The arrival of the truly smart home—with a legion of Internet-connected appliances and other devices automatically handling tasks while communicating with each other and us—is likely years away.
But Mike Phillips isn’t waiting around. His startup, Sense, sees an opportunity to play a role in enabling home automation by constantly measuring the activity of any machine—smart and “dumb” alike.
“To truly meet the promise of the smart home, you have to know everything that’s going on in the home,” says Phillips, Sense’s co-founder and CEO.
Investors agree. Today Cambridge, MA-based Sense announced it raised a little over $14 million in a Series A funding round led by Shell Technology Ventures and Energy Impact Partners, with contributions from earlier backers Capricorn Investment Group, Prelude Ventures, CRV, and hardware-focused venture firm Bolt. Sense has raised just shy of $20 million from investors to date, Phillips says.
The startup and its backers are betting that homeowners will be interested in tracking the performance of devices in the home, much in the same way people monitor health and fitness using wearable technologies like Fitbit.
Sense’s home energy monitoring system consists of sensors that attach to the main breakers inside the home’s electrical panel and take readings of all the electricity being pumped to various machines throughout the house. The sensor data gets relayed to a small WiFi-connected box also located inside the electrical panel, which crunches information and sends it to the cloud for more analysis.
Sense’s system records one million data points per second. That’s more frequent than other smart electricity meters, which typically take measurements every 15 minutes or so, Phillips says. It’s also a much larger volume of data than some of Sense’s competitors, he adds.
Sense says it’s able to distinguish between the myriad machines running in the home—dishwashers, ovens, clothes dryers, garage doors, TVs, furnaces, air conditioning units, and so on. It accomplishes this with software algorithms that detect the unique electrical signature of each device.
Sense likens it to listening to devices and recognizing each individual “voice.” That comparison is no accident. Phillips and several of the company’s key team members worked for years on speech recognition technologies. Phillips was founder and chief technology officer at SpeechWorks, which developed speech recognition software for call centers. That company went public, was later sold to ScanSoft, and eventually became Nuance. He went on to start Vlingo, an early creator of voice-enabled virtual assistants for mobile phones, which got acquired by Nuance.
Turns out, much of what Phillips and his colleagues learned in speech recognition translates to energy monitoring. “The fingerprint or the signature of the electrical signals are very similar in a way to the acoustic signatures or acoustic signals that we use in the speech recognition world,” Phillips says.
It was difficult to train Sense’s technology to parse out a multitude of electrical signals, which is like “30 people all talking at the same time,” Phillips says. That challenge is referred to as the “cocktail party problem” in the speech recognition world, and it’s something that industry has yet to solve. But Sense was able to accomplish it in home energy monitoring because power signals are easier for software to understand than human language, Phillips says.
“These things are all on top of each other, but they’re more distinct,” he says. “But just like speech recognition, it’s a big data/machine learning problem. The path to making these things better is more and more data and more and more houses.”
That’s where the new cash should help. “Now this is really about scaling up” the business, Phillips says. “You’re going to start to see more of us.”
The funding will also be used for product development and growing Sense’s team from 18 full-time employees to around 30 by the end of the year, Phillips says.
Phillips declines to share how many devices Sense has sold since it began shipping them last December, but orders of the systems—currently selling for $249—have “outstripped supply by quite a large margin,” he says. “With the new funding and our scaling up, we will soon be getting caught up,” he adds.
Sense initially positioned the product as a means of boosting energy efficiency, Phillips says. Once homeowners understand how much power each device is using, they can find ways to reduce power consumption—and thereby lower their electric bills. Perhaps an old air conditioning unit is worn down and siphoning more power than a newer model would, for example.
But Sense’s team soon realized that the applications of home energy monitoring are broader. “Once you can know in detail what’s happening around the house, think of it as feeding into the smart home,” Phillips says. “Are the kids home from school yet? Did I leave the oven on? Is the sump pump on when it’s raining?”
Sense sells directly to consumers, but it plans to more rapidly grow its business in part by also forming partnerships with organizations that can help distribute its products more widely, Phillips says. Utilities, for example, might offer Sense products to customers as part of a program that rewards them for conserving energy. Insurance companies might be interested in Sense’s potential to warn of problems like electrical sparks that could start a fire in the home or a malfunctioning sump pump that might flood the basement.
Sense has also added the capability of tracking solar panel activity, both the amount of energy stored in the solar cells and how much gets used, Phillips says.
And eventually, once most machines in the home get hooked up to the Internet and there are standard software protocols for linking them all together, Sense will be able to tie into that system and expand the capabilities of its products, Phillips says.
“As [application programming interfaces] become available and there’s more smart home devices on the market, we will start to add control and automation to this platform,” Phillips says.
Until then, he likes where Sense sits. “The whole smart home world is predicated on intelligence in the home. You can’t do very much until you have the data.”
[Disclosure: Mike Phillips is the brother-in-law of Xconomy Boston editor Greg Huang. Mr. Huang was not involved in the planning, directing, reporting, or editing of this story.]