Jan 28, 2024

Collectibles for sale: How a card

In 2015, a mechanical engineer decided to use a two-week hiatus before a new job to re-examine his card collection. Sorting through his collectibles took longer than expected — 24 hours spread over three days, to be precise.

"It was a bit of a grueling experience, and my roommate at the time suggested that I build a machine, kind of as a joke, to do that," said Graeme Gordon, president and CEO of Calgary tech startup, TCG Machines.

Before he knew it, Gordon was spending his free time researching the demand for card-sorting machines and figuring out how to come up with an effective solution.

"I have a background in mechanical engineering, so it was a project that I actually felt confident to take on, and so I started moonlighting as a card-sorting machine developer," Gordon said.

While the entrepreneur was passionate about his newfound hobby, he didn't fully make the switch until September 2016. That was after conducting market research and realizing a card-sorting machine was a highly coveted device with plenty of potential takers.

"I called 200 different stores all across Canada and the United States.… More than 90 per cent of the store owners I spoke with said that they would definitely order a machine if I had one," Gordon said. "So I jumped in [with] both feet."

For Gordon, this leap of faith meant quitting his day job to pursue his passion full time. He said he was lucky enough to pursue his dream because of his wife, a high-school teacher who took care of everyday expenses.

"I didn't take a salary for seven years," Gordon said, noting the first step was creating a prototype he tested with the help of a local store, Phoenix Comics, in northwest Calgary.

He perfected the system over two years, testing and sorting through a million cards from two major players in the collectible games market — Pokémon and Magic: The Gathering.

"The success of that prototype allowed me to apply for a grant through the province to build eight more machines," Gordon said.

His machine, christened the PhyzBatch-9000, made its way to several game stores across Alberta, allowing the entrepreneur to set up shop with his business partner in 2021.

So how does this technology work? According to Gordon, the answer isn't quite straightforward.

"There is an input hopper where you'd load up about 2,000 cards and then there's a couple of feed wheels at the bottom of that stack of cards that feed one card at a time onto a glass plate," he said.

Cameras, located on both sides of the glass plate, capture a snapshot of the card. This image is then analyzed by sophisticated computer vision software, allowing users to access relevant information from the company's database, such as price.

"Based on that criteria, the user selects how they'd like those cards to be physically sorted, and there's a number of output bins where those cards then get dropped into, based on the user input," Gordon said.

The stakes are high — big names like Magic and Pokémon print over a billion trading cards every year, according to Gordon, who said millions of players across the world try to get their hands on the most popular cards.

"It's just a very lively and active industry," he said. "But it kind of flies under the radar, like you can talk about Magic cards, and people might never have heard of them and yet it supports this multibillion-dollar vibrant industry."

According to Brian Ziemba, the owner of Phoenix Comics, the demand for trading cards and collectibles is at an all-time high. His store gets hundreds of visitors every week as card enthusiasts attempt to build their collections with the most coveted picks.

While it's hard to pinpoint an exact number, Ziemba estimates his store has more than 1.5 million collectible cards, making it difficult to manually sort through and choose the best ones.

"Having that quantity of cards, we need help sorting it, going through all that stuff. And that's what the machine does for us," Ziemba said. "It has the ability to go through cards and pull out the valuable ones, which is a big deal for us."

Before the PhyzBatch-9000, employees at Phoenix Comics were manually checking large stacks of cards, which meant long hours and more room for errors.

"The machine doesn't make any mistakes," Ziemba said. "You know the machine won't forget that this is actually a $10 card and we never miss any of that stuff."

While the outlook looks promising for PhyzBatch-9000, Gordon acknowledges the way forward is fraught with challenges.

"The various producers of these games are always making their cards more complex, [adding] various new surface finish treatments to them," he said.

"It's a constant arms race in terms of developing new code to recognize the cards properly and picking up on these very subtle variations between different cards."

Additionally, it's crucial to ensure the machine doesn't cause any damage to the cards while analyzing them.

"Card condition is of critical importance in this industry," Gordon said. "The difference between a million-dollar card and a $10,000 card might just be some surface wear or a torn corner."

To keep up with operating costs, TCG Machines leases out PhyzBatch-9000 machines to interested parties, namely game stores, instead of selling them.

The company is poised to cross $2 million as far as recurring revenue is concerned — a milestone that isn't lost on Gordon.

"It's surreal … getting to where we are at now is weird," he said. "It's fascinating and bewildering and overwhelming at times, but I'm happy to be here and happy to be doing something different."

CBC Calgary digital journalist

Boshika Gupta is a journalist with extensive experience covering several beats such as public policy, food, culture, mental health, wellness and education. Contact her on [email protected].

With files from David Mercer