As the Internet of Things revolution gathers pace, it can only be a matter of time before everything in your home, from the fridge and oven to the lock on your front door, will be controlled wirelessly from a home hub, via smartphone apps.
A pioneer of this transformation is UK entrepreneur Christian Lane. At the age of 19 he was the youngest person to pitch for investment on TV’s Dragons’ Den, which he won, and today is CEO of Smarter, an IoT firm that has already launched top-selling connected kitchen devices that include the Smarter FridgeCam, that reduces food waste by letting you check what’s in your fridge via an app, and flags up imminent expiry dates, and the iKettle, which makes tea or coffee to order via a mobile phone.
Lane was always destined to be an entrepreneur. At school, he knew he was different from his classmates. “I always wanted to break away and do my own thing,” says Lane. “I found the strict routine of school life difficult, and by the time I was 17 I knew that a traditional 9 to 5 job wouldn’t work for me.”
His father had also encouraged him to work for himself. “He had put in long hours working for someone else with little return and had dreams of me making something big for myself,” he says.
Lane’s first business venture was importing MP3 players and selling them online. He followed that with Foldio, which made folders for carrying large documents, such as architectural drawings, without creasing them. In 2007 he needed funding and decided to try his luck on Dragons’ Den.
“That was a unique experience,” recalls Lane. “In retrospect, I was quite naïve, focusing solely on raising the capital rather than learning from the people on the show. I secured £80,000 from Theo Paphitis, which at the time seemed like a huge amount of money, in return for 35% of the company.”
He spent a few years working in Paphitis’s office, where he learned about growing and running a big business and the challenges that come with it. “That experience made me more resilient and equipped me with skills to deal with unexpected challenges or when things don’t go to plan, which is often the case when running a fast-growth business,” he says.
Although Foldio secured listings with a number of major retailers, the advent of the tablet saw a shift away from working with large documents. Recognising that this would limit Foldio’s growth potential, Lane focused instead on the technology sector.
“I’ve always been passionate about technology,” he says. “Part of this move from paper documents to tablets was due to the Internet of Things revolution that was taking place. However, whilst IoT technology was being used in office environments, it had yet to be adopted in the home. For me, the kitchen is the heart of the home, so it seemed the logical place for IoT to be introduced.
Kitchen appliances had hardly innovated over the years, so there was a huge opportunity to disrupt the market, not just by improving on existing features, but by creating entirely new ways of saving people time and money.”
In 2013, he started Smarter with £100, which he spent on materials to build a prototype, before raising £15,000 ($18,000) from family to take it into production.
He says: “We pitched the idea for the connected iKettle to Firebox and two months later it had become its best-selling product. When the iKettle launched on Firebox, we watched the list of the 50 bestselling items online: the kettle moved up every time we refreshed the webpage until it was the number one product after only two hours. We sold £200,000 worth of kettles in a week.”
Smarter has sold $10million worth of stock since its launch and is on track to double that this year. Lane recently returned from Las Vegas and CES, the world’s largest technology trade show, where the latest addition to the Smarter Kitchen, the Smarter FridgeCam, was showcased for the first time.
He says: “We wanted to tackle the widespread problem of buying food that we don’t actually end up eating and we hope that the FridgeCam, which will be on sale this year, will help to address the growing issues of food wastage by cooking with, or eating what you have, not duplicate-buying.”
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A huge advocate of entrepreneurship in the UK, what Lane would like to see more of, particularly in light of Brexit and other impending global business challenges, is more support for UK tech companies.
He says: “Everyone wants to see British companies stay in Britain and not sell to international companies, but need the government to stand firm behind local startups and create the right ecosystem and infrastructure for growth.
“You only have to look at places like Silicon Valley, South-East Asia and other parts of Europe; Amsterdam, Berlin, and Paris, to see what fantastic breeding grounds are out there for startups. In Finland, for example, a state-backed organisation will triple the money angel investors and venture capitalists put into start-ups through non-dilutive grants, or provide cheap loans tied to further funding rounds.”
Ongoing skills shortages are a problem for startups and scale ups alike, and Lane insists that tightening the links between educational and economic needs will be key to future proofing the UK economy.
“The skills shortage is difficult enough to contend with in our current state, let alone if we reduce access to talent across borders. The tech industry needs more stability and security following the uncertainty of Brexit,” he says.
Meanwhile, Smarter is expanding, its team having grown from two to 23, and Lane is once again on familiar territory, preparing to pitch for business funding again. He says: “We are growing rapidly. Our products are now available in over 3,000 retailers, and our ultimate aim is to transform the way that people shop for and consume food.”