The word “convergence” was first introduced to me as a journalism student in college more than a decade ago. Convergence in journalism was the blurring of lines between TV, cable, radio, newspaper and the Internet—and it excited some and pissed off others.
The phenomenon has happened in more industries than I can name since that time, and it’s always a similar story. The Old Guard is protective of the history and legacy that it’s created—if change happens, it should be slow and steady and controlled. And yet, the New Guard wants to throw the Old Guard on its head, and as quickly as possible.
But there’s something different about the convergence caused by the still young Internet of Things movement nationally, and in the Triangle—it’s bringing together the corporates with the startups with the people just interested in learning more. The movement is just specific enough that it draws an audience with interest in technology, but just general enough that those people could hail from any size company in healthcare, consumer products, marketing, software, Big Data and in the case of Tuesday night’s NC Regional Internet of Things Meetup, clean technology.
That’s different from the region’s software startup community, where only recently have companies like Citrix and Red Hat begun to interact and innovate with the startups in HQ Raleigh or American Underground. A common complaint in the region’s tech startup community is that corporations aren’t supporting them as beta testers and experimenters, mentors or early customers.
While it’s still too early to say if that level of engagement will happen in IoT, at least the organizers are getting the parties in the room together to share, learn and collaborate.
The NC RIoT partnered with the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster to put on the Tuesday event in timing with the Data4Decisions Conference in Raleigh. Host was a representative of Sensus, the $1 billion in revenue Raleigh company that provides metering systems to water, gas, electric and heat utilities, and keynote speakers included Anthony Atti, the co-founder and CEO of Phononic (pictured above), which has raised $86 million to bring its solid state thermal cooling technology to market, and Cree Electronics R&D Manager, Matt Reynolds.
To Atti, IoT presents one of the most exciting market opportunities in the last 50 years. It all comes down to the power of a semiconductor to transform a market that hasn’t been disrupted in a long time. For Phononic, that’s refrigerators. The first of these are in use at Rex Hospital, and they’re equipped with Phononic’s tiny energy-efficient transistors and sensors that can transmit data about the temperature of the refrigerator, send notifications to medical staff and automatically secure a back up generator if the power goes out.
Atti told the crowd that many told him not to build a semiconductor/IoT business when he launched the company with IP from several universities in 2009. He did it anyway, with laser focus on developing energy-efficient (and increasingly, connected) technology for products that consumers want and need. Since 2012, he’s hired 85 people, raised money globally and opened a 20,000-square-foot manufacturing facility.
“When you can provide a strong and compelling value proposition and articulate a strategy as to how you will monetize, capital will flow, talent will flow,” Atti says. “We haven’t met all the objectives, but we’re on the path to build a multi-billion dollar company.”
Cree began to innovate in IoT after a request from a key customer, Home Depot. The team in January launched its Connected Cree LED Bulb that can be controlled with smartphones and tablets and in multiple ways, including dimming or warming or switching colors. It also works with Wink and Zigbee home automation platforms. The experience building the new bulb also led to a commercial lighting product called SmartCast, which senses vacancy and harvests daylight to save energy costs.
According to Reynolds, IoT is all about improving user experience, and lighting is an easy one. “Once you get acquainted with using an iPad or iPhone and not having to get out of bed to turn the light off, it’s a great experience. It makes sense.”
It’s clear that corporations are trying as hard as entrepreneurs to figure out how to connect devices to the Internet in a way that adds value to consumer’s lives and businesses’ bottom line. Big concerns are what can people do with the data these devices collect and transmit? And will they pay for it? Also, is the speed of Internet connections fast enough to handle dozens of connected devices in the home or workplace?
Atti says the concerns are “useful data” and, that “download/upload speed will be slow and choke the convergence before it gets to blossom.”
While the conversation is rich, its hard to say if 10 months of regular IoT meetups is leading to more innovation or startup activity. There are still few true IoT companies in the region—the Wireless Research Center in Wake Forest has yet to fill the 22 spots in its incubator with IoT companies.
But there’s some momentum around the companies that have formed. Below are some one-minute pitches from the January RIoT and last fall’s CED Tech Venture Conference, and here’s a rundown of the stories we’ve written on the industry since the RIoT began. Groundwork Labs also will dedicate spots in its free summer accelerator program to entrepreneurs building IoT companies.
While its great to see corporations engaging with entrepreneurs, there’s still one thing lacking in the room at IoT events—another form of convergence known as diversity. The group will have to work harder to find the women and minority entrepreneurs working in the field, or to draw in those groups to educate them on the opportunities that exist if and when devices are connected.