Alex Fielding has already had a heck of a career.
In 1996, at the age of 18, he joined Apple, where he worked on the first iMac under the just-returned cofounder Steve Jobs.
In 2001, he and Apple cofounder Steve “Woz” Wozniak started up Wheels of Zeus (abbreviated as “WoZ,” get it?), a company that made GPS tags so companies could track inventory. Over the years, Fielding would go on to cofound or work at other startups with other ex-Apple execs, too.
Now, that Apple pedigree has come back into play as Fielding’s newest venture, Ripcord, is officially launching with a $US9.5 million dollar investment from Kleiner Perkins, Lenovo’s cousin investment firm Legend Star, Lux Capital — and Steve Wozniak, the Woz himself. If that’s not enough nerd cred, Ripcord is actually a NASA spinoff, too.
And what Ripcord does is run a growing factory floor populated by robots, designed to scan, store, and index tremendous piles of paper for later retrieval, ten times faster than a human could do it. Check it out:
In the short term, Fielding tells Business Insider, Ripcord is already helping publicly traded companies and law firms like Wilson Sonsini with the hassle of managing the hundreds or thousands of pages worth of information they need to keep handy for the purposes of regulatory compliance. He’s planning on staffing the 30-strong company up with 100 more factory workers over the next year as demand ramps up.
In the longer term, Fielding sees Ripcord, along with the artificial intelligence powering it under the hood, as bringing about an end to paper itself.
“To me, that’s a very beautiful thing,” says Fielding.
No robot uprising
Fielding and his early team have no experience with what the industry calls “records management.” Instead, the company was actually the result of a bet between Fielding and a friend.
Sometime in 2015, a friend of Fielding’s worked in operations at a tech company that was preparing to go public, and had to retrieve the mountains of financial paperwork that needed to be filed alongside the S-1 form. That meant calling up his document services provider, and getting the last year’s worth of paperwork from their specialised storage facility.
But, Fielding says, the document provider had lost the majority of his friend’s required boxes, slowing down the entire process drastically until they could find replacements and backups and were able to reconstruct what was lost. Fielding was shocked that a modern company, especially a tech company, would rely so heavily on old-fashioned paper.
“I did what any great friend would do. I teased and chided my friend,” says Fielding. “‘You clearly didn’t get the memo; the world is going paperless.'”
His friend “made all these excuses,” says Fielding, citing the thousand dollars-plus per box that document storage companies can charge to digitize that paper. Even once the paper is digitised, Fielding says, fees can pile up. Sometimes, he says, they even charge you per keystroke to change file names or folders in their systems.
Fielding couldn’t believe it, and wagered his friend a lunch that he could find some company, somewhere, that could save his friend from this ever happening again. He couldn’t. And so the seed was planted for Ripcord.
The stapler problem
It sounds silly at first, but a really big part of the reason why this has never been done before are staples. Existing scanner systems require humans to pull staples, separate three-ring binders, unclip paper clips, and occasionally even unstrip duct tape before they can go through the system — otherwise they jam up the works.
“If you can use it to stick paper together, somebody has,” Fielding says.
Humans can do that work, but it’s tedious, and Fielding says that humans actually get worse at it over time — if you grow accustomed to removing staples from the top-left corner for eight hours a day, you’re more likely to miss the one staple in the top-right. If you miss it, the system gets gunked up, and you’ve lost hours of work.
At the time of that fateful wager, Fielding was working at NASA as a technologist. When he explained to the NASA higher ups what he was working on, they gave him office space, access to experts, and other resources to get started.
The reason for their excitement has everything to do with those staples. The same artificial intelligence that Ripcord’s robots use to detect whether something is a paper fastener or not could be broadly applicable to its own scientific search. While self-driving cars and the like have nailed this problem at large scales, Fielding’s robots are one of the few projects to try it with things as small as paperclips.
“This is an example of artificial intelligence that’s not Skynet,” says Fielding. “A Ripcord robot isn’t going to kill you with a staple remover.”
So what Ripcord actually sells is pretty rare, Fielding says. You pay for the storage of your files in their cloud system, per month. That fee includes the labour of digitising it, including a partnership with FedEx to actually bring the files to the Ripcord facility in Hayward, a short drive from San Francisco.
It doesn’t replace humans, says Fielding, since customers still set the desired organisation of the digitised files themselves. It just automates the repetitive tasks of removing the staples, scanning them, making sure they were the right files, giving them a timestamp, and so on and so forth. Once it’s in the cloud, customers can search through them, too.
The idea, Fielding says, is to remove any and all opposition to digitising a company’s files, rather than stashing them away with an expensive document management company that doesn’t even make it easy to sift for the stuff you need. Once the documents are scanned, Ripcord recycles the paper records themselves.
For now, it’s a corporate thing. But he sees the technology being pioneered here as a way to remove our reliance on paper, removing the need to keep killing trees by photocopying the same files over and over again. He sees it as the first step towards a broader “legacy” for Ripcord.
“Nobody was really bringing the market out of the stone ages,” says Fielding.