Thursday, January 7, 2010
Interview with Kevin Strong, FutureDash
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
To kick off our first interview for the year, we've got an interview with Kevin Strong, the CEO of Laguna Beach-based FutureDash (www.futuredash.com), a developer of technology for the home energy monitoring market. Kevin was previously an executive at GloNav, and founder and President Allan Hundhausen was previously at Quark, Inc.. We spoke with Kevin shortly before the holidays about the firm, as well as how he connected with Allan at an OCTANe event.
What does FutureDash do, and how do you fit into the home energy monitoring market?
Kevin Strong: FutureDash is a software company, and our core technology is actually focused on real-time dashboards, primarily for consumers and small businesses. The founder of the company is Allan Hundhausen, who is President of the firm, who started working on the technology three years ago, and incorporated FutureDash about a year ago. He was originally working on home automation and control, and as he started to talk to people about what he was developing, energy turned out to be what people were honing in on, and which was the most interesting component of what he was doing. In the last year, there has been lots of talk about the smart grid, and smart meters. They expect that there will be 50 million smart meters rolled out over the next or four years, and all of those meters will be transmitting real time energy information into the home. We use one of the standards for that communications--wireless communications using Zigbee--and our software takes the typical equipment that a user already has, or may be purchasing, and adds home monitoring onto that.
How did you connect with Allan, and talk a bit about your background?
Kevin Strong: I actually met Allan at an OCTANe event, back in March or early April. I'd actually been laid off from the acquirer of my previous semiconductor company, and Allan was looking for help on the business development side. I was impressed by what he was working on. My background is actually in the semiconductor industry--I have 25 years in the semiconductor industry, from big companies like Rockwell and Conexant, up to an executive at Conexant. I did a spinoff at Conexant, Pictus, where I was the founding CEO. I also joined up with former Conexant colleagues at an early stage semiconductor firm, RFdomus, which is working on lower power wireless chips, which we merged with a spinout of European semiconductor firm, to become GloNav. GloNav was focused on GPS chips, and headquartered in Newport Beach. We built that to 50 people with funding from a VC in Ireland closely connected with the European company. We sold it to NXP Semiconductor for $110M in January last year, just before the meldown.
It seems like there are lots of players now in home energy monitoring/smart meters/etc., how do you hope to stand out in the market?
Kevin Strong: There are several things. One, is we're not providing the hardware ourselves. We're enabling people with access to the channel, to add energy monitoring to their products. The category of customers we're targeting are building consumer networking equipment, such as routers, gateways, and set-top boxes. All of those devices today typically run embedded Linux. Our server software sits on those devices very easily. We've got a very small footprint application which can be added to those devices. That's one key thing. What that then does, is provide servers to serve out a highly graphical dashboard to users. That dashboard can be displayed on any consumer or user's Internet connected device, whether that's a PC, smart phone, eventually Internet connected TVs, as that starts to take off. Our differentiation is it's highly customizable, very rapidly. The whole product can be customized for a different OEM or different utility company which wants a dashboard a specific way. There's lots of flexibility.
So you're selling this to hardware makers?
Kevin Strong: Correct, a customer can either be a hardware manufacturer, where we'll license this to them, and in some cases we'd potentially be working with broadband ISPs. ISPs are looking to differentiate themselves with value added services, beyond just telecom and entertainment services, and you are starting to see themselves looking at a platform and what they can add. The major ISPs looking at this include AT&T, Verizon, Cox, and Time Warner, all of whom have interest in energy management as a possible service.
How much infrastructure needs to be installed, and when will enough equipment be deployed to have this make sense?
Kevin Strong: Clearly, a major enabler is smart meters. Right now, there are a variety of things today where you can wrap something around a cable going into your electricity box, but we're not targeting that opportunity. We think the bigger opportunity is as smart meters roll out, because the market becomes millions rather than just thousands, at this point. There are some opportunities where companies are using standards like Zigbee, which allows devices to transmit energy consumption to a central hub, and we're looking at things like smart power strips and some appliances. We're also looking at some opportunities, where companies are coming up with energy monitoring kits to get into the market--they're smart meter ready, so a user can buy them, and be safe knowing that when they have a smart meter they'll be able to tie into the system.
Google has its own home energy monitoring project, PowerMeter - is this competitive or different?
Kevin Strong: This is really different. We're in the category of energy monitoring tools. Google is doing a web presentment tool, taking data from utility companies. Those companies are using smart meters with two radio systems--one for the utility themselves, connected in a backhaul to a utility company, where the data is read--at least here in California--once an hour, sending a signal back to SCE, PGE, or whoever your utility is. But, what a user wants is near real-time, to the 1/2 second. Google is tied to the utility, which only has one hour granularity, and only the next day. There have been lots of studies, where they have tried energy monitoring systems with customers, and those studies show that the more real time the data, the more likely the consumer will notice what's going on, and change their behavior because they want to save money.
What's the stage of the firm now, and how are you funded?
Kevin Strong: The company is being funded, by the family and friends of the founder, to date. One of the things we've been very careful about is an extremely low burn rate. The executive team--Allan and myself--are not drawing salary. We're only using our money to pay developers. We're outsourcing lots of development, and our developers are all around the world in low cost locations. It's a unique, virtual company model, which has allowed us to bring things to basically alpha. That said, we are now entering the next phase, and are going to go into the fundraising stage in the new year.
Finally, when do you think people will start using this and you'll be in production?
Kevin Strong: We're talking with multiple hardware companies and utility companies, and certainly will be ready to deploy by the end of next quarter or the middle of next year. It's a matter of when our customers want to deploy smart meters or a smart meter ready energy kit.