While on vacation four years ago, Elad Katav decided to try to teach himself a new skill: painting. The software company COO had little artistic experience and thought it would be a good chance to clear his mind and do something creative. He watched some tutorials on YouTube, picked up some supplies at a local crafts store, and sat down with a photo of his 5-year-old son to try to paint a portrait.

A few days later, the canvas--half completed--sat at the bottom of a trash bin. An experience that Katav had hoped would be therapeutic instead brought a lot of frustration.

Today, Katav is founder and CEO of Boston-based Cupixel, a startup that uses augmented reality to help people who aren't skilled artists sketch and paint. The company launched its first product, a $70 supply kit that's compatible with an app, on its website in January and quickly sold out of its inventory. In July, it launched on the Home Shopping Network's website, and Katav says the startup is on the verge of announcing partnerships with major brick-and-mortar retailers.

Katav previously served as COO of enterprise software company Correlsense. After his failed painting attempt, he believed there was a business opportunity around the concept of helping non-artists create art--and, having a background in software, he decided the product should involve some advanced technology. He founded Cupixel in 2016 and soon raised $2 million in seed funding from private backers. After two years of developing the AR tech, he launched the product at CES this January. Katav declined to reveal the startup's revenue, but said the company sold out of its first batch of 1,000 kits within two months and has since restocked with an additional 15,000 units.

For Katav, an Israeli immigrant with no artistic background, it's affirmation that there's a segment of the population who don't have the natural ability to make art but want to. "Art creation has so many benefits," he says. "It relaxes the body. It relaxes the mind. It gives you an opportunity to be creative. Yet it felt like this process was closed off to people like me."

Cupixel's kit includes everything you need--canvas, pencils, paint, brushes, a frame--to produce a hand-painted nine-by-nine-inch piece of artwork, aside from a smartphone or tablet. You start by choosing a work from Cupixel's online gallery or by uploading your own photo, which the software then converts into a sketchable image. On your device's screen, the image is divided into nine squares that correspond with the nine canvas tiles provided with the kit. You point your device's camera at the canvas, and on your screen, you see the image that you'll be tracing and painting. Using your pencil and brushes, you follow along with what's on the screen--an AR version of paint-by-numbers. When finished, you piece the nine squares together to form one larger one. Katav says the entire experience takes under two hours for most users.

Cupixel now has deals with more than 20 artists to include their work in its database. An artist receives a royalty each time his or her work is selected to be painted by a user. Katav says the startup is in the process of finalizing deals with two of the U.S.'s biggest arts and crafts retailers, though he declined to share which ones. It's worth noting that one of Cupixel's board members is Lew Klessel, a managing director at private equity firm New Mountain Capital and the former interim CEO of Michaels. 

Cupixel's kit isn't the first AR product meant to help people create art. Lithuania-based SketchAR makes a $28 app that turns a phone into an AR device, overlaying a piece of paper or other canvas with a traceable sketch. Cupixel's product adds the painting aspect and includes the necessary supplies. 

Katav's goal is to launch AR kits for other art forms like sculpting, woodcrafting, and paper crafting, though these three-dimensional processes clearly would be a bit more complex. Katav doesn't have a timeline yet, though he says the company has prototyped a paper-crafting AR product in its lab.

While the technology is exciting, Katav admits that some professional artists have pushed back about the idea of using technology to turn just anyone into an artist. The founder objects to this sentiment. Instead, he compares Cupixel to meal-in-a-box services that make cooking easier for those who lack the skills to do it all on their own.

"It doesn't make you a professional chef," he says. "But now you can participate in a beautiful process that you otherwise might not be able to." 

Published on: Sep 17, 2019