ThermoSmart CEO: no end to new applications for smart thermostats

Monday 26 June 2017 | 13:06 CET | Background
The Dutch start-up ThermoSmart is growing quickly and looking for ways to differentiate its offer on the smart home market. The company's new CEO Ewald Rietberg talked to Telecompaper about the company's plans, which include not only geographic expansion but also much more innovation in software and data services.

Rietberg worked much of his career at KPN, in various strategy and management functions. He was previously CCO of the subsidiary Sympac, which was renamed KPN Managed Mobile Solutions in 2009. From 2010 to 2017, Rietberg worked at a number of international hi-tech start-ups in telecom, media and utilities, including as VP EMEA for Singapore-based CCPL. 

In April he replaced ThermoStart founder Hans Kouwenhoven as CEO. Rietberg says he's focused on business development, putting him in the right place at the right time at ThermoSmart. "The smart home market is extremely dynamic, but no one knows where we're going. The one thing for sure is the growth," he said.

Optimising manufacturer data

Rietberg has a strong background in M2M and data-based marketing, putting him quickly at ease at ThermoStart. Not only does ThermoSmart have the best data management compared to its competitors, but its back end is also open to third parties, supporting interaction with other devices, he said. ThermoSmart is also unique in its measurement of a relatively large number of types of data, such as boiler information, giving it a massive data pool. "Not all manufacturers are making optimal use of the available data," he said. ThermoSmart combines a smart thermostat with data from the heating system and smart meter, allowing it to unlock a great deal of information. 

The large amount of data creates numerous opportunities for innovative services. Using historical information and calculations the system can forecast the savings from the smart home system, helping to justify the initial investment. Sectors such as insurance can benefit, for example by predicting water, fibre or theft damage. In the UK, insurers are already embracing the concept, offering smart home platforms in combination with a discount on the homeowner's policy, Rietberg noted. This makes the smart thermostat part of a complete, integrated smart home platform.

Service providers expanding offers

Rietberg expects many more innovative applications to come, not just from ThermoSmart, but also service providers such as energy suppliers, installation companies, insurers and telcos. In the Netherlands, KPN and Delta already offer smart home services.

Telecom operators mainly see smart home as part of their classic business model as network service provider, Reitberg explained. Smart home is an extension of the router, which gains an extra module. However, many problems with smart home applications are due to poorly functioning networks, according to the CEO. The smart home and IoT services are using a wide range of network standards - Zigbee, Zwave, LoRa, NB-IoT, Enocean, etc. Telecom operators have much to gain here, by offering for example in-home networking such as repeaters, in order to maximise their customer's experience. "if I was a telco, I would focus on expanding the role of ‘network service provider’ in the smart home environment," said Rietberg.

Success as a telco is never guaranteed though. To date there are no known successful smart home implementations by telecom companies, even if it is still early days to talk of major deployments. At companies such as Belgacom, Delta and KPN, there is still little traction, said Rietberg. 

Swisscom stopped at the end of last year selling its SmartLife security product. The Swiss operator blamed this on little demand for the product.

18% of Dutch have or want a smart thermostat

Rietberg estimates that there around 880,00 smart thermostats currently in use in the Netherlands. At the end of last year, penetration was at about 10 percent of households, and another 8 percent said they expected to by one within a year, according to research by Telecompaper.

Many new homes are being designed as smart homes, offering ThermoStat a significant market opportunity in terms of volumes, said Rietberg. This includes the arrival of 'zero on the meter' homes, which are refurbished with energy management systems, including a smart thermostat, to reduce net energy use to zero. New technologies to help manage climate change, such as geothermal heating, heat pumps and sun energy, all will also need smart thermostats, noted the CEO. 

The market is also looking at multi-room support, so each room in the home can have its own thermostat controls. ThermoSmart is developing a radio controlled thermostat, which needs no cables or battery and has its own energy supply. Reitberg noted that this is still relatively expensive, making the jump from single- to multi-room control a big step.

Designer brand

ThermoSmart targeted initially what Rietberg calls "Apple-type customers". Not only the people who use iOS devices, but those interested in the latest tech gadgets and design and who have a higher disposable income. To strengthen its design cred, the company developed the ThermoArt concept. This helps customers design a film to place over the touchscreen of their thermostat, in line with their own home interior. Rietberg said the company is in talks with graphic designs who can offer their own ThermoArt to customers on the ThermoSmart website. "Not only is this a unique feature, but it also strengthens our image as a designer brand," Rietberg said. In addition, the next version of the ThermoSmart will be made of steel and glass, rather than the previous plastic housing. 

Distribution is another key factor, slowly gathering pace. ThermoStat already sells well on Coolblue, and its distribution with service providers is expanding. This is another type of target group, Rietberg noted. The company's currently running a pilot with E.ON in which customers get a free ThermoSmart with a three-year energy contract. ThermoStat's preference is to partner with other players active in the value chain, such as energy suppliers.

Rietberg declined to say how many ThermoSmarts have been sold in the Netherlands, but hinted that the number is in the "several thousand". Early this year it also started sales in Germany and the UK, and the company is not ruling out a launch in the US. 

User-friendly, attractive data services

According to Rietberg, ThermoSmart's core competences are offering a system to measure and control heating, packaged in an attractive design with the most user-friendly user interface (highest NPS and customer reviews) and attractive data-based services.

Rietberg also supports "throwing open the value chain" in order to make use of all the available data. The CEO sees big opportunities for predictive analytics, which is sure to play a greater role at ThermoSmart. This includes using data from the smart meter, boiler and thermostat to develop services such as boiler monitoring and alerts for needed maintenance.

Smart home integration can happen at a variety of levels, according to Reitberg. Platforms such as Qivicon in Germany, Fifthplay in Belgium and Swann in the VS are integrated at the hardware/middleware level. Complete, integrated smart home platforms are also being developed for new-build homes. However, there is a risk in investing already in this type of platform, as it remains unclear if this type of integration will become the standard, Rietberg noted. Furthermore, maintenance and innovation on such systems, which requires cooperation among numerous parties, is extremely complex and expensive. 

The CEO sees a future where smart home applications are linked to each other through apps and the cloud, in order to control the entire smart home. "Google Home, Apple Homekit and Amazon Alexa work like this, and integration via open standards appears the best way forward, so each part of the smart home system can follow its own innovation roadmap."

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