Polish start-ups have long been active in the field of the Internet of things, be it beacons, wearables or building automation. But San Francisco-based Seed Labs stands out with its unique B2B building automation solution that attracted an interest of investors who contributed $3.3 million to its growth
We’re talking to Seed Labs CMO Marek Wierzbicki about the Silvair system, market plans and about the unusual fondness of the Internet of Things on the part of Polish start-ups.
Smart devices you can communicate with using nothing more than your smartphone are on the radar of investors and average customers alike. The ability to control anything from a window blind and a kettle to a lamp or a fridge and all related benefits of it such as time and energy savings are being constantly talked about. This puts the wireless protocols that make it possible such as Bluetooth Smart (also known as Bluetooth Low Energy – BLE) or ZigBee in the center of attention. Especially the former makes headlines as the possible contender for a much sought-after universal technology that will allow us to connect all sorts of devices easily.
Seed Labs also uses Bluetooth Smart, but unlike most of other Polish IoT start-ups, it focuses on business customers. Its Silvair system consists of Bluetooth Smart-based software and controllers (Silvair Control) that allow manufacturers (original equipment manufacturer – OEM) add smart functionalities to their devices of all sorts. Recently Seed Labs struck a deal with Soraa, one of the world’s leading developers of LED lighting technology. They’re currently working on smart LED lamps based on Silvair.
Web.gov.pl: Seed Labs has chosen a different path than most of Polish companies active in the IoT sector. Your Silvair system target device manufacturers. The success will therefore be measured by how willing they will be to integrate their products with your technology. Why do you think they should do it?
Marek Wierzbicki: The majority of reasons why Silvair is the right choice would require a long explanation and is yet to be proven by practical examples. In other words, it’s difficult to talk about a system that allows devices to communicate in a situation where the devices are yet to be found on the market. We’ve taken out time figuring out where we can actually add value for end users. We have eventually come up with the lighting industry. Both manipulating the natural lighting, such as window blinds and shades as well as artificial sources such as various lamps. We have concluded that building specific communication solutions for each device doesn’t make sense. We reach out to manufactures so that we can both benefit from each other’s experience. We specialize in software and they specialize in hardware. They have distribution channels. This is the way for our technology to get to houses, restaurants and wherever we want it to. This manufacturer-software provider mix is the greatest benefit Seed Labs can offer.
Seed Labs has been known for producing microcontrollers that allow manufactures to add smart functionalities for quite some time. How does Silvair compare to those solutions?
Our offer can basically be divided into two categories. The software controls devices. The hardware on the other hand is a concept/base we present to manufacturers. Our Silvair Control controller is a reference design meant to serve as an example of this technology. Soraa, our latest partner, is going to control its LEDs with Soraa Control – a branded system based on Silvair Control. Manufacturers get to decide the extent to which they want to use our tech.
Seed Labs’ way of doing things is unique but the interest of tech companies in Bluetooth Smart and other wireless protocols for connecting devices has been constantly on the rise in recent years. But are end consumers really all that into it as well? Isn’t it perhaps the case that companies are merely trying to find a way to pique the interest of consumers with various connected devices but it’s yet decided whether the interest is mutual?
The technology is not really all that accidental. Bluetooth Smart originally appeared in the wearables category, having completely dominated it shortly. Building automation is another step. Bluetooth Smart has many advantages for the end user when compared with other wireless protocols. Above all, it’s less expensive and easier to configure and use. But as you say, the search for best use cases continues. One of the shortcomings was the range of Bluetooth Smart devices. Now with the emergence of mesh technology (a type of network in which individual elements (nodes) can communicate with each other without involving a central provider ) the range was significantly improved. Seed Labs is a member of the Bluetooth Smart Mesh working group. It’s an association of companies that try to standardize the usage of Bluetooth Smart. It’s in our best interest to avoid unstable solutions. We know full well how the technology develops and we believe that the next year is going to belong to Bluetooth Smart.
As a B2B business, how do you go about acquiring new business partners?
