The duo teamed up with Rory Gleeson, a mentor at Ericsson, and started an ambitious Internet of Things (IOT) business called Skygrid.
Fortunately the technology for connecting the ‘things’ themselves is more and more affordable, explains Brendan. He notes access to cellular and wireless networks is cheaper, hardware prices are dropping as manufacturers scale up production, and new networked data centres (mostly for cloud computing) come online every month: “So it’s a perfect stor of technologies that make it economically viable to connect up a whole bunch of things to the internet”.
Skygrid’s founders share a lifelong love for technology, which they enthusiastically channel into their venture. Brendan claims that computing is humanity’s biggest achievement to date, though he says all need to pitch in to make great technologies more accessible. He draws from his experience at Ericsson working with hardware manufacturers to try to sometimes competing priorities of driving sales and delivering interoperable hardware.
Luke points to the Open Source movement as a preferred model, as it gives developers like Skygrid more opportunities to innovate: “Look at what was happening in the M2M (machine-to-machine) and IOT space: there was this thing happening with the early movers who were trying to define standards and protocols. It was a big land-grab. So now we want to try to get around that problem of vendor-lock-in by offering a more open platform”.
Making innovations more accessible
The Skygrid business case is built on making commonly available tools more developer-friendly. That way, other IOT developers can get up and running fast without having to build as much up from scratch. It’s almost a templated approach:
“For 90 per cent of websites, something like Wordpress will do,” says Brendan. “Only some of the time you’re going to want to get under the hood and have access to the bare metal and do your own thing. So what we’re trying to do is be a bit more like the Wordpress for IOT platform.”
He is very enthusiastic about the development of ultra-low cost IOT modules using ultra-narrow band communications, like the recently announced module from Sigfox: “At the moment most people try to do stuff over 3G or 4G mobile data, which are really expensive ways to do it. More affordable modules can be a real game changer for us.”
While most of the hype around IOT continues to focus on consumer applications – for example, the internet-connected fridge, which has existed in one form other for more than two decades – the Skygrid team is committed to developing new industrial and environmental applications that will make a real difference to our world, not just shift products.
“If we can improve the efficiency of things in general we can help improve or lower our carbon footprint, explains Brendan. “Tackling climate change is something we’re passionate about with this technology.”
There are plenty of efficiency gains from just by having information about the performance of machines businesses already use, adds Luke. As an example, it you can plan predictive maintenance on that device. “Knowing how your machines are performing can save companies a lot of money. You’re warned earlier if something is going to fail, so it might be you just need to replace a $5 part to stop if from failing, rather than leaving it and finding you have to shell out for a $5000 part.”
Taking the guesswork (and tediousness) out of maintenance
Skygrid’s first customers are mostly asset management companies that need to track expensive plant equipment or fleets of vehicles.
Until recently, maintenance crews would be sent out to each piece of equipment with a clipboard (or more recently a tablet device) to read some values from a gauge, look over the machine’s workings and record notes into a spreadsheet.
“We can do most of that work via a …sensor kit,” notes Luke, “So now we can save the a lot of transport costs plus the guys’ time, because they only need to send out a crew to actually fix something, not just look at it.”
Skygrid has since developed an even more affordable piece of kit for pool maintenance businesses with a cute name: PoolBuddy. It’s a 24/7 pool monitoring solution for pool shops that Luke describes as ‘super cheap and super simple’.
“It just means they don’t waste trips going out to test pools. Again, they just do the maintenance when it’s needed.”
Now Skygrid is looking to augmented reality (AR) for maintenance tasks that need to happen onsite. AR is, according to Brendan, a logical progression: “Skygrid is the cloud platform that is holding all this data and right now we’re using apps and web interface to the Internet, and we see AR as being another huge interfacing platform. So if you’re on a mine site and you’ve linked all of your pumps and data up to Skygrid, when you walk through the mine wearing a headset you’ll see pops-ups saying ‘these are the pumps you need to fix, here are the parts you need. Apps are certainly one way to look at data from a device, though we think AR will break down more barriers between data and what’s happening in the physical world.”
Touching the sky with muru-D
Before joining Telstra’s tech incubator muru-D, Luke muses he didn’t full realise the opportunity of working with the telco. “Naively we came from a telco background and we went ‘oh, we’re going to build this platform Telstra would really want, so we get into Telstra’s incubator then that’s our golden ticket’. We got a lot more out of it than that though.” Here are some highlights:
- muru-D is as much about mentorship as new ideas – “People who have walked the path that you want to walk can tell you where all the missed steps are before you get to them.” Brendan says. “We were very lucky we had two entrepreneurs and residents at the time: Mick Liubinskas and Ben Sand”.
- muru-D helps businesses cope with everyday challenges too – “You get to see behind the scenes of how these other companies are running and the challenges they’re having,” says Luke. “And you go ‘Oh, now I understand we’re all the same on the surface’. The biggest encouragement for us is that every company there is learning from mistakes.”
- muru-D helps business founders work out their roles – “At the start we were all trying to do everything…” recalls Luke. “Let me rephrase that... we were stepping on each other’s toes! We needed to learn how to balance the emotional and engineering sides of the business.”
Start up tips from Skygrid
- Network often
“Get involved in the start-up community for sure,” says Luke. “Don’t try to do everything in a bubble, even if you go to meet start-ups in completely different fields they’re going to have the same problems or similar problems that you do. Otherwise it can be a very lonely experience if you lock yourself away.”
- Make money, keep equity
“Speak with experts about it,” insists Luke. “We were completely new to having to raise money. Just had to get the right advice. Meeting other start-ups and seeing what they raised and going through the process of it helped us out in the end.”
- Be patient with yourself
“Expect that there will be really good high and everything is going well towards your goals but then be prepared for a low just around the corner,” warns Brendan. “Some days you’ll think ‘Wow I’m a total idiot, we’re frauds, nothing is going to work’… and then you’ll work it out. Just accept that doubts and mistakes are par of the course”.