August 16, 2017
Holden Page is a Crunchbase News editor and columnist.
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Investors and the entrepreneurs they fund are known for their ability to make connections. And not just for the sake of deal flow. The builders and their backing venture capitalists have poured hundreds of millions into connected buildings, connected toys, and connected cars to, supposedly, help make life more convenient and efficient.

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But connecting toys, cars, and homes isn’t enough for some.

Over the past week, Three Square Market, a Wisconsin-based company that makes connected kiosks and vending machines, made media rounds for inserting radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips into 50 of its employees. The chip, which costs $300 to embed, will allow Three Square’s employees to order food, enter the building, and gain access to work systems. And according to the BBC, Three Square Market’s COO Patrick McMullan “believes everyone will soon be wanting their own microchip.”

It’s up for debate whether McMullan’s prediction about human-embedded microchips will be accepted willingly. And while Three Square Market did not embed a GPS-enabled chip into its employees, it’s only so much a stretch of the imagination where that is required.

Employers already have adopted a multitude of ways to track where you’ve been, where you’re going, and what you do. Unsurprisingly, employers are also willing to bend the rules. For instance, TSheets, a time tracking software company, discovered that “one in 10 [employees] responded that they were being tracked 24 hours a day — a big legal no-no in all 50 states. Another 30% said they weren’t sure exactly when tracking stopped for the day.”

Nonetheless, the technology behind the microchip, RFID, has stoked our curiosity. Just how many startups are leveraging RFID technology as part of their core business model? Furthermore, are any of those startups planning to take advantage of RFID to augment the human experience?

Depending on the answers, the future of work may come with a chip as part of your onboarding process.

Chip Yourself In

The market for RFID technology is growing. Market research firm IDTechX noted that the total RFID market in 2017 is worth approximately $11.2 billion, with the company projecting an increase to $14.9 billion by 2022. But at least for funded startups that focus on RFID, the amount of funding over time tells a different story.

It’s important to note that, in our analysis of Crunchbase data, startups are not sorted into a RFID category. Crunchbase News, instead, searched for funding rounds based on companies who had RFID in their description. We then manually excluded those companies that treated RFID as an accessory to their business model. (For instance, Lucid Motors, at first glance, made the cut. However, it is, first and foremost, an electric car company.)

The result of our filtering gave us 100 total known deals in the space, totaling $161.9 million in known funding amounts from 2014 to 2017 (YTD). And while IDTechX predicts that the RFID market will grow, startups in the space, in terms of funding, appear to be floundering. In 2014, $30.8 million was raised across 30 rounds. From 2014 and onwards, round count and funding steadily declines for the sector. And so far into 2017, RFID startups are scraping the bottom of the money barrel. Recorded deals so far this year amounted to a (very) paltry $92,118 across two seed rounds.

But substantial rounds aren’t unheard of in the RFID sector. Omni-D, which manufacturers RFID tags that can withstand harsh environments, raised $21 million in 2016. The company, in total, has raised $44 million in venture funding.

And while many of the other RFID startups that made our list focus on inventory management or contactless payments, there is a startup that is attempting to track the whereabouts of living beings.

Peeva, which raised an Angel round in September 2016 for an undisclosed sum, wants to track our furry friends at scale. The company claims its RFID technology will provide “unprecedented level and range of service for pet owners, veterinarians and shelters.” And while RFID tagging your dog or cat is not a new phenomenon, doing so using a SaaS business model might be an interesting template for future startups to adopt.

But in the meantime, there does not seem to be a startup, at least with venture funding, that intends to mass embed chips in the way McMullan envisions. There also doesn’t appear to be pent up demand for consumers to make it happen. And for employees who value the last vestiges of their privacy, this is likely good news.