Smoke alarms are a dime a dozen in the market, so you have to offer something more if you want to stand out. Halo Smart Labs does just that, with a smart home-integrated smoke detector that can also warn you of impeding tornados and other weather emergencies.
To find out more, we sat with Ben Stagg, Halo’s Co-Founder and CEO.
Q: Let’s start by talking about how you got started with the product. Why a smoke alarm?
A: When we set out down this path, our initial goal was simply to improve the communication of weather events, in our case using a smoke alarm to do so. That was the genesis of the Halo + device, but in the process of the design and development, the connected home experience really exploded around us and provided a great opportunity to take a ground-up approach to using current-technology solutions to meet user needs. For us, that was really the linchpin to getting involved in IoT. It wasn’t a matter of adding connectivity to the device – we certainly aren’t one of the folks who think that adding a wireless radio or connecting two devices together therein makes a smart home! For us, it was about providing a real and tangible outcome and an easy-to-understand value proposition for the customer.
As my partner says, “If a smoke alarm provides an alert and nobody hears it, did it really work?” IoT gave us the ability to communicate with users about significant and sometimes dangerous events around their home, no matter where they were.
Q: It sounds as if the smoke alarm, in a sense, was a means to an end. I saw a video in which you were talking about your parents being caught in a tornado. Was that one of the primary motivations for you to do this, and the smoke alarm seemed to be a good way to do that? Or did you develop the smoke alarm first as a way to safeguard people, and the rest of it came along later?
A: The weather event – the tornado in this case – was obviously the driver. That was where the idea came from and we set with a goal to improve how people got tornado warnings. At the time we were just coming off the Joplin tornado, almost 160 dead in that event. As the reports started streaming in, we thought why the significant loss of life? One of the consistent themes was a lack of early and consistent communications. At the time I was the chief technology officer for a company that provided nationwide distribution of audio and video messaging. They provided communication tools to the market very quickly and securely and consistently, and I was baffled by the fact that when it came to something as significant as life-saving information around the time and location of a tornado, we were still coming up short.
We started out trying to find a way to overcome the user barriers, the hurdles to adoption that keep people from getting that life-saving information when and where they need it. Out of that, knowing the requirements for a successful weather radio installation, one of the primary things you need is power. So we looked around the house at what devices are always powered, everything from modular or replacement electrical outlets to a thermostat that included weather radio circuitry.
The smoke alarm made the most sense because of its overhead installation location, consistent power, and battery backup. But more importantly for users, there’s a very easy segue - we’re going to take a device that alerts you to hazards in the home, and give you a device that alerts you to hazards in and around the home. It’s a very natural extension of the value proposition, and one that our customers have responded to very well.
Q: What’s the penetration of smoke alarms in the home, either in Tornado Alley or elsewhere?
A: Currently over 96% of American households have a smoke detector installed. It’s been a hardwired requirement in most states since 1989, so out of 120 million households anything built in the last twenty-five years, 30 million or so, have a hardwired smoke detector in place. That’s a requirement that we see for tenant-occupied buildings, too. With that huge level of adoption in the US, we saw a significant drop in fire-related deaths and injuries about the time that mandate came into place. Now the primary cause of death in US home fires is not because there wasn’t a smoke alarm installed, it’s because it wasn’t operating properly. That’s an area that we’re interested in, too - identifying and communicating issues in the device before it’s needed to detect a threat.
Q: Is the IoT aspect the key reason why someone would swap out their existing smoke alarm for yours?
A: Residential retrofit is a key piece, so is new construction, so is working with partners. On average, around six million households in the US are in the market for a new smoke alarm every year but one million new homes are going to be built every year with an average of 5 – 10 smoke alarms per home.
I want to correct one thing, about the IoT aspect. Early adopters are looking at connectivity as a leading-edge opportunity to bring new technology into the home, but to be honest, connectivity was pretty low on the list.
It’s a nice shiny object to get people interested, and certainly provides differentiation in the high end of the category. We have both WiFi and ZigBee capability so we can talkjust about any connected home hub, but for us it wasn’t about creating a connected device. It was about creating the most effective device to help warn people of these hazardous events. Connectivity allowed us to extend that communication beyond the home.
