"For nerds, by nerds”: Fresh off $4.9M Series A, Spark CEO reflects on the IoT's growing pains

By James Robinson , written on July 11, 2014

From The News Desk

I had to miss my call with Spark Labs CEO and founder Zach Supalla earlier in the week, regrettably so. By this time, the news of the "wifi for everything" company $4.9 million Series A is already out.

But I was no less curious to chat with Supalla post-news, as that the Internet of Things space remains is a frustrating one, with a lot of promise, a lot of unjustified hype, a lot of doomed gadgets, and a lot of thoughtless innovation. A single funding round is only a small piece of changing that. Having first connected with Supalla at this year's Maker Faire, I knew that he’s an interesting thinker on these subjects.  Maybe he could talk some hope into me.

Spark's latest funding round included Lion Wells Capital, O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, SOSventures and Collaborative Fund, alongside the launch of a new operating system to pair with its chips and expand out its reach. This after the company announced its arrival into the Internet of Things sector with a $567,968 Kickstarter haul one month ago.

“If you look at our first pitch deck, there is a page from 2012 that describes exactly this,” Supalla says. "I went back and looked at it and thought, ‘nice.’ I've stayed true to the plan."

For a company that bills itself as “wifi for everything” it seems to me that at a consumer level at least, the opposite is fated; companies are locked into a doomed quest to throw chips into products and devices for seemingly little reason, left to work out through trial and error what consumers will actually want.

“I think that a lot of things are going to end up connected," Supalla says. "But most of the action is going to happen in a non-consumer context. It’ll happen in a way that we don’t actually feel. You don’t notice when your power plants puts in place telematics for more efficient power generation, but that has a real impact on the world. Ten years from now, everything is going to have a sensor in it outside of your home, that you’re not going to be aware of.”

It’s for these reasons, that Supalla says Spark is an enterprise product for new hardware entrepreneurs. Eventually, he wants the company to be able to take care of “98 percent” of the technical challenges of making connected products, leaving its customers to just slap their company logo on the results.

Supalla doesn’t rule out more consumer-facing options. It’s just that the consumer side of all of this is still so nascent, so early and unformed.

“We’re still in the Commodore 64 days of the IoT," he says, referencing the earliest of PCs. "I think people are pushing so many things out, but it’s a rare exception when things are actually awesome. People are building more things that are stupid than they are useful. I still like this part though.”

It’s going to take a few years, but companies will probably get past the obsession with putting wifi to pointless products just because others are. It's a future that Supalla hopes will look a little more like the 2014 hit movie "Her" and little bit less like 2002' dystopian "Minority Report."

“Less flashy, gizmo crazy, and sci-fi techy, and more like they connect it and get out of your way," he says. "Lights will be connected not because they can put a button on your phone, they turn on because they know when the sun goes down and."

Her is an interesting example, I counter. Everyone in the movie is isolated from the world by their technology. Wouldn’t the idealized version of the Internet of Things be a world where, with everything connected and able to do things for us, we're freed up to spend less time online?

“I’d like to think so, that if all of this stuff was happening automatically we’d have fewer compelling reasons to put an iPhone up in front of our face," Supalla concedes. "It’s about responsiveness. When we started working on this, our team talked a lot about how the world should respond to you. It’s not about just connectivity."

The missing piece of the puzzle in trying to move past the early adopter syndrome plaguing Internet of Things products is making the use of these new products frictionless, integrating these experiences into our lives seamlessly rather than adding in more work just for the payoff of a bit of "wow" factor. Supalla says that a lot of what he sees now is things that are created by engineers, “for men by men and for nerds, by nerds.,” adding, “It’s tech forward, not market back.”

Supalla thinks it’s the Steve Jobs-type touch effect that's still missing. IoT innovators must look past the practical aspects and the technological wizardry of a product into creating products that fit into people’s lives in real and powerful ways. Not that he’s comparing himself to Jobs. He sees that the need for a company like Spark, is akin to the draw of an Amazon Web Services, an impartial infrastructure provider, helping to make IoT dreams come to life without taking sides.

Of course, it’s early for Spark, as it’s early for the IoT sector in general. The company is going to have to learn to compete against bigger and bigger fish as everyone from Nest and SmartThings starts in on a similar platform play. But having shifted the company’s base from Minnesota to San Francisco before this week’s funding news, and in the process of expanding out the Spark team by 25, Supalla shows no sign of conceding ground.