Building the ‘Internet of things’

D.C. tech start-up SmartThings got its start two years ago when founder Alex Hawkinson discovered his Colorado vacation home had flooded, costing him $80,000 in repairs.

He didn’t learn about the disaster until a month later, when the Washington area resident returned to the house and found the porch and basement rotting. Had he been alerted sooner, the damage might not have been so great.

A giant crane (L) that will lift up the sunken 'Sewol' ferry is silhouetted against the sunset in Jindo on April 24, 2014. Furious relatives of missing victims from South Korea's ferry disaster attacked a top coastguard official accusing him of lying about efforts to retrieve bodies still trapped in the submerged vessel. AFP PHOTO / Nicolas ASFOURINICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

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“We’ve got a handyman down the road who could have come in and fixed everything,” Hawkinson said.

The experience prompted him to begin work on a sensor capable of alerting his smartphone if something went awry again. That led him to imagine a product allowing a homeowner to remotely turn off lights, unlock doors or even send for a plumber.

Among the tech-savvy, Hawkinson’s vision of interconnected devices is called the “Internet of things.”

Today, his company, SmartThings, sells kits helping smartphone users monitor and control objects in their homes. For a few hundred dollars, customers receive a handful of devices, such as motion and moisture detectors or presence sensors, which they set up around their homes. Signals from these devices are transmitted to a special hub, also part of the kit, then to SmartThings’ data cloud, and finally to the smartphone, allowing users to respond through the app.

For instance, the system could automatically unlock doors when it senses the owner arriving, track when mail is delivered or send an alert if a pet escapes. And users can command lights to turn on, doors to lock and alarms to sound, among other actions. SmartThings suggests a few common-use cases, but encourages customers and developers to create new pathways and devices, tailoring the system to their homes.

About half of SmartThings’ 40 employees are in Minneapolis, with the other half based out of its Georgetown office, a renovated fitness club now littered with gadgets demonstrating remotely controlled devices. The bulk of manufacturing is done by Safari Circuit, a Michigan-based electronics manufacturer. Soon, Hawkinson plans to invite independent inventors into the office to build their own apps and devices on-site, in what he hopes will become a “makers lab.”

Hawkinson’s previous company, cloud-based marketing company SMBLive, was acquired by ReachLocal for $8.49 million in 2010, netting him both capital and technical expertise to fuel SmartThings, he said.

The “Internet of things” movement has a strong following among the tech-minded that favors free “open source” software, Hawkinson said. In addition to founder capital and private investments, SmartThings raised $1.2 million last year on Kickstarter, a Web platform on which large groups of small donors contribute to projects.

More important than the almost Kickstarter 6,000 contributions, Hawkinson said, was the influx of ideas from developers, eager to connect more devices to each other. If you haven’t registered enough steps on your FitBit — a wireless, wearable fitness tracker — maybe your TV doesn’t turn on, one developer suggested. Another constructed a small, wirelessly controlled mechanical device that could dim a light switch.

The Kickstarter campaign “taught us there was demand, and the idea the community can make the world smarter,” Hawkinson said.

SmartThings currently only generates revenue though product sales, and offers services — simply turning on and off a light switch, for instance, as well as multi-step processes — for free. Hawkinson hopes eventually to offer paid apps, developed either in-house or by outside developers. The company declined to share financial details.

Hawkinson said he also hopes to integrate installation services — if a user notices a problem in his or her home, they might call a repair person through the app, for instance.

For now, Hawkinson himself is experimenting with options. The several devices in his home collect data on thousands of household events each day, and he has automated locks, garage doors and lights. With hundreds of interconnected devices in his home, he said, “the whole arc of our day is ridiculously ‘Jetsons-y,’” referring to the 1960s television cartoon about a futuristic family.

 
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