UW Spinout Funded by Madrona To Build Cheap Home Sensor Networks

12/11/12Follow @bromano

A team including a “genius” University of Washington professor and one of Seattle’s top serial entrepreneurs just landed $1.5 million from Madrona Venture Group and others to build a small, inexpensive, long-lasting wireless sensor network that could revolutionize home hazards detection.

Led by Jeremy Jaech, SNUPI Technologies—for Sensor Network Utilizing Powerline Infrastructure—is building a communications platform that can support a wide variety of environmental sensors capable of detecting water leaks, carbon monoxide, smoke, mold, methane, argon, and other hazards.

The company is commercializing technology with roots at Georgia Institute of Technology, where co-founders Shwetak Patel, now a UW computer science professor, and Matt Reynolds, now at Duke University, worked with Professor Gregory Abowd. The technology was further refined at the UW, with contributions from another co-founder, Gabe Cohn, a Ph.D. student advised by Patel.

“The technology has been under development for four or five years, but we actually started working on the company in May,” Jaech says.

The product would consist of a gateway device that plugs into a wall outlet and an ethernet cable, creating the network, which can be accessed and controlled on the Web. The battery-powered sensors are placed around the home, using nearby electrical wiring to as receiving antenna.

“That’s why it doesn’t take very much power to run the communication link, because it’s not transmitting a signal very far,” Jaech explains, adding that the sensors can run “for decades” without a battery change, overcoming a major drawback with devices such as battery-operated smoke detectors.

“That’s the real advantage,” he says. “You can take a sensor and place it somewhere in a house or a building”—behind a wall, in an attic—”and forget about it.”

SNUPI is licensing a pending patent for work done at Georgia Tech for the power line antenna innovation, and a second patent applied for by the UW covering a specific receiver and integrated circuit chip design.

Other applications for such low-cost, long-lived sensor networks include temperature, pressure, and humidity monitoring to optimize commercial HVAC systems, and noise and motion detection for security. With lots of sensors, enough data could be compiled to make inferences about what’s happening in a given space. For example, a sensor network could detect deviations from an elderly person’s daily routine and alert caregivers.

The funding, from Madrona, Radar Partners, and the founders, will allow SNUPI—currently based at the UW’s Center for Commercialization in Fluke Hall—to commercialize what is now an “academic prototype,” and prove that it can be manufactured at a competitive cost, Jaech says.

Initially, Jaech anticipates selling to homeowners, possibly with incentives from insurers.

High-end insurers already have programs to reduce premiums by up to 13% for the installation of water-leak detection systems, Jaech says. Today, those systems are usually custom affairs costing thousands of dollars. “There’s very low penetration because of the hassle involved in getting that done,” he says.

Despite the hassle, the economics at the high-end of the market make sense. But a $10,000 home hazard detection system doesn’t pencil out for the bulk of the market, where insurance premiums are around $1,000 a year, Jaech says.

“Our price point has to be in the low hundreds, and it has to be homeowner-installed so that there’s no professional fees associated with installing it,” he says, comparing it to the consumer-friendly Nest smart thermostat and Dropcam home video cameras.

Jaech says SNUPI hopes to have test units in the field this summer and a commercial product ready in about a year. The company would raise additional funding to scale up manufacturing and market the product.

The company had been going by the name WatchFrog, but problems with obtaining a Web domain name, and other products and companies with similar names prompted the switch to SNUPI Technologies—coined while the technology was being developed in Patel’s lab, Jaech says.

He is confident that an arrangement could be reached with Peanuts LLC if necessary.

Jaech is a serial entrepreneur who co-founded desktop publishing pioneer Aldus and visual work-plan company Visio (acquired by Microsoft), and has led startup companies and the Tech Alliance. He is also the newest member of the UW Board of Regents.

After leaving IT energy management software maker Verdiem in 2011, Jaech hung around the UW computer science department, meeting with professors, taking a couple of classes, “just trying to see what’s going on,” he says.

In search of a “software play, probably a Web plus mobile play,” Jaech says he didn’t find a defensible business idea.

While touring Patel’s lab as part of a dinner celebrating Patel’s MacArthur “genius grant” Fellowship, Jaech’s wife elbowed him and asked, “Why aren’t you working with this guy?” Because it’s hardware, he told her. She prodded him to give it a shot anyway.

Shwetak Patel

Patel—co-founder of Zensi, a residential energy-monitoring startup bought by Belkin in 2010—had been searching for a chief executive to take the SNUPI technology to the next level. The timing was right for both.

“So here we go,” he says.

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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  • RC

    Awesome. I’ve been trying to find a system like this to monitor heat flow for awhile. I couldn’t even find parts to cobble together.