What do you do if you feel passionately about a critical issue such as energy consumption? You might support a pressure group or charity, or even engage with your local political representative. Here at Techworld we would content ourselves with a hard-hitting blog post (take that, the environment). But the founders of Heat Genius created a product and built a startup business, dedicated to reducing needless energy consumption across the UK. They feel that everyone should be able to afford to heat their home - and we can't say fairer than that.
What is Heat Genius?
Heat Genius is both a business, and a product. It is also a response to the need to preserve energy in 2015. As co-founder and CEO Alisdair Woodbridge says: "For me, the idea behind Heat Genius was just: why couldn't we just use technology that already exists, just to smarten up our own homes? Why are we controlling all of the heating all in one go, when actually we could just be controlling heating in individual rooms?"
The product itself is a smart, and wireless, remote heating control system for homes and other buildings. At first blush this may seem like other smart thermostat systems such as Nest and Hive. But that misses the point. Heat Genius creates 'zones' in your home, and then allows you to control the temperature of each zone via laptop, smartphone or tablet apps. It measures occupancy and temperature, and learns from user behaviour. So Heat Genius should reduce heating costs over time as you heat only the parts of the premises that need to be warm, only when they need to be warm.
Technically then, Heat Genius is clever on the inside without having to look that clever from the outside.
It makes use of tech that is available to any inventor. It comprises a central wireless hub which communicates with smart TRVs to switch on and off your radiators. The hub communicates wirelessly with the other composite parts of the system, and you control it via an app or web interface, from wherever you can get online. Wall-mounted movement sensors measure user behaviour, and smart plugs help with connectivity whilst adding the ability to control electrical devices in a smart way.
And it works, too: you can find out more about the product in our sister title PC Advisor's Heat Genius review.
According to Woodbridge there are now systems installed in most towns around the UK and in some cases systems are only a few streets from each other, with many more orders on the books as the key winter-buying season kicks into gear. 'And this despite operating without the traditional start up funding round that is so common in 2015's tech industry, and indeed without a marketing budget. "We've got eight employees, and our turnover last year was four times what it was in the first year. We're hoping to double that again in year three," says Woodbridge.
The company is now actively looking for funding in order to further expand. (See also: 10 best free project-management software tools.)
Heat Genius: a quick history
So how do you build a business like Heat Genius? Heat Genius the company has reached its current size largely via positive word-of-mouth reviews. But it has been five years in the gestation, and just over two years as an active concern. It turns out it requires a ground-breaking idea, tireless iterative production, and a whole lot of hard work.
Woodbridge has a background in mechanical engineering, and his business partner Simon Turner is a coder. Around five years ago Woodbridge was running an energy consultancy, and Turner was playing around with controlling his hot water tank from his first smartphone. That was the first iteration of Heat Genius: the ability to control a normal domestic hot water tank from a phone - two years before anyone had heard of Nest.
"We were there trying something," says Woodbridge. "We didn't know if anyone else was trying. We just started doing this as a hobby. We'd get together most weekends, and we'd just figure stuff out as we went. We did that for two years."
At this point Woodbridge was growing tired of telling people how they could save energy, but having no control over implementing the policies his consultancy recommended. So three years ago he and Turner gave up their day jobs, set up a base in Birmingham, and concentrated full time on what became Heat Genius.
"I was trying to understand the market, and I was building hubs," says Woodbridge. "We installed our first proper system into two properties for the first winter. This was three winters ago. We installed that into a property using low voltage wax valves. At that point, we were simply proving the technique of smart occupancy detection.
"In the first house we did, in London, it took us three days to install it. We had four units around the house, and then we had cables coming in. We had a security sensor inside each room, and then a valve. It was incredibly effective.
"We didn't have the technology to learn and predict occupancy then, but we had occupancy control. It was brilliant - and everyone who lived in the house said so. Essentially, whenever we walk in a room, within five minutes the radiator gets hot. It's just like, 'Wow. This is the future'."
The Heat Genius team continued to work on prediction calculation throughout the winter of 2012 to 2013, so that the system would start to turn on rooms on before people occupied them. And Heat Genius the business was formed with the first fully wireless system hitting the market in November 2013. Since then the two founders have continually iterated both the product and the way it is delivered.
No funding, no problem
The Heat Genius team didn't even seek funding during the business' nascent years. They didn't think there was much point.
"Bear in mind that Nest didn't exist at this point," says Woodbridge. "There wasn't a market there. We could have gone to an investor and said, 'Right. This is what we think we should do'. I think we were worried we'd just get laughed out of the room."
He feels that not having an investor allowed them to be ambitious when scoping out the Heat Genius product, and that is one reason why it is more sophisticated than the bigger-named Nest and Hive products. "We were trying to control people's boilers through their phones. We were trying to zone their home into individual rooms. And, we were trying to make it smart, so it learns every single time you use a room. Now, that doesn't seem too far-fetched. Three years ago, Hive didn't exist. The concept of controlling a boiler through a phone was completely ridiculous. Why would anyone want that kind of concept?"
So how did they get the business off the ground? "We saved a bit. And we begged, borrowed, and borrowed some more."
But why? Changing the world, one house at a time
None of this is easy, of course. And there are certainly easier ways of making money. So why are the two founders so passionate about Heat Genius? The answer lies in their three-point plan to help customers save money, heat their homes, and be more efficient.
"The idea behind Heat Genius was just: why couldn't we just use technology that already exists, just to smarten up our own homes?" says Woodbridge. "Why are we controlling all of the heating all in one go, when actually we could just be controlling heating in individual rooms?"
"I thought that I could probably have more of an impact on the environment if I created a product which could save energy. I was also aware that what people generally care about is saving money. If you create a product that you could put into people's homes that gives them tools to help them save energy, then those who are really interested will start saving energy, because they'll optimise the system, they'll optimise their heating. Then if you let the system learn, then that means they don't need to think about that anymore. They don't need to optimise it, because it just will optimise itself.
"The next thing, which is the thing we haven't actually got started yet, but the bit that really excites me, is the behavioural change. Once you've got a system in somebody's home, you can look at ways you can encourage them to use less energy. There's some amazing things that you can do. One would be you just display how much energy they're using, and encourage them that they could use less.
"There's a study that's done in America, with an energy company, where they tried three different ways of helping people save energy. One was, they charged them more if they went over a certain amount. Two, was they gave them a kickback if they used less. The third was, they told them what their neighbour was using. Of the three, telling them what their neighbour was using - anonymised, obviously - had the biggest effect."
Woodbridge says that pretty soon there will be sufficient Heat Genius installs around the country to start making meaningful comparisons, and nudging consumers into changing their behaviours by showing them how their neighbours are doing.
"We've got installed houses only three or four streets away sometimes. That's perfect, because we're almost at the point at which we can start to help people compare. We can say we have a house two streets away from you with the same construction that's costing £1.50 a day less to heat than yours. And here is what they're doing different.
"Then you provide advice. You say, 'Well, actually they run their set point temperatures at half a degree or a degree cooler than yours,' or, maybe, 'They've got better insulation than you've got,' or whatever. We just see that as a really, really powerful tool. And that's our long-term goal with Heat Genius." (See also: Best smartphone for startups & entrepreneurs: iPhone vs Android vs Windows Phone.)