Microchips open the innovation floodgates for Three Square Market

Profiles in Innovation

River Falls-based Three Square Market made national headlines last summer when the vending machine company began implanting tiny microchips into employees’ hands.

The story generated buzz in outlets like The New York Times and USA Today, and Three Square Market was soon inundated with inquiries from other companies curious about how they could use microchip technology themselves.

A licensed and trained piercer prepares an employee for chip implantation.
Credit: Three Square Market

Just a few weeks after its first employees received microchips, Three Square Market launched Three Square Chip Cos. − a separate branch of the business devoted exclusively to helping other companies implement chip technology.

Today, Three Square Chip Cos. is working with 17 clients around the U.S. and overseas.

McMullan

“People came to us saying, ‘Well, could you do this?’ and it’s turned into opening doors for whole new ways of thinking,” said Patrick McMullan, president of Three Square Chip.

Three Square introduced employee microchips to help streamline day-to-day processes like accessing secure buildings, purchasing food from the cafeteria and logging on to computers. The company is now expanding the chips’ functionality to assist with sanitation.

Employees will use their chips to switch on a faucet and wash their hands before they can enter food packaging areas.

For Three Square Chip’s clients, the uses for the technology extend well beyond building access.

One of the company’s first clients was a hospital in need of a chip that could read patients’ vital signs. With the help of GPS tracking, Three Square is also working on a chip solution for tracking patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. 

A few state and local law enforcement agencies have even signed on with Three Square Chip to begin using microchips to track probationers.

At Three Square Market, the employees’ chips are powered by passive radio frequency identification (RFID) technology − the chips don’t come with GPS tracking. But even without live tracking, some critics are concerned that the chip is a threat to employee privacy and may also contribute to data security concerns.

“With technology like this there is always the concern that if the chips contain information like a person’s credit card or bank account, or even a person’s driver’s license number, that the information could be captured from the microchip, as well,” said Keith Kopplin, shareholder at employment law firm Ogletree Deakins in Milwaukee.

“Everybody now has RFID chips in their debit and credit card. You have more exposure (to risk) in your wallet than you do in your hand,” McMullan said.

While Kopplin agrees there is no greater risk with the microchip, he worries users may believe it’s more secure simply because the device is embedded.

“As the technology advances, it’s important for people to understand the risks, and not get lulled into a false sense of security simply because it’s embedded in their hand,” Kopplin said. “The technology exists to obtain that information from there as well.”

McMullan stresses that the microchips implanted into employees’ hands at Three Square Market are completely voluntary. Employees can opt for a wearable ring or bracelet if they prefer not to have a chip medically implanted.

The response from employees has been positive, with about 80 of the company’s 100 employees opting to have the chip implanted, McMullan said.

Ambalavanan

Baskaran Ambalavanan, an HR technology consultant at California-based Hila Solutions and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s technology and HR management special expertise panel, says he doesn’t expect implantable microchips to catch on right away − the cost is about $300 per chip, which can add up quickly for large corporations − but he thinks Three Square offers a good model for how other businesses can responsibly deploy the technology in the future.

“They’re a really transparent company. They have a good communication channel established between the employee and the employers,” Ambalavanan said.

Ambalavanan says he sees an opportunity for implantable chip technology to expand into areas like mass transit or passports in the more distant future.

Until then, Three Square Chip is exploring all the possibilities for microchips, McMullan said.

The company is currently at work on a “smart city” project for the city of River Falls that will use chips to track fire hydrants, water meters and snow plows, eventually rolling out a citizen app that will allow residents to keep tabs on when their streets will be plowed.

Three Square Chip is also working on a “smart stadium” project for NASCAR that could eventually introduce RFID wristbands to expedite access and cut down on lines and wait times for ticket holders.

“The chip of today is like going to McDonald’s for ice cream – you get vanilla, chocolate or a twist cone,” McMullan said. “Where we’re headed and what we’re working on, it’s what I call the Baskin Robbins 31 flavors chip.”

