Exclusive: Smart mailbox startup gets a $1 million investment

geektimeWish you could secure a package delivered to your doorstep without being home? uCella addresses this growing need with a smart mailbox.

uCella, a young San Carlos startup with a prototype for a new smart mailbox, announced a $1 million investment toward proliferating its technology in the United States. The $129 product is a tamper-proof and weather-resistant container meant for packages that can be set up at the front door of one’s home or office. The WiFi-connected box syncs with email to pull tracking numbers, then asks delivery workers to scan the Master QR code on the package to allow access to the box to drop it off.

uCella creator and co-founder Shuai Jiang tells Geektime, “One day, on my way to the post office, I saw this Google self-driving car at a stop light. I thought, jeez, even cars can drive themselves nowadays and we still don’t have a good solution to get our packages?” He met his co-founders when they were in school together at the UC Berkeley’s Hass School of Business MBA program. “That’s when I started to talk to others about this problem and realized that it is a big headache for many frequent online shoppers.”

Jiang has relied on online buying since he and his wife had their first son, but just as much relied on letting packages go to the post office instead of risking them being stolen on their front porch. It was an extra hassle that ate away into his schedule.

Owners can also record messages at the box for mail and delivery workers. The app goes a few steps further by providing quick access to retailer return policies and businesses’ customer support teams, as well as scheduling return pickups if necessary. It also connects users to customer support networks, a smart locking system, video recording and instantaneous app notifications for delivery.

The big question is how to onboard the major delivery services in the United States: UPS, FedEx, DHL, the U.S. Postal Service and whomever else might emerge. While it’s one thing to introduce a smart mailbox, it’s another to expect deliverymen to know what to do with it. The uCella team has wisely been in communication with delivery companies from the start, asking for their input and to join field testing. Jiang says those companies have been extremely enthusiastic about moving forward with uCella’s solution to doorstep dropoffs.

“When we designed the product, we talked to many delivery drivers to make sure it is easy for them to operate. Actually, delivery drivers hate to leave packages by your doorstep because they are liable for missing packages. During our field test, we placed a small sticker above our device to give drivers instructions on how to operate it.”

Amazon lockers are an early iteration of the idea that uCella is basing its business on. uCella provides the statistic that the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) counts 4.3% of all mail in 2014 as Undeliverable-As-Addressed (UAA), though more specific data on lost packages and letters are hard to come by.

“They had no problem following them and after a couple deliveries, they just go right to it. We will provide the sticker with every uCella device. After a couple deliveries, they just go right to uCella and use it for the delivery,” Jiang notes.

An internet of useful things

Jiang says the smart home industry — and the entire IoT world for that matter — still has work to do making things easy for the customers. We have the building blocks of a strong home network, but are behind in simplicity and building a smooth interface to use them together.

Jiang posits that, “The biggest challenge is the lack of cohesive, good user experience. Technology is cool and provides limitless possibilities to create new features but as an industry, we should focus on solving real customer problems with relevant technology in a simple way.”

For Jiang, if a smart product doesn’t actually answer a consumer’s problem, then that product is just a dust-collector, no smarter than all the unconnected devices that came before it. “Every smart home product we create should be making people’s everyday life easier and more pleasant.”

CEO Shuai Jiang and Chief Designer Donny Zhang founded uCella in 2014. They employ 10 people out of their offices in San Carlos, California.