By: Gregory T. Huang
In a newfangled world of connected homes, crowdfunded projects, 3D printers, and mobile apps, it’s refreshing to see a couple of guys in their 50s put it all together and try to make something meaningful.
I write not only in striking range of said demographic, but as a concerned citizen and observer of an ever younger and hype-ier tech industry. And, I should add, one whose furnace broke last week, leading me to worry (if only briefly) about pipes freezing.
If you’re not a plumber, keep reading. A Boston-area startup called Water Hero has developed a consumer device and mobile app that tracks a home’s water use and can detect leaks and protect against burst pipes. The company’s sensor straps onto the side of a municipal water meter and detects how much water is flowing (see top image). A separate motor clamps onto the valve to shut it off automatically, if necessary. The mobile app does analytics and displays the data. That’s it.
The potential impact here is twofold: save people money and aggravation from water damage, and help people conserve water.
“It’s this incredible hack of ancient technology,” says Water Hero’s Alex Cheimets, who points out that water-meter hardware is decades old. “It’s a cheap and mindless installation. It’s not cutting pipes, it’s something you could get in a box from Amazon.”
Cheimets runs product development for the Beverly, MA-based startup, which was founded by entrepreneur Dan Sterling. Years ago, Sterling owned a bakery chain in Wisconsin and then ran an Internet security firm. (I’d like to hear that transition story sometime.)
The two met in early 2014 at a company-pitch training session. Cheimets had been making the rounds at Greentown Labs, Techstars, and other startup spaces, doing advisory work with a few companies. Sterling’s idea intrigued him. Cheimets had a previous career developing home appliances for big brands, but he got seriously into energy efficiency in 2008. “Since it was a recession, I really had nothing else to do,” he says.
In fact, his home in Arlington, MA, became a template, both statewide and nationally, for deep energy retrofits—whole-building construction projects designed to maximize energy savings. So he’s personally invested in conservation.
OK, so it’s a fun two-guys-in-a-garage story—but Water Hero’s rise also says a lot about how hardware innovation is happening today. Sterling and Cheimets tapped the expertise of the local hardware and connected-devices community, including Dragon Innovation, a Boston-area manufacturing services company. They used a 3D printer to make the housing of their sensor unit (blue part in top image). They lined up manufacturers in California, for their communication chip, and China for their circuit board and assembly needs, as well as consultants and an industrial designer. All of that in less than a year.
Then they took their project to the Web, via a Kickstarter funding effort this fall. Now Water Hero is getting down to the wire, as its campaign to raise $54,000 ends on Dec. 24—and the company is still short a few thousand bucks.
It should be noted that a few other startups around the country, such as MeterHero andNoah Technologies, have tried to solve similar water-related problems—with mixed results.
Whatever happens, Cheimets is confident his company has gained the relationships it needs to move forward. And he has learned some surprising things about the current era of hardware development and marketing. “You see things that would never have gotten a green-light before,” he says.
Cheimets admits he didn’t know what to expect from the whole crowdfunding process. “This is a high-level thing. High-level people are trawling Kickstarter. These are corporate types and people with a lot of money behind them, and a lot of power,” he says. “It’s a different world.”