Alert Labs’ IoT devices are foolproof, making it easy to monitor utilities in homes and businesses.
Installing their water flow sensor, Flowie, takes seconds. Strap it to your water meter, and you just installed a machine-learning, analytics-based device that monitors your water usage.
Flowie interprets the water usage data for you. It alerts you of potential leaks, and tells you when you should call in professional help. It even helps you visualize the data, showing the number of water bottles you’ve used as opposed to raw numbers alone.
Founded by three University of Waterloo alumni, Alert Labs is the product of a cross-disciplinary team. CTO Kevin Wright studied Systems Design Engineering; COO Ruth Casselman and CEO George Tsintzouras are both Science alumni. Inspired by a costly leak in Tsintzouras’s rental property, they joined forces in 2015 to create a device that would catch water leaks before they get out of hand.
Easy to use, difficult to create
Alert Labs products are so intuitive, customers likely don’t realize the complex system hidden behind the scenes.
“Making easy-to-use products is technically very difficult,” says Casselman. “They look simple, but making these products took a lot of iterations, a lot of user testing, and a lot of field testing.”
After conducting market research, the team built their first Flowie prototype in 2015. According to the co-founders, the initial result was “horrific,” but it functioned.
“The first step was just a breadboard with a magnet sensor that we taped on the side of a water meter,” says Wright. “We had jumper cables connecting things together.”
The prototype was bare bones, but it had potential. Casselman, Tsintzouras, and Wright pushed forward to create another iteration of the product, which they used in customer testing.
At the same time, the team developed software that would provide relevant information to property owners. Working with the raw data brought a new set of problems.
“Dumping raw data on our customers is useless, so we needed to make sense of it and draw some conclusions for them,” says Wright. “No one in this market was looking at data like this. Behind the scenes, we built a system that collects a lot of data, stores it, processes it, and rationalizes it for the user.”
Hardware design, software, manufacturing, customer research – it was all happening at once in the Alert Labs office.
That hard work paid off. After only three years in business, the company now offers four intelligent sensors for residential and commercial properties – water flow sensor Flowie, flood sensor Floodie, sump pump sensor Sumpie, and an air conditioning monitoring system called Sentree. Since 2015, their products have saved over 10 million litres of water.
Alert Labs prefers to call their products Analytics of Things (AoT) devices – a term that separates them from the vast sea of novelty IoT products, and gives a fuller picture of what they can do. All of the sensors give context to the data they collect, helping users understand what’s really happening in their properties, and what actions will resolve the issue and prevent damage.
“You can make an IoT device that just spits out raw data,” says Tsintzouras. “But that doesn’t necessarily provide meaning. If you get a bill that says you used 11.22 cubic litres of water, what does that mean to you? The real value comes when you take that data and provide meaning for it.”
Sumpie, for example, monitors the water level in a sump pit, but it also provides context. It will tell you how fast the water level is changing and estimate how much time you have before a flood occurs. It’s the world’s first sump pump sensor that can actively predict a flood. Sumpie uses the collected data to tell you what’s wrong and what you should do about it.
“It’s all about providing actionable and relevant information,” says Tsintzouras. “Don’t tell me that I’ve used 11.22 cubic litres of water today. Tell me that the water has been running for the last 15 minutes, it looks like a leak and, at this flow rate, how much that leak is costing me.”
With their AoT model, Alert Labs provides relevant information for homeowners and property/facility managers, and it sets them apart from others building smart home devices.
Solving real problems
Alert Labs started with a specific problem: how can you detect leaks before they become a bigger issue? If you ask the co-founders, focusing on a practical problem was key to their success.
“One of the things that differentiated us from other startups is that we were solving a problem,” says Wright. “We didn’t get enamoured by some cool technology, and turn it into a thing that we needed to find a market for.”
The co-founders chalk this up to experience. Between the three of them, they had more than 40 years of engineering, product management, and business experience before founding Alert Labs. However, they agree that practical problem-solving can be taught.
“I think that some programs at the University of Waterloo are helping students to think in this way,” explains Wright. “Velocity is a great example. I think it helps young engineers make a successful company. It helps them get past the false idea of ‘if you build it, they will come.’ If you aren’t solving someone’s problem, they aren’t going to buy your product – no matter how cool it is.”
In fact, Alert Labs tapped into Waterloo’s talent pool when building their own products. Three of their earliest hires included a mechanical engineer, a nanotechnology engineer, and a seasoned electrical engineer – all hailing from Waterloo’s world-class programs. Each one played an important role in Alert Labs’ product development.
“Waterloo Engineers are excellent, excellent problem solvers,” says Wright. “I think that’s a big part of the education. I don’t remember much about differential equations, the mechanics of deformable solids, or signals and systems. But I did gain the ability to solve problems – you spend five years doing it. You’re handed a bunch of problems and you solve them, one after the other – just like we did when we built Flowie.”