June 25, 2019
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smart home

Dandelion Energy, the Alphabet X spinout, raises another $16M led by GV and Comcast

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As tech companies continue their race to control the smart home, a promising energy startup has raised a round of funding from traditionally-tech and strategic investors, for a geothermal solution to heat and cool houses. Dandelion Energy, a spinout from Alphabet X, has raised $16 million in a Series A round of funding, with strategic investors Comcast Ventures leading the round along with GV, the investment arm of Alphabet formerly known as Google Ventures.

Lennar Corporation, the home building giant, is also coming in as an investor, as are previous backers NEA, Collaborative Fund, Ground Up, and Zhenfund, and other unnamed investors. Notably, Lennar once worked with Apple but is now collaborating with Amazon on smart homes.

As a side note, Dandelion’s investment is a timely reminder of how central “new home” startups are right now in smart home plays. Amazon just yesterday announced one more big move in its own connected home strategy with the acquisition of Mesh WiFi startup eero, which helps extend the range and quality of WiFi coverage in a property.

This is the second funding round for Dandelion in the space of a year, after the company raised a seed round of $4.5 million in March 2018, a mark of how the company has been seeing a demand for its services and now needs the capital to scale. In the past year, it had accrued a waitlist of “thousands” of homeowners requesting its services across America, where it is estimated that millions of homeowners heat their homes with fossil fuels, which are estimated to account for 11 percent of all carbon emissions.

The company is based out of New York, and for now New York is the only state where its services are offered. The funding may help change that. It will be used in part for R&D, but also to hire more people, open new warehouses for its equipment and supplies, and for business development.

Dandelion is not disclosing its valuation, but in its last round the company had a modest post-money valuation of $15 million, according to PitchBook. It has now raised $23 million in total since spinning out from Alphabet X, the company’s moonshot lab, in May 2017.

The premise of Dandelion’s business is that it provides a source of heating and cooling homes that takes people away from consuming traditional, energy grid-based services — which represent significant costs, both in terms of financial and environmental impact. If you calculate usage over a period of years, Dandelion claims that it can cut a household’s energy bills in half while also being significantly more friendly for the environment compared to conventional systems that use gas and fossil fuels.

While there have been a number of efforts over the years to tap geothermal currents to provide home heating and cooling, many of the solutions up to now have been challenging to put in place, with services typically using wide drills and digging wells at depths of over 1,000 feet.

“These machines are unnecessarily large and slow for installing a system that needs only a few 4” diameter holes at depths of a few hundred feet,” Kathy Hannun, cofounder and CEO of Dandelion, has said in the past. “So we decided to try to design a better drill that could reduce the time, mess and hassle of installing these pipes, which could in turn reduce the final cost of a system to homeowners.”

The smaller scale of what Dandelion builds also means that the company can do an installation in one day.

While a pared-down approach this means a lower set of costs (half the price of traditional geothermal systems) and quicker installation, that doesn’t mean that upfront costs are non-existent. Dandelion installations run between $20,000 and $25,000, although home owners can subsequently rack up savings of $35,000 over 20 years. (Hannun noted that today about 50 percent of customers choose to finance the installation which removes the upfront cost and spreads it out across monthly payments.)

This is also where Lennar comes in. The company is in the business of building homes, and it has been investing in particular in the idea of building the next generation of homes by incorporating better connectivity, more services — and potentially alternative energy sources — from the ground up.

“We’re incredibly excited to invest in Dandelion Energy,” said Eric Feder, Managing General Partner for Lennar Ventures, in a statement. “The possibility of incorporating geothermal heating & cooling systems in our new homes is something we’ve explored for years, but the math never made sense. Dandelion Energy is finally making geothermal affordable and we look forward to the possibility of including it in the homes Lennar builds.”

The fact that Comcast is among the investors in Dandelion is a notable development.

The company has been acquiring, and taking strategic stakes in, a number of connected-home businesses as it builds its own connected home offering, where it not only brings broadband and entertainment to your TV and come computers, and also provides the tools to link up other connected devices to that network to control them from a centralised point.

