Google and a government lab helped Intellifit deliver retail ecstasy: Clothes that fit.
(Business 2.0) – Even in the age of cloning and nanorobots, it's hard to find a pair of pants that fit. That's partly because many clothing makers still rely on the U.S. government's most recent large-scale survey on body sizes, which was completed more than 60 years ago. Since then, fast food, immigration, and fitness trends have produced a new American physique: On average, people are now 1 inch taller and 24 pounds heavier.
But to Ed Gribbin, a 26-year veteran of the apparel industry, tight jeans are a business opportunity. In 2000, Gribbin joined Intellifit, a startup in Horsham, Pa., that planned to help retailers measure customers and feed the results into software that would recommend clothes. The idea seemed to have legs: By early 2002, Intellifit had sized up 12,000 customers of the David's Bridal chain and 3,000 at plus-size apparel retailer Catherines (a unit of Charming Shoppes).
But after those initial wins, Gribbin (who became Intellifit's president in 2001) couldn't land another deal. "We hit a wall," he says. Potential retail clients didn't have enough employees to do the measuring, and few were willing to put customers through a tape-measure ordeal in which 38 body dimensions were collected. Gribbin wondered if electronic scanners might work, but the only solution he found required customers to change into a Lycra bodysuit. With $3 million in venture funding nearly gone, he began thinking about closing the business.
But in July 2002, just as he was considering giving up, Gribbin typed the phrase "body scanner" into Google's search engine. Buried under about 40 results was the website of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a Department of Energy research facility. Clicking through, Gribbin saw a device that used millimeter radio waves to scan a person wearing a business suit and create a bare-body hologram so accurate it could expose concealed weapons.
Gribbin flew to PNNL's campus in Richland, Wash., but found that the scanner was far from a perfect fit. First, it produced images so anatomically correct that he feared for shoppers' privacy. In addition, the machine would cost about $100,000--far too expensive for retail. There were also safety concerns. "We didn't know much about millimeter radio waves," Gribbin says.
Intellifit licensed the technology anyway and spent 18 months building a more affordable, less revealing version: an 8-foot-wide cylinder that records the positions of 200,000 body points in 10 seconds. The scanners produce no images and cost about $50,000. Last November, Macy's started testing one at its store in Willow Grove, Pa., offering customers a printout of the brands, styles, and sizes that fit best. Three others are in use at Lane Bryant stores (another Charming Shoppes chain), and Intellifit has agreed to install its scanners in several malls, where printouts will direct shoppers to well-fitting items at tenant stores. In the spring, Levi's took an Intellifit scanner on an eight-city U.S. tour. "One woman cried after it helped her find jeans that fit," says Levi's spokeswoman Amy Gemellaro.
Intellifit now leases scanners to retailers and sells the data to inform future designs. Gribbin predicts that sales will top $4 million this year and that Intellifit could break even in 2006. His advice to entrepreneurs: Check out what tax dollars are building. "Going to a government lab for a solution would have never occurred to me," he says. "There's a lot of cool technology ready for commercialization." -- SIRI SCHUBERT