Don’t Want Google in Your House? Some Home-Tech Startups to Watch

Xconomy National — 

Google’s thirst for connected-home products means that entrepreneurs in the growing sector have another deep-pocketed competitor to outfox. But they’ve also got a new sales pitch: We’re not Google.

“We certainly have not been shy,” says Jason Hanna, CEO of home heating-automation startup Embue. “It’s definitely something that we talk about.”

Questions about the advertising and software giant’s intentions in the home have become a hot topic in the six short months since Google decided to spend $3.2 billion for Nest, a company that makes Internet-connected, customizable thermostats and smoke detectors.

On Friday, Nest said it would add another well-regarded home automation startup to Google’s portfolio by spending $555 million to acquire Dropcam, which sells an online home-security camera service.

The fact that it spent so much money so quickly shows how seriously Google is taking the race to connect home devices to the Internet. The developing sector promises to open up a new platform for software, services, and personal information. That could drive more digital advertising, which makes up almost all of Google’s revenue.

That has led consumers to worry that Google is planning to monitor or record their in-home comings and goings in an effort to collect more cash from advertisers.

Dropcam CEO and co-founder Greg Duffy is decidedly not a fan of the data-collection approach. Last year, he told us that a key part of Dropcam’s prized company culture was its business model of making money by selling things, rather than giving them away in an attempt to collect information that could be traded on later.

“I think if your business model is not straightforward, it veers into potentially being unethical, if you look at things that are ‘free,’” Duffy said. “None of the people who work here want to work on something that works like that. They look at it as tricking the user, when [a company is] turning around and using some part of the user’s data to make revenue.”

Google and Nest have tried to ease concerns that the parent company is assembling a line of Trojan Horses in order to sneakily document what families are doing in their homes. Nest, which says it is an independently managed subsidiary, has pointed to a privacy policy that gives consumers control over where their data is sent.

“Data won’t be shared with anyone (including Google) without a customer’s permission,” Nest co-founder Matt Rogers wrote in a blog post. “Nest has a paid-for business model and ads are not part of our strategy. In acquiring Dropcam, we’ll apply that same policy to Dropcam too.”

That leaves a certain amount of wiggle room, of course. Google is free to change that privacy policy at any time, and the company’s DNA is based on collecting and processing data in pursuit of advertising cash.

Of course, some users might not mind. People who want mobile assistant app Google Now to automatically set their home temperature can now allow the app to control the Nest thermostat, under a new partnership announced Monday. It’s part of a broader partnership initiative in which Nest plans to “share limited user information with Google and other partners,” as The Wall Street Journal reported.

That leaves an intriguing opening for smaller, independent competitors to talk up how their products or services differ. Hanna, of Boston-based Embue, says he’s not necessarily interested in making Nest or Google out to be a bogeyman. But it’s definitely a question that gets asked.

“I don’t really think they have malicious intentions for what’s going to happen with this data. But certainly, yes, I think it’s a good opportunity to talk about how we’re different, about our approach to privacy, and how we’ve designed our system to be a little bit different,” Hanna says. “Until Google bought Nest, I only saw a fraction of the questions and concern about what was being done with that data.”

Home-tech entrepreneurs also point out that privacy worries are usually among the first problems raised when new technologies are established, and tend to get sorted out over time. If you’re afraid that Google or some other big company is watching your thermostat, just consider what your social media or shopping history says about you.

“It’s kind of like the old days, when everybody was worried about putting their credit card out on the Internet. Nobody worries about that stuff anymore,” says Jeremy Jaech, CEO of SNUPI Technologies. “I think adequate safeguards will be put in place, and if people break trust, they get slapped. You look at the sort of stuff that Facebook has had to deal with. It’s sort of self-correcting.”

There are plenty of other big-company competitors around who aren’t backed by advertising giants, too—many well-known home networking and appliance brands like Belkin and Honeywell are working on next-generation thermostats, climate systems, security cameras, and the like.

But for you early adopters who are interested in checking out smaller, independent companies trying to make some headway, here’s a look at some interesting startups that we’ve found:

Rather than putting the whole home-heating shebang into a thermostat, which is the Nest approach, Embue is developing a network of connected devices that help maintain and monitor home temperature and energy use.