Dandelion is “off grid” in its approach to providing home energy, and while you might think that it doesn’t make sense for a company that is investing in and peddling services and electronic devices connected to a centralised (equally electricity-consuming) internet to be endorsing a company that’s trying to build an alternative, it actually does.

For starters, Dandelion may be tapping geothermal energy but its pump uses electricity and sensors to monitor and moderate its performance.

“Dandelion’s heat pump is a connected device with 60 sensors that monitor the performance and ensures that the home owner is proactively warned if there are any issues,” Hannun said in an interview. “This paves the way to operate it in a smart way. It’s aligned with the connected home.” In other words, this positions Dandelion as one more device and system that could be integrated into Comcast’s connected home solution.

Aside from this, view in terms of the segment of customers that Comcast is targeting, it’s selling a bundle of connected home services to a demographic of users who are not afraid of using (and buying) new and alternative technology to do things a different way from how their parents did it. Dandelion may not be “connected” but even its approach to disconnecting will appeal to a person who may already be thinking of ways of reducing his or her carbon footprint and energy bills (especially since they may be consuming vast amounts of electricity to run their connected homes).

“The home heating and cooling industry has been constrained by lack of innovation and high-costs,” said Sam Landman, managing director of Comcast Ventures, in a statement. “The team at Dandelion and their modern approach to implementing geothermal technology is transforming the industry and giving consumers a convenient, safe, and cost-effective way to heat and cool their homes while reducing carbon emissions.”

Landman and Shaun Maguire, a partner at GV, will both be joining Dandelion’s board with this round.

“In a short amount of time, Dandelion has already proven to be an effective and affordable alternative for home heating and cooling, leveraging best-in-class geothermal technology,” said Maguire, in a statement. “Driven by an exceptional leadership team, including CEO Kathy Hannun, Dandelion Energy is poised to have a meaningful impact on adoption of geothermal energy solutions among homeowners.”

Cheap internet of things gadgets betray you even after you toss them in the trash

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You may think that the worst you’ll risk by buying a bargain-bin smart bulb or security camera will be a bit of extra trouble setting it up or a lack of settings. But it’s not just while they’re plugged in that these slapdash gadgets are a security risk — even from the garbage can, they can still compromise your network.

Although these so-called internet of things gadgets are small and rather dumb, they’re still full-fledged networked computers for all intents and purposes. They may not need to do much, but they still need to take many of the same basic precautions to prevent them from, say, broadcasting your private information unencrypted to the world, or granting root access to anyone walking by.

In the case of these low-cost “smart” bulbs investigated by Limited Results (via Hack a Day), the issue isn’t what they do while connected but what they keep onboard their tiny brains, and how.

All the bulbs they tested proved to have no real security at all protecting the information kept on the chips inside. After exposing the PCBs, they attached a few leads and in a moment each device would spit out its boot data and be ready to take commands.

The data was without exception totally unencrypted, including the wireless password to the network to which the device had been connected. One device also exposed its private RSA key, used to create secure connections to whatever servers it connects to (for example to check for updates, upload user data to the cloud, and so on). This information would be available to anyone who grabbed this bulb out of the trash, or stole it from an outdoor fixture, or bought it secondhand.

“Seriously, 90 percent of IoT devices are developed without security in mind. It is just a disaster,” wrote Limited Results in an email. “In my research, I have targeted four different devices : LIFX, XIAOMI, TUYA and WIZ (not published yet, very unkind people). Same devices, same vulnerabilities, and even sometimes exactly same code inside.”

Now, these particular bits of information exposed on these devices aren’t that harmful in and of themselves, although if someone wanted to, they could take advantage of it in several ways. What’s important to note is the utter lack of care that went into these devices — not just their code, but their construction. They really are just basic enclosures around an off-the-shelf wireless board, with no consideration given to safety, security, or longevity. And this type of thing is not by any means limited to smart bulbs.

