As a fan of rowing (thanks to House of Cards) and aspiring female tech leader, I was super excited to sit down with Alix James, CEO of Nielsen-Kellerman, which makes rowing performance measuring tools (and a bunch of other cool stuff). Alix is truly an IoT Hero, having literally grown up in the tech world.
I understand that Nielsen-Kellerman (NK) runs in your blood. Tell me about how you got involved in the company.
NK was founded in 1978 in the basement of my house. My stepfather and his partner were both research scientists who wanted to find a real-world problem they could solve with their knowledge and skills. An introduction to the sport of rowing by a well-known coach led them to develop a rugged system for amplifying the coxswain’s voice, measuring stroke rate, and timing performance. That product, the Cox Box, is still being made by NK today and is found in thousands of racing rowing shells all over the world.
Over the next decade, the founders invented many other products for the sport of rowing. Another introduction led them to realize that their measurement and manufacturing knowledge could be leveraged to create rugged portable instruments for measuring environmental conditions, and the Kestrel line of weather instruments was born.
I have held the leadership reins at Nielsen-Kellerman for 10 years after working my way through many positions at the company. My first job with NK was soldering circuit boards in the Kellerman basement as a senior in high school. Since my soldering rarely met co-founder Paul Nielsen's standards, I headed off to Yale University where I studied English, Economics and rowing, winning national titles on the Varsity Crew and participating in development and selection camps as a sculler. Penn Law School, marriage and a move to the West Coast followed. After practicing law in California for three years, I rejoined NK as General Counsel and Marketing Manager. Twenty years later, I have worked in almost every department at NK and led many facets of the company's growth. Lean Level I and II certified, I have embraced Lean approaches to continuously improving all aspects of NK from the shop floor to customer service. A firm believer in the power of the brand and building a tribe of passionate users, I have also made every effort to ensure that NK always earns its customers’ loyalty by delivering products that can be counted on to provide accurate information in the most challenging environments.
What are some of the cool Internet of Things devices your company makes?
Most recently, we’ve developed a line of Kestrel DROP Environmental Data Loggers that measure and log temperature, humidity and pressure in practically any environment. These small, rugged, waterproof data loggers connect wirelessly to the Kestrel Connect App on smart devices via Bluetooth Smart and display real-time and logged data. The applications for this data logger are really endless. From measuring environmental data during cargo transport to conditions in the field for military training to feeling secure about the climate conditions in any room in your home or office building, we want to make sure you’re able to measure all of these conditions even when you’re physically not there.
We’ve also recently introduced the SpeedCoach GPS 2 platform to both rowers and stand up paddle boarders. The SpeedCoach GPS 2 greatly expands the performance improving capabilities of the existing SpeedCoach platform and, for the first time, provides users with an upgradable platform that is compatible with LiNK, NK’s connected environment of apps, web analytics and sensors. Currently, LiNK environment includes Bluetooth Smart wireless connectivity to heart rate belts, sensors, phones, tablets, PC’s (dongle required) and Macs as well as cloud connectivity, web analytics and real-time tracking via apps.
Check it out in action!
Can you share some of your favorite learnings about designing and prototyping your products?
Wireless data transfer is a complex space with a lot of competing hardware and protocols. No one technology is perfect yet – the main tradeoffs are battery life, range, interoperability and data throughput. We chose Bluetooth Low Energy because we believe that the power to easily move data to phones, tablets and other smart devices will be critical to our product line as it develops, but in doing so we gave up a bit on data throughput and range extension through mesh networking. The Bluetooth SIG is working on these limitations and we expect the protocol to continue to expand in capability as its adoption grows. The good thing about the Bluetooth SIG from a technical standpoint is that, although features may be slow to be added to the protocol, they usually work well once they are.
For my company, it clearly made sense to go with a module rather than designing our own circuit because of the advantages of speed to market, and being able to focus our engineering resources on the features of our products that solve our customers’ problems, not invisible enabling technologies. From that decision, we researched the number of design registrations for some of the leading module makers. We wanted to see that a module had been extensively adopted for different applications – knowing that this would make it more likely it would work for us as well. The BlueGiga line of modules fit this description perfectly. The design support, as well as the accessories such as the USB dongle, have gotten us up and running smoothly and relatively fast.
Two things – First, be really clear on what problem you’re trying to solve. There are a lot of IoT products hitting the market just “because they can be connected to the internet.” That doesn’t always add value, but it always adds cost and complexity. Then, REALLY understand those tradeoffs I listed above - battery life, range, interoperability and data throughput – in the context of your problem. Customers these days have gotten used to wireless “magic”, but they don’t understand those tradeoffs. Make sure it is technically possible to deliver a real-world solution given the power and connectivity available where your product will be used.
It’s a big question, but in your opinion, what does the future of IoT look like?
One of the commonly held beliefs in the marketplace is that soon we’ll be doing absolutely everything with our phones. I think that is true of many data centric applications, but in the world of specialized sensors, dedicated devices are still going to win. Without a doubt, the power of these dedicated devices can often be vastly increased through being able to get their data promptly to “the cloud.” I think we are going to need two new parts of the internet backbone to really make this easy – easy to access, power efficient cellular data services to cut device dependency on wifi, and easy to customize online database platforms. Right now most companies are having to design and build their entire environment themselves, which is limiting the ability of smaller entrepreneurial companies to bring solutions to the market. Effective “middleware” resellers will grow and help this market boom.