Startup Spotlight: With Sensors, LightSense Takes ‘Internet of Things’ to the Next Level
In recent years, smart sensor and remote monitoring systems have been on the rise. A chief testament to this? Google’s acquisition of Nest.
However, the demand for smart sensor technology isn’t stopping at thermometers. Soon it lead will to smart sensors that measure, well, pretty much everything. That is the technology being created at Lightsense.
We had the opportunity to sit down with Gordon Davidson, Chairman of LightSense Technology, and Steven Doll, the Director of Marketing and Consumer Development at LightSense, to talk about how their technology is revolutionizing the world of smart sensors.
Looking on the Lightsense website, I noticed that the members of the company come from all over and have diverse professional backgrounds. How did all of you come together to start Lightsense?
Gordon Davidson: Several pieces came together at once. Terje Skotheim, the CEO, is the inventor of one of the core technologies and he’s been working a number of years with some PhDs at the University of Arizona School of Optical Sciences. So, the core technical group has actually been working together for some time in a bit of a different capacity.
How we expanded was through a mutual networking connection. A buddy of mine called me up one day – we hadn’t talked in two years – he goes, “I think I have a company for you, and I want you to talk to Terje.” So I called Terje, we chatted and I thought it was interesting so I flew into Tucson and we decided to go into business together then formed the company.
Can you explain how Lightsense’s wireless sensors are more cost effective and efficient than existing wired sensors?
Davidson: Yeah, it’s a break through and we just had another big break through yesterday with our more advanced CO2 sensor. Historically, people haven’t really been focused on the relationship between CO2 and energy conservation, and when they started looking at it there weren’t wireless gas sensors. So they were wiring the CO2 sensors in. Although that works well, it costs $2,000 to $3,000 per sensor to do that. Even with those quality sensors you still had drift, you didn’t have great calibration, and they weren’t as precise, these types of issues. Once they’re in that location, they’re in that location.
Wireless sensors started coming into the marketplace about 18 months ago, and they give you a lot more ease of installation. They take very low power – that’s big. You’re not sucking a lot of juice because they are wireless. They can last a long time on a battery and soon we will have a little solar panel that we can stick onto the sensor that will take light off the lighting fixtures and power the sensor. Their design is such that they don’t have to calibrate. Part of the problem with sensors that start drifting here and there is you have to go back in to calibrate them. We don’t have to do that.
Then, there is the wireless aspect itself. What you can do is you take the sensors, build a wireless network either using the existing building’s wireless or a Zigbee or something on top of that. When we get into military work we’re going to have to look into some cyber security issues with architecture around that. But it is a much lower cost, it is more precise, it is a lot easier and cost effective to install.
When you get to the wireless sensors and our other products, people see that Lightsense will continue to advance in technology, not in small steps, but in big leaps. All the advantages of the wireless are on the website: its cost, its precision, its size, its low power, and other factors. There is no one else on the market place that does it.
The LightSense website says, “LightSense has a roadmap for significant enhancements to its current product range, which will be rolled-out starting in 2016.” Can you give a description of how and into what areas you are expanding the product range?
Davidson: There are a couple of things. On the certain sensors that detect gases, we will be coming out with a methane sensor, a natural gas sensor. These can be used in a lot of different applications and there is use for that from a safety perspective. I’ll give you an example. A coal mining company in China has contacted us. Now, in China last year, as it has been told to me, they lost 20,000 miners to natural gas exposure. That’s insane. Now they don’t have the “canary in the coalmine,” but that would be our gas sensors.
So, we’re looking at other sensors that detect certain sorts of chemicals from a safety, indoor air quality perspective. We’ll be doing sensors that will have a multiple array, which will be able to detect a number of different kinds of things. These sensors would go into smart cities, which is about a year and a half away.
The thing about infrared technology is that it can pierce skin, pierce your blood, kind of go through it and detect what is in it. We believe that we’re on a good path for health monitoring. Attach a sensor to your smart phone, breath into it and be able to track your health. We are moving all of these things along multiple tracks.
It’s amazing how many directions and markets you can move these sensors in.
Davidson: Well, that is the management challenge. When you’re young, small and not as funded as you would like to be, you can’t go off in these directions. You have to look at when you enter certain markets, when you focus on certain developments of new technologies, and right now we’re keeping it very simple. …We’re focused on selling product right now so we want to hit certain marks this year of revenues.
