Don’t Want Google in Your House? Some Home-Tech Startups to Watch – Xconomy

Google’s thirst for connected-home products means that entrepreneurs in the growing sector have another deep-pocketed competitor to outfox. But they’ve also got a new sales pitch: We’re not Google.

“We certainly have not been shy,” says Jason Hanna, CEO of home heating-automation startup Embue. “It’s definitely something that we talk about.”

Questions about the advertising and software giant’s intentions in the home have become a hot topic in the six short months since Google decided to spend $3.2 billion for Nest, a company that makes Internet-connected, customizable thermostats and smoke detectors.

On Friday, Nest said it would add another well-regarded home automation startup to Google’s portfolio by spending $555 million to acquire Dropcam, which sells an online home-security camera service.

The fact that it spent so much money so quickly shows how seriously Google is taking the race to connect home devices to the Internet. The developing sector promises to open up a new platform for software, services, and personal information. That could drive more digital advertising, which makes up almost all of Google’s revenue.

That has led consumers to worry that Google is planning to monitor or record their in-home comings and goings in an effort to collect more cash from advertisers.

Dropcam CEO and co-founder Greg Duffy is decidedly not a fan of the data-collection approach. Last year, he told us that a key part of Dropcam’s prized company culture was its business model of making money by selling things, rather than giving them away in an attempt to collect information that could be traded on later.

“I think if your business model is not straightforward, it veers into potentially being unethical, if you look at things that are ‘free,’” Duffy said. “None of the people who work here want to work on something that works like that. They look at it as tricking the user, when [a company is] turning around and using some part of the user’s data to make revenue.”

Google and Nest have tried to ease concerns that the parent company is assembling a line of Trojan Horses in order to sneakily document what families are doing in their homes. Nest, which says it is an independently managed subsidiary, has pointed to a privacy policy that gives consumers control over where their data is sent.

“Data won’t be shared with anyone (including Google) without a customer’s permission,” Nest co-founder Matt Rogers wrote in a blog post. “Nest has a paid-for business model and ads are not part of our strategy. In acquiring Dropcam, we’ll apply that same policy to Dropcam too.”

That leaves a certain amount of wiggle room, of course. Google is free to change that privacy policy at any time, and the company’s DNA is based on collecting and processing data in pursuit of advertising cash.

Of course, some users might not mind. People who want mobile assistant app Google Now to automatically set their home temperature can now allow the app to control the Nest thermostat, under a new partnership announced Monday. It’s part of a broader partnership initiative in which Nest plans to “share limited user information with Google and other partners,” as The Wall Street Journal reported.

That leaves an intriguing opening for smaller, independent competitors to talk up how their products or services differ. Hanna, of Boston-based Embue, says he’s not necessarily interested in making Nest or Google out to be a bogeyman. But it’s definitely a question that gets asked.

“I don’t really think they have malicious intentions for what’s going to happen with this data. But certainly, yes, I think it’s a good opportunity to talk about how we’re different, about our approach to privacy, and how we’ve designed our system to be a little bit different,” Hanna says. “Until Google bought Nest, I only saw a fraction of the questions and concern about what was being done with that data.”

Home-tech entrepreneurs also point out that privacy worries are usually among the first problems raised when new technologies are established, and tend to get sorted out over time. If you’re afraid that Google or some other big company is watching your thermostat, just consider what your social media or shopping history says about you.

“It’s kind of like the old days, when everybody was worried about putting their credit card out on the Internet. Nobody worries about that stuff anymore,” says Jeremy Jaech, CEO of SNUPI Technologies. “I think adequate safeguards will be put in place, and if people break trust, they get slapped. You look at the sort of stuff that Facebook has had to deal with. It’s sort of self-correcting.”

There are plenty of other big-company competitors around who aren’t backed by advertising giants, too—many well-known home networking and appliance brands like Belkin and Honeywell are working on next-generation thermostats, climate systems, security cameras, and the like.

But for you early adopters who are interested in checking out smaller, independent companies trying to make some headway, here’s a look at some interesting startups that we’ve found:

Rather than putting the whole home-heating shebang into a thermostat, which is the Nest approach, Embue is developing a network of connected devices that help maintain and monitor home temperature and energy use.

An “Embue Core” computer collects data from a set of wireless sensors that can be placed around a home and uses the data to control the heating and air conditioning system. The system can be monitored and adjusted through online software accessible on a smartphone.

Embue, which is trying to raise money for its system on Kickstarter, also plans to offer a professional monitoring service that can allow a heating-system technician to see a smaller set of high-level data about the setup’s performance in order to spot any problems or upgrade opportunities.

Embue plans to sell its hardware and software through local heating and air conditioning services, rather than putting the devices on store shelves, in hopes that small businesses will adopt it as an alternative to off-the-shelf products that heating-system contractors don’t carry.

Birdi is developing an Internet-connected smoke, pollution, and dangerous gas detector that it hopes will be a big improvement over the old nine-volt-battery arrangement that most people still have screwed into their ceilings. The idea started after CEO Mark Belinsky couldn’t reach his grandmother in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and found that she’d been using her gas stove to heat her powerless home, which could lead to a deadly buildup of carbon monoxide.

