Libelium: flexibility a key strategy for IoT startups

I’ve been fixated recently on venerable manufacturing firms such as 169-yr. old Siemens making the IoT switch.  Time to switch focus, and look at one of my fav pure-play IoT firms, Libelium.  I think Libelium proves that smart IoT firms must, above all, remain nimble and flexible,  by three interdependent strategies:

  • avoiding picking winners among communications protocols and other standards.
  • avoiding over-specialization.
  • partnering instead of going it alone.
Libelium CEO Alicia Asin

Libelium CEO Alicia Asin

If you aren’t familiar with Libelium, it’s a Spanish company that recently turned 10 (my, how time flies!) in a category littered with failures that had interesting concepts but didn’t survive. Bright, young, CEO Alicia Asin, one of my favorite IoT thought leaders (and do-ers!) was recently named best manager of the year in the Aragón region in Spain.  I sat down with her for a wide-ranging discussion when she recently visited the Hub of the Universe.

I’ve loved the company since its inception, particularly because it is active in so many sectors of the IoT, including logistics, industrial control, smart meters, home automation and a couple of my most favorite, agriculture (I have a weak spot for anything that combines “IoT” AND “precision”!) and smart cities.  I asked Asin why the company hadn’t picked one of those verticals as its sole focus: “it was too risky to choose one market. That’s still the same: the IoT is still so fragmented in various verticals.”

The best illustration of the company’s strategy in action is its Waspmote sensor platform, which it calls the “most complete Internet of Things platform in the market with worldwide certifications.” It can monitor up to 120 sensors to cover hundreds of IoT applications in the wide range of markets Libelium serves with this diversified strategy, ranging from the environment to “smart” parking.  The new versions of their sensors include actuators, to not simply report data, but also allow M2M control of devices such as irrigation valves, thermostats, illumination systems, motors and PLC’s. Equally important, because of the potentially high cost of having to replace the sensors, the new ones use extremely little power, so they can last        .

Equally important as the company’s refusal to limit itself to a single vertical market is its commitment to open systems and multiple communications protocols, including LoRaWAN, SIGFOX, ZigBee and 4G — a total of 16 radio technologies. It also provides both open source SDK and APIs.

Why?  As Asin told me:


“There is not going to be a standard. This (competiting standards and technology) is the new normal.

“I talk to some cities that want to become involved in smart cities, and they say we want to start working on this but we want to use the protocol that will be the winner.

“No one knows what will be the winner.

“We use things that are resilient. We install all the agents — if you aren’t happy with one, you just open the interface and change it. You don’t have to uninstall anything. What if one of these companies increases their prices to heaven, or you are not happy with the coverage, or the company disappears? We allow you to have all your options open.

“The problem is that this (not picking a standard) is a new message, and people don’t like to listen.  This is how we interpret the future.”

Libelium makes 110 different plug and play sensors (or as they call them, “Plug and Sense,” to detect a wide range of data from sources including gases, events, parking, energy use, agriculture, and water.  They claim the lowest power consumption in the industry, leading to longer life and lower maintenance and operating costs.

Finally, the company doesn’t try to do everything itself: Libelium has a large and growing partner network (or ecosystem, as it calls it — music to the ears of someone who believes in looking to nature for profitable business inspiration). Carrying the collaboration theme even farther, they’ve created an “IoT Marketplace,” where pre-assembled device combinations from Libelium and partners can be purchased to meet the specific needs of niches such as e-health,  vineyards, water quality, smart factories, and smart parking.  As the company says, “the lack of integrated solutions from hardware to application level is a barrier for fast adoption,” and the kits take away that barrier.

I can’t stress it enough: for IoT startups that aren’t totally focused on a single niche (a high-stakes strategy), Libelium offers a great model because of its flexibility, agnostic view of standards, diversification among a variety of niches, and eagerness to collaborate with other vendors.

BTW: Asin is particularly proud of the company’s newest offering, My Signals,which debuted in October and has already won several awards.  She told me that they hope the device will allow delivering Tier 1 medical care to billions of underserved people worldwide who live in rural areas with little access to hospitals.  It combines 15 different sensors measuring the most important body parameters that would ordinarily be measured in a hospital, including ECG, glucose, airflow, pulse, oxygen in

It combines 15 different sensors measuring the most important body parameters that would ordinarily be measured in a hospital, including ECG, glucose, airflow, pulse, blood oxygen, and blood pressure. The data is encrypted and sent to the Libelium Cloud in real-time to be visualized on the user’s private account.

