“After high school was right about the time Romania got into the EU and we gained access to education opportunities anywhere in Europe,” says Paul Pop, co-founder of Neurolabs. “Edinburgh was, and still is, really good for computer science and artificial intelligence – it was the obvious choice.”
At first glance, Edinburgh and Cluj, Romania, may not appear to have a lot in common. Separated by an entire continent, several nations and dozens of languages, the two cities could not seem further apart.
For Pop, who serves as CEO at the Cluj-based startup, the two cities act as ‘homes’ – with the former representing a proverbial goldmine of tech talent.
Pop, born in Romania, studied computer science and artificial intelligence at the University of Edinburgh, which is where he met his fellow Neurolabs co-founders Patric Fulop and Remus Pop; both of whom are also Romanian nationals. The trio has since embarked on a mission to transform retail check-outs with machine vision.
The hope is that through automating the process they can cut down on lengthy queues, waiting times and human error. The company’s algorithms recognise items and, thus far, have reduced a customer’s check-out process to around 15 seconds.
“You go into a canteen and pick whatever item you need, put it on a tray, move it along and at the end of the line you aren’t met with a cashier anymore that checks your items and manually inputs them,” he explains. “You just have one camera, you press the check-out button and it detects what you have on that tray.”
The introduction of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence in retail has the potential to transform the industry and greatly enhance customer experiences, Pop believes. And although ‘automation’ is a term that is often associated with job losses, Neurolabs’ vision is to enhance the capabilities of workers, not replace them outright.
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“There’s a lot of room for artificial intelligence in retail and there’s work to be done,” he explains. “Check-outs are the main pain point for retailers and we looked at the market and knew that computer vision could be a good thing.”
“It doesn’t really take the worker out, at least in the canteens we’ve worked in so far,” he adds. “The main bottleneck comes from food services and now you can repurpose someone for helping in that regard while speeding up the check-out process.”
Officially launched in 2018, so far the company has participated in two accelerators (Fast Track Malmo & Data Pitch London) to help establish and boost its development. Currently, the firm is embedded at business incubator, Station F, based in Paris.
During these early stages, hiring ‘smart’ is crucial, Pop notes. And in the long-term, the hope is that Edinburgh will play a central role in the company’s development
“In June we had some budget and wanted to expand fast so we hired interns aggressively, with four from Edinburgh,” Pop says. “We actually targeted Edinburgh [The University of Edinburgh] because we knew people here and it was a great access point for us.”
“We’re definitely planning to have more people from Edinburgh joining next year and in the future,” he adds.
The quality of talent coming out of Edinburgh is astounding, Pop insists. With the nation forging a reputation as a hub of tech innovation, Scotland’s academic institutions are playing a huge role in developing the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs.
As Neurolabs expands, Pop hopes to build closer relationships within the Scottish technology sector. In Edinburgh, he sees certain comparisons with Cluj; both are home to dynamic young startups and continue to raise eyebrows.
“At the stage we are at as a startup, and in terms of access to talent, it makes sense for us to be here – Edinburgh is much easier for us than London, for example, and so is Cluj,” he says.
“I think it’s a great match to have the software development team in Romania and the PhD level folks in Edinburgh, given that we have access to our professors from the University.”
“It’s a welcoming community, and as a student, I found Edinburgh very welcoming so it’s a great city to have a presence in and build relationships,” Pop insists.