Ember Raises $8 Million on Strength of Obama Administration’s Smart Grid Plans

Ember, the Boston-based maker of wireless mesh-networking chipsets for communications between devices such as utility meters and thermostats, will announce today that it has topped off its coffers with an $8 million funding round from a group of venture firms and strategic partners. CEO Robert LeFort says that if government stimulus spending on energy efficiency measures translates into solid demand for Ember’s equipment, as expected, the new round (which brings the total the company has raised to $89 million) should be its last.

Many of the funds Ember has turned to in the past participated in the current round, including Polaris Venture Partners, GrandBanks Capital, RRE Ventures, Vulcan Capital, DFJ ePlanet Ventures, New Atlantic Ventures, and WestLB Mellon Asset Management, along with strategic partners Chevron Technology Ventures and Stata Venture Partners. In the past, Ember has also raised money from STMicroelectronics, Hitachi Corporation, and MIT. LeFort (whom I interviewed at length in January) tells Xconomy that the company has been working to assemble the round since late last summer, but that the global economic slowdown delayed negotiations.

But now investors see the Obama Administration’s economic stimulus package, which includes $17 billion for improvements to the U.S. electrical grid, as a strong plus for the company. Part of the stimulus money will go toward so-called advanced metering initiatives, in which utilities are equipping customers’ homes with new electrical meters that communicate wirelessly with utility control centers and in-home thermostats.

The devices will help utilities by allowing them dial back home electrical usage during peak hours remotely, and they will help customers by showing them exactly how much money they’re saving by conserving energy and switching to more efficient appliances, and the like. Inside almost every smart meter is a radio that uses ZigBee, the industry standard for short-range, low-data-rate radio communications—and the leading maker of ZigBee chipsets is Ember.

So far, California and Texas are the two states with the most smart-metering pilot tests underway. “I’ve heard about up to 20 different pilots going on around the country…of anywhere from 500 to 5,000 homes apiece,” says LeFort. “It’s very encouraging that people are spending real money, either to deploy or to do detailed investigations, with statistically significant samples, of how the technology will work.”

Research firm In-Stat predicts that sales of ZigBee-enabled devices will increase from their 2007 level of 7 million units to nearly 300 million units by 2012. The stimulus money won’t necessarily boost of Ember’s chipsets above the levels already expected, since “the utilities are saying they’re already going as fast as they can go,” says LeFort. “But we’re getting added emotional support, if you will, from the stimulus. The administration is saying, ‘keep on the path you are on, and if there are areas to accelerate, let’s leverage those.'”

Since a radio is needed on both ends of a wireless message, Ember is able to sell its chipsets both to manufacturers of wireless meters and to makers of programmable thermostats—essentially home energy control panels that display how much energy consumers are spending or saving. Later on, the company also expects to supply radios for smart plugs, devices that fit into electrical sockets and communicate with the control panels to conserve energy.

All of that prospective business reassured investors enough to make it possible to raise the latest $8 million. The money will be used “to support volume customer deployments and take us into maturity, meaning financial sustainability,” says LeFort.

It’s been a long road for Ember, which got its start in 2001 selling wireless temperature sensors to factory and refinery owners. “One of the questions has always been, is there a killer app out there” for wireless mesh networking, LeFort says. “It was always a fragmented market, and it was always a question of are you going to be able to get the volume up there. And then about two years ago, the utilities got behind ZigBee as the technology of choice for getting information into the home. Our investors see that it’s not a matter of if anymore, it’s a matter of when. Of course, if you’re a startup, when is an important question, because you have to have enough oxygen to get to the promised land. But we are finally past the point of asking whether there is a big enough market.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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