I love how IoT can turn up in the most unique applications. I recently sat down with Rich Morris, a hobbyist-beekeeper turned entrepreneur when he decided to take his beekeeping to the next level using embedded, connected technology.
Hi, Rich. Tell us a little bit about yourself:
I’m an electrical/system engineer with more than 35 years of experience in product design. I have spent the last five years of my career at an engineering development firm as VP of Operations. I recently left after an acquisition and had some new time on my hands.
Sounds like that’s when BroodMinder came to be. What was the inspiration?
I started raising bees as a hobby eight years ago. I found that keeping a brood healthy and safe through a Wisconsin-winter was really tricky. If your bees are struggling, you really don’t know until you open the hive up. So you either wait until the end of the season, when you can’t do anything to correct it, or you open the hive up and put the bees at risk of the cold temperature. Being an electrical engineer and experienced product designer, I decided to do something about it. The concept was to build a system that could accurately monitor temperature and humidity inside the hive without having to open it. That’s when I started BroodMinder.
In the meantime, declining bee populations is a big problem and threat to global agriculture. Awareness of this threat has brought beekeeping to the mainstream. I saw proof of how mainstream this had become through an IndieGoGo campaign by FlowHive. This startup out of Australia is building these plastic taps you can attach to your hive so honey will flow out the back. These guys were only trying to raise $500,000. They ended up raising $12M.
So it was obvious to me at that point that bees are sexy. A lot of people are concerned about the decline in population. Awareness about this has become pervasive even to urban areas. These people are my target market. And I know a device for these concerned enthusiasts must have a very low barrier to entry.
So how did you go about designing BroodMinder?
Considering the target market, I knew Bluetooth low energy (BLE) would be critical; people need to be able to connect to their smart device easily. I also knew I needed to sell something affordable, on the order of tens of dollars (not the $100s to $1000s of dollars, like what was already on the market).
When choosing the technology that satisfied these criteria, I considered a variety of options. I knew my way around the industry since I had spent much of my career building embedded devices for clients and customers.
I chose to build with the BLE113 module because of the simplicity of implementation and the impact it would make on my time to market. Having something pre-certified and stable saved me a lot of development and debugging time. Plus, I had already worked with the technology before. I was very confident of the Bluetooth stack these guys had put together. In my previous role, I knew the quality of the product is better than most.
I love BlueGiga (now part of Silicon Labs) because they work so well going from small to large volume. As I sell more units, I won’t have to rewrite software when going from certified module to chip on board; this will be more seamless and efficient, saving time and money in the future.
So what was the biggest hurdle for you when starting up your new company and bringing a new device to the market?
We are a startup…just me and a couple of other guys. We need to focus on things other than the hardware and firmware; anybody in a startup will tell you there are many other factors to success. So even though it is a little more expensive to go with a module, the fact that it is reliable and proven takes one major item off of our crowded plate. That leaves us available to solve the unexpected problems bound to arise whenever introducing a new product.
What’s the next milestone on your horizon?
Well, monitoring temperature and humidity is helpful for people fighting winter. But the next device we are building is to monitor hive weight.
With hive weight, you basically get to see the brood build and grow in population. Additionally, as the honey flow comes in, you get to see the hive weight jump in a matter of hours or days as honey is made. This helps you capture varieties of honey as different plants and flowers bloom, versus simply harvesting the bulk of what you get at the end of the season.
People are DIY’ing this or paying $1000s for a solution. I’m going for target price of $150, which brings it into the realm of the 200,000 hobbyists. The key to solving this problem is getting it to mass production.
This is a great example of Internet of Things. What does a more connected world mean to you?
Lots of companies want to get into IoT. As a result, there are a lot of crazy, superfluous ideas. But among these, there are some game changers. And there are niches. Ability to simply connect to your smart device is powerful.
In the case of BroodMinder, we can get large quantities of data from the field. Not just from specialists but also from enthusiasts, people who otherwise wouldn’t connect and collect data. The power of data analysis gets really cool when you include the masses.
Let’s close with a big question: In your opinion, what does the future of IoT look like?
It’s obviously going to be here forever. It’s going to be pervasive, and we have guys like Silicon Labs to thank for that. With IoT, there are things that are not noticeable, but become deeply ingrained in our lives. The things that will win are the subtle ones.
Watch BroodMinder in action:
For anyone interested in buying one, visit the BroodMinder buy page.