Entrepreneur finds new home, success in Northwest Arkansas
by Tyler Hale
At just 21 years old, Charu Thomas has accomplished more in the space of a few short years than most do in a career. If that wasn’t enough, she graduated college less than one year ago.
Now based in Northwest Arkansas, Thomas is the founder and CEO of Oculogx, an augmented reality startup that focuses on personal and online grocery shopping as well as warehouse order picking.
Through the use of augmented reality displays, Thomas aims to increase productivity and efficiency in retailers’ supply chains. She’s not shy about her ambitions: fundamentally changing the way people shop and interact with reality through digital displays. “The vision is to have heads-up displays on every personal grocery shopper in the world,” she says.
World domination is more easily talked about than accomplished, as Thomas readily admits. To get heads-up displays more widely accepted, there will need to be a sea change in how augmented reality is viewed. It’s not the technology — it’s the public perception.
“The big challenge in my opinion for heads-up displays and the reason they haven’t been adopted isn’t design, it’s not wearability, it’s not head weight, it’s not technology,” she says. “It’s because they’re doing something different than everyone else. But if it becomes a norm, it’s not weird anymore. You know, it’s completely normal. We start talking about it; we create that buzz and that’s what causes a cultural shift in my opinion.”
If anyone is up for the challenge, it’s this young entrepreneur.
Born in Australia, Thomas and her family moved to Georgia when she was 2, settling in the Atlanta suburbs. Before embarking on her present course, Thomas planned to follow an academic path into pure mathematics or research.
“In high school, my ideal career path would’ve been to become a mathematician. I just thought it was so cool … my idea of the sexy kind of career was drinking coffee and working on math proofs all day and just being by myself. What I’m doing now is not remotely related to that,” she says with a laugh.
She stayed close to home for college, enrolling in the Georgia Institute of Technology. There, she found her home for the next three-and-a-half years — and essentially the birthplace of Oculogx — in the university’s H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering, ranked by U.S. News and World Report as the top undergraduate industrial engineering program in the country.
Once at Georgia Tech, Thomas became involved in research projects, exposing her to supply chain – a field she says she wasn’t familiar with at the time. An internship in the McDonald’s supply-chain division during college set Thomas on the path to the idea for Oculogx.
“That was my first time in a warehouse, and that’s how I got introduced to practical operation, so it was a really great experience,” she says.
While she was interning at the warehouse, Thomas realized that the process of packing the trucks with product — diagramming — was not optimal. It was a semi-automated process, she says, but required workers to rearrange the boxes to better fit. But Thomas knew she could improve it using artificial intelligence to automatically diagram trucks.
“So that’s kind of where I started. And so I put together a team of some friends and I was like, ‘Okay, we’re going to start this company and it’s going to solve that problem with AI,’” she says.
Thomas hit a speed bump when she could not find customers interested in solving the problem. But this setback led her to the idea of using augmented reality to make warehousing more visual after attending a Georgia Tech mixed-reality hackathon, which showed her the possibilities of overlaying digital objects into the real world.
She soon met a figure who would have a major influence on the fledgling company — Thad Starner, a professor and director of the Conextual Computing Group at Georgia Tech and a technical lead and manager for Google Glass. “I went to [Starner’s office hours] and I said, ‘I want to start a company, and I want to do mixed reality diagramming,’” Thomas says. He gave her a copy of the book, Business Plans That Win $$$: Lessons from the MIT Enterprise Forum, and she began doing research with him.
“Working with Thad obviously was life-changing because he gave us a lot of independence to just build,” Thomas says.
Everything began moving in fast motion around this time. Thomas met an early cofounder, who later left the company, and the Oculogx was incorporated soon afterwards in May 2017. Oculogx’s profile steadily began rising as it was featured in competitions — and winning them, taking home second place in 2017’s Microsoft Imagine Cup Global Finals, beating out more than 50 competitors. Thomas also won the Atlanta Startup Battle in fall 2017, walking away with a cool $100,000 investment.
In the meantime, Thomas kept researching and refining what Oculogx, which was then focused on augmented-reality order picking, would be.