River Falls-based Three Square Market made national headlines last summer when the vending machine company began implanting tiny microchips into employees’ hands.

The story generated buzz in outlets like The New York Times and USA Today, and Three Square Market was soon inundated with inquiries from other companies curious about how they could use microchip technology themselves.

A licensed and trained piercer prepares an employee for chip implantation.
Credit: Three Square Market

Just a few weeks after its first employees received microchips, Three Square Market launched Three Square Chip Cos. − a separate branch of the business devoted exclusively to helping other companies implement chip technology.

Today, Three Square Chip Cos. is working with 17 clients around the U.S. and overseas.

McMullan

“People came to us saying, ‘Well, could you do this?’ and it’s turned into opening doors for whole new ways of thinking,” said Patrick McMullan, president of Three Square Chip.

Three Square introduced employee microchips to help streamline day-to-day processes like accessing secure buildings, purchasing food from the cafeteria and logging on to computers. The company is now expanding the chips’ functionality to assist with sanitation.

Employees will use their chips to switch on a faucet and wash their hands before they can enter food packaging areas.

For Three Square Chip’s clients, the uses for the technology extend well beyond building access.

One of the company’s first clients was a hospital in need of a chip that could read patients’ vital signs. With the help of GPS tracking, Three Square is also working on a chip solution for tracking patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. 

A few state and local law enforcement agencies have even signed on with Three Square Chip to begin using microchips to track probationers.

At Three Square Market, the employees’ chips are powered by passive radio frequency identification (RFID) technology − the chips don’t come with GPS tracking. But even without live tracking, some critics are concerned that the chip is a threat to employee privacy and may also contribute to data security concerns.

“With technology like this there is always the concern that if the chips contain information like a person’s credit card or bank account, or even a person’s driver’s license number, that the information could be captured from the microchip, as well,” said Keith Kopplin, shareholder at employment law firm Ogletree Deakins in Milwaukee.

“Everybody now has RFID chips in their debit and credit card. You have more exposure (to risk) in your wallet than you do in your hand,” McMullan said.

While Kopplin agrees there is no greater risk with the microchip, he worries users may believe it’s more secure simply because the device is embedded.

“As the technology advances, it’s important for people to understand the risks, and not get lulled into a false sense of security simply because it’s embedded in their hand,” Kopplin said. “The technology exists to obtain that information from there as well.”

McMullan stresses that the microchips implanted into employees’ hands at Three Square Market are completely voluntary. Employees can opt for a wearable ring or bracelet if they prefer not to have a chip medically implanted.

The response from employees has been positive, with about 80 of the company’s 100 employees opting to have the chip implanted, McMullan said.

Ambalavanan

Baskaran Ambalavanan, an HR technology consultant at California-based Hila Solutions and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s technology and HR management special expertise panel, says he doesn’t expect implantable microchips to catch on right away − the cost is about $300 per chip, which can add up quickly for large corporations − but he thinks Three Square offers a good model for how other businesses can responsibly deploy the technology in the future.

“They’re a really transparent company. They have a good communication channel established between the employee and the employers,” Ambalavanan said.

Ambalavanan says he sees an opportunity for implantable chip technology to expand into areas like mass transit or passports in the more distant future.

Until then, Three Square Chip is exploring all the possibilities for microchips, McMullan said.

The company is currently at work on a “smart city” project for the city of River Falls that will use chips to track fire hydrants, water meters and snow plows, eventually rolling out a citizen app that will allow residents to keep tabs on when their streets will be plowed.

Three Square Chip is also working on a “smart stadium” project for NASCAR that could eventually introduce RFID wristbands to expedite access and cut down on lines and wait times for ticket holders.

“The chip of today is like going to McDonald’s for ice cream – you get vanilla, chocolate or a twist cone,” McMullan said. “Where we’re headed and what we’re working on, it’s what I call the Baskin Robbins 31 flavors chip.”

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