When Miranda Brown comes home to her Beaverton apartment each evening, the lights come on the moment she opens the door. They go off again anytime she leaves.
And not just the lights. Some “smart” outlets shut off, too, preserving power that little gadgets would otherwise suck up. Brown can turn lights or gadgets back on, while she’s away, with an app on her phone. Or she can turn up the heat when she’s lingering in bed on a chilly morning.
“Which is really cool, because once I lay down I do not want to get up,” said Brown, 23, who is both a resident and a leasing manager at the Montevista Apartments in Beaverton. The complex has smart apartment features installed in about 45 of its 288 units.
The technology comes from a Portland startup, IOTAS. The connected home has been, to this point, largely the domain of luxury houses in the suburbs. But the Intel-backed company thinks it could be at least as valuable to renters, too.
Portland tech has boomed in the past decade but produced only a handful of companies focused on consumer technology, an area that has produced many of the biggest and most explosive technology startups in other regions. IOTAS imagines an opportunity like that for itself.
The company already has hooked up 1,100 apartments across the country and says it has deals with landlords to add as many as 4,000 more by the end of the year.
IOTAS either retrofits existing apartments or wires up brand-new construction. At the Montevista, renters pay $45 a month extra for an IOTAS-equipped apartment. The selling point is the convenience – and the prospective energy savings that comes with intelligent management of heat, air conditioning and lighting.
Chief executive Sce Pike previously helped start Portland online design firm Citizen, which sold early this year to business management firm Ernst & Young. She founded IOTAS four years ago because she felt the Internet of Things – the industry term for connected devices and smart appliances – was going the wrong way by targeting older, well-off homeowners.
Those most likely to use, and benefit, from connected homes were young people who grew up in a digital world, Pike said. And the majority of them are cost-conscious renters who might respond to an opportunity to save money on their monthly energy bills.
“The residents expect technology. They have it everywhere. They carry it constantly around in their pockets,” Pike said.
Intel, Google, Amazon and others have invested billions in hopes of automating home technology to link thermostats, appliances, home security and lighting to ubiquitous mobile technology. IOTAS’ technology is built to tap into many of the existing systems, including the Nest smart thermostat, Amazon Alexa and Google Home.
The Portland company has raised $6.5 million from backers including Intel, which made an unspecified investment last fall.
Still, connected homes remain an uncertain proposition. Digital assistants like Alexa have taken off, but they’re still primarily sources of information – they don’t yet have full smart home capabilities.
“Home automation has been sort of a fraught area for a long time,” said Scott Sandler, investment manager at the Oregon Venture Fund (formerly the Oregon Angel Fund), one of IOTAS’ early backers.
Early systems required expensive, clunky equipment – some of which quickly went obsolete. A few companies made headway with niche products like the Nest home thermostat, but none have found widespread acceptance.
“What IOTAS has done is they’ve put together a standardized product that’s really easy to say yes to,” Sandler said. Landlords can install identical systems in dozens or hundreds of units and renters simply download an app and log in.
And the hardware itself, Sandler said, isn’t likely to grow outdated. IOTAS’ technology consists of software and a local wireless network, which can be easily updated, and relatively basic light switches, outlets and thermostats.
“The functionality is extremely simple: Up, down, on, off, open, closed,” Sandler said. “It’s easy to see how those things are going to be there for a long time.”
Concerns remain about security, privacy and utility. Skeptics wonder if the convenience of being able to manage a thermostat remotely or turn off lights automatically is worth the risk of a hacker repurposing the gadgets or snoops learning your household habits.
“Imagine now you’ve got the data flowing from thousands of connected apartments. What else could you do with that? Who else would that be valuable to?” Sandler asked.
Indeed, it’s easy to imagine marketers would be hungry for that information. It’s also easy to imagine that it might scare off potential tenants. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal at Facebook, concerns about how big tech companies use personal data has never been higher.
IOTAS hopes to address that by being transparent about what happens to customers’ information and giving them an incentive to share.
The company does envision selling data to marketers, but it proposes to offer customers an opt-out. Rather than charge them more if they do, though, Pike suggests IOTAS will kick back some of what marketers pay straight to consumers. It’s an unusual approach, offering a carrot to renters who participate rather than a penalty if they don’t.
“We believe we’re there for their benefit, not anybody else’s,” Pike said. She hopes IOTAS could set a precedent that other companies would feel obliged to follow to keep pace in a competitive market.
Of course, marketers aren’t the only ones who might take an interest in IOTAS’ systems. Pike said it’s unrealistic to expect IOTAS could never be hacked. She said the company’s approach is to limit the opportunity and minimize the damage. In addition to securing its systems, she said it’s also isolating them so hacks would have to take place one unit at a time.
That makes the systems a less attractive target for hackers, and makes it easier to respond by securing a single unit if a hacker starts sniffing around.
The question, then, becomes how residents weigh the trade-off: Is the convenience and energy savings that come with smart home technology worth the potential headache hackers would bring?
Portland State University Professor Corey Griffin is studying apartments with IOTAS’ technology to evaluate whether they actually produce energy savings. Cleantech nonprofit Oregon BEST helped fund the research with $250,000 in backing, which bought it a small stake in IOTAS.
The PSU study is still in its early stages, so it’s too soon to draw complete conclusions. And Griffin said the retrofitted apartments he’s studying don’t have every outlet and appliance hooked up.
That means some outlets, gadgets and appliances can’t be programmed to automatically shut off and will continue drawing power even when they’re off. Newly built apartments could be completely wired, he said, for maximum impact.
Still, Griffin said the early evidence suggests IOTAS makes a difference. Few of us have a clear idea how much power we’re using at a given moment, he said, but IOTAS’ app makes it easy to see what’s on and to shut off unneeded devices.
“The IOTAS technology is helping make that more visible and real to the users, and so it’s changing their behaviors.”
— Mike Rogoway; Twitter: @rogoway; 503-294-7699