How To Evaluate Building Products From IoT Startups
Part 2 of a 4-part article examining the role of startups in bringing Building Internet of Things tech to market.
Start by determining how well-established the Building IoT startup is. One startup may still be working out of a garage, trying to complete its first project. Another may have its technology installed in hundreds of buildings, covering hundreds of thousands, even millions of square feet of space.
Checking out the way a startup is funded can show where it stands on the development curve. Does the money come from family and friends? Or is the company backed by deep-pocketed venture capitalists with knowledge of the building market? While the latter is no guarantee of success, it is a sign that the company’s product and business model have been professionally vetted. Ditto for startups working with large, established companies, either building product manufacturers or pure technology companies.
On the other hand, a brand new startup can offer advantages of its own. For example, it may offer what amounts to low introductory pricing for early customers, or may even give away its technology as a way to get started.
As part of the reference-checking process, spend a little time searching for published reports about the technologies being considered. For example, check out the General Services Administration, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, and utility groups. And it’s worth taking a look at the resumes of key people in the startup, to see whether the group has a solid background in building systems and information technology.
Checking out current customers is especially important with startups. Baker suggests finding out whether the product is being used for a pilot test or is being rolled out across the portfolio, what the real ROI is, and how long it takes to get the solution implemented. The latter is a key point, say many startups. Find out who handles installation, how disruptive it will be, how much involvement the facility staff will have in the process, and what it will cost. Some startups say they cut installation costs by using software to automate time-consuming tasks involved in getting their solutions up and running.
As always, take a close look at vendor claims. A platform that touts its ability to control energy use, for example, may accomplish that goal largely by providing information for someone in the facility department to act on. That’s a legitimate strategy, but one that may not be readily apparent from the way the technology is described. Clever marketing is by no means limited to Building IoT startups, but the issue is more acute with technologies that facility managers aren’t already familiar with.
Building IoT technologies raise their own set of questions. For example, does the technology have an open API, or application programming interface? An API is basically a method for two computer programs to talk to each other. As is the case with BAS communications protocols, open is better than proprietary. Open protocols like BACnet, LonMark, or Modbus also remain essential in the Building IoT ecosystem. Indeed, communication is a “critical evaluation criteria,” Shunturov says. Facility managers will want to know if a piece of hardware will work with any software solution, or only with the software solution that comes from that vendor. “Can it survive on its own right without the company being there?” Shunturov says. He cites the example of meters that can push data to any vendor’s cloud platform.
Don’t take for granted that a startup will use open APIs. “I think more and more groups are coming around to the idea that data isn’t something you want to silo,” says Burt. “But it’s an industry in transition. There are some folks that are very protective about the way their data works or how they interact with other people.”
For some Building IoT solutions, service is as much part of the offering as software or hardware. “That may be kind of a foreign concept with some of these products, like glass,” says Eric Klawuhn, vice president of product for View, which manufactures glass that uses intelligent controls to lighten or darken to provide daylight while avoiding glare and unwanted heat. In some cases, service may come at an added cost, but in others it may be part of the price of the solution.
Making a Decision
For a facility manager pondering new Building IoT technologies, it’s worthwhile to spend at least a few moments thinking about what the building will look like in five or 10 years. Over that time, the facility may have adopted several new Building IoT solutions that solve specific problems. How will they fit together? Will someone on the facility staff eventually have to bounce between multiple screens to do their jobs?
In another important area — cyber security — facility managers probably don’t know the right questions to ask. The Building IoT is a prime example of what Jim Sinopoli, managing partner of engineering and design firm Smart Buildings LLC, calls “this relentless penetration of IT” into building systems. That means IT has to be involved in plans for the Building IoT. “With all the systems eventually going to some IT basis, the facility (department) will have to be supported by an IT group or put IT people in the facility group,” he says.
The Building IoT is on the “predictable path” of technology uptake, says Sanjiv Kaul, executive vice president of marketing for Enlighted, which makes programmable sensors and a cloud-based platform for analytics. “The people who are comfortable with technology are the early adopters,” Kaul says. For Building IoT, early adopters have included technology companies like Google and the federal government. They have the motivation, expertise, and budget to try new options and sort out the winners from the also-rans. “Then the market says, ‘Thank you very much for doing that. Now we know what works and what doesn’t work, and we will pick one of those,’” Kaul says.
In the emerging age of the Building IoT, facility managers now have another hat to wear, that of change agent, says John Anderson, chief revenue officer, Condeco Software, which offers office utilization and workplace scheduling products, including a wireless sensor that measures the workspace. “It’s really a complex world out there today. I think you have to be kind of forward-looking all the time. You’ve got to be looking at the trends, you’ve got to be reading up on what’s going on and trying to figure out how to leverage those technologies.”
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