Long before the pandemic created widespread supply and labor shortages, the supply chain has been troubled by inaccurate information throughout the process. This was the problem Raleigh-based startup Trilliott set out to solve in 2018.
When the pandemic struck, it only accelerated the supply chain problems that companies had already been facing, according to Trilliott Founder and CEO Booth Kalmbach.
“If nothing else, that allows us to start our pitch to investors saying, ‘We fix the supply chain,’” Kalmbach said. “That’s been a good catchphrase.”
Kalmbach is a serial entrepreneur with a degree in electrical engineering from Vanderbilt and an MBA from Duke. While Kalmbach worked at IBM, he and his team invented a software protocol that has now been donated to the Internet public domain.
Arguably he might have learned the most from the places he says he received “six PhDs.” In other words, one for each of the six startups that he founded, co-founded or worked at.
After IBM, he stayed in enterprise software, and after selling his fourth company, he entered the field of RFID, or radio frequency identification.
Trilliott builds upon the experience Kalmbach acquired as CEO and Co-Founder of Entigral Systems, an enterprise software vendor of solutions for asset and inventory tracking that used RFID.
Trilliott is a software company that incorporates RFID, using an Internet of Things hardware sensor that can be embedded into nearly anything. When hit by a radio beam, the little chip powers up and communicates information back to a scanner. While decades ago this technology only worked over about two feet, it now operates at a Bluetooth range—up to approximately 90 feet.
Adoption of RFID has only increased as prices came down, Kalmbach said, becoming especially prevalent in large consumer retail. A pair of designer jeans might have a RFID chip in the waistline to prevent theft, for instance, while an airline baggage tag might have a chip for easier tracking and identification.
Finding the right market
But where Trilliott has really set its sights on as a company is the opportunity that lies outside of consumer retail, especially with industrial and commercial enterprise customers. Think suppliers, purchasers and warehouses.
When products are shipped from all across the world, inspection and distribution can be difficult. Ultimately, Trilliott’s mission is to help fix the supply chain by digitizing the assets and inventory that businesses use to conduct their operations.
“That’s extremely dependent on the accuracy we know of the materials themselves—how much we have, who it’s from, where it is right now,” Kalmbach said. “And with barcode, today’s predominant tracking technology, that knowledge is not very efficient. It’s typically 60 percent accurate or lower.”
Barcode can frequently lead to inventory stranding, which in turn creates shortages for the customer. With RFID, however, radio beams can pick up inventory and assets almost like an X-ray, boosting accuracy to over 95 percent. Many retailers jumped on the bandwagon, so much so that in 2020, 21 billion RFID chips were sold.
“These are big consumer retailers,” Kalmbach says. “So this was an enormous proof case. Consequently, there’s a lot of momentum right now for the technology to be deployed far more widely. As if 21 billion chips is not wide, but we’re expecting trillions.”
Hence, the name of his company, Trilliott.
So far, Trilliott has two major customers. One of them supports more than 100 accounts—office furniture supplier Alfred Williams & Company, which is headquartered in Raleigh and has eight locations in N.C., South Carolina and Tennessee.
Trilliott has been self-funded up until now. But the startup is nearing the completion of a seed round of approximately $1.5 million, and as business ramps up, it hopes to pursue a Series A round of $5-$8 million starting late this year.
Kalmbach said warehouse management systems are how the world perceives its goods. Throughout his entrepreneurial process, Kalmbach has learned some key lessons.
“It’s all about the customer,” Kalmbach said. “You make a proposition to a customer to get their interest and get their engagement, and then you just listen.”
Trilliott has also benefited from the guidance of RIoT, the Triangle-HQ’d economic development organization focused on IoT, and its RIoT Accelerator Program (RAP), in which Trilliott participated in 2018. Kalmbach said that RIoT helped Trilliott find one of its most valuable customers.
“I can’t really speak highly enough of a consortium like that that allows like-minded companies to come together, not just startups,” Kalmbach said. “RIoT is about big companies and little companies, and the ideas that have flowed from that have been really crucial.”
When the pandemic hit, Kalmbach said it meant Trilliott had to stay small, which became an unforeseen advantage. They used to spend money traveling across the country to ensure installation went smoothly, but because of COVID-19, Trilliott created a way to complete installation completely remotely.
No matter where the supply chain goes in the coming months and years, the biggest issue in the supply chain today remains accuracy, Kalmbach said. And this is the inefficiency that Trilliott aims to eliminate.
“Assets and inventory are really the last frontier of digitization,” Kalmbach said. “The reason for that is, again, we’re not talking about a few hundred thousand desktops. We’re talking about trillions of things, and it’s hard to handle. I think that’s really the future—a fulfillment of the Internet of Things, where the things are everything around us and we manage them through technologies like RFID.”
The happy feedback from clients keeps Trilliott and Kalmbach on the mission to fix the supply chain.
“We’re very focused on enabling these key enterprise workflows in the digital world to be far, far more efficient,” Kalmbach said. “So I’m happy when my customers say, ‘that’s working so much better than it used to,’ or ‘this is enabling us to reduce our on-hand inventory.’ Those are dollars on the balance sheet and they can re-use that capital in other places in the business. That’s what we want to hear.”