It fits in a small suitcase and costs less than 1/100th the amount of a traditional Emergency Observation Unit.

The kit was created to make it possible for m-health developers to create prototypes cheaply and quickly.

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Libelium’s Alicia Asín Pérez: crafting an IoT leader from the ground up!

Any time you run into a leading IoT engineer who says she draws inspiration from the early NYC skyscrapers (Why? “..Most of them were built during the Great Depression and make me think that in big crisis like the one we are living there are also the greatest opportunities for creating amazing things.”) you know you’re in for some outside-the-box thinking!

Alicia Asín Pérez of Libelium

That’s the case with Libelium’s Alicia Asín Pérez, who I had a chance to interview just before she was to leave for this year’s Mobile World Congress, where Libelium unveiled its new Smart Water sensors, the latest addition to the eight-year old company’s impressive list of IoT sensors.

What impresses me the most about the company is how Asín and co-founder/CTO David Gascón have pursued their vision of an open-source system (their Waspmote platform “sends any sensors’ data using any communication protocol to any information system so that anyone can play in the IoT”) without compromise from when they started the company.

After attending the Universidad de Zaragoza, the young engineers decided to enter the decidedly un-cool field of hardware, not app design.

They didn’t want to get trapped into serving only one industry vertical (at present they’re serving smart cities, smart water, smart metering, smart environment, security and emergencies, logistics, industrial control, smart agriculture, smart animal farming, home automation, and ehealth.  Any areas they’re not serving?), so they refused to deal with VCs, bootstrapping the company before the days of crowdsourcing. They even appeared on a quiz show for entrepreneurs to get cash, and were prepared to head to Hollywood quiz shows (Asín knows a lot about a lot of subjects, LOL!) if need be.

Libelium is intent about focusing on open source solutions, walking their talk to the point of even using Linux computers.

They also get it about one of my “Essential Truths” of the IoT, that it “democratizes innovation.”  On one hand, Libelium has partnered with major firms such as IBM (with the “Internet Starter Kit”), and, on the other, 30% of its revenues come from its work with the “Maker Movement,” through its “Cooking Hacks” division, which includes:

  • +4000 products for DIY projects
  • Waspmote starter kits
  • Step-by step-tutorials to get started
  • A community forum

Asin sounds like a revolutionary with her call for “democratizing the technology of the Internet of Things,” and speaks proudly of how Libelium quickly created a Radiation Sensor Board used by an ad-hoc network of activists who documented radiation levels after the Fukushima accident. Speaking to Postscapes, she emphasized that while IoT projects by major companies are important, it’s equally important to use the IoT to empower individuals:

When you are in front of such a revolution, you can neglect individuals. It is a big mistake thinking about the IoT players as big companies or just companies. If we look at the general sociopolitical situation, at the citizen movements all across the globe, we see that individuals are just claiming more transparency and not depending on governments and big companies for accessing data: people want Open Data, Open Source, Open Hardware, Open Funding… Because of that, we see projects like Safecast for detecting radiation levels in Fukushima or Air Quality Egg in the Netherlands. People want to do things on their own and are finding support in all the crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and companies backing open hardware that allows them to access inexpensive technology. For example, we just launched a kit to experiment with eHealth and we have already sold more than 1,000 units. People are being more creative and innovative than ever, and everyone needs tools for doing that. Those ‘tools’ are sensors and providing them is our vision.” (my emphasis).

It’s too early in the IoT’s evolution to predict the ultimate winners, but I suspect that Libelium’s passion for open systems, its technical expertise at creating a growing array of sensors, and its ability to partner with both big and small firms will help it prosper over the long haul.

Get your vote in for best IoT products of 2013!

Posted on 28th January 2014 in energy, environmental, health, home automation

(sorry: WordPress and I didn’t agree on the formatting for this entry, and WordPress wins!)

Postscapes‘ annual Best of the IoT contest wraps up on the 30th, so don’t miss your chance to vote for last year’s best IoT products!  You owe it to yourself to check out all the nominees: it will give a good overview of how the state-of-the-IoT has evolved, especially when you go back and compare the winners from the past two years.

