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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Start-up to Connect Thermostats, Light Sensors

One of Silicon Valley’s favorite buzz phrases is “Internet of things,” a catchall for everyday stuff like home appliances and light bulbs that are connected to the Internet. Nest Labs, a company founded by a former Apple executive that makes a smart thermostat, has brought cachet to the category and gotten a lot of other manufacturers thinking about how they can bring the Internet to their otherwise humdrum products.

But the companies that make typical products on the shelves at Home Depot don’t have the Internet expertise of a Nest, nor can they afford adding technology that significantly balloons the price of their products (the Nest thermostat, elegant as it is, costs $249).

A start-up, Ayla Networks, unveiled a technology on Wednesday that it said would make bringing the Internet to ordinary devices more attractive for appliance makers. The company, which announced that it had raised $5.4 million from Voyager Capital and Crosslink Capital, makes software that goes into Wi-Fi chips that, say, a maker of electric switches could embed in its products. Ayla operates a cloud service that people who buy connected appliances can access so they can configure the products or get stats about their energy consumption.

One of the advantages Ayla says it has over competitors is that it charges manufacturers a one-time fee for including its technology in their devices, rather than an ongoing charge that would be harder for them to stomach. The company says it can do this in large part by making sure appliances are very efficient about the way they connect to Ayla’s cloud service, which minimizes its data center costs and allows manufacturers to price their connected appliances more aggressively.

“They don’t need to be networking companies like Amazon, Apple or Google, who make it a core competency,” said Adrian Caceres, vice president of engineering at Ayla, who was previously an engineer working on the Kindle at Amazon’s Lab126 operation in Silicon Valley.

While it doesn’t sound all that complicated â€" jam a wireless chip into your widget and you’re done â€" making the software inside of it idiot-proof is not an easy task. It needs to be very simple to connect these devices to a home’s existing wireless network. Because of the extra cost, most of these devices don’t include screens or keypads for entering things like network passwords.

Ayla’s software deals with these limitations by allowing people to use their smartphones and tablets as the interface for connecting to networks. The company estimates that a manufacturer’s cost to add Internet capabilities using its software and related hardware will be as low as $10 per device, a figure that should fall in half in a few years.

The company on Wednesday announced that the first consumer product to use its technology was a personal weather station that Sina, the Chinese Internet company, would offer in that country. The small device, attached to the outside of a home or office, will feed data about local temperature and precipitation to a smartphone app via Ayla’s cloud service.

David Friedman, the chief executive and co-founder of Ayla, said the next products Ayla’s technology would be embedded into will be smart plugs that could be controlled by a smartphone. Mr. Friedman says he believes garage doors, light switches and sprinkler systems are all other good candidates for becoming Internet-connected over time.

Thomas Lee, an electrical engineering professor at Stanford University who is a co-founder and investor in Ayla, said he was skeptical for a while that ordinary household appliances needed to be connected to the Internet. But Dr. Lee said he came around to the idea after realizing how baffled he was by programming his own thermostat. He said connecting appliances to networks means that smartphones can become user-friendly interfaces for remotely controlling and configuring them.

“My cellphone should be my remote control for my entire universe,” he said.