These devices all proudly assert that they support Alexa, Google Home, or other standards. This may give users a false sense that they are in some way accredited, inspected, or otherwise held to basic standards.

In fact, in addition to all of them having essentially no security at all, one had its (conductive) metal shell insulated from the PCB only by a loose piece of adhesive paper. This kind of thing is an electrical fire or at least a short waiting to happen.

As with any other class of electronics, there’s always a pretty good reason why one is a whole lot cheaper than another. But in the case of a cheap CD player, the worst you’re going to get is skipping or a scratched disc. That’s not the case with a cheap baby monitor, a cheap smart outlet, a cheap internet-connected door lock.

I’m not saying you need to buy the premium version of every smart gadget out there — consumers need to be aware of the risks they are exposing themselves to with the installation of any such device, let alone a poorly made one.

If you want to limit your own risk, a simple step you can take is to have your smart home devices and such isolated on a subnet or guest network. Making sure that the devices and of course your router are password protected, and take common sense measures like changing that password regularly.

Google woos smart home device makers with launch of Google Assistant Connect

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Google is making it easier for device manufacturers to integrate with Google Assistant technology, including those times when devices need to respond to voice commands without the benefit — or the expense — of being connected to Google’s cloud. To do so, Google is today launching into preview a new set of tools called, Google Assistant Connect, before making them broadly available to device makers later this year.

The tools can be used to build devices that leverage an existing connected speaker with Google Assistant to deliver content and respond to commands that require cloud computing resources.

Google Assistant Connect also includes features that will make it simpler for customers to set up their new smart home devices by offering an easier way to pair with Google Assistant.

For some examples of how this could work: a device maker could integrate an e-ink display that shows the weather or your calendar, while the Assistant Connect delivered content provided by the customer’s linked smart speaker to update the display with your current meetings and temperature. That allows the manufacturer’s device to benefit from an existing smart speaker’s capabilities instead of having to integrate that technology itself.

This is similar to how Amazon’s Alexa Connect Kit is used with various smart devices, like the Alexa microwave. 

Google Assistant Connect can also be used in rooms where a Google Assistant smart speaker isn’t available, to allow devices to respond to simple voice commands — like ordering an air conditioner to turn itself on or off, for instance.

The simpler setup feature also rivals Amazon’s newer Wi-Fi Simple Setup for Alexa devices.

Google Assistant Connect will simply set up, as well, by allowing devices to connect to Google Home speakers without the need for a separate bridge or hub. This is an area Google had somewhat ventured into back in October with the launch of Google + C by GE smart LED bulbs, which were made to work with Google devices without a hub. Now this same capability will be a part of this broader toolkit for device makers.

Google says it will have more to share about Assistant Connect later in the year, as it opens up to more manufacturers.

CES 2019 coverage - TechCrunch

Petcube upgrades its pet cameras, which now have Alexa built in

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Petcube’s popular line of pet cameras let people monitor, talk to and interact with their dogs and cats while away – including by doing things like doling out treats or turning on a laser toy, for example. Today, the pet camera maker is upgrading its line with two new devices, the Petcube Bites 2 and Petcube Play 2. These are redesigned and reimagined versions of the company’s existing pet cameras, which now offer improved sound and connectivity, a 180-degree ultra-wide lens, as well as built-in support for Alexa.

Both cameras now include a wide angle lens with up to 180 degree full-room views, so you can see more of the room than before. They also now include a premium audio experience with full duplex sound, a 4-microphone array and speaker bar. The cameras offer improved connectivity, with support for both 2.4 and 5 GHz Wi-Fi, as well.

Beyond the tech spec upgrades, what pet owners may be more excited about is the cameras’ new ability to work with Alexa, without requiring a separate Amazon Echo or other Echo device.