This process constantly evolves. The increasing awareness of what Bluetooth Smart is helps a lot. A year back we were forced to explain how this differs from WiFi, ZigBee or Z-Wave. Today, leading brands search for the knowledge themselves. They make their appearances at industry events and thoroughly analyze all aspect of their usage. It’s understandable. For them it’s a risk as adapting it forces them to modify their whole production lines. Those people are aware of what’s happening in the market. They can feel that Bluetooth Smart is a big thing and they want to participate.
Do Bluetooth Smart and building automation already make for a profitable field or rather something prospective, worth working on? What do you hope your Silvair-enabled products will achieve on the market in the nearest future?
This sector is growing fast. There is still a lot of space for new solutions. Big players have a lot to say though. They want to be wherever the consumer is. I believe that the market is still in such a phase that any new product may gain a lot of ground rapidly. One has to be ready for those changes. Entry barriers are not high, but one needs to be prepared to endure a lot because of its unpredictability.
Most of successful IoT companies choose the American market for their experiments and advancements. Does it mean that there is not market for IoT and Bluetooth Smart solutions outside of it?
It’s definitely not the case. Europe and China are very attractive as well. China is still a bit of a follower though. The price factor continues to take priority over innovation. But Europe is definitely ready. The building automation solutions present on the market thus far were far too overpriced and complicated. Bluetooth Smart is affordable and easy to use. The end user doesn’t want to learn how to use their home appliances again. If Bluetooth Smart benefits are well explained and taken advantage of, I really do believe that a strong grassroots push for such devices is to be expected.
A quick research shows that there are quite a lot of Polish start-ups in the IoT area. Do you agree with this? What do you think is the cause?
Absolutely. It’s one of the things that I hear a lot from investors and customers: “What is it about Poland that there are so many start-ups doing IoT solutions, beacons etc?” I can think of two reasons. Firstly, we carefully observe the market and tech trends worldwide. We also have some impressive developers. Bluetooth Smart is fun to use for end users, but it’s not easy to develop. It takes a lot of effort and expertise. The Polish are associated with this type of skills. But the true test will be the market debut of our IoT solutions.
For Bluetooth devices to become truly popular, they can’t be too expensive. How much difference in cost does adding the Silvair functionality really make?
Compared to devices that don’t use Bluetooth Smart, that would be a few dollars. Bluetooth Smart is very competitive price-wise, far outdoing Z-Wave and other protocols. And it does make a big difference for individual and business consumers alike. Further savings may be achieved by using Bluetooth Smart to increase the effectiveness of daylight harvesting, that is taking advantage of daylight to reduce energy consumption. With Bluetooth Smart it’s possible to automate actions such as lowering the level of lighting depending on time of the day, which is especially effective with a large number of lamps (in places such as hotels or restaurants).
As you already pointed out, Silvair’s and Bluetooth Smart’s selling point is the ease of use on the part of the consumer. But from the perspective of the manufacturer and software developer it does have quite a number of variables. There is an app, cloud connectivity, Bluetooth Smart, microcontrollers, the list goes on. Do you believe that the new Bluetooh Smart-based building automation market is difficult to get into?
It’s a bit of a stretch for sure. We’ve been working on Bluetooth Smart since September 2013. Bluetooth Smart itself is a one thing. Another is the software we build on top of it, so called application layer. It’s like an advanced version of Bluetooth Smart. Sometimes we need to give up on some ideas to make other work. But the whole point of it all is to make the final product easy and intuitive for the user.
Bluetooth Smart and cloud enable us not just to control devices, but also to record data from surroundings easily. It’s possible to measure temperature, humidity or lighting as well as precise localization of people and things. Is Silvair also going to embrace this sort of features?
Sensors are an indispensable element of Silvair. Our light sensors stand as an example. Their purpose is to lower the level of lighting whenever it’s needed, for example when daylight partly covers the need for lighting in the room. It’s even possible to lower the lighting in just a part of the room.
Is it OK to ask when the very first Silvair-enabled devices will debut in the market?
Soraa will start selling its LEDs as early as this fall. As I stressed earlier, Soraa focuses on businesses, such as California Pizza Kitchen for example. Individual houses are only a small part of their market. In retail, Soraa’s Silvair-enabled products should be made available sometime early next year.
Author: Adrian Senecki
Text was published on web.gov.pl