For Keen Home, the exploding smart home market is an opportunity and a puzzle

By James Robinson , written on November 7, 2014

From The News Desk

Oh, the smart home and the chaos of an exploding space.

Everything home-based is smart now, or threatening to be. Thermostats, toothbrushes, teddy bears, security cameras, showers, windows, motion sensors, TVs, appliances, and pot plants. We’ve got genuinely great new technology bumping up against undercooked, overhyped new tools in a space that hasn’t figured itself out entirely. And to confuse the senses, as if the whole thing wasn’t spinning fast enough, there’s an acquisition frenzy. Google bought Nest, which then absorbed Dropcam and Revolv. Samsung bought SmartThings. Apple has its HomeKit, which it hasn’t fleshed out but still has everyone transfixed.

So when I talk to Ryan Fant and Nayeem Hussain, co-founders of Keen Home, which make and manufactures smart vents for home ventilation systems, the fog of smart home exhaustions lurks in my head. Of course there’s smart vents now. There’s smart everything.

The odd thing is, I think Hussain and Fant feel this too, just from a completely different angle. It’s exciting to be them but change can be confusing.

As Fant explains, two years ago he was in his apartment in New York with an air vent above his bed dumping cold air on him everytime he was going to sleep. He hacked the system and programmed the vent to close when he fell asleep, then repeated the feat in his family home in the midwest, which was stricken with having five bedrooms and one central thermostat.

“A lot of smart home products are pretty cute and kitschy, but we saw that this had a dual-pronged value system. It reduced the run time of the HVAC system and areas in the house got more comfortable,” Fant says.

Fant was far from the first individual to look at a crappy appliance and think, "there's got to be a better way." But his tinkering was much earlier in the smart home piece. Nest was a long way from its top-dollar Google sale that ignited the smart home frenzy. He took the idea to Hussain, his NYU business school friend, and a business plan and product vision took shape in the NYU Entrepreneurs Challenge. Then came Startup Battlefield, a spot in Techstar’s Connected Device Accelerator and a $1.52 million seed funding round led by RMR Capital, announced last week.

A complicated product came out of this all. Keen Home’s vents have temperature and pressure sensors. They don’t respond to precise temperature demands, but general commands to make a room warmer or cooler. Fant says that an average home has 18-20 vents and Keen Home vents retrofit that existing infrastructure, a DIY job that even the most practically inept could handle. Customers will only need to replace between four and eight of their vents for the system to effective.

But while all of this was taking shape, getting Keen Home to a point where it can now expect to launch its smart panels for sale in Spring 2015, the smart home space went bananas.

“The connected home space changes every three to six months. It’s completely different now,” Fant says.

Although it's not all bad news. The arrival of the big dogs to the table has created a focal point for new innovation.

“I think maybe now we’ve got to something of a resting place,” Fant says. “Samsung, Apple and Google are all staking their claim in the connected home, and they’re probably going to be the platforms that make up the majority of the space. So for us launching into this, it is about making something that is platform agnostic.”

The smarthome, as Keen Home’s founders point out to me, is in the middle of shift that isn’t yet complete. The huge amount of change in the last two years is a lot to keep up with, but there’s still no real risk yet of getting left behind. The smart home hasn’t made itself inevitable, yet. It needs to get smarter.

“I want to make sure that you can do all of your own programming, that when my Mum gets it, it is a completely seamless and automated solution. That is going to resonate as a product when the smart home market is fragmented and when it starts to consolidate,” Fant says.

Hussain chips in: “It needs to work well, but be low touch. It’s what we’ve learned with Nest. Their statistic was that over 90 percent of thermostats were unprogrammed. We’ve seen a shift lead by Nest that other companies have followed. You make the products more seamless and then you make it more sentient.”

Both founders talk about making Keen Home an aspirational brand. They say they have product two, three and four in mind. Like everything in tech, it’s not just about what you’re making now, but what that will lead into.

“We’re developing proactive devices to enhance the core function of the home. We’re trying to help keep the home running better, which is critical to the idea of the home being your sanctuary,” Hussain says.

They want Keen Home to be a brand, not just a product. Which is all good talk on this side of the journey, but they’re cognizant themselves that, as a small smart device company, part of any success will be a capacity to fit into a world that Apple and Google and Samsung will define.

Eventually, as we discuss, a less fragmented smart home drawing from better data science is going to be able to know what you want before you ask, not just point out some habit you’re probably aware of. Fant says that he sees Keen Home’s value in the long term as being on the software side of the ecosystem, opening up its learning algorithms and analytics to partner platforms via APIs and to help enrich other platforms.

Which means for Keen Home, even if all goes well, there will still be a delicate balance between providing value to others and not letting major platforms cannibalize it for data, subsuming it into the greater quantification of every detail of our lives -- another cog in the data heavy machinery of the smart home that consumers are already wary of.

It’s hunting season in the smart home market, too. Rumors of potential suitors circle Keen Home already, but the founders bat that question away with a press-trained competence.

“If we’re approached, we’ll cross that bridge. But it’s difficult to build and motivate if you’re constantly looking for the acquisition,” Fant says.

The times they are a changin.' With Keen Home, Fant and Hussain are looking forward to a rapidly changing smart home landscape with relish, it seems. Even if for a new company such as theirs, it leaves the future looking like an open ended question.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]