(Photo by Bryan Karl Lathrop for DreamIt Ventures)
Last November, Anthony Chow and three of his colleagues at SingTel joined the Singapore telecommunications giant’s internal hackathon. Their idea: a smart-home product for property owners who rent their places out on Airbnb. They were inspired by the growing Airbnb market in Singapore.
It was a big affair. Twenty-five teams from SingTel’s many offices competed. The company flew teams in from Australia and the U.S. to their Singapore headquarters to participate. At stake was a spot at a U.S. accelerator, all expenses paid. On top of that, during the accelerator, the winners would still get their SingTel salaries. This wasn’t just a side project-type thing, either: last year’s hackathon winners had left SingTel to pursue their winning idea.
Chow’s team — “Igloo Stay” — emerged, 60 hours later, with customers, $20,000 in crowdfunding and an investor. (The investor, who runs several Airbnb listings in Singapore, ultimately did not invest when he realized they didn’t have an actual product yet. “Fake it till you make it,” Chow said.)
That’s why, they said, they didn’t care if they won the hackathon. They were going to start the company, seed money or not.
“Maybe that attitude won us the hackathon,” Chow said.
Chow’s team won the seed money and the spot at the accelerator. Two months later, they packed up and moved to Philadelphia to join the accelerator, called DreamIt Ventures.
(The partnership with SingTel was through a DreamIt program called OpenCanvas, which helps corporations innovate. The first OpenCanvas partner was the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which spun out DreamIt Health startup Haystack. SingTel reached out to DreamIt to launch the partnership, said DreamIt cofounder Steve Welch, who was also a judge at the SingTel hackathon. The company plans to place another startup in DreamIt’s accelerator next year, he said.)
In the next three months, the team, which changed their name to Igloo Home, assembled the hardware for their product, built the smart-home software and companion mobile app and installed the product in 10 homes in Philadelphia.
They seem to work well under pressure.
“These guys accomplished a ridiculous amount,” said SnipSnap CEO Ted Mann, one of IglooHome’s mentors during DreamIt.
Mann plans on investing in the startup, which he said was just one in the most impressive DreamIt class he’s ever seen. (IglooHome also met smart-home CEOs Mike Harris, of Zonoff, and Felicite Moorman, of BuLogics, through DreamIt. Moorman is now an advisor.)
IglooHome’s product focuses on two aspects of short-term rentals: key exchange and temperature control. Both are pain points for people who rent their homes on Airbnb or for vacation stays. IglooHome, the team said, can save users money and time.
IglooHome users can use the mobile app to remotely control the code on their smart locks and the temperature on their smart thermostats. IglooHome works with smart locks and thermostats that are already on the market, like Yale and Schlage locks and Honeywell and soon, Nest, for thermostats.
It’s all controlled by a hub that IglooHome built with parts purchased from Amazon. There’s nothing special about the hardware, the team said. All their intellectual property lies in their software.
The hub costs a onetime $129 setup fee, plus $499 a year or less, depending on which features you want. IglooHome’s current 10 customers in Philadelphia are part of a three-month free trial. After that, they’ll get a 40 percent discounted rate.
Now, the company hopes to raise an undisclosed amount to install IglooHome in 2,000 homes, as well as strike up partnerships with Airbnb, with whom they met on the DreamIt roadshow, and vacation rental associations. Competitors include PointCentral, which, unlike IglooHome, doesn’t use WiFi, and Evolve, which is focused on hotels.
CEO Chow, 28, and his cofounders Walter Wang Yue, 28; Sharon Goh, 32 and Kelvin Ho are all still SingTel employees and receiving paychecks, though that ends this month. (Ho, IglooHome’s CTO, was the one team member who did not move to Philly for DreamIt. He remained in Singapore with his two children.)
SingTel’s support allowed them to pursue IglooHome with relatively low risk, the team said. The company will participate in the IglooHome’s current funding round for equity, according to Chow.
The company plans to stay in the U.S. because it’s such a big market for Airbnb and because of the quality of U.S. engineering talent. They’re not sure which coast they’ll stay on, though.
When asked about their decision to pick up and leave their homes in Singapore, the team said it was harder for Goh, who left behind her husband and young daughter.
“The role of an entrepreneur isn’t exactly an easy one,” Goh said.
This is her first startup. But she calls the startup experience “life-changing.”
“Entrepreneurship is addictive,” she said. “I can feel that I have changed. It makes me feel that much more alive.”