A slender wristband that manages your homes climate control, stereo and security system with the flick of a finger. A system that turns your cabinets and appliances into smart things that sense the world around them and tell you what theyve learned. A miniature electric guitar that teaches you how to play at your own pace and produces concert-quality sound to boot. What do these three different gadgets have in common?
One, theyre all part of the Internet of Things (IoT), a rapidly growing cohort of Internet-connected devices that directly communicate with one another and can sync with any other device thats hooked into the cloud, including your personal smartphone, tablet or home computer. Two, theyre all along with numerous other IoT devices made or designed right here by companies in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Currently MSP boasts a lively, innovative IoT scene that produces connected devices, and systems that make them easier to use, for businesses and consumers alike. to rebrand MSP as IoT Alley in recognition of its historical and contemporary contributions to the field. (Though Boston-area techies claim ownership of the IoT Alley label too. ) Whatever you want to call it, theres no denying that MSP is leading the march toward a future in which even the most mundane objects furniture, apparel, lawn sprinklers plug into the cloud and communicate with the wider world.
IoT hub before the term was coined MSP has been a major IoT hub since the days of the mainframe computer, when IoT was known as machine to machine communications (M2M) and didnt have much use outside of large-scale manufacturing applications. Back then, remote data sensors made by Minneapolis-based Honeywell and other local firms formed intranet networks in self-contained settings, such as heavy-industry environments too hostile for humans to safely spend lots of time in. They supported early generation automation and monitoring applications, making manufacturing safer and more efficient. In the 1990s, Minneapolis-based Medtronic pioneered a smart glucose-monitoring system that recorded patients blood-sugar levels as they went about their business and periodically sent the information to their doctors.
Numerous connected medical devices followed. MSP was an IoT hub way before the term was even coined, says Joe Morris, a local entrepreneur, investor, startup mentor and owner of, a printing, packaging and promotions firm. And it still is today: Im currently working with several promising IoT startups. Today, geometric improvements in computing power and bandwidth have dramatically reduced the cost and complexity of Internet-connected devices, precipitating new applications that were once impractical or unthinkable.
Modern factories are awash in connected devices, allowing them to get by with far less labor than a generation ago. Many medical implants transmit real-time data, though security concerns persist. The Internet of Things is revolutionizing agriculture, too, with field-deployed sensors communicating soil moisture measurements to smart, highly efficient irrigation systems and Internet-connected tags enabling real-time inventory management at far-flung locations on large farms. IoT could even change how we water our lawns: A local company called makes a smart home irrigation system that uses up to 50 percent less water than conventional sprinklers.
What makes the current situation different than before is the ability for [connected devices] to be created by almost anyone and the ability of these devices to communicate across a common medium, the Internet, says Morris. The potential there is almost unlimited. IoT is a huge growth industry, echoes Ryan Broshar, principal at local venture capital fund Matchstick Ventures, adding that it may soon be unhelpful to try to differentiate the Internet of Things from the Internet itself. Pretty much everything will eventually be connected, so the term Internet of Things really just describes the future of the Internet.
IoTs building blocks, made in MSP IrriGreen is just one of many local companies working on smart, connected devices and systems. In large part, startups and established companies headquartered in MSP, or that maintain design studios and manufacturing facilities here, are leading the IoT sectors heady growth. , for instance, makes development kits and a suite of hardware and software tools with names like Core, Photon and Electron that enable users to build connected devices in their workshop or basement. Sparks technology facilitates rapid prototyping and testing; once the user works out the kinks in their device, the technology allows production to be scaled almost without limit. For the cash-strapped, idea-driven innovator, Spark shortens the time necessary to demonstrate proof of concept, boosting the chances of attracting investors or collaborators attention before the innovators initial funding (or patience) dries up.
Judging by the list of devices powered by Spark on Sparks website, lots of inventors and entrepreneurs see the value in its solutions. Not surprisingly, Spark was a huge hit at. , another local firm, focuses its efforts on businesses looking tap the power of IoT and connect their equipment to the cloud. By 2020, there will be as many as 60 billion connected devices in use, says Mark Benson, Exosites chief technology officer. (Other estimates are a bit more conservative, but still impressive: Research firm Gartner. ) Many, perhaps most, will be the sorts of devices we already use, like household appliances, motors, car parts, even tables and chairs. In other words, the future of the Internet is about animating formerly inanimate objects what Benson calls pervasive computing.
Exosite offers two solutions for IoT-ready businesses. The first is a software-as-a-service platform that manufacturers and parts suppliers can harness to produce connected industrial sensors, home appliances, medical devices and pretty much anything else. The platform supports clients APIs (programming interfaces that facilitate communication and data-sharing between applications) and integrates directly with the manufacturing process 80 to 90 percent of what you need to create a connected product, says Benson. Clients in-house development teams typically handle the remaining 10 to 20 percent.
