The Internet of Things: Malvern's Zonoff links big-name automation

At the end of the 1990s, MIT scholar Kevin Ashton suggested the dot.com boom would spawn an “Internet of Things,” as people’s everday gadgets started answering digital commands.

Smartphone are making that happen. As gadget-makers have figured out how home and office cameras, water and fuel utilities, kitchen and laundry appliances, computer and video machines -- maybe cars and drones someday -- can be switched and scheduled from mobile phone apps, American manufacturers, retailers, even phone and cable companies have been rushing to market convenient controls that respond to a few clicks.

But who’s in charge? “You’ve had Honeywell, GE, Philips, all these huge players going after the space as trusted brands” -- but manufacturers at first couldn’t agree on common signals that would let their devices work together, Peter Gerstberger, senior merchant for new business development at Staples, told me. “We wanted to create a hub. A universal translator. So they’d all speak the same,” and retailers like Staples could sell all their products working off a single phone app, instead of a nest of remote controls.

For help, Staples went to Cisco, which makes the routers that connect the Internet and the “cloud” of remote computer servers that make many smartphone applications work. “I told Cisco, ‘I want you to put me in a room with one connected zone system, with one hub, and one app that controls all the trusted brands,” Gerstberger said. How’d that work? “Pretty well: Cisco knew Mike.”

That’s Mike Harris, founder of Zonoff Inc., a Malvern start-up. Staples and other “big players wanted to get into this home and office automation space,” said Harris, who previosly headed suburban Philly start-ups Ravisent Technologies and Anysource. “Cisco wanted to sell them the routers, but they said they wanted a whole system.”

So Cisco went looking for a system developer. Zonoff had developed a remote control app for Somfy, which makes motors that operate window blinds, and for the TaHoma home-automation line Somfy built to expand sales. Cisco liked TaHoma, traced the software to Zonoff, invited Harris and his crew to its California headquarters, “and put us in front of some really big customers,” Harris recalls. “Staples said, ‘This is what we’re looking for.’

“My first thought was, ‘why Staples?’ Turns out they are a major technology retailer, right up there with Best Buy for networking projects, and the number two online retailer in the world, behind Amazon.” Staples Connect, Gerstberger’s business unit, expects to top $10 billion in sales last year (total company sales: around $25 billion).

With millions of small-business customers, Staples already attracted do-it-yourself custom home and office automation clients. The company sought a single plug-in system it could market to the masses. Zonoff built the app and the software linking all those control gadgets through the Internet and the cloud.

Staples started selling the system last week at a few dozen of its 1,000 national stores, including stores popular with do-it-yourselfers in Pottstown, Millville and the Lehigh Valley. A “core hub” connecting many brands of compatible home devices starts at $99. Staples’ manufacturing suppliers have signed on, including the global names as well as Lehigh Valley-based (corrected) Lutron, the company that invented the dimmer switch. “Eastern Pennsylvania has become the tech hub for the Internet of Things,” Harris says.

Zonoff employs 26. Grotech Partners of suburban Washington and Valhalla Partners of New York raised $3.8 million to expand the company in April. Valhalla partner Kiran Hebbar, a Wharton School graduate who worked at suburban Philadelphia’s Bentley Systems before he became a venture capitlaist, says he caught up with Harris when he was between companies. Hebbar says he suggested home automation.

Harris started working with a Manayunk firm, started by a couple of Drexel scholars, which developed custom building automations; Zonoff developed software to reach mass markets. “The great thing about this is they are techonology-agnostic; they can work with all the suppliers,” Hebbar concluded. “I want my lights to automatically turn on, the TV to automatically turn on, the heater to kick on below 60 degrees, and to get all these solutions to talk to each other. I really like that they can do this through a single app,” not matter what devices the customer uses.

Why Malvern? Harris, like many of his employees, has school-age kids, and likes the local Great Valley district. Josh Kopelman, of Philadelphia-based First Round Capital, offered to help move Zonoff into the city, Harris says. “But the work we do, it’s focused on the home. Our demographics isn’t selling to a bunch of 22-year-olds who live in apartments. We’re selling to regular people with kids and regular houses.”

Gerstberger wans to see Zonoff’s products extended to health and fitness, sound and entertainment, insurance companies who want sensors in place to check for utility leaks and alert repair services. “The system can accomodate all that,” he says. “It’s just a question of putting it in place.”

“We’re growing rapidly. The opportunities are such, we could hire three or four times as many people and still not have enough to serve all the customers reaching out to us. Maybe we’ll raise more emoney,” said Bob Cooper, Zonoff’s chief marketing officer. Zonoff plans to present its products at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next month, Cooper added: “The market is so new, there is opportunity everywhere.” (Revised)