Company aids innovation for smart homes


The repurposed red brick warehouse in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood is a bustling hub of modern industrial activity. Skilled young workers are hunched over pristine machine tools and 3-D printers that churn out prototype products.

This is the home of Quirky, a startup that now fields 4,000 new product ideas a week, picks three winners and then takes over all aspects of production, from making blueprints to marketing the goods through big-box retailers like Home Depot and retail websites, including Amazon.

Most of Quirky's top-selling products have been inventive, stand-alone devices -- like a power strip that pivots so a plug never blocks an adjacent socket, and a plastic stem that inserts into a lemon or lime and becomes a push-button citrus spritzer.

Yet increasingly, the ideas coming into Quirky -- about one in four -- are for home products that can communicate with a smartphone or a household Wi-Fi network. These are ideas pursuing the much-promoted vision of the smart home.

The vision has been around for years, but the reality has remained elusive. "The Internet of things is still for hackers, early adopters and rich people," said Ben Kaufman, Quirky's 27-year-old founder.

But Quirky, like others, thinks that is about to change. The company will lead an ambitious effort, beginning next month, to accelerate the adoption of smart-home products. It is setting up a separate company, Wink, whose main technology is software intended to be the equivalent of an open operating system, helping to seamlessly connect all kinds of automated home devices.

Wink's smartphone and tablet app will offer consumers a single digital dashboard to link and control a user's smart-home devices. With a few finger swipes, for example, you could instruct the lights in the kitchen and dining room to turn on when the automated door unlocks.

For the last year, Quirky has worked with a group of manufacturers, encouraging them to adopt its technology and approach. Fifteen companies plan to offer nearly 60 Wink-enabled products in July. The companies are as varied as giants like General Electric, Honeywell and Philips and fast-growing startups like Rachio. The connected products include light bulbs, video cameras, garage doors, water heaters and lawn sprinklers.

Smart-home products now communicate -- or fail to -- in a cacophony of ways. "Wink is trying to fill that gap," said Bill Alderson, director of marketing for Rheem, a large manufacturer of water heaters, which is one of Wink's partners.

Last modified: June 26, 2014
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