An “Embue Core” computer collects data from a set of wireless sensors that can be placed around a home and uses the data to control the heating and air conditioning system. The system can be monitored and adjusted through online software accessible on a smartphone.

Embue, which is trying to raise money for its system on Kickstarter, also plans to offer a professional monitoring service that can allow a heating-system technician to see a smaller set of high-level data about the setup’s performance in order to spot any problems or upgrade opportunities.

Embue plans to sell its hardware and software through local heating and air conditioning services, rather than putting the devices on store shelves, in hopes that small businesses will adopt it as an alternative to off-the-shelf products that heating-system contractors don’t carry.

Birdi is developing an Internet-connected smoke, pollution, and dangerous gas detector that it hopes will be a big improvement over the old nine-volt-battery arrangement that most people still have screwed into their ceilings. The idea … Next Page »

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17 responses to “Don’t Want Google in Your House? Some Home-Tech Startups to Watch”

  1. WalletEngineers says:
    HOMEY Kickstarter!! You can give voice commands and it has 8 radio modules – wifi, zigbee, Z-wave, etc.

  2. BreenWhitman says:

    The moisture detection system(Wally) could have saved a lot of heartache when we got a partial leaky pipe under the house. Unfortunately, Wally does not ship outside the US :(
    I suppose I could subcribe to a parcel service but they add like $50 fees.
    Absolutely great article btw. Shame many of these companies dont think globally from the get go.

  3. F Jones says: How could you miss this one?

  4. Kenneth says:

    You also missed OpenMotics (, a Belgium based open source home automatisation system :)

  5. Bruno says:

    “Data won’t be shared with anyone (including Google) without a customer’s permission,” Nest co-founder Matt Rogers wrote in a blog post.

    Now is that an opt-in or an opt-out feature?

  6. fran farrell says:

    Google is so far ahead with modelling the physics of a home that device makers will never catch up. Using digital fisheye Camera’s to Tango a home: 1) builds a three dimensional model of all the space that the cameras secure (hopefully everything). By watching sunshine and shadow for a few days the physics of passive solar heat, light, radiant heat transfer of walls, ceilings and floors can be modeled. By observing heat with infrared sensors, wasteful appliances, heat wasted in ceiling corners and many nuances of convective heat flow can be measured. Window treatments, door seals, exchange of heat being vented back into the home can all be estimated, measured, re-estimated by recursive algorithms.

    Nest need not feed any personal info back to the people at Google X who do Advanced Dynamics or other Advanced Engineering Science. What happens in the Nest stays in Nest.

  7. Tigerlily says:

    I’m ok with Google watching over my house. Yes I realize that they have all my data and could share it with any “partner” including governments or whatever. But I have nothing to hide and they do a great job. Heck, if they knew I was going to be picking up my kids from soccer practice then maybe they can give me good advice given my cash in hand and how fast I like to drive. How cool is that?

  8. RORER 714 says:

    I don’t think it matters what company you choose. Even if they have the best intentions the system they set up in your home could end up being manipulated by others. If we’ve learned anything from the NSA revelations over the past year it’s that nothing connected to the internet should be thought of as private. How private can we expect the connected home to be?

  9. iWatchLife says:

    Another start up to watch is iWatchLife. We’re an alternative to Dropcam, with some significant
    advantages. We use advanced algorithms to filter out more of the meaningless
    events the camera captures, so there are fewer false alerts.The camera records significant
    events based on targeted zones the user draws, and notifies them in real time
    of activity in those zones. Because it isn’t recording 24/7, customers can have multiple cameras without it slowing down their network. It also costs a lot less than Dropcam. (

  10. Chris says:

    Amazing what half a billion dollars will do to your ethics, eh Duffy ?

  11. Zane elliot says:

    excited to see what happens with scout alarm.

  12. Steve says:

    LILA is the startup I’m backing Can start from just 20bucks and don’t need a hub.

  13. James says:

    Also worth looking at Y-cam HomeMonitor which is the best Dropcam alternative available, 100% privately owned company too

  14. Tyler B says:

    Getting tied into a system that solely uses proprietary tech, rather than a DIY, mix-and-match situation is what keeps me from fully buying into Google @ Home. We recently checked out ADT, Control4, and Vivint’s solutions, if anyone’s curious: