Phineas Barnes

A digital maestro for every object in the home

June 7, 2013: 7:06 AM ET

If startup SmartThings has its way, nearly every object in your house could one day be tracked and automated.

Forty-year-old Alex Hawkinson was inspired to invent SmartThings after discovering his Colorado home flooded and rotting. Credit: SmartThings

Forty-year-old Alex Hawkinson was inspired to invent SmartThings after discovering his Colorado home flooded and rotting. Says Hawkinson: "I couldn't stand that I didn't know that had happened." Credit: SmartThings

FORTUNE -- When Alex Hawkinson and his family arrived at their Colorado home in February 2011 for a ski trip, they were shocked at the sight. Earlier that winter, the pipes had burst, water had flooded the basement, and parts of their home were rotting.

"I couldn't stand that I didn't know that had happened," the 40-year-old Hawkinson relates. So he went about building a sensor that notified him if something similar happened again. Months later, he had a bigger epiphany: More and more Internet connected devices were hitting the market -- the stylish Nest thermostat being a more recent example -- but none of these devices were connected in a centralized way. That's when he hatched the idea to invent one platform that would let all these devices talk to one another.

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Early in 2012, Hawkinson founded the 41-strong Washington D.C.-based startup SmartThings. To date, it's raised nearly $10 million from a successful Kickstarter campaign and seed funding from backers like Ron Conway's SV Angel and PayPal (EBAY) co-founder Max Levchin. According to Hawkinson, anyone with 10 minutes and $200 can get the starter kit -- a hub that communicates with devices and three sensors that control outlets, switches, door locks, and the like -- up-and-running. Google Ventures (GOOG) partner and Digg founder Kevin Rose once called it the "coolest Kickstarter project."

When First Round Capital partner Phineas Barnes stumbled across SmartThings's $1.2 million Kickstarter campaign, the basic premise of SmartThings -- taking the difficulty out of connecting devices -- made a lot of sense to him. "The open approach is what captured me," says Barnes, referring to the fact that now anyone can access the development tools needed to make their devices compatible. That dovetails nicely with the 1,000 or so objects SmartThings currently recognizes.

One hub to rule them all: The SmartThings hub acts plays digital liaison to roughly 1,000 compatible objects around the home.

One hub to rule them all: The SmartThings hub acts plays digital liaison to roughly 1,000 compatible objects around the home.

In practice, that already makes for many user scenarios. Hawkinson has several hundred devices around his home hooked up. So when he goes to bed in the evening, objects automatically shut down, and the door locks if he's been forgetful. Eric Schuld, a 35-year-old early adopter in marketing from Detroit Lakes, Minn., read about the company in an online electronics forum, then discovered its Kickstarter page when it launched last August. Intrigued, Schuld became one of the 5,600 backers and now has 18 devices hooked up to SmartThings. If Schuld leaves the garage door open, he receives a text or notification on his iPhone, but SmartThings can also automatically shut the door for him. "It provides home automation in a way that is more affordable than others but also adds the next level of intelligence that seems to be missing in many of the current systems," explains Schuld.

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Having fulfilled most of the orders from Kickstarter, SmartThings is beginning general sales, and already there's a wait list. The next move for Hawkinson and crew? Let more devices work on their platform and offer more granular controls. So, while users can currently automate the temperature in their homes, Hawkinson wants to be able to control the air vents, so users can change the climate room-by-room and pots can track the health of plants, including the water, lighting, and acidity levels.

A home connected down to each plant pot? That's dare we say it, smart.

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