible printed circuits, all the components are printed: the sensors are printed, the battery is printed, and then we encapsulate it all inside a UPC label. And the label material is the same as before. It’s just that we’re putting in a very thin intermediate layer.
The most exciting thing about technology these days is… the way semiconductor technology continues to evolve. Every five years computational power doubles or triples, but the power consumption also goes down and the cost goes down. When I started as a cellular engineer at Qualcomm, we used to make cell phones that were like bricks, and the battery would die in six hours or so. You’re now squeezing an entire cellular function into a paper-thin label.
LEARNING AND INSPIRATION
One important thing I’ve learned about building a team is… when we’re trying to come up with is something that doesn’t exist, look for people who want to innovate and think out of the box to come up with solutions.
You don’t need to invent everything yourself… If somebody has already solved a certain piece of the puzzle, then partner with them to bring it into your solution.
A second important thing I’ve learned about building a team is… You don’t need to invent everything yourself. We’re exploring a lot of partnership opportunities. If somebody has already solved a certain piece of the puzzle, then we want to partner with them to bring it into our solution.
Don’t give up if somebody says that’s not working, that’s not available, you can’t do this. Stay at it. If someone can’t deliver, find another partner.
The key to being a successful startup is… don’t give up if somebody says that’s not working, that’s not available, you can’t do this. Stay at it. If someone can’t deliver, find another partner. We searched for one year for a label printer that can help us. We went to every expo. And then after one year we found two printers that can actually do the job, and both the printers are working now.
The biggest irony about what we’re doing is .. we’re trying to solve supply-chain problems and, because of this whole semiconductor supply-chain issue, we ourselves are stuck with supply-chain problems. [laughs] You’re trying to solve a problem, and you’re a victim of it, too.
OFF THE CLOCK
Go on a trip where there are no cell phones, nothing. Just go and get your brain out of fundraising, value add, customer delivery, all that.
I give my mind a rest by… backpacking and traveling. Sometimes I go on a trip where there are no cell phones, nothing. Just go and get your brain out of fundraising, value add, customer delivery, all that.
In five years…I see us as a full-platform enabler for customers — specifically in pharma, food and automotive enterprises — solving this whole real-time visibility issue in a really good way. Not data and AI and all the fancy terms people are throwing around out there. We’re going to the basics and saying, “You want to know where your pallet is at any given point in time? We’ll give you give you that capability.” You don’t need AI and all this predictability. It’s actually real data coming from the field.