5 challenges for IoT — and who's helping in Austin

May 4, 2016

The tech industry is closer than ever to delivering a future guided by intelligent devices. The excitement among engineers and consumers over the Internet of Things (IoT) has product designers placing sensors on just about everything. Now, objects as inanimate and mundane as a garden hose can gather data from the environment and make intelligent decisions about how and when to operate.

The possibilities, it seems, are endless. But there are still kinks to work out.

For one, these connected devices are being developed on competing standards. They’re susceptible to hackers, like all technology, except the stakes are higher because they control our private lives in unprecedented ways. And, as is often the case with groundbreaking technology, they’re being developed faster than regulation can keep up. Finally, it’s unclear who will own the petabytes of data these devices will collect — and who will own the results of analyzing that data, which many believe is where the real value of IoT lies.

A 2015 McKinsey Global Institute analysis found these issues to be among the greatest threats to IoT reaching its greatest potential. But all is not lost: the report also identified five factors that are needed to overcome these challenges so that IoT can deliver on its utopian promise of a future guided by intelligent, connected devices. Or, at least, some version of it. 

Here are those five key elements, and the Austin organizations — including startups, big brands, meetups and even City Hall — helping to create them.

 

1. Software and hardware technology

What that means: Low-power, inexpensive sensors with ubiquitous connectivity

Who’s working on it in Austin:

This Austin semiconductor company is developing energy-efficient integrated circuits based on its Subthreshold Power Optimized Technology (SPOT) platform. Their technology powers smart cards, wearables, wireless sensors, smart watches, medical devices and other wireless devices.

WorkFlow Studios

Workflow Studios is a Premier IBM and MS Business Partner specializing in developing, integrating and deploying innovative, collaborative technology solutions. They have a clear grasp on the challenges facing IoT — and explain them pretty well here.

The point: Ambiq is reducing the need for batteries and overall power consumption for connected devices, making it easier for Austin startups like

, , , and others to build sensor systems that are always on.

 

2. Interoperability

What that means: Standardization in the technology stack. It lets devices and apps integrate across vendors for sharing between IoT systems and granting access to external data sources. Think Android for everything.

Who’s working on it in Austin:

The three-year-old Austin startup (pictured above) produces open-source software and hardware to standardize IoT protocols.

Two months ago, they raised $3.175 million in a seed round led by CSC Venture Capital, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based American arm of a Chinese private investment firm.

Not only is this Austin company playing a leading role in developing open source standards and protocols for IoT with groups such as the AllSeen Alliance and Gateway Agent Working Group, it’s also just a good resource for understanding the industry itself.

The point: If the devices aren’t speaking the same language, it’ll be hard to make magic happen between them. For an imperfect analogy, consider Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP). Even if you don’t know what it is, you use it every day. It’s the communications language of the Internet. Establishing it as the standard is what made the global network of cat videos we enjoy today possible. IoT is still looking for its TCP/IP, and companies like WigWag and Affinegy are trying to get us there.

 

3. Intellectual property, security, privacy and confidentiality

What that means: You don’t want your whole house getting hacked. Nor do you want your usage data falling into the wrong hands.

Who’s working on it in Austin:

combines cognitive artificial intelligence with a data analytics platform to monitor consumer and industrial electronics, including IoT systems ripe for exploitation. They also just raised $6M to keep the momentum going.

The point: Networks of connected devices stand to grow even more useful once they can analyze our habits and make smart decisions for us. But that means gathering, storing and crunching a lot of data on our personal habits, and making sure it’s not falling into the wrong hands.

 

4. Business organization and culture

What that means:

  • Industry structure, e.g., organized labor cooperation, third-party servicing
  • Hardware-focused companies developing core competency in software
  • Companies committing to up-front investment based on clear business cases

Who’s working on it in Austin:

UnderArmour digital

The chic athletic apparel brand is investing deeply in wearable tech, bringing the benefit of a major consumer brand’s R&D budget and product lifecycle support to a fledgling industry.

Nuve is one of a growing group of companies developing IoT systems for enterprise applications, specifically for fleets of commercial trucks. They offer fuel and cargo protection using connected sensors to send alerts and even shut down an entire vehicle when tampering is detected.

The point: Getting big brands involved is going to do big things for advancing the industry. Even if they don’t all get it right, or experimental products peter out at first, their R&D is paving the way for more innovation. Not a bad thing overall.

5. Public policy

What that means: Technology is developing faster than regulations can keep up these days, often resulting in contentious legal battles that threaten to thwart innovation — or at least keep it out of reach when consumers want it most. (Not that we know anything about that in Austin).

Some specific public policy issues likely to arise in IoT include:

  • Regulation for autonomous control of vehicles and other machinery
  • Government and payer subsidy of healthcare IoT
  • Agreements on fair practices for data sharing and usage

Who’s working on it in Austin:

City of Austin + Google autonomous car testing

For all the debate about the city’s stance on transportation networks, local government is evidently in favor of leveraging technology to ease transportation issues. Look no further than its pilot testing of Google’s autonomous cars, which have been driving through our streets since September.

Curb Energy uses IoT not only to control your home, but also to monitor its energy usage so you can analyze — and improve — your efficiency. Companies like this are in a good position to make public partnerships that advance policy — and maybe even funding — for developing technology that addresses energy issues in meaningful ways.

 

Zilker water valve

This startup is still a Kickstarter dream (at least until May 24), but it works in the same spirit as Curb. Each Zilker valve connected to a spigot outside your home lets you control your water usage for landscaping. It will even allocate water based on the weather, avoiding the water waste of timer systems when it’s already raining.

 

Want to learn more?

These local sources were helpful in researching this article. If you want to learn more, check out the links below and consider dropping by the Austin IoT Meetup.

Spot something cool we should know about? Tell us or tweet us @BuiltInAustin.

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