Ambi Labs: a HK startup tackling air-conditioners the ‘smart way’

We interact with air-conditioners on an almost daily basis but do we really understand them?

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Ambi Labs: a HK startup tackling air-conditioners the ‘smart way’

For many who visit Southeast Asian cities for their first time, they often come under both the right and wrong impression that the whole region is scorching hot, bringing only summer essentials such as handkerchief-thin T-shirts and beach shorts, only to feel remorse later when being greeted by freezing coldness in restaurants, hotels, shopping mall, and literally, everywhere.

The truth is, even in bustling tropical Southeast Asian cities, where you feel the words ‘hot and humid’ before you hear them, a sweater is still an essential item. Indoor temperatures often dance below 18 degree Celsius in the mall, at work, in the car, on the bus, making it hard to escape the cold blast of an air-conditioner wherever you go.

For those with access to air-conditioning at home, it’s even harder to get them to give it up. Yet, the long, rectangular machine is still quite the enigma. We fiddle constantly with the remote — one moment it’s too hot and the next, it’s too cold. However, one Hong Kong-based IOT startup is working on air cons’ willfulness.

Founded in 2012, Ambi Labs is the company behind its flagship smart air-conditioner controller Ambi Climate, which auto-adjusts air-conditioning units to match users’ preferences and comfort levels.

Credit: Ambi Labs

Typically, a user would plug the Ambi Climate device in, download the official app, connect the air-conditioner to the device through infra-red and the device to the home wifi, and use the app as a controller. Using artificial intelligence, the app learns the user’s preferences and behaviours through an initial round of manual feedback; the user teaches the app by clicking indicators like ‘too warm’, ‘freezing’, and ‘comfy’. The company also collects data from the external environment like the Sun and indoor humidity to adjust the temperature accordingly. As the user feeds it with information, it learns and evolves.

The rise in adoption of smart speakers and home systems like Google Home and Alexa has helped the company in educating consumers on the benefits of a smart air-conditioner remote; users can link up their Ambi Climate device to Alexa and control their air-conditioners with voice-activated commands.

Ambi Labs leveraged the power of crowdfunding via reward-based community-oriented platforms like Kickstarter to raise money and sell its units to early adopters. It raised over US$268,000 in two such campaigns, one in 2014 and the other in 2017.

Today, sales channels have expanded to e-commerce marketplaces, brick and mortar shops, and B2B partnerships, says Julian Lee, Co-founder of Ambi Labs, to KrASIA.

B2B partnerships include property development linkups that will see a device being placed in every room in an estate, constituting sales of several thousand units for a single tender.

Most sales still come through consumers, via online and offline channels, but the team has seen an increased interest from utilities and electricity companies, among others, he adds.

Security is a concern

While smart home devices might maximise efficiency, increase levels of comfort and save time, they are also security risks. Vulnerabilities in connected devices open up the user to potential theft of information and other criminal activities. Even tech giants like Samsung were not spared.

Lee says that no technology company nowadays will dare to say that they are 100% protected or “completely hacker-proof”. However, he adds, companies still have to be diligent in building a system where privacy and security are underlying design principles, and applying security patches, in order to deter potential attackers.

On the privacy front, Lee claims that the company is GDPR-compliant, referring to the recent European Union data privacy regulations, and that they are careful to store data in an anonymised format with personal data encrypted. If hackers were to break into their system and attempt to download data, he poses, they would not be able to see who the users are.

“There are many other devices out there with poorer protection, and we think that someone else will probably attack them before they attack us,” Lee adds.

Hardware is hard

Coming up with a product like Ambi Climate has been difficult, from early designs to getting it ready to market to fulfilling customer expectations, says Lee.

Even though the company targets a global audience, with Hong Kong, Singapore, the US, Japan and Thailand making its top five markets, it doesn’t develop different devices for each market. It, however, must make sure that its devices can work in all the markets it sells to.

Within Asia alone, a region fragmented by language, nationalities and climates, every market has unique local certification requirements, which add cost, complexity and time to getting the product ready for sales. Aside from that, the physical distribution also requires local partners in some cases.

Furthermore, different markets call for different packaging and manuals, all of which are to be pre-determined at the factory. Reiterations are often costly and time-consuming.

In addition, while most software or app companies can debut with a minimum viable product and fix bugs or any issues as they go along, hardware companies do not have that option.

Firstly, once the device is shipped off to the customer, companies cannot ask for the device to be returned to perform upgrades or add features to it.

Secondly, since devices typically cost significantly more than a consumer-facing app, customers have higher expectations of how the device should work. The Ambi Climate 2 currently costs around US$129, depending on the region. Its German competitor Tado is priced slightly higher at around US$190, depending on the region.

“That raises the bar on what you need to do. That’s only on the consumer side,” says Lee.

Editor: Ben Jiang