'Granola-eating tree hugger' takes plunge, becomes IoT upstart

Sweating the small stuff, again and again

Snail photo Jurgen Schoner CC wikimedia

Doing my own 'ting When I wrote my last startup-diary instalment I was still at my desk in the City a few days each week. In the months since then I and my co-conspirator in OpenTRV have both handed back the keys of the courtesy helicopters and Ferraris that all IT folks get there (uh huh…) and gone full-time on our planet-saving mission - halving UK home space-heating costs and footprint by up to £300 per year.

In the interim we have won funding for a new, related and underpinning project in the Internet of Things - of which more later - been turned down for some others (energy harvesting), failed to win a prize (Shell Springboard, though we made the regional finals), and made progress on our production-engineered smart-radiator valve, and have started a possibly fruitful conversation with angel investors.

As usual, we had a ball, met lots of interesting, clever helpful people, including at the sales masterclass we took where I was described as a "granola-eating treehugger" by the Harvard/MIT prof! (Even better for me as an “owl” rather than a “lark” has been being able to not force myself out of bed in the dark and cold to commute to work, and I'm often up and about after my kids, hurrah!)

What has become clear through all of this process is that though we are grizzled and cynical after decades of actually doing and delivering mission-critical stuff, we're possibly still both a little too, um, nice, and have to work harder to nail down some protected revenue streams. In other words: to raise some barriers to entry for others, while not obstructing our primary goal of wide adoption driven by open source tech.

We have functional engineering prototypes that we've been testing and adjusting for a couple of years in a number of homes.

But to get product ready to sell to consumers or (say) to housing associations requires a number of important extra steps beyond just “working. That means things such as “design” - so the result doesn't look like a Vogon spaceship - safety testing and CE marking.

In our case we also wanted to incorporate an initial direct mechanical drive for the valve pin so that our published reference design would not be dependent on a third-party valve controller.

We managed to raise significant extra funding to get this work done, which includes electronics and plastics and other goodies, but it has taken about six months longer than I would have liked, missing this winter just finishing, and is not in fact completed yet.

Boo hiss.

There have been some interesting Easter eggs in the design process that included a simple physical security mechanism to avoid babies or teenage tenants being able to get at the batteries easily to eat them or “borrow” them for their TV remote controls, for example.

Yes, babies with remote controls are a menace to shipping.

The more obvious production/cost engineering steps included moving almost all the components to one side of the board and eliminating as many of the Through-The-Hole (TTH) components as possible in favour of SMD (Surface Mount Devices).

There are some really clever bits of work in there that no one will get to see or appreciate, but maybe most of the really important and successful things in life are invisible and "dull"!

So, later than planned, we're well on our way to a cheap open-source, real-world gizmo with sensors and an actuator and a radio and that can be easily extended to carry other novel sensors.

It leapt out at us that we should make available the underlying technology as an IoT platform that overcomes the fact hardware is hard for the majority of IoT devs who are in software.

In fact this seems to be a major impediment to getting stuff done, meaning that useful development that involves new sensors and deployment at a non-eye-watering price is expensive and sluggish.

With the IoT Launchpad project we're trying to make deploying a working sensor stack as simple as assembling a stack of plastic bricks and watching the data turn up securely in Bluemix or Xively or Thingful, or possibly the developer's own servers.

Part of that is not reinventing any wheels that already turn just fine, so at the very least we'll support JSON with UCUM-style units, along with handcrafted binary data formats to minimise production costs.

We are going to be testing whether our theories of how a cheap-as-chips IoT platform ought to work with industrial research in two possible vertical markets.

The first is in bus shelters and at bus stops to measure footfall; the operators may know where their vehicles are, but not their waiting passengers, nor whether stops are full and could do with more vehicles dispatched, nor empty and the dispatch rate should be throttled back a little and an empty bus or three quietly taken off the route to save emissions and cash.

This data should also be able to feed into journey planners too to steer you away from busy or traffic-delayed routes dynamically.

Our other vertical, in partnership with EnergyDeck, is building health and occupant well being –meaning making places that are nice to live and work in, and don't distract you from your business and pleasure!

There are loads of others such as air quality (imagine a network of tens of thousands of decent sampling points across a city) and smart-grid (such as demand management in homes with micro generation), but these will do to support or contradict our basic premise.

One of the amazing things about trying to make your own luck by networking, giving talks, and generally getting out there and working with people, is that good stuff does happen. While writing this piece we were invited to present at the Master Investor Show, which while not free money is a huge step towards finding funding to develop our business and make those famed bazillions.

Wish us luck! ®


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