Exosites second solution is a hands-on professional services package. Clients can hire Exosites in-house engineers and architects to outfit and set up newly connected devices, train in-house IT departments that may be unfamiliar with IoT protocols, and develop apps that integrate with connected devices. , another MSP-based firm with offices in several other cities, offers a similar suite of services. The next leg up for IoT: consumers These building blocks underpin the next big thing for IoT: consumer applications. As connected devices become cheaper and more ubiquitous, says Morris, its easier and more economical to devise new ways to sell them to individual end-users. , for instance, is a compact, Internet-connected electric teaching guitar that produces super high-quality music and taps the cloud to deliver a customized curriculum based on the users performance and preferences.
An even bigger market for MSPs consumer-facing IoT innovators: home automation. In the past five years, home automation has transformed from a fringe novelty for techies into an increasingly affordable and commonplace trapping of middle-class life. Im not sure how MSP got into the home automation business, Morris admits, but its a big, big focus here. (made by an MSP-based startup called Playtabase) is a powerful, lightweight wristband that controls basic home functions like climate control, entertainment and security, all with a flick or two of the wrist. The device can be programmed to initiate event sequences when users go to bed or return home from work in the latter instance, perhaps simultaneously turning on the lights, disarming the security system, unlocking the doors and powering up the thermostat with a single command.
Reemo was a co-winner at this years CoCo Pitch Night, a sure sign of its broad appeal. , another local home automation firm, is much farther down the road to success:. Like Playtabase, the company makes a proprietary system that loops formerly dumb in-home fixtures and appliances into an intelligent, communicative, fully connected network. SmartThings system is even more extensive than Reemo: It includes exterior and interior motion sensors, for instance. Like Reemo, SmartThings system can be customized to the users preferences and routines.
By analyzing users behavior patterns, it also learns over time. The interface isnt quite as simple no wrist-flicking but the SmartThings system does sync with the users smartphone: a pocket-sized, fully mobile home control panel. These IoT successes might not be possible without a supportive, tight-knit community of developers, engineers, entrepreneurs and other innovators. describes itself as a monthly meetup focused on uniting scrappy coders, engineers, makers, hackers, thinkers and doers with artists, marketers, entrepreneurs and innovators. Among other things, the group dedicates itself to helping members tackle tough IoT-related engineering and programming challenges.
Meanwhile, co-founded by Matchstick Ventures Broshar has a broader focus, supporting startups in every corner of MSPs tech scene, including IoT. Beta. mn sponsors informal events and meetups where innovators and entrepreneurs meet, mingle and discuss what theyve been working on in a laid-back environment. The groups mission, per its website is simple: We believe that by throwing meaningful events. for the areas brightest innovators, well ensure that the next big thing happens in our own backyard. IoTMPLS, Beta. mn and similar groups contribute to a community-first ethos that sets MSP apart from more cutthroat innovation hubs. As Ive become more involved in MSPs startup community, Ive noticed that people here want to help others with little to no concern about themselves, says Morris.
In other words, MSPs brightest innovators and investors arent single-mindedly focused about becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. Theyre more concerned about the professional success and well-being of their fellow innovators: what benefits one member of the community benefits the community as a whole. How MSP keeps its IoT edge No matter how innovative you are, though, selflessness only gets you so far. Recent examples of MSP-built IoT firms looking for growth elsewhere should give the regions boosters pause.
After accepting Samsungs buyout offer, SmartThings relocated its headquarters to California, though it does retain a significant presence here. Spark remains independent, but it too opened a Bay Area office after a successful funding round and now seems more focused on building up its West Coast presence. Spark and SmartThings raise the question: Does MSP need to do more to support and retain successful startups? Its certainly concerning that promising companies feel the need to move elsewhere when they reach a certain size or level of success, says Benson.
Broshar, Morris and others believe that the key to a more robust, retention-oriented MSP IoT startup scene lies in building bridges between local early stage companies and the Medtronics and 3Ms that may one day buy them out or, for startups that remain independent and become wildly successful, compete with them for the same customers. Pairing the efforts of support groups like IoTMPLS and Beta. mn with a more robust funding and mentorship ecosystem exemplified by people like Broshar and Morris could help startups move beyond the do-or-die phase, become profitable and ultimately attract the attention of their more established peers. Theres no lack of willingness [among large firms] to engage with nascent IoT startups, says Morris. But big companies arent able to invest in every single startup out there theyre not built that way.
Instead, he says, they bolster startups indirectly by providing financial support for business-development initiatives and organizations like, and the, which in turn support and recognize the efforts of local IoT entrepreneurs. Separately, MSPs political leaders need to recognize the long-term economic importance of maintaining the regions edge in IoT and other next-generation tech sectors, says Benson. Exosite tripled its square footage last year, he notes, but its already in danger of outgrowing its new space. Though his company isnt threatening to leave the region, younger firms that cant devote as much capital to rent payments and other overhead costs may feel pressured to move to cities or states with better tax incentives for job-creating startups or lower business taxes in general.
Thanks to the enthusiastic, often selfless innovators pushing the boundaries of whats technologically possible, however, the region is well-positioned to lead the next phase of IoT growth. But as the Internet of Things becomes increasingly indistinguishable from the Internet itself, other IoT leaders are likely to emerge as well. eventually and thats fine, as long as MSP remains known as the IoT capital of the North. Brian Martucci is The Line s Innovation and Jobs News Editor.