IoT startup revises 802.15.4 nets
The startup packs $16 million in venture capital and a strong management team, but faces competition from another startup still in stealth mode with a similar story, seasoned team and $25 million in backing.
Both efforts indicate it’s still early days for IoT with new twists on core technologies and business models still emerging. Indeed the startups are probably not the last to enter the field which already has attracted dozens of alternatives from large and small companies.
The complexity of building an IoT system was a key concern identified in a survey of 1,700 companies across five markets conducted by market watcher Machina Research.
“It’s a confusing area to navigate,” said Andy Castonguay, a principal analyst at Machina Research. “The field is ripe for innovation and change, and the ecosystem is exceptionally fragmented, so I think you will see more companies coming up with easier to use solutions,” he said.
Indeed, Helium was born when its co-founders (which included former Napster CEO Shawn Fanning) hit a wall trying to use off-the-shelf components for an IoT startup. They turned to a Colorado-based radio expert and together decided in 2013 to create their own platform.
The Helium platform consists of end nodes and access points using a variant of 802.15.4, as well as cloud services and analytics. Ultimately, Helium aims to sell the platform to companies that act as system integrators, but initially it will go direct to end users to prove itself with a system it has built for monitoring refrigerators in hospitals and the food-service industry.
The startup aims to attract companies that want an end-to-end system that is easy to customize. Helium created a framework on top of the Lua open source embedded language to set parameters of at IoT deployment.
“We are trying to solve the problems of making highly configurable distributed systems that move as fast on the edge as you do these days in the cloud,” said Rob Chandhok, a former senior software executive at Qualcomm who joined Helium as president and COO in December. “If you can reach end nodes with software easily and quickly it’s a competitive advantage,” he said.
The code runs on an RTOS on a Freescale K64F12 applications processor embedded in each node. The nodes sit on a star network, communicating through an access point which acts as a bridge and does not contain a processor.
The nodes should run for more than a year on two AA batteries. Chandhok pooh-poohs talk of IoT nodes that run for a decade on a button cell. “The question is what’s your goal, won’t your applications change in ten years,” he asked.
The Helium network is based on the 802.15.4 physical-layer chip supplied by Atmel, but Helium uses its own media-access control and software stack rather than 6LoWPAN or Zigbee. The net lets nodes dynamically switch between 900 MHz and 2.4 GHz frequency bands, it supports hardware-based root-of-trust security with an Atmel chip and rather than use mesh networking it pumps up radio power and sensitivity to boost distance.
The Helium net “is good about getting on and off the network quickly…others have long negotiation phases,” said Chandhok, declining to give specific numbers.
The network can be configured to use only the 900 MHz or 2.4 GHz bands. Alternatively nodes can listen for interference and negotiate with access points about which band to use at any given time. Nodes can be moved but do not support operation while mobile.
“I don’t know of anyone else switching between bands, it would be completely proprietary and therefore limit the end devices that could talk to their network,” said Geoff Mulligan, chair of the LoRa Alliance that supports a rival IoT network. “I would be surprised if they get the world to accept this non-standard band hopping,” he added.
Separately, Helium chose not to use mesh networking, an increasingly popular approach to expand reach and reliability of an IoT network. Instead it uses more powerful power amps on its transmitters and more sensitive low noise amps on its receivers to have a reach that spans several floors inside a building or two or three block outdoors in a city, said Chandhok, again declining to provide specifics.
“A group of us in the company have a lot of experience in Zigbee and other mesh networks and never saw the benefit in real-world apps,” said Chandhok, citing the battery drain from waking up nodes to relay messages and larger software stack required for meshing. “Meshing is not bad but in general our coverage is better without it,” he said.
Others have adopted a similar approach of using better power amps and LNAs as an alternative to meshing. Alternatively, some mesh implementations synchronize communications among nodes to implement meshing in ways that can use less power than point-to-point connections.
Sensors in a Helium end node ride on a modular daughter card using a custom interface based its application processor’s I2C and general purpose I/Os. “Helium will enable sensor networks to do many things that can change over time,” said Chandhok.
End nodes for the refrigerator-monitoring app use a thermistor and door- contact switch. Future nodes may support accelerometers, humidity monitors and moisture sensors for use in agriculture.
Two potential customers are participating in a trial of Helium refrigeration-monitoring system. “Ultimately our platform is a B2B sale, so we target big consulting firms and insurance and health care providers,” said Chandhok.
The company raised a seed round of $2.8 million in April 2014 from eight investors including Fanning and Marc Benioff. A September 2014 Series A round raised $13.4 million from Khosla Ventures and FirstMark Capital.
A handful of potentially similar startups are still keeping quiet about their products including Samsara which raised $25 million from investors including Andreesen Horowitz. The founders sold their last startup, Meraki Networks, to Cisco Systems for $1.2 billion.
“We are very aware of Samsara and watch the way they describe themselves in words that are similar to those we use,” said Chandhok.
Philip DesAutels, senior director of IoT at the Linux Foundation, claims he knows of at least two similar startups still in stealth mode, one called Micosa and the other not yet revealing even its name.
Despite dozens of IoT accelerators sprouting up around the globe, Chandhok downplays the field of startups.
“The rest of the competition is either piecing together open source software or using old techniques to get embedded-node software into the cloud, but not providing a compelling IoT platform,” he said. “I can’t walk down Market Street without hearing about 100 IoT companies, but not ones broadly targeting the enterprise,” said Chandhok who is based in San Francisco.
About the author:
Rick Merritt, Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, EE Times