It’s a dilemma we can all relate to: you buy clothes online that you think not only look cute and won’t require you to take out a loan, but will actually fit. You wait excitedly for days for the package to arrive, and when it does you begin tearing it apart with the same giddiness as a five-year-old on Christmas morning before you’ve even walked through the front door. You eagerly pull the clothes out and start trying them on right then and there, only to find out… they don’t fit. Not even close.
Wouldn’t it be great if there was, well, a solution to this very First World problem?
One guess what this article is about.
Auckland-based StretchSense has come up with a solution to making sure the clothes you buy online will always fit – and has garnered tens of millions of dollars in investment to take it to the mass market. The ZozoSuit is a garment a person puts on that contains about 150 sensors, which can quickly take your exact measurements – think a tailor, but without the measuring tape being stretched around areas you’d rather strangers don’t touch.
“It makes those measurements automatic,” says StretchSense marketing director Shin Jeong Park. “The tech is very new. This is really good for the online retail industry.”
Park explains that the ZozoSuit will be available to customers of Start Today, who own Japan’s largest online fashion retailer. She emphasises it’s made and developed in Aotearoa, something StretchSense is “really proud of.”
The first consumer-ready wearable product built with StretchSense’s sensor technology, the ZozoSuit was developed in close collaboration between the two companies. StretchSense says its mission is to go beyond wearables and towards “disappearables” —smart garments with unobtrusive sensors and electronics that feel invisible to the wearer.
StretchSense co-founder and CEO Ben O’Brien certainly believes in its potential. “We’ve been talking about disappearables for years now — clothing where it’s not clear where the garment ends and the sensors start,” he says. “It’s the most ambitious thing we’ve ever done.”
Start Today’s goal for the ZozoSuit is to ensure online clothing shoppers get a guaranteed fit with their purchases, significantly improving customer satisfaction while reducing the number of returns the retailer has to process.
Park says the applications of the stretch sensors could also expand beyond online fashion. “The ability to measure body size is just one of the applications possible with a smart sensing body suit. Stretch sensors are a great tool to capture information about how people move in the world; from that information you can draw conclusions about motion, pose and health. The data from our sensing technology is helping to push the boundaries of human performance.”
StretchSense’s journey began over a decade ago in the Biomimetics Lab of the University of Auckland’s Bioengineering Institute. The company incorporated in 2012 as a spin-out from the university and continued to develop its stretch sensor technology. StretchSense attracted the attention of Start Today in December 2015 – ultimately leading to series A investment in June of 2016 – and has grown to serve over 400 customers in 28 countries.
Founded in 1998 by Yusaku Maezawa, Start Today has grown into Japan’s largest fashion e-commerce company, with $2.6 billion in annual sales. Start Today’s portfolio includes ZozoTown, Japan’s go-to marketplace for fashion, which welcomes over 25 million visitors every month.
Oh, and Start Today has also reached an agreement with StretchSense for an option to buy the company. Can’t forget that bit.
The agreement represents a US$20 million injection into the New Zealand technology ecosystem, with an additional $72 million should Start Today choose to exercise the option and acquire full ownership of StretchSense.
StretchSense’s New Zealand operations, which take place at two sites in Auckland with more than 130 employees in total, will continue as normal.
O’Brien is pretty thrilled, of course. “This deal with Start Today is a great sign for New Zealand’s technology ecosystem,” he says. “It proves it’s possible for a Kiwi technology company to build itself up from essentially nothing into a world-class operation capable of competing on the global stage.
Our relationship with Start Today began because of our technology, but it’s the value of our people and Kiwi expertise that have led us to this point, as well as our compatibility with Start Today’s fantastic company culture.”
Recently placed seventh on the 2017 Deloitte Fast 50, StretchSense is one of New Zealand’s rising technology stars. Start Today currently holds 39.9 percent ownership (fully diluted basis) of StretchSense – which, of course, would grow to 100 percent should it choose to purchase StretchSense entirely. Start Today has until September 30, 2018 to decide if it will buy StretchSense, which currently has a strike valuation of US$120 million.
O’Brien says that no matter what happens, he’s pretty happy with how things have turned out. “It’s fantastic,” he says. “We built this company from nothing pretty much. We started in a university lab in 2006. It’s fantastic. It’s going to be amazing for the local ecosystem.”
And he says Start Today’s investment also means something more about the state of the New Zealand tech sector – that it’s “on the cusp” of a runaway effect of big investment. “That’s what I believe – absolutely.”
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