At the end of the 1990s, MIT scholar Kevin Ashton suggested the dot.com boom would spawn an "Internet of Things," with everyday gadgets linked by software. No more wall switches.
Smartphones are making that happen. As gadget-makers figure out how home and office cameras, kitchen and laundry appliances, heaters and air conditioners, computers and media players can be switched and scheduled from phone apps, American manufacturers, retailers, even phone and cable companies, have been rushing to build "smart home" remote-control systems that can be worked from a phone.
But who's in charge? "You've had Honeywell, GE, Philips, all these huge players going after the space," but each has had a tough time working out common signals that would let their devices work together, Peter Gerstberger, a business development executive at Staples of Framingham, Mass., told me.
Home automation should be coordinated through a single app, not just a nest of remote controls or manufacturers' apps, Gerstberger figured. So Staples went searching for a "universal translator." Gerstberger sought help from Cisco, which makes the routers that connect the Internet. "I told Cisco, 'I want you to put me in a room with one connected zone system, with one hub, and one app that controls all the trusted brands," Gerstberger said.
How'd the search go? "Pretty well: Cisco knew Mike."
That's Mike Harris, founder of Zonoff Inc., a Malvern start-up and a former boss at suburban Philly-based Ravisent Technologies and AnySource Media.
Zonoff had developed a home automation app for Somfy, which makes motors that operate window blinds, and for Somfy's TaHomA smart-home line. Cisco liked TaHomA, traced the software to Zonoff, invited Harris and his crew to its California headquarters, "and put us in front of some really big customers," including Staples, which was eager to deal, Harris recalled.
"My first thought was, 'Why Staples?' " He was surprised to learn the company's small-business customers have made it the No. 2 online retailer, with $10 billion in online sales, trailing only Amazon.com.
So Zonoff built the software for Staples Connect, the home and office app and remote-control system the chain began selling last week at a few dozen of its 1,800 stores, including in Pottstown, Millville, and three in the Lehigh Valley. A "core hub" connecting many brands of compatible home devices starts at $99. Staples' manufacturing suppliers have signed on, including the global names as well as Lutron Electronics, the company that invented the dimmer switch. "Eastern Pennsylvania has become the tech hub for the Internet of Things," Harris says.
Zonoff employs 26. In April, the venture capital firms Grotech Partners and Valhalla Partners invested $3.8 million. "The great thing about this is they are technology-agnostic; they can work with all the suppliers," says Valhalla partner Kiran Hebbar, a Wharton graduate who used to work at Bentley Systems in the Philadelphia suburbs.
"I want my lights to automatically turn on, the TV to automatically turn on, the heater to kick on below 60 degrees, and to get all these solutions to talk to each other," Hebbar added. "I really like that they can do this through a single app."
Why Malvern? Harris, like several of his employees, has school-age children; they like the local Great Valley district. Josh Kopelman of First Round Capital in Philadelphia "would love to help Zonoff relocate" to the city, Harris says. "But the work we do, it's focused on the home. Our demographics isn't selling to a bunch of 22-year-olds who live in apartments. We're selling to regular people with kids and regular houses."