There’s about seven or eight multi-billion dollar markets out there, but when you’re young you don’t enter those. You focus, you focus, you focus. You get your revenues up, then you start bringing in the people you need to go after these other markets. You’ve got to really get your priorities straight. The future looks great. We will be in those markets, but we won’t be there in the next year in some of them.
There’s so much excitement with what we have that I don’t know where we’ll end up going. We get calls from people saying, “We like your stuff.”
The big picture of this, the most exciting aspect, is tied into the “internet of things.” At the core of the “internet of things” our world is moving towards measuring and detecting everything. Everything: Big data, analytics. So much data is going to be going into the cloud and the infrared sensing technology is going to be right on that level. Our sensors will be a core technology in the growth of this “internet of things” and we’re actually going to end up potentially being a big data company. Think about it this way.
Steven Doll: We’ve chosen markets to enter where they’re currently experiencing disruption from an “internet of things” model. We’re producing a lot denser mesh of low cost sensors that are autonomous and smart enough to be subscribed to a variety of different applications. Not an old model where you have a small number of sensors hooked into a central brain. So, we’re looking at an “internet of things” model. Demand Controlled Ventilation in smart buildings is one of those. Potentially smart homes and home control is another, medical applications and a number of renewable energy technologies too.
It seems that most of the products are geared towards larger companies and city governments. Are products such as the CO2 detector available for private homes? If not, is this an area LightSense is looking to expand into?
Davidson: Great question. We’re tossing that around now. Our primary focus is going to be commercial application, industrial, and government – military in particular. The question for us from a business perspective is this: is there a market for sensors to be put in homes that relates to indoor air quality and/or energy conservation? We think that there is, but this is one of those things that we’re not jumping into right now. We’re monitoring the market and seeing how it has developed. There are other companies now that are coming out with remote home monitoring systems, but they don’t have our infrared sensors to detect certain things.
One of the challenges for a small business that is technology-based is where to redirect, if you have to redirect, your R&D resources. You don’t want to be chasing markets all over the place. So it is a great question. We are looking at the home market and we think it has potential, but we’re still assessing whether we want to move into that now.
If we go into the home market, we’ll also be sort of a consumer-based company. You’ll be able to put it on your smartphone and you can integrate it with these other sensors, detectors and home alarm systems. But there’s some crazy stuff going on.
Ever heard of Nest? Google bought them for 3.4 billion dollars! I mean, there’s some insanity going on here. Our stuff is so much more advanced than what Nest has. So once again we have to look at the consumer things, look at the trends. Hopefully in 3 or 4 months we’ll have our first significant raise in capital and as we monitor everything we’ll figure out where we’re going to emphasize and what we’re going to push lower on the priority list.
So the capital you’re raising is actually directed at markets, not research right now?
Davidson: It’s going to be both. We have products that we can sell now so we want to emphasize sales and marketing to get our revenues up quickly, but we’re going to fully fund our R&D program. Ultimately… we’re going to be an acquisition target in 4 or 5 years as our exit strategy, and it’s not just going to be about our revenues or the markets we’re in, it’s going to be about the development of our core technology and its value going forward into the future. That would potentially be the highest value item of our whole company. So, we’re going to full fund the R&D program.
On the website you also discuss privacy and security of the wireless sensor that would send information to a smartphone or database to have maintenance notified something like a shopping mall. Do you have any idea of how you would protect that information, or if it would be a risk to be targeted?
Doll: The “internet of things” is struggling with this exact question. I think the information ownership is the key idea. So, we would sort of fit into a model of information persistence and also use that would always respect the original owner of the information. For example, if it is your building, or you are occupying the building, or if it is your health information, there is some legal regulations often. Even more so though, you want to protect the privacy of whatever it is about that, which talks about you. So, we want our sensors to do that on your behalf.
I could see this running into trouble if for example you have a city and your sensors detect that there is a lot more pollution than originally thought causing social backlash.
What is Lightsense’s greatest accomplishment thus far and where do you see the company going in the future?
Davidson: The greatest accomplishment has been the technology we have developed. It is absolutely the World’s best. These guys in Tucson, they have been working this realm for quite a while. They are the World’s best and they have been focusing just on these infrared related technologies. We have already, right out of the gate, the best technology in the world and we’re going to leap frog our own technologies over time. So I would say, as a very early-stage company, our advantage is our technology and the people around me.
Sometimes people look and want to see a tangible thing with the greatest accomplishment. The other great accomplishment is the quality of the people we have that are around that technology, who are developing it and delivering it to marketplace.