Instead, Petcube cameras can now take the place of a small smart speaker, like the Echo Dot, for example. Through Alexa, Petcube camera owners will be able to play music (hence the need for better sound), control other smart home devices, set alarms, listen to the news, check the weather, and more. They’ll also have access over 50,000 Alexa skills from their devices, including Petcube’s own companion voice application.

With the Alexa voice app, pet owners will be able to ask Alexa to fling treats, play with their pet, or order more pet supplies from Amazon, the company says. This Alexa skill was previously available to older generation devices, but required that the customer had their own Alexa device – now the Petcube is the Alexa device.

The two cameras are getting other tweaks, too.

The treat-dispensing device called the Petcubes Bites 2 has been redesigned to be more compact, so it can better fit into smaller spaces. It now also has a better “treat flinging” mechanism and can support a wider variety of treat sizes than before, so you can better control treat portions. The mechanism flings with more precision, too.

Meanwhile, the Petcube Play 2 is a redesigned version of the cube-shaped camera that includes a built-in laser toy, which has been re-engineered to be more precise and smoother than the prior version, Petcube claims.

Both also offer 1080p HD video, 4x digital zoom and night vision.

As before, the pet camera hardware is used to entice pet owners to sign up for the Petcube Care subscription. The system leverages A.I. to figure out what pets are doing, detect if there’s human movement in the frame, register if the dog begins barking or the cat mewing, and identify other abnormal behaviors. In those cases, pet owners would receive an alert so they know to check in on their device, pet and home.

Subscribers also get discounts on pets products and services from Mars Petcare, Wellness, Trupanion, Rover, Audible, Vetted, KONG, and others. The pricing plan for Petcube Care starts at $2.99 per month.

The new cameras come in Matte Silver and Carbon Black design options. The Petcube Bites 2 is $249 and the Petcube Play 2 is $199 on

Parcel Guard’s smart mailbox protects your packages from porch thieves

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Maybe you won’t need a glitter bomb to protect your Amazon packages from porch thieves after all. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Canadian appliance maker Danby is showing off its newly launched smart mailbox called Parcel Guard, which allows deliveries to be left securely at customers’ doorsteps. The box offers both a drop-in slot for smaller items, as well as a safe with a separate door for larger items. When packages are left, you’re alerted to their arrival by way of a push notification from the Parcel Guard app.

It’s worth noting that Parcel Guard doesn’t require the delivery driver to adjust their routine. And it looks very obviously like a mailbox – right down to its little red flag on the side. There’s not much confusion about what it’s for.

However, the box will also come with an informational sticker you can place on the front that instructs drivers to drop packages here instead of leaving them by the door.

The mailbox’s anti-theft drop-in slot is like those found on USPS mailboxes. Once the package goes in, there’s no way to reach in and pull it back out.

For large (or fragile) items that need to be placed inside the box instead of dropped, the driver simply scans the package which triggers the safe door to unlock.

When the door is shut, the Parcel Guard locks and you’re alerted.

The box also includes wireless connectivity, a motion-activated IP camera (so you can see the delivery in action), a tamper alarm, and a weight monitor.

For additional security, you can opt to bolt the mailbox to the wall or the ground. There’s even a false bottom in the box – in case you want to secure it from being easily moved by placing something like a bag of sand under the bottom cover instead.

While protecting against package theft is Parcel Guard’s primary purpose, it can also be used for other purposes – like if friend or neighbor needs to drop something off at your home, for example, or even just to protect packages from bad weather.

To retrieve your packages, you unlock the box with the app.

The mailbox is made of industrial grade plastic, and includes a battery backup in the event of a power outage.

But it’s not small – at 19.7″ x 15.9″ x 39.4″, it’s designed for people whose houses have entryways or larger doorsteps, not for those who live in apartments.

Parcel Guard is not the only device that’s trying to tackle the problem with package theft – there’s also a smart padlock called BoxLock doing the same, as well as a similar product called InBin. But the latter is designed to look more like a planter than a mailbox.

The Parcel Guard smart mailbox will be available for pre-order on Danby’s website for $399 starting this week.

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