Here are my personal choices in the various categories, and my reasons for choosing them — the primary criterion being my friend Eric Bonabeau‘s perennial question of new technology, “what can you do now that you couldn’t do before?”

  • Connected Home: I vote for the Mother smart home hub (probably because she looks like something from a Wallace & Gromit short..), cute, efficient, and open source (the leading vote-getter in this category is the iAquaLink pool control system: pardon my doubts, but there ain’t no way any automation system could control my pool: it’s basically a law unto itself!)
  • Connected Body:  Libelium Open Source e-Health Sensor Platform     Libelium does such great work in general, and this one is, to my knowledge, the most all-encompassing Quantified Self monitoring system, monitoring, with 10 different sensors: pulse, oxygen in blood (SPO2), airflow (breathing), body temperature, electrocardiogram (ECG), glucometer, galvanic skin response (GSR-sweating), blood pressure (sphygmomanometer) and patient position (accelerometer). I think it was Dave Evans who said that 30% of all docs will retire in the next decade, while the number of senior/Boomers will increase exponentially. The only way we’ll be able to cope is by making it easy for doctors to know what’s happening with us — in real time!
  • Smart City: On the day we mark environmental activist Pete Seeger’s death, what better than the open-source, crowd-funded Smart Citizen Kit, which empowers citizen activists to monitor environmental conditions! Power to the people, right on!
  • Enterprise: The HyGreen Hand Hygiene Monitoring System.  As I remarked before about a competing system, this is personal, because my cousin acquired a terrible Hospital Acquired Infection. Hand-washing is an absolutely critical hospital procedure, but until now we lacked a fool-proof method to make sure it was done!
  • Technical Enabler: Thingworx expanded their offerings this year with the Thingworx Marketplace, providing developers ..”with the necessary building blocks to rapidly build innovative applications that integrate those connected devices with business systems, social and cloud services, and external systems, enabling them to drive value in the connected world.”
  • Social Impact: OK, I’ll admit a soft spot for any reformer, so I count all these as “winners.” But the one that really caught my I was the Natalia Project, a wristband that alerts people if human rights workers are endangered.  Here’s the story:”In 2009, human rights activist Natalia Estemirova was kidnapped and later found murdered in Chechnya. In part of honoring her and the incident the Swedish organization Civil Rights Defenders is launching the Natalia Project. At the heart of the idea lies a GPS and GSM equipped wristband that when triggered or is forcibly removed will send out an alert and location information to warn that its wearer could be in danger.”
  • Networked Art: as the page says “Artists are often the first to see the potential in new technologies, even before those technologies are mature enough to be used to the consumer” (hmm, don’t think that’s what he meant to say, but you get the drift..) — and don’t forget the Arduino board came from a design school! My choice — hey, why not? — is Alex Kiesling’s “Long-Distance Art” — but the other ones look kewl too!
  • Design Fiction:  I’m going to pass on this one! I must be a little too literally minded!
  • DIY Project: oooh: this harkens back to my “Data Dynamite” book, on liberating data!  Here’s the description of my winner, the Data Sensing Lab:

    “Hardware hacking for data scientists”. By deploying custom wireless hardware at tech conferences like Strata and Google I/O the team is looking to advance what real-time sensor network data collection, analysis, and visualizations will look like in the near future.“We will soon begin to move in a sea of data, our movements monitored and our environments measured and adjusted to our preferences, without need for direct intervention. What will this look like? How can we create and shape it? How can we introduce the relevant hardware to people who already possess data analytics skills?”

  • Open Source: in many ways, the most important category of all, since without open standards the IoT just ain’t gonna go anywhere.  I’m embarrassed that I hadn’t heard of it, but my choice in this category is Alljoyn. As the description says, “AllJoyn is an open source project that provides a software framework and set of Services that enable interoperability among connected products and software applications, across manufacturers, to create dynamic proximal networks.  By integrating the AllJoyn framework codebase, manufactures can offer interoperable products and services that will engage and delight users in new, exciting and useful ways.” Yep.
  • Startup of the Year: I see Evrythng as a critical IoT marketing tool.
  • Must-Follow Company: I’d go with Libelium: they’re so ubiquitous and partner so well with so many.

So those are my choices — some are rather arbitrary because there are no so many promising IoT companies. Who are you voting for, and why??

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Two good sites if you’re introducing the IoT

Categorize this under “posts I’ve been meaning to write for a long time!”

