Smart device for garbage cans helps in building grocery lists


Until recently, hearing a voice from a trash can was a serious cause for concern—unless it was Oscar the Grouch on “Sesame Street.” Now it’s a smarter way to add to your grocery list.

Connecticut inventor Rob Griffin sees the garbage can as a valued part of the home ecosystem that can help families be more efficient. His new product, GeniCan, is a smart device for garbage cans that helps build your weekly grocery list by tracking the products you have used as you dispose of them.

The device mounts to household garbage or recycling bins, and has a bar code reader with wireless connectivity. The user scans the barcode of the item before throwing it out, and GeniCan automatically populates an app-based shopping list.

If an item (like fruit) does not have a barcode, here’s where the GeniCan “talks” to you: It asks the user which item it can add to the shopping list. When the user answers, GeniCan uses its voice recognition feature to do just that. The product can be mounted inside of most waste bins, as well as in a neutral area such as the refrigerator or pantry. It retails for $149.

A need is identified

Like so many other inventions, the GeniCan was the result of a need brought on by firsthand experience. Griffin recalls a day when he was having a typical busy parent crisis.

He was on a call with his boss at Microsoft when his wife texted him from the store to send her a picture of the grocery list. She only had a half hour to get what she needed. But Griffin could not break away from the call. After later discussion, he tried to get an app to help solve the problem, but his wife insisted on sticking with pen and paper.

Ultimately, his son was the unlikely source of inspiration—when he threw away a bottle of ketchup.

“It was my ‘aha!’ moment,” Griffin says. “How do I get him to add something to the list? He doesn’t have a phone and isn’t going to write something down.” Griffin immediately started researching to see whether there was anything on the market that would track items as they were thrown away. His search came up empty, and he decided to make the device himself.

Prototyping challenges

The first prototype of the GeniCan was absurd, but it proved the concept. Griffin rigged up a barcode scanner to a full-size PC and stuck it in a garbage can. Then he wondered if it had any broader appeal, so he brought his prototype to a Microsoft hack-a-thon event on the campus where he worked and got a great response.

“I thought it was just my silly problem,” Griffin recalls. “Ninety-something percent of people who saw it at the fair said, ‘Oh, my God. I wish I had this when my kids were young, but I still need it now because my husband still doesn’t add anything to the list.’ It was overwhelming that this was a real problem.”

Griffin wanted to continue to develop the technology but was in a tricky spot with the intellectual property. The Microsoft hack-a-thon was an internal event and covered by the corporate nondisclosure agreement policy. However, Microsoft held the first right of refusal to develop anything shown. Griffin contacted the intellectual property division; after nine months of negotiations, he was able to get the rights signed back to him. He immediately sought out a patent lawyer and got a provisional patent application on file.

Griffin continued to make advance prototypes. He moved away from the full-size PC and started building the device on the Raspberry Pi development board. He even used the oven in his house to melt plastic for a new electronics housing.

Turning point for funding

His big break came last year, when GeniCan was featured on the TV series “All-American Makers.” Griffin and partner David Pestka appeared on The Science Channel show, where the product won investment from venture capitalist Marc Portney. With the boost in funding, Griffin and Pestka were able to hire design firm Evo Design in Watertown, Connecticut, to give the unit an updated look. The team was now ready to make a move to manufacturing.

Griffin is using a mix of domestic and overseas suppliers for production. One of his friends worked at a plastics company that makes office accessories. He took his friend to lunch and got some helpful tips and references for reputable overseas factories.

The group he chose was an original design manufacturer that took the aesthetic design from Evo and finished the design details to make it moldable at a high volume. That solved the issue of the housing, but there was still the matter of the circuit board and electronic components. Evo had some contacts in this space and introduced Griffin to a Connecticut firm that designs and manufactures printed circuit boards. The remaining steps were to manufacture the initial run of circuit boards and do the final assembly and quality control.

CES ramps up exposure

GeniCan made its first big launch at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this past January. The team had teased the device at other smaller trade shows but used the power of the biggest electronics show in the United States to get the word out. “The viewership of “All-American Makers” was nothing compared to traction we got at CES,” Griffin says.

The first batch of GeniCans is scheduled to ship this spring after last-minute firmware updates and packaging are complete. Griffin expects to have units in large retailers by autumn, well before the holiday boom. Once GeniCan is in stores, Griffin plans some line extensions for his device and wants to develop another smart home device.