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A Little Dotty: Berkeley Startup Has a New Way to Make Your House Smart

October 12, 2016
by Bill Snyder

When giant tech companies like Intel or Samsung need to make a circuit board, they simply pop one out of their multi-billion dollar fabs or pony up a few million for a new machine. But when you’re just a tiny, underfunded startup putting together a prototype that you need to bake, you’ve got to look for something simpler and cheaper—a lot cheaper.

The circuit board in question was small; soldering the myriad tiny components to the base with a standard soldering iron would not have been possible. Without the wherewithal or standing to buy or borrow a commercial chip oven, the toaster oven was the next best thing. “It worked. The board was dry and ready in about 20 minutes,” says Kunal Chaudhary, one of four UC Berkeley computer science drop-outs (plus an alum) building what they hope will be the next big thing—a device called the Dot.

Physically, the Dot is a sandwich of circuit boards and chips housed in an unprepossessing plastic case about the size and shape of a hockey puck. Functionally, it’s an electronic beacon that pairs with a smartphone via Bluetooth and can be programmed to perform a variety of functions based on where you are and who you are. It uses location tracking to learn your behaviors and activity patterns so that the notifications you receive on your smartphone are “contextual.” For instance, it can act as a switch that turns on a light when you enter a room or adjust the air conditioning to your desired temperature. It can tell your smartphone to launch a navigation or music app when you get into your car and tell you when a roommate has entered the house. 

It will sell for $20 when it launches in March; cheaper if it gets into higher volume production.

Is the Dot a device that will change the world or make a few billion dollars? Perhaps not. But it may well be a launch pad for the careers of five young men who love nothing more than to hang out with each other, dream, and make things smarter. “We came up with Dot because we wanted our computers to be more like Data, Hal 9000, C3PO, and J.A.R.V.I.S.,” the team proclaims on its Kickstarter page.

The little black device has captured the imagination, or at least the cash, of more than 1,700 donors, and won the backing of two of Berkeley’s startup incubator programs—CITRIS Foundry and The House.

CITRIS kicked in $25,000 in return for a small equity stake in Iota Labs—Dot’s parent company—and The House invited the team to use a new shared workspace across the street from the campus, conveniently located next to an espresso café on Bancroft Way.

Conceptually, at least, the Dot was born in a Berkeley restaurant when Rahul Ramakrishnan and some friends looked on as a family at another table was distracted by the constant buzzing and bleating of smartphone notifications. “There’s got to be a way to fix this,” he thought. “How can we get people to use their phone less?”

The vague idea became a bit more concrete as the future team members watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, and before long a new startup was born. The Dot is a relatively modest product, but for Chaudhary, it’s just the beginning. “Eventually, we want to tackle some of the biggest issues facing society. This one will help put us on the map,” he says.

A year-long quest for funding culminated in late September when Dot’s fund-raising campaign closed after raising $115,000 on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, more than five times its original goal of $20,000. 

“When (the Kickstarter page) went live we sat up all night watching the money pour in,” says Ramakrishnan. They hit their goal within 12 hours. Mornings were great too. “We’d check the page first thing and see what contributions had come in overnight from other countries. Knowing that people actually want your product is a tremendous feeling,” says Rishabh Parikh.

None of that money has yet reached their pockets, and for the last year the team has lived on savings from previous internships and help from their parents. The team has plowed the Citrus grant funds into product development.

Not every startup succeeds, of course. In fact, most don’t. “Not realizing that is simply hubris. But if you’re working at a startup you have to believe you’re part of that less than 10 percent that is going to succeed,” says Grant Empey, who like his partners has a long string of internships and tech projects on his resume.  

Ramakrishnan and Chaudhary know all about failure. At the end of their sophomore year they started Stash, “sort of an Airbnb for storage,” says Ramakrishnan. By storage, he didn’t mean the digital stuff you might store in the cloud. He was talking about the things college students have to store when the semester ends and they have to vacate their living quarters.

“Maybe not our best idea,” says Ramakrishnan. Stash gained a bit of traction, but failed rather quickly. 

“Stash was heartbreaking; our team fell apart,” says Chaudhary. “The time I feel the most alive, the most interested, the most passionate, is when I’m doing something that consumes every aspect of my life.”

Dot is consuming their lives. The team works long hours and the young men recently dropped out of school. “You can’t do something like this and have another full time job—which is school,” says Chaudhary. They’re all confident that the lack of a degree won’t handicap their careers if they succeed in building a viable startup. “And besides, the whole point of education [in computer science] is to drop out and build something,” says Chaudhary.

With the launch of the Dot just six months away, there’s plenty of work left to do. The team has to raise more money and decide on how it will handle assembly and shipping.  As for the toaster oven, it was last seen warming up a pizza.

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