A Gold Coast cleaning company founded less than a year ago has just raised $2 million to further develop its AI-driven technology for monitoring workers, which its co-founder claims is already helping to lift the productivity of staff in its prototype form.
Cognisant of the skills shortage impacting many sectors, particularly in the cleaning industry that their business Spruces has been disrupting since December 2022 through on-demand services, entrepreneurs Leo Plaza and Broden Johnson set about developing an AI technology that could solve the productivity crisis.
Whilst worker monitoring technology may conjure up thoughts of a dystopian 'Big Brother' style invasion of privacy, Plaza emphasises the early-stage, on-body camera vision used at Spruces is giving workers greater peace of mind and awareness on the job.
He espouses that the model frees these people from misplaced blame if problems arise, but most importantly it incentivises high-quality work that would otherwise go unrecognised or unrewarded.
"I get a lot of cleaners saying to me ‘there’s no point in me doing a good job, because no one's really seen what I'm doing’, and so they just fall back to doing the bare minimum," Plaza tells Business News Australia.
"Traditional cleaning companies treat all cleaners under the one blanket – the good ones don’t get the recognition that they deserve, and the bad ones are getting the same payment as the good ones.
"It’s not just for productivity but it’s for support and engaging with them and the safety component. Additionally, the computer vision we're using is very similar to how a Tesla works - we can see what the cleaner is actually doing, and if they’re very productive we'll be able to pay them more, because we are measuring productivity seconds with AI."
On this last point, he clarifies that productivity is not just about speed, but quality, as most clients would prefer attention to detail even if the job takes longer as that avoids unnecessary supervision and call-backs.
"That’s what our algorithms are going to look for. They’re not going to look for someone who’s had three coffees and a Red Bull and they’re just running around; we're going to conduct checks," he says.
"In the case of a hotel, we’re going to make sure they’ve checked under the bed, under the sofa, and that they actually did in fact clean all the surfaces."
Spruces, whose founders were finalists in the Startup and Digital Disruptor categories at the 2023 Gold Coast Young Entrepreneur Awards, initially aimed to raise $500,000 but ended up securing $2 million as a combination of sweat equity from investors, developers and angels.
One of the backers is Gold Coast-based FuseLabs, formerly known as Simple Click and founded in 2015 by Arve Sølland and Stuart Bond, while syndicate AngelLoop was instrumental in securing the angel investor component.
"That’s going to fund the entire development of the app, including the development of the AI computer vision piece for the devices that we’re going to have on the cleaners," Plaza says.
"We’re keeping the development local, and that’s really exciting for me because a lot of people now go to get apps done in India, the Philippines and what not, and we're very excited to be able to do it on the Gold Coast."
He adds that AngelLoop CEO Simon Horne went 'above and beyond' to help the startup raise funds as Plaza travelled on a roadshow to drum up interest, from Harvey Bay to Toowoomba to Byron Bay.
"It’s not a large sum, but what they’re telling me is the fact you raised under these market conditions is remarkable," he says.
Fuse Labs co-founder Stuart Bond says he was drawn to Spruces because of its innovative approach to revolutionising the commercial cleaning industry.
"The use of computer vision and language models to enhance efficiency and accessibility is particularly exciting, as it aligns with my passion for leveraging technology to solve real-world problems," he says.
"We are eager to contribute to a platform that is set to redefine the marketplace with its on-demand services.
"With over two decades in software development, I've had the privilege of contributing to transformative projects, including the development of BidCrete, an e-commerce solution that streamlines the procurement process in the concrete industry. My experience in creating platforms that bridge gaps in traditional industries will be instrumental in achieving Spruces' ambitious goals."
Bond explains that Fuse Labs, a bootstrapped company, has long been reinvesting its profits into innovation with its investment portfolio also including Gold Coast company Edify Medical, whose app helps convey complex language from medical literature in multiple languages.
Plaza notes that Spruces has undergone rapid growth with the cleaning service model alone, but its real impact will come from a two-pronged model of services.
"First, we are the first ever on-demand commercial cleaning services, so instantly you’re able to get a price, book and pay, and get a cleaner within 24 hours to come. That’s the first thing we are enabling through the tech," Plaza explains.
He says this has unexpectedly garnered work to fill gaps that large commercial cleaning companies are unable to plug, and whilst the core focus has been on southeast Queensland, Spruces is receiving requests from remote locations in NSW and Victoria.
"We continue to increase the number of sign-ups from cleaners, and we are finding a new market by accident - places that already have cleaners are coming to us to top up their labour force, because of the on-demand aspect of it," he says.
"Our approach has no real physical boundaries because it’s all tech enabled. It’s just the budget that doesn’t allow us to go nationwide yet, but we find ourselves cleaning in remote areas."
Plaza claims the second piece of the puzzle, the worker monitoring technology, is going to attract staff '100 times more', giving them a 'whole new level of support, safety, and allowing them to also showcase their performance'.
"When they earn more money, it fixes the problem of supply and demand, and that’s what’s allowing us to get cleaners on tap," he says.
"By connecting the cleaners and potentially the entire low-skill sector through these on-body cameras, and have two-way feedback with the worker, that’s how we make them up to four times more productive.
"We were aiming for 2x productivity, but we are seeing from the experiments that it’s more like 4x productivity when the cleaners are being monitored and supported through this device."
Spruces co-founder Broden Johnson is also the founder of Gold Coast-based digital marketing agency Yakk, as well as other businesses Eight Fifty Espresso and Hello Reviews.
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