Business: Menlo Park native aims to cut cost of home automation
Imagine an inexpensive device that allows you to set an alarm on your smart phone that will automatically turn on your coffee pot in the morning, or turn off the lights when you leave the house to save energy.
That device may become a reality with the launch of a company named brightblu, founded by Menlo Park native Taylor Umphreys, and based on the idea of affordable, customizable home automation.
"We wanted to bring home automation to the greater market," Mr. Umphreys explains. "So we decided to make a really cheap, affordable smart plug that you can plug into any device — a lamp, appliance, TV, whatever it may be — and give you control of that device through your smartphone."
Mr. Umphreys, 21, born and raised in Menlo Park, traces his interest in the world of electrical engineering back to high school. In his junior year at Menlo School he took applied science and engineering classes — a program unique to Menlo — and was hooked.
"I knew instantly then I wanted to go into engineering," he says.
With that pursuit in mind, after graduating high school in 2008, Mr. Umphreys went to the University of California Santa Barbara to study electrical engineering. There, he performed undergraduate research and worked on various projects, one of which involved designing, building and testing solar powered reading lights to send to children and families in Ghana.
But it was Mr. Umphreys' senior project, a year-long collaborative effort with three other UCSB electrical engineering students who are now part of the brightblu team — Siddhant Bhargava, Ben Chang and Arshad Haider — that planted the startup-seed in his mind.
"About two months in, I started thinking, 'Wow, we're really sitting on something that could be pretty cool.'" The project went on to win second place in the UCSB New Venture Competition, in which 46 teams of undergraduate, graduate and doctorate students design and submit ideas for business plans.
Last December, Mr. Umphreys approached the tech startup accelerator Plug and Play Tech Center to get the company up and running. Now, brightblu is participating in Plug and Play's 10-week accelerator program, designed to immerse new businesses in all-things-Silicon Valley with workshops, mentorship sessions, product-development instruction, initial funding and crucial exposure to investor connections. The company is intertwined with Plug and Play: It is based out of the Sunnyvale headquarters of Plug and Play, which also provided brightblu's initial funding.
The traditional concept of home automation is restrictive and expensive, Mr. Umphreys says.
"Home automation nowadays is full-blown systems you have to install that are incredibly confusing and really proprietary," he says. "And pretty much only the top 2 percent of people in wealth actually have the disposable income to buy these things."
Brightblu strives to break with this mold in three ways. The first is with the company's product, a home automation plug called the "Otto," for home "Ottomation." Users can plug the Otto, which is about the size of an iPhone charger plug, into a device, such as a lamp or a household appliance, and control the device from their smartphone.
What about people who don't own smartphones? The plug is compatible with any device that comes with a Bluetooth component, such as a computer or an iPad, says Mr. Umphreys.
The second is cost: the plug itself will cost between $30 and $50, says marketing vice president Michael Olmstead. It would cost anywhere from $250 to $500 to outfit your entire house, compared to home-automation options that cost up to $10,000 to set up an entire house.
The third way that brightblu hopes to expand the world of home automation: an open-source app store where developers have the access and freedom to create any application with the brightblu hardware. "Pretty much anything that a developer can put their mind to, they can code in an app and add it to our app store," says Mr. Umphreys. "This expands way beyond what home automation is today."
In preparation for launching this year, Mr. Umphreys says the brightblu team is currently working on honing the plug's functions, making it "better and smaller," as well as developing the app store and doing an investor round with friends and family.
The company's name is a wordplay on lighting, technology, and being different: "blu" derives from the company's use of Bluetooth technology, but they dropped the "e" to "set themselves apart," said Mr. Olmstead, 21, also a Menlo Park native.