connected commerce accelerator

In the race to stay relevant in retail, connected commerce is all the rage, and a new accelerator from Westfield Labs and R/GA Ventures has just named its first group of up-and-comers who they think might hold the keys to retail’s next big thing.

This week, school is in session for 10 technology-powered start-ups that were chosen because they have a novel idea for retail or commerce. The companies in the Connected Commerce Accelerator cover a range of retail segments and digital developments: image recognition, artificial intelligence and chatbots, delivery and returns, customer service, marketing and fitting rooms.

The selected companies will receive three months of guidance from partners such as Macy’s, Shopify Plus, Bank of America Merchant Services, Verizon and Wal-Mart, in addition to up to $120,000 from R/GA, in exchange for up to 5 percent equity. They will also have access to Bespoke, a fashion-tech space in Westfield San Francisco Centre that has co-working, demonstration and event space. All of the program’s partners collectively decided on the 10 participants, who were chosen from “many hundreds” of international applicants. The program will conclude in October with presentations to investors and execs from retail and technology.

“We are committed to infusing digital into our physical shopping environments to create new consumer experiences,” said Westfield Corp. chief digital officer Kevin McKenzie. He also added that supporting these companies stands to be a mutually beneficial endeavor. “We look forward to working together to identify opportunities to provide some of the participants access to Westfield’s scale and visitors by implementing their products and solutions in some of our centers, further accelerating their access to real-time customer interactions and feedback.”

The companies chosen are: Agent Q, which provides AI for chat bots, product search and customer service; AxleHire, which provides same-day delivery for e-commerce and physical retailers; Clarifai, which offers visual recognition technology; Cordial, which lets brands deliver highly personalized messages and tracks digital behavior; Darkstore, which converts physical spaces into fulfillment centers; Happy Returns, which is building a network of return bars that provide online shoppers immediate refunds; Myagi, which is an online training platform for customer service and sales training; Oak, which has built an interactive fitting room; Percolata, which uses sensor and sales data to aid sales teams, and, which powers chat bots on major messaging platforms.

There is a broad range of company maturity in this first group; some have been in market less than 60 days, while others have been around for more than two years; the employee count ranges from two to 15.

“The innovative technologies, services and business models of the companies position them to be leaders in determining the future of retail and commerce,” said R/GA Ventures managing director Stephen Plumlee. R/GA Ventures was founded in 2013 as a part of digital agency R/GA. It will provide marketing, branding and technology services to the participants.

The Connected Commerce Accelerator has also tapped a number of mentors who will participate in roundtable sessions with the participants. In addition to execs from Westfield Labs, R/GA and the retail sponsors, there are members from companies such as PayPal, Salesforce, Intel, Stripe, Yahoo, Sephora, Apple, Facebook, Benefit Cosmetics, Samsung, Nike, Twitter and Lululemon.

Myagi cofounder Simon Turner said that he was particularly looking forward to the doors that the accelerator might open in the retail industry. “We applied for the program because we’re on a mission to help retailers and brands drive sales through developing sales associate skills, and to deliver on that mission we need to be involved with the best minds in retail and technology — and we think this unique accelerator delivers on that level,” he said. 

Darkstore chief executive officer and cofounder Lee Hnetinka concurred. “We are already amazed at the connections we’ve been able to establish and the conversations that have taken place on just day one.”

While vetting the participants, program partners have already done a “deep-dive” with each start-up, said Westfield Labs’ David Blumenfeld, who is senior vice president of business development there. “We are eager to see how these companies evolve over the next 90 days, especially after seeing how everyone has hit the ground running.” 

When the accelerator was announced, Jonathan Bradley, director of R/GA Accelerators and a partner in R/GA Ventures, said that it would differ from traditional accelerator funds because it would partner with later-stage and growth-stage companies. “We’re going for companies that are prepared and have the ability to begin piloting,” he said. “We’re still looking at early-stage companies, but we want companies that have traction and have businesses.”

And, of course, if one of the companies ends up attracting more dollars to physical retail, the investment might just pay off.