By Jamison Cocklin
SenSource Inc.’s headquarters on Oakwood Avenue straddles the invisible line that divides Austintown and Youngstown, but like so many companies in the Mahoning Valley, its business reaches across the United States and into dozens of countries.
Put simply, SenSource is in the peculiar business of counting people and cars.
But since Joseph Varacalli and Kevin Stefko — both natives of the Valley and graduates of Youngstown State University — founded the company in 2002, it’s grown with the technology, demands and rapidly evolving industry it works in.
SenSource has never experienced a year without growth, its founders say. It develops software that works inside wall and ceiling mounted gadgetry in shopping malls, retail outlets, libraries, museums and casinos.
Its thermal-imaging hardware, with a small pinhole camera, looks similar to a smoke detector. Its video-imaging units are rectangular with two small cameras that allow the software to see in three dimensions.
Its products are barely noticeable.
Mounted at or near entrances, the devices are linked to a store or a facility network. They track the movement of multiple people, and the data they collect help their host distinguish between children and adults, it aids in staffing levels or determining heavy traffic areas, while monitoring how many people are purchasing and visiting versus how many are just window shopping.
“It helps [clients] make business decisions, about staff and the hours they work or about in-store promotions,” said Varacalli, president of SenSource. “These are sophisticated sensors. They’re very, very accurate.”
Chances are you’ve been counted by SenSource’s technology. Their clients include Abercrombie & Fitch, Express, Cedar Point, the Columbus and Toledo public library systems, Walt Disney World and even the 9/11 Memorial in New York City.
The company provides car-counting devices for cities, counties and parking facilities, as well.
Although people counting accounts for about 80 percent of SenSource’s business, the ever-growing technological demands of retailers and others is not just limited to certain corners of the economy.
“It’s a growing market, and I think a lot of people are using, or want to use, this technology,” Stefko, SenSource’s vice president, said.
About five years ago, the company launched a new division called SenSource Wireless, entering the market to sell temperature and environmental sensors. Today, that portion of their business accounts for about 10 percent of sales, but they’ve invested in new software and recently focused more intently on it because they believe environmental sensors are poised to take off as technology continues to dictate savings and success in the broader marketplace.
“We see [sensors] as a benefit to the health care and food industries,” Varacalli said. “Hospitals, surgical hospitals and cafeterias all have to monitor temperatures and most do it by hand now. You have to take manual temperature readings — it’s labor-intensive and it’s not very efficient or accurate — that can cost money.”
As a local company, SenSource believes the technology could take off in the Valley, especially with all of its hospitals and restaurants.
If a refrigerator or cooler door is left open, medicines, blood or food can go bad quickly. SenSource’s boxlike plastic sensors can be installed outside refrigeration units with a probe that picks up data on temperatures, monitors it in real-time and transmits it to the host’s network.
If the temperature drifts outside the acceptable range and products are at risk, the problem can be fixed faster, keeping patients safe from spoiled food or drugs while saving time and money in the process.
The company employs 17 workers, Varacalli said, almost all of which are skilled with a college education.
In 2007, the company acquired a 10,000-square-foot facility on Oakwood Avenue that was once a roller-skating rink in the 1960s. It gutted the structure. Its offices, warehouse and support staff are headquartered there.
As Black Friday approaches, the founders said, a scramble is on to satisfy retail customers who want systems installed or serviced before the holiday shopping season. This time of year, Varacalli added, is typically SenSource’s busiest.
The company also is operating amid a more-sensitive business climate as issues over privacy — such as those online and the government’s meddling in the daily lives of Americans — swirl in the news, courtrooms and everyday conversations across the country. “A lot of stores use technology that can examine your cellphone by accessing your WiFi system,” Varacalli said. “We don’t do that. None of our systems store images — we don’t use that kind of technology. ... We try to stay away from that because it throws up red flags with all this government monitoring stuff going on.”
For now, Stefko said, the company is focused on pushing its growth trajectory. In addition to expanding its temperature and environmental sensor business, eventually the company wants to refine its technology and offer clients more data about demographics, such as a customer’s sex or age.