Problem-solving products and beer at IoTW

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On Thursday I hit the latest iteration of the Internet of Things Waterloo meetup at Descendants, specifically to hear my pal George Tsintzouras talk about about his startup Alert Labs. Regular readers know I geek out on hardware and in the course of my travels I get to see bits of electronics in varying states of functionality and finish. Having listened to hardware product pitches near and far and carrying a passing familiarity with a soldering iron, I feel reasonably well-equipped to assess said pitches on two counts: #1 Does it solve a real problem and #2 Is it likely to actually work?

Happily, at this meetup I got the scoop from both Alert Labs and another hardware play, Pitstop, that check both those boxes. While Kickstarter is full of aspirational and fantastic-as-in-not-quite-credible products, these two companies are turning out very pragmatic telemetry plays across rental properties and cars, respectively. That’s the TL;DR for this one. Oh wait, let me also add that the new JAMHacks high school hackathon by Ethan Guo was announced by his dad, Eddy. That’s coming April 9, free-no-pay, open to Ontario high school students and like all good things they need sponsors, mentors, volunteers and for you to spread the word.

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Found myself back at Descendants again. It’s like a community centre…

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with beer.

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George Tsintzouras (left) with IoTW creator Ian Pilon.

I should point out that while I often focus on the hardware, there is a lot of embedded and cloud-based software involved in both these products. Shout out to the software devs.

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Pitstop’s Shiva Bhardwaj getting setup up.

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Though I only get to about every third IoTW event, there were lots of familiar faces including Ig Kolenko from Conestoga College here. Nice to see Nevine, Alex, Julia, Martin, Catharine, Rob, Matt and a whole bunch of other familiar faces.

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Though it’s not necessarily evident in this pic, progress toward better gender balance was made from the last time I attended IoTW.

Unrelated: there’s my friend, crypto-guru Rob Lambert in the foreground. Rob is mid TrustPoint-to-ETAS acquisition. In the BlackBerry days, he was my first phone call when the crypto got heavy. Glad to see him and Nevine Ebeid in the IoT mix. I gave a talk two years ago at IoTW on security and there is an ever-increasing opportunity to work on that aspect of this domain.

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Meta Matt from Conestoga, shooting video.

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Game face. Concentration.

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Meta George, also video. Everywhere.

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Pitstop up first.

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Shiv described Pitstop’s car telemetry and analysis. Tech-savvy drivers know that modern cars are loaded with many electronic control units (ECU) and sensors. All that gear talks on the car’s CAN bus. Pitstop employs a small bluetooth dongle plugged into the car’s onboard diagnostics port, typically found under the driver’s seat or beneath the dashboard. The dongle can see all the info flowing on the bus (like speed, engine RPM, antilock brake events, window position, etc) and sends that up to the driver’s phone. The data is then sent to the Pitstop mothership over mobile carrier networks.

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Pitstop’s predictive analysis aims to identify car problems before they become critical and notify drivers for proactive maintenance. Shiv’s family runs an automotive service station in Toronto, so he’s grounded in that space. He talked about interest from dealerships that are looking to boost their service business on new car sales as well as Pitstop’s focus on direct-to-consumer sales.

The company has seen investment from Ford…

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hence the Detroit address and they also call the Hub home.

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Up next…

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George T. and…

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Alert Labs.

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I first met George when we were helping create the FLASH Photography Show back in 2015. He was with Christie then, before striking out on his own. So began my micro-hobby of photographing George working on laptops.

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A quick break for more socializing.

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There’s IoTW event wrangler Katerina Hyzyk (right).

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Go-time. In a nutshell, Alert Labs builds low-cost sensors to track building data on everything from temperature to water flow to hydro usage, and provide actionable info to customers. Each sensor has a radio modem on a mobile carrier network to backhaul data to the mothership, avoiding the complications and dependencies of wifi. George talked about the importance of a simple user experience as the key to their platform. All their sensors to date can be installed in two minutes with no tools.

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Last year I stopped by the Alert Labs bat-cave in 44 Gaukel to see sensors in action in the demo lab. I was most curious about their non-invasive approach to installing sensors. I could imagine how water leak sensors used a change in resistance to detect leaks. Inductive current sensors measuring hydro usage also were familiar. Totally non-obvious to me was how they would measure water usage. It turns out that the head of your water meter incorporates an internal magnet that spins in relation to water flow. The Alert Labs sensor straps right to the side of your water meter and detects that changing magnetic field. So cool. Equally interesting was the use of SONAR to measure the water level in sump wells. You just clip their sensor to your sump well pipe and plug it in.

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Collecting the data is really just the first step. George suggested that instead of the *internet* of things, that perhaps we should call it the *analysis* of things. The driving use-case of the product is the small landlord with several properties who wants to reduce operating costs and avoid damaging incidents like basement floods.

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A rental tenant may not report a leaky sink that could otherwise be caught as a low-flow data pattern and fixed. A burst water heater would trip a leak sensor as well as show a non-characteristic water usage, different from typical usage patterns.

Looking to the future, George gave an example of where past sump pump performance could be correlated to expected rainfall for a particular customer and proactively alert on risk of flood. Insurance companies are interested in the product from a cost-reduction standpoint and George mentioned an upcoming pilot in Guelph aimed at reduction of water use.

It will be very interesting to see where they take the product from here. High five, GT!

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The event wrapped up with community announcements. Here’s Eddy Guo

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putting the word out on the aforementioned JAMHacks event his son Ethan has launched.

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And with a thanks to the sponsors…

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and this Elvis-inspired pose, Ian wrapped it up.

Nice work, good speakers. This is us.


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