May 2013 | By Jeni Baker
What it does: Uses existing wiring already in homes to create a wireless sensor network
Duke ECE Founder: Matt Reynolds, Nortel Networks assistant professor of ECE
Employees: 6 full-time (10 by June 2013)
ThingMagic co-founder, assistant professor Matt Reynolds launches third start-up
Home automation based around a cloud-computing infrastructure is an exciting new product category—as illustrated by the tremendous growth of companies such as Nest and Dropcam. People want to keep track of their home environment to feel healthy, comfortable and more secure.
That’s where just-launched SNUPI Technologies comes in. Short for “Sensor Network Utilizing Powerline Infrastructure,” Seattle-based SNUPI was developed by Duke ECE Nortel Networks Assistant Professor Matt Reynolds, Shwetak Patel and others at the University of Washington and the Georgia Institute of Technology.
The start-up is Reynolds’ third; he also co-founded radio-frequency identification (RFID) systems company ThingMagic, Inc., and energy-conservation firm USenso, Inc.—both of which were purchased by other companies. Reynolds has been issued 13 patents and has more than 30 pending.
How does the technology work?
SNUPI is a unique technology that receives information from home sensors and uploads it to an Internet cloud service, where it can be accessed by the user from the Web or a mobile device.
The technology uses a home’s existing power-line wiring as an antenna, and because the “antenna” is widely distributed throughout the home, the transmission distance is always short. This means that our products consume very little electricity; batteries need to be replaced only about once every ten years.
SNUPI products have both hardware and software components, which the company builds, manufactures and ships.
What’s the story behind SNUPI Technologies?
When we initially developed the technology, we didn’t have any particular application in mind. Our first idea was to use it with motion sensors to ensure that elderly people were keeping active in their homes. But then we realized we’d invented a general technology that could be applied in many other ways.
We started SNUPI Technologies in response to interest from an insurance company. With a $1.5 million investment by Madrona Venture Group, Radar Partners and the co-founders, the company launched in December 2012.
What advice do you have for students interested in starting their own companies? Building a business is about relationships and people. You can’t succeed without good people. The biggest challenge in launching a startup is finding the right mix of people and assembling a team that functions well in terms of both skill sets and personalities.
Being an entrepreneur also requires focus and flexibility. Focus to innovate and produce under the pressure of deadlines and limited resources; flexibility to evolve as we learn new things about the technology and the market. You also need to be flexible enough to recognize when there’s an opportunity in front of you—and to take it.
What advantages will current Duke ECE students gain in the marketplace?
Because almost everything has an electronic or computing aspect to it, ECE students learn a fundamental enabling technology for virtually every field. The fact that the core technology is everywhere means that a strong ECE education is in demand and likely to remain in demand for the foreseeable future.
Duke engineering students are taught two key skills that are useful in any field: how to structure technology with modularity (design and build systems made of modular parts that can be reused for many purposes) and abstraction (generalize knowledge so that it can be used in another context).
Pratt students learn to innovate, which requires creativity in terms of both technology and application. Thinking about how a technology can be used can lead to thinking about it from a business perspective.
What led you to join the Duke engineering school? Seven years after founding ThingMagic, I wanted to return to academia and have the freedom to do research. Pratt stood out as a growing school with a talented faculty, and it continues to improve every year on every measure. I’m proud to be part of a program that’s really advancing in research and reputation.
Another great thing about being in academia is that there’s never a shortage of good ideas if you’re hoping to start a company. SNUPI is a perfect example of that.
How does your experience as an entrepreneur translate into your teaching and mentoring of students?
We tell students a lot about the “what” behind technology and give them the technical motivation for what they are learning. My experience in the start-up world helps me to bring a business perspective to the “whys”—from potential applications in the marketplace to how to bring a technology to market.
The idea is for students to think about the technical concepts they learn in class in a broader way—in terms of their service to society.
What’s on the horizon for SNUPI Technologies?
We’ll continue to hire talented people and make great headway on our product, which we’ll be piloting with partner companies over the summer. There’s a huge category of home-sensing and -controlling products that will soon be on the market, which makes what we’re doing very timely.
Because SNUPI technology can be applied to a wide variety of sensors, the company plans to deploy many types of hazard-sensing applications—with water leaks being the first potential hazard on the list. Working with humidity, temperature, and liquid sensors, our technology will help prevent a common problem that leads to countless insurance claims.
A potential model for the future could be for us to partner with an insurance company, which could offer a discount to clients using SNUPI technology in their homes.