In this week’s Tech Startup Story, we speak to Julian Lee, CEO of Ambi Labs to unravel the unseens behind their flagship product Ambi Climate, understand the challenges he and his team faced while building the sophisticated IoT device and have a sneak peek into the future of Ambi Labs.
What were you doing before setting up Ambi Labs?
I was born in Singapore and grew up in Hong Kong; studied Mechanical Engineering (Mechatronics – kind of related to IoT in some ways) at Imperial College London. After a brief stint in DSTA as a human factors engineer (during NS), I spent most of my career in strategy consulting and finance.
Before founding Ambi Labs, I assisted and invested in companies ranging from startups to listed multinationals across a broad spectrum of industries including telecommunications, natural resources, electronics, biotech, healthcare and agriculture.
Can you share with us what is Ambi Labs and what goes on in the company?
We are one of only a handful of consumer IoT products that leverages AI to power IoT devices. This trend is growing worldwide, with the term AIoT (Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence) coined in 2017, and we consider ourselves pioneers in this trend. Our flagship product, Ambi Climate, is an AI-enhanced air conditioner controller that uses AI to combine user feedback with data from onboard sensors and online sources.
It perpetually learns how sensitive the user is to factors such as humidity and changing the weather, and figuring out what feels comfortable to them at various times throughout the day.
Users can also create their personalised profile and enjoy a tailor-made environment, boosting their comfort and save energy in the process; we have even been able to learn how the body acclimatises to weather during different seasons, ensuring that we maintain perfect conditions all the time.
Our vision has been validated through multiple successful crowdfunding campaigns across the globe, including Kickstarter (2014: USD:$114k, 2017: USD:$150K), Kibidango in Japan (USD: $22K) and Zeczec in Taiwan ($17K). We have also successfully launched our product into retail in some markets, including Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand, and are set to launch in over ten new markets by the end of 2018. Although we are based in Hong Kong, we have users in over 60 countries across the globe.
We have also won some coveted industry and startup awards, including the SMAhome Top of Excellence Award 2018, Computex d&i Award 2017, IoT Asia Trailblazer Award 2017, HKTDC Electronics Industries Award 2016, RISE Pitch Winner 2015, and more. Also, we have been featured in numerous international media such as Engadget, Digital trends, Cnet, Mashable, Financial Times, and IGN.
How did the idea come about?
Before founding Ambi Labs, I was working in private equity, dealing with startups got me interested in the IoT industry. As I was researching the market, I found out there are approximately 700 million households across the world that use ACs, with two-thirds of them based in Asia. At the time, the smart thermostat market only focused on central air conditioning which is more common in the United States, but that was just 50 million households. With this information in mind, we wanted to create something that addresses the rest of the smart thermostat market.
People in Asia who use split or window air conditioners, also have a different usage pattern then central air conditioner users. For example, many central air conditioner users in the US typically leave it on regularly, even months at a time. In contrast, in Asia people only switch it on when they occupy the room and feel too warm. During that time we wanted to understand more about how people use their AC outside of the US to confirm our assumptions.
We conducted a series of consumer interviews across several countries, including Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, and Japan. We found that while users did value the smart home features common in intelligent thermostats (such as timers, rules, and geofencing), users frequently pointed to a more fundamental issue in controlling the AC, with many users asking us questions such as:
“When I set my AC to a comfortable temperature to go to sleep, why do I wake up cold the next morning?”
“Why does the room suddenly feel colder when there’s a thunderstorm outside?”
“Sometimes when it’s stuffy, I need to dial the temperature down – and then back up again when it gets too cold, so I feel like I’m constantly yo-yo-ing between hot and cold.”
These questions led us to challenge the current temperature focus of AC control. As outlined in air conditioning theory, the temperature is just 1 factor in determining human thermal comfort; with humidity, thermal radiation, and metabolism also playing a significant role. For example, our body temperature fluctuates throughout the night, usually becoming cooler towards the morning. Air conditioners are typically set at the same temperature throughout the night and don’t adjust to people’s’ metabolic cycle to avoid overcooling and discomfort.
Now, our goal is to revolutionise the way people use their ACs, focusing on their comfort instead of temperature alone. Through this, we cannot just enhance comfort, but also reduce unnecessary energy consumption in the process.
What were the initial challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
The primary challenge we experienced when taking Ambi Climate to market was building a sophisticated AIoT product. Unlike a SAAS model or a mobile app, AIoT products are more complicated with many different domains. We have had to develop more functions than typical startups, covering not only things like mobile app development and management of a cloud server, but also the design of the AI engine, as well as hardware specific challenges – such as electronics, industrial design, mechanical engineering, manufacturing, logistics, and global distribution etc. Building a multi-faceted team capable of dealing with all these areas was a challenge.
Where do you see Ambi Labs in the next five years?
In the short term, we are focusing on expanding the Ambi Climate into more retail locations in over across the globe. These will include Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia, Finland, Sweden, Spain, and Italy. Concurrently, we are ramping up our team and scaling up production to meet increasing consumer interest.
Another priority area for us is in finding strong partnerships with other businesses to get Ambi Climate into more homes. For example, property owners/developers who are interesting in building homes of the future will be a good match for us. A few months ago, we successfully won a contract to supply Ambi Climates to more than 1000 apartments in Hong Kong.
Utility partnership is also a good example. We are in the process of developing such a partnership right now in the APAC region. Apart from helping them bring smart home technologies to their customers, we are also exploring the potential of using our technology to help them manage peak electricity consumption while minimising discomfort for the user.