The San Francisco-based company says its devices will monitor a wide range of air-quality factors, including non-emergency things like humidity. But the startup also plans to have its monitoring software connected to a 24/7 monitoring service that can call 911 on an owner’s behalf if necessary. Birdi raised more than $70,000 toward its first products on Indiegogo and is a member of the Highway 1 hardware startup accelerator.

Since safety is such a key part of a smoke detector system, there are regulatory approvals to consider. And even the big names in this industry have fumbled that part: Nest was forced to recall its first attempt at a “smart” smoke detector.

Belinsky says he’s not too worried about a well-financed competitor getting out ahead of his startup, and thinks Birdi will have plenty to distinguish itself. The amount of attention devoted to the sector overall doesn’t hurt, either.

“Having big companies put marketing dollars into making consumers aware that the future has arrived is great since it means that those consumers will choose from a number of products that sit on retail shelves,” he says.

As “startups” go, this one is pretty well established. SimpliSafe offers an alternative to old-school home security systems by combining a more flexible, customer-friendly business model with wireless technology and mobile software.

So, instead of getting locked into a long-term contract with a traditional security system provider, customers can sign up for a SimpliSafe system that includes professional, 24/7 remote monitoring—and cancel it any time they want. The monitoring service costs $15-$25 per month and operates entirely over cellular networks, as opposed to a dedicated phone line.

Sensors are sold separately, and include carbon omonxide, smoke, motion detectors, open-window sensors, and more. The wireless network tying it all together means it’s easy to add new kinds of sensors over time.

Cambridge, MA-based SimpliSafe was founded in 2006 and says it has more than 100,000 customers. It grew without institutional investors until this year: in May, venture firm Sequoia Capital said it was investing $57 million in the company.

This New York-based startup makes a $200 Internet-connected home monitoring camera that looks super slick and has additional cool features like a siren, microphone, night vision, temperature sensors, and air-quality monitoring. The company also offers a 60-day satisfaction guarantee and a one-year warranty.

Canary also brings some of the machine-learning heft that Nest built into the service behind its initial smart thermostat. In this case, that means Canary’s camera-sensor combination device learns when a user’s home is more likely to be noisy or full of motion, and sends alerts to a cell phone when things are out of the ordinary.

But it’s still early. Like some of the other startups we’ve found in the camera sector, Canary is still in pre-order mode, with a check this week showing anticipated delivery in November for any new orders. This is another one that has a compelling origin story—Canary says the company was started when co-founder and CTO Chris Rill came home to find his front door had been broken down.

Chicago-based Scout Security is already shipping pre-ordered home security kits to its earliest online backers, and taking orders for more. The company is like a newer-generation version of SimpliSafe, offering a sleek set of motion sensors, door- and window-opening detectors, and control pad that pair with a central base station that connects to the Internet.

Also like traditional security systems, Scout offers ‘round-the-clock monitoring by professional security services. Users can control and customize the system via online software applications.

Scout is also expanding. The company is running a crowdfunding experiment with Cambridge, MA-based hardware manufacturing consultants Dragon Innovation that asks potential customers what it should build next: a security camera, remote-controlled light sockets, or a “takeover system” that seizes control of an existing, hard-wired security setup.

This Boulder, CO-based company offers a wireless control hub that aims to be the master control for a long list of connected devices offered by different manufacturers.

That means it works with automatic door locks from companies like Yale and Schlage, security sensors from Insteon and Aeon Labs, power outlets from Belkin and GE, and thermostats from Honeywell and Trane. (Revolv says it also “unofficially” works with the Nest thermostat, and plans to work on integration once an API is released more broadly.)

The Revolv device can work with all of those other brands because it has seven different wireless radios that can communicate with different devices. There’s a catch, though—only three of those radios work now, with another “coming soon” and three more radio bands ready for commercial use in the future.

The device is priced pretty simply at $300, with lifetime support and software upgrades included, which means no monthly software subscriptions. It also offers a smartphone app, of course, to control everything remotely. Revolv was part of the TechStars accelerator in 2012.

This one isn’t a thermostat or a security system, but it has some pretty interesting possibilities. Wally is a set of temperature- and moisture-sensing nodes sold by Seattle-based startup SNUPI Technologies.

Why moisture? Well, the pitch is that Wally can tell when there’s too much water where it shouldn’t be, which is a big pain for anyone who’s dealt with a flood, a burst pipe, or even an overflowing drain from an air-conditioning unit (don’t get me started).

The really interesting thing about the Wally system is what might be added to its network in the future. That’s because SNUPI is commercializing University of Washington and Georgia Tech research into using a home’s existing power wiring as a “whole-home antenna.” That means devices that connect to the system can do so while drawing a lot less power than other devices that use wi-fi or Bluetooth—SNUPI says its sensors can go 10 years without new batteries.

A central Wally hub and six sensors sell for $300.

The Author

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email:

Don’t Want Google in Your House? Some Home-Tech Startups to Watch – Xconomy

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