When we looked at prioritization in design and development, the first thing to do was create the most sophisticated and comprehensive set of sensors available. Most smoke alarms, for example, use either ionization or photoelectric technology to detect smoke. Ours is the first to combine both technologies, plus a carbon monoxide detector, in a single device. Then we add supplemental sensors for heat, humidity, and barometric pressure temperature to continue to improve the algorithm to detect false alarms and, more importantly, detect real fires as early in the process as possible.
So we start with a core set of sensors that are the most effective at identifying smoke as early as possible. Then we work down the next list of user barriers.
People don’t know their smoke alarm is broken. Ok, that’s an important one that we can fix. People don’t engage their smoke alarms on a regular basis, only when they need them. Ok, we can integrate a remote-controlled accent light so the kids have something to fall asleep to. The integration of the weather alert is important in certain parts of the country. The ease of installation… all these come together to create a comprehensive solution unlike anything else in the market.
Connectivity allows us to extend the capabilities to a connected home platform. It’s certainly a piece of that, but that’s really not what makes it different.
Q: Let’s talk about Arrow now. When did they become involved?
A: Looking back, Arrow was a part of our development before we even had an office,when it was just a bunch of guys working in our living rooms and garages. Arrow provided us an opportunity to gain a quick and in-depth understanding of the options that were out there as we were determining which technology platform our device would be built on. They offered us hands-on workshops for us to get down and dirty with some of the most cutting-edge technology. This was eighteen months or two years ago. It really launched our development – not only having that level of understanding early in the process but the FAE support, the engineering support, the contacts we were able to make in companies that probably wouldn’t have given Halo Smart Labs the time of day otherwise.
Working with Arrow gave us front-row seats to not only cutting-edge technology, but also the in-depth engineering resources we needed to make it a real part of our solution. Arrow is helping us grow a better team and a better company through their support in nearly every aspect of our business.
Q: Did you use any of Arrow’s expertise and engineering teams during the design phase?
A: Not so much in the design phase, more in the validation phase of what we were putting together. Arrow still represents about 65% - 75% of our costed BOM. They’re by far our strongest distribution partner.
The support they provide goes beyond engineering and procurement, parts and lead times, all the way into assisting us as a small company, helping us continue to grow.
Q: Has Arrow made any suggestions how you can streamline procurement and reduce costs?
A: Absolutely. A lot of the fun in product development is going from “nothing” to “something” very quickly. As soon as you’re at the “something” stage, about the time you’ve finished designing what it’ll look like, you’re already starting to plan out end of life and what sunset products and components will look like. Arrow gives us the freedom to stay where we like to be, in the design and development phase, because they’re always watching out for changes in procurement or availability of parts. Just last month we started planning the replacement of one of our critical parts. It’s end-of-life, still eighteen months out, but we’re already working to stay ahead of the curve. Incidentally, this is the only smoke alarm designed and manufactured in the USA, in our Pineville, NC factory.
One of the most difficult balances for a startup, or any company really, is managing speed, resources and the quality of your finished product. It’s nearly impossible to quantify how much time, effort, and money Arrow has saved us during our product development, but it’s also impossible to understate.Ultimately, Arrow's contributions to the pace of development and reductions in our costs allowed the Halo team to get further in achieving quality outcomes faster than we ever could have on our own.
We view Arrow as not only a strategic partner, but as one of our most critical strategic partners.
Q: What new products are you working on?
A: Actually, right now we have a laser focus on getting these first two products to market. We’re in batch production now and working on finalizing the Intertek certification. That should happen in December, and then products will be available. At some point, we’ll start aligning resources on some of our other pipeline products, but right now, everyone’s focused on Halo and Halo+.
Halo + is the second product and incorporates the disaster alert. Some companies take a short cut by using IP-based messaging, but one of the first things that happens during a weather emergency like a tornado is the infrastructure fails. When you lose power, cable communications fail and the cell towers go down, a device that is only able to provide severe weather information when the weather is good is basically useless. We actually use an RF weather radio chip – it’s a fully-functional weather radio inside the device that uses the National Weather Service radio tower infrastructure. Each tower has battery backup and a range of about forty miles, so even when your house loses power and Internet you’re still able to get emergency information.
There’s nothing else like it in the world.