Supporting our industrial workforce from the inside out

That new coffee table you just bought on Amazon? It was handled at least 25 times before it reached your front door. Same for those new shoes and the set of wine glasses that arrived yesterday. As e-commerce continues to grow aggressively - in 2017, e-commerce accounted for 10.2% percent of all retail sales worldwide and is expected to reach 17.5% by 2021 - and as competition heats up for faster shipment of goods, it’s time to start considering the individuals doing our heavy lifting. Workplace injuries are on the rise, and in 2015, those injuries cost US companies approximately $58 billion. Lift-related injuries made up the largest segment of those, with over 350,000 workers affected and a price tag of $15 billion.

This is a huge and growing problem that affects deskless workers across a vast range of industries, from logistics to distribution, mining to construction, healthcare and beyond. As an investor, it’s a problem I’ve been thinking about for quite some time as we’ve looked at, and invested in, a number of companies that address the opportunity to bring technology to the deskless workforce, and particularly in some of these traditionally non-tech driven sectors of the economy. Lost-time injuries are such a significant burden in those industries that operations leaders are willing to spare no expense to improve those metrics, reduce costs, and improve worker health and satisfaction. A whole industry has grown up around educating and training people in how to prevent injuries - teaching them correct postures for bending and lifting, for instance - but it’s no secret that this training is largely ineffective. Without more advanced tools, industry leaders have been virtually powerless when it comes to reinforcing the right behaviors and limiting the scope of worker injuries.

Over the past few years, I’ve grown more and more interested in platforms that bring technology to the deskless workforce, as well as those that bring connected devices into the industrial economy. In 2015, I received an introduction - via Luke Schoenfelder, CEO of enterprise smart lock company Latch - to Haytham Elhawary, co-founder of Kinetic. The two were in the same R/GA IoT Accelerator program, and Luke had developed a great deal of respect for Haytham, who was working on a harness that industrial workers would wear around their chest to evaluate the quality of their spinal movements with the goal of preventing workplace injury. I was intrigued. Most of the solutions we’ve seen to date are some combination of impractical to implement and difficult to measure in terms of ROI. And while we were impressed with Haytham and how he was approaching the problem, the early versions of Kinetic were victims of both.

Haytham, a biomechanical engineering PhD with an authentic passion for his mission, left an impression, though. He was thinking about the problem in the right way, understood that there was money to be made in solving it, and he and his team had the technological chops to make it happen. But perhaps what I admired most was Haytham’s self-awareness and his tenacity; he knew that he hadn’t yet found the right mechanism for solving the problem. Workers resisted the chest harness, and therefore operations managers had trouble enforcing it. But Haytham knew that if he developed a device that workers would willingly wear, he would have a business. Having grown up with a mother who suffered from debilitating back problems due to the nature of her work as an elder-care nurse, Haytham was unwaveringly committed to solving the problem, and had the tenacity to keep at it until he got it right. We passed on the deal at that point, but stayed in touch as Haytham kept chipping away at the problem.

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To find the right device form factor, Haytham and his co-founder, Aditya Bansal, undertook some deep machine learning work to map the desired data against movements that could be more easily and conveniently measured. Ultimately they settled on the magical movement of the hips. They discovered, after considerable R&D work, that movements that could be measured in the hip were reliably mappable, through the development of complex algorithms, to spine movements. With this discovery made, they were off, settling on a pager-sized device, worn on the belt, that detects unsafe postures and alerts the worker with a real-time vibration. They also incorporated a gamification aspect to the product, by which workers can compete with their colleagues to stay under a certain goal of unsafe motions per day. Managers can view insights and analytics on the company’s dashboard.

Early pilots with warehouses and smaller rollouts with companies - including Iron Mountain and Crane Worldwide Logistics - large manufacturers and e-commerce providers have garnered extremely positive feedback on the injury-prevention front. Crane, for instance, saw an 84% improvement in workers’ high-risk postures, and a heightened focus on safety and employee engagement. What makes Kinetic even more compelling, however, and what really caught our eye when Haytham approached us with the latest iteration of the product, are the early signs that show material improvements in worker productivity when you reduce injury-inducing movements. Kinetic is now in pilot with two Fortune 50 corporations that have amongst the largest distribution systems in the country, both of whom have seen an increase in worker productivity of over 5% by using the platform. This is the sort of compelling data that has the potential to alter the course of an entire workforce, with an abundance of possible applications across many industries. Once we saw these numbers, we knew that Haytham and Aditya had found that unique marriage of product-market fit and compelling outcomes data, and we jumped at the opportunity to invest alongside Crosslink Capital in their $4.5 million seed round.

The story of Kinetic is one of persistence and commitment to finding the right solution for an important problem. It’s a story of patience, of the paramount importance of understanding your customer and your end user, and of the power of data to achieve your goals. We met Haytham three years ago and watched closely as he and Aditya worked feverishly to make these pieces come together, and we’re proud to now partner with him on this incredibly exciting journey.