For the current writing assignment I’m working on, I’m looking for as many good examples of practical Internet of Things applications that are available right now.

There are two sites that I repeatedly go to for those examples that deserve some praise.

postscapesOne is Postscapes, which I find to be an important all-around IoT news source. It features products (and links to their sites) in the “Body,” “Home,” “City” and “Industry” categories, as well as a DIY/Open Source grouping. The descriptions are well written and it’s attractive.

The other site is a corporate one, from Libelium, the Spanish open source sensor platform. A portion of its site is devoted to “50 Sensor Applications for a Smarter World,” grouped under “Smart Cities,” “Smart Environment,” “Smart Water,” “Smart Metering,” “Retail,” “Logistics,” “Industrial Control,” “Smart Agriculture,” “Smart Animal Farming,” “Security and Emergencies,” “Domotic and Home Automation,” and “eHealth.” There’s a wealth of accompanying information about — surprise! — the Libelium sensors that are matched to each of these applications. Of course it’s marketing for Libelium, but the range of applications does illustrate the wide range of ways that the IoT is already affecting industry, cities, and personal lives.

Check both sites out — and point your skeptical contacts who wonder if the IoT is just a laboratory curiosity to them!


Smart water grid — as important as smart energy grid

Posted on 5th November 2013 in environmental, Internet of Things, M2M

Environmental efficiency is one of my passions, and there’s compelling evidence that shortages of clean water are almost as much a threat to life on Earth as global warming is.

That’s why I was so excited to learn that Spain — already an exemplar of “smarter cities” thinking (due in large part to Libelium using it as a test site for its devices) — is launching a “smart water grid” program in the city of  Cáceres.

According to Jesse Berst (you really should subscribe to his Smart Grid News!), ACCIONA Agua, the water services division of ACCIONA, a global renewable energy, infrastructure and water services group, will build the system “as part of a European project that aims to apply new technologies to the management of drinking water networks.”

Its benefits will parallel those for “smart grid” electricity projects, including real-time detection of underwater leaks (so they can be repaired more quickly) and real-time control of water distribution and use, and remote meter reading that will allow the utility to alert homeowners to possible leaks in the home or other problems.

Note the critical benefits of real-time data: “Real time data is expected to optimize investment plans according to real needs, as well as hone the management of water services.”

Components will include:

  • remote meter readers
  • GIS
  • remote control information
  • water quality monitoring sensors
  • mathematical model to predicting the system’s behavior.

The project is part of ” SmartWater4Europe, an EU research project that brings together 21 participants, including water utilities, technology companies, universities and research centers. The project has a budget of more than €10 million, of which €2.5 million has been assigned to Cáceres.” Results will be monitored over a 4 year period.

I’ve been noodling for a while about what it will take to get mainstream companies that may not even know about the IoT, let alone have a strategy to capitalize on it, to test the waters. I’ve concluded that since water and energy utility bills are such a big issue for most companies that launching “smart grid” projects that capitalize on utilities’ investments in this area and can lead to quick savings in utility bills might be the ideal entry point. What do you think?

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Libelium introduces new Smart Lighting sensor solution

Posted on 20th March 2013 in environmental, Internet of Things

Smart Cities initiatives just got an important new tool courtesy of Libelium, the Spanish firm that consistenly pushes a broad and diverse vision of the Internet of Things’ potential.

It’s a modular Smart Lighting sensor that municipalities can economically integrate with other “Smart Cities” components such as traffic signals, energy meters, environmental sensors, and “Smart Parking.”

The sensor is part of Libelium’s growing Waspmote Plug & Sense! wireless sensor network platform.  It works by detecting changes in ambient light, as well as temperature and humidity, and can work both in and out doors.  The system allows municipalities to vary lighting levels in a given area as patterns in street usage vary during the night.

“Smart Lighting is one of the key Smart Cities applications,” said David Gascon, CTO of Libelium. “It allows municipalities to save money and energy by dimming lights during low traffic hours and to enhance security by lighting dark areas when people are passing.”

Sensors such as the lighting one can be added to the Waspmote unit or replaced without having to uninstall the mote itself, keeping maintenance costs low for a scalable and sustainable solution.

Not only can it save municipalities money, but the system can also reduce the problem of “light pollution” that many cities are trying to reduce through much more targeted use of municipal lighting.

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