The Era of Pervasive Computing

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Seed investors are in the unique position to spot trends early. Over the last twelve months I’ve noticed a new crop of startups coming in the door at Lerer Ventures and am confident we’re in the early days of the next major shift in computing –  the Era of Connected Devices.   It might still be five or ten years from now – but when it hits the impact will be huge.

These connected devices will be everywhere and enriching our lives in more ways then we can comprehend, today.  No, I’m not taking about a toaster that’s connected to the net.  I’m not even talking about like the Xbox in your living room or the iPhone on your desk. I’m talking about sensors and devices that will monitor and sense our environments, collect data and provide timely and critical feedback. If you think mobile is big right now, wait until the “edge of mobile” is fully developed.  A tremendous amount of value will be created at the “edge” (e.g. sensors, appcessories, etc.) because unfathomable amounts of data will originate here and will then be routed to other devices, applications, services, etc.  In order to support truly pervasive computing, the tech stack – hardware, software, services, infrastructure – will likely undergo significant changes and new value will be created at each level. I believe the companies that own the hardware, software and service in a given market will create significant barriers. 

Why now?  Startups are bringing these devices to market faster and cheaper than ever before thanks to a number of factors.  First, vibrant innovative online communities are growing (e.g. Quirky and Thingiverse) and low-cost / high performance web-based CAD tools are emerging (e.g. Lerer-backed Sunglass).  Additionally, the rise of 3D printers enable engineers / makers to rapidly prototype and manufacture parts, components, etc. all from their garages.  Equally as important, crowdfunding sites (e.g. Kickstarter) now provide access to capital for thousands of entrepreneurs who were previously shunned by VCs “who don’t invest in hardware companies.”  Finally, we’re starting to see a few of hardware focused-incubators spring up on the west coast (e.g. Lemnos Labs) and I know we’ll see many more in the next few years.  Hopefully, a few in NYC soon. 

Even the big guys are investing billions.  Ericsson forecasts there will be more than 50 BILLION connected devices by 2020 – “Everything that will benefit from a connection will be connected.”  All sectors will be impacted: transportation, retail, education, government, healthcare, utilities / energy, security, financial services, construction, etc.  The behemoth General Electric is investing in what they call the Industrial Internet. More specifically, the giant is hiring 400 engineers in San Ramon, California “to design the layer of software that makes the idea of intelligent machines a reality.”  Additionally, IBM is already investing billions in their Smarter Planet initiative. Their energy is focused “into things no one would recognize as computers: cars, appliances, roadways, clothes, even natural systems like agriculture and waterways.” Even the next generation processors from semiconductor manufacturers like AMD are being designed specifically for mobile (compact, energy-efficient and powerful). 

Over the last few months I’ve been cataloguing startups / organizations that are paving the way for the Era of Pervasive Connected Devices.  These companies are building sensors, media devices and appliances, robots, 3D printers, and appcessories which extend the value of our current mobile devices. The list I’ve complied below is far from exhaustive but should offer a glimpse into where the world is heading.  The opportunity may feel far away to an outsider, but as Bill Gates once said, “technology doesn’t change things as much as you think in the short term, and we underestimate the rate of technological change in the long term.”  Agree? Disagree? Would love to see your thoughts.  

A sample of connected devices

Bio Sensors:

Motion Sensors

  • Leap: control your computer using hand gestures
  • PrimeSense: tech that powers MS Kinect  

Home Automation

  • Nest: connected thermostat 
  • elarm: connected home security  
  • Lockitron: replace your keys with your phone 
  • Wemo: modular system for mobile home automation

Music

Appliances

Agriculture

  • Prospero: swarm of autonomous robotic planters
  • Bitponics: automate the plant growing process via sensors  
  • Koubachi: the wifi plant sensor 

Sensor Platforms

  • Twine: hackable platform for a myriad of sensors 
  • Ninjablocks: platform for sensing and controlling things in an environment
  • GreenGoose: sensors that make the world more playful 
  • Safecast: sensor network for detecting and measuring radiation 

Robots

  • Romotive: the smartphone robot (a Lerer-backed company)
  • Momentum Machinesa robot that makes a perfect hamburger in mass volume
  • ArcBots: open source robotics platform
  • Sphero: remote controlled robotic ball 
  • Kiva Systems: robots for warehouses (acquired by Amazon) 

DIY Manufacturing

  • Mezzomill: hardware + software for making circuits at home 
  • Makerbot: a 3D printer for the masses
  • Shapeways: a 3D printing service
  • Reprap: humanity’s first general-purpose self-replicating manufacturing machine
  • DIY CNC Machine: computer-automated machining and fabricating for masses

Connective Tissue

  • IFTTT: put the internet to work for you
  • Open Garden: crowdsourced mesh network using mobile devices
  • Freedom Pop: 100% free internet access for all 
  • Electric Imp: platform to bring every device possible to the networked world

Miscellaneous 

  • Square: mobile credit card reader 
  • LittleBits: digital legos  
  • Google Glasses: the company’s first foray into wearable computing   
  • Mosoro: maker of bluetooth accessories for smartphones 
  • Maykey: an invention kit for everyone
  • Readiymate: build your own web-connected object 
  • Computer Patches: sterilizable, wearable patches to monitor health
  • Thimble: wearable tech for the blind

The Author

A mindful VC in NYC

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