Imagine you?re waiting for a bus, and before you can even see it coming down the block, the street lamp on the corner where you?re standing lights up to let you know the vehicle is on its way.
It may seem like a far-fetched idea now, but a new wireless networking technology from Cambridge, Mass.-based Ember Corp. may make it a reality soon. Recently spun out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology?s Media Lab, Ember has created a low-power wireless embedded networking platform intended to enable communication between small devices.
That idea recently earned the start-up $3 million worth of seed money in a financing led by Polaris Venture Partners. Draper Fisher Jurvetson affiliate DFJ New England also participated in the round, along with Stata Venture Partners and individual investor Bob Metcalfe, who joined Polaris as a venture partner earlier this year.
The seed funding is designed to carry the company for six month until it returns to the venture market for its Series A round. If all goes as planned, Ember is expected to net north of $10 million in that financing, Metcalfe said.
The company intends to use its latest VC infusion to recruit a chief executive officer, develop its market strategy and make progress toward completing the third generation of its product. Ember Co-Founders Robert Poor and Andy Wheeler had developed two previous iterations as students at MIT?s Media Lab.
Like Bluetooth, But Not Quite
Metcalfe first heard about Ember when Poor, who is also the company?s chief technology officer, asked the investor to be on his thesis committee at MIT. After finishing his Ph.D., Poor then asked if Metcalfe would consider backing his new company.
“At Polaris, every partner does every deal, but I actually led the deal team on this one,” Metcalfe said. “It was the first time [since I joined Polaris] that I actually carried the water. I wanted to do really early-stage deals, and this was the highest form of venture capital.”
At first blush, it may seem that Ember?s technology is similar to Bluetooth, which uses radio waves to establish a wireless connection between small numbers of personal communication devices. Indeed, Ember does use short haul radio waves, but its wireless networking technology scales to connect hundreds of thousands of devices together cheaply, which Bluetooth does not do, Poor said.
Another fundamental difference is that, initially, Ember plans to target large commercial and industrial clients before it dives into the consumer market.
“The consumer sector is important, but there?s been a lot of hype about home automation, and we want to get [the technology] right before we attack that market,” Poor explained.
The principle behind Ember?s networking platform is that it can save businesses large amounts of money both on install and energy costs, the company claims, because it is relatively easy to install and requires very little power. It is also self-organizing, so once it?s installed, the Ember node is able to find its nearest neighbor and integrate itself into the network.
“We?re making this so easy, even my aunt could install it,” Poor said.
Ember?s technology has broad applications, such as networking all of the light switches and thermostats in a building to trim energy costs and avoid unnecessary power usage. One day, it may also be used to power automated water sensors that notify farmers when they have to irrigate their crops, and in smoke detectors that can automatically alert the fire department when there is an emergency.
Moreover, there certainly is plenty of opportunity in the commercial and industrial arenas, especially municipalities. For example, the town of Brookline, Mass., a few years ago spent in excess of $100,000 just to keep track of which street lamps had burned out, according to Poor.
“If they had the Ember node, they could have put it in the base of every street lamp and had it report back a couple of times a day which lamps had burned out, which would have saved them a lot of money,” he added.
The company plans to conduct a pilot program to test its product in early 2002 with some as yet undisclosed commercial and industrial companies. No date has been set for its official market launch, however.