One of the major changes that occurred is the choice of augmented reality device. Originally, Thomas used Microsoft’s HoloLens, an over-the-head mixed reality device, for Oculogx. Customers complained about the headset — a “core problem,” as Thomas says — leading her to switch to the Google Glass platform. Comparing the two platforms, the HoloLens weighs more than a pound, while Google Glass weighs approximately 40 grams, making it lighter and more comfortable. It didn’t hurt that Starner is a lead developer on Google Glass, Thomas jokes.
All of the augmented reality and supply chain research was paying off. Thomas went from being a neophyte to an expert in wearable augmented reality. A paper she wrote on order picking won the Best Paper award at the 2018 ACM International Symposium on Wearable Computers.
“I got this really, really core understanding of the technology. So, you know, I went from not really knowing about augmented reality or wearables to designing systems for wearables, both software but also wearable hardware,” she says. “Research taught me a lot about the technology.”
Fast forward to late 2018, and Thomas hit a make-it or break-it moment. Graduation was quickly approaching, and Thomas still was unsure what she was going to do. She was torn between taking an academic approach: going to graduate school and continuing her research, or taking the risky approach: keep moving forward with Oculogx as an entrepreneur.
“So before graduation, I was like, ‘I don’t know how to run a business properly or how to interact with customers and how to sell.’ A month before I graduated, I got an email from this guy named Michael Iseman,” she says.
Iseman, then Startup Junkie’s chief relationship officer, encouraged her to apply for the Fuel Accelerator, a 16-week program overseen by RevUnit and Startup Junkie that brings growth stage startups to Northwest Arkansas to develop innovative solutions in the supply chain sector.
or Iseman, Oculogx was a stand-out company from the start because its research had been had been validated by the International Symposium on Wearable Computers. The accelerator was looking for scalable companies with proven technology, and that’s exactly where Oculogx fit in.
“After learning about the underlying technology, and meeting the company’s founder, Charu Thomas, it was evident that they were solving a real problem in supply chain, and the company had a visionary leader who was looking to make exponential, not marginal, improvements,” Iseman says. “Ideas are important, but the founder’s tenacity has a much greater impact on the success of a business, and it was clear very early that Charu has the right stuff.”
Thomas applied and got into the program. The catch was that she would have to move to Northwest Arkansas, a place she knew nothing about, to participate in the accelerator.
“I had never heard of Startup Junkie before, or RevUnit or Northwest Arkansas,” she says with a laugh. “It seems like a crazy risk, right? To just move to a different state away from all your friends and family. I’ve lived in Atlanta since I was 2…most of my whole life, so it was kind of scary.”
Oculogx, along with the other eight participating companies, received hands-on mentorship from industry experts while getting facetime with executives at Fortune 500 companies and developing potential business relationships.
“One of the biggest things we got was this core face time with the right people in large corporate environments. So that’s where I met some of the mentors who are still very engaged with our company,” Thomas says.
Bryan Boudreaux, a retired Walmart senior vice president for supply chain, is one of those mentors who has continued to advise her on Oculogx’s direction.
“She’s a very smart young lady. She’s very energetic and passionate with a drive. When I first met her, she heard from a customer and the customer said, ‘This problem is a bigger problem,’ and she quickly shifted her teams to that particular problem for that customer. So you take that passion, the energy, the brilliance…that bodes well for her success and her company,” he says.
During the accelerator, Thomas made a pivot to focusing on personal grocery shopping. The company still has warehousing clients, particularly in the e-commerce sector, but the move to personal grocery shopping has opened up a major new market.
Fuel concluded in May, and it’s been full steam ahead for Oculogx, according to Thomas. The company has already hit its revenue goals for the entire year in a single quarter, and it is gearing up to add to the company team.
To hear Thomas tell the story, Oculogx’s success has been a series of lucky happenstances.
“The best decision I ever made was being in Northwest Arkansas,” she says. “There’s so many points of this [that were] random chance and luck, and I’m very thankful for support from other people.”