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28 April 2016

Helium announces new environmental sensor, $20m funding

Helium has announced a new environmental sensor, Helium Green, a new sensor-based alarm system called Helium Pulse, and the completion of a $20m Series B funding round. As far as we know, the company, founded by some rather old-hands from around the wireless industry, has yet to secure a large customer – but the technology remains very promising.

The Green sensor is primarily aimed at building monitoring, with Helium pointing to hospitals, laboratories, and datacenters as prime candidates to benefit from the unit’s temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, light, and motion sensing abilities.

Helium envisions the Green being paired with the new Pulse alerting system, which is available for both web and mobile clients (meaning gateways or mobile devices for most IoT deployments). The application allows customizable alerts and rules, so that its users can trigger specific actions based on the sensor data.

These alerts can be sent by email, SMS, or push notifications for mobile apps, and integrated into existing business applications through an API – providing a retrofit opportunity, a key driver of adoption for businesses that don’t want to scrap existing systems but can’t afford a complete operations overhaul.

The Pulse system includes a data visualization program, another aspect of the cloud platform, which can be combined with the readouts generated by Helium’s other sensors – including the new Green.

Pulse is currently in trials with a number of businesses in the restaurant industry, which have been retrofitting refrigeration units to monitor the internal temperatures. By alerting staff to errors and deviations from the norm, the restaurants should be better able to adhere to the health guidelines – and avoid poisoning customers.

The same use case is being trialed in hospitals, where cold storage integrity is key to ensuring the viability of testing samples and the integrity of vaccines and medication. Helium says it has trials at several of the top 10 hospitals in the US – but again, no names have been made public.

“At Helium, we are constantly expanding the types of smart sensors that enterprises and industry can use to make sense of their things,” said Rob Chandhok, president and COO of Helium, and prominent ex-Qualcomm exec. “We developed the Helium Green smart sensor based on feedback and input from production deployments with various restaurants, hospitals, and smart building management companies to provide the most flexible and powerful environmental monitoring solution.”

The Green sensor can record temperatures from -20°C to 60°C, pressures between 0 and 100 percent RH, barometric pressure between 300 and 1100 hPa, ambient light levels that can be adjusted OTA, and a passive infrared sensor that can detect motion at a distance of up to five meters.

Connectivity is handled by an 802.15.4 radio, using the networking protocol that serves as the backbone to both ZigBee and Thread – but importantly, not using the mesh functionality itself.

These mesh networks can utilize multiple hops between devices to achieve a long range – without having to ramp up the power as they would if they had to make that trip in a single hop, like in a star network.

The tradeoff is that mesh deployments require more devices to ensure coverage, which is fine in building or even campuses, as there will be more devices per square-mile, but obviously not possible in something like a water quality monitoring deployment that places water sensors on a river every mile.

Those high-density deployments represent strong sales for a company like Helium, with dozens and potentially hundreds of sensors per building that it connects. The larger campuses or industrial facilities might creep into the low thousands, and being able to sell the monthly management service allows Helium access to fairly stable reoccurring revenues – as ripping out hundreds of sensors is a pretty good barrier to churning away from the service.

But for the Helium customers, the value provided by the service could be immeasurable. For restaurants, it’s avoiding a PR nightmare from an E-Coli outbreak; for hospitals, it’s potentially avoiding lawsuits and unnecessary treatments; for a warehouse, it’s spotting a leak in a wall before it turns into a torrent, damaging thousands of dollars of stock.

This is why the insurance industry is swiftly going to find itself moving from behind its desk and out into the real world, away from the confines of actuaries and into the clutches of business like Helium.

The $20m funding round was led by GV (a rebranded Google Ventures), with Khosla Ventures, FirstMark, and Munich RE/Hartford Steam Boiler Ventures getting in on the action too. That sounds like solid progress for the startup, which was founded in 2013.

“We see significant market potential for IoT in the commercial and industrial world, monitoring things like freezers for cold chain compliance, heavy equipment for preventative maintenance, and air quality inside factories,” said GV’s Andy Wheeler – who will be joining the Helium board. “The Helium team has solved many of the issues that have tripped up previous industry attempts at building an IoT platform. The Helium platform has impressive technical architecture, and is easy to manage